Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Is There Hope Beyond Hell?

Mom is 89, and by all accounts, she has aged well. She has outlived all ten of her siblings. These days, she has chosen to live as if there is nothing to lose (as opposed to hunkering down and waiting life out). Mom must read the scientific research on successful aging (though of the term I can identify with Eric Weiner, author of Socrates Express, who writes, “Oh, now I have to age successfully, too? Great. Something else to feel inadequate about”).

Mom looks forward to what days she has left on this present earth, though she longs to reconnect with her tribe in heaven. And this has got me thinking. What if she discovers they are not all there? (Actually, she is pretty sure this is the case). Like many large families, my uncles and aunts were a strange spiritual mix. Though religion was built into the Oklahoma soil in which they grew, they went off in various directions. Some maintained a spiritual curiosity; others became angry and never got past their disappointment with God; one or two regularly tuned in to a favorite TV evangelist; and the rest were too caught up running a casino or other things to have time for God. God was more of an afterthought, a useable commodity.

Is it possible some are in hell? Hell? No one discusses this subject (unless we are talking about slow drivers in the left lane). Hell has the feel of an embarrassing artifact from another age. Suggesting some go to hell is an offense, especially to those who see themselves at the center of the universe creating their own meaning, having the power to make their own future and determine their own destiny.

Still, anyone who claims to take Scripture with some seriousness cannot escape the fact hell is a real place. Hell and judgment were ongoing themes in Jesus’s teaching—not as some rant—but as an urgent warning (cf Matt 25:41). God is wanting that no one should perish, but this same God has given us the freedom to choose our course. Hell is reserved for those who prefer to keep God at a distance. But is this forever? What are the implications of every knee one day bowing before him (Rom 14:11; Phil 2:10-11)?

Going deeper into theology, my faith is more grounded in some areas, more mystified in others. Regarding hell, I am becoming, as one theologian put it, a “reverent agnostic.” While N.T. Wright has helped me to rethink heaven (see Surprised By Hope), others have challenged me to reconsider—even break—some of my assumed patterns.

I have no doubt regarding hell’s existence. All of the roads from heaven come together at the one gate—who is Christ—and apart from it, one falls short of heaven. What is less certain is hell and its relationship to grace. I have always assumed that grace has no chance of entering, for hell is its own kingdom with its own ruler. But even hell cannot keep the sovereign King of all out, for God has the keys. Christ even went to hell, between his death and the resurrection, to declare his victory and preach the gospel to the disobedient (1 Pet 3:18). Stepping out of time, some theologians speculate God preached to all of the unbelieving in every generation.  

No one, it seems, can ever fully escapes God and his grace. No one is beyond the reach of his love (Ps 89:33). This is not to say everyone will ultimately be saved from God’s wrath. There is a point the unbelieving who reject God forfeit salvation. Yet—and yet—I can’t but wonder if God’s grace keeps reaching out for all eternity. Is there the possibility of postmortem repentance?

Conducting a service for the unbelieving was one of my more difficult pastoral assignments. I never sought to give false assurances. There are consequences for living like hell. I did, however, share this truth: Whoever we are and whatever our choices, our lives are in the hands of God, one who is far more merciful than we could ever imagine, yet infinitely more just than we could ever be.

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