Living Life in the Shadow of the End

Jesus offers surprising counsel on how to behave as we face the coming end of history or of our personal lives.

Autun_St_Lazare_Tympanon - Version 2
The Last Judgment as depicted in the west tympanum of the Cathedral of Saint Lazare in Autun, France.

Several years ago, when I was working as a pastor, a young man who was attending our church asked to meet with me. He needed some guidance, he said, on a serious question that troubled him.

When we met, I asked what question was agitating him so much. He had apparently been exposed to some dispensational theology on the End Times, possibly the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. If Jesus would be returning to earth at any moment and usher in the end of history, what should he as a Christian do to prepare for that momentous event?, he asked with some clear anxiety.

I suggested that the best answer to that question could be found in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 24, we find Matthew’s version of what scholars call the Little Apocalypse.

In this passage Jesus offers a description of what will happen just before the end of history. The description has many confusing and alarming features, typical of an apocalyptic vision in the Jewish tradition. It culminates in the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. This mysterious figure sends out his angels into all the world to gather the chosen ones into his kingdom. (Mark has a version of this vision in Mark 13, and Luke in Luke 21.)

Keep Awake

Jesus ends his teaching with an admonition to his disciples: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming (Matthew 24:42).

This admonition immediately raises another question. What does it mean to keep awake. This is the same question the young man was asking me, except in different words.

Matthew does not keep us hanging. He answers the question immediately as he recounts four parables that Jesus taught. They all focus on what we need to be doing to keep awake as we await the end. (When I use the word the end, I understand those words in two ways. One can be the end of history; the other our personal end at the moment of our death. What Jesus says applies equally to both.)

The Parable of the Faithful Steward

The first parable (Matthew 24:45-51) is not really a story so much as an extended metaphor. Jesus uses the analogy of the steward an estate owner appoints to manage the estate and its personnel as the master goes on a long journey. The servant’s particular responsibility is to provide for the feeding of the other servants.

Jesus then remarks, Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives [home] (Matthew 24:46). The point of the parable is to caution his disciples not to become lax, complacent, and indulgent in their duties, especially their duties in carrying for others for whom they are responsible. They are to always provide responsible and faithful care.

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

 The second parable (Matthew 25:1-13) tells the story of ten bridesmaids who await the arrival of the bridegroom’s wedding procession to pick up his bride. As the bridegroom delays, the girls fall asleep, but have oil lamps burning.

When the bridegroom approaches, five of the girls, called the wise ones, have extra oil with which to trim their lamps and keep them burning. The other five, the foolish ones, did not bring extra oil. They rush to buy more, but while they are gone, the bridegroom arrives. The five foolish girls are left out of the wedding banquet.

As I read this parable, I interpret the oil lamps as the traditional disciplines of Christian spirituality–disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, participation in the sacraments, meditation, contemplative prayer, etc. These disciplines pour spiritual oil, we might say, to our spiritual lives, keeping them burning.

The Parable of the Talents

 In the third parable (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus tells a story of a master who departs on a journey but before he goes, he hands over varying amounts of money (called talents) to three servants. He expects them to invest it. Two do, with extraordinary returns–100% over the invested capital. But the third servant, fearing a loss, buries the money in the ground, keeping it safe for his master’s return.

When the master returns, the first two servants receive extravagant commendations from their master for their return on their investment. But the third one receives utter condemnation. By abiding to his spirit of fear, the third servant not only loses the original principal the master gave, but he is banished from his master’s service and presence.

The point of this parable, as I read it, is that we have all been given talents and abilities, some more than others. Yet all of us are accountable for using those talents and abilities in service to God, the world, and our own lives. The call is to take risks with what we have been given rather than going through our lives cowering in fear and apprehension.

The Parable of the Last Judgment

Finally we come to the fourth parable (Matthew 25:31-46). This final parable provides a vision of the Last Judgment. The nations (notice not just individuals, but also nations) are called before the Son of Man for judgment.

Admittance into his kingdom, however, does not rest upon believing correct doctrines or upon the depth of their piety. Rather their admittance depends how they have treated the disadvantaged in the world. Have they fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the sick and those in prison?

