24 April 2007

Eternal Punishment?

I was thinking today about the idea of eternal 'punishment' or 'judgment'.  A lot of people have a hard time thinking of a loving God who would 'punish' people 'eternally' for not believing in him or some other qualifier.  This got me thinking of the judgment that was forced upon creation because of treason from Adam and Eve.  We know that Adam and Eve were removed from the presence of God (Genesis 3).  What if that removal was not just limited to Adam and Eve?  It seems that the presence of God was also removed from creation.  Before the rebellion, Life permeated all of creation, not just Adam and Eve and not just the garden.  But when they committed treason, that life-giving, life-sustaining presence was removed.  God removed himself from our realm of existence and all of creation spun out of control in a 'cursed' state.

Paul wrote in Romans 8, '...all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.  Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse.  But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.'

So, what if judgment is not actually an active punishment by God?  I agree that God actively punishing people seems to run contrary to the truth that 'God is Love' and that God is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.  But what if God was not actively involved in the 'punishment'?  What if 'punishment' or 'judgment' was actually the removal of the presence of God?  This, to me, seems more likely the case.

The same can be said of 'eternal punishment'.  People are not sentenced to 'hell' for 'eternity' as punishment.  God, in his love, is giving them what they want.  They don't want to be with him.  So, lovingly, he gives them what the do want -- an existence without God's presence.  What if that is what 'hell' really is -- the removal of God's presence from people 'for ever'?  What if 'hell' or 'eternal damnation' is God giving some people exactly what they want?  That, to me, lines up more with the character and nature of God.  That, to me, would explain a lot of the 'problem passages' in the Bible.  That, to me, would explain a lot of the life of Jesus and his teaching.  Think about his lament while going to Jerusalem, 'How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.  But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes.'  The historical context is that the people of Israel wanted a war with Rome.  And war was what they got.

I am beginning to think that this might be a better way of understanding 'punishment' or 'judgment'.  What are your thoughts?

Peace be with you.

+ OD

18 April 2007


Is it just me or do our funeral services reek of dualism?  Lately I have attended a number of Christian funeral services.  A few were really good.  Others, sadly, were not.  For example, at one service I kept hearing things like, ‘This isn’t N. here.  N., the real N., is heaven, in the arms of God’, etc.  And then there would be some type of ‘altar call’ message.  You know the type.  The ‘minister’ finds this a grand opportunity to tell people to ‘accept Christ’ or they're ‘going to hell’.


People are coming to ‘pay their respect’, remember someone dear to them, or grieve and other people feel obligated to shove religion down the throats of those who mourn.

Now, I understand that funerals are a good place to talk about what happens after physical death.  I mean, some people are naturally thinking about their own mortality at that time.  But there should be some decency in this, some tact, some respect; don’t you think?  Is it just me or is it really bad form to talk about ‘getting ready to meet your maker’ when we are supposed to be honoring and remembering the departed?  Shouldn’t the ‘minister’ actual minister to those who are mourning?  Shouldn’t there be some type of consoling?  Perhaps I just don’t get it.  The whole thing seems so very platonic.

Since I have yet to attend a funeral in the Episcopal church, I turned to my handy-dandy Book of Common Prayer to see how we might do the service.  What an eye-opening read.


The service starts with a celebration in song of the Resurrection of Jesus.  Next we have a prayer regarding the departed and God giving them to us in our ‘earthly pilgrimage’; of God consoling the mourners; the insight to death as the ‘gate to eternal life’; and the hope that we will see the departed once more.

Next we move to the Liturgy of the Word.  Like other liturgical services, we have an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a Psalm, and finally a Gospel reading.  After this there is a short homily.  This is followed by reciting the Apostles Creed.  The Eucharist may follow.

Next is the commendation part of the service where we entrust the departed back to God.  This can be seen in the following prayer:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant N.  We humbly ask that you acknowledge her as a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.  Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  May her soul and the souls of all the departed, through your mercy, rest in peace.  Then, at the consummation of your New Creation, bring N. and all the saints into new bodily life at the resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

As the remains are being removed from the church, another resurrection anthem is sung.

The service then continues at the grave site for the Committal.  (If the grave hasn’t been blessed for Christian burial before, there is also a prayer provided for that.)  This part also starts with an anthem about the resurrection and the faithfulness of God.  Next comes the Lord’s Prayer, a closing prayer, and the dismissal.


After reading through that service, I was struck with the thought, ‘This is more in line with what I have seen in other faiths’.  (Okay, ‘other faiths’ as revealed in movies.  And we all know how accurate movies are.)  I can imagine a great Norse ship being set ablaze and drifting out to sea with a departed loved one on board as he or she goes off to embrace the netherworld.  In the Episcopal tradition, there is that sense of a cycle – God giving us the person at the beginning of life and we giving the person back to God at the (supposed) end of life.  In our service we realize that the departed were with us for a while and, just like God ‘delivered’ our loved ones from the mother’s womb to us in this life, we are (symbolically) delivering them back to God.

Not only are we delivering the departed to God, we recognize that the body is still important.  That the ‘real’ person in not ‘in heaven’ but that the ‘real’ person is the whole person -- soul and body.  The soul may be in the hand of God, but it is only there for a while.  It will one day, at the consummation of God’s New Creation Project, be rejoined (or, to use the words of St Paul, be clothed) with a new ‘spiritual body’ or ‘eternal body’.  Now don’t misunderstand me or St Paul.  When he wrote ‘spiritual body’ in 1Corinthians, he didn’t mean a non-physical body but a transphysical body.  A body that is not limited or motivated by fallen nature.  It is a body like that of Jesus at his resurrection.

Now, I know a lot of people who have a real problem with this.  They ask all of the same type of questions, ‘What will we look like?  Will our bodies represent the age we were when we died or will they be like they were when we were at our prime?’  While I think these are valid questions (even though, sometimes, they are used to show how absurd the ‘physical’ resurrection is), I think they miss the point.  As St John wrote, we don't really know for certain ‘what we will be like when [Jesus] appears.  But we do know that we will be like him’ (1John 3.2).  Paul wrote that the new body would be somewhat like our old one but it will be transformed.  But that is about as far as he goes.  Why is that do you suppose?  I think it is because we are at the very fringe of language when talking about this.  Furthermore, I think it is supposed to be left a mystery.  There are plenty of things we are to know about God, Jesus, the Spirit, eternal destinations, etc.  But other things, like a lot of the details, we are on a need to know basis.  And, right now, we don't need to know.  We may like to know.  We may think that we need to know.  But God, in his holiness, thought otherwise.

So, I am so thankful that the funeral service at the Episcopal church is more of a celebration about the resurrection of Jesus and that it is about the whole person, the real person, not just some platonic ideal that leaves the impression that the natural world is (just this side of) evil and that the only thing that matters is the ‘spiritual’ world.

Well, this all came to a very personal point quite recently.  A friend of mine called me and asked me if I would oversee his mother’s funeral.  Now, my friend does not profess to be a Christian, but he told me that his mother was.  So I was trying to determine how to respect his mother’s wishes and not (purposely) offend some people in attendance.  This would be a challenge.  I asked my friend if I could have some time to pray and think about it.  He assured me that wouldn’t be a problem.  After meeting with my Priest, I felt at complete peace about doing it.  I called my friend and told him that I would do the ceremony and asked to meet him to discuss the details.  When we met, my friend informed me that his mother was an Episcopalian and that she would want a Christian service.  He had some songs picked out that where his mother’s favorites -- ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’, ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘The Old Rugged Cross’.  And here I was worried about offending someone.  He said he wanted it to be short and it was, about thirty minutes or less.  Afterward, I had numerous people come up to me and say that it was a really good service and that my friend’s mother would have liked it.  And for the record, I (loosely) followed the service in the Book of Common Prayer.  No hellfire.  No damnation.  Just a simple celebration of the life of this dear Sister and her love for family and friends and the faithfulness of God and the certainty of the Resurrection.

Peace be with you.

+ OD