Maybe I should ease into this post by doing my usual schtick of rambling around the edges before getting to the point, and there are times, believe it or not, when opinionated and straightforward me taps lightly around my beliefs because I know for those located in, or coming from, a conservative Christian tradition as I did, it can feel unsettling when people you connect with on other levels seem to be walking dangerously close to the ledge in others. All I can tell is ledge walking might not be the safest place but once you've seen the horizon from that viewpoint there's no going back.
Though at first glance it might seem so, a post on hell isn't so far off-topic for SisterFriends, not as long as there are GLBTQ Christians in the process of reconciling their faith and sexuality who continue to wonder "Will I go to hell because I'm gay?" Normally when someone poses this question in an email I avoid the topic of hell altogether realizing that the belief in hell and in retribution theology (punishment for bad, reward for good) runs deep through many raised in conservative Christianity. Instead I tend to address the fear that underlays such questioning and center my response on those passages that dispel the idea that God would ever be at the heart of such anguished fear.
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. ~ 2 Timothy 1:7
Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. ~ John 14:27
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. ~ 1 John 4:18
But as long as people believe there's a chance at the end of their lives that they will have messed things up so bad or fallen so short of where God would have them to be that they risk damnation there will always be fear and so it seemed as good a time as any to expose the ledge I'm standing on and to give a more complete and honest response to the question for the next one who would ask it of me.
So here we go.
I'm not about to say that hell doesn't exist, neither am I saying I believe it does. The fact is that hell, as a locale, can no more be denied than it can be proven since despite all the theological arguments made for or against such a place, certitude on the matter is outside the grasp of all of us until the moment of our death. Until then all we can do is abandon ourselves to our faith and in what we believe - whether it's traditional church teaching on the matter or personal belief.
There were far too many years when I believed that while God loved me God could and would condemn me to hell if I had sinned too much or strayed too far outside God's will. Should I die "in sin" my parting glimpse of God wouldn't be of his love but of his wrath, but fortunately, as it happened, I believed the right truth and was living the right life (Self-Righteous, party of one, your table is waiting!) so I didn't fear hell but looked ahead confidently to heaven.
But in recent years I've had a change of heart and mind and I no longer believe God would or will ever condemn anyone to a permanent state of punishment and torment. The change has come about not because I've spent years locked in academic research and study on the Christian doctrine of hell. The change has come simply, though not easily, through my changing understanding and experiences with the love of God. I've reflected on what it really means when we say the love of God is unconditional and infinite, and that God is the giver of undeserved mercy and extravagant grace. After 53 years of being in love with God I'm only now beginning to understand what it means when we declare with assurance that "nothing will ever separate us from the love of God."
I don't believe in eternal punishment because I believe in the unconditional, infinite love of God.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. ~ I Corinthians 13:4-8
At this point in my faith journey, to believe in the unconditional eternal love of God and to believe in eternal punishment as the will of God is, in my opinion, irrational. It simply makes no sense to propose that these two teachings stand harmoniously beside one another when the truth is that no two beliefs could be more oppositional to one another than these. I'm all for a God who works in mysteriously ways but I reject the idea of a God who acts irrationally and contradictory to his own nature. God may be full of surprises but when it comes to His steadfast love and unwavering grace, God is more predictable than that the earth will keep spinning.
I'm baffled that we've somehow managed to justify in Christian theology a Heavenly Father/Mother/Parent who behaves in a way that would appall us were we to witness the same behavior in an earthly parent directed toward their child and I said as much in my last post. God's love is unconditional, immeasurable, limitless and forever. God loves you. God loves me. God loves them. For that reason if so much as one single person in all God's creation falls outside the covering of God's love, even the most vile and depraved among us, then God's love is diminished for all, even for the most righteous and pure among us.
I don't believe in eternal punishment because I believe that the perfect will and desire of God will be fulfilled.
In other words I believe God will ultimately get what God wants, and what God wants is that through Jesus He would be able to "reconcile to Himself all things" (Colossians 1:19-20); what God desires is that "all will be saved and come to the knowledge of truth" (I Timothy 2:3-4); what God wills is to bring "all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even Christ" (Ephesians 1:9-10), and what God does not want is that "any should perish but that everyone would come to repentance" (2 Peter 2:9). God wants, desires, and wills that all would be brought back to him and so the question is whether God will get what God wills or if for all eternity God's will be left unfulfilled. If God wills that all would be returned onto him then it is impossible that even one person will be cast out of God's presence. Even one soul separated from God would leave God discontent, like the Good Shepherd who wouldn't rest until his entire flock was restored (Matthew 18:10-14) and like the poor woman who wouldn't stop searching until she found her lost coin. (Luke 15:8-10). Neither the good shepherd or the poor woman were able or willing to celebrate until all that had been lost were found. And so it is with God. God is not willing that any would be lost and so, if we believe the perfect will of God will be fulfilled then we also believe that all will be found.