This parable remains a sober reminder that how we treat our neighbor, especially our neighbor in need, has eternal consequences. And so as we live our lives, we need to be taking our responsibilities to the needy and disadvantaged with utmost seriousness.

The Point of the Parables

Now when we look at these four parables, we find Jesus counseling behavior that looks remarkably like living responsible lives in the world. It is not advocating anxious behavior to withdraw from the world and live in spiritual isolation, as we see sometimes in apocalyptic groups like the Branch Dividians or the Jonestown community.

Nor do these parables sanction alarmist behavior like the 19th century Millerites who abandoned jobs and sold all their property in anticipation of the return of Christ on March 21, 1844.

Rather what comes across in these two chapters of Matthew is wholesome living in this life and world, balancing a life of simultaneous inner cultivation of the spirit and outer service to others, especially others in need. This is true preparation for the End, whether that be the end of history or our own personal death. Alarm and panic over the approaching end of history is not fully warranted, though emotional sobriety, calmness, and alertness about our responsibilities in life are.

This is what I tried to share with this young man who came to see me. But I guess it was not the answer he was looking for. We never saw him in our church again.



The Question that Christians Need to Stop Asking

We are not the judge at the Last Judgment. God is.

Note: This posting continues a discussion I began in my last posting, Where Does Jesus Fit in Inter-Religious Dialogue? You may want to read it first.

In my last posting, I argued that we cannot understand the animating spirit of historic, orthodox Christianity if we limit Jesus to being just a great teacher or a great prophet. We have to broaden our minds to grasp the historic Christian proclamation that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

Saying that fundamental tenet of our faith, most Christians then go on to presume that only explicit Christians will be saved at the Last Judgment. Only Christians (whether baptized or born-again, depending upon how different denominations define Christian) will enter into the Kingdom of God. All others will be cast into the fiery pit of Hell.

This means that one of the most common questions Christians are constantly asking of themselves as well as of others is: Are you saved? Where will you spend eternity?

The Pastoral Distress of the Question

I believe the time has come for Christians to stop asking this question. It has caused untold emotional and spiritual distress, if not abuse, through the ages. I believe we need to excise the question from our Christian speech.

It has caused great anxiety for countless Christians themselves. What evidence is there, they ask of themselves, as to whether I belong to God’s elect or not? Was my born-again experience genuine or not? Or, if we are Catholic, have I committed a mortal sin that will invalidate my baptism? What if I don’t feel happy as a born-again Christian is supposed to feel? Does that call in question my salvation?

I have seen this worry intensify the grief of families mourning the loss of a family member who showed no interest in Jesus or the church, or even vehemently rejected them. Grieving a death is bad enough, but grieving when you think your loved one has gone to Hell is agony for such families.

The presumption that only genuine Christians can be saved has also caused constant tension in Christians’ relations to other religions of the world. Other religious people find such Christians arrogant and judgmental. Christians, on the other hand, obsess about saving their lost friends, neighbors, and all of humanity.

Commenting on this obsession, Leslie Newbigin, a prominent, 20th century missionary in India, once said: “In the debate about Christianity and the world’s religions it is fair to say that there has been an almost unquestioned assumption that the only question is: ‘What happens to the non-Christian after death?’ I want to affirm that this is the wrong question and that as long as it remains the central question we shall never come to the truth.”*

To Leslie Newbigin, I say, “Amen.” I have come to the same conclusion through my own life experience and discussions with many others in inter-religious dialogues.

Why It’s the Wrong Question to Be Asking

I consider it the wrong question for three reasons.

First, when most Christians ask that question, “Are you saved?”, they presume an anemic understanding of salvation. They assume that salvation means that you will go to heaven when you die.

But when we soak ourselves into the whole message of the Bible, we find the concept of salvation we meet there is far deeper and broader than just that one limited meaning. Salvation is a very expansive concept, not a restricted one. It involves healing, reconciliation, harmony, prosperity, and unity as well as life after death. It is the experience of God’s creative and redemptive purpose coming to its fulfillment at the end of the age.

