Reflections On Lent, Day 31

Last week, at a meeting with a group of friends who are studying Joshua Ryan Butler’s excellent book entitled “The Skeletons In God’s Closet,” we were speaking of hell and judgement and holy war.  These are three topics that cause a lot of heartburn for Christians and non-Christians alike.  I don’t believe that any one of these three topics are the star performers of the trio; they are all equally capable of stirring controversy any time that they are brought up in any sort of crowd which exhibits a bit of diversity.  I came home from this event pondering hell in particular though, and what Christians think about it and most particularly who gets in and who stays out.  My conclusion?  I don’t know.

I am no theologian, and I’ll state that from the very beginning.  I am aware of many verses of scripture which point to Jesus as the one way to salvation, and I accept this premise with a whole heart.  “No one comes to the Father except through me”, and “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved”, and many other similar verses seem to narrow the thing down.  I wonder, however, if those scriptures are narrowing it down too much?  I’m not sure that I even have a coherent stream of thoughts on the topic.  I’ll let you decide.

A verse which stands out in particular to me is this:  “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement.”  That one gets hell and judgement in there together, sort of like a theological ‘twofer’, but I wonder about something.  What exactly does this verse mean by “to die”?  What?  Are you kidding me?  You don’t know what it means to die?  It’s when your heart stops, your brain quits and you assume room temperature.  This isn’t rocket science Glenn!

Yeah, I know.  I’ve seen dead people and I’ve seen people die.  I get that.  But what if there’s more to it than meets the eye?  Maybe there is a physical death and a spiritual death and they are not the same thing.  In the Garden of Eden God allowed Adam and Eve to eat anything that they wanted to except the fruit of a certain tree.  If they did not obey, God told them, “- – – in the day that you eat from it you will surely die”.  Well, you know how that went.  Adam and Eve just couldn’t leave it alone.  They ate the fruit – – – and then Adam lived another 900 years or so!  Eve probably lived even longer; that’s how those things usually seem to work.

But God wasn’t lying.  God doesn’t lie.  Adam did eventually physically die, but a long time after the fact and not at all “- – – in that day”.  So I wonder if God was referring to a spiritual death rather than a physical one.  Another example further muddies the water.  Jesus died on the cross for a number of reasons, among which was to conquer death.  “Oh death where is your victory?  Oh death, where is your sting?”  Once again I fully  believe God, through the Bible, isn’t wrong: isn’t lying.  Jesus really died on that Roman cross and defeated death.  The fly in the ointment however is that Jesus really DID die on that cross!  Soon afterward two thieves, one on either side of Jesus, died too.  And since then millions and perhaps even billions of people have followed them into the grave.  And then there’s Lazarus.  Was Lazarus judged right after he died, or was he judged after the second time that he died?

So what gives here?  Has death been defeated or has it not?  Was God lying when He said “- – – for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die”?  Well, yes to the first question and no to the second, I think, and here’s why.  It seems just possible to me that the full reality of death is something that I can not clearly see from where I stand in the finitude of space and time.  Death, to me, occurs when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop drawing breath, and the neurons of the brain cease to fire the messages which keep physical life going.  I have seen death on the battlefield, in the emergency room, and at funerals for family and friends and I know what it looks like from where I stand.  But is that what death looks like from where God stands on the other side of space and time?  Perhaps God sees life and death in a vastly different context than I do, and this is a possibility which gives me some hope.

What if spiritual death is something that can occur when a person remains physically alive?  I am not judging – that is way above my pay grade – but I think that it’s very possible that people such as Adolph Hitler (everybody’s favorite example of a really bad person), Pol Pot, Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker murderer), and King Leopold II were spiritually dead and on a hell-bound train long before they drew their last breath.  Many others may also have shaken their fists in defiance at God and sworn “I will NOT serve you” and earned an eternity with little need for warm clothing.

But what of others who are not such obvious cases; who have not pointedly bowed their knee to evil but nevertheless have not sworn fealty to God either?  What about the Buddhist or Atheist, or the tribesman on the banks of a stream in the Amazon basin, who has done good to the extent that he or she knows good but has never felt compelled to acknowledge a God who they hardly know or do not in fact know at all?

I just wonder if it is possible that at some point after the physical death but before a spiritual death we will all be able to see the choice available to us in a much clearer light and at that point will chose whom we will worship, God or ourselves.  Those who chose to worship themselves will be given their wish and be sent to worship themselves and nurse their grudges and rage against what they perceive to be the injustice perpetrated against them by an unfair Judge in an eternal outer darkness, while the rest of us lay down our sinful baggage and accept forgiveness and healing in repentance in the eternal Kingdom of Light in the presence of God.

