Relentless Love in the Afterlife

July 2nd, 2018 / 13 Comments

In the book I’m currently writing, I address the question of heaven, hell, annihilation, and the afterlife. I take the logic of uncontrolling love to its eschatological end. And this process has led me to coin a label for my view, Relentless Love.

The Usual Afterlife Theories

The logic of uncontrolling love changes the way we think about the afterlife. If God’s self-giving, others-empowering love is necessarily uncontrolling and can’t control anyone or anything, what we do now and after we die makes an ultimate difference.

The view of God most people seem to have — what I call “the conventional view” — not only assumes what we do now is unnecessary for God’s purposes, it also assumes what we do after death is unnecessary. The typical scenarios say or imply God alone can decide our destiny.

Heaven and Hell

The most common afterlife scenario says God will decide some must go to heaven and others to hell. A person’s sin may influence that decision. Whether a person “accepted Jesus” or was faithful in some religion may influence it. How a person treated the last and the least on earth may affect what God decides. But nothing we do is essential. It’s up to God. The God with controlling power can do whatever he wants.

The heaven or hell scenario assumes God alone predetermined the criteria used to decide our destinies. God set up the rules, decides whom to punish or reward, and assures judgment is executed. The One who set up the rules can change them at any time, because God is the sole lawmaker, judge, and implementer.

This God answers to nothing and no one.

Universalism

The second scenario says God accepts everyone into heaven. Often called “universalism,” this view says a truly loving God wouldn’t condemn anyone to eternal torment. The punishment of everlasting agony doesn’t fit the crimes of 80 years (more or less) of earthly sin. Besides, a loving God forgives.

This scenario assumes its God’s prerogative to put everyone in heaven. And because God can control anyone at any time, heaven is ensured for all. But this also means that what we’ve done – good or bad – doesn’t ultimately matter. Our choices now don’t matter then to the God who, by absolute fiat, will decide to place us in heaven.

This God answers to nothing and no one.

Annihilation

The third afterlife scenario agrees that a loving God would not send anyone to eternal torment. But God destroys the unrepentant. God either annihilates them in a display of omnipotence or passively by not sustaining their existence. God causes or allows death God could singlehandedly prevent.

Both active and passive destruction extinguish the unrepentant. They disappear. A controlling God retains ultimate say over whether anyone continues existing. If sinners wanted to repent, it’s too late. God set up the rules and follows through with them.

This God answers to nothing and no one.

The Lawmaker, Judge, and Jury of One

In these afterlife scenarios, our actions don’t ultimately matter. They may tilt God’s decision one way or another, but they don’t have to. The Judge with the ability to control can singlehandedly save us, condemn us, or annihilate us.

All three scenarios assume God set up afterlife’s judicial system. Whether judgment involves heaven and hell, heaven only, or annihilation, God predetermined the rules. A God who singlehandedly decides the rules retains the ability to change them. It’s up to the Lawmaker, Judge, and Jury of One.

The God who answers to nothing and no one can alone decide our fates.

Relentless Love

There’s a better way to think about the afterlife. It builds upon the radical belief God needs our cooperation for love to flourish. It endorses our deep-seated intuition that our choices matter. And it says God’s love for everyone continues beyond the grave.

The better alternative agrees with other scenarios that our hope for true happiness now and later has God as its ultimate source. It disagrees, however, with scenarios that assume God alone can decide our fate. It says God always loves and seeks our love responses. When we and others cooperate, we enjoy well-being. When we do not, we suffer.

Let’s call this the “relentless love” view of the afterlife.

Rob Bell and Love Wins

The relentless love view follows the logic of uncontrolling love. To get at the details, let’s compare it to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. (Click for a full review of Rob’s book.)

Much of Love Wins addresses hell. The book raises to awareness among the general public what biblical scholars have known for centuries: the Bible provides little to no support for the view that hell is a place of everlasting torment. The traditional idea of hell doesn’t mesh well with Scripture.

Rob believes in a type of hell, however. “We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell,” he says. To refuse God’s love “moves us away from it… and that will, by very definition, be an increasingly unloving, hellish reality.”

I agree with Rob. What he calls “hell,” I call the natural negative consequences of choosing not to cooperate with God’s love.

Our Beliefs about God’s Love

The most important point in Love Wins is that our beliefs about God should shape our beliefs about what happens after death. We make the best sense of reality if we believe God’s nature is love. A loving God would not send anyone to everlasting torment. God always loves everyone and all creation. Rob and I agree on that too.

