This story is fiction
And it is true.
Tomorrow, I will damn my son. It will be the worst moment of my life. Even worse than last Thursday. That’s when we got the phone call. Eric was on his way home from work. A tree fell. Crushed his car. He was dead instantly. How do you think about living when your oldest son is dead? Every time I push my grandson in the swing, I’ll think about his daddy who isn’t there. Every time Sienna crawls into my lap, I’ll be reminded of the father she’ll know only through photos and stories. Thursday was the worst day of my life. But tomorrow will be worse. Infinitely worse. Tomorrow I will have to acknowledge there is no hope. Eric is damned.
I won’t say the words, “Damn you, Eric!” Of course not. I won’t even say the more polite version, “Eric is lost.” It will be unspoken. My parishioners are unlikely to hear it. I’m sure my relatives and friends won’t. But Tom will be there. And he will hear. He will know what sits behind every word I say or don’t say. I wish he were not going to be there. But he can no more stay away than I can ask him not to come. With him listening I cannot escape. Either I confirm that Eric is lost—excluded from eternal life, barred from heaven, consigned to hell, damned—or admit that what I have preached in this congregation for the past twenty years, and believed in the core of my being for the past forty, is unsure. I will have to deny the gospel or damn my son.
Eric was not a believer. He no longer believed the truth that he was a hell-bound sinner and that Jesus had died for his sins and offered him salvation. My son rejected the words of Scripture that declared there is eternal life only for those who “believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Absent that belief humans, including my son, are lost—or to use the older, bolder word—damned.
I lived in hope all those years. When Eric told us he did not believe, I resolved to love him more richly than ever. I would show him God’s love. I would win him back for God through the richest, sweetest demonstration of grace I could provide. Every morning, every evening, Margie and I prayed for our kids and then for our grandkids, claiming them for Jesus. We knew it was just a matter of time. Jesus would win. Eric would recover his faith. He had always been such a good kid. I remember when he was eight years old. In front of the church, he recited the Sabbath School memory verses for an entire quarter, thirteen selected passages from the Bible. As he got older, his teachers at school loved him. Well, most of the time. In high school we used to talk about what he heard in Bible class. I didn’t always agree with his Bible teachers. Some of them had fuzzy concepts of the gospel. But Eric got it. He understood the truth of the Cross. He knew there was salvation only in Jesus, that it was through faith in his name that we stand righteous in the sight of a holy God. Eric knew that. Eric knew we do not earn our way to heaven. We don’t work our way out of damnation. Salvation, heaven, eternal life—they are the gifts of God, given generously to all who believe. And Eric believed.
My son left home for college a believer. He went to Walla Walla University, an Adventist college. During his college years he became more aware of intellectual challenges to faith. Of course. He read Christian authors who implied that Paul contradicted Jesus. He was exposed to skeptical critiques of the authority of the Bible. But through all this he was supported in his faith by devout, competent teachers. He and his friends went to church, at least most of the time. He didn’t have the fiery confidence in the gospel he had as a kid, but still he was in church and, I was confident, still a believer in the gospel. He was saved.
Then he was out of school, living in Seattle. He and his girlfriend moved in together. I was shocked. This was my Eric? He knew what Margie and I thought about this, but we were careful not to say too much. We just loved them. God was bigger than this. In addition to “living in sin,” they didn’t go to church. I asked about church, thinking if I could just get him connected with the right congregation, he and Jenn would reconnect. No, he said. There was nothing wrong with the local congregations. Church didn’t speak to him. It didn’t add any value to their lives. The way he saw it, church was an artificial environment designed to keep alive outdated ways of thinking that couldn’t survive on their own in the real world. He figured God was more concerned with justice than with doctrine. And the church people had the other way round. That hurt. I’ve been committed to social justice all my life.
Once when I pressed him a bit, pointing out the role of Christians in the fight for abolition and the effort to save unborn babies that are being killed by the millions through abortion, he blurted out, “Look, Dad, it’s not just church. God just doesn’t make sense anymore.”
