Where History and Eternity Meet by Michael Phillips

Where History and Eternity Meet–God’s Fatherhood Forces Us Toward Beginnings and Endings, reprint from Leben 9, 2006


                I attended a funeral several years ago for a man not known for spiritual faith. The ceremony, however, was conducted by a Christian minister and I was curious what words of “comfort” he would offer to the family and friends who had gathered.

                Now there are those die-hard fundamentalists who, even in such circumstances, don’t mind calling it like they see it. The “comfort” they see appropriate is to urge salvation upon those who remain while there is yet time, so that they won’t go to hell themselves like the recently departed loved one. To speak of eternal damnation at the time of death seems extraordinarily callous to most of our sensibilities. But I have known individuals who perceive such as their duty, speaking up for truth and warning those who are alive before it is too late.

                At the funeral I mentioned, however, the minister did not preach of hellfire. He spoke rather of Jesus’ words about being the resurrection and the life in such a hopeful manner that a bystander would assume the dead man to have been a saint who had served God for fifty years.

                Does this not usually seem to be the case—that our most “hopeful” thoughts about God and the afterlife come out at the time of death? Is it because at such times the “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln called them, rise up to overpower the low theologies we have been taught? Whatever harsh views about hell and God’s judgment one holds, they often cannot withstand the intense reality of death when it comes close. Suddenly the innate goodness of our humanity emerges, and cries out, “Whatever his faults, whatever his beliefs, whatever his sin…I cannot bring myself to condemn this man. And if I cannot, surely God…”

                Most leave the sentence unfinished.

They don’t know what to do with the glaring dichotomy in their hearts between their theology of belief (non-Christians and sinners go to hell and burn forever) and a very different reality, and unexpected compassion, they themselves feel when standing at the graveside of an unbeliever.

                At such times are we just being nice for the sake of the bereaved? Is all the talk about eternal life—when we know good and well that the man or woman in the casket in front of us had no faith in Jesus whatsoever—just a lie? And if we are lying, what does that make of us?

                I don’t think we are lying. I think something very profound is going on at those times that quite possibly strikes to the heart of the meaning of the universe. There will always be some whose doctrines are stronger than their humanity, who are able to shut out such hopeful thoughts and conclude to themselves, “That poor man is burning in hell right now and all these people ought to wise up and get their hearts right with God so that it doesn’t happen to them.”

                But honestly, I really don’t think there are many like that. Most men and women feel more compassion and mercy even than their hardest theologies ascribe to God.

                It was as I stood in the cemetery at that funeral a number of years ago that a realization struck me:

                 Nearly everyone is a universalist at a funeral.

                At such times, in our deepest hearts, we truly struggle to find a way to believe that God’s love will conquer even the unbelief of the most unbelieving and unrepentant sinner.

                Hope rises within us. And that hope may be a greater indicator of truth than we realize.

                Not long after the funeral, a close friend’s mother died. A near lifelong evangelical, our friend was suddenly confronted with the horrifying thought that her mother, an avowed non-Christian—if the doctrine of evangelical belief was true—was now burning in hell, and would continue to do so for all eternity.

                It wasn’t just wishful thinking that caused her to turn with revulsion from the idea. At that moment, I think a genuine germ of Truth rose up from deeper within her heart than anyplace she knew existed. That germ of Truth challenged the veracity of something she had believed for thirty or more years. Suddenly her heart spoke. And her brain, with all its learned doctrines, had no answer to give.

                I can still hear the poignant, confused, grieving, yet hopeful tone of her voice as she said, “I know my mom had no faith, but…but I just…I just can’t believe…I can’t believe that God…”

                She couldn’t finish the sentence either.

                Her belief in a hell of torment for unbelievers could not withstand the moment when eternity suddenly came personally close to stare her in the face. If she loved her mother, surely God…

                I had never mentioned the idea of universal reconciliation to this friend. Until the moment of her mother’s death the doctrines of her belief system were satisfactory to her. To have introduced such an idea prematurely would have been inappropriate, insensitive, and perhaps even damaging to the unity of relationship between us. But now her heart was hungry to explore depths in God’s being she had never considered before.

               Therefore, in response to her tearful confusion, I very gently said, “You know, God just may have more in mind for your mother than either you or she ever realized. He may not be through with her yet.”

                After the brief discussion of that day, I have not spoken with her again about it. It is between she and God now. These are not things to be pushed or urged upon others. They are possibilities to be quietly absorbed by the heart ready, willing, and hungry to know the Father of Jesus Christ more intimately. Suffering often opens the heart toward higher regions that touch something of God’s eternal sympathy with the groaning and travailing of his creation.

                Such seasons of question and prayer and spiritual exploration come differently for us all. For some, whose curiosity and spiritual hunger in these areas have been aroused, they can think of nothing else until the conundrum is satisfactorily resolved in their hearts. They want to read everything they can get their hands on. Others are not interested in the least.

               Some individuals, therefore, have given a great deal of thought and prayer to their beliefs about the afterlife and what those beliefs imply about the character of God. Others have given very little thought to it. Circumstances have not yet made it a priority in their lives.

              Hopefully this will add further clarity to our reasons for the two parallel quests that will occupy our attention this year together. The Old Testament series grew out of several lengthy discussions with a skeptic friend. I found myself wondering what my faith looked like to him…from the outside. Then I began asking whether the Bible could be read, and its meaning discovered somehow afresh, apart from a dependency on familiar Christian jargon. How might Christian belief be explained to someone who didn’t know the familiar terminology that is so deeply embedded in our western culture. What these questions did was challenge me to look at the Old Testament from a fresh perspective.

             Perhaps it was a little like George Bascombe’s challenge to Thomas Wingfold in Thomas Wingfold, Curate, that led Wingfold into a fresh examination of his faith. We are so deeply influenced by long ingrained perspectives (not all of them accurate) that sometimes it is beneficial, in a sense, to “start over” and look at things from a new angle. Even though the ground we will cover (mostly in early Genesis) will be familiar, I hope we will all find it invigorating to force our thoughts into new channels.

             In my own case, I realized that to find the Fatherhood of God in the Old Testament demanded that I look at the nature and character of God himself.

              The further I went with the series of articles on the Old Testament, the more I realized that the two queries went hand in hand. To find God’s Fatherhood in the Old Testament, one must be able to find his Fatherhood in hell too. In both cases, it becomes a question of discovering who God was…and is.

              Whatever God was to ancient man, he must be the same God throughout all eternity.

              Looking back, I find I am compelled to look ahead.

              Before long, at least in my own thinking, I found that I could not separate the two queries. They became one in the same. To understand history, I have to understand eternity.