In my view, God doesn’t send anyone to hell singlehandedly. God can’t. The God whose nature is uncontrolling love also can’t force anyone into heaven. Such force requires control, and God’s love is uncontrolling. As far as I can tell, Rob doesn’t make this claim.

Love Wins isn’t clear about what it means to say, “love wins.” Does “winning” mean God never stops loving? Or does it also mean God’s love eventually persuades all to cooperate? And if God’s love persuades all, is this a guarantee or hope?

The Guarantees of Love

The relentless love view of the afterlife guarantees that love wins in several ways.

First, the God whose nature is uncontrolling love will never stop loving us. Because love comes first, God cannot stop loving us. Conventional theologies say God may or may not love us now. They say God may or may not love us after we die. God could choose to torture or kill. It’s hard to imagine any loving being sending others to hell or annihilating.

1.  It’s guaranteed the God of relentless love works for our well-being in the afterlife. Love wins.

The second guarantee relentless love offers is that those in the afterlife who say “Yes” to God’s love experience heavenly bliss. They enjoy abundant life in either a different (spiritual) body or as a bodiless soul. (I address these two views in chapter four of the book.) Those who say “Yes!” to God’s love are guaranteed life eternal.

2. It’s guaranteed those who cooperate with God’s relentless love enjoy eternal bliss. Love wins.

The third guarantee is that God never stops inviting, calling, and encouraging us to love in the afterlife. Although some may resist, God never throws in the towel. There are natural negative consequences that come from refusing love in this life and the next. But these consequences are self-imposed not divinely inflicted. God never gives up and never sends some to hell or annihilates.

3. It’s guaranteed God always offers eternal life and never annihilates or condemns to hell. Love wins.

As we consistently say “Yes” to God, we develop loving characters. The habits of love shape us into loving people. While God’s love always provides choices, those who develop loving characters through consistent positive responses grow less and less likely to choose unloving options. This may happen quickly or take more time. But when we taste and see that love is good, and as love builds our spiritual bodies, we’re less likely to lust for junk food! Beyond the grave, this love diet rehabilitates. We’re guaranteed to become new creations when we cooperate with love!

4. It’s guaranteed consistent cooperation with God’s relentless love builds loving characters in us. Love wins.

The relentless love view cannot make one guarantee, however. It cannot guarantee that every creature and all creation cooperate with God’s love, but love is like that. It does not force its own way (1 Cor. 13:5). Love cannot coerce. Love is always uncontrolling.

Because God’s love is relentless, however, we have good reason to hope all creatures eventually cooperate with God. It’s reasonable to think the God who never gives up and whose love is universal will eventually convince all creatures and redeem all creation. After all, love always hopes and never gives up (1 Cor. 13:7)!

Divine Love Sets the Rules

We earlier noted that conventional views assume God alone sets up the rules of final judgment. The conventional scenarios say God answers to nothing and no one. God freely sets up the rules, judges, and then implements the consequences. God alone decides all.

Things are different for relentless love. God didn’t singlehandedly set the rules of judgment long ago. In this view, God’s loving ways are expressions of God’s loving nature. The lawmaker, judge, and implementer of consequences is bound by the logic of divine love. Because God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13), God expresses uncontrolling love now and in the afterlife.

God answers to God’s own nature of love.

Conclusion

In sum, bliss beyond the grave rests primarily, but not exclusively, in the relentless love of God. God continues to give freedom and seek cooperation. The relentless love view provides various guarantees. And what we do in response to God’s love matters now and in the afterlife.

Love wins!

What we do in response to God’s love matters now and in the afterlife. Click To Tweet
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Comments

Todd Holden

Tom I agree God allows our choice because coercive love isn’t truly love at all.
I wondered though about something as I read. “He has always been! It is His hand that holds everything together.”
Colossians 1:17
I wonder if we choose to be apart/separated from God in eternity could this mean that may cease to exist, by our own choice? I know in our life here when we separate ourselves from God our lives are chaotic not holding together at all. Just a thought.


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Todd. Good thoughts! I”m open to the possibility of self-annihilation. I just don’t think God annihilates. I also don’t take “separation” literally; I think of it as a wrong relationship not absence of relationship.


Hans Deventer

Ah. That is helpful. Because eternal life = knowing God. And it is a gift. As I understand the Scriptures, eternal life (in quality and as in a time concept) depends on the relationship with God. Rejecting that relationship is, as I understand it, ultimately a choice for death since it refuses the one thing that gives and sustains life: our relationship with a loving God. I agree and I don’t think God annihilates either. But if we refuse the Source of Life Himself, love will allow us the option for self annihilation. Love wins in that sense that it still will not force us and like the Father of the Prodigal Son, even at great personal cost will allow him to follow his choice.