“Are you saying you’re an atheist?” I asked.
He didn’t want to talk about it. So what could I do?
I did what any parent would do. I loved him. I hoped. I prayed. He was still the same good son I had always known. At work people admired him. He was smart, honest, and cared about people. He and Jenn married. She’s a good woman. She, too, grew up in the church. She went to the Adventist university in Walla Walla. She was smart. Maybe even smarter than Eric. And she didn’t believe. They weren’t mad at the church. They were just not interested. They didn’t feel any need. She was a social worker and served the homeless at an agency in Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle. She had a soft heart. I figured when they had kids, they would come back to church.
But they didn’t. Brayden was now four years old and Sienna was two. The kids were completely irreligious. They heard about Jesus only when we read to them. Eric and Jenn let me say grace at meals when we visited them. But God walked out the door of their house with us.
Still I hoped. We hoped. We prayed morning and evening. Confident. Some day, Eric would come back to faith. God would bring him back. God would save my son. How could he not?
I’m still replaying the phone call over and over. Jenn was on the phone. “Dad,” she said, “Eric is dead.” He had picked up Sienna from day care and they were headed home. Wind was toppling trees and snapping power lines all over the Seattle. Eric and Sienna were three blocks from home when the tree came down and crushed the roof of their Hyundai over the front seats. The paramedics said he was killed instantly. Sienna in the back seat was unscathed. Weird. I can still hear Jenn’s voice. Her words sounded so normal. But what she said was so bizarre, so unreal. There should be a different set of words for saying things like that, maybe an entirely different language. Regular words seemed to mock the very facts they were announcing. I keep thinking regular reality is going to wake me up. I’m going hear words that will set the world back in order.
And now, tomorrow, I’m supposed to put together words for the funeral. I’m supposed to use regular words, the language we all understand, to make sense of this—what? Tragedy? Cruelty? Accident? Random event? Act of God? What words can I possibly use that will not become lies simply by saying them out loud?
I wish I could have someone else do the service. Let someone who still lives in the regular world struggle with putting words together. But I know my congregation expects me to preach. It’s what I do–putting words around the big events—births and marriages, catastrophes and holidays, and farewells, deaths. For twenty years my people have counted on me to proclaim the truth, God’s truth, in the face of all the ups and downs of life, through catastrophes and times of blessing. My job—no, my calling—is to proclaim the Word. Above all, I am called to preach The Gospel. This has been the one constant, the immovable anchor, the grand and noble fact that dwarfs all other concerns, all other claims for forty years. Since the day God appeared to me like Paul on the Road to Damascus.
It was the summer after my junior year at the University of Maryland. The Vietnam War was on. The world was crazy. We were crazy. I joined a few marches. I made noises about justice and peace. But really, I was just doing my own thing. I wasn’t doing “seriously bad stuff.” Nothing worth talking about. Nothing remarkable for that time and place. Playing women for my pleasure. A little alcohol, a little pot. A lot of me. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. It was just that I was smack in the center of my own little universe. I took care of ME [should be name].
If you had asked me, I would have told you I was a Christian. Of course. I had gone to church all my life. My friends were Christian. We all believed in God and the Bible and salvation and the Ten Commandments. I was even Christian enough to have twinges of conscience occasionally. Especially when a girl cried when I broke up with her. I didn’t like hurting people.
Then on an afternoon in July, I was at the Smithsonian Museum of Art. I was struck by the incongruity of the classical artists painting with equal passion and mastery scenes of Greek gods and Mary and the crucified Christ. Did art make no distinction between myth and truth? Was the Bible just one more word, one more story, in the vast library of human tales?
