On April 18, 2014, Religion News Service published an interesting story by Cathy Grossman (a senior correspondent with RNS). The story is about an immensely successful PG-rated film, Heaven is for Real. It was released just before Holy Week 2014, but had already earned $ 21.5 million by the end of that week. Not bad for a PG-rated movie in allegedly pornography-addicted America! The film is based on a book with the same title, by Todd Burpo, an Evangelical pastor in Kansas. Both book and film are about visions of heaven recounted by Colton, the (then) four-year old son of Burpo after emergency surgery. The boy reported conversations in heaven with Jesus in person and with various long-dead relatives he could never have known, including a girl miscarried during pregnancy by his mother. This newly discovered sister had now grown into a lively teenager clearly enjoying her heavenly existence. Upon release of the film, Colton, now a teenager himself, reaffirmed the truth of his visions and said that he now talks about his knowledge of heaven to sick children to take away their fear of death.
The film was co-produced by Bishop Thomas Jakes, pastor of a mega-church in Dallas which claims 30,000 members. Grossman points out in her story that there are significant differences between the book and the film. The book places the accounts of heaven in a firm Biblical context, with frequent references to scriptural passages. The film does not follow this practice. In addition to quite fanciful descriptions of heaven, there is the suggestion that everyone is going to end up there. There is no mention anywhere of hell or the last judgment.
There is now a considerable controversy about the film in the Evangelical world. Grossman quotes another pastor, Tim Challies, who criticizes the film “that celebrates the heaven we want, not the Jesus we’ve really got who is worthy of worship and won’t allow unholiness in heaven”. Other critics have accused the film of failing to emphasize that there is no way to heaven except through faith in Jesus. The debate over this film reflects a broader split among Evangelicals, which pits the vision of four-year old Colton over that of proto-Evangelical Jonathan Edwards (who positively relished the horrors of hell). Most contemporary Evangelicals are very much in the middle between these two extremes, still adhering to an older understanding of evangelism as snatching sinners from the clutches of damnation, but doing so in the mellower style which the late sociologist John Murray Cuddihy ascribed to the “ordeal of civility” undergone by all who want to be part of American culture: It is uncivil, perhaps even un-American, to threaten people with hell. Of course this style is more in tune with the overall culture, in which service with a smile has become a national icon. It is important, I think, to differentiate between this via media and a faith in which the smile is all there is. One might describe the adherents of this faith as Vanilla Evangelicals. But then there still are those who hold on to the old-time religion of fire and brimstone—and those, who having lost it, want to go back to it. The so-called New Calvinists are an interesting case in point; not surprisingly, they have made Jonathan Edwards one of their mentors. Rather oddly, this revived Calvinism is particularly appealing to young pastors and seminary students of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was for most of his career pastor of the local church in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was a highly educated theologian and a stern Calvinist—the entire Calvinist package—“total depravity” (all of humanity sunk in sin), “double predestination” (God has decided from the beginning of time who will be saved and who damned), “selective salvation” (Jesus did not die for all men, only for the pre-determined elect). He preached against the Arminians, who modified Calvinism by, among other things, insisting that those who go to hell should have done something to deserve that fate. Rather paradoxically, Edwards was also associated with the First Great Awakening, whose highly emotional revival meetings he brought to Northampton. (The paradox: If the eternal fate of everyone has already been decided by God, why urge people to repent and convert, if this will do nothing to change God’s mind? But intellectuals are good at building bridges across chasms of contradiction. Edwards was an intellectual.)
Edwards is best known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, in which he describes in great detail the terrible sufferings of hell. But there is worse. To get the full flavor of Edwards’ faith one should turn to another sermon, entitled ”The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous”. Edwards proposes that the latter, looking down from heaven to the torments of hell, will not only do so with equanimity but with joy at the working of God’s justice. To leave no room for any misplaced sympathy, he insists that the righteous will not be moved even if among the sufferers in hell are individuals that once were loved—parents, children, spouses. The sermon goes on: “When the saints in glory see the wrath of God executed on ungodly men, it will not be an occasion of grief to them, but of rejoicing.” There will be no pity for the damned: “Even Jesus, the Redeemer, will have no pity.”
One will be tempted to exclaim: Give me Vanilla Evangelicals any time!
