Rethinking the Tradition

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Rethinking the Tradition

Originally published in For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed. 2003 London: SPCK; Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse.
Original pagination is retained in bold italicized numbers.
Reproduced by permission of the author.

Resurrection still future

I begin at the end. The bodily resurrection is still in the future for everyone except Jesus. Paul is quite clear in 1 Corinthians 15.23: Christ is raised as the first-fruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ will be raised as he has been raised. The ‘coming’ of which Paul speaks has not yet happened; therefore, clearly, the dead in Christ have not yet been raised. This is actually the official view of all mainstream orthodox theologians, Catholic and Protestant, except for those who think that after death we pass at once into an eternity in which all moments are present — a quite popular view but one which contains many serious difficulties. I do not know whether Paul knew about the strange risings from the dead reported in Matthew 27.52-3, but had he done so he would certainly have seen them as peculiar signs and foretastes, not people actually being transformed into the likeness of Christ as he predicts in passages like Philippians 3.20-21 and 1 Corinthians 15 itself.

We should remember especially that the use of the word ‘heaven’ to denote the ultimate goal of the [21] redeemed, though hugely emphasized by medieval piety, mystery plays, and the like, and still almost universal at a popular level, is severely misleading and does not begin to do justice to the Christian hope. I am repeatedly frustrated by how hard it is to get this point through the thick wall of traditional thought and language that most Christians put up. ‘Going to heaven when you die’ is not held out in the New Testament as the main goal. The main goal is to be bodily raised into the transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus Christ. If we want to speak of ‘going to heaven when we die’, we should be clear that this represents the first, and far less important, stage of a two-stage process. That is why it is also appropriate to use the ancient word ‘paradise’ to describe the same thing. I have written about this in more detail in the book referred to in the Introduction.

No different categories

Let us suppose, then, the ultimate destiny of Christians is bodily resurrection, an event which has not yet happened. This means that all such persons are currently in an intermediate state, somewhere between death and resurrection. Call this intermediate state ‘heaven’ if you like. This brings me to the first really controversial point in the present book: there is no reason in the foundation documents of Christianity to suppose that there are any category distinctions between Christians in this intermediate state. All are in the same condition; and all are ‘saints’.

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In the New Testament every single Christian is referred to as a ‘saint’, including the muddled and sinful ones to whom Paul writes his letters. The background to early Christian thought about the church includes the Dead Sea Scrolls; and there we find the members of the Qumran sect referred to as ‘the holy ones’. They are designated thus, not simply because they are living a holy life in the present, though it is hoped that they will do that as well, but because by joining the sect — in the Christian’s case, by getting baptized and confessing Jesus as the risen Lord — they have left the realm of darkness and entered the kingdom of light (Colossians 1.12-14).

This means that the New Testament language about the bodily death of Christians, and what happens to them thereafter, makes no distinction whatever in this respect between those who have attained significant holiness or Christlikeness in the present and those who haven’t. ‘My desire’, says Paul in Philippians 1.22, ‘is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.’ He doesn’t for a moment imply that this ‘being with Christ’ is something which he will experience but which the Philippians, like Newman’s Gerontius, will find terrifying and want to postpone. His state (being with Christ) will indeed be exalted, but it will be no different, no more exalted, than that of every single Christian after death. He will not be, in that sense, a ‘saint’, differentiated from mere ‘souls’ who wait in another place or state.

We might add the fact that nothing is said in the New Testament or very early Christianity about the [23] death, or the state thereafter, of the mother of Jesus. There is no hint in early Christianity of the view which came to dominate the Roman, western church in the Middle Ages, and which some are eager to develop and propagate in our own day, that Mary was taken up, ‘assumed’, into a special, unique place, as it were a saint among saints. And we might note that the Eastern Orthodox churches, on this as on some other things, agree with the Reformers here against the Latin west. Though attempts are made to align the ‘dormition’ of Mary (her ‘falling asleep’, i.e. her death) with her ‘assumption’, the two are in fact significantly different. The Orthodox say Mary died, and that her body is resting and will eventually be rejoined with her soul; the Romans say she didn’t die, and that both her body and soul are already in heaven.

Nor does Paul imply that this ‘departing and being with Christ’ is the same thing as the eventual resurrection of the body, which he describes vividly later in the same letter (3.20-21). No: all the Christian dead have ‘departed’ and are ‘with Christ’. The only other idea Paul offers to explain where the Christian dead are now and what they are doing is that of ‘sleeping in Christ’. He uses this idea frequently (1 Corinthians 7.39; 11.30; 15.6, 18,20,51; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-15), and some have thought that by it he must mean an unconscious state, from which one would be brought back to consciousness at the resurrection — so much so, perhaps, that it will seem as though we have passed straight from the one to the other. The probability is, though, that this is a strong metaphor, a [24] way of reminding us about the ‘waking up’ which will be the resurrection. Had the post-mortem state been unconscious, would Paul have thought of it as ‘far better’ than what he had in the present?

This picture is further confirmed by the language of Revelation. There we find the souls of the martyrs waiting, under the altar, for the final redemption to take place. They are at rest; they are conscious; they are able to ask how long it will be before justice is done (6.9-11); but they are not yet enjoying the final bliss which is to come in the New Jerusalem. This is in line with the classic Eastern Orthodox doctrine, which, though it speaks of the saints, and invokes them in all sorts of ways, does not see them as having finally experienced the completeness of redemption. Until all God’s people are safely home, none of them is yet fulfilled. That is why the Orthodox pray for the saints as well as with them, that they — with us when we join them — may come to the fulfilment of God’s complete purposes.

In particular, we must take account of the well-known and striking saying of Jesus to the dying brigand beside him, recorded by Luke (23.43). ‘Today,’ he said, ‘you will be with me in paradise.’ ‘Paradise’ is not the final destination; it is a beautiful resting place on the way there. But notice. If there is anyone in the New Testament to whom we might have expected the classic doctrine of purgatory to apply, it would be this brigand. He had no time for amendment of life; no doubt he had all kinds of sinful thoughts and desires in what was left of his body. All [25] the standard arguments in favour of purgatory apply to him. And yet Jesus assures him of his place in paradise, not in a few days or weeks, not if his friends say lots of prayers and masses for him, but ‘today’.

What then of 1 Corinthians 3.10-15, one of the most striking passages in the New Testament on judgment at or after death? Here there is a clear distinction made between some Christians and others:

10According to God’s grace, I laid the foundation like a wise master builder, and someone else is building on it. Everyone should take care how they build on it. 11Nobody can lay any foundation, you see, except the one which is laid, which is Jesus the Messiah! 12If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, or straw – 13well, everyone’s work will become visible, because the Day will show it up, since it will be revealed in fire. Then the fire will test what sort of work everyone has done. If the building work that someone has done stands the test, they will receive a reward. 14If someone’s work is burned up, they will be punished; they themselves will be saved, however, but only as though through a fire.

16Don’t you see? You are God’s Temple! God’s Spirit lives in you! 17If anyone destroys God’s Temple, God will destroy them. God’s Temple is holy, you see, and that is precisely what you are.

The point of the passage is to issue a warning about the quality of work that Christian teachers and preachers do. They are constructing, says Paul, a great Temple, [26] which is God’s church. Some are building with the best materials — gold, silver and precious stones; others are building with poor quality stuff — wood, hay and even stubble. Well, he says, the Day of judgement will make it clear who has done what. Fire will sweep through, and only the quality material will last. And the crunch comes in verse 15: if someone’s work is burnt up, that person will suffer loss. They themselves will be saved, but in the manner of someone escaping from a fire. Those, meanwhile, whose building will last, because it was of the proper fire-resistant quality, will receive a reward (verse 14).

This is the only passage in the New Testament which makes such a clear distinction. (On the parable in Matthew 25.14-30 and the similar one in Luke 19.11-27, see Jesus and the Victory of God pp. 632-9.) Yet even here there is no sign of a distinction in terms of temporal progression. Paul does not say that the people who have built with gold, silver and precious stones will go straight to heaven, or paradise, still less to the resurrection, while those who have used wood, hay and stubble will be delayed en route by a purgatory in which they will be punished or purged. No: both will be saved.  One, however, will be saved gloriously, and the other by the skin of their teeth, with the smell of fire still on them. This is a solemn passage, to be taken very seriously by Christian workers and teachers. But it does not teach a difference of status, or of celestial geography, or of temporal progression, between one category of Christians and another.

In fact, there are so many things said in the New [27] Testament about the greatest becoming least and the least becoming greatest that we shouldn’t be surprised at this lack of distinction between thepost-mortem state of different Christians. I appreciate that it may be hard for some to come to terms with this, but in the light of the most basic and central Christian gospel, the message and achievement of Jesus and the preaching of Paul and the others, there is no reason whatever to say, for instance, that Peter or Paul, James or John, or even, dare I say, the mother of Jesus herself, is more advanced, closer to God, or has achieved more spiritual ‘growth’, than the Christians who were killed for their faith last week or last year. Remember the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16). Those who worked all day thought they would be paid more, but those who came at the last hour were paid just the same. Is the vineyard owner not allowed to do what he likes with his own? Are we going to grumble because he is so wonderfully generous?

If we are to be true to our foundation charter, then, we must say that all Christians, living and departed, are to be thought of as ‘saints’; and that all Christians who have died are to be thought of, and treated, as such. I honour the sentiments of those who expend time and effort over canonization, beatification and the like. I know that they are trying to say something about how important holiness was and is. But I cannot help regarding their efforts as misguided.

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No purgatory

All this brings us to a point which many take for granted but which many others will find controversial or even shocking. I do not believe in purgatory.

Purgatory was, of course, an idea that took some time to get going. When it was established it was only held by one part of the church, i.e. the Roman Catholic part. It was firmly rejected, on good biblical and theological grounds, by the sixteenth-century Reformers. Nevertheless, many today in the Anglican Communion seem eager to make space for it once more. I have often heard Anglicans prevaricating when faced with the twenty-second Article of Faith, which declares: ‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory … is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’ ‘Ah,’ they say, ‘the Article only mentions the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory. Doesn’t that leave us free to develop a rather different Anglicandoctrine of purgatory?’ But this won’t do. The ‘Romish’ doctrine was all that there was. The emphasis of the sentence lies elsewhere.

It isn’t that there are several versions of purgatory-doctrine of which Anglicanism happens to reject the Roman one; rather, there is one doctrine of purgatory, that taught by Rome, and Anglicans reject it. Here we must bring into play the words of Jesus about people who prefer human traditions to the Word of God (e.g. Mark 7.6-13). These human traditions are not just nice bits and pieces which it does no harm to people [29] to believe. They affect the very centre of Christian faith.

Some still appeal to the Bible in support of purgatory, but they appeal in vain. There is a famous passage in 2 Maccabees 12.39-45 where some who have died in battle are found to have been secret idolaters, whereupon Judas Maccabeus and his followers offer prayers and sacrifices on their behalf to make sure that they will come to share in the resurrection. This passage does indeed envisage an intermediate state: the resurrection has not yet happened, and some who (it was hoped) would attain it were found to have committed sin that had not yet been atoned for. But this isn’t ‘getting out of purgatory’; it’s a matter of ensuring that, though all alike are in the intermediate state, these ones will rise again (not ‘go to heaven’, we note) to enjoy God’s new world when it comes. The books of theMaccabees are, of course, in the Apocrypha; but the early Christians would in any case have replied that ‘the blood of Jesus, God’s son, cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1.7). If any retrospective action were needed, it would be, at the most, baptism for those who had died unbaptized, though the single passage where that strange practice is mentioned (1 Corinthians 15.29) continues to be much disputed. Attempts to find other proof-texts are unconvincing at best and embarrassingly fanciful at worst.

The arguments regularly advanced in support of some kind of a purgatory, however modernized, do not come from the Bible. They come from the [30] common perception that all of us up to the time of death are still sinful, and from the proper assumption that something needs to be done about this if we are (to put it crudely) to be at ease in the presence of the holy and sovereign God. The medieval doctrine of purgatory, as we saw, imagined that the ‘something’ that needed to be done could be divided into two aspects: punishment on the one hand, and purging or cleansing on the other. It is vital that we understand the biblical response to both of these.

I cannot stress sufficiently that if we raise the question of punishment for sin, this is something that has already been dealt with on the cross of Jesus. Of course, there have been crude and unbiblical versions of the doctrine of atonement, and many have rightly reacted against the idea of a vengeful God determined to punish someone and being satisfied by taking it out on his own son. But do not mistake the caricature for the biblical doctrine. Paul says, in his most central and careful statement, not that God punished Jesus, but that God ‘condemned sin in the flesh’ of Jesus (Romans 8.3). Here the instincts of the Reformers, if not always their exact expressions, were spot on. The idea that Christians need to suffer punishment for their sins in a post-mortem purgatory, or anywhere else, reveals a straightforward failure to grasp the very heart of what was achieved on the cross.

Not many today, I think, would advocate a penal purgatory, but it is important to get that straight before going on to the point that many still do advance, which has to do with our actual sinful state.[31] What happens to us, our sinful selves, when we die? Are we not still in need of some serious sorting out and cleaning up? Do not our spirits, our souls, still leave a great deal to be desired? If we have made any spiritual growth during the present life, does this not leave us realizing just how much further we have to go? Do we not feel, in our small steps towards holiness here and now, that we have only just begun to climb, and that the mountain still looms high over us?

Yes, we do. Those are, I think, sound and normal Christian instincts. But what the standard argument fails to take into account is the significance of bodily death. We have been fooled, not for the first time, by a view of death, and life beyond, in which the really important thing is the ‘soul’ — something which, to many people’s surprise, hardly features at all in the New Testament. We have allowed our view of the saving of souls to loom so large that we have failed to realize that the Bible is much more concerned about bodies — concerned to the point where it’s actually quite difficult to give a clear biblical account of the disembodied state in between bodily death and bodily resurrection. That’s not what the biblical writers are trying to get us to think about — even though it is of course what many Christians have thought about to the point of obsession, including many who have thought of themselves as ‘biblical’ in their theology. But what should not be in doubt is that, for the New Testament, bodily death itself actually puts sin to an end. There may well be all kinds of sins still lingering on within us, infecting us and dragging us down. But [32] part of the biblical understanding of death, bodily death, is that it finishes all that off at a single go.

The central passages here are Romans 6.6-7 and Colossians 2.11-13, with the picture they generate being backed up by key passages from John’s gospel.  Both of the Pauline texts are speaking of baptism. Christians are assured that their sins have already been dealt with through the death of Christ; they are now no longer under threat because of them. The crucial verse is Romans 6.7: ‘the one who has died is free from sin (literally, ‘is justified from sin). The necessary cleansing from sin, is seems, takes place in two stages.  First, there is baptism and faith. ‘You are already made clean’, says Jesus, ‘by the word which I have spoken to you (John 15.3).  The word of the gospel, awakening faith in the heart, is itself the basic cleansing that we require.  ‘The one who has washed’, said Jesus at the supper, ‘doesn’t need to wash again, except for his feet; he is clean all over’ (John 13.10).  The ‘feet’ here seem to be representing the part of us which still, so to speak, stands on the muddy ground of this world. This is where ‘the sin which so easily gets in the way’ (Hebrews 12.1) finds, we may suppose, its opportunity.

But the glorious news is that, although during the present life we struggle with sin, and may or may not make small and slight progress towards genuine holiness, our remaining propensity to sin is finished, cut off, done with all at once, in physical death.  ‘The body is dead because of sin,’ declares Paul, ‘but the spirit is life because of righteousness’ (Romans 8.10). [33] John and Paul combine together to state the massive, central and vital doctrine which is at the heart of the Christian good news: those who believe in Jesus, though they die, yet shall they live; and those who live and believe in him will never die (John 11.25-6). Or, to put it the way Paul does: if we have died with Christ, we shall live with him, knowing that Christ being raised from the dead will not die again; and you, in him, must regard and reckon yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6.8-11). ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God’ (Romans 5.2).

‘Ah, but’, someone will say, ‘that sounds very arrogant. It sounds cocksure, almost triumphalist.’ Well, there is a note of triumph there, and if you try to take that away you will pull the heart of the gospel out with it. But actually it is the least arrogant, least cocksure thing of all. When St Aidan gave a beggar the horse the king had given him, was the beggar arrogant to ride off on it? Was he not simply celebrating the astonishing generosity of the saint? When the prodigal son put the ring on his finger and the shoes on his feet, was he being arrogant when he allowed his father’s lavish generosity to take its course? Would it not have been far more arrogant, far more clinging to one’s own inverted dignity as a ‘very humble’ penitent, to insist that he should be allowed to wear sackcloth and ashes for a week or two until he’d had time to adjust to the father’s house? No: the complaint about the prodigal’s arrogance, I fear, comes not from the father, but from [34] the older brother. We should beware lest that syndrome destroy our delight in the gospel of the free grace of God. We mustn’t let the upside-down arrogance of those who are too proud to receive free grace prevent us from hearing and receiving the best news in the world.

Think about one of Paul’s best-known chapters, often rightly read at funerals. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ,’ he writes (Romans 8.1). The last great paragraph of the chapter leaves no room to imagine any such thing as the doctrine of purgatory, in any of its forms. ‘Who shall lay any charge against us? … Who shall condemn us? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?… Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor the present nor the future, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!’ And if you think that Paul might have added ‘though of course you’ll probably have to go through purgatory first’, I think with great respect you ought to see, not a theologian, but a therapist.

In fact, Paul makes it clear here and elsewhere that it’s the present life that is meant to function as a purgatory. The sufferings of the present time, not of some post-mortem state, are the valley we have to pass through in order to reach the glorious future. The present life is bad enough from time to time, goodness knows, without imagining gloom and doom after death as well. In fact, I think I know why purgatory [35] became so popular, why Dante’s middle volume is the one people most easily relate to. The myth of purgatory is an allegory, a projection, from the present on to the future. This is why purgatory appeals to the imagination. It is our story. It is where we are now. If we are Christians, if we believe in the risen Jesus as Lord, if we are baptized members of his body, then we are passing right now through the sufferings which form the gateway to life. Of course, this means that for millions of our theological and spiritual ancestors death will have brought a pleasant surprise. They had been gearing themselves up for a long struggle ahead, only to find it was already over.

The revival of a quasi-purgatory in our own day, therefore, is beside the point. It is a strange return to mythology, just when we should be having our feet on the ground. It is ironic that in some Anglican circles the aim seems to be to sidle up to Rome in a friendly way, just when two leading Roman theologians, Rahner and Ratzinger, have been transforming the doctrine in question into something else. Nor do I think, as some have suggested, that it was just the First World War that caused the rise of the modern doctrine of a creeping universalism, which then necessitated a kind of purgatory-for-all. True, the fact of tens of thousands of young men — many of them at best nominal Christians — dying in the trenches probably did strain to breaking point the charitable assumption the army chaplains wanted to make at their funerals, that they were all in fact true Christians. But people had died in their thousands [36] before, in wars and plagues, without precipitating this theological re-evaluation. Rather, what seems to have happened is a steady erosion of belief in hell during the nineteenth century, preparing the way for a more explicit change occasioned by events like the great wars of the twentiethcentury. It is a coincidence, but a significant one in view of current liturgical proposals, that the English Remembrance Day comes just nine days after All Souls’.