I walked out into blinding sun, crossed to the mall and sat looking down toward Lincoln’s tomb. Suddenly out of nowhere, I saw a vision. I saw Jesus hanging on the cross. He looked right at me and asked, “Why did you do it?” I was puzzled. Then I saw myself pounding the nails into his hands. I felt the hammer in my hands. I was shaking. First with rage at this man who had so troubled me, then with tears. I looked at my hands. These hands? These lifted the hammer? I knew it was true. Jesus did not just die for me. I killed him. But it was necessary. It was either him or me. And when it came down to that, well, I would always do whatever it took to take care of myself. If one of us had to be nailed, it would have to be him. I don’t know how the choice became so suddenly stark that afternoon on the Mall. It was as real as the trees in my front yard, as real as the desk in my office. I was there. I felt the hammer. I heard his voice. His eyes held mine. I could either own my sin and guilt, acknowledge the hammer in my hand, and then let it go into the grace that flowed from the cross or I could deny it. I could protest my innocence and keep the hammer in my hand.
I can’t tell this story. People would think I’m crazy. It’s not credible. No one else at the mall that afternoon saw and heard. It was completely subjective, inward. But to speak honestly of my experience—it was real. And my entire life since then is the outworking of that moment.
I have friends who preach the gospel because they have clearly understood the writings of the Apostle Paul. They know that Jesus Christ died for sinners. They know that our guilt has been laid on the Lamb of God, that through faith in the name of Jesus we are freed from guilt and condemnation and brought into eternal life. They know this from the text of the Bible. They are scholars. In seminary they mastered Greek and became knowledgeable in systematic theology. They are well-schooled in the Gospel, well-equipped to preach the Word. I am honored to be part of their company.
I, too, know the words of Paul in English and in Greek. I, too, have read the works of the Protestant reformers and of modern scholars like Stott and Piper and Platinga and Wright. I appreciate scholarship. I pay supreme respect to the text of the Bible, God’s Word. But my gospel is not the fruit of scholarship alone. Jesus appeared to me personally. My skeptical friends can offer all kinds of psychological explanations of what happened that day. But I know in the very core of my being, I know in a place deeper than words can reach, that Jesus came to me, Jesus called me that day. And I have been true to that calling. I have been true to the gospel. It is the treasure which has defined my life.
Against all the modern dilutions and distortions, I have insisted that God meant what he said when he spoke through the Apostle Paul, “It is by grace through faith that you are saved.” “There is none righteous, no not one.” “Other than Jesus, there is no other name under heaven which brings salvation.” “If a man believes in his heart and confesses with his mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord he will be saved.” I did not invent these words. I received them. God spoke them in the Good Book by the Apostle Paul, yes, and God confirmed them to me personally in that almost unspeakable vision on the Mall.
So tomorrow, like I have so many times before in rooms full of grieving people, I will preach the gospel, the good news that Jesus offers eternal life to all who believe. Death is not the end for those who believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord. Resurrection is coming. Death will die.
But where does that leave my son? I have not pretended my family was perfect. My congregation and I together have prayed for the salvation of our children. They have known that Eric was not a believer. They assured me they, too, were praying for his return to faith. Like they prayed for their own children. They, too, have joined me in loving him and hoping. But in our hope and love we have never denied the gospel. We have never pretended faith was optional, that there was some other way of salvation besides faith in the name of Jesus Christ. We always encouraged one another that it was God’s will to save and that God was working always to rekindle faith in the heart of our children. God would win. God would bring our children back. We prayed with stubborn confidence.
But Eric died last Thursday. Unbelieving. God failed. Eric did not return. Eric did not confess. Eric was lost, damned.
Tomorrow, like any decent preacher I will speak of hope, but if I am true to the gospel, that hope is for other people. Not for me. Not for Eric. If I imply that the promise of resurrection includes Eric, I will be no different from Joel Osteen or any other preacher who has traded in the Gospel for some feel-good substitute. If I give myself hope tomorrow, it will prove that I believed the gospel only as long as I thought it would work out right for my kids. Love for my kids will have superseded the Word of God as my final authority. If Tom weren’t here maybe I could waffle a little, give myself at least some room to ignore the implications of the gospel. But Tom will hear. And because he is listening, I will hear my own words and know what they mean. Tomorrow I will have to damn my son to save the Gospel. But how can I do it?
O Eric, my son, my son. If only I could be the one destined for hell and you be assured salvation, I would do it in an instant.
