Brian’s Note: This is part of a chapter which we cut from A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. The eighth of the ten questions identified in the subtitle deals with eschatology – our vision of the future, the afterlife, etc.
If we shed the Greco-Roman narrative discussed last week, death becomes the occasion, via God’s presence in the future, for all pretense and hypocrisy, like all hidden virtues and goodness, to be brought to light – because in God there can be no darkness or deceit or ignorance. This means that the true accounting, evaluation, or assessment of our lives cannot help but happen. (For more on this subject, see Romans 14:9-13; Hebrews 4:12-13.)
This true accounting, evaluation, or assessment will not be harsh, merciless, or graceless, as many assume, because in God, what we may think of as opposites – grace and truth, justice and mercy, kindness and strength – are beautifully and fully integrated. God never expresses justice at the expense of kindness, or vice versa, but every expression of justice is kind and every expression of kindness is just. God’s integrated judgment, then, could never be merely retributive – seeking to punish wrongdoers for their wrongs and in this way balance some sort of karmic cosmic equation. No, God’s judgment would have to be far higher and better than that: it would have to be restorative. It would aim far higher than merely convicting people of wrong (which is easy); its goal would be universal repentance, universal restoration, universal reconciliation, universal purification, universal “putting wrong things right,” which is a God-sized task. In this sense, achieving judgment means achieving a right outcome, which in turn means reconciling, not merely punishing; treating and healing, not merely diagnosing; transforming, not merely exposing; redeeming (or giving value), not merely evaluating.
So when we say, with the writer of Hebrews, that “it is appointed to human beings to die once, and after this, the judgment,” we are not saying, “and after this, the 1 condemnation.” (Hebrews 9:27)
We are saying, with John, that to “see God,” to be in God’s unspeakable light, will purge us of all darkness:
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! …Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this open in them purify themselves, just as God is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)
Since “what we will be has not yet been made known,” it is hard to say anything more, except this: In the end, God is all in all, and all will be well. (1 Corinthians 15:24-28.)
Does that mean there will be no cost, no loss, no regret, nor mourning? Of course not. Paul’s image of a cleansing fire is appropriate here. God’s fire can’t consume “gold, silver, and precious stones,” because in so doing, God would be destroying something good, which would render God evil. But the cleansing fire must destroy the “wood, hay, and stubble” of hypocrisy, evil, sin. Some of us, Paul said, will experience this as a great loss, suggesting that once the evil or worthless thoughts, words, and deeds of our story are burned away, there will not be much of our life’s story left. We will be saved “by fire,” he says; perhaps we’d say “by the skin of our teeth.” But others of us, recalling Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats, will be surprised in a positive way: thousands of forgotten deeds of kindness will have been remembered by God, and we will feel the reward of God’s “well done.
This kind of hope for life beyond death changes the way you live before death. It makes you eager to use your wealth to make others rich, not to hoard it; to use your power to empower others, not to protect yourself; to give and give so that you will finish this life having given more than you received, thus “laying up treasures in heaven.” It encourages you to try to be secretive about your good deeds because you would rather defer the return on your investment to the future. In fact, this hope makes you willing to give up this life for things that matter more than life itself. Dr. King knew this. His hope beyond death emboldened him to say: To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory. (From A Christmas Sermon on Peace, December 24, 1967. (Widely available online, including here.)
We’ve all heard the cliché about someone being “so heavenly minded he’s no earthly good,” and we’ve probably met people – and congregations, and denominations – on whom the cliché fits like an old bedroom slipper. But I hope now it’s becoming clear: there is also a way of being so earthly minded that you’re no earthly good, and there’s a way of being heavenly minded so that you are more earthly good than you ever could have been any other way. To be liberated from the fear of death – that’s one of the greatest liberations of all. To believe in a new creation that arises from within this creation – that’s a source of true hope and courage. To participate in a network of relationships that begins before death but isn’t limited by death in the slightest degree…that’s an invitation to live life abundant, life to the full, life of the ages.
So, making my eschatology personal, what do I expect to happen when I die? I expect to experience death as a passage, like birth, like passing through a door. I don’t know how that passing will come … like a slow slipping away in disease, like a sudden jolt or shock in an accident, like losing my grip and feeling that I’m falling, only to discover that I’m not falling out of life, but deeper into it.
On the other side, I imagine I will be in the unimaginable light of God’s presence, a goodness so good, a richness so rich, a holiness so holy, a mercy and love so strong and true that all of my evil, pride, lust, greed, resentment, and fear will be instantly melted out of me. I imagine that I will at that moment more fully understand how God has in mercy and grace born the pain of forgiving and cleansing me, because I think forgiveness is indeed agonizing, as Jesus’ suffering on the cross embodies. I imagine that at that moment, because I will know more than ever how much I have been forgiven, I will more than ever be filled with love…for God, and with God, for everyone and everything.
I imagine I will feel a sense of reunion – yes, with loved ones who have died, but also with my great-great-great-great-grandparents and my thirty-second cousins whose names I’ve never known but to whom I am related. I imagine that sense of relatedness that I now feel with closest of kin will somehow be expanded to every person who has ever lived. And I doubt it will stop with human beings, but will expand infinitely outwards to all of God’s creation. I imagine that I will feel the fullest, most exquisite sense of oneness and interrelatedness and harmony that I approached vaguely or clumsily in my most ecstatic moments in this life.
I imagine that I will instantly feel differently about my sufferings. I will see, not the short-term pain that so preoccupied me on the past side of death, but instead the virtue and courage and compassion that were beaten into me through each fall of the hammer of pain. On the future side of death, I imagine that I will bless my sufferings, and feel about them as I feel about my pleasures now; I may in fact feel about many of my pleasures then as I feel about my sufferings now. What has been suffered or lost will feel weightless compared to the substance that has been gained through the suffering and loss. I imagine that in all this, I will feel a sense of … “Ah yes, now I see.” What I longed for, reached for, touched but couldn’t grasp, will then be so clear, and all of my unfulfilled longing on this side of death will, I imagine, enrich and fulfill the having on that side of death.
Continued next week!
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. After teaching college English, Brian was a church planter, pastor, and networker in the Baltimore-Washington DC area for over 20 years. He is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for leadership gatherings in the U.S. and internationally, and is Theologian-in-Residence at Life in the Trinity Ministry.
Brian’s writing spans over a dozen books, including his acclaimed We Make the Road by Walking, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, and Naked Spirituality. A frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs, Brian is also an active and popular blogger, a musician, and an avid outdoor enthusiast. Brian is married to Grace, and they have four adult children. Find out more here.