Bob reminds us we can not get way without saying something about hell. As you consider the most typical idea of salvation– a trip on the up escalator rather than on the down one — you face a problem. How do we account for the clear expressions in the New Testament of the fate of the dammed? Today this idea of Hell seems obsolete, but there still are some verses to be considered. I assume there are various possibilities: 1. Some scholars may argue that Jesus never said these things. They are inauthentic. 2. Interpreters of the verses may try to show that they have a meaning different than that which has traditionally been assigned to them. 3. Some may argue that taking the Bible as a whole, this theme of damnation is strongly overshadowed by that of a loving, caring, God. A fundamentalist will say “The words are there. You try to avoid them for your own convenience.” One has to confront his challenge.
We are all, no matter what we say to ourselves or others, continually changing the tradition. Two thousand years after the Bible was written, we live with very different families, governments, communities, economies, and technologies. Jesus justifies new interpretations when he promises the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13) Only Bob’s third option allows us to develop rather than bypass the tradition. No matter how possible #1 and #2 are, their arguments end up with either wise or stupid opinion.
There is an extensive tradition, beginning with Hosea, that pictures God as a lover who can not help himself. (Hosea 11:1-11) Like an ever-loving husband who can not abandon his unfaithful wife (Isaiah 54: 5-10) or a mother who constantly cares for the rebellious child she carried and nursed (Isaiah 49:15), God loves us unconditionally. The tradition culminates in I John 4: 7-21 where John proclaims “God is love”. John is not simply claiming “God loves” but that his nature or character is love. The aim of salvation then is not racking up a score to see if we have more good than bad marks, but changing our natures, so we can participate in the life of God.
Many theologians, including Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, continue this tradition, regarding this text as a s a complete description of the Christian life. They do not necessarily say God saves everyone. Some commit the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit that refuses God’s offer. That does not mean they are punished or tortured. The emphasis, as in the New Testament, is on not being able to enter the Kingdom (Luke 13: 5, 9). God’s wrath then is the natural consequences of living a sinful life. Some are simply allowed to die a second death (Revelation 2: 11, 20: 14, 21: 8) or are thrown on the garbage dump (Matthew 13: 30).
I have always thought that the picture offered by a saint from my parish makes good biblical sense. She suggested we found ourselves at an elevator after we died where we are asked “Up” or “Down”. When we observe we thought someone else made the choice, we are assured it has always been up to us alone. We choose the life where we are comfortable. Sometimes we are wise, sometimes we are stupid. This seems to make the point very well.