On a trip to Japan I found myself late at night in a pastor’s study in one of the largest churches in Tokyo. I had flown in that morning and had already endured a rigorous day of meetings. I wanted to check into my hotel room and go to sleep, but Japanese hospitality required this courtesy visit.
The pastor pulled out a sheaf of papers and, through an interpreter, told me that during his entire career he had worried over this one issue but was afraid of speaking to anyone about it.
For the next twenty minutes without interruption the pastor poured out the agony he felt over the 99 percent of Japanese who had not accepted Jesus. Would they all burn in hell because of their ignorance? He had heard of theologians who believed in people having a second change after death and knew the mysterious passage in 1 Peter about Jesus preaching to those in Hades. Some theologians he had read seemed to believe in universal salvation although certain passages in the Bible indicated otherwise. Could I offer him any hope?
Thinking aloud, I mentioned that God causes the sun to rise on the just and unjust and has no desire that anyone should perish. God’s son on earth spent his last strength praying for his enemies. We discussed the view of hell presented in C.S. Lewis’s intriguing fantasy The Great Divorce, which shows people like Napolean who have a second chance after death but opt against it. “Thy will be done” says God reluctantly to those who make a final rejection.
“I don not know the answer to your questions,” I said at last. “But I believe strongly that at the end of time no one will be able to stand before God and say “You were unfair!” However history settles out, it will settle on the side of justice tempered by mercy.”
Like job, I reached that conclusion not through observation or argument but through encounter.”Surely God will be able to understand my doubts in a world like this, won’t He?” asked the Dutch prisoner Etty Hillesum from a Nazi concentration camp. I believe God will, in part because God’s revelation to us includes eloquent expressions of those very doubts.