Salvation after Death? – January 2005

Question: “In talking to some of my fundamental Christian friends the claim has been made that physical death holds the finality of acceptance of salvation, i.e. salvation must be attained prior to physical death. I just can’t see physical death as being the absolute final ‘chance.’ I’ve looked and have not found anything in the Bible that says that death is the final point of acceptance or rejection. I know that this is the tradition in many denominations but I wonder if this also holds true in process theology.”

Publication Month: January 2005

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The idea that our everlasting fate is settled at the moment of death has been widely held in Christendom, not just by Fundamentalists. Catholics softened it with their doctrine of purgatory. One might go straight to Hell forever, but the majority of believers would not be ready for Heaven. They would require purgation before they could enter their ultimately blessed destiny. The Reformers opposed the idea that anyone had personal merit and emphasized that salvation was a pure gift of God. They did away with purgatory. If you have faith you go straight to Heaven; otherwise, straight to Hell. A variation on this is that there is soul sleep until the final judgment, when this ‘either/or’ is applied. Your Fundamentalist friends are continuing these traditions.

There is biblical basis for this view and for its variation. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man implies that, once one is in hell, it is too late to repent. The parable of the Final Judgment indicates that at the end of history people will be divided into the two groups. In Romans 2, Paul speaks of a final judgment that seems to be of a similar sort. This reflects the Pharisaic theology underlying much of early Christian thought.

On the other hand, many teachings in the New Testament do not fit this pattern. Jesus’ central message, in continuity with the Hebrew prophets, was about the coming of the Basileia Theou (I like to translate this as “ Commonwealth of God ”) on earth. Some will enter before others, but whether any are permanently excluded is not clear. Paul’s eschatological vision in Romans 8 identifies the believers as the first fruits of God’s saving work, but the whole universe is to be liberated and glorified.

The question of what we can hope for has no one consistent answer in the Bible, or even in the New Testament. Christians are free to speculate about such matters based on clearer, more central teachings. One tradition of such speculation begins with the New Testament affirmation that God is love. Process thought generally operates in this tradition.

Those who take their cue from Jesus’ revelation of God as love deny that people are punished in the crude sense. By that I mean that a loving God does not impose on people a useless suffering that is not the consequence of their own decisions and actions. If we refuse to believe that we are accepted and forgiven, we will suffer from our sense of guilt. If we refuse the love others, including God, extend to us, we will suffer loneliness and alienation. God does not prevent such suffering. Also we may judge that there are forms of suffering from which we learn or through which we grow. Love does not prevent a parent from inflicting that kind of suffering. But the everlasting suffering in Hell, which has no meaning other than sheer punishment, is not compatible with what we know of God as love.

Given this widespread agreement among process thinkers and many other Christians as well, the question remains whether there are opportunities after death to change one’s spiritual condition. Some process thinkers believe that after death we live on in the life of God, but that what lives on is what we have been up until that time. This is certainly not punished. God incorporates us into the divine life in the way that makes the most of what we have contributed. But in agreement with your conservative friends, these process thinkers would say that we as agents no longer can change anything.

Other process thinkers believe that after death there is a continuing personal existence in which new things happen to us and we engage in fresh actions. From a process perspective, as long as that continues to be the case, God will work lovingly with us for our good. These process thinkers agree with your idea that physical death does not end the possibility of repentance and new life.

There is poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that depicts God as “the hound of Heaven”, pursuing those who reject God’s gifts through all the ages, seeking to break down human resistance to divine blessing. I find this a beautiful image fully consistent with the revelation of God in Jesus. There is a story by C.S. Lewis, entitled The Great Divorce. It depicts people in Hell making one another miserable. A bus is available to take them to Heaven whenever they wish to go. But they find themselves even more miserable there and return. This, too, provides an image that is fully consistent with Christian revelation.

Obviously, these images are not to be taken literally. The truth is that our attempts to think more literally about life after death do not get us very far. Your fundamentalist friends are right to put the emphasis on this life and the decisions that we make now.

Where process thinkers may differ from Fundamentalists is that we do not focus attention on preparing for another life. We seek to love and serve God and God’s creatures here and now, not in order to assure ourselves of a blessed life beyond the grave but because that is what we are now called to do. A life lived in that way is an appropriate response to God’s grace whether or not it is continued beyond the grave. It is also the form of life in which we are most fulfilled here and now. It does not require an extension beyond death in order to be worthwhile.

Also, we do not expect so drastic a break between what we are in this world and whatever we may be beyond it. There may, however, be a kind of intensification of our spiritual situation. Another image may bring that out. In this life we are always in the presence of God, completely known by God. However, it is relatively easy to ignore that fact and to live as though God were not. We may suppose that at death the veil is removed and the distractions are no longer available. We then find ourselves face to face with God.

For those who love God that will be a moment of great fulfillment and blessedness. In the tradition it has been called the beatific vision. Even for most of them, however, the full awareness that they are wholly known may not be pure joy! But because the one who knows is the one who understands and forgives, the pain of fuller realization of their sin will be accompanied by the assurance of acceptance.

There are others who want to hide from the light, but who will find no place to hide. They must face the fact that they are fully known. They do not realize that the one who knows them is pure Love. They feel judged and condemned.

Such an image gives some support to the sense to the traditional Protestant emphasis that our condition at the last moment of life is important. But this in no way entails that there can be no further change. The new situation may produce repentance. Those who have failed to grow spiritually in this life may grow later on.

Of course, the sharp alternatives in this example are misleading. Most of us will find such an encounter with God but joyful and painful. We both long for God and fear closeness. We both want to be known and also to conceal. We are both justified and sinners, both saved and damned.

Perhaps the point of greatest difference between process theologians and your fundamentalist friends lies in the understanding of the spiritual state that is of greatest importance. The tendency of Fundamentalists is to stress beliefs. We must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as our savior.

Christian process theologians share the conviction of the great importance of Jesus Christ. But we react against any tendency to identify a particular formula of statements and beliefs as crucial to our salvation. Recently I have been working on a commentary on Romans. Many of the verses that have been taken to support the crucial importance of belief in Jesus Christ as savior come from Paul. What I learned in studying Paul with a New Testament scholar, David Lull, is that the Greek word, pistis, which has been translated as “faith,” is usually better translated as “faithfulness.” Paul is deeply moved by Jesus’ faithfulness even to death for the sake of sinners. He calls us to participate in that faithfulness. Of course, that involves beliefs about Jesus and his crucifixion. But the question is not what we think with our minds but what we become in our total beings. To postpone becoming that to the moment of death means not to become that at all.

This shift from beliefs to the qualities of a faithful life also changes the way we can think about those who are not believers in Jesus. Surely the quality of life of some Jews is more faithful, when faithfulness is viewed against the background of Jesus’ life and death, than some who hold orthodox Christian beliefs. It is not those who say “Lord, Lord” but those who are faithful who are saved. Christians should approach with great humility, those who, sometimes for good reasons, have rejected the beliefs that Christians tell them they should accept. We believe they have been cut off from spiritual resources of great importance. But often we have cut ourselves off as well, especially by the judgmental spirit so strongly condemned by both Jesus and Paul. Viewed dispassionately, many who do not call themselves Christian have greater spiritual maturity than many who do. A loving God will not punish them for their failure to “accept” Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.