What is the best ending to the Christian story?
With the publication of Rob Bell’s Love Wins there has been a great deal of conversation about the ending of the Christian story. Will everyone who has ever lived be reconciled to God? Or will some be eternally separated from God? And if some are “lost” will they be tormented, annihilated, or simply degrade to condition “beyond pity”?
Of course, in trying to answer this question we have to wonder if our attempt will be an idiosyncratic exercise in undisciplined imagination. Might not my description of the “best” ending be a projection of my own psychological needs and desires?
Consequently, any consideration of “best” needs to be regulated by the fact that we are trying to describe the ending of the Christian story. Our description of best, thus, has to be judged by Christian aesthetical standards. This means, of course, that we need to specify, with some precision, what constitutes a Christian aesthetics. What are the criteria by which we judge a story “beautiful” in Christian terms?
I’m going to argue that universal reconciliation is the best and most beautiful ending to the Christian story. To make this claim, of course, I’ll need to apply some recognizably Christian aesthetic criteria to the vision of universal reconciliation. That seems easy enough, as universal reconciliation is such a “nice” ending. But the knee-jerk criticism of universal reconciliation is that while it is a nice ending it is not a Biblical ending. In light of that criticism, my task here will largely be one of trying to demonstrate narrative and aesthetic continuity between this ending—universal reconciliation—and the story we find in the Old and New Testaments.
To get right into it, let me suggest that the most pleasing ending to the Christian story, narratively and aesthetically speaking, is the ending found in Colossians 1 and Philippians 2:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Given that we are trying here to grapple with aesthetics, we should observe that both Philippians 2 and Colossians 1 are Christological hymns. Consequently, these artistic theological expressions can help us describe features of a Christian aesthetic, how the early Christians artistically described the “best” and most “beautiful” ending of the story they were proclaiming.
And in light of this, is noteworthy that each of these Christological hymns articulates a vision of universal reconciliation. In the Colossians poem we find an artistic symmetry and balance between past, present, and future. The Logos created “all things,” the Logos holds “all things” together and, at the end of the story, “all things” will be reconciled to God through the Logos. It’s this symmetry in the hymn that creates the narrative beauty. Past. Present. Future. Created. Held Together. Reconciled. So let me suggest that eschatological symmetry may be a quality we can use to judge the “best” or most “beautiful” ending to the Christian story. A story that both begins and ends in the Logos.
A related aesthetic quality is found in the Philippians hymn. Here we find a vision of eschatological culmination, a vision where “every tongue [will] acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” This quality of eschatological culmination is also found in 1 Cor. 15.20-28 (“so that God may be all in all”) and Romans 11 (“For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all… For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”). We see in the poetry of Philippians 2 a “beautiful ending” to the story, where every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord to the glory of the Father.
Of course, many will object that the universal confession in Philippians 2 isn’t a joyful vision of praise. It might be argued that the vision in Philippians 2 is one of compulsion, where a disobedient humanity is forced to confess that Jesus is Lord.
But this objection simply brings us back to the topic at hand. Aesthetically speaking, what is the most beautiful frame for Philippians 2? Does the story end with coercion, fear and violence? Or does the story end with joy, praise, worship, and love?
Of course, this question might be irritating because it raises the main objection many will have about focusing too narrowly on these Christological hymns. Stepping back, we have to wonder how the endings envisioned in these two poems, despite their symmetry and beauty, jibes with other passages in the New Testament where the lost are sent away to a place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” or thrown into a “lake of fire.” How do these passages fit with the end of the story envisioned in the Christological hymns of Colossians and Philippians?
Let me briefly, in conclusion, suggest how I believe these visions can be reconciled (pun intended?) in a manner that is theologically, narratively, and aesthetically pleasing.
What I want to suggest is that, to rightly understand the narrative and aesthetic qualities of New Testament apocalyptic speech, we need to first master the prophetic imagination of the Old Testament. I’d like to argue that misunderstandings regarding the NT passages about hell and judgment result when a dislocation is introduced between the narrative aesthetics of New Testament apocalyptic and Old Testament prophetic speech.
To state my contention clearly: The apocalyptic visions of judgment found in the New Testament are not intended to be descriptions of the end of the story. They are, simply, visions of judgment. The mistake has been to assume that this vision of judgment is a vision of the end. The result is the introduction of a radical asymmetry into the Biblical story. An asymmetry that, theologically and aesthetically, has and continues to cause a great deal of head scratching (e.g., Why would a loving God create a world where the vast majority are doomed to perdition?).
The reason this asymmetry is introduced into the story is, in my view, due to the fact that many readers of the New Testament lose touch with the prophetic imagination, the way the prophets described the end of the story, the events after Yahweh’s judgments. In the narrative arch of the prophetic imagination judgment and the ending of the story are distinct. They are not synonymous. After the harshest and most hellish of God’s punishments and judgments, the hesed of God is always in Israel’s future. In the prophetic imagination love wins.
In short, what I’m suggesting is that the visions of the “lake of fire” and of “God being all in all” do not have to be read against each other, where the moral asymmetry of judgment is read (as it generally is) as trumping the symmetry of the eschatological culmination on display in the Christological hymns. If we allow the narrative aesthetics of the prophets to guide our readings we find that we have two different pictures of two different parts of the story. Judgment followed by God reconciling “all things,” where “every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
So what is the best ending to the Christian story? Opinions will vary. And perhaps some, following Stanley Hauerwas, will wonder if best is even a theological category. So let me nominate something a bit different: the most beautiful ending, the end of the story sung about in the Christological hymns of Colossians and Philippians. If only because poets know a thing or two about beauty.