Posted by: Jack Brown | March 24, 2011

Dying to Know

When I was a minister in the Church of Scotland, there were some months when I seemed to average 2-3 funerals a week.  One particularly harrowing week the directors of the local funeral home offered to set up a place for me to stay with a cot and a small fridge, and they were only half joking.  When you’re a “parish minister,” you end up doing a lot of funerals for people who die in neighborhoods close to your church, most of whom you have never met.  It was quite a baptism by fire.  I’ll be honest: most of those funerals are a blur to me now, but there is one I will never forget.  It began with a phone call.

“Mr. Brown, I’m calling to tell you of a death in your parish.  A young man named Mike Sanchez*.  Twenty years old.  Would you be available to do his service on Thursday?”

I said yes.  Twenty years old?  How tragic, I thought.

“Oh, and there’s one more thing I feel you should know, Mr. Brown.  Mr. Sanchez…took his own life.”

And with those words, my life was never the same again.  The sense of sheer terror that filled me was unbelievable.  A suicide?  How can I possibly lead a service for that?  How can I possibly be a pastoral presence to his family and friends?  What would I say?  What should I do?  After all, some of my formative years as a Christian were spent in a denomination that made their perspective pretty clear: you take your own life, there’s no chance for you.  None whatsoever.  I felt lost and completely helpless.  Was there any hope, any hope at all?  I wanted…I needed to know.

In his book, Love wins, Rob Bell suggests that there might still be the possibility of coming to faith after you die.  In fact, he quotes Martin Luther, saying it’s something Luther suggested as well when he wrote in 1522, “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?” (I’m not sure it’s an accurate representation of what Luther was saying, but I’ll give Rob a pass on that. I’ve quoted people out of context before. Sometimes on purpose.)  It’s a popular line of thought, more popular than people realize I’d bet.  It certainly provides some comfort in the midst of questions like “What about those who never heard about Jesus?” and “What about children who die before being able to understand faith?” and “What about those with mental illness or handicaps?”  By holding out the possibility of a postmortem salvation, Bell (and others like him) offers hope and peace of mind to those who wrestle with those questions.

People like me.

Even if we throw out Martin Luther (wouldn’t be the first time that happened to him), Rob Bell is in pretty good company here.  In fact, he has in his camp that darling of the evangelical community, that go-to guy when defending the faith is called for, the Once-and-Future Narnian, here he is in the left corner, weighing in at an undetermined amount since those British types measure things by something weird called “stones”…Mr. Clive Staples Lewis!  That’s right, C.S. Lewis proposed a similar thought to Bell’s in more than one of his works.  In fact, I remember the first time I read the words from The Last Battle when Christ-figure Aslan welcomes a follower of the false king Tash into his kingdom: “I accept all the service you rendered to Tash all your life as if it were done to me, for you did it with a pure heart.”  That was my first encounter with the idea of postmortem salvation, and it appealed to me.  A lot.

That was a number of years ago.  Today the idea still appeals to me, but I struggle to reconcile it with Scripture.  Whenever Christ or the writers of the Bible talk about death and judgment, there’s a real sense of finality to it.  When I read things like Hebrews 9:27, which says “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (NIV), it’s hard to see a second chance in that.  But at the same time, I have to say that if God wants to work things that way for some folks, I’m not going to be the one running up to him, KJV in hand, pointing out that he has no right to do that.  He is God, after all, and he can do what he wants.

But I have to say this: it’s not something I’d ever be willing to assume is true.  I might hope it’s true, but I’m not going to build my theology around it.  That’s a dangerous move to make, and one that I’d have a hard time defending biblically.  The message from Scripture time and again is clear: what we do in this life matters.  How we respond to Christ in this life matters. That message should shape our theology and practice, and we can trust the rest to God.  At this point in my life I am comfortable with the fact there are things about eternity I don’t know because I can’t know them.  But there are some things I can know, and one of them is that God will judge each person uniquely and fairly (thanks, Cliffe K.).  That’s enough for me.

So, is this aspect of Love Wins heretical?  I don’t think you can use that word.  Unless you want to call C.S. Lewis a heretic, too.  As one who has read Mere Christianity, I can’t do that.

So, you might be wondering, what happened with that funeral in Scotland?  You can imagine that entire week was one filled with lots of panicked and earnest prayer on my part, usually one word: “Help!”  And just when I reached the end of myself (which is actually a good place to be), I had the most amazing experience.  As I stood over the casket with the body of this precious young man in it, a scarf around his neck hiding the evidence of what he’d done, I looked at him.  And in an instant I was overwhelmed, in fact the sensation was like being “flooded,” with the love God had for this boy.  It was a love beyond reason, a love that seemed powerful enough to destroy any barrier because it was.  And at that moment I knew I could conduct this funeral and care for this family because God’s love was sufficient.  I could trust Mike’s future to God because God was good, and God loved him more than I could possibly know.  There was hope, but not hope rooted in any earthly understanding.  It was hope rooted in the grace and mercy of God.

And it was enough.

 

*name has been changed

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Responses

  1. Jack, thank you for this thoughtful and gracious post. Keep blogging!


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