The question of universal salvation is, perhaps, the flip side of the question that plagues so many who want to believe: can eternal damnation have a place in the plan of a loving God?
A couple of years ago, I ventured to write about hell (see Hell?). Having just re-read the post, I still stand by what the Spirit led me to write on this topic.
Many others have far more knowledge than I do and have written extensively on the topic of universal salvation (see Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog for a wealth of discussion and resources: Eclectic Orthodoxy).
So why should I attempt to write about it, especially given that I have read very little of what has already been written in the circles of the learned? (Sorry, Fr. Aidan, just can’t make it through all of that theology.)
I can only respond to this reasonable question by saying that I feel the inclination to write – and that inclination is one I pray about before I begin. May the Spirit guide me – either to write something that will be helpful to at least a few of us with our faith dilemmas – or to abandon the project altogether if I cannot.
Let us consider the dilemma itself.
We are told very clearly in the first letter to Timothy that God “…wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2: 4).
This should come as a great consolation to those of us who long for salvation for ourselves and those we love.
It also is in keeping with the central tenet of Christianity: that Jesus, the Christ, died for the sins of all people and rose from the dead with the promise of the new Life to all who believe.
There is no one that falls outside of the net of this salvation. He died for everyone.
While this certainly sounds like universal salvation, there is a catch. What about those who don’t believe? (Or those who sort of, vaguely, kind of think it may be true but aren’t sure?)
We might wonder why believing in Him is so important. If He died for all and He wills for all to be saved, why not leave it at that?
The dilemma is that the Life God is offering us is, at its very heart and by its very nature, Love.
And, as I have written in a number of other posts, for love to be love, it must be voluntary. Forced love is no love at all.
The conundrum is exposed: God wills for all to be saved and to live in His love but, if He imposes salvation universally, the laws of love are violated.
In giving us free will, it seems that God makes virtually inevitable the thwarting of His own will by mere creatures.
How can this be?
Painted myself into a corner again, I have. I knew this was going to happen but, having seen this predicament coming, I could not un-see it.
Let me back up for a moment.
Is salvation universal? I must answer a resounding “yes!”. Our Savior lived and loved, died and rose, for each one of us without exception. The gift has been given and will never be taken back.
But will all step forward and claim their gift? And if some don’t, what will become of them?
As believers, it is hard for us to imagine that anyone would truly reject the gift of eternal love if they knew, unhampered by the afflictions of this world, what it was and that it was truly theirs for the asking .
Who in their right mind would turn away an eternity of love-filled life? Surely those who, in this life, seem to reject it must not be in their right mind. Certainly our loving God would not hold against them their illnesses or their wounds.
What could anyone possibly value more than love? Especially once all of the false allurements of this world that masquerade as the way to love have been removed from the table?
Sadly, there is one thing.
The one thing we just might value more than love is, yes…ourselves.
We have been told, though the precise story has never been clear, that this is how Satan and his followers came to be the opposition.
The evil one is not in God’s league, i.e. he is not uncreated Being.
No, we are told that he was created by God as were all of the angels, good and beautiful and free.
And that he was cast from heaven because of pride. He wanted his own will, not God’s. He wanted to serve himself and be served as god, rather than serve Another.
This choice, never repented of, made of him the direct opponent of love and of God.
The inherent diversity of love necessitates the outpouring of self for other/Other.
Clinging to one’s self, one’s own will, above all else is thus the antithesis of love. It is ultimate separation from God and it is, indeed, a choice.
If this sends chills of terror down your spine, please do not stop reading.
In one sense, having such a choice before me should scare me out of my wits. If I had any inkling of how very weak and prideful and selfish I am (and surely in my own mind I minimize the gravity of my sin), my situation would appear hopeless.
But I must remember that the gift of salvation is promised to me. I only need to accept it, to believe.
Yet a voice inside cries out, “But don’t you see that this is the problem? I scarcely believe at all. Sometimes I’m not sure I believe and certainly I don’t believe well enough…”
Would you believe that that “voice inside” is the work of the evil one himself?
What better way to draw me away from salvation than to convince me that I am not good enough to receive it?
Such fears are, strangely, yet another temptation to pride.
This seems paradoxical to our ears. And yet, as one who has extensive personal experience with the sin of pride, I believe it is so.
“I don’t have enough faith.”
“I don’t know how to surrender my will to God.”
“I know that I am selfish – too selfish to truly say yes to God.”
All of these statements begin with “I”. They are all about me and my power to thwart God’s will, His desire to save me.
Take these very same statements to confession, humbly struggling to turn God-ward, and His mercy is poured out upon me. It is no longer about what I can’t do – rather, it becomes all about what He does for me.
In this act of humble confession, all of my doubts and fears and weaknesses become part of the “yes” that God so longs for, a small whispered “yes” from a contrite heart.
This is our salvation. We need not fear.
But what of those who have been shown the glory of God’s love and still hold onto their own wills? If such creatures exist, what does God do with them?
This, of course, is up to God and unknown to me.
But there are a few things that I believe with considerable certainty.
God never stops loving these dear creatures of His. He does not torture or torment them. He does not abandon them. He does not cast them out of His presence – for where is He not present?
Some say that this is hell indeed, to be ever in the presence of the God one rejects.
Perhaps. But if this is so, even then I believe that God’s mercy is greater than our resistance to it – always greater.
What will His loving mercy do with the unrepentant?
I have no idea – and truly the specifics are no concern of mine. What healing, help or relief He offers another soul is between that soul and God. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, it is not part of my story.
My story is just that – my story.
I walk, I limp, I stumble onward in search of my God.
Lost and confused, I reach out my hand in the darkness, longing for His mercy.
And He is there, always there, wrapping me in the robe of salvation that He has promised me from the beginning…