The doorbell is ringing. It’s Tom. I don’t know if I have the courage to face him. With everyone else, and even with myself, I can manage a certain amount of pretending, a certain amount of ignoring. I can imagine it was all a bad dream. The phone is going to ring and it will be Eric on the line, alive, not Jenn asking about another detail of life in the aftermath of death. I tell myself that on that afternoon as Eric was driving to day care to pick up Sienna, Jesus appeared to him and in the moment of that glorious vision Eric said yes to Jesus, like I did forty years ago. Eric believed. How can a dad not hope such things? How can a preacher of the Gospel fail to hope such things? But I know when I open the front door all that fantasy will vanish.
Tom hugged me. Long. I could feel his own agony in our embrace. With his hand he pulled my head onto his shoulder like I was a woman. And I sobbed. Still he held me. Then we wandered into the kitchen. He embraced Margie. Held her. After long minutes we sat. Margie asked if she could get him something to drink. Some tea maybe? She put water on. We chitchatted. Margie asked about his kids and grandkids. He asked about our other kids, deliberately avoiding Eric. But even those questions were delicate. It’s not been easy. Sometimes believing children go places with their faith that seem unwise, unbalanced. And when faith—whatever its formal language—when faith walls off grandkids, it hurts. Still, with living children we have the solace of hope. There is time to fix things. Time for healing. The stories are not finished.
Margie set cups on the table for Tom and me, and a box of tea bags and honey and spoons, then excused herself. “I’ll leave you guys to talk.”
We sat. Forty years of friendship between us. Forty years of connection. Every time I had been in the hospital he had been there. When I nearly left Margie, he was there screaming, No! When he lost William at birth, he called me. When he considered leaving the ministry, or was simply frustrated, he called me. When he got too big for his britches, when he became too infatuated with himself, it was my job to hint that maybe he was a naked emperor. (I’ve heard him say this to other people about me a dozen times, mocking himself, honoring me.) I was the voice in his head arguing against the arrogance of liberalism and scientism. (Again, this is what he says.)
I knew his mind. He knew everything I thought. What was there to say? What words could possibly be adequate for this? We sipped our tea. And sat. Together.
After awhile he asked me to tell him the story. He had heard bits and pieces, he said. But he couldn’t get his head around it. What happened?
I told him. About the storm, which he already knew. It knocked down trees in his yard. About the drive to day care. About the tree: one hundred twenty-three feet tall, thirty-eight inches in diameter, five tons of weight. About the car. About the surgical precision, front seat crushed, back seat untouched. How quickly aid arrived. The impossibility of resuscitation. Jenn’s call from the hospital.
He didn’t say a word. He sat, head in his hands, listening.
“My grandkids didn’t have God,” I said. “And now they don’t have Dad.” My story ended. He glanced up. Shook his head, then dropped it again into his hands. “My God, my God,” he murmured, “why have you forsaken us?”
We sat silent.
“What am I supposed to say tomorrow?” I asked. “Do I turn my own son into one of those freaky sermon illustrations–he could have been saved, he was going to be saved, he was almost saved but then he was hit by a car, well, or by a tree, and now it’s too late. So, listen up, everybody. Repent before it is too late. Don’t leave this funeral without accepting Jesus as your Savior. Don’t leave without believing in your heart and confessing with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord. Do I turn the tragedy of Eric’s death into a triumph of the gospel by using his damnation as inspiration for some other sinner to repent and believe?”
It was a stupid question. I would never do such a thing. We both knew that. But it was the question my heart kept asking.
Tom said nothing.
“How do I live without hope? I’ve preached the gospel for 40 years. It is God’s word. Paul’s word. And my own experience. But the gospel has always included hope. Yes, there were the hard edges of truth, there is no other name, he who does not believe is condemned already, but those truths were addressed to people who could yet say yes to the Gospel. How do I live with no hope?”
Tom sat. Listened. Carried the weight of all this craziness. He raised his head, looked at me. I’m sorry friend, his eyes said. Then again he dropped his head into his hands. Keeping me company.
