Week Thirty-Seven: Hell, No!
Thursday 16 September 2021 Love Is All There Is
We are born out of love. We live in love. We are destined for love.
—Blessed Raymón Llull, The Book of the Lover and the Beloved
There are few people who teach as passionately about love as scientist, scholar, and Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio. At the CAC CONSPIRE conference in 2014, the audience was able to witness and share Ilia’s enthusiasm for, and trust in, the “love energy of God,” which makes any of our typical notions of hell quite impossible. She said:
Everything that exists speaks of God, reflects that love energy of God. But God is more than anything that exists. God is always the more of our lives. We can’t contain God. If we try to control God, that’s not God; God always spills over our lives. So, God is our future. If we’re longing for something we desire, it’s that spilled-over love of our lives that’s pulling us onward, that’s luring us into something new. But we don’t trust this God [of implanted desire] often. We were pretty sure that God’s there, [and] we’re here, and we just need to keep [on] the straight and narrow path. . . .
What Francis [of Assisi] recognized is God is in every direction. That you might arrive, you might not arrive. You might arrive late; you might arrive early. It’s not the arrival that counts. It’s God! It’s not the direction that counts. It’s just being there, trusting that you will be going where God wants you. In other words, God is with us. Every step of the way is God-empowered love energy. But we tend to break down and start controlling things: “If I go this way, I’m going to get lost. Well, what if it’s wrong? What will happen to me?” Well, what will happen to you? Something will happen. But guess what? Something’s going to happen whether or not you go; that’s the whole point of life. So, it’s all about love.
So, it’s not like we’ve got this, “Here’s God; here’s us. God’s just waiting till we get our act together and then we’ll all be well.” That’s a boring God; that’s not even God. God is alive. God is love. Love is pulling us on to do new things and we need to trust the power of God in our lives to do new things. . . . We need to unwire ourselves to recognize that the God of Jesus Christ is, you might say, the power beneath our feet, the depth of the beauty of everything that exists, and the future into which we are moving. . . .
Every one of us is written in the heart of God from all eternity, born into the stars, born, you might say, into the galaxies, born on this earth in small forms, developing and coming to explicit form in our lives, given a name. It’s a fantastic mystery of love.
Wednesday 15 September 2021 Universal Salvation of All Creation
Elizabeth Johnson, the brilliant theologian, Sister of St. Joseph, and professor at Fordham University, has written extensively about the universal nature of salvation— not only for humans, but for all creation. By focusing our religious conversations on the problem of human sin and “worthiness,” we have often lost sight of the strong scriptural evidence for the universal return of all of creation to God. Dr. Johnson writes:
Biblical writers elaborated the good news using concepts of liberation, reconciliation, justification, victory over the powers, living in peace, fullness of life, being freed from slavery, adoption, and new birth as God’s children to name but a few. These long-untapped resources . . . open doors to understanding more varied dimensions of what is meant by the mystery of redemption.
One result has been renewed awareness of New Testament texts about cosmic redemption that previously just flew by. These texts that extend the promise of a future to all of creation are few in number, but they are strong. . . . The great hymn in Colossians which draws on the Wisdom tradition and the history of Jesus in equal measure, is suffused with this insight:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominations or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. . . . For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15–20)
This passage from Colossians has also been central to my understanding of and teachings on the Universal Christ in recent years. Johnson continues:
The drumbeat of “all things” repeated five times in this short text, coupled with reference to “all creation,” “everything,” and the encompassing “things visible and invisible,” drives home the blessing that flows to the whole world from the cross. . . .
The visionary writer of the book of Revelation hears “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” singing praises to the Lamb (Revelation 5:13), and perceives a climactic event of transformation where the One who sits on the throne says, “See, I am making all things new” (21:5). . . . The New Testament includes a hope-filled vision of the whole universe pervaded with divine promise.
Would God bring all of creation to heavenly glory, while leaving out most of humanity, who are made in God’s own “image and likeness”? I can’t imagine that this would be so!
Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury Continuum: 2014). 223–224.
Tuesday 14 September 2021 Universal Good News
In the first five centuries of Christianity, many of the church fathers affirmed universal salvation. It seems we were much more hopeful at the beginning that the Gospel really was universally good news! A mystical experience led Carlton Pearson, a former evangelical megachurch pastor, to complete a thorough study of the ancient message of universal salvation. He shares that:
The message of Inclusion, also known as Universal Reconciliation, is not new. It was [a] widely held position . . . of respected early church fathers and founders throughout the first five hundred years of church history. . . .
Augustine (354–430), of African descent and one of the four great Latin/Afro church fathers (Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Gregory the Great), admitted, “There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments.” 
Origen. . . lived from 185 to 254. He founded a school at Caesarea, and is considered by historians to be one of the great theologians and scholars of the Eastern Church. In his book De Principiis, he wrote: “We think, indeed, that the goodness of God, through His Christ, may recall all His creatures to one end [that is, salvation], even His enemies being conquered and subdued . . . for Christ must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet.” 
