A saying that I have frequently used when discussing God on the internet is this:
I am convinced that God has sufficiently more grace than we credit him.
This has certainly proven true in my own life, and I suspect that even now, I don’t give him nearly enough credit for the amount of grace he has toward his creation.
When I first became a believer, I passed through what I consider to be the first stage of my understanding of grace. In this stage, His grace was good enough for me and a few folks who thought more or less like I did, but not so much for everyone else. It’s chief source text was the following:
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
In my initial zeal to follow Christ (a term I would have never used at the time, as it was too “Christian,” too “mainstream,” and too much what “they” used), I tended to classify most everyone as the outsider. The religious right couldn’t possibly be a recipient of God’s grace because of their angry language against groups they disliked, such as homosexuals. Megachurches had to be outside of God’s grace because of their opulent spending on themselves while the poor suffered. Middle-class Christians certainly couldn’t be on the right side of God’s grace because they weren’t radical enough in their pursuit of simplicity of living (in other words, they had too much stuff). Theological liberals had to be graceless because they “watered down” the scriptures to such a degree. And so on.
But fortunately, God’s grace was enough to be patient with me, a wild-eyed, judgemental new Christian. And his sense of humor was enough that he has allowed me to see through the eyes of most of the groups that I had labeled outside of his grace in the past.
And so he led me into stage two of my understanding of his grace. This is the stage in which I have found myself for most of my time as a believer. And its source text would be something like the following:
“I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.”
This passage, in all of its ambiguity, characterizes what I have come to understand God’s grace to be. The fact is, I as a human can never properly judge who is inside and who is outside the umbrella of God’s grace. It all comes down to the definition of what “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” is, doesn’t it?
So what, then, is my definition? Understanding humbly that I am probably wrong to some degree, I would say that “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” is a failure to recognize the Trinity for whom they claim to be: God, transcendent, incarnational, and indwelling. When we reject the triune God and instead make other things the gods of our life, then we risk blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
However, I am not qualified to make the judgement about who exactly may be guilty of this blasphemy and who may not. Only God can judge such things.
But it is this very understanding of grace which has turned my previous judgemental certainty on its head. In fact, I am now quite sure there will be a lot of people in heaven – homosexuals and Republicans notwithstanding, who many Christians (including my previous and current self) would have been certain would have been excluded. The sheep and the goats, indeed.
But there’s a third stage of grace which I am just beginning to touch the edges of. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to go there, but at the same time, I cannot dismiss it out of hand. It is the unquenchable, all-consuming grace that Jesus ascribes to the father again and again:
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”
The father in this parable does not wait for his son to repent. In fact, he won’t even let him speak. Instead, he graciously receives his son back and restores his place in the family without any need to jump through hoops. His love is so powerful that he cannot but spend his days looking for his son to return, and his grace is sufficient that even the grumblings of his “holy” older son cannot change his mind.
This is the question which leads me down this path: Richard Rohr, at the Politics and Spirituality conference I attended last year, asked if any of us desired the eternal torture of even our worst enemy. And if even we could not bring ourselves to that level, then how could we think that God could do the same?
Now obviously, there are some people who probably do desire to see those who have wronged them tortured eternally, but that says more about their own hearts than the heart of God. In fact, the heart of God tells us to have the opposite motive: that instead of hatred, we have love for our enemies. That instead of desiring their eternal punishment, we pray for their eternal salvation.
The heart of God loves all of his creation, good and bad. And desires to be reunited with it. And who are we to complain if God so chooses to save even the Hitlers and bin Ladens of the world? And how can we claim that he cannot do so (For that matter, who are we to complain if he chooses NOT to save them?)?
While my heart wishes to believe that the hell God is saving us from is simply what we make of our lives on this earth while we live in disobedience, and that the reason we evangelize is so that people can be freed from that hell in this lifetime without waiting for the next and go about the work of building his kingdom on earth, here and now, I recognize that Jesus spends not a small amount of time speaking of hell, sheep and goats, and the like.
It is this fundamental paradox between one part of God’s character – the infinite love which would allow his incarnate son to be killed knowing full well that those he saved would continue to disobey, and another – the righteous judge recounted throughout scripture, which I suspect will challenge me the rest of my life.
But it is this paradox which makes me all the more certain that we will all be quite surprised by the collection of scoundrels we meet in heaven, not the least of which will be ourselves.