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0o66f5darvx21There is a film on Netflix that presents itself quickly if you enter “Christian” into the search function.   The name of the film is Come Sunday and it tells the story of a  prominent African-American Pentecostal pastor, Carlton Pearson, who began to doubt the existence of Hell.  Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Rev. Pearson, and Martin Sheen does a sympathetic portrayal of Oral Robers, Rev. Pearson’s mentor and ministerial overseer.

The movie concentrates on the difficulty Rev. Pearson faced from his parishoners and peers when he began to dounbt the existence of Hell, but there is a significant subplot where Rev. Pearson is engaging Reggie, the gay parishoner organ player in his church who is suffering from complications to the AIDS virus.   Although the question is never explicitly addressed as to whether he considers his homosexuality something that in itself alienates him from God, or whether he was promiscuous, Reggie suffers from great shame.  In a very moving scene close to the end of the film, Rev. Pearson embraces Reggie, who is begging him to help him to ‘get saved’, and tells Reggie that he is deeply and profoundly loved, just as he is, and that he is already ‘saved’.

However, earlier in the movie, there is a scene in which Rev. Pearson confronts Reggie over some misdeed that is, once again, not specifically named in the script.  ‘Just because there’s no hell doesn’t mean you can live any way you please,’ Rev. Pearson admonishes his tearful  parishoner.  That line gave me pause.  Previously I thought that the whole idea of the apokatastasis was to allow people to do just that; to live any way they want without fear of eternal reprisal on the part of God.

Slowly, it began to dawn on me that the word used in the book of Acts for apokatastasis, the only time it is used in the entire New Testament, that word is restoration.  There is no room in the Kingdom of God for sin, not because sin doesn’t fit God’s idea of decor but because sin mars the image of God and requires, yes, precisely, restoration.  So whatever we think of the afterlife, it must also include some element of this restoration.  You can’t live any old way you want and participate in the universal restoration.  It just doesn’t fit.

There is an interesting scene about two thirds of the way through the film.  Rev. Pearson is put on trial by a group of other African-American pastors who grill him about his belief in the non-existence of Hell.  Rev. Pearson turns the tables on them and begins grilling them about whether there was anyone they currently believed was in Hell that they wouldn’t want to see released.  One bishop admits that his unrepentant father was in Hell, and had been there now for fifteen years. The father was a piece of work; an abusive cheating manipulator who had obviously left deep scars on his son, the bishop.  When Rev. Pearson asks if there wasn’t some way he wouldn’t want to have his daddy released from Hell, the bishop displays his deep conflictedness; he loves his father in the abstract but he doesn’t want any part of him unless there is some ontological change in his father.  Until then, the bishop is just fine with his father continuing to suffer.  ‘Hell is where he belongs,’ the bishop admits.

The existence of Hell has something to do with both forgiveness and repentance, and really, it seems to me that the one is only the mirror image of the other.  I’d like to take this up in the future.

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The idea of Universal Reconciliation, the apokatastasis; that all created intelligences will eventually be reconciled to their Creator, has always been a minority opinion in Christianity.  There are many reasons why this would so.

One of the most objectionable reasons to disbelieve in Universal Reconciliation is that a lot of Christians are as angry as the punishing God they profess to believe in.  I have to admit that I still am in a lot of ways.  There is something in me that wants to be vindicated, that wants to be shown to be right, and sending people to Hell is a remarkably final way to end all metaphysical and theological argument.  However,  I always saw Hell and conscious punishment as something of a design flaw.  Back in the dreary Internet theological arena of the early 00s, hell was kind of the final entry in a schematic drawing on any number of theological arguments.  ‘Oh, you don’t believe in Limited Atonement?  Well, when you’ve been Baking in the Lake for 500,000 years, you’ll rethink your position!’

chaptersAnother objectionable argument against the Universal Reconciliation is the one based on Free Will, i.e. that God needs to allow eternal conscious torment in order to maintain an abstract freedom that is never absolute under the best of circumstances.  Our vaunted freedom is hedged about on every side with a terrible finitude, not the least of which is our own ignorance.

Yet there are some objections I have to Universal reconciliation as well;  it doesn’t take into account the real possibility that some people could hate God, love, and being so much that they could resist Him and it indefinitely.  That these people are some of the most damaged among us is not something I want to deal with right now.

Orthodoxy dispenses with Original Sin, so we don’t go to Hell because we deserve it for sullying God’s honor or some other such nonsense (sorry Anselm).  Hell draws me because there is something in me that responds to it, that recognizes it as my soul’s True Home, and after struggling with my sin for almost seven decades now and finding it as recalcitrant as ever, I realize that this is indeed a very real possibility.

Also, there is very strong indication in the Tradition that physicality is necessary for repentance, that it gives friction to the soul.  After that physicality is lost, the friction is lost and the dis-corporeal intelligence, like a driver hitting a patch of ice,  continues on the trajectory it was pursuing when it was forcibly unbodied, never to be reoriented.  For this reason, the fallen angels are never shriven, and can never return.

In the future, I’d like to explore different ways of looking at the apokatastasis.  I’m not a scholar, so I won’t be adding a lot of patristics, and probably not even a lot of Scripture.  There are plenty of places you can go for that.  Here, I just want to think out loud for a bit.

The graphic is from Blankets, a graphic novel by Craig Thompson.  It is very, very good.

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