Never in my whole life have I spent such a focused, extended period of time thinking about death.
For the last two weeks I have been a part of an intensive module course at a local seminary. The class is called "Resurrection in the New Testament," and is a theological approach to how death, resurrection, and judgment are depicted in the NT. We just finished discussing our secondary text for the class, Anthony C. Thiselton’s Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things (Eerdmans: 2012), and I’m perhaps even more confused now than I was before. The fact is that many people in the Church simply do not think about life, death, and the “Last Things” nearly as thoroughly as they should. Below are some of the thoughts that have challenged me these last two weeks.
What exactly is time? We flippantly throw around the idea that God is eternal, but what exactly does "eternity" mean? Is it a really, really, really, really long period of immeasurable time? Is it another dimension, outside of the four with which we are already familiar? Does God really exist outside of time? If so, how then does Christian tradition allow for such a deity to enter into the human story and be affected by it? How is it possible to have “a relationship” with a being that exists outside of time? How did you or your church define eternity when you were young? How do you feel about it today?
Two years ago, if you'd have asked me if I believed in Hell, I would have responded, "Absolutely not." These days, I’m not so sure. Thiselton presents three distinct streams of thought that have deep roots in the tradition of the Church, with each also being somewhat grounded in scripture:
a. The view of Iranaeus that afterlife consisted of “conditional immortality.”
Sometimes this view is called “annihilationalism.” It’s based on the belief that, upon death (or perhaps more accurately, at the time of the resurrection), the faithful will live while the “wicked” perish, simply slipping into nonexistence. This is partially supported by Paul, who claims that “the wages of sin is death.”
b. The view most prominently held by Gregory of Nyssa, which is similar to what today we would call universalism.
Move over, Rob Bell! As early as the fourth century, this Cappadocian Father was preaching that “It is the peculiar effect of light to make darkness vanish, and of life to destroy death…Cleansing reaches those who are befouled with sin; and life, the dead…Error may be corrected, and what is dead is restored to life.” Gregory believed that the ultimate goal of God (again, supported by Paul) was that God become “all in all,” even if it meant that the “wicked” must be purified by fire before entering the Kingdom. This view caused quite a bit of controversy recently with the publication of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.
c. The Augustinian view of a conscious, eternal torment.
Hellfire, burning, eternal torture. This is perhaps the most commonly accepted understanding of Hell in the Protestant and Evangelical tradition. A person chooses to turn away from God, and is burned for all eternity as a consequence. However, Thiselton acknowledges that this view is particularly problematic: "The greatest difficulty of the 'everlasting punishment' view may be partly the relation between eternity and time; but even more fundamentally how we can conceive of God eternally sustaining both the life of believers in fellowship with [God], and also that of a group who are in every other sense 'separate' from [God]." In other words, if God is truly the sustainer of life and is fully present with those who take part in the resurrection, how can a life exist outside of that life-giving presence?
I am particularly fond of Gregory of Nyssa’s view. However, I acknowledge that it has its shortcomings. Many of the early Christians sought universal salvation as “something to be hoped for,” even if it wasn’t a solid reality. I would like to hope for the idea that the Creator with restore all things in the end, as well, but I have this crazy notion of justice that keeps me from fully believing it. Which brings me to my final topic that I have been pondering:
3. Justice and Mercy
(Heb: tzedekah, Gk: δικαιοσύνη). A better translation of both words is perhaps “righteousness,” the idea that God is going to “put things to rights,” as N.T. Wright says. In essence, there is no conflict of justice and mercy in God. Righteousness includes a freeing of the oppressed, in whatever form their oppression might take. This entails a profoundly different understanding of the word justice; rather than God submitting to the back-and-forth of human right and wrong, God fixes the root of the problem. In other words, it's as if a mother chided her two children for fussing, and one of the children responded, "He started it!" to which the mother answers, "And I'm finishing it." What matters is not that God repays all wrongs tit-for-tat, but that in the end, God makes all things right. That is the righteousness of the Deity.
The Church has struggled with these questions for the better part of 2,000 years, and humanity itself has pondered the same issues since the first people began to consider their purpose in the cosmos. Honestly, I don't yet believe that there are any real answers. However, these are the questions that effective ministers should be struggling with. Death is always around us, regardless of whether our culture admits it. The families of those coping with the suicide of a loved one, or the young man who died of a drug overdose, or the child who fell victim to cancer—these are all problematic to the Christian worldview of an all-loving God. But it is precisely these circumstances that call for real, humble ministers, who approach such great questions with fear and with trembling.