Like I said, I’m no theologian.  I could be very off base here, and ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness if I am.  This view just seems to fit God’s mix of love and justice better to me than one of a stern God who longs to bring the hammer down on everyone who doesn’t toe a very thin line.  I’ll have to present this idea to some people who are a whole lot smarter than me about these things, but i thought that I would share them with you first.

A Parable of Who’s In and Who’s Out (and the answer to that might be a surprise)

About thirty of my favorite people and I were discussing Matthew 25:31-46 this morning.  You remember Matthew 25:31-46 don’t you?  It’s the parable that Jesus told concerning judgement and the assignment of our eternal future in heaven and hell.  I greatly enjoyed out conversation and just didn’t get enough of it the first time around, so here goes with round number two.

The gist of this scripture is that when the day of judgement comes Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats; the blessed from the accursed ones.  At this place before the King it is suggested that there will be surprises.  “How did I get in Lord?” some will ask, and “Why am I outside?” will be the question of others.  Jesus answers this question by famously saying, in paraphrase, that “when you fed me (or didn’t) when I was hungry, clothed me (or didn’t) when I was naked, visited me (or didn’t) when I was sick or in prison, you were doing righteousness.”  “When did we do those things?  We’ve never even seen You before.”  “When you did it (or didn’t do it) for the smallest and most insignificant people in society, you did it to Me.”

OK, I really love that.  Jesus has said that your actions matter, and that even if you don’t know anything about Him yet love your neighbor regardless of who s/he is, you are loving Him and pass the test.  Of course, that sets up a problem; what if a person is kind and generous with people who have less than him or her and gets down in the dirt too help, or works to save children from traffickers, or other such noble and awesome things loved by God, yet has not prayed the “sinners’ prayer”.  Was all of that love wasted, and the person doing God’s business and not just talking about it not saved?  I know, other verses say “he that believeth in Me shall not perish but have everlasting life”, and “no one comes to the Father except by way of the Son”, but right there in Matthew 25 Jesus says only that those who DID righteousness would be welcomed into the kingdom, and not just those who paid it lip service.

So, does that extend God’s grace and salvation to a Buddhist monk who fights human trafficking?  A Navajo medicine man who shares his meager pot of lamb stew with a sick neighbor, or an atheist who struggles to bring education and/or legal representation to the poor and underserved residents of the ghetto or barrio?  I cannot tell by Matthew 25: 31-46 alone, but I cannot argue that they will not receive grace and pardon by that scripture either.

And what about the person professing Jesus Christ who’s purse strings remain tightly tied, who’s smile is only for those who can help him, and who’s time is used to serve his interests only?  Does this person’s profession of faith get him anywhere with the Righteous Judge on that great/terrible day?  I, of course, do not think so, but I am no theologian.  I would love to read what more educated people than I believe concerning this.

And then there’s hell.  Chapter 25 of Matthew indicates a place we call hell in three different ways in the three different parables; a place outside the party in parable number one, a place of outer darkness in parable number two, and a place of fire where Satan and his demons are punished in number three.  Well, which is it?  As Joshua Ryan Butler pointed out in his excellent book “The Skeletons in God’s Closet”, Genesis records that in the beginning God made heaven and earth.  No mention of hell there.  Genesis goes on to speak of water and land and fish and bugs and birds and stars and people, but not one little peep about hell.  So where did this hell come from, what is it like, and who’s going there?

Butler writes that hell is a place in the Bible called Gehenna, or the Hinnom Valley; a place outside of the gates of the city where people would go to, among other things, sacrifice their children to Molech or Chemosh or whatever bloody ‘god’ that they chose to worship instead of God.  So hell could be a place outside of the kingdom city where people can go, if they wish, to worship anything other than God,  It’s their choice.  God wants them in His city, but if they insist on doing what they want instead of what God wants, well, he just can’t allow that behavior into His city.  If they insist on staying outside; their will be done.  Butler is much more exhaustive in his discussion of hell and judgement, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in this topic should read his book.

So my takeaway from the discussion was that God is not some distant, pissed-off white guy who is just waiting for me or anyone else to screw up so that he can zap me to the torture chamber for eternity.  Instead, God sets out to meet me every day, only He is wearing a mask and I may not recognize Him right away.  Only by treating each person whom I meet as if s/he was God can I make the cut from a works perspective, and only if I do so because I love and want to serve people can I make it from the grace perspective.  And it may, just may, be open to whomever does the will of God, no matter who they are or what they believe.