I don't believe in eternal punishment because I believe Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the World.
Jesus was God revealed in human flesh. In his life and his words Jesus was the greatest manifestation of God's love that we have ever witnessed and there's nothing I can see in the witness of his life or in the content of his teaching that would lead me to accept that Jesus' ultimate purpose was to be the determining factor in who would go to heaven and who would be cast into hell based on individual acceptance or rejection of his identity. Instead I believe that the love, forgiveness, compassion, and full welcome Jesus showered on everyone he encountered will be the very love, forgiveness, compassion, and welcome that God extends to all.
I also believe that had Jesus not come, had he not preached and lived out the Good News of the Gospel, had he not died on the cross and been brought forth into newness of life, this world would be different in a way we can't begin to imagine, for in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection salvation came into the world and through him the world was saved. "I did not come to judge the world, but to save it" (John 12:47) and that's what Jesus did. Through Jesus the world and all of creation was redeemed by the glory of God that spilled upon the earth through the work of Christ and salvation was given to all.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came through Christ Jesus. ~ Romans 3:23
God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all men. ~ Romans 11:32
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. ~ I Corinthians 15:22
We put our hope in a living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe. ~ I Timothy 4:9-10
I know what I believe on paper echoes a theology of universal salvation but for me it's not about labeling my beliefs or aligning them with what others profess. I only know that I can't reconcile the idea that some will go to heaven and some will go to hell when I keep bumping into "all" and "every" in the Scriptures. Receiving the grace of God isn't dependent on whether I believe the right things, attend the right church, pray the right prayers, or do the right things. Grace doesn't depend on me being right. As Philip Gulley said in "If Grace Is True" grace is a gift, not a trophy. Grace gives no thought to whether I'm Protestant or Jewish or Agnostic. Grace isn't determined by my sexual orientation. Grace depends fully on God. The grace I've been given. The grace you've been given. The grace they've been given. We're all under God's grace because the love of God would have it no other way.
Of course, coming to this place has meant I've done a whole lot of soul-searching and spiritual reflection on a wider circle of Christian doctrines. Redemption, salvation, the cross, sin, and atonement are all concepts of the Christian faith (my faith) that I continue to grapple with as my understanding of God's love and grace for all evolves. But given my upbringing within a conservative Christian tradition do you know what the hardest part has been for me in moving from hell for some to hell for none?
It was overcoming my need for eternal punishment to exist.
The more I found my theology defaulting to the love and grace of God, the more troubled I was that there was a chance that those I thought deserved an eternity in hell for all the hurt they had brought into the world, the more I had to deal with the possibility that in eternity they'd be standing in the same brilliant light of God's glory as would I. As a human being, I have an innate need for good to be rewarded and evil to be punished. I want those who have damaged or taken the lives of others to be held accountable and made to pay for it, whether the life of one child was harmed or it was the murder of six million. This is why I haven't fully given up the idea that hell exists since a consequence for wrongdoing doesn't seem completely contradictory to a God of grace; not if the punishment leads in time to them being restored to wholeness and reconciled back into the presence of God. Even though in my flesh I want those who cause suffering to suffer, given what I know to be true about the grace of God that's been extended to me, I'm working to come to terms with the idea that even the most vile and depraved along with the most righteous and pure will all return to God. Shoulder to shoulder we will stand. Equal. Made clean.
So this is my excessively long answer to "Will I go to hell because I'm gay?"
No. You won't go to hell for being gay because being gay isn't a sin.
No. You won't got to hell because God's love and grace would never allow it. God's love will never fail you even when you wonder if you've failed God.
And for any who need this disclaimer I want you to understand that what I've written here is what I believe, not what I think you should believe. I'm just one Christian expressing my beliefs and in stating them I'm not saying this is the only way to believe. I'm only being honest to what rings most true for me as I continue to work out my own faith which in the end rests firmly in Christ and in the God who sent Him.
Ready for Part 2 ?
This article was originally posted on SisterFriends Together
Â©2010 Anita Cadonau-Huseby. All rights reserved.
Used with Permission and Much Gratitude
Anita Cadonau-Huseby was the Founder and Administrator of ChristianLesbians.com, which is no longer active. She has spent nearly 30 years in pastoral ministry.
Note from Mary: When I was first struggling with my sexuality and my faith, I found Christian Lesbians. Anitaâ€™s leadership and her delightful sense of humour made my journey easier. It was so good to know I was not the only one. I will forever be in her debt.