This week, I was most captured by reading the letters of Ignatius Sancho, and I was particularly compelled by the religious elements of his life. In Sancho, I found a congenial fellow, with a taste for theater and nice things as well as an interested in and working knowledge of both religious and politics. His life is not dominated by religion, but his faith is woven throughout his missives. His experience of religion and life is much like my own: doing the best I can day to day, continually asking questions and taking my knowledge further and further so I can live more and more like I think my faith calls me to.
One questions Sancho brought forth is a question I have also struggled with, and being able to relate to Sancho helped me see that this is an old old questions. Sancho writes:
I am reading a little pamphlet, which I much like: it favors an opinion which I have long indulged—which is the improbability of eternal Damnation—a thought which almost petrified one—and, in my opinion, derogatory to the fullness, glory, and benefit of the blessed expiation of the Son of the Most High God—who died for the sins of all—all—Jew, Turk, Infidel, and Heretic—fair—sallow—brown—tawny – black—and you and I—and every son and daughter of Adam. (82)
Taken in the light of our discussion on Calvinism, this passage clearly points to a move away from that strict doctrine of Limited Atonement, a move I’ve also been making over the past two years. I was raised more Arminian, but we still believed that all those who did not know Jesus were doomed to eternal damnation. (There was some hope for those in heathen lands unbreeched by missionaries: Romans 1: 19-20, which reads “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (NIV).)
As I grew older and began to think more critically, though, this sat less and less easily on my spirit. After reading C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and then Rachel Held Evan’s Evolving in Monkey Town, I began to question both the limited nature of Heaven and the permanence of Hell.
In The Great Divorce, Lewis explores Refrigerium, the idea that the damned have holidays. Most of these spirits, according to the book, use this time away from Hell to make mischief on earth or moan after what they once had. A few, however, take the bus all the way to Heaven. And if they go to Heaven, they are allowed to stay. The book makes it clear that staying is not so simple as it sounds: for one, the shades from Hell are airy shadow people and the realness of Heaven can hurt: the grass is so real that is pricks through the feet of the shade narrating the story.
The teacher character in the book also makes distinctions between purgatory, Hell, Heaven, and Deep Heaven when explaining them to the shade.
The shade asks “But I don’t understand. Is judgement not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?”
The teacher responds “It depends on the ye’re (sic) using the words. If they leave that grew town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory. And perhaps ye had better not call this country Heave. Not Deep Heaven, ye understand… Ye can call it the Valley of the Shadow of Life. And yet those who stay here it will have been Heaven from the first.” (Lewis 68)
This, coupled with Held-Evan’s questions on who exactly qualifies for Heaven (Anne Frank and Ghandi are damned while the hateful Westboro Baptist Church members are promised eternity?) and readings from other scholars like N.T. Wright and even bloggers like Two Friars and a Fool have all convinced me the matter of Hell is not near as cut and dried as we would like it to be.
In the midst of my own questions about the fate of eternal souls, it’s nice to know that others have worked through this too, including congenial Ignatius Sancho, whom I think I would have gotten along with rather well.