A guest column on Country Parson is rare, so this is an exception. It is a short essay by my friend The Rev. David Hindman, UMC pastor and long time chaplain at William and Mary.
Considering this question has been prompted in recent days as I have heard claims from faithful Christians that Mahatmas Gandhi could not possibly be in heaven and is in hell because he was not a Christian. He is certainly the poster child for good people assigned to hell, but that company would logically also include Anne Frank, Abraham Heschel, Martin Buber, and any other remarkable person who had not said the sinner’s prayer or been washed in baptismal waters.
The concept of hell that precipitated these musings naturally presumes that there are those who are forever separated from God, from Jesus, or from the comforting presence of the Divine. That company includes not only those many would consider worthy of hell (e.g., Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin) but also all non-Christians, regardless or their morality, virtuous lives or anything other than them claiming Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. For our co-religionists shaped by the theology of John Calvin, those not elected by the grace of God as predestined for salvation are likewise consigned to this realm.
But what if Jesus continues to reside in hell? How is that possible? Why is that something to be considered? Is it something biblical, or at least theologically plausible? How could this be?
Jesus, in his ministry, always favored and had a profoundly merciful compassion for the dispossessed, the outsiders, the marginalized, those who felt abandoned and forgotten, and the suffering. Indeed, his crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem marks Jesus himself as an outsider; his only words from the cross in two gospels are lamenting cries of abandonment by God (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). He dies beyond the pale, beyond compassion care, seemingly on the far side of God’s presence.
What community could be more abandoned, forgotten, dispossessed, marginalized, outside and suffering, than those populating hell? If such people are Jesus’ people, can we imagine that he has chosen to abide with them, to be among them, and to suffer with them, a quiet but faithful representative that even there, we cannot flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7-8). Is it possible that even there we cannot be separated from the love of God experienced in Christ Jesus; as Paul proclaims, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life…not height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Romans 8:38-39, my italics)?
The mystery of the incarnation is that in Christ, God has pitched the Divine Tent among us; “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth (John 1;14). If the glory of God is in our midst, would that also allow for the Incarnate One to live in the most godforsaken realm of all, where humans also exist?
In Ephesians 4:10, we read, “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe (my italics).” Through Christ’s humiliation on the cross, Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (my italics, Phil. 2:10-11). John Wesley, spiritual forebear to those of us who swim our faith in the Wesleyan stream, believed that Christ’s power to confront and convert did not have to be limited by physical death; it was possible for humans still to be changed and blessed in the life beyond this life; is it not possible that such change could happen among those inhabiting the halls of hell?
C. S. Lewis, in his novel The Great Divorce, envisions a bus connecting the realms of heaven and hell. The great horror of the story is that, upon experiencing the ways of heaven, many of those who arrive soon choose to go to hell. Using Lewis’ metaphor, is it not also possible that some would choose to depart hell for the joy of heaven? (As a side note, the conservative and evangelical Lewis also envisioned a more expansive, hopeful, and humble image of God’s salvation; in Mere Christianity he opined, “We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ. We do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”)
Some will readily agree that Jesus, as affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed, did indeed descend into hell, but that “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures.” That affirmation, understandably so, may be considered a sequential statement: First Jesus dies, then he descends to hell, then he is raised from the dead, and then ascends into heaven. That makes perfect sense, especially for us humans who are bound by time and space.
But in eternity and in God’s timeless Being, time and space are irrelevant; they collapse into what Paul Tillich called The Eternal Now. If Jesus fills all things, and is Lord of all times and places, would not that Lordship include the realm of hell and those who would inhabit it? 1 Peter 3:18-19 boldly claims that Jesus was active in the season between Good Friday and Easter, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison…” This interesting phrase suggests the possibility that in God’s eternal economy of salvation, again there is no time distinction between Christ’s death and resurrection (“being put to death but made alive in the spirit”); so is it possible that the crucified One is also already alive in God even as he descends to hell and is present among them as the Risen One over whom death and hell no longer have ultimate power?
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes the resurrected life and looks to the final consummation of human history of universal salvation and deliverance. “All will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power….The last enemy to be destroyed is death….When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all (vv. 22-24, 26, 28).” If death is the last enemy and if hell is the realm where God’s enemies are consigned, then in the end even hell and death will surrender and succumb to the marvelous love and presence of God, and God all will be all in all. There will be no place where God is not. If the resurrection of Christ is a promissory note and down payment on God’s final future for the whole creation, is it not possible that Christ is already there in the midst of those some think belong in hell, as a comfort, encouragement, and witness to God’s abiding eternal love and presence in the midst of the whole creation? Is it not possible and even plausible that already and even now, Christ continues bearing witness in that realm to the New Creation that is surely coming?
What if Jesus remains in hell? Perhaps the better way to phrase it is, What if Jesus is already in hell, and will not leave or forsake those there because that is the nature of the God whose steadfast love endures forever? That, it seems to me, would be good news for all.