I planned to post the following (adapted from an old sermon) sometime during Lent well before I heard of Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins and the attendant controversy about it. I haven't read the book so this is not a response, but it does apparently touch on some of the same themes.
Where is Your Precious?
Smeagol was a hobbit. A hobbit is an imaginary creature invented by J. R. R. Tolkien who wrote the “Lord of the Rings”. Short, human-like creatures with hairy feet, hobbits have been described as a cross between a rabbit and an English country gentleman. One day, Smeagol and a friend were fishing in a river. His friend fell into the water and swam or sank to the bottom of the river where he saw a ring, a bright and shiny ring. The friend grabbed the ring, came back to the surface of the river and showed it to Smeagol. It happened to be Smeagol’s birthday and he asked his friend, or rather demanded of his friend, the ring as a birthday present. The friend refused for he had already given Smeagol his birthday present. Smeagol strangled his friend, took the ring and put it on his finger.
It was a magical ring. When he put it on he was invisible. But it was also a cursed ring and it began to warp Smeagol. It warped him so that he began to find the sun too hot and too bright. He took shelter in the caverns of a mountain. When we first meet him in the story he is no longer known as Smeagol, but has been warped into a strange creature called Gollum. Gollum, formerly Smeagol, lives on a small island in the middle of a lake at the dark center of a mountain. There, he eats raw fish and speaks to his ring, which he calls, “My Precious”. Isolated from all other creatures, Gollum is alone. He is alone, that is, except for the ring - his "Precious".
I have wondered if maybe hell is like what happened to Smeagol. God, in His fierce mercy, gives us freedom - freedom to choose our “Precious,” whatever is our Precious - money, possessions, power, prestige, pleasure, etc. - to the bitter end. And beyond. What we choose for our Precious will either mold and shape us into something more beautiful and more human or it will warp us into something much less, like Gollum. That molding or warping continues beyond this life and God will allow us to continue to fall in on ourselves and our precious forever if we choose.
Scripture warns us that our choices have consequences and there will be judgement. In Hebrews 12:25 there is this stark warning. “How much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns us from heaven?” And, lest we think it’s just some peculiarity of the exhortation to the Hebrews, in the gospels, Jesus warns as well. In Luke 13, Jesus warns, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The warning of judgment, whether we like it or not, (and I don’t particularly like it) is a part of Jesus’ message. And it shows up repeatedly and in each gospel. It is a mistake to try to make Jesus less offensive by denying that judgment is part of his message. The Jesus of the gospels warns of judgment. We ought not to ignore it or wish it away.
It is also a mistake, however, to take the images of hell too literally. Christians throughout history have managed to understand that the images of heaven in the Bible are metaphorical. Very few Christians die believing that when they awake they will pass through literal pearly gates and walk literal streets of gold and live in literal mansions with a cubicle for each of us. We understand that those images are metaphors pointing to something greater than we can imagine. But somehow Christians have not been able, usually, to see same metaphorical interpretation of hell. We always seem to take the pictures of hell quite literally - a literal lake of fire in which people burn in agony forever and ever if they choose wrongly. We are familiar with those images. Paintings and graphic descriptions have impressed them on our imaginations. The warning is to be taken seriously, but let’s not mistake metaphorical imagery for literal description. If the images of heaven are metaphorical, then so are the images of hell.
A bit of an aside: Such images of hell are not unique to Christianity. Those who say that we should ignore the differences between religions and just get down to that which they all have in common always intrigue me. They ignore the problem that one thing nearly every religion has in common is hell. There are Buddhist paintings of hell that are every bit as graphic and discomforting as anything described by Dante or depicted by Hieronymus Bosch. Such images of hell make God out to be a cosmic torturer.
