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.