“My son, Eric. Oh my son, Eric. Would to God I had died in your place.” It was his mouth speaking, voicing aloud the cry of my heart, echoing the three-thousand-year-old lament of King David. He meant them as words for me, but they were his words, too. He would have willingly taken the tree in Eric’s place, if God would offer such an exchange. He would have taken the tree to spare Eric. He would have taken the tree to spare me. His own hold on life is more tenuous than mine. He would have made the trade. Maybe he would have even taken Eric’s damnation, but that confronted me with the question I had dreaded from the moment I thought about Tom showing up at my door, the question he had not once hinted at since he arrived, but which had screamed louder in my own head every minute that he said nothing, every minute he kept company with me in my grief.
“You don’t think Eric is lost, do you?”
Tom is messed up. I love him. But he’s messed up. Going way back he has always had questions. He argued with professors in seminary. He argued with his friends. He fretted about problems in the Bible.
I remember just a few years after seminary talking to him about creation. He loved rocks. Was always reading about creation and evolution and the age of the earth and stuff like that. He had come back from a geology field trip saying our creation doctrine could not stand up to close scrutiny. I remember thinking if he can’t believe it we’re doomed. If with all his study he couldn’t find enough evidence to allow for the Bible story of creation, what hope was there for regular people?
But then he was always troubled about something. Even the Gospel. He was always worrying about the exceptional people, severely disabled people—how could they believe? How could they be condemned for not believing? He wanted to save everybody, the pagans in Asia before the missionaries got there, people with mental problems, babies who died in infancy, atheists whose lack of faith could be attributed to abuse they experienced from church people. I admire his heart, but I worry about his—what should I call it—irreverence? Lack of faith? Arrogance?
A year with a homosexual housemate, was the foundation of another set of questions. How could it be right to require of others something—celibacy—that we—ordinary married clergy—could never contemplate for ourselves. When I asked him if he really trusted human stories more than the word of God, that stopped him. He wasn’t willing to go that far. Not then. But that was decades ago. I’m not sure how he would answer now. I think he has less faith now. More questions. When we talk, he asks questions. He listens. He agrees with me when I protest against examples of extreme liberal thinking, but I can’t think of when I last heard him express a straightforward theological opinion. Well, except for last summer.
I was fretting over Eric and Jenn. How could they raise my grandkids without Jesus, without any religion, any spiritual sense at all? I worried my grandkids would not be in heaven. Tom acknowledged my grief, but something in the way he responded made me question him. “You don’t think atheists will be lost?”
“I’m a lawyer for the defense,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I can get them off. If I were admitted to the court on judgment day, I could get them off. At least I could make an argument that would get a hearing in court. And if it didn’t get a hearing, I think I would prefer hell to any place where my case would not be heard.”
“You think people can be saved even if they have rejected faith?” I couldn’t believe what I just heard him say.
“Five times in the Bible humans argue with God and win. Five times deity bends to the will and words of humanity. And four out of the five, the human argument is ratified by the subsequent story. The way the Bible tells it, the humans not only get their way, they are right. Abraham argued to save Sodom from the destruction God announced. The old man failed to save the city, but God bent to the heart of Abraham’s argument and sent angels to rescue the four “good people” that could be identified.
“God announced his decision to annihilate Israel after they worshiped the golden calf. God ordered Moses to step aside so the annihilation could begin. Moses bluntly refused, and God backed down. Then there’s the curious case of the Gibeonites. God included them in a general decree of annihilation for all Canaanites. They tricked Joshua into making a treaty with them. When the deception became public, Joshua’s army insisted he obey the divine decree and obliterate them. Joshua withstood his army. He protected the Gibeonites. And a later story in the Bible emphatically declares God’s approval of Joshua’s defense. Then my favorite. The Canaanite woman who came to Jesus asking for help for her daughter. Jesus and the disciples tried to get rid of her. Jesus explicitly told her that he was not authorized to help her. She was outside his divinely-appointed mission. She said, ‘Do it anyway.’ And Jesus acquiesced, saying, ‘Okay woman, may it be as you will.’ As Christians, we can read this passage as God saying, Not my will but yours be done.
