I delivered one hell of a sermon last Sunday.
The subject was Hell. I think it's probably the first time in more than twenty years of regular homiletical ministry that I have preached on Hell.
My text was from Acts 13:46, part of the appointed second reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C (BCP lectionary). Paul and Barnabas respond to being snubbed by some members of the Jewish community in Antioch of Pisidia: “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.”
What caught my attention was the implication--obviously an indulgence in sarcasm on the part of Paul and Barnabas--that their interlocutors were responsible for their own condemnation. The theme I developed was that, in the end, God does not actually send anyone to Hell. Such souls as end up in a state of eternal separation from God have elected that for themselves--not overtly and consciously, perhaps, but as a consequence of habituating themselves in this life to living in God's absence. Eventually, we will choose to live where we feel most at home, and if we have not accustomed ourselves, in the little decisions we make every day, to living in God's presence, a loving God will, through tears, abandon us to the choice we have made.
Then I ran across this article (Travelling towards an open heaven--hat tip to Titusonenine) in which the writer, one Savi Hensman, takes on the subject of eternal salvation--and, implicitly, then, Hell and who goes there--particularly from the perspective of the ongoing debate about pluralism: Must one be a Christian to be saved, to avoid Hell and gain Heaven, or are there alternative pathways? This, of course, is the very tempest into which the Presiding Bishop sailed before she even took office last year, and one of the bases for continuing assertions of her sub-orthodox christology and soteriology. The funeral service for President Ford in Washington Cathedral encountered the same storm when somebody (no one has claimed credit, to my knowledge) omitted the last clause from John 14:6, the gospel reading for the occasion. What was left out? "No one comes to the Father but by me" (Jesus speaking).
For some reason, this is a particularly interesting question to secular journalists and pundits and social critics who attempt to "cover" religion. By professional disposition, they are on the outside looking in. Yet, they can't really be on the outside--they're actually only on the margins--because they swim very much in the stream of our still vaguely Christian western culture. They may even have some formal religious connection, though uncomfortably so, and therefore likely coming under the heading of "non-practicing" (whatever that means).
What such erstwhile dispassionate observers often do, I find, to my annoyance, is posit a dilemma that looks something like this: Either one takes what is presumed to be a sort of strict constructionist view of John 14:6, which consigns to Hell anyone who does not at some point in this mortal life consciously and intentionally "turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [their] Savior," or one takes the full-blown pluralist position that there are several equally valid paths to the Divine; Christ and Christianity being one of them, and possibly the default mode for those formed by the European cultural inheritance. But faithful Muslims and Hindus and practitioners of Native American religions et al are not at any disadvantage by virtue of their not being Christian.
Well, I don't like either option, and I don't think it's necessary to choose one or the other. The strict constructionist view does, in fact, make God awfully petty. It is not consistent with the larger picture of what else is revealed about the nature of God in scripture. I believe there is a Hell because the Bible tells me that human beings are created with free will and that the quality of God's love is such that He will not hang on to somebody who doesn't want to be hung on to. God is a seducer, not a rapist. But I don't believe Hell is populated with the souls of Lower Slobovians who, by accident of birth, never heard the name of Jesus. Nor do I believe that a practicing Buddhist or Sikh or Zoroastrian is necessarily Hell-bound simply by virtue of practicing one of those less-than-fully-true religions rather than Christianity.
But, is this the same thing as saying that there are many paths to God and each is equally valid?
It is manifestly not the same thing. I fully affirm every word of John 14:6. Christian pastors and missionaries are not at liberty to set aside the kerygma enunciated by Peter in Acts 4:12--"There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved." It is fundamental to the Church's mission (yes, even more fundamental than the Millennium Development Goals--sorry, General Convention) to present the good news of God in Christ in such a manner that all people everywhere are called to repentance, faith, baptism, and discipleship in the communion of the Catholic Church. Any church leader who says or implies otherwise has not understood the Gospel.
As is so often the case--among other places, we see this in the sexuality debate--it is vital to maintain a clear distinction between pastorally-driven speculative theology and order-driven dogmatic theology. Both are good and necessary. Yes, there can be some dissonance between them. I believe I have smeared myself with such dissonance in this very post. Affirming both points of view requires one to drink from the well of paradox. But it is in such limimal terrain that the truth is usually encountered.