|Fra Angelico, Christ's Descent into hades|
It goes without saying, that we are saved.
We can be even more specific and add layers of stipulations that we apply to ourselves and know for certain to be true, thereby paring down even more the length of the queue to the heavenly gates. ‘Welcome to the all new City of God: Christians only need apply,’ or maybe ‘Born-Again only need apply,’ or even ‘Spirit-Filled only need apply.’ Not many Catholics exclude Protestants these days, though the favor isn’t always reciprocated.
I don’t know if it’s historical, but I liked what I heard Martin Luther say in his theology class in the film Luther, that in 1215 according to the Fourth Lateran Council, ‘Salvation may exist outside the Church, but not outside of Christ.’ As an Orthodox Christian, this reminds me of something I’ve heard in my community: ‘We know where the Church is; we don’t always know where it is not.’ Both sayings hint at something Christians don’t often admit.
That is, salvation—whatever else it means, it is the ultimate and permanent good of every individual human life—is only possible through Christ, but, as C. S. Lewis was bold enough to write, we don’t know for certain if only those who know Him are saved by Him. This is not a precursor to accepting the heresy of universal salvationism, that ‘even the demons will be saved,’ but an unhedged, honest reservation of God’s judgment.
Just who is this Jesus? Just what is He? He is the God-man to be sure. He is Israel's Messiah and Righteous King. He is the Savior of the world… Just a minute! Did you say ‘Savior of the world’? What do you mean by that? Are you saying everyone is saved? Well, yes and no. Everyone who wants to be saved will be saved; everyone who wants to be alone, their own Lord, will be—I hate to use the word, but it’s true—damned.
Jesus Christ is not only the Son of Man, the Son of God, but also—as we of the ancient Church confess—He is the Word of God, the Divine Logos, by whom all things were made, and as far as His power to save, He is the ‘Lamb without spot… slain before the foundation of the world.’ He was put to death in His human flesh, and in the spirit He descended into Hades, preaching to—that is, evangelizing—all who ever live, and die.
What? He may have gone down to hell, but He could only have preached to ‘the spirits in prison,’ those who had died from the time of the first man to the last person to have died before He Himself descended. Well, yes and no. That place, She’ol, Hades, whatever you call it, even Hell, is not a burial ground that waits through time until it fills up. It is already full. We have all met death, no matter when in time we live or lived.
For some of us, something that happens or happened to us while we were living on earth has caused an interruption in the process. ‘We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed,’ is how holy apostle Paul puts it. By a choice we think we make—though it was made before we knew ourselves, and not by us, but for us—some of us do not die, are not sent to that place, but bypass it, instead ‘go to heaven,’ to Paradise, like the good thief.
This is not true of all, probably not true of the majority of humanity. This is not because of any stipulations made by any human authority, or by authorities claiming to speak for God, but just because of ‘the way things are.’ The nature of reality, the way God made us and the world, everything we do in time, everything participates in the act of redemption, initiated by the good and loving God, who does not lie, not to Himself or to us.
It is always, and only, an encounter with the living God, however He manifests Himself—and to us He can manifest only as the Divine Logos, the Christ, the only Mediator between God and man—it is only this encounter, and how we respond to Him when we meet Him, that decides whether we ‘go to heaven, or to hell.’ Yes, whatever our response, the result is final and irrevocable, but we all, we all, are given one chance.
How, when, and where this rendezvous takes place, in the end has no significance, just as we are not saved by works, by anything we do to make ourselves acceptable to what we think God is, only by grace.
All choice is His, from first to last, yet our wills are cradled in His loving arms, the arms of Him who loves us, who wants us for ourselves. Incredible though it seems, there are some who would rather die than live in love, and die they do.
Yahweh Sabaoth, bring us back,
let Your face smile on us and we shall be safe.