Where does all this take us? We have witnessed a sad sight in the theological climate of much mainstream church life during the last century. So many have been afraid or embarrassed to utter the clear warnings of the New Testament about the peril of neglecting the gospel that they have become unable to articulate, either, the clear promises of the New Testament about the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead. Indeed, to read what some have written, and observe what some see fit to do liturgically, we have to say that the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to life has been replaced, for many Anglicans at least, by the vague and fuzzy possibility of a long and winding journey to somewhere or other. And at that point my taste for Anglican fudge disappears entirely.

For all the saints

I therefore arrive at this view: that all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. This is not the final destiny for [37] which they are bound, namely the bodily resurrection; it is a temporary resting place. As the hymn puts it:

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest:
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
Allelulia!

Since they and we are both in Christ, we do indeed share with them in the Communion of Saints. Once we erase the false trail of purgatory from our mental map of the post-mortem world, there is no reason why we shouldn’t pray for them and with them. If the great Puritan divine Richard Baxter could say this, so can we: in his hymn ‘He wants not friends that hath thy love’ he writes:

Within the fellowship of saints
Is wisdom, safety and delight;
And when my heart declines and faints,
It’s raised by their heat and light.

We still are centred all in thee,
Members, though distant, of one Head;
Within one family we be,
And by one faith and spirit led.

Before thy throne we daily meet
As joint-petitioners to thee;
In spirit each the other greet,
And shall again each other see.

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And the great sixteenth-century Reformer Martin Bucer expressed much the same when he wrote:

We teach that the blessed saints who lie in the presence of our Lord Christ and of whose lives we have biblical or other trustworthy accounts, ought to be commemorated in such a way, that the congregation is shown what graces and gifts their God and Father and ours conferred upon them through our common Saviour and that we should give thanks to God for them, and rejoice with them as members of the one body over those graces and gifts, so that we may be strongly provoked to place greater confidence in the grace of God for ourselves, and to follow the example of their faith.

This is more, then, than simply gratitude for their memory and the effort to follow their example, important though both of those are. It is a conscious calling to mind of Hebrews 11.39-12.2:

11.39All these people gained a reputation for their faith; but they didn’t receive the promise. 40God was providing something better for us, so that apart from us they wouldn’t reach perfection. 12.1What about us, then? We have such a great cloud of witnesses all around us! What we must do is this: we must put aside each heavy weight, and the sin which so easily gets in the way. We must run the race that lies ahead of us, and we must run it patiently. 2We must look ahead, to Jesus. 

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This, we note, contains the emphasis of the Eastern Orthodox Church (that the saints of old do not reach fulfilment without us) — even though, of course, Hebrews is talking about the Old Testament saints. And we also note that, however important the saints may be, however much they may be surrounding us, it is still on Jesus himself that one fixes one’s eyes.

What I do not find in the New Testament is any suggestion that those at present in heaven/paradise are actively engaged in praying for those of us in the present life. Nor is there any suggestion that we should ask them to do so. I touch here on a sensitive nerve within the devotional habits of a large section of the church, but this point of view deserves a fair hearing.

