I have an endless supply of books that I want to read. One of those is Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem by Bradley Jersak. I’m hoping to read through it this semester, if I am able to cultivate enough space to do so. I do not plan on blogging through or summarizing the whole book. I want to whet your appetite enough to have you read it for yourself. ;D
His thesis, as far as I can tell, is this, “..I do not intend to convince readers of a particular theology of divine judgment. I hope, rather, to recall those relevant bits of Scripture, history, and tradition that ought to inform whatever view we take on this important topic (pg. 10).” In light of this, he comes to four conclusions himself, but attempts to make space for the reader to come to their own conclusions. We will see in future chapters if he succeeds, and if he offers sound argumentation for his conclusions.
His four conclusions (as laid out on page 10) are as follows:
- We cannot presume to know that all will be saved or that any will not be saved.
- The revelation of God in Christ includes real warnings about the possibility of damnation for some and also the real possibility that redemption may extend to all.
- We not only dare hope and pray that God’s mercy would finally triumph over judgment; the love of God obligates us to such hope.
- Revelation 21-22 provides a test case for a biblical theology of eschatological hope.
A look at the Table of Contents reveals that Jersak outlines his book into three parts: 1. Possibilities in Biblical Tradition, 2. Possibilities in Theological Tradition, and 3. Hints of Ultimate Redemption in Revelation 21-22.
This first chapter, Presumptions and Possibilities, is outside of Part One. It functions very much as an introduction to the book as a whole, and outlines topics and ideas that, I’m hoping, will be expounded upon throughout the book, as many of them are only given a brief allusion.
Jersak starts Presumptions and Possibilities with a tip of the hat to Dante’s influence on Western culture, referencing film (Jacob’s Ladder), comic books (Hellboy), video games (Inferno), and even hot sauce (Dan-T’s White Hot Inferno Sauce). He then, very briefly, mentions Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic conceptions of Hell, taking note that almost all worldviews have some belief in judgment after death, except for maybe the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, for example).
Jersak uses the New Atheists rejection of Hell-ish judgment as a jumping point to ask a question: is it right to have hatred toward a religion that produces a god whose “mind reflects humanity’s need to best one eternal excruciation with another (pg. 2)?”
He moves on to talk about his religious experience as a child, and the desire to convert everyone he met, as a means to “snatch others from the fire and save them (Jude 24).”
Eventually in his experience, he realizes there has been a two millennia-long debate raging within Christian theology about the nature of Hell, and that Infernalism, the mainline Evangelical position, is not the only option to consider. He then, very broadly, defines Infernalism, Annihilationism, and Universalism, making careful note that each of those camps have sub-camps within them, and that matters are far more complicated than three schools of thought.
He makes a very important note at this point: “All of these points of view reflect theological concerns for representing God’s character aright, pastoral concerns for guarding and guiding God’s flock in the truth, evangelistic concerns for presenting the Gospel with integrity, and biblical concerns for faithfulness to Christian Scripture (pg. 5).” He ponders that if this is the case, why, and how, did various Christian traditions find such different ways to address the topic?
He starts to address this issue by laying out what I think will turn out to be a very influential aspect of his work. He postulates that four aspects of our psyche have a great impact on how we form our theological systems (although, they are also very much interrelated):
1. Our View of God
2. Our View of the Atonement
3. Our Approach to Scripture
4. Our Personal Need
He suggests that this poses part of the issue. Scripture is, according to Jersak, “richly polyphonic,” or, producing many different voices simultaneously. Therefore, if we “become dogmatic about any one position,” we become very selective and commit interpretive violence to our holy Scriptures. Removing our preconceived notions, and engaging Scripture with an open mind, can bring to mind the question: “Why didn’t I ever see that verse before?”
He gives an example:
The bible repeatedly affirms that God has given humanity true capacity to choose. More explicitly, to choose between heaven and hell (in an oversimplified way). Some may, therefore, choose an option that results in permanent exclusion in a “lake of fire.” But the Bible also teaches that God is free to relent, forgive, and restore even when judgment is promised (ie: Hosea 11; Jonah 1:1; 3:4, 10; 4:2, 11). There are three, using broad definitions, types of texts in regard to Hell: 1. Infernalist, 2. Annihiliationist, and 3. Universalist, and reconciling these passages together is far more complicated than most proponents of each school of thought generally like to admit (whether consciously or unconsciously). Thus, the issue is complex and messy, and requires honest and effortful dialogue.
He then argues that we need to set aside our presumptions, although that is not entirely possible. For that reason, he suggests we be keenly aware of our bias, and align our bias with the clearest voices of Scripture: faith, hope, and love. It is for that reason Jersak writes, “hope. That is my bias, and I believe Scripture, tradition, and experience confirm it. I want to explain and validate my hope in those contexts. This book will address the central problem of this ‘heated’ debate: not infernalism versus annihilationism versus universalism, but rather, authentic, biblical Christian hope vis-à-vis the error of dogmatic presumption (of any view). Hope presumes nothing but is rooted in a deeper confidence: the love and mercy of an openhearted and relentlessly kind God (pg. 10).”
This one line, I think gets to the core of Jersak’s thought quite well, “we joyfully hope for the best but bow heart and knee to the justice and mercy of God (pg. 7).”
All quotes from Bradley Jersak’s book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem.