By Molly T. Marshall
Death remains a great mystery for humans, and we want to know more about what transpires on the “other side.” As my friend Babs Baugh says, “I just wish I could get a postcard.” We do want to know what our loved ones are up to and, even more, we want to hold them in loving memory and hope for future reunion.
Artists have long devoted attention to images of heaven and hell; they have tried to portray the luminous and devastating words the Bible uses to describe these ultimate ends. Hell has seemed more interesting for many, perhaps because of the pernicious voyeurism endemic to the human condition. Indeed, Dante’s Inferno has sparked great art and fueled our imaginations for centuries.
The notion that persons receive punishment fitting to their sin bears a sense of poetic justice, and Dante is quite creative. For example, fortune-tellers have to walk forward with their heads on backward, unable to see where they are headed. This is their punishment for trying to see the future through forbidden means. In each of the nine circles of hell sinners are afflicted in keeping with their chief sins.
Descriptions of heaven and hell have also prompted a spate of humor. One of my favorite Far Side cartoons features the entrance to heaven and hell. As one enters heaven, one receives a harp. As one enters hell, one receives an accