Pastoral eschatology

Posted on May 25, 2008


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.)

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