“Is There Grace Beyond the Grave?”

I Peter 3:18-22

The First Sunday in Lent

“Christ Jesus was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, in which he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.”

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church throughout the world, those intriguing words from today’s epistle lesson, words which seem to say that, sometime between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Jesus went to hell to preach a sermon; a passage which, when coupled with I Peter 4:6, which also says that Jesus descended to the depths “To preach the gospel to the dead,” never fails to resurrect in my spirit the hope that, perhaps, there might be grace beyond the grave.

Of course, even the possibility of grace beyond the grave has long been so troubling to so much of “official Christianity” that large stripes of Christian orthodoxy have said that, if Jesus did go to hell, it was to say, “See, I told you so”; the Christological equivalent of a victory lap.

And, in the world of my religious origins, any hint of a hope that there might be grace beyond the grave was always rebuffed by references to Luke 16:26, where Father Abraham consigns “the rich man” to eternal torment, with the announcement that, once one is in Hades, there is no escape; quashing any conversation concerning grace beyond the grave with the confident finality of “the Bible says it and that settles it.”

(Except, of course, we cannot, with integrity,  resort to “the Bible says it and that settles it” to close down conversations and shut down questions, because Matthew 5:39 calls us to a life of pacifism, II Corinthians 8:15 invites us to a life of socialism, Luke 14:33 requires of us a life of voluntary poverty and I Timothy 2:9 does not allow us to have jewelry, hairdos and nice clothing; just some of the many ways the Bible saying something to us does not settle something for us.)

I never have been able to understand why Christianity has been so eager to believe in judgment beyond the grave and so reluctant to believe in grace beyond the graveI cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I believe in both; judgment beyond the grave, and grace beyond the grave.

Because so much evil goes un-confronted in this life, without judgment beyond the grave, all sorts of injustice would go eternally un-confronted; responsibility never owned, victims never faced and truth never spoken, which doesn’t sound like God, at all.  So, there must be judgment beyond the grave.

But, on the other hand, if there is no grace beyond the grave, then, not only does God never get what God wants; the redemption, reconciliation and salvation of all, but people go to hell forever for no purpose other than endless retribution, and perpetual torment, which sounds even less like God.

What does sound like God is judgment beyond the grave which leads, eventually, to grace beyond the grave; the whole creation ultimately redeemed, but not without sin being judged, truth being spoken, responsibility being taken, victims being faced, guilt being confessed and wrong being purged; a hell, not for people to go to, but for people to go through, on their way to ultimate, eternal redemption.

As the great British preacher Leslie Weatherhead once said, “We Protestants have rejected the only view of hell that makes any sense; punishment with a point, judgment in the service of redemption.”  Or, as the Methodist theologian Gregory Jones says, “Just because the fires of hell will always be burning doesn’t necessarily mean they will always be populated.”  Indeed, no less a luminary of orthodoxy than John Calvin himself is reported once to have said, “Christians are obligated to pray that hell will someday be empty.” 

All of this came home to me in a very practical, personal way about a month ago when, late one cold January Saturday afternoon, I took Ansley, Emma Kate and Charlotte to the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.  After our visit, as we walked through downtown Jackson to our car, the girls (whose permission I have to tell this) asked if I thought the people who killed Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who committed the other acts of violence about which we had just read in the museum, would be in heaven.  I said that, while it is not my place to say who will or will not be in heaven, I do believe that those persons who committed those terrible acts of violence will be in heaven, not because what they did wasn’t awful and evil, but because I believe that there is so much judgment beyond the grave and so much grace beyond the grave, that, ultimately, God will get the one thing God has always wanted most; the redemption, reconciliation and salvation of all.

I was careful to tell the girls that my belief that there is grace beyond the grave is different from what many Christians believe.  But, as for me, I cannot think of anything more Christian than believing that there will be enough judgment beyond the grave, and enough grace beyond the grave, for God to finally get the one thing God has always wanted most; the redemption, reconciliation and salvation of all; a hope which is always resurrected in my spirit by that visit Jesus made to hell on the last day of Lent; a journey Jesus took to say, not, “See, I told you so,” but, “See, I love you so.”