“Sodom was a bad town. The Israelites were idolaters. The Gibeonites were under a highly publicized divine order of extinction. Jesus himself said God had not authorized him to help the Canaanite woman. But four Sodomites were saved. The nation of Israel and the Gibeonites were spared. The woman received the help she wanted. All good precedents for a defense lawyer.
“Classic Christianity can cite chapter and verse in their prosecution of unbelievers. It’s easy to make the case for damnation. But I am a lawyer for the defense. The only plea bargain I will accept is one that leaves my clients alive. Our kids are damnable unbelievers according to the religion of Luther and Augustine and Paul and our church. I defy them all. God will not damn our children. If he does, I go with them. I have no interest in heaven if it is not large enough for our kids.”
I still remember the shock of his words. He blew off the heart of the gospel, two thousand years of Christian theology. No interest in heaven unless heaven included his children? No bowing to God unless God welcomed his children? It was blasphemy. But even in his arrogance, Tom wasn’t really capable of blasphemy. He wasn’t shaking his fist at God, he just would not let go of his kids. And “his kids” included my Eric. But wasn’t that idolatry?
I didn’t know what to say. I think Margie came into the room and we used that as an excuse to break our conversation and talk of other, safer stuff.
A week or so later I asked about the idolatry thing. “Tom, you said you had no interest in being in heaven with God unless your children were there. Forgive me for asking, but isn’t that idolatry?”
“Yes.” He wrote back. “You could say that. But again, as a lawyer for the defense, let me offer a different take. The dominant metaphor in the Bible for God is father. In the synoptic, every use of the word “father” evokes the picture of a provident, generous, competent daddy. God the Father is the one you run to not away from. In the story of the Prodigal Son, in the end the father has welcomed both sons, and his final words to the older son who is resisting his welcome are, ‘Son everything that I have is yours.’ Not will be or might be or could be. There is no “if.” Simply, everything I have is yours. This father would rather die than lose his son. So when I say I prefer damnation with my kids to salvation without them, how am I acting any different from the divine Father as pictured in the stories of Jesus? I know the other passages, the Bible texts cited in support of the idea that the God will ultimately fail to save most of his children. All my life I’ve listened to good people explain how it is that the God of love will be forced by “justice” or “the sovereignty of human choice” to damn most of his children. I’ve made those arguments myself. But that was before I signed on as a lawyer for the defense. What kind of defense attorney would I be if I took only cases that were easy? If standing with my kids all the way through the verdict is idolatry, then I will accept condemnation as an idolater. What kind of father would I be if I accepted a salvation that excluded my kids? If we are all damned, so be it. But I will never stand in heaven and agree to the damnation of my kids.”
That was two years ago. We have talked less since then. There’s no animosity, but I have been uncertain how to talk. How do you stretch a friendship as close as ours across a chasm this wide? When push comes to shove Tom will choose his kids over God. He will choose an emotional affection over the truth of the gospel. How do you discuss theology after that?
Oh sure, we still talk occasionally. Keep up on what the kids and grandkids are doing. He has sympathized with us as our Nashville kids have wrapped themselves deeper and deeper in the cult they joined. I am deeply perplexed. I was so pleased when our son-in-law began providing real spiritual leadership in their family. They were going to a church where the Gospel was preached. God’s word was taken seriously. Grace was exalted. Sin was rebuked. He became an elder and devoted hours to Bible study. Then his church wasn’t pure enough. They joined another, smaller congregation. Then the preacher there wasn’t careful enough in his exegesis. Then we, Margie and I, became suspect. The son-in-law did not want us to spend time in their home. If we visited, we stayed in a motel and came for dinner when both parents were present (and he could monitor and dilute our influence). It broke our hearts. Tom cried with us. He listened and sympathized without condemning our kids or second guessing us.
Margie and I fretted with him over one of his grandsons. His muscles were refusing to develop properly. They had taken him to every possible specialist, run every test. Still, no firm diagnosis. No prognosis. Just worry. Endless wondering and fretting. Shared pain among friends.