James Goetz

Hi Tom, I appreciate your analysis in this post. However, I am a universalist who believes that God’s relentless love and God’s inability to control anyone at any time will eventually result in God persuading every free will creature to reconcile with God. So I am a universalist who does not believe that “God can control anyone at any time.” Pax, Jim


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Jim. My view is like yours, insofar as universal salvation is my realistic hope. But because God cannot control, I don’t think universalism is a guarantee.


Patti Dikes

Thought provoking, Tom. One view I heard from a process theologian at CGU was that we join God’s memory in the afterlife. If memory serves, he mentioned how, rather than going to a physical place of hell, we experience the consequences of both the times we chose the divine aim and when we didn’t, experiencing the joy and pain we caused, before joining in God’s memory. In the CGU theologian’s view, we become one with God’s memory, joining in the memories of all creation. I would be interested in hearing your reaction to this view . It made me think a little about Wesleyan talk of a partaking of the divine in this life and a continuation of theosis or the becoming one with the divine in the afterlife. Thanks.


Jill

Probably my biggest struggle as a Christian was the Hell doctrine. I am in the midst of rebuilding a faith of bits and pieces and making sense of this, among other things, is key. My beliefs are about as light as air right now, but the thought I am moving toward in this realm is that God is all supreme and needs not answer to anyone or anything and could do all those horrible and wonderful things, but in his great love God chooses to suppress that ability and gives us real free will because uncoerced love is the only love. God doesn’t need our love, but wants it. To me a want is deeper connection than a need. A want feels special, a need almost duty. Mostly I agree with you and it’s more just semantics, I suppose. Just a thought.

My friends, some of your former students at Eastern Nazarene, told me about you a while back and I was so happy to see this blog here! I’ll be perusing the content for sure!


thomasjayoord

Thanks for the response, Jill, and for sharing part of your story!


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Patti. That sounds like what many call “objective immortality,” where by we continue to influence God’s memory. I like that, but I also affirm subjective immortality, which says we also continue experiencing after our bodies die.


Zach Snyder

As a universalist, I readily affirm most of what you write here, but (like Jim) I don’t agree with the potential outcome that some may choose to eternally resist God’s love. I believe there is a guarantee of eventual universal reconciliation.

To explain this, I propose a distinction between the exceptionally problematic idea of God’s love being coercive and an alternative idea that his love is irresistible (just not in the calvinist sense of the word). I would argue that it can be one without being the other. As a metaphor for this, I picture a good meal—when I’m hungry, it will eventually be irresistible to me, but the only thing that is in its nature to do is to “wait” for me to pick up my fork and dig in. My desire for it will grow and even become overwhelming, but I am not coerced at any point.

When we assign the quality of “irresistible” to God’s love, we are actually conveying that it is the object of our hunger and it is in our nature to act to give in because nothing else can satisfy us. When we think of God as coercive, on the other hand, we are saying he is choosing to act and intervene irrespective of our choices. In other words, describing his love as irresistible is saying something about my nature (hungry and in need) while any coerciveness would be saying something about his nature (forceful and ultimately incompatible with the rest of his character).

I ramble through all that to get to this idea: the fact that the relentless love of God does not impose itself on us will be the primary quality that will make it eventually irresistible to us. In this way, it will stand in stark contrast to all the incomplete and violent false loves we have forced on us throughout our lives. When faced with the increasingly inescapable truth that only one thing will ultimately fill us, we will not have to be forced to come to the feast.


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Zach. I share the same hope that you have. But I can’t say universal reconciliation is guaranteed.


Ewan Stilwell

Tom, I found your book (The Uncontrolling love of God) very stimulating and I am strongly attracted to your point of view. Reading this post, I wonder about how you see “the new heavens and new earth”/”apokatastasis” coming about without coercion?
And when can we expect this latest book?
Thanks for sharing your work.


thomasjayoord

Thanks for your kind note, Ewan. As to your question, I do think the new heaven and earth can come without coercion. One of the key ideas I’m developing is the notion of top-down causation, as humans act in ways that benefit creation. Such benefit isn’t coercion, but the influence can be effective in transformation of nonhuman existence. It fits what I think the Apostle Paul is saying when he speaks of creation “groaning” as it awaits the loving human activity.


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