Predestination, Hell, and Eternal Life
My recent book, The Nature of Love, concludes with comments about what theologians call “eschatology.” The eschatology I offer coheres with my Essential Kenosis theology, which I propose in the book’s last chapter.
Essential Kenosis theology calls us to place our hope for victory in God’s steadfast love. The Psalmist said, “The Lord delights in those…who put their hope in his unfailing love” (Ps. 147:11). The God who love us all is at work in the world, and God calls us to participate in that work.
Not only does the apostle Paul say, “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom. 8:28). Paul also implores us to “work out our own salvation” (Phil. 2:12). Both verses say that God empowers and inspires us to seek God’s good purposes (ends).
Earlier in his letter to the Church in Rome, Paul says something profound about placing our hope in God’s love to overcome suffering. After acknowledging the suffering we face, Paul says “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” (Rom. 5:3b-5a).
The eschatological visions of many theologies would lead one to expect that the hope Paul mentions amounts to a guaranteed victory. However, Paul continues in that sentence by saying the purpose of hope is love! “And hope does not disappoint us,” he say, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5).
Essential Kenosis theology affirms Christian hope rests ultimately in the steadfast, kenotic, and noncoercive love of God. This hope has at least three dimensions. Our hope is God’s loving reign in this life, in the afterlife, and in the fulfillment of all things. Hope, in all of these dimensions, plays a crucial role in the Christian witness and well-placed confidence to live lives of love.
Eschatology and Eternal Life
Many Christians think of salvation as only pertaining to life after death. However, “eternal life” is a quality of salvific life that can begin now (Jn. 3:16). The “abundant life” that Jesus came to give can be enjoyed in this world (Jn. 10:10). The good life is possible, at least to some degree, in our present personal and social experience.
We should most often interpret the biblical phrase “eternal life” as referring to quality of life we can begin enjoying now rather than an infinitely extended quantity of life beyond death. The “eternal life” of John 3:16 is the new creation and abundant life Jesus presently provides and is also ours after death. For Paul tells us that in Christ we are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). In his book, Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright writes well about the importance of eternal life in the present.
God’s kenotic love—not coercive power—also provides hope for a heavenly existence after death. Essential Kenosis theology agrees with Paul when he says “if for this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19-20). The resurrection of Jesus Christ testifies to us that through love, God subjects death and the enemies of life. And this resurrection is our best reason to expect a resurrected life beyond our present existence.
Participatory eschatology governed by God’s kenotic love, differs from eschatologies that presuppose God has or can coerce in determining the eternal destiny of God’s creatures. It differs from eschatologies that claim God’s subjecting of enemies occurs only when God forsakes persuasive love and resorts to coercion.
In the name of love, Christians have largely rejected the view that God coercively predestines some to heaven and others to hell. Predestination presupposes a view of divine sovereignty incompatible with the view that a loving God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures. It is incompatible with the view that creatures freely respond well or poorly to God, and these responses play a role in our immediate and eternal destinies.
Instead of interpreting the few biblical passages that mention predestination as referring to God selecting some individuals for salvation and others for damnation, Essential Kenosis theology follows the typically Wesleyan interpretation of these passages. What has been pre-determined is the characteristics of the category of people who choose to respond to God’s love. We each can choose freely whether we will belong to the group of people who love or the group who does not.
Ultimately, the way predestination is typically interpreted makes God’s love arbitrary. Typical (and, I think, nonbiblical) views of predesintation consider God’s freedom to control more important than God’s love for all. A predestining God does not love steadfastly, because this God arbitrarily chooses some for salvation and others for damnation.
Universalism and Hell
Ironically, those who in the name of love affirm a universalism — based on the idea that God soveriegnly sends all to heaven — also presuppose that God exerts coercive power. Their view of God’s power is essentially the same as the predestinarian one. The God capable of controlling others entirely can unilaterally determine people to either heaven or hell.
The God who exercises all-controlling power to guarantee an all-victorious end-game scenario, however, is not a God who consistently enables creatures to choose freely. An essentially kenotic God neither predestines some to heaven and others to hell. But this God also does not unilaterally guarantee that all will be redeemed. God’s love neither predestines nor coerces creatures to either afterlife fate.
Essential Kenosis theology affirms the basic biblical view that our actions have consequences. On the one hand, our proper responses to God mean that we can be a blessing (1 Pet. 3:9). Proper responses promote overall well-being. On the other hand, the wages of our sin is death (Rm. 6:23).
While biblical writers mention hell infrequently compared with other theological subjects, Christians have largely affirmed some form of negative consequences for sin. What hell looks like, if it has a location, who experiences it—these are topics with widely divergent answers. The Bible provides clues to help formulate plausible answers without offering many specific details.
We should affirm the experience of hell, both as possibility in this life and the afterlife. We best describe hell as experiencing the negative consequences of choosing other than the loving best to which God calls. Hell does not mean, strictly speaking, separation from God. An omnipresent God never separates entirely from relational experience with others. Instead, hell is the opposite of what love promotes.
An eschatology whose God necessarily loves by giving freedom/agency to others affirms that God continues to love creatures in the afterlife. Even then, free creatures can freely choose to respond inappropriately to the God who calls them to live abundant life. Even then, creatures can choose hell.
Creatures who respond inappropriately to a loving God endure the negative consequences that come from choosing less than the loving best to which God calls. Failing to love—in both this life and the next—is to experience torment and gnashing teeth. Responding in love to the God who makes love possible is to experience a taste of heaven in this life and the fullness of heaven’s joy in the next.
Realistic Christian Hope
Essential Kenosis theology provides a conceptual framework for realistic Christian hope. Essential Kenosis affirms the hope of a final victory for all things at the end of history. It provides a basis for all creation to “be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rm. 8:21). God’s almighty and unwavering love is the basis for such hope.
Essential Kenosis theology does not guarantee a final victory through coercion, however, because God cannot coerce. But participatory eschatology also does not present God as weak, uninvolved, or inactive. God’s love and power combine as the most commanding force in the universe—past, present, and future.
The God whose very nature includes necessary love for the world—chesed—is a God who never gives up. The God who is almighty – the mightiest of all and exerting might upon all – is a God with immeasurable resources and authority.
In kenotic and noncoercive love, God gives to others and seeks their loving cooperative response. As creatures participate with God and appropriately respond to the call of love God gives, the loving reign of the Living Lord comes in fullness.
In this participatory eschatology, our hope is in God and our purpose—end—is to respond well to God’s call to promote overall well-being. Our hope is that God will ultimately win. With the Apostle Paul, “we hope for what we do not see.” Those who work with God and live in love “are called according to his purpose [end]” (Rom. 8:25, 28).
Ultimately, God’s powerful love is our hope — in this life and the next.