Universal restoration and salvation was often embraced, as well as widely debated, in early Christianity. Pearson continues, quoting from some of the early church fathers:
In the end and consummation of the universe, all are to be restored into their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be united once more into a perfect [person], and the prayer of our Savior shall be fulfilled that all may be one. —St. Jerome, 331–420 
For it is evident that God will in truth be all in all when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; when every creature shall have been made one body. —Gregory of Nyssa, 335–390 
Finally, here is an excerpt from a conversation between St. Silouan (1866–1938), a monk and Orthodox Staretz (elder), and a hermit.
[There was] a certain hermit who declared [to Silouan] with evident satisfaction: ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’ Obviously upset, the Staretz said: ‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire—would you feel happy?’ ‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit. The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance. ‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’ 
 Augustine, Enchiridion ad Laurentium (Manual to Laurentius), chap. 29, part 112.
 Origen, De Principiis (On First Principles), book 1, chap. 6, part 1.
 Jerome, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, Ephesians 4:4.
 Gregory of Nyssa, In Illud: Tunc et Ipse Filius (Treatise on First Corinthians 15:28)
 Archimandrite Sophrony, The Monk of Mount Athos: Staretz Silouan, 1866–1938, trans. Rosemary Edmonds, rev. ed. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 1973), 32.
Carlton Pearson, The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God and Self (Atria Books: 2006), 9, 27–28. The quotes from Augustine, Origen, Jerome, and Gregory of Nyssa are taken from Pearson’s text.
Monday 13 September 2021 God Is Good
Your image of God creates you. This is why it is important that we see God as loving and benevolent and why good theology still matters. One mistaken image of God that keeps us from receiving grace is the idea that God is a cruel tyrant. People who have been raised in an atmosphere of threats of punishment and promises of reward are programmed to operate with this cheap image of a punitive God. It usually becomes their entire view of the universe.
Unfortunately, it’s much easier to organize people around fear and hatred than around love. Powerful people prefer this worldview because it validates their use of intimidation—which is quite effective in the short run! Both Catholicism and Protestantism have used the threat of eternal hellfire to form Christians. I am often struck by the irrational anger of many people when they hear that someone does not believe in hell. You cannot “believe” in hell. Biblical “belief” is simply to trust and have confidence in the goodness of God or reality and cannot imply some notion of anger, wrath, or hopelessness at the center of all that is. Otherwise, we live in a toxic and unsafe universe, which many do.
In his book Inventing Hell, Jon Sweeney points out that our Christian view of hell largely comes from several unfortunate metaphors in Matthew’s Gospel.  Hell is not found in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. It’s not found in the Gospel of John or in Paul’s letters. The words Sheol and Gehenna are used in Matthew, but they have nothing to do with the later medieval notion of eternal punishment. Sheol is simply the place of the dead, a sort of limbo where humans await the final judgment when God will finally win. Gehenna was both the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem—the Valley of Hinnom—and an early Jewish metaphor for evil (Isaiah 66:24). The idea of hell as we most commonly view it came much more from Dante’s Inferno than the Bible. Believe me on that. It is the very backdrop of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It makes for good art, I suppose, but it’s horrible, dualistic theology. This is not Jesus, “meek and humble of heart,” which is his self-description in life (Matthew 11:29). We end up with two different and opposing Jesuses: one before Resurrection (healing) and one after Resurrection (dangerous and damning).
Jesus tells us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), but the punitive god sure doesn’t. Jesus tells us to forgive “seventy times seven” times (Matthew 18:22), but this other god doesn’t. Instead, this other god burns people for all eternity. Many of us were raised to believe this, but we usually had to repress this bad theology into our unconscious because it’s literally unthinkable. Most humans are more loving and forgiving than such a god, but we can’t be more loving than God. It’s not possible. This “god” is not God!
 Jon M. Sweeney, Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible, and Eternal Punishment, 2nd ed. (Acta: 2017), 111–112.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Today Is a Time for Mercy,” homily, December 10, 2015;
Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2007), 162; and
Sunday 12 September 2021 Choosing Heaven Now
The shape of creation must somehow mirror and reveal the shape of the Creator. We must have a God at least as big as the universe. Otherwise, our view of God becomes irrelevant, constricted, and more harmful than helpful. The Christian image of a torturous hell and God as a petty tyrant has not helped us to know, trust, or love God—or anything else. If we understand God as Trinity—the fountain fullness of outflowing love, and relationship itself—there is no theological possibility of any hatred or vengeance in God.