I have tried to expound upon this more expansive meaning of salvation in my blog posting of April 21, 2014 titled “Spacious Salvation.”

My second reason for considering it the wrong question is related to the first reason. The question keeps the focus of salvation on the individual person and his or her fate at the Last Judgment. This keeps the focus on me and my ego needs and worries.

Individuals are important to God. Jesus assures us that if God has all the hairs of our head numbered, then we need not worry that God cares about each one of us individually. But salvation is not all about the saving a vast mass of isolated individuals. It’s about the saving of individuals within God’s creative and redemptive work within all the cosmos.

For the apostle Paul, the kingdom of God is about nothing less than the unifying of the whole cosmos—the natural order as well as people–under the lordship of Jesus Christ. (See the first chapters of both Ephesians and Colossians.) Our salvation is our being brought into our own special place in this grand and glorious order. None of us can experience salvation in its fullness until the whole of the universe experiences it as well.

If we are going to ask, “Are you saved?”, then we need to raise our sights to include more than our individual fate at the Last Judgment. Let us seek to understand our individual place within the social and cosmic order that the Kingdom of God will be.

The poet Dante got it right in Canto 100 of the Divine Comedy. There he has a vision of the triune God as the unifying center of a vast cosmic rose composed of the myriads upon myriads of saints and angels, all facing and praising God, and reflecting the glory of God. We, too, must raise our vision of salvation.

The Criteria for Judgment at the Last Judgment

And three, I consider the question “Are you saved?” the wrong question to ask, because none of us is ultimately the judge at the Last Judgment. None of us is ever in any position to answer that question definitively for either ourselves or for other people. God is the judge. And we can never presume to know how God will decree.

The gospel message is that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. As a Christian minister I believe that and I preach that. But I am in no position to say just how precisely everyone is to believe in him.

The gospel references to the Last Judgment make clear that there will be lots of surprises at that moment. People who thought they were safely in will find themselves on the outside. And those who thought they were on the outside will find themselves welcomed into the Kingdom.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is very clear that just calling Jesus “Lord, Lord,” will not guarantee entrance. It is those who do the will of his Father in heaven who will enter in (Matthew 7:21-23). And in Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, both the sheep and the goats are surprised by the judge’s judgment. There the decisive factor is not the creed the individuals profess. It is whether they did acts of compassion for “the least of these my brothers [and sisters].”

A Different Slant on a Reformation Principle

In both passages, the decision about individuals is based primarily upon the individual’s actions, not his or her words. The acid test is doing the will of the Father. This raises troubling questions for a Protestant like myself raised on the Reformation principle of salvation by faith alone. We are saved by faith, not good works.

Yet these passages suggest that if we are to retain the Reformation principle, then we must rethink the meaning of faith. Faith must mean more than reciting a creed or making a personal decision for Christ. It must be understood in the way that Paul describes it in Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus…the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” In some way, faith and works must be understood as one integral whole.

That’s why I don’t trouble myself unduly with the eternal fate of the non-Christian. God can be merciful to whom God wants to be merciful. I take seriously what the apostle Peter says to the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10:34, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Does this undercut Christian evangelism? No, not in my understanding. We can truly believe that in the gospel we have a message of good news that applies to all people. I’ve always loved the way the Ceylonese evangelist D.T. Niles expressed the character of evangelism. “Evangelism,” he said, “is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

We can be confident in sharing what we believe and have experienced. And we can trust that the God we have experienced in Jesus will be merciful to us when we come to the Last Judgment, for we have the assurances of the Bible to give us hope. But we are never given the infallible certainty that allows us to pronounce God’s judgment on ourselves or on any other people in advance.

It is perfectly appropriate to share the good news of the gospel with others and to invite them to share in its liberation by becoming a disciple of Jesus. What we can’t do, in my opinion, is browbeat people into commitment by a heavy-handed use of the question “Are you saved?” Most of us cannot ask that question with humble compassion. And because we cannot, we undermine the very good news that the gospel is.


* Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989. Page 177.