But we stayed away from theology. And for preachers not to be able to talk theology puts a strain on things. Sometimes I couldn’t help myself and I would share with him some of my concerns about the swelling secularity of American culture, about the assimilation of the Christian church to the values and mores of left-falling America. He usually agreed with my concerns, but I couldn’t tell what he actually thought. It sounded to me like he was simply being agreeable, finding something in my words he could affirm. And all the time I was wondering does he still have greater loyalty to his kids than to God?
Is he a Christian? Is he saved?
But, of course, this evening that’s not what I’m worried about. Tom is not the center of the service tomorrow.
“You don’t think Eric is lost, do you?”
There. I said it.
“Dave, I know the gospel has saved your life and given you your ministry.” Tom said. “I know God called you. I don’t want to take away from that. In your hands, the Gospel is a tool for giving hope, an instrument of healing and peace. You have blessed hundreds, thousands, with your preaching. You are a beautiful man, a beautiful preacher.
“Still, I don’t think God will damn his grandchildren. Especially, if their only fault is failing to believe the correct theory regarding the death of Jesus. I regard Paul’s gospel as a metaphor, one picture people can use to help themselves imagine God forgiving and embracing them. But I think God is bigger than the Gospel. God’s hands are not tied by the Gospel—as we understand it or even as the Apostle Paul understood it. I think mercy and justice are greater than the theories of the Apostle. I think God is very much like you. You would unhesitatingly give your life to save your son or grandkids from some earthly calamity. And which of your kids would you damn, if the judgment were placed completely in your hands? If God set up an execution—an electrocution—and put the switch in your hands and told you to push it when you were ready to damn you son, how soon could you bring yourself to push the button?”
In the story of Job, there is this curious bit right at the beginning of the tale. Job had ten kids. They had regular parties. When a party was over, the Bible says that Job would offer sacrifices to purify his kids, just in case they had secretly committed a sin in their heart during the feast. The plain reading of the text means that Job’s actions were efficacious. When he was done with the sacrifice, his children were, in fact, pure in the eyes of God. The kids themselves did nothing. They did not confess or repent or believe. They were purified by the magnanimous competence of their father. Is God any less magnanimous? And less competent? I think God will find a way to save our children.
Tom looked at the clock. “I better get out of here. You have a terrible day ahead of you.” He hugged me again. Fiercely. Long. Then was gone.
It’s midnight. Eleven hours till the service begins.
Oh Eric, Eric. Would to God I had died in your place. How can I let you go? What good is heaven without you? How will I learn to look at your mother and without seeing your eyes and tasting again the bitterness of your absence? How will I learn to look at my hands and not see your hands? How long will it take for heaven to quit torturing me every time I am reminded you are not there?
Damn Tom! He makes it so alluring. Heresy. Cheap grace. Watered down gospel. Human wisdom above the word of God. Tom makes it all sound so possible, so believable. But aren’t all his fine words just sweet fantasy? The Bible is so clear.
Tom can’t be right. Lawyer for the defense? Take all the best lawyers in the world and add them together; they are no match for the simple words of the Bible. It is by faith we are saved. There is no other name under heaven, given among men.
But then I replay Tom’s words in my head. Of all the people in the gospels who were possessed by demons not one ever asked for help or expressed the least hint of faith. And not one was ever left unhelped. Jesus saved every one of them anyway. Why, Tom had asked, why would God not similarly cure atheists of their unfaith, in the great transformation, at the end when all are changed? Doesn’t the Bible promise that everyone will be changed? Fixed? Who is so far gone that God cannot or will not fix them?
Could I be the Canaanite mother demanding help for my child who is not even present except in my demands for help? Would heaven bend to my will the way Jesus bent to that mother? Could I offer sacrifice for my son?
Oh Jesus, save my son. He could not save himself. He did not ask. So I am asking. Imploring. Begging. Insisting. Save my son. Damnation looms. Damnation is the only word I know how to say, but please, save my son.