Ward and Lewis on post-mortem repentance and the possibility of universal redemption
…it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel to suppose that, though violence is prohibited in this age, it will be perfectly acceptable in the age to come. The German writer Friedrich Nietzsche called this resentissement, the desire for delayed revenge, the belief that we might have to suffer persecution now, but God will take revenge in the end. The true Christian perception is that the cross of Christ is God’s last word on violence. The divine love will never turn into divine hatred. It will go as far as possible to bring people to divine life, and it will always seek the welfare of every sentient being. And that is the last word.
–Keith Ward, Re-thinking Christianity, pp. 41-42
Interestingly, Ward doesn’t think this rules out the idea of hell, at least in a qualified sense. He says that God cannot force people to embrace the path of love against their will. “[I]t is possible for rational creatures to exclude themselves from love, and therefore from the divine life” (p. 42). As a result, people might find themselves, after death, in a hell of their own making where they experience the consequences of the choices they have made. Nevertheless, he believes that the divine love remains insistent in trying to draw people into repentance, and that such repentance is possible even in hell. “A God of unlimited love would go to any lengths to persuade them to return to the path of eternal life, and to help them on that path” (p. 42).
This sounds similar to the view of hell sketched by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce–people are in hell because they won’t choose to let go of their sins, their hatreds, the resentments. But they could. Purgatory and hell are not two separate realms (as in Dante); the difference is whether one chooses to leave. Lewis also imaginatively depicts God’s grace trying to draw people back. In his telling this takes the form of redeemed humans–usually people that the damned knew in the earthly life–entreating them to come “higher up and further in.”
Where I’m not sure Ward and Lewis would agree is whether there is, at some point, a moment of decision after which one’s eternal destiny is fixed. Both deny that such a moment occurs before death–in both Lewis and Ward post-mortem repentance is a possibility. But Lewis seems more inclined to think that there is a moment when one decides decisively for or against God. (His book is called The Great Divorce, after all.) Ward, on the other hand, seems more optimistic that the divine love will never give up on the unrepentant and that universal salvation is something to be hoped for.