Oscar Wilde wrote, “In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures.” It’s a common aspect of the human journey, inside and outside of religion, that we seek things that endure. Within religion, the afterlife is often seen as the enduring hope.
Grand Rapids pastor Rob Bell has caused a stir with his new book Love Wins. He begins the book by hinting that there is no hell and goes on to outline a Christian universalist perspective that everyone is saved by the sacrifice of Jesus and ends up in heaven, no matter what it turns out that heaven is. Of course it’s not a new theory, but it’s significant that a prominent evangelical pastor has gone on record and landed the lead story in this week’s Time magazine. Even though I came to this perspective many years ago, and have now gone much further than universalism, I am encouraged by the development. Kudos to Rob for helping to expose large numbers of people to a more expansive belief about God and the afterlife. Religion is on the move.
In this article I will outline the general development of individuals and groups in relation to the afterlife. When you position beliefs along a spectrum it is easier to celebrate that people are exactly where they need to be on questions of life, death and meaning. While beliefs change and people evolve along these stages of development, there is something that endures through it all. I will attempt to describe this constant. As long as we give people the space and right to evolve in their own pace and manner, people can function in a healthy way with their current beliefs.
The basic movement is from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric to Kosmocentric. In relation to the afterlife, an egocentric view would be typical for a young child who believes that their pets and grandparents are waiting in heaven to meet them. It’s a coping mechanism to deal with grief and the concrete issues of being and non being. It’s an appropriately small worldview that enables kids to develop a healthy sense of self. The ethnocentric view of the afterlife is where the vast majority of adults find their comfort, and almost all religious teaches is based on an ethnocentric view. This is the expectation that you will end up in heaven with your peeps, your tribe, and those who are not in the tribe won’t make the cut. In both the egocentric and ethnocentric views, the afterlife is conceived of literally where heaven and hell are physical places. Divine justice demands the existence of an actual hell for an actual punishment.
Universalism, as Rob Bell is now teaching, stretches from an ethnocentric to a worldcentric view. It brings all people together, albeit under a Christian banner. The focus shifts from a literal heaven and hell to an open ended trust in something beyond life that includes all people. The reason that someone like Rob might be able to help a large number of people expand their perspective is because he is still using much of the familiar language of his tradition, such as belief in God and faith in Jesus. He could potentially expose millions of people to a worldcentric perspective and some of these people would likely adopt this expansive worldview. The benefit to the planet in terms of people working together could be enormous. However it won’t be without its pitfalls.
It’s going to be fascinating to watch this unfold, as he will inevitably continue on the path of deconstructing many other doctrines of his tradition. His critics are right to suggest that he is now on a slippery slope. When you open Pandora’s Box, you have little idea of the many questions that follow on from questioning the existence of hell. With this universal perspective there is no longer an inside and outside group, no saved and unsaved people. There is no doctrinal marker for membership in a church or faith. There is no significant or ultimate difference between the religions. Jesus becomes a great teacher and leader, but not the sacrificial lamb for anyone’s sins. There is no carrot for the church to hold over its flock to ensure membership and regular tithing. The Bible is opened to all sorts of questions and revisions to the point where the very authority of the Bible becomes ambiguous. At an extreme some would say there is no hope, no meaning in life and no sense of justice, without a salvation system that involves heaven and hell.
I became a universalist many years ago. It makes no sense to me to believe that some people suffer eternally in hell. I decided a long time ago that whatever heaven is, if there is any such thing, it has to include all people. Any justification for excluding people from heaven is arbitrary and self serving. But now I find myself going a lot further than universalism. First up, it seems that basing universalism in Christianity is limiting. Christianity has its own language to describe universalism, such as “salvation for all”, but there are many other cultural expressions of universalism.
Beyond language, I now find that my circle of concern and compassion stretches well beyond human life. I no longer believe that people have a privileged place in the universe. We have greater responsibility because we have become conscious of our ability to make choices that impact the whole universe, but the only privilege we have is the privilege to care beyond our comfort zone. Once your consciousness expands to include all species, past, present and future, the notion of universalism becomes too small to hold your love. Whatever heaven is, if there is any such thing, it must surely include all living things. Heaven becomes a catch word for Kosmic consciousness.
The second reason that universalism is not an adequate worldview is that it implies that salvation, or the fulfillment of life, is a future reality. I see no reason to wait. Heaven is realized in each moment that your awareness is pure and at peace with what is. Heaven is now, the glimpses of perfect peace that we gain when we live in harmony with all of life.
Heaven is a state of mind that we can create in the here and now when we live mindfully. Those of us who have ventured beyond a human focused universalism and religious literalism know that at the bottom of this slippery slope you can either crash and burn or you can gather momentum for a run back up the hill of reconstruction where your beliefs are more inclusive, more focused on THIS life and more self aware and responsible than ever. You experience both the anxiety and joy of giving up beliefs that used to give you comfort, and ski free style up and down the hills of life. On the other side of the deconstruction of literalism there is enormous hope and meaning. Without the fear of hell, and the need to protect an ideology, you can live freely and expansively while appreciating each stage of growth.
One of the things that unites many people is the vision to make the world a more humane place. We want to make sure the world is in reasonable shape for the next generations. One of the best ways to take care of the next generation is to take care of the place that will take care of the next generation. There is a passion to get the house in order, leave the world a little better than we found it, and make sure there’s a solid basis for the next generation to work with. In short, you create heaven on earth. As you do, you catch glimpses of a state that endures in every day moments.
There is a fascinating passage in Romans 8 that speaks to the relationship between the present and the future and offers some beautiful language for faith development. This version is taken from The Message.
That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.
All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy. Romans 8-18-25
Once you sift through some of the archaic language, the passage is saying some profound things about evolution. Development only happens when people are ready. You can’t force it. There is a connection between what is now and what is to come. It is an enlarging process, also described as transcend and include. It is in this overlap between the present and the future that new states of consciousness are birthed. You can’t see it. You can only see that you are becoming larger in your perspective, and bringing to birth something new from the inside out. The constant that endures through all the changes of life is consciousness itself. You have the ability to choose your perspective. The more your perspective is made conscious, the more it will become part of you.
I guess it’s no accident that Rob Bell’s book was released so close to Easter. Easter is one of those times that brings up many mixed emotions for people on the slippery slope of deconstruction and reconstruction. An inclusive view of Easter is to see it as a symbol of renewed hope. You don’t need to look to heaven and hell for your salvation and you don’t need to wait. Salvation is yours for the taking right now. You find it within as you rise about self defeating thoughts, forgive your past and turn your mistakes into gold. There is no one correct path to follow, but there are discernible patterns to the evolution. In this perspective there is no need for guilt or shame. You “find your direction magnetically”, as Eddie Vedder says in his song Rise. You feel your way forward, knowing that there is always more to come and there is always more to learn. The one thing that endures while all else changes is the inner peace that you already have all that makes life whole.