From The Irrational Season:
My young friend who was taught that she was so sinful the only way an angry God could be persuaded to forgive her was by Jesus dying for her, was also taught that part of the joy of the blessed in heaven is watching the torture of the damned in hell. A strange idea of joy. But it is a belief limited not only to the more rigid sects. I know a number of highly sensitive and intelligent people in my own communion who consider as a heresy my faith that God’s loving concern for his creation will outlast all our willfulness and pride. No matter how many eons it takes, he will not rest until all of creation, including Satan, is reconciled to him, until there is no creature who cannot return his look of love with a joyful response of love.
Origen held this belief and was ultimately pronounced a heretic. Gregory of Nyssa, affirming the same loving God, was made a saint. Some people feel it to be heresy because it appears to deny man his freedom to refuse to love God. But this, it seems to me, denies God his freedom to go on loving us beyond all our willfulness and pride. If the Word of God is the light of the world, and this light cannot be put out, ultimately it will brighten all the dark corners of our hearts and we will be able to see, and seeing, will be given the grace to respond with love – and of our own free will.
The Church has always taught that we must pay for our sins, that we shall be judged and punished according to our sinfulness. But I cannot believe that God wants punishment to go on interminably any more than does a loving parent. The entire purpose of loving punishment is to teach, and it lasts only as long as is needed for the lesson. And the lesson is always love.
It may take more years than we can count before Nero – for instance – has learned enough love to be able to look with joy into the loving eyes of a Christ who enfleshed himself for a time on earth as a Jew, but Nero’s punishments, no matter how terrible they may be, are lessons in love, and that love is greater than all his sick hate.
We will be quicker to respond with love, under judgment, if we have learned to respond with love, now. Every response of love gives us a glimpse on earth of the Kingdom of Heaven, that brilliant Easter which is born from the dark womb of Good Friday. We cannot repress or deny the darkness, the sinister and mysterious side of love. Without it, Easter, too, is only a fragment of a whole.
On every occasion when we are enabled to do the Lord’s will, now, here on earth, we know the Kingdom. I knew it, for instance, during the week of my parents-in-law’s golden anniversary. I know it when I am smiled at by the dour man unloading groceries on Broadway. I know it when I cook dinner for family and friends, and we are gathered around the table, extraordinary unity in diversity, and are given a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, and glimpse the meaning of the cross which leads to life. Then we understand the total failure of God which showed itself by a love so deep that he does indeed die with us and for us and our sins. This dying for us is part of what my young friend was taught, but the next step is left out by her teachers: this dying is something we all must experience; we all die for each other, for if we are children of God, nothing can be left out. When the gates of hell are trampled down, they suddenly become the welcoming door to heaven.
What a good day is this Friday. There is no coming to birth without pain, and out of the pain of this day we are born into the new life of Easter.