Pastoral eschatology

More thoughts on eschatology…

I am fully convinced–and became so in pastoral ministry, performing funerals–that we cannot and should not speculate about the eternal fate of any particular person. God will judge, and (my other Spring Harvest soundbite) when we see God’s judgement we will be astonished by the depths of His mercy, and by the heights of His justice.

The NT offers many chillingly serious warnings about the reality of God’s eschatological severity (the main reason I find universalism too easy a way out), but will never speak of any named human person in hell. (In a parable, Lazarus is received into Abraham’s embrace, ‘a certain rich man’ is condemned to suffer; the most the New Testament will say of Judas is that he will ‘go to the place prepared for him’.) Those condemned to torment are classes of people–‘the idolaters, the sexually immoral, …’–and of course any class can potentially turn out to be empty. If the NT will not speculate about the particular inhabitants of hell, nor should we.

At the trivial level, this is no more than the old ‘we never know what went on in someone’s heart in the minutes before death,’ which remains true as far as it goes. But I want to take it much further than this. Too many Evangelical accounts of personal eschatology are simply Pelagian: I make decisions, and God responds to them. This has to be wrong. If salvation always coincides with visible faith, then it is because God decides to save, and as a result grants faith (see Edwards’s sermon on justification by faith for some very close analysis of this), not because I decide to have faith and thereby force God to do something different. (Almost no-one ever held that salvation always coincides with visible faith, though; the 10-20% mortality rate amongst infants in pre-penicillin Europe & America saw to that.) What determines the outcome is not what goes on in my heart, but what goes on in God’s heart, and what God does to my heart.

All of which is to say that my hope of salvation for myself, or any other human being, is primarily based on what I know of God, not on what I believe to be true about me, or about them. If our level of eschatological questioning is ‘where’s grandma?’, this will not be a helpful perspective, but–as I want to keep saying–that is almost certainly not the right place to start.

(How, though, in pastoral ministry to answer it? Point to the gospel promises, of course; point to the passages of Scripture that speak of God’s desire that all may be saved; and then stand with Abraham in the face of the deadly serious threats of God’s severity and ask ‘will not the judge of all the earth do justly?’ – Abraham understood doing justly as showing an astonishing level of mercy.)

12 Comments

  1. Bob Almond
    May 26, 2008

    Absolutely. You’ve expressed pretty much exactly what I also feel. And you’ve even used the same text – Abraham – that I go back to myself. So here’s my ‘Amen!’

  2. Steve H
    May 26, 2008

    Thanks for that Bob–it’s a comfort to know that someone like you with real pastoral gifts thinks the same way.

  3. Mark L
    May 26, 2008

    Just to add another “Amen” from another jobbing Pastor – and, for what it’s worth, I think this perspective (not sure whether it’s faith or a healthy agnosticism, maybe that depends on the starting point)helps chart a way through the often sterile “once saved, always saved” discussions…

  4. Steve H
    May 26, 2008

    I’m thinking of moving into Pentecostal blogging, and punctuating my posts with ‘Can I hear an “Amen”?’

    Thanks, Mark. The ‘once saved, always saved’ thing is odd pastorally, whether true or not (…), my sense is that, generally, those who you would really like to believe it (faithful, serious, humble believers with tender consciences) don’t, and those who really could do with not believing it (over-confident and lazy people) affirm it loudly.

  5. Jason Sexton
    May 26, 2008

    I have dealt with this question, esp. as it relates to infant salvation for young couples in our young church. And I’ve often gone to the passage in Genesis. Where we live, the Bible-belt of California, we have a lot of folks who love the once-saved always-saved notion. I also have found that someone who has audio-visually witnessed some sort of death-bed, final minute of the final hour “profession” often feels morally-obligated to assure everyone else alive that God did not forsake this “great guy.” This has always seemed harmful to me, minimizing the present need for the Gospel to be believed in ways that presently transform the believer.

    In a recent funeral I did of one who never professed allegiance to Christ (that anyone was aware of – though God’s grace was still operative in his life in so many ways), I found it a great opportunity for the advancement & application of the Gospel… to all those still living. It seems that the death event is a gracious affair God provides for observers, demanding a Godward impetus & terminus. It would then be one of God’s chief displays of his rich kindness… designed to bring men to repentance. In a Rom 2.4 sense, God’s kindness is intentionally operative & presently leading men who are “down-here” to repent & believe in the Gospel. For, “He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

    BTW, Steve: I’d love to hear some of that-ah Pentecotal-ah, preaching-ah – whooo! You’d fit right in with some of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists over here. (grin)

  6. Julie
    May 28, 2008

    Can I add another ‘amen’ having today done a funeral for someone who never professed faith but was a Good Samaritan to hundreds. I leaned towards trusting in God’s mercy and Psalm 139

    PS: Jason _ I do hope God is also leading women to repentance!

  7. Steve H
    Jun 2, 2008

    Julie, Jason, thanks for commenting.

    (I always had half a desire to become pentecostal when in pastorate–I constantly forgot names, and the idea of being able to call everyone either ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ was very attractive…)

  8. Chris Green
    Jun 3, 2008

    Steve,

    New to your blog, but I’ll brave another comment. Maybe consider it an “Amen! Ahem, can we talk after the sermon?”

    I think you’re right to draw up short of speculating on any particular person’s eternal state. And you’re statement about the eschatological surprise that awaits us – surprise at the “depths of mercy” and the “heights of justice” – I find spot on. In fact, someone has said the way we respond to that surprise (disappointment or elation) may be – no doubt to our very great surprise – God’s judgment of us! Those who are like God will be pleased that things didn’t turn out as they had thought they would. We shall see.

    But I can’t agree that “what determines the outcome is not what goes on in my heart, but what goes on in God’s heart, and what God does to my heart.” You’re right, we can’t be Pelagians. But we can’t be Calvinists, either! (At least I can’t.)

    I think Benedict XVI’s vision of the judgment in Spe Salvi (though much of that encyclical deserves the criticism given by Moltmann, et. al.) is near the truth. In the moment of facing Christ we are for the first time truly and finally faced with choice.

    I’m sure you can’t go along with this, but for the sake of conversation, I say it anyway…

  9. Steve H
    Jun 3, 2008

    Hi Chris,

    A proper answer will follow, but…

    Can’t be a Calvinist, or won’t be a Calvinist?!

    Steve

  10. Chris Green
    Jun 6, 2008

    Steve,

    A genuine “Can’t” :-)! But I anticipate the response…

    CG

  11. Steve H
    Jun 6, 2008

    Ah–you see, if it’s a genuine ‘can’t you already are a Calvinist of some sort!

  12. Chris Green
    Jun 8, 2008

    Lol! Moral constraint is beyond the Calvinist frame of reference! 🙂

    The “can’t” I’m talking about is not coerced or fated or predestined (in that sense); it is not an overcoming of the human volition, but a freeing of it. God in Christ has made room for genuine choice by emptying Himself. Therefore, I “can’t” accept Calvin’s answer to these questions not because an irresistible will has decided for me but because my heart and mind are being wooed and nurtured by an inexorable and kenotic love.

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