But what about HELL? This is always the first question posed when confronted with Robert W. Jenson’s understanding of the gospel as unconditional promise. If the Church is authorized to speak the Kingdom to all comers, does this not imply universal salvation? In his youthful systematics, Story and Promise, Jenson refuses to answer yay or nay:
What is the point of the traditional language about damnation? Two points only. First, damnation is not part of the gospel. The gospel is not a carrot and a stick: it is unconditional promise. Damnation is a possibility I pose to myself when I hear the gospel and instead of believing it begin to speculate about it—which we all regularly do. Therefore, this book, which tries to explain the gospel, has talked only about Fulfillment and will continue to do so. Second, damnation would be that we were finally successful in self-alienation from our own destiny. Is this a real possibility? We do not know; and we do not need to, for the gospel says to us: “Jesus’ love will find you, in spite of everything and anything.” So much, and no more about damnation—which already is rather too much. (pp. 78-79)
To understand his reasoning we must remember that for Jenson all theological reflection is grounded in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, presented to us in the gospel message. At no point do we stand outside the event of having been personally addressed by God, as if we could objectively validate or assess the gospel from a neutral philosophical position. No such neutral position exists. Jenson explains:
Theology has most often been done from the location of an observer: the theologian observes the realities “God” and “creature” and the relation between them, and tries to describe and partly explain what he sees. It may be doubted that there is any location from which to observe God; but whether there is or not, the doctrine of justification locates the theologian elsewhere. Proper Lutheran theology occurs within the event of hearing and speaking the gospel; it is the thinking involved in moving from hearing to speaking. Lutheran theology is reflection within the discourse of the church on how this discourse may be gospel and not only law. (Lutheranism, p. 64)
(Orthodox theologians may wonder whether locating theological reflection within the event of the speaking-and-hearing of the gospel in some way parallels, and even illumines, the Byzantine distinction between the divine essence and energies: we cannot know God in his essence [i.e., he is never an object that we may directly apprehend and define], but we may know him by his activities [i.e., in his acts of self-communication]. There are points of contact.)
All we know as Christians—and this is a knowing of faith—is that we have been grasped by the story of Jesus as the guarantee of our salvation. We have heard the good news and cannot get away from it. Even when we try to get away from it, even when we depart into the darkness of rebellion and sin, we keep hearing the voice of Christ: “Nevertheless … I will be your happiness and joy.” God’s decision to justify the ungodly in and by the preaching of the gospel is absolute, for it is identical to his eternal decision to be the God who dies on the Cross for the salvation of all.
But that then means … (gulp) … predestination. Absolutely right, replies Jenson. It most certainly does imply predestination—but not the predestination of the philosophers but the predestination of unconditional promise. Predestination is but the flip side of justification by faith, prophetically spoken in the active voice, with God as subject: “I have chosen you in my Son for eternal glory, and I will make good on my promise, no matter what.” Once the electing decree has been spoken to you, what choice do you have but to believe or disbelieve. Once God has told you that he has appointed you to his Kingdom, then that’s simply that. Deal with it!
A doctrine of predestination appropriate to the gospel has nothing to do with any sort of cause-effect “determinism” … and little to do with explaining why some are “saved” and some are “lost.” A proper doctrine of predestination is not a description of God’s relation to mankind in general, done from some third-person observer standpoint—so as then to say: “That man came to a good end because God picked him, those others to a bad end because God did not.” A proper doctrine of predestination is a first- and second-person doctrine: it reminds me, trying to speak gospel to you, not to take “No” for an answer; it reminds me that God chooses you and me here, despite everything. It says nothing one way or the other about some other fellows off there—until you or I turn to speak gospel to them. (Story and Promise, p. 122)
We want to think of predestination as God arbitrarily choosing some to be saved and some to be damned—a divine lottery of sorts, minus the element of chance. This has a long history in the Western theological tradition but is simply the wrong way to think about it, Jenson insists. Predestination is not an explanation of the mechanics of salvation; it’s not an explanation of anything at all: “As the reverse of the doctrine of justification, this doctrine also is instruction to gospel-speakers. It instructs us: to whoever will listen, promise fulfillment regardless of his ‘works’; say, ‘It will be yours simply because God wants it that way'” (Lutheranism, p. 159). God elects sinners in the event of the gospel, proclaimed from the final future. As the Lord himself declared through the prophet: “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).