It is true that, if the saints are conscious, and if they are ‘with Christ’ in a sense which, as Paul implies, is closer than we ourselves are at the moment, there is every reason to suppose that they are at least, like the souls under the altar in Revelation, urging the Father to complete the work of justice and salvation in the world. If that is so, there is no reason in principle why they should not urge the Father similarly on our behalf. I just don’t see any signs in the early Christian writings to suggest that they actually do that, or that we should, so to speak, encourage them to do so by invoking them specifically. Likewise, there is certainly no reason in principle why we should not pray for them – not that they will get out of purgatory, of course, but that they will be refreshed, and filled with God’s joy and peace. Love passes into prayer; we still [40] love them; why not hold them, in that love, before God?

I put it like that, as a cautious question rather than a firm statement. But there is one particular aspect of the invocation of the saints which troubles me much more deeply. The practice seems to me to undermine, or actually to deny by implication, something which is promised again and again in the New Testament: immediacy of access to God through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit. When we read some of the greatest passages in the New Testament — the Farewell Discourses in John 13-17, for instance, or the great central section (chapters 5-8) of Paul’s letter to the Romans — we find over and over the clear message that, because of Christ and the Spirit, every single Christian is welcome at any time to come before the Father. If, then, a royal welcome awaits you in the throne room itself, for whatever may be on your heart and mind, great or small, why bother hanging around the outer lobby trying to persuade someone there, however distinguished, to go in and ask on your behalf? ‘Through Christ we have access to the Father in the one Spirit’ (Ephesians 2.18). If Paul could say that to newly converted Gentiles, he can certainly say it to us today. To deny this, even by implication, is to call in question one of the central blessings and privileges of the gospel. The whole point of the letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus Christ himself is ‘our man at court’, ‘our man in heaven’. He, says Paul in Romans 8, is interceding for us; why should we need anyone else? When we step off such firm biblical ground, no [41] matter what later traditions may suggest, we are always taking a risk. Explicit invocation of saints may in fact be — I do not say always is, but may be — a step towards that semi-paganism of which the Reformers were rightly afraid. The world of late Roman antiquity found it difficult to rid its collective imagination of the many-layered panoply of gods and lords, of demi-gods and heroes, that had been collecting in the culture for well over a thousand years. The second-century church began, quite understandably, to venerate the martyrs as special witnesses to the victory of Christ over death. These martyrs had already been seen as special, as early as the book of Revelation.

Once Christianity had become established and persecution ceased, it was not a large transition for the church to nominate for ‘veneration’ others who, though not martyred, had nevertheless been notable Christians in other ways. But the whole process of developing not only hierarchies among such people but also elaborate systems for designating them (canonization and the like) seems to me a huge exercise in missing the point.

This, then, is my proposal. Instead of the three divisions of the medieval church (triumphant, expectant and militant) I believe that there are only two. The church in heaven/paradise is both triumphant and expectant. I do not expect everyone to agree with this conclusion, but I would urge an honest searching of the scriptures to see whether these things be so.

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Hell

What then of hell? I was congratulated not long ago, on the basis of selective quotations from my writings, on being a universalist, that is, on believing that all humans will be saved, including Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. That, however, is not the position I take, or have ever taken. The New Testament is full of sober and serious warnings of the real possibility of final loss, and I do not think they are merely rhetorical devices to frighten us ahead of time into a salvation which will in fact come to all sooner or later. In fact, I think the universalist case — which normally turns on God having all the time in the world, after the death of unbelievers, to go on putting the gospel to them from different angles until at last they accept it — does in our day rather what purgatory did in the Middle Ages. That is, it takes attention away from the challenges and decisions of the present life, and focuses it instead on the future.

At the same time, of course, the New Testament does indeed hold out great promises for a glorious future. Romans 5 and Romans 8 speak of the great sweep of God’s mercy, reconciling and freeing the whole cosmos. This doesn’t sound like a small group of people snatched away to salvation while the great majority faces destruction. Somehow we have to hold all this together without cutting any knots. We should note, for instance, that even in the astonishing and moving vision of the New Jerusalem, the renewed heaven and earth (Revelation 21 and 22), there are [43] some still ‘outside’: the dogs, sorcerers, fornicators, murders, idolaters and liars (22.15). In 21.8, a similar group is thrown in the lake of fire, which is described as the ‘second death’. It is hard to see how we can ignore such passages — and the many similar ones in Paul and elsewhere — without being accused of trimming our theology to suit the prevailing desire to be nice to everybody, never to say anything which implies that someone might be in danger. Equally, we should remind ourselves that from the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22 there flows the river of the water of life, on whose banks grow trees, the tree of life; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. There are mysteries here we should not reduce to simplistic formulae.

