I studied Church Dogmatics over the summer and answered questions put by my teacher on different subjects important to theology. This is the twenty-second of a series of post I will publish from these studies and writings.
Salvation – For Everyone?
Will every person, regardless of inclination, actions and beliefs, be reconciled with God in eventually? Or is there eternal damnation?
I find this question hard to answer. Firstly, it is an immensely intricate subject, where everyone seems to interpret the same Bible verses to their advantage and each counter argument seems worthy of consideration. Secondly, my course-books offer but little help since none have any designated chapter on the topic.
Are we at all to know the answer to these questions? I wonder…
The notion that everyone will be saved rests on the concept of a totally loving God. He wants everyone to come to Him, and because His will is supreme no one will be able to resist being saved in the end. Henriksen presents two main arguments against this. Firstly, isn’t this God forcing Himself upon us? How can it be love then? Secondly, it implies that it will be easier to believe after death than in the present life and thus diminishes the love of God as expressed through the suffering of Christ for our redemption. If we all get to meet God eventually and will anyway surrender then and there, why be Christians already now? It thus makes our and Jesus’ life on earth as a theatre performance and takes neither God nor the non-believer seriously.
The notion of the final judgment leading either to eternal life or eternal damnation builds upon the concept of God being, so to speak, allergic to sin. At the end of times God will forever destroy evil’s power (or evil itself, depending on which theologian you ask) and somehow punish the sin of those who have not believed in Christ and are thus not free from sin. Henriksen says that life continues for the damned, but without the gifts of God. A variety of this is annihilationism (which Henriksen rejects as unbiblical): the damned soul ceases to exist, being separated from its life-source – God. The big question is whether eternal damnation means that those judged so will live forever in suffering separated from God, or will perish once and for all because of the separation from God. The first choice is considered to be biblical (is it biblical?), but contradicts God’s love and omnipresence: How can a loving God let people suffer forever? Besides, is there any place where God is not present? The second variety seems biblical to me (especially since the original words used in relation to eternal damnation are similar to our “perish“), but also diminishes God’s love, albeit less than the first. It does, however, solve the omnipresence problem: Anyone who has no contact what so ever with God must, logically, cease to exist since God is everywhere. This debate also raises the question of the eternal soul. It seems that the eternal soul is Greek; in the Bible only God’s Spirit makes a man alive. So without contact with God man would cease to exist, thus man’s immortality is conditional, i.e. dependent on God. One last thing to be said in this debate is that damnation is depicted in the Bible as an eternal fire, which seems to favour eternal suffering but could also be interpreted as a fire forever raging, perishing everything put in it, or as a fire forever raging in which souls are burned for a temporary time.
I do not feel competent to take sides in this debate just yet, though I do not find the arguments and biblical foundations for annihilationism lacking or disagreeable. I have for a long time been wondering how God can let people suffer for eternity after a maximum of 100 short years of sin, surrounded and overwhelmed as we are with sinful heritage and worldly temptations. But I am as appalled by the idea that such a short life shall be the decisive element for our continued existence. On the other hand, to diminish Jesus Christ by saying that everyone will be saved after death, or even get the chance to be saved regardless of their belief in the one God sent for our salvation – the process He choose for our redemption – is unacceptable to me. But in a sense, whichever side we choose to believe in this debate, we can trust that everyone will get what they want, no one will be lost even though they may live in heaven, rot in hell or die forever, God will fulfil the desire of those hankering for salvation AND those averse to God. God does not wish for anyone to be damned, but if they want to, what is He to do about it?
So I must settle for some kind of middle way, I am not sure how yet (it would require time and space I do not have at the moment and, I should think, some kind of revelation from God to decide this point). On the whole, I agree with the evangelicals, who say that we should concentrate more on “heaven” than on “hell“, notwithstanding that we should be careful so that we do not end up somewhere we don‘t like to be. I do believe however, that God will not let anyone out of His sight who does not want live (or die) deprived of His presence, however fallen, ruined or insignificant he or she is. In the end it is not up to our capacity but our willingness.
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.
― C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Henriksen, Jan-Olav. Guds virkelighet: Kristen dogmatikk (God’s Reality: Christian Dogmatics), Oslo: Luther Forlag 1994, Pages 274-282.
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology – An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell 2011, Pages 458f.
Please stay tuned for subsequent parts!