My brother recently died. He had ALS. No matter how prepared you might think you are for death, it is always a shock to the system. I was sharing this with some friends and one of them asked, "Was he saved?" "Of course he was," I replied. Of course, that is not as simple an answer as it might appear.
You see, my brother was not a particularly religious man. He thought I was naive about how the world worked, that science was more predictable, more reliable than God.
But I still believe he was “saved." My belief is at the heart of what I think is a core teaching of Christianity, but one that is often misunderstood, or, at worst, misinterpreted.
Some will say, "Hold on a minute. We've been saying some people will be going to hell for a long time. Are you saying all people have been saved?" My short answer is, "Yes. I believe Jesus saved all creation."
Jesus' redemptive work is not selective. Jesus didn't die on the cross thinking, "I sure hope this works at least for some." To the contrary, God's redemptive work in Jesus was for all. If is wasn't for all, and remember Jesus was asking God to forgive even those who were pounding the nails into his hands, if redemption isn't for all then what kind of redemption is it? I think sometimes we Christians can become a little too smug when it comes to deciding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. What does the Bible mean by hell anyway?
Several words are used to describe the nether world or underworld. The first two are the Greek Hades or the Hebrew Sheol. Hades is the Greco-Roman God of the underworld, the guardian of the gates that kept everyone wicked and good in a kind of shadowy existence. Another word is Gehenna. Gehenna means "valley of Hinnom," a ravine that ran along the west and south of Jerusalem. Originally a place of human sacrifice to Baal an Molech it became the trash dump, a place that was perpetually on fire, smokey and dark. When Jesus says we could wind up in "hell" or more accurately "Gehenna" he is saying we could wind up on the trash heap.
The English word Hell comes from the Teutonic word Hel, the name of the goddess of the infernal regions. The "Outer Darkness" is another term used in scripture to describe a place that is opposite of Eden or Paradise.
So, do people go to hell? Perhaps. Does that negate the reality that God has redeemed the whole world. I would say definitely not.
In the end I believe Jesus came to save us all, not by making us more spiritual, but by showing us how to be more human. Our sinfulness is expressed through our non-humanness or inhumanity, and so we are invited to make choices in living that restore our humanity for that is who God created us to be: Human. Being humane transcends any particular religion. In fact, all religions at their core teach us to be humane.
I believe that to the extent we live lives that are humane, that is fully human, that is how we will experience the fullness of God's reign when it is completed. To the extent that we, despite all of the examples, teachings, invitations and exhortations continue to be violent, abusive, exclusive, judgmental, hypocritical, racist, sexist, self-righteous, that is, to be inhumane, it seems to me we will enter into God's reign as well, but we might not be human anymore.
Now that would be hell.