By: Woodrow Odom Lucas
There are few doctrines that are as integral to the “world view” of most modern evangelical Christians than the doctrine of eternal damnation. According to many modern evangelicals eternal damnation is the fate that all people who do not confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior before they die will experience for an eternity. As an African-American who lives in the south, I can also state with a fair amount of certainty that although they may not have the same political leanings as most modern evangelical Christians, most African-American preachers and teachers also hold to the notion of eternal damnation as an integral dimension of a robust faith in Jesus Christ and the coming ‘Kingdom of God.’ Some Christian Universalists that I know make the claim that Eternal Damnation is not a biblically supported principal and that the bible unequivocally supports Universal Reconciliation of all to God as the scripturally sound belief system.
As an African-American I believe that I can state with some authority that the Bible is very important to African-American Christians. The reason for our emphasis on the bible is that during slavery our masters would often use the bible as a way to justify their actions toward us, but would also forbid us from reading the bible for ourselves for fear that we might become unruly if we had access to the biblical stories of liberation and the biblical themes of justice, mercy, faith, and equality. So for African-Americans the bible has been a profound source of freedom and has become a book which many of us turn to for solace and as a philosophical basis for our lives. It is out of reverence for the tradition of “the word” among African-Americans that I must disagree with my Christian Universalist brothers and sisters and assert that eternal damnation is most definitely a biblical concept which is supported throughout the New Testament. Jude 1:7, James 3:6, and 2 Peter 2:4 all either directly or indirectly support the notion of Eternal Punishment. Similarly, in the gospels that speak of Jesus, Jesus supports the notion of eternal damnation throughout those gospels. More specifically Matthew 5:22, Matthew 5:29, Matthew 5:30, Matthew 10:28, Matthew 18:9, Matthew 23:15, Matthew 23:33, Matthew 25:41, Matthew 25:46, Mark 1:47, Mark 7:45, Mark 9:3, Luke 12:5, and Luke 16:19-31 all either suggest or explicitly mention the notion of hell and eternal damnation as the penalties for the rejection Jesus’ love.
And yet, I as an African-American, assert to you that this biblically supported idea of eternal damnation is perhaps the most demonic facet of modern day Christianity and is truly an idea whose rightful rejection by all has come. From a biblical perspective, although the bible does support eternal damnation, the hope and love that the bible helps to engender in us as believers cry loudly against it. Hebrews 11:1 speaks of faith being the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. So yes, the Bible as a book may support eternal damnation, but the bible also calls us to a hope that goes beyond what is readily understandable or visible to our natural eyes and consciousness. Similarly, Jesus speaks of hell and eternal damnation more than any other biblical figure. But Jesus also claims in John 14:12 that the works that he did we shall also do and greater than those, and Jesus states in Matthew 13:52 that every teacher of the law will bring in old and new treasures from scripture. So while the readily visible and ascertainable dimensions of scripture fully support eternal damnation, the ethics of love, hope, and belief to which scripture calls us to aspire rail against the idea as the demonic deception that it is.
It is my sincere belief that the Jesus who went to the cross for me and who rose from the dead would encourage me to question any notion that perverted the character of God, even if it was a notion that he himself suggested. For did not Jesus attempt to send the Syrophoenician woman away when she asked him to heal is daughter under the precept that she wasn’t Jewish and was therefore a dog. But, then, did not Jesus say that she had great faith when she said that “even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs.” Herein this scenario the Syrophoenician woman is challenging Jesus’ worldview with a world view that requires more faith, faith being in this sense, imagination for what is possible. Jesus in this instance does not punish the woman, but rather rewards her by healing her daughter. I query, is it courageous and faithful to hold to what somebody believed in the past in a way that causes one to judge one’s human brothers and sisters as worthy of eternal torment or is it courageous and faithful to grab onto the reigns of hope that Paul in 1 Timothy 2:3-4 gives us when he says, “This is good and pleases God our Savior who wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth?” I query, does it glorify Jesus to think the worst about God and our human brothers and sisters by holding to an idea that Jesus and the early disciples held to in the midst of abject oppression and degradation or to scrutinize and examine the letter of truth that we have received with the spirit of unconditional love and hope who God has given us to help us interpret that scripture. Jesus never said, “And I will give you a bible which will comfort you and lead you into all truth.” Instead Jesus said, “I send you a living, breathing spirit who will lead you into all truth and comfort you through any adversity.” So when we read in 1 Peter 4:6 Peter avowing, “for this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit,” we are duty bound out of our allegiance to the Holy Spirit of love to say to ourselves, “Oh my goodness, this suggests that people have longer than their earthly lifetimes to believe in and receive Jesus.”