Arguably the sermons of Jonathan Edwards are the most repulsive texts in Christian history. But I can think of one competitor for this title—the writings of Gregory of Rimini (1300-1358), also known as tortor puerorum/”torturer of children”. Roman Catholic theologians invented the notion of limbo (not to be confused with purgatory, which is a sort of probation for those who don’t deserve hell but are not ready for heaven), as at least a temporary residence for worthy souls who could not know Christ or be baptized (notably the patriarchs of the Old Testament). The place was not particularly unpleasant, but of course it was not heaven. There was general consensus that unbaptized infants (who had not been purged sacramentally of original sin but had not committed sins of their own) had to be permanently deposited in limbo. Thomas Aquinas spoke for the scholarly majority when he proposed that these infants of course suffered from not being admitted to the presence of God, but otherwise suffered no pain. Gregory of Rimini was a rare dissenter: The infants in limbo did suffer positive pain. To argue otherwise would diminish the sanctity of the sacrament of baptism. [Rome’s mills grind slowly, but perhaps better late than never: In 2007 an International Theological Commission appointed by the Pope cautiously suggested that the infants in limbo did have grounds for hoping for heaven.]
The question of hell, or the permanent exclusion from heaven, agitated Christian minds from early on: Who goes there and how long does it last? Unlike limbo or purgatory, hell was definitely a very awful place, and those sent there would never get out. However the details of hell were imagined (Christian art was busy for centuries depicting such images), there can be no doubt that both Testaments proposed a day of judgment that would segregate the blessed from the damned. Jesus himself is identified as the judge who effects the segregation—heaven this way, hell the other way. Arguably Islam puts the day of judgment at the center of the faith more than the other two “Abrahamic” religions. Yet from early times there were Christians who believed in the apokatastasis/ ”restoration”—when the entire universe would be restored to what God intended it to be. In this ultimate climax of redemption there would be no more place for hell. One could put this in rather vanilla-seeming terms: Everyone would really be in heaven then! Obviously this raises the question of the worst evil-doers, and different answers were given. One of the great if controversial Church Fathers apparently believed in the “restoration”—Origen, who taught in Alexandria in the 3rd century CE. There is disagreement about just what Origen really meant—did he believe that eventually even the devil would be saved?—did he believe in the transmigration of souls? But there were enough doubts so that, despite the esteem he was held in, he was not canonized by either the Eastern or the Western Church.
In America there actually developed a denomination whose core doctrine was the “restoration”. The first Universalist church was founded in the 1770s and it experienced moderate growth ever since, on the far liberal wing of mainline Protestantism. In 1961 it merged with another denomination in the same environment of Protestant liberalism. The merged body adopted both names—Unitarian-Universalist. I don’t know how happy this union has been. The two groups come from different social and theological backgrounds. Unitarians have venerable upper-class roots in Boston, have defined themselves as “a community of seekers” (Christianity is optional), and are politically active in progressive causes. It is my impression that Universalists have more middle-class and Midwestern origins, continue to think of themselves as Protestant Christians, and were less engaged politically before the merger. That is now over fifty years old and these characterizations may no longer fit. Living in Boston, I am of course much more aware of Unitarians. The denominational headquarters are located in a building on Beacon Hill; some amusement was created a few years ago when the building was declared to be a nuclear-free zone (perhaps relieving neighbors of the nagging fear that an atom bomb was being put together in the basement). I can vouch for the fact that Unitarians, whatever else they may be “seeking” already possess a sense of humor. I used to have dealings with a Unitarian minister, who kept telling me jokes about his denomination: What happens when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness? — Someone who goes from door to door and doesn’t know why. Or a Unitarian with a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan? — someone who burns a question mark on your front lawn.
But I had no intention of diverting attention from the fact that questions about heaven and hell raise serious issues for religious faith, especially for any version of monotheism. The presence of evil in the world created by God is intolerable unless there is an ultimate judgment against it. In the words of the Quran, there will be that day of judgment when every man will stand alone before God. On the other hand, every chapter of the Quran begins with the sentence “In the name of God, the compassionate, who acts compassionately”. Where are the limits of the divine compassion?
More than any other mystic, the English nun Julian of Norwich (1342-1462) kept repeating over and over again that God is love, that he created the world out of love, and that this love keeps the world in being every moment. Julian was preoccupied with the question of how even the devil could be kept in hell forever in a world fully restored to God. She knows that this is what the Church teaches, and she is an obedient daughter of the Church. But she asks God how this can be. He replies that what she cannot understand, he can do. In her little book “Showings”, where she tells of all the things that God showed her in her visions, there follows the passage for which she is best known. I am not quite clear, whether these are supposed to be words spoken by God himself, or Julian’s own words responding to him. They are in the literary form of a lullaby, such as a mother might sing to soothe a frightened child; I guess one might call it a cosmic lullaby: “And all will be well. And all will be well. And every manner of thing will be well.”
The lifespan of Gregory of Rimini overlapped for just a few years with that of Julian of Norwich. It is too bad that they could not have had a conversation.