It is the presence of hints like this in scripture, as much as the creeping liberalism of the last two centuries, which has caused universalism to gain enormous popularity in mainstream western Christianity. It has been usual to set it over against the traditional teaching of conscious eternal torment, with a middle position being that of the ‘conditionalists’, who teach that, since humans are not by nature immortal, only those who are saved are granted immortality, so that all others are simply extinguished. This is close to the position of The Mystery of Salvation, the Church of England report I mentioned in the Introduction.

I don’t find any of these three traditional options completely satisfactory, but I think a somewhat different form of conditionalism may be the best we can do. We should of course always stress that the question of [44] who shall eventually be saved is up to God and God alone, and that we can never say of anyone for certain, including Hitler and bin Laden, that they have gone so far down the road of wickedness that they are beyond redemption. I take it, however, that there are many who do continue down that road to the bitter end. How can we think wisely and biblically about their fate?

The central fact about humans in the Bible is that they bear the image of God (Genesis 1.26-8, etc.). I understand this as a vocation as much as an innate character. Humans are summoned to worship and love their creator, and to reflect his image into the world. When, however, instead of worshipping and loving him, they worship and love that which is not him — in other words, something within the order of creation, whether spiritual or material — they turn away from him. But they can only be maintained in his image, as genuine humans, by worshipping him; they depend on him for their life and character. The rest of creation, by contrast, is subject to decay and death. If we worship it, or some part of it, instead of the life-giving God, we are invoking death upon ourselves instead of life.

This opens up a possibility: that a human being who continually and with settled intent worships that which is not God can ultimately cease completely to bear God’s image. Such a creature would become, in other words, ex-human: a creature that once bore the image of God but does so no longer, and can never do so again. Humans do, I believe, possess the freedom [45] (some would say even the ‘right’, but I think that is difficult language at this point) to choose to worship creation rather than the creator. The God who made them and loves them grants them that freedom, even though they may misuse it. The New Testament indicates strongly that there are some, perhaps many, who go that route.

I am well aware that mainstream liberalism will scream blue murder at the very thought of such an idea. But I am also aware that this same liberalism has all too often been content not to notice just what a serious thing evil really is. As Barth saw the house of cards erected by his liberal teachers collapse in the trenches of Flanders, so perhaps we will awaken in this new century to the reality of evil, and be prepared to think through afresh the roots of the Christian faith so as to understand more clearly how serious and dangerous it is, what God has done and is doing about it, and where we humans fit into the picture.

I stress again, in leaving this topic, that it is not up to us to say who’s in and who’s out. There is such a thing as a fundamentalist arrogance that declares that only its own type of Christian is the real thing, and that all others are a sham and heading for hell. But it is equally arrogant — almost equally fundamentalist, in its own way! — to insist that, because we must indeed be reticent at this point, we can cheerfully assume that everyone must be ‘in’ and that the warnings of scripture and tradition can be quietly set aside. Actually, it isn’t only scripture and tradition that say this. Reason itself may perhaps suggest that, [46] if God is indeed to put the world to rights, and if he has indeed given his human creatures the freedom we sense ourselves to have, including the freedom to reject his will and his way, the eventual judgment will involve the loss of those who have exercised that freedom to their own ultimate cost.

All this brings us at last to the question: how then should we commemorate the faithful departed?


For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed is available for purchase online at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), Barnes and Noble and Christianbook.com

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