Pentecost XXII - November 6, 2022
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 + Psalm 98 + 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 + Luke 20:27-38
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
The Gospel today touches upon the nature and veracity of resurrection in an exchange between Jesus and a group of Sadducees – who unlike the Pharisees patently denied belief in the resurrection. The debate hinges on ancient laws found in Deuteronomy 25 governing what were called “levirate marriages,” according to which, if a man died leaving his wife childless, his brother would be required to marry her in order to vicariously continue the deceased brother’s family lineage.
From this, the Sadducees pose a hypothetical question: A woman is said to have successively married seven brothers, all of whom died before bearing her any children. “In this case, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” In response, Jesus first clarifies that in the age to come, such social constructs will not exist. No one will marry or give themselves in marriage. Thus, none of the seven brothers would be her husband in the resurrection (cf. Gen. 38:8; Dt. 25:5).
His second, and perhaps more shrewd response recalls Exodus 3, when Yahweh appears to Moses in the burning bush, declaring, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Given that these three patriarchs were long deceased at the time of Yahweh’s epiphany to Moses, Jesus observes that God’s use of the present tense: I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…not I was the God…and so on.” In other words, “Only living people can have a God, and therefore Yahweh’s promise to the patriarchs that he is and will be their God requires that he maintain them in eternal life.” (Fitzmeyer, 1306-07). Thus, Jesus concludes: “…God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Lk. 20:38).
In what manner they are alive Jesus does not say, but he does offer a clear attestation to the continuity of life beyond physical death. We know also that, whatever was meant by “resurrection” among Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, the Gospel introduces something new and far more extensive than had been known beforehand. In Christianity this is expressed in various ways – using different images and metaphors throughout the New Testament and Christian tradition.
Among them there developed a belief in the Communion of Saints, whom we honored just this past week in our observance of “All Saints Day” on November 1st. I would like then, to use this convergence of scripture and tradition to briefly reflect on a controversial debate within Christianity: That of Universal Salvation.
In 1987, the Catholic Conference of German bishops published a statement that would come to resonate with Christians the world over. They wrote:
“Neither holy scripture nor the church’s tradition of faith asserts with certainty of any person that they are actually in hell. Hell is always held before our eyes as a real possibility, [but] one [that is] connected with the offer of conversion and life.”
There is, thus, an implicit optimism often unacknowledged in our celebration of the Communion of Saints. That while the church across the centuries has canonized hundreds, indeed thousands of saints, there is by contrast no official “Canon of the Damned.” In other words, neither scripture nor tradition has ever affirmed that this or that person, no matter how heinous their crimes against humanity or otherwise, have been condemned eternally to hell. Without a doubt, one can arrange two lists of statements culled from the New Testament, which attest on the one hand to the possibility of eternal damnation, and on the other that speaks of God’s will, and capacity, to save all people – indeed all of creation. A synthesis between these two competing lists is not achievable.
But reader beware! If we have learned anything in our understanding of scripture, it is that the inscrutable will of God (and the doctrines that attempt to guide us in discerning that will) can never be achieved by simply culling lists of verses out of context. Recall the story of the man who, attempting to discern God’s will, randomly opens the Bible to the passage: “Judas went and hanged himself.” Unable to see how this had relevance for his own life, he tried again, this time turning to yet another passage, “Go ye therefore and do likewise.”
Regardless, our two competing lists – one which conceives of the possibility of damnation and the other which suggests universal salvation – speaks to a development of Jesus’ teaching on the afterlife then was known within the Judaism of his day. “Sheol” or the “abode of the dead” in Judaism represented a singular fate for all people: neither bliss nor joy, neither suffering nor torment. Sheol was understood, more or less, as a shadowy existence, a dream-like malaise, in which one dwelled as little more than a faded and fading memory. Whether or not some might be resurrected from Sheol in the future was a point of great contention among the various sects of Judaism.
In contrast with this singular, rather nondescript, fate to which all are destined in Sheol, Jesus introduces a new and hope-filled prospect of heaven as an eternal “abiding with God.” Yet with such a hopeful intensification, there simultaneously arises an equal but opposite prospect: the terrifying loss of heaven, as it were, where one would instead suffer the eternal deprivation of God – a state of being for which Jesus drew upon traditional terms like “Gehenna” – or what we have come to think of as “hell.”
To be sure, whatever the fate of humanity, Jesus is clear (as is Paul after him) that Resurrection signals an afterlife that is not merely the destiny of disembodied spirits, but, one which is not and could never be ultimately divorced from the whole of the created material universe. The implication is that in Christ we are not saved from the world, but rather it is the world (Greek: “kosmos”) that is being saved.
