by Dn Joseph Gleason
C.S. Lewis said the gates of hell are locked from the inside. It is real, and people actually go there. But they are there by their own consent. Hell is a place of self-exile.
This position avoids the extremes of both the Universalists and the Calvinists.
“Everybody goes to heaven.”
They protect the truth about God’s good character; but they fail to protect us from carelessness. If hell is real, then we need to know about it. Otherwise, why be vigilant? Why watch out for our souls?
Five-point Calvinists believe that God unilaterally decides who goes to heaven, and who goes to hell. Those predestined for damnation are unable to repent, and are unable to escape their fearful destiny. Calvinists acknowledge the reality of hell, and so they do protect us from carelessness. However, they fail to keep us from slandering God’s character.
If we visualize an American courtroom, we see a judge who does take pleasure in bringing criminals to justice. And if hell were a matter of divine, retributive justice — if this was divine wrath carried out upon someone who deserves it — then of course God would take some pleasure in that. Yet Scripture says that
God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11).
In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son. This is a rebel who says,
“I want my inheritance now!”
He then squanders his inheritance in waste, riot, and wantonness. His so-called friends abandon him, and he ends up working in a pigpen. He becomes so hungry, filthy and miserable that he dreams about eating the pods he feeds to the pigs.
Then he wakes up. He remembers that the servants in his father’s house are treated better than this. In humility and repentance, he returns home.
The father does not say, “How are you going to pay off your debt?” “Who will be your substitute, so that I can get him back for what you did?” No, he sees his wayward son coming home, and he runs to him, and he hugs him. “My son’s home! My son is home!” That is what the Father does with each of us when we return “home” to Him. There is not a hint of retributive justice; not a hint of wrath.
The father has the fatted calf killed for a grand feast. The father and his younger son proceed with a great celebration, but the older brother does not celebrate. In anger, he stands outside the father’s house. The father talks to the older son and pleads with him. The father wants him to celebrate as well! But the older son refuses. Avoiding the word “brother,” he says,
“That son of yours has wasted your money and has gone out with whores…”
and he describes his brother’s past in the worst possible way.
The father was happy that his younger son had come home, but the older brother hated his brother, more so than he loved his father. He kept himself out of the celebration feast, because he would rather be in an emotional hell, than to forgive. He would rather be estranged from his father, than to reconcile with his brother. And so it will be, I believe, on the Last Day. Some people will demand the right to hold a grudge; demand that they not be forced to reconcile with “that person, that spouse of mine, that parent of mine, that neighbor of mine…” And they will love the grudge more than they will love their God.
Where will the father be? He will not miss the feast. He will not stay away from his younger son. The father goes back inside the house, and he rejoices with his son. And the older brother — by avoiding his younger brother — is also avoiding the father. By failing to forgive, he cuts off the relationship. It is self-exile. The gates of hell are locked from the inside.
Calvinists believe that God’s sovereignty is so powerful that human freedom is nothing. If He wants you to go to hell, you have no chance to escape.
Universalists believe God’s Love is so powerful that human freedom is nothing. If He wants you to go to heaven, you have no chance to escape.
In the 17th century northeastern United States, Puritan congregations morphed into today’s Universalists. Calvinist Puritans became Unitarian Universalists. How did that happen? Ultimately, it is because they are both two sides of the same coin: They both believe that the sovereignty of God trumps everything, and that there is no true freedom for the individual person.
In contrast to both, Orthodoxy says,
“God is giving you true freedom. If you want to follow Christ and go to heaven, none of your sins will be held against you. But, if you refuse to forgive your brother, God will not force you. If you choose to stay outside the wedding banquet, then you will spend eternity in a hell that you yourself have selected.”
You will nurse that grudge and hold onto it. And since you never let go of the grudge, you’re never going to let go of the suffering, you’re going to never let go of the torment, and you’re never going to rejoice in knowing that your brother has come home, and has been forgiven.
Throughout one’s life, God urges His people to say,
“Thy will be done.”
God’s will is reconciliation: reconciliation between Him and you; between you and your spouse; between you and your child; between you and everyone else, regardless of what they have done. This is His will. However, if we spend our lives refusing to say,
“Thy will be done,“
Lewis says the point comes where God respects our freedom and replies, “Okay, thy will be done.”
And that will determine how we spend all of eternity.
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This article is abridged and adapted from a homily.