Excerpted from 'If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person' with permission of HarperSanFrancisco.
I believe God will save every person.
Whenever I share my beliefs in the ultimate salvation of every person, I am invariably asked, "You mean every person? You mean Christians and non-Christians? You mean people who don't even believe in God? You mean people who've done horrible and evil things? You mean Hitler is going to be in heaven?"
The answer is yes. I mean the whole world, every person who has been, is and shall be. I mean Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, New Agers, pagans, and Christians. I mean atheists, agnostics, the apathetic, and the hostile. I mean the rapists, child molesters, and terrorists. I mean the person you or I think the most evil, most despicable human on earth. I believe God will save us all. We will all repent and be transformed.
Heaven will be populated by people of every nation, race, and creed. God's children, in all their diversity, will be seated around his table. They will have two things in common. They will have the same Father, and they will be redeemed and transformed by the same grace. Those damaged and hardened by evil will be healed and renewed. Hell will be empty.
It's taken me many years to empty hell. As a child, I was taught that only Christians would be saved. Billions of non-Christians would crowd hell. The thought of non-Christians in eternal torment didn't disturb me because I'd been told Christians were good people and non-Christians were bad people. Since I grew up in a Midwestern American town where nearly everyone belonged to a Christian church, I had little opportunity to test this assumption. Non-Christians lived in the big city or in foreign countries-the places where we sent missionaries.
I remember the first time I seriously questioned this worldview. I was in college when I saw the movie Gandhi. I walked out of the theater forever changed. In Gandhi, I encountered a good man who also a non-Christian. In fact, his commitment to love and mercy far exceeded that of many Christians. While he never acknowledged Jesus as Savior, he lived the way Jesus commanded us to live.Suspicious that Hollywood had glamorized Gandhi, I read many of his writings and what others wrote about him. The more I read, the more I admired him. His words and actions reminded me of Jesus again and again. Gandhi said, "I believe in God, not as a theory, but as a fact more real than that of life itself."
One day I shared my admiration for Gandhi with a friend.
He responded, "Isn't it sad that he's burning in hell?"
His statement shocked me. Yet I quickly recognized how traditional Christian formulas assign Gandhi to eternal torment. Since he never accepted Christ, he must burn in hell. When I would protest the injustice of a good man being eternally punished, I was reminded that we don't get to heaven because we are good but because we've accepted Christ. Gandhi, having rejected Christ, was damned to hell for all eternity.
Even before I believed in the salvation of every person, I struggled with this injustice. I found it impossible to believe that those living the way of Jesus were damned for not taking the name of Jesus. Assigning Hitler to hell was easy. Unfortunately, most Christian formulas suggested Hitler shared the same hell with the Jews he murdered. They too hadn't accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Ironically, Hitler's desire to purge humanity of those he thought impure and deficient is the extreme manifestation of what many religions affirm-that some people ultimately deserve annihilation. He damned millions to concentration camps and furnaces, convinced he was purifying the world. He did on earth what many expect God to do in the afterlife.
Later, I would discover something even more disturbing than the damnation of Gandhi and other good non-Christians. I realized that many Christians destined for heaven weren't good people at all. They were hateful, vindictive, greedy, dishonest, and immoral. Many in the Gestapo attended church regularly. Some who claimed the name of Jesus were wicked.
I remember hearing John Calvin's idea of the invisible Church. He argued that we can never judge who is or isn't part of the Church. Only God knows those who have sincerely repented and followed Christ. I found this a wonderful solution to my quandary. I decided Gandhi and many others were members of this invisible Church and many within the visible Church weren't members at all. This allowed me to reserve hell for the truly wicked.
Fortunately, I eventually moved to the big city. I became a pastor among the "wicked" and found my judgment of people as either good or bad less defensible. I remember sitting in my office one day when Betty came to see me. She told me that she'd decided she was ready to join the church. I cringed.
Betty was a worn woman who lived in a broken-down house with five large dogs, several cats, her homosexual son with AIDS, and a man to whom she wasn't married. She was a mess. What would people think if we allowed her to join our church? Instead of welcoming her, I told her she needed to get her life together. She needed to become a good person.
Betty went away sad. She never again asked to join us. Over the next few years, I ran into Betty time and time again. She was always gracious to me. She was often carrying some animal she'd found abandoned, which she'd care for until she could find it a home. Other times she was returning from helping some neighbor. When the woman down the street came down with cancer, Betty spent hours caring for her. I learned one day that one of her children was severely handicapped and that she drove a hundred miles to visit him nearly every week.
She, like many others I've described in this book, challenged my easy judgments about who is good and who is bad. I discovered fewer and fewer people were truly wicked. My reservation list for hell continued to shrink. Hell became the destiny of those who'd committed themselves completely and totally to evil-Adolph Hitler and the like.
Then I became involved in prison ministry. I remember the day I was preaching at the jail and realized one of the faces was familiar. It was a man who I'd read about in the newspaper. He'd sexually abused his child and then killed him. When it came time for prayer requests, he rose and tearfully asked us to pray for God to work in his life. I was shocked that God was still at work in this wicked man. Didn't some deeds require God to turn away?
Did I really want someone like him to repent, find forgiveness, and be transformed? Didn't Hitler deserve to be thrown into the fire? I once would have happily allowed him to burn.
That no longer brings me joy. The only fire I desire for the wicked is the purifying fire of God's love. Thomas Talbott writes, "Once the consuming fire of God's love has destroyed, whether in this life or in hell itself, everything that is false within us, once nothing of the false self remains for us to cling to, then nothing of our opposition to God will remain either." The only fire Hitler required is the fire of divine love, which will consume the dross of his hatred and evil, leaving him humbled, repentant, and seeking his proper place in the divine order.
I don't know how long this purifying will require for Hitler and for me, but I am confident in God's patience. Peter said, "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 2:9).