In other words, Christian hope in the afterlife cannot be fully appreciated on the level of individual salvation, but must be understood in a Christian context as one that involves the whole of humanity and all of creation. As the Jesuit cardinal, Jean Daniélou observed:
Too often we think of hope in too individualistic a manner as merely our personal salvation. But hope essentially bears on the great actions of God concerning the whole of creation. It bears on the destiny of all humanity. It is the salvation of the world that we await. In reality hope bears on the salvation of all people – and it is only in the measure that I am immersed in them that it bears on me. [Essai sur le Mystère de l’histoire (1953), 340, in von Balthasar, Dare We Hope, 132].
In short, “none of us are saved until we are all saved,” or put otherwise, the hope for my own salvation is inextricably bound to yours. How, for example, could I enjoy eternal bliss in God all the while knowing that same God has imposed upon one of you, my beloved flock, the curse of eternal damnation and suffering?
How is it possible that my own heart, full of compassion for you, and desiring your salvation, could ever be greater than the love and compassion of a God who would consign you to the everlasting fires of hell? And what crime would you have had to commit in the course of some 80 or 90 years to warrant an eternity of punishment?
Thus, as Hans Urs von Balthasar points out, those scriptural texts that we might be tempted to list in that column which seems to affirm the possibility of damnation, do so not as “preview of something which will exist someday” but rather, “a disclosure of the situation in which the persons addressed or actually to be found.” In other words, “they are placed before a decision of which the consequences are irrevocable” (von Balthasar, 20). In other words, a careful reading of those New Testament texts that hold out the possibility of damnation invariably present it as an option, a choice, made by us, not a fate imposed by God.
Paired that with the abundance of texts from the New Testament which insist that God wills the salvation of all (1 Tim 2:1), or that Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim 2:4-5), or that we have our hope set on the living God who is savior of all (again, 1 Tim 4:10), or that “the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all” (Titus 2:11) and yet again to affirm that in Christ “reconciled to himself all things weather on earth or in heaven (Col. 1:20), since “God united all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). Or that through the Cross in Resurrection “Christ became Lord of both the living and the dead” (Romans 14:7-9), who is the Alpha and the Omega…the first and the last…and the living one…Who holds the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 22:13; 1: 18). Moreover, we are assured, that God does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9); a repentance about which we are assured, “Where sin did abound grace did abound all the more” (Romans 5:12–20).
Indeed, any New Testament indications about a two-sided judgment, or the possibilities of two different fates (the saved and the damned), is always met with a surpassing love, compassion, and grace of God which rises to an unfailing “all the more,” and “above and beyond…” expressed for example yet again in John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. And still again in John 16:33: “be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (von Balthasar, 27).
And such scriptural attestations go on and on, to say nothing of what the greatest theological minds in Christian history have asserted, what our liturgical rites have come to express, and what tradition itself ultimately affirms: the possibility of Hell remains the greatest of improbabilities because it is based not on a condemnation from God, but on a choice made by humans whose radical freedom God will not deny us. Indeed, many theologians have convincingly argued that such a thing as “Hell” could never be a creation of God, and if it were to exist at all, could only be a creation of our own making. A state of mind born of a perpetual refusal to love God whose love for us remains infinite, unfailing, and unwavering.
That is, if there were such a thing as hell, created by the choice made by even one human being through a radical and unwavering rejection of God’s love, then the existence of such a place (or better of such a state of being) could never be for God an experience of triumphal vindication in which God would relish in a well-deserved fate of the wayward sinner. No, such a creation of hell, even by one lost sheep of Christ fold, could only and forever be a source of infinite divine pain, indeed of suffering (cf. Gustave Martlet, S.J., L’au-delà retrouvé: Christologie des fins dernières, Desclée, 1974: 181-91, in Has Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope?, 37-38, 10n.].
C.S. Lewis speaks of it this way, “Every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell.” [C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, NY: Macmillan, 1946), 69]. Or again, Benedict XVI, observed, “Christ inflicts pure [condemnation] on no one. In himself he is sheer salvation… [condemnation] is not imposed by him, but comes to be wherever a person distances themselves from Christ. It comes about whenever someone remains enclosed within themselves.” [cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1988), 206-06].
Sisters and brothers, read carefully and contextually the scriptural texts that might seem out of context to speak of damnation. There is nowhere talk of “eternal rejection” but the warnings “if” and “unless” are littered throughout. And it cannot be otherwise: To insist on universal salvation as a foregone conclusion unavoidably denies humanity one of our greatest of divine gifts: free will.
But be at peace. We have as much chance of thwarting the divine will than I have at beating Serena Williams at tennis. Indeed, the abundance of Scriptural attestations to the overwhelming love of God and the corresponding divine intention that all will be saved, must certainly assure us of its inevitability.
+ Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Joseph Fitzmeyer. The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1985.
Has Urs von Balthasar. Dare We Hope: That All Men Be Saved?” San Francisco: Ignatius Press,  2014.