Divinity, which is revealed as Love Itself, will always eventually win. God does not lose (see John 6:37-39). We are all saved by mercy. This is an orthodox opinion! In his book Introduction to Christianity, Pope Benedict XVI explains his understanding of the curious phrase in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed: “[Jesus] descended into hell.” Benedict says that since Christ went into hell, that means hell “is hell no longer . . . because love dwells in it.”  Jesus Christ and hell cannot coexist; once Jesus got there, the whole game of punishment was over, as it were. A basic principle of nonviolence is that we cannot achieve good by doing bad.
If this is true, any notion of an actual “geographic” hell or purgatory is unnecessary and, in my opinion, destructive of the very restorative notion of the whole Gospel. Pope John Paul II, who certainly was not a liberal, reminded listeners that heaven and hell are not physical places at all. They are states of being in which we dwell either in a loving relationship with God or one of separation from the source of all life and joy.  If that’s true, there are plenty of people on earth who are in both heaven and hell right now.
Heaven is not about belonging to the right group or following the correct rituals. It’s about having the right attitude toward existence. There are just as many Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews who live in love—serving their neighbor and the poor—as there are Christians. Jesus says there will be deep regret—“wailing and grinding of teeth” (Luke 13:28)—when we realize how wrong we were. Be prepared to be surprised about who is living a life of love and service and who isn’t. This should keep us all humble and recognizing it’s not even any of our business who’s going to heaven. What makes us think that our little minds and hearts could discern the mind and heart of anyone else?
Further, Jesus never really taught “the immortality of the soul” as we understand it. That was Plato. Jesus taught the immortality of love. If we have never really loved anyone or anything, I doubt we are at all capable of eternity. We simply die. A torture chamber was an unfortunate metaphor to keep people from never loving, trusting, or hoping. I am not sure it ever really worked because you cannot threaten people into love.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster (Herder and Herder: 1969), 230.
 Pope John Paul II, General Audiences on the topics of heaven, July 21, 1999, and hell, July 28, 1999. These can be found at https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/1999/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_21071999.html; and https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/1999/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_28071999.html
Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Today Is a Time for Mercy,” homily, December 10, 2015;
Image credit: Manuel Alvarez Bravo, La Hija de los Danzantes (detail), 1933, photograph, Wikiart.
Image inspiration: A portal is an invitation to ponder what lies beyond. This young woman peers into a portal in curious exploration, unsure of what she will find, but still relaxed and open to what comes. In the same way, we are invited to accept that God’s love is constant even beyond our limitations of human knowing. In life and death, God’s love is.
Prayer For Our Community
Loving God, you fill all things with a fullness and hope that we can never comprehend. Thank you for leading us into a time where more of reality is being unveiled for us all to see. We pray that you will take away our natural temptation for cynicism, denial, fear and despair. Help us have the courage to awaken to greater truth, greater humility, and greater care for one another. May we place our hope in what matters and what lasts, trusting in your eternal presence and love. Listen to our hearts’ longings for the healing of our suffering world. Please add your own intentions . . . Knowing, good God, you are hearing us better than we are speaking, we offer these prayers in all the holy names of God. Amen.
Listen to Father Richard pray this prayer aloud.
Story From Our Community
The CAC newsletters and Richard Rohr’s writings have been a blessing. I grew up Southern Baptist and was always so afraid of hell and wondering if I was “saved” or not. Now I know that everyone is loved and saved. God loves me and all people and things with an everlasting love. Thank you for your wonderful words of hope and love.
Share your own story with us.
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Returning to the Center: In Service to the Healing of our World
“How can the CAC continue to be of service, building on what God has already done with us, and offer something of further value that can have authority and believability on its own, and not depend on me at all for its credibility?” —Richard Rohr
Returning to the Center is a series of updates and reflections from the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) on our discoveries and growing pains as we do the challenging work of reclaiming our founder’s vision for action and contemplation in a time of global change and contemplative renewal.
In his second reflection, CAC Executive Director Michael Poffenberger reflects on the work to articulate a clear vision for the organization:
Early in the process, CAC faculty member Jim Finley reflected, “Since its founding, the CAC has been about Fr. Richard. But Richard isn’t about Richard. So, the question is, how can the CAC be about what Richard is about?”
Jim’s insight summarized our challenge well. Richard always intended for the CAC to be about much more than himself. His hope was to found a “school for prophets,” as he wrote in the first edition of our Radical Grace newsletter, rooted in contemplative wisdom and supporting social and spiritual renewal. However, as he often shares, his teaching gift is largely intuitive. Translating his teachings into a clear organizational identity and strategy for the CAC has never been his gift. As a result, over the course of CAC’s history, the thread of Richard’s founding vision has always been present, but not always apparent among evolving priorities and interpretations.
You can expect regular updates on our progress in Returning to the Center, as well as institutional history, community stories, staff essays, videos, and even opportunities to contribute. You will find the latest posts on our website as well as social media and in the News from New Mexico, the CAC’s monthly newsletter.
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