Just as Jesus was the chief cornerstone on which the mindsets of the Pharisees and the Sadducees were destined to be destroyed, so too is the Holy Spirit the chief cornerstone of this age who calls us to a higher hope and a more profound vision than the explicit exposition of scripture suggests. I query, when Paul states in 1 Timothy 4:9-10, “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially those who believe,” are we called as God’s emissaries of hope to pessimistically interpret this scripture to mean that some of the men of whom Jesus is Lord and Savior will suffer in eternal torment or that Jesus as the Savior of all will find a way for all to successfully devote themselves to God? I query, would Jesus, the man who reviled pride and vanity in all of its manifestations smile more upon us believing that we are somehow so much more special than other human beings that God would predestine us for salvation and predestine others for torment or on us realizing that every soul is of equal value to God and so God will find a way for every soul to make it? Kalen Fristad, whose pivotal sermon is on this website, aptly states that eternal damnation either makes God into a “tyrant” who would predestine some for happiness and some for torment or a “stupid weakling” who cannot find a way to realize the essence of his will for all people to intimately know him.
It is my contention that many of the horrors and cruelties in which the Christian and Catholic Churches of our history have been complicit owe their origins to the notion of eternal damnation. Consider, was it really cruel for Catholic inquisitors to torture unbelievers until they “confessed” appropriately if those same unbelievers would end up in “eternal torment” if they did not confess? Was it really wrong for John Calvin to burn a dissenter at the stake if the truth that she or he was spreading would result in the eternal punishment of many? Was it really wrong for Catholic missionaries to impose belief in Jesus and Capitalism on native inhabitants of the lands that their European kings and queens were colonizing if such imposition saved those natives from eternal suffering? Consider, any amount of limited suffering in this earthly life is virtually nothing compared to eternal torment. So is causing people to suffer in their earthly lifetimes so that they will prosper in eternity really so wrong?
Eternal damnation is a doctrine of fear which reinforces fear. So do you believe that the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete that Jesus gave us to comfort and convict us really wants us to hold onto a fearful notion when John states that “he that fears is not made perfect in love” and Paul attests that “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and soundness of mind.” The idea of eternal damnation versus Universal Salvation is truly a choice that we have before us, to hold to an “old letter” which creates a “schizophrenic” understanding of God, where God is simultaneously love and the author of other people’s torment or to aspire to a “new Spirit” the Holy Spirit of love and life who calls us to heal the broken hearted and set at liberty them that are bruised. The Holy Spirit lead the original apostles to truths that they could comprehend given the apparent darkness and evil of the times in which they existed. Our times are different. People are no longer being punished by being nailed to a wooden cross and women are no longer being raped at random. As a result, the truth that the Holy Spirit would lead us into is far brighter and more beautiful than what the original disciples received. I truly believe that it is impossible to follow the Holy Spirit through and toward all of the truth and states of being that he wants us to experience and still hold to eternal damnation throughout our lives. Eternal damnation stagnates and stunts the growth of the Christian and is something which many Christian leaders hold to out of a fear of losing their places of honor and respect among other leaders and believers. Did not Jesus say that if we are to truly please him that honor and respect need to be things that we are willing to sacrifice in our journeys toward wholeness in him?
Eternal damnation as a doctrine calls us to judge oppressive leaders as going to hell forever rather than speaking the truth in love to them about their injustice. Eternal damnation as a doctrine leads us to believe that God loves us more than others and so too leads us down the deceptive corridor of pride and vanity. Eternal damnation as a doctrine inspires us to constantly strive against others to succeed and prosper so that we have evidence of our election by God in perverse comparison to their horrific destiny. Eternal damnation as a doctrine causes us to show others love often as a part of a manipulative scheme for them to believe as we do rather than in the transparency and purity of motive to which God calls us. Eternal damnation as a doctrine reinforces the kind of absolute distrust in other religions which were the foundation for the violence of the crusades and other forms of religious violence throughout history. Eternal damnation as a doctrine by its very nature must diminish our sense of showing compassion to the stranger by creating the possibility that we will never have to see them or deal with them in the after-life.
It is time for us as Christians to stop bringing our gifts to the altar before attending to our brothers and sisters who we have wronged. It is time for us as Christians to let go of vain and prideful notions of our “preferred status” with God. It is time for us as Christians to stop hypocritically aspiring to get rich all the while believing that large segments of the poor are destined for eternal torment. It is time for us as Christians to stop imaging our fractured personalities on a schizophrenic God who inconsistently destines some for hell and others for heaven and to start operating in the joy inducing coherence to realize that God loves all equally and as a result will eventually call all to be reconciled to himself. Bottom line, it is time for us as Christians to embrace the Holy Spirit as he speaks to us and urges us to let go of this demonic doctrine for its time of judgment has surely come.