"As for those people who were once brought into enlightenment, who tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit and who have tasted the good word of God and the power of the age to come — if they still fall away, it is impossible for them to come to repentance and renewal a second time….
Even though we speak like this, beloved, we are confident of better results in your case, results related to salvation. God is not unjust and will not forget your work and the love you have demonstrated by your past and present service to God's holy people" - Hebrews 6:4-6, 9-10
Is it truly impossible for someone who has believed and then "fallen away" to ever regain God's favor? Does God really divide the world into the saved and the damned?
These verses remind me of a long-ago encounter. I was filled with doubt, but was seeking to know God. I agreed to go with friends to a Bible study. Up came an age-old question: will a person who has never heard of God's good news be kept from heaven? No, said the leader. Good, thought I.
But, said a participant: that doesn't mean — (sorry, but I'm quoting here) — that some Eastern person who grows up looking at dragons will get to heaven? No! chorused the group. No, never!
I didn't have courage to say anything, but I left in disgust. How can a person be so certain that God's grace is closed off to persons who encounter holy mystery in ways that are foreign to us? Well, verses like this one from Hebrews reinforce that view.
Unless the writer was using a rhetorical tool. "They" (the fallen) will never get back in. But "you" (dear friends) may yet be saved. Maybe the letter aims to create a sense of urgency and purpose. The stakes are huge, people! Don't you dare disbelieve, or you'll fall off the earth!
Maybe hell is believing someone is beyond hope.
I'm not ready to concede that anyone still breathing is irredeemably condemned. But I do appreciate a good goad every now and then, urging me to keep showing love and giving help.
God, keep my tongue tasting the goodness of your Word, keep my hands serving the needs of all who hurt, keep my heart alert with compassion, and let me trust that hope is always stronger than hell. Amen.
John A. Nelson is the Pastor of the Niantic Community Church (UCC/UMC) in Niantic, Connecticut.