Saturday, November 22, 2008

No Heaven For You

I will be as up front about a few things. First, I neither know nor care all that much about what happens when we die. Maybe nothing. Maybe we wink out of existence, with all that remains rotting under the ground, or perhaps reduced to ash, feeding the cycle of life, death, and generation that has existed in some form or another for over three billion years on this planet. Perhaps, when we die, we find ourselves before the throne of God, to be embraced as a child. Perhaps, to the contrary, there is a form of reincarnation, and for a brief moment we see all our past lives, only to plunge in to the forgetfulness of another mortal life once again. I really have no opinion on the details one way or another. All I am sure of concerning death is that it is inevitable, and whatever happens is outside my ability to control.

I say all this because I am at turns amused and miffed at all the speculative personal eschatologies, built around this or that Biblical verse, or even parable, or this or that legend (Dante's Inferno reflected nearly a century of what passed for serious theological scholarship, and in turn has fed an ever-growing stream that has led, among other places, to The Omen and The Excorcist). There is, to be blunt, far too much attention paid to what happens after this life in far too many circles. Since I'm not dead yet, I for one am far more concerned about what is going on in this life. More, I think there is ample evidence from the Bible that God is far more concerned with this life - with how much and how well we love one another; how we care for those most in need; how we pursue justice, mercy, with compassion for all persons - than with whether or not there is a greeter at the Pearly Gates, with a harp and prefab wings for each of us.

The only thing, to my mind, that is more wasteful of intellectual energy than speculating about what happens after we die (and isn't it horribly narcissistic and prideful to think that God really cares about me so much that the entire edifice of salvation exists to ensure my own continued existence in some form or another after death?), is to use one's own convicted beliefs (now transferred to the realm of certainty) as a club to beat up others.
And it is important to get the claim right: Non-Christians are doomed to Hell as the appropriate punishment for their sins against a perfect and Holy God. Christians are pardoned from their punishment based on their trust in Jesus, whereby our sins were transferred to his account and his perfect righteousness was imputed to ours.

The New Testament is very clear that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and to reject him is to reject God. Telling Jews otherwise is profoundly unkind and un-Christian.

This is so disturbing on so many levels. It is also a huge distortion of the Biblical witness to say the Bible is "clear" about this issue. To take just one example, St. Paul did not write "For all non-Christians have sinned by rejecting God, and are therefore doomed to hell for all eternity." There was no qualification in Paul's insistence that, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God".

At the end of Romans 8, after a long discussion in the previous chapter concerning the role of the Law, he turns to the power of the Spirit in our lives. Chapter 8 is often cited because of the growing crescendo of hope and possibility on rhetorical display as Paul shows that the new life we have in Christ is ours not through any acceptance of our own (a point he was hammering home in Chapter 7), but the weird, irrational, prodigal love and grace of God. The end - "For I believe that neither death nor life" etc., etc. - refers as much to God's love for all of us, and each of us in this life. It is the hope and promise of the Spirit available to all. Not just to Christians who say the magic words; nor is it denied to all those who deny Christ (otherwise St. Peter would be sitting next to Judas in the pit of Hell, rather than chaperoning the Pearly Gates).

God's grace, thankfully, is much larger than Neil's. Were I to guess, I would say that all of us might just be surprised at that moment when the final mystery engulfs us. Be that as it may, to definitively claim that the Bible is clear that billions of human beings are consigned first to perdition, then to annihilation at the consummation of all things (check out the end of the Book of Revelation, where Jesus not only destroys Hell, but all those tossed in to the lake of fire simply wink out of existence) is not just unBiblical, it betrays a lack of love, compassion, and simple human fellow-feeling that is really . . . unbelievable.

Virtual Tin Cup

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