It is also a mistake to morbidly dwell on hell. In spite of the impression some have given, hell is not the main point of Christianity. Too often the threat of hell has been used to scare people in order to control them. The primary reason for Jesus’ coming was not to scare the hell out of us. The primary reason for Jesus’ coming was to prepare a way or us and to point us towards the kingdom of God. As Charles Williams wrote, "The order of purging is according to the seven deadly sins of the formal tradition of the Church. The Church is not a way for the soul to escape hell but to become heaven; it is virtues rather than sins which we must remember." (The Figure of Beatrice, p. 157)
Still, we should not be complacent about the warning of judgment that we have in scripture. It is a warning that comes from Jesus. It would be a mistake to assume that God is just such a nice guy that he could never really judge us severely. Or that he merely says, “All-y, all-y, in come free!” While it is possible to make too much of hell, it is also possible to make too little. The judgment is real. There is no room for complacency.
Jesus is instructive. Asked a theoretical question in Luke 13 about how many will be saved, Jesus, as is his wont, refused to get into the theoretical or speculative. Instead, Jesus’ answer to the question makes it personal. “Don’t worry about how few or how many make it to heaven. If it ends up that only a few get in, that is God’s business. If it turns out that God, in his incredible grace and mercy, makes a way for all to enter, that also is God’s business.” Jesus says, “You strive to enter through the narrow door.” He makes it personal. Don’t worry about the particulars of what it’s like. Don’t worry about who else is in or out. You strive to enter the narrow door. Choose today who is your Precious. Our choices matter in the short run and in the long run. We can choose wrongly. We can choose that which will warp us. It does matter how we live. It is not a matter of indifference whether we live lives of self-giving love or lives of self-absorption. We can choose our Precious, and in the end God may just allow us to live with whatever has been truly precious to ourselves - eternally. Our choice of what (or who) is our Precious will either mold us or warp us. That molding or warping begins now and continues eternally.
The Christian conviction is that Jesus also matters. Jesus did not come to scare the hell out of us; instead he came to show us what is eternally Precious. Indeed, he came to be our Precious. Our problem is, among other things, that we, in our sinfulness and our ignorance, find it difficult to recognize or receive what is truly Precious. There are many things vying to be our Precious. Jesus comes to break into our willfulness and ignorance and say; “I am your Precious. I am the way to all that is precious.”
But more than just showing us what our Precious is, Jesus frees us to pursue it. Our problem is more profound than just ignorance. We are born addicted, like crack babies, to things that are not our true Precious. Jesus Christ, on the cross and in his resurrection, breaks the bondage of that addiction, frees us to choose our true Precious - to choose him. Jesus is our Precious.
Being a hopeful universalist*, I still hope that (back to the analogy) maybe even Gollum, isolated and alone on the island at the dark and lonely center of the mountain, is not completely abandoned. Perhaps Jesus is still sitting beside him saying, “Smeagol, come back. Repent.” Maybe that’s what it means when we claim Jesus descended into hell. I hope that Dante was wrong when he wrote that over the gates of hell it reads, “Abandon all hope you who enter here.” I wonder if the God we know in Jesus Christ ever completely abandons hope. Is it possible that not even hell is God-forsaken?
The warning is real. The promise is also real. Our hope is real. In Hebrews we read that we have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken and therefore we do not need to be morbidly fearful of hell. We can give thanks. But in reverence and in awe, because we remember that our God is a consuming fire. Our choices matter. Jesus comes to us day by day, comes to us today, and says, “Choose today to enter in through the narrow door. Choose today who is your Precious.”
* "Hopeful universalist" is a term I learned from my seminary professor, Charlie Price. It is distinct from what might be called a “simple” or “complacent” universalism. Holding that no one can ultimately end in hell is as presumptuous as presuming to know exactly who ends there. It presumes on God’s freedom to judge. It also denies the glory and awfulness of human freedom. A hopeful universalist, on the other hand, while acknowledging God’s judgement, hopes that, in his relentless love, as demonstrated in Jesus, God never completely abandons the objects of that love. Hopeful universalists in the church’s history would include Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa among the early theologians. More recent examples are C. S. Lewis, Karl Barth, and Hans Urs Von Balthasar.
Scripture support for such a view might include passages such as Psalm 139:7-8, I Corinthians 3:11-15 & 15:22-28, Colossians 1:20, 1 Timothy 2:4, 1 Peter 3:19, 2 Peter 3:9. While these “hopeful” verses point to the wideness of God’s mercy, they do not allow for complacency.