The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Advent reflections: Death, heaven, hell & judgment

Posted by Ron George on December 7, 2013

Web of Skulls, by Laura Barbosa

Web of Skulls, by Laura Barbosa

What better time of year for pondering sacred mysteries than the long, dark days of December? It’s hard to imagine such things when daytime weather is sunny and the air comfortably cool, as it is from time to time in the wintertime Coastal Bend of Texas. Still, most of our time these days is spent in darkness (until Dec. 21), and there’s some residual wisdom in the idea that December, the ending month of the year, gives us time for reflection upon the ending of things temporal – such as our lives, the lives of all we know and care about as well as humanity itself, the Earth and all there is.

Traditional Christian reflection this time of year, which began long before the Feast of the Nativity became heavily freighted with unrealistic expectations, has been of the last things: death, heaven, hell and judgment. These are fearsome themes but utterly rooted in the deepest soil of Christian tradition; and, just as important, they resonate with humanity’s deepest concerns about destiny and the meaning of life.

Christians are wont to give pat answers for these concerns, which may comfort the faithful and let them off the hook for a moment or two, but pat answers tend to fall flat when life intrudes mightily upon the psyche and one is left alone in the darkness, trying to sleep but wakeful for fear of what happens not tomorrow but at the end of life. The pat answers are:

  • Death is not the end of human life: Eternal life awaits good people who believe in Jesus; eternal damnation awaits those who don’t.
  • Heaven is where faithful Christians go to be with God; and hell is where everyone else goes because they lacked faith in Jesus.
  • Judgment is what happens at the end of time when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead: Good people are given eternal life in heaven; bad people, eternal damnation in hell.

    Eternity, by Diana Aprelskaya

    Eternity, by Diana Aprelskaya

These themes grew out of a profound sense of the nearness of the end of time that gripped the first generation of Christians. They believed Jesus had risen from the dead and would return – soon – to avenge himself upon evildoers and take his disciples to heaven. The story of Jesus was a story of hope laid against humanity’s natural fear of death, of oblivion, of non-being. Our brains, the most complex things in the known universe, are not able to comprehend the experience and meaning of death. Humanity has developed countless imaginative ways of dealing with the mystery of non-being. One among many of those ways is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection from the dead, which was interpreted by the early church as accomplishing salvation for all who believed in his name. Salvation from what? Death and the fear of death – and eternal separation from God, which is a fair definition of damnation. As Christian theology developed, it was the love of God in Christ Jesus to which humans were called to respond in faith.

“There is no fear in love,” says the author of 1 John 4, “but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

The problem with Christianity’s pat answer about death is that it doesn’t answer the existential question: What happens to me when I die? What’s it like? What will I experience? There are dubious, popular-culture answers to these questions but no Christian answers. We search Christian tradition in vain for authentic discourse on what it’s like to die. Our storytelling, for the most part, leaps over these issues. Christian scripture is silent, except for metaphorical language and gauzy speculation. Our rational minds appreciate and understand that we simply don’t know.

The Last Judgment, by Wassily Kandinski

The Last Judgment, by Wassily Kandinski

Faith is said to fill that knowledge gap, which is not the same as believing. Faith is our response to the love  of God in Christ. What we believe about God or Jesus or the resurrection or anything else in Christian tradition may not rise to an appreciable level, but faith lets us put the existential questions in God’s hands as we follow Jesus’ example of living into the inevitable suffering and death of human existence with courage born of the Greater Love: “This is my commandment,” Jesus says in John 15, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Which is all well and good, but it still doesn’t answer the existential question. It is, however, a response worth pondering in this time of year ending: Where is my faith these days? Am I willing to let God love me through death? Is that enough to allay my fear? If not, why not? If so, how so? And then to the evangelical imperative: How will such faith manifest itself as witness to the world to make it a less terrifying place to live?

None of which addresses heaven, hell and judgment; but then, is that really any of my business? Are these storylines relevant to my existence and how I deal with the inevitability of death – my own, my wife’s, my parents’, my siblings’, my children’s and their children’s and their children’s children’s? Human society? The Earth itself? The entire God-given universe?

It may very well be – in fact, it’s entirely likely – that heaven, hell and judgment are of vital interest to many Christians. These stories tell us something true about human being, even if it’s not that there are actual places called heaven and hell and that Jesus and his disciples will literally sit thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. (Mt. 19.28) If so, then what is the truth of it for the 21st century? Will our answers rely on literal readings of Christian tradition? Or will they interpret ancient ideas for the scientific age in which we live? Frankly, my guess is that we’re more inclined to rely on ancient stories than rational interpretation, which ultimately leaves a void between what we claim to know and what we actually experience. In any case, though, we are called as Christians to discover – and perhaps recover – the meaning of human life and destiny amid the ancient stories and traditions of our faith.

Traditionally, this has been the spiritual meaning and liturgy of Advent, wherein we expect the long-awaited second coming of Jesus; and, oh, by the way, immediately following this season of expectation, anticipation and, perhaps, anxiety over the meaning of life and human destiny, we are called to celebrate the nativity of Jesus, the first coming, by which hope for the future, here and now and always, was generated for the next 2,000 years.

It’s worth waiting for, this commemoration of the birth of Jesus (not his “birthday”), even though we prefer to jump the gun and avoid the issues of Advent by slathering ourselves in cultural hogwash, seasonal sentimentality and pure denial as we line up for bargains, trudge through the malls and, ultimately, find ourselves with nothing much to show for our December excess except debt, disease and a profound sense of loss.

That sense of loss is real, by the way; and, it’s something we ought to be dealing with in Advent instead of telling our children lies about “Santa Claus.”

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2 Responses to “Advent reflections: Death, heaven, hell & judgment”

  1. charhardy@stx.rr.com said

    Ron, while I was exploring your blog, I spotted the tribute to Mary on her birthday. It was tender, sweet, beautiful. You are each blessed ; love as you expressed it in your remarks is rare. Guard it well, and may it last forever. Charlene

  2. Jim Abbott said

    Hi Ron, Started this the day you posted it. Got discouraged, and set it aside until tonight. I need to read it again when my mind is more able to focus, today is not a good day for that. Thanks, Blessings, and peace be upon you. Jim

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