I agree with what Chalcedon said yesterday about the need to find a balance between an emphasis on hell-fire and the fact that God is love. A God who is love is not going to create millions of folk just so they can burn in hell for eternity; but that does not mean that millions of folk will not do just that – simply that is not what God created them for. There is a central and disturbing fact at the centre of our faith – Christ on the cross. In having Him on their crucifixes, Catholics rightly focus our attention on His sacrifice. But what is the use of it, what is its point if there is no hell? Just what are we being saved from? Why did Jesus need to become incarnate? Why did he need to atone for our sins on the Cross? If we do not believe in damnation, not only do we deny the many times Christ talked of hell, we deny the reason for his sacrifice. I repeat – what is it we are being saved from?
Those who doubt the reality of hell, do they also doubt the reality of the Incarnation and the Resurrection? I know some do (I have Anglican acquaintances who are very consistent as they take just that view), but for those who do not, I am not sure what it is they think that whole Christ getting born and dying on the Cross was for? If Christianity is no more than a call for social justice (whatever that may be) then why did Jesus have to be born and die? We can, as many atheists (rightly) remind us, be decent human beings, be kind and compassionate without any religious faith. The question we Christians often ask – but what canon do you use to measure ‘goodness’? – can be by-passed by their simply pointing out that treating other human beings decently is not a Christian prerogative (and if they want to be provocative, adding it is sometimes not a Christian practice either). We can have peace, good-will and harmony (somewhere?) without Christianity, just as we have had Christianity and none of those things. Our faith is, if anything, a call to go beyond the obvious criteria we use as humans: walking extra miles, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek and the rest of it are all very radical. But those things are all part of whhat is at the heart of our faith – a radical personal transformation of the heart.
The refiner’s fire burns away (over time) the dross in us, the image of God in us, marred by sin, is cleaned up, and we should become more as God intended us to be. But not all will do that. That’s where I part company with Bosco. It seems to me Paul is writing to those in Corinth and Galatia who considered themselves born again, and he is telling them that what they have gained can be lost. Why is Paul so urgent? Why are John and Peter and Jude all so keen that born-again folk should receive the right Gospel? Why does the early Church care so much about orthodox belief? In our bloodless age we tend to go on about how beastly some of those early Christians were to each other, but we forget why that was. It was because they believed something really important was at stake – our salvation. A man who believed wrongly, or who followed a false prophet was not just going wrong in this life, he was in danger of hell-fire for ever. That being so, they didn’t go ‘meh, whatever, as long as you are a good person’, and they didn’t because they cared.
Jesus became incarnate, was crucified, died, was buried, descended into hell and rose again on the rid day to redeem our sinful selves – to redeem us from hell. I have no idea what hell is like, but I know someone who died so I could be redeemed from it. I don’t say it should be at the forefront of all we say and do, and I do agree a balance in which we respond with love to the love God first showed us in necessary. But I do say we should think on those last things and before succumbing to universalism, ask again, what is the point of Christianity if it is not that we should be saved from the fires of hell and come to the beatific vision?