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.

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8 thoughts on “Ward and Lewis on post-mortem repentance and the possibility of universal redemption

  1. Is it possible that, without God ever ceasing to extend grace, the human person might, with full understanding (which I believe could only ordinarily be actualized after death, when the clouds obscuring the intellect will be dispersed) abdicate his humanity, give back his ticket to the banquet, as it were, and enter a less-than-human state from which there is no return? If there is not full understanding, then the person cannot reasonably be eternally punished. But if there is truly clarity of intellectual vision, how could one turn from The Good?

  2. That being said, Sacred Scripture does seem to ask us to envision that as one of the final outcomes of the drama of human/angelic existence. One can hardly suppose that the angelic intelligences that turned from allegiance to God existed in a state of obscured understanding. The problem is, we don’t really know what Hell or the Second Death really symbolize. Are they a final, forceful, purgation and restoration…through a complete dissolution and re-creation? Are they the perpetual torment of the rejection of an inescapable Love? Are they a state of punishment pure and simple, a quarantine meant to protect forever the restored creation from the influence of evil?

  3. I had a past post about what Thomas Talbot thought about people freely choosing to go to hell. I can’t help thinking it’s just really a way to get God off the hook – a sort of blaming the victim. I do like Keith Ward’s view over Lewis’, though.

  4. Lee says:

    These are all good comments/questions. I think a lot depends on how you conceptualize human agency and why you think evil exists. From a Socratic/Platonic perspective, it does seem that it would be impossible to fully apprehend the Go(o)d without also loving it. From an “Augustinian” perspective, however, the source of evil resides more in the will than the intellect. We might also think about this in biological, quasi-Darwinian terms: our tendency toward self-centeredness is rooted in our genetic inheritance.

    I’m sympathetic to the view that humans are never really free enough to be held responsible for choosing eternal conscious torment (as some conservative Christians understand hell). On the other hand, if love isn’t ours to freely withhold, can it still be considered love? I think humility is the order of the day when thinking about this stuff…

  5. “On the other hand, if love isn’t ours to freely withhold, can it still be considered love?”

    Is love ever ours to withold? I mean, it seems to be evoked without our willing it – we never really choose who we love, love seems to choose us. And while we may withold “signs” of love, it seems to demented me that we either love or we don’t :)

  6. JJ says:

    Great post. I am going to have to get that book by Ward. Maybe you already have found them, but there are a series of Gresham College lectures on iTunes where he speaks on Plato, science v. religion, etc. Also very good.

    You say “Lewis seems more inclined to think that there is a moment when one decides decisively for or against God.” I can’t say that I’ve picked that up in Lewis’s writings. Can you point me to what is making you think so?

  7. You know, J.J, I may have spoken too soon. Lewis does say that hell is self-chosen and its doors are “locked from the inside.” I’m not aware of any place that Lewis draws the inference that the damned might choose to unlock those doors or says that God persists in trying to persuade them to do so. On the other hand, I’m not aware of any place he denies that either. So I could be that Lewis is closer to Ward’s position than I suggested. Although, in The Great Divorce Lewis writes

    “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell chose it.”

    This could be taken to suggest that God gives up on people at some point by leaving them to their (self-chosen) fate. But that may be too much to hang on a single quote.

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