I think if you asked me, at any point in my life as a Christian, whether I thought there were limits to God’s love I would say no. Even tonight at church, we sang, “How wide, how long, how high, how deep, how endless is your love for me,” in a song of gratitude for God’s love of “dirty sinners like you and me.”
But last spring, in a collection of essays for Lent, I read a piece by Madeleine L’Engle, in which she included this story:
…There is an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb up again. After many more falls and efforts and failures he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas,” Jesus said. “We couldn’t begin till you came.”
That floored me. I was deeply moved, and deeply confused. Judas, even Judas, might be forgiven and welcomed back to the table? Jesus said that heaven throws a party every time one sinner repents, but does that include when the ultimate traitor weeps repentant tears in the prison of his own darkness? When L’Engle heard the story about Judas at a clergy conference, many of the other priests and ministers were utterly offended by the idea of Judas being welcomed back into Jesus’s inner circle. But she says, “I was horrified at their offense. Would they find me, too, unforgivable?” I see her point. How many times have I betrayed Jesus and turned my back on him? All of his disciples ran away, and yet he came to them with great joy in his resurrected flesh, and breathed peace into their lungs before they had a chance to beg his forgiveness.
That essay stretched my imagination and my understanding of God’s mercy, but then today I read something by L’Engle that even blew that up. In a chapter on the Trinity, she points out that “we mortals want limits, limits to what is demanded of us, limits to God’s love, limits to those God is willing to redeem, limits to those who are going to be saved.” But, as I once heard a worship leader say, God’s love has no walls or ceiling or floors, and L’Engle feels this limitless quality applies to God’s redemption, as well. It is not only for human beings but also for all of creation and in that, she includes angels and archangels, stars, galaxies, atoms. She speaks of understanding the Trinity as inseparable from “the terrible and total reconciliation” that will one day come, and uses this poem by James Stephens as illustration:
On a rusty iron throne
In the farthest bounds of space,
I saw Satan sit alone.
Old and haggard was his face,
For his work was done and he
Rested in eternity
Down to him from out the sun
Came his brother and his friend
Saying, “Now the work is done,
Enmity is at an end.”
And he guided Satan to
Paradise that he knew.
Uriel, without a frown,
Michael, without a spear,
Gabriel came winging down,
Welcoming their ancient peer,
And they seated him beside
One who had been crucified.
Seriously? Even Satan, the Enemy of all that is good and holy and pure and light and music and laughter? Will he be welcomed to the table, if only he lays down his defenses and asks to come back in? Is he not part of God’s good creation? There is part of me that recoils at such an idea—how could we live, knowing that he is not eternally punished for the evil we all suffered at his hand during our short and fretful lives on earth? For the bondage he kept us in, for the way he distorted love and sex, for the way he turned us against each other so that we would turn away from the Holy One? I remember Dante’s depiction of Satan in the Inferno, in the very pit of hell, which is not fiery and sulfuric but a freezing and eerily quiet place. Satan stands frozen up to his waist, crying bitter tears and flapping his six wings in torment, endlessly gnawing on the world’s most notorious traitors: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. It feels good to think of the Emperor of the Universe of Pain, as Dante calls him, suffering in his own eternal agony.
But what if, a million years after the world ends—when we are still feasting with the Lamb and singing songs and dancing jigs and playing games and watching beauty spring out of beauty—what if Satan decides he’s sorry? What if he decides he wants to be back in the family, and crawls the trillion miles toward heaven on his knees, weeping bitter tears of remorse with an aching heart? Will we stop our revelry and turn toward the doors of heaven with held breath, waiting for his knock? Perhaps the Father will exchange glances with the Son, and the Spirit will give a knowing nod, and the three will say in strong voices of joy, “Come in! We’ve been waiting for you.” And all heaven will begin the party anew.