“But that implies that I am but a mere puppet,” we respond. “What’s happened to my freedom?” But reflect a bit more on this. You are seated in the pew and the preacher declares, “In the name of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, I declare to you that God has destined you to his Kingdom.” How is your liberty compromised? In fact, is it not the case that because of this prophetic announcement you are now free for the first time in your life? The Creator of the universe has just spoken to you the most thrilling words imaginable. You are free—free for faith, free for repentance, free for joy, free for love! Here is genuine liberty, the freedom of the Spirit—the freedom to love God and neighbor unconditionally and selflessly, absent the taint of egoism, gain, and self-righteousness. All other considerations are moot:
Whether predestination means tyranny or freedom depends entirely on which God is absolute. If a Decider throned outside of time settled our destinies as one might sort potatoes, this would indeed end human freedom. But the God who is absolute is the very event in time that opens our freedom. The decision that is absolute is the decision of love. Therefore God and we do not compete to determine our lives: just because there are no conditions on his choice, we are free. We are unfree and bound because we prefer to compete with God and each other. But—says the gospel to you and me—God will not let that stop our freedom either. (Story and Promise, p. 122)
But what about hell? In asking this question we have done what we cannot and must not do: we have abstracted ourselves from the promise God has spoken to us and begun to speculate on the fate of others from the position of a neutral observer. We engage in a kind of fiction. Let’s pretend we do not know who God is. Let’s pretend we have not met Jesus Christ and have not heard his Word. Let’s pretend we have not been saved by the gospel. What is this speculation but sin? If we are concerned about the salvation of others—and we damn’d well better be—then we should be busying ourselves with evangelism. That is the task of our love. Yet still we ask, “Am I not free to reject Christ’s promise of the Kingdom?” The young Jenson refuses to answer.
Jenson returned to the question of hell and damnation in his celebrated Systematic Theology, written some twenty-five years after Story and Promise. Here he cites the contradictory testimonies within the New Testament. On the one hand, the Apostle Paul can assert that “Those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus … will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord” (II Thess 1:8-9). Jenson reads Paul’s statement as affirming an eternal perdition (unfortunately he does not discuss the semantic range of aionios) but does offer this qualifying observation: “We may also note … that Paul says this as comfort to the Thessalonican congregation—that his judgment is pronounced on third parties who when the letter is read will not be there to hear” (II:360). On the other hand, the same Apostle can declare: “Therefore just as one’s man responses led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom 5:18) and “And so all Israel will be saved. … For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom:11-26-32). “The logic of Paul’s own soteriology,” comments Jenson, “can never stop short of universal affirmations” (II:360).
He then proceeds to examine the question of damnation under two aspects—the baptized and the unbaptized. I shall focus on the former, since that is the worrisome point:
A believer’s baptism is God’s own promise of the Kingdom, sealed personally. Paul nevertheless warns the Corinthian baptized to take heed lest they “fall” [1 Cor 10:1-13]; exclusion is evidently a possibility. Yet if the promise of God cannot fail for the Israel that does not obey the gospel, as Paul also insists [Rom 11:26], how can it fail for those to whom God has addressed his baptismal promise and who in baptism have in fact obeyed the gospel? If I am baptized, should I fear exclusion? Paul apparently thinks I should, and in the referenced passage puts this fear into me. And yet were this fear to determine any part of my believing life, all would be undone. For to hear and believe the gospel and simultaneously to fear exclusion from the Kingdom is impossible. So Catholic-Reformation dialogue: having defined faith as “the giving over oneself to God and God’s word or promise,” the parties agreed, “No one can in this … sense believe, and simultaneously suppose that God in his word of promise is unreliable. In this sense Luther’s dictum holds: … faith is certainty of salvation.” (II:362)
How then do we reconcile the unconditionality of the gospel, confirmed and sealed in baptism, with the Scripture’s apparent acknowledgement of the possibility of eternal reprobation? Jenson suggests that the biblical warnings can “only be understood as addressed to believers insofar as they do not believe,” that is to say, insofar as they are involved in living their lives as if they had not been baptized. Jenson is thinking here of Romans 6:1-14: we have died to sin in baptism and have been given a new identity in Christ. Paul’s warnings of the possibility of exclusion from the Kingdom, therefore, are intended to remind his readers that they no longer belong to the old age and are dead to the allurements of the world. “That is, the threat of exclusion is made precisely to turn us away from entertaining it. So again, if am baptized, should I fear exclusion? Perhaps the confessor’s proper answer is, ‘Since you ask, No.'” Jenson concludes: “The third-person proposition, ‘It is possible for the baptized to be lost,’ can, it seems, only function as just that, a proposition about a third person not there to be addressed. It has no context in which to be actual” (II:362).
So far, Jenson’s mature view on damnation is continuous with that of his younger self. Those who have been baptized into Christ are not in a position to entertain the possibility that God will not fulfill his salvific promise. To do so is to step outside the event of gospel-communication. At the same time, and for the same reason, Jenson is unwilling to explicitly affirm apokatastasis: “with respect to the baptized, the children of Israel, and those simply outside the covenant, in each case differently, ‘Exclusion is possible’ is a true theological, that is, second-level proposition, to which, however, no first-level believing discourse corresponds. … The Church must think that damnation is possible but is not to make it an article of faith, proclaim it, or threaten it except in such fashion as to obviate the threat. What sort of truth does ‘Damnation is possible’ then have? Perhaps God does not wish us to know” (II:365).
A true second-order proposition that fails to correlate with the primary language of faith? How can it then be true? I do not find Jenson’s argument here convincing, though I respect his desire to take seriously the biblical threats of exclusion. Neither believer nor preacher can ignore these threats. Further historical exegesis may prove helpful in placing them in their proper context. We should not uncritically assume that either Jesus or the Apostles intended to teach as revealed truth a doctrine of everlasting perdition. Ultimately these texts of eschatological terror must be interpreted through a hermeneutic of Pascha. Did Christ empty hades just to create hell? Surely not. Is omnipotent Love impotent against our vaunted freedom and pride? Again, surely, surely not. If such were the case, the unconditional gospel would be nonsense and in the strongest sense incredible. Perhaps the challenge for the preacher is even greater. How does one preach the threats today in gospelwise fashion? The preacher does not need to introduce us to the torment of the outer darkness, for it exists within us as an ever-present existential reality. Sometimes we do need to be bluntly warned of the devastating consequences of our impenitence. Yet Old Testament Israel teaches us that the summons to repentance cannot ultimately save, as well evidenced by her—and the Church’s—interminable cycle of new beginnings followed by wornout endings, failure, disobedience, and betrayal. As Jenson comments: “For history conceived as repeated recreation to be good, there must finally be new beginning that leads to no decrepitude” (“The Preacher, the Text, and Certain Dogmas,” dialog 21 [Spring 1982]: 110). The coming Kingdom of the risen Christ represents precisely this new, enduring, and decisive beginning. If the gospel is true, this Kingdom is freely and unconditionally granted to us in the proclaimed Word. Here is the real challenge of evangelical preaching, to give the final future of Christ:
The promise is and is to be final…. This can be established simply by … noting that the coming of a crucified and risen one, a person with death behind him, must be an unsurpassable event, i.e., the promise in question is “eschatological.” The rule is: What does this text promise, and what may I promise, eschatologically, as the last future that Jesus and he only can bring? … The final promise is and has to be … absolute, unconditional, entirely and utterly free of “if”s or “maybe”s of any sort. The point is again tautologous; an Eschaton can be promised only unconditionally—whatever problems that may raise about the significance of the hearer’s acceptance, etc. I have not got things going until I hear from the text and can say to my hearers, “You will be …, in spite of all considerations to the contrary.” This is the distinction of gospel from law; the law is any address with an “if.” (p. 112)
A conditional gospel, which is no gospel, necessarily distills to the terrifying threat of eternal perdition: “Repent or be damned.” It’s as simple and unavoidable as that. How does the preacher threaten hell without conditionalizing the promise?
My question for my departed teacher: When the word of unconditional promise is spoken to me by the Church, is it only spoken to me? Does not the gospel itself teach me that I am a person only in relation to others? Do I exist apart from my parents, my spouse and my children, my friends, neighbors, and enemies, past and future generations? If I believe that the unconditional love and forgiveness of God intends me, as God has told me and continues to tell me that it does, then surely I may infer that it also intends all of humanity. In the words of the poet: “No man is an island / Entire of itself.” My brother exists in me and I in him. On Great Saturday the Orthodox Church sings: “Uplifted on the Cross, Thou hast uplifted with Thyself all living people; and then, descending beneath the earth, Thou raisest all that lie buried there.” We will not be saved apart from all others, the total Adam, for whom the Second Adam died and rose again. To hear the predestinating gospel spoken to me is to hear the salvation of mankind—apokatastasis! Hence as long as we indwell the gospel and feed upon the Body and Blood of the risen Christ, we must deny the possibility of the eternal loss of our brethren. To do otherwise would be to deny the promise sealed to us in Baptism and renewed in Holy Eucharist. The God who is Love will not renege on his promises. As the Apostle reminded the faithful in Corinth: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silva′nus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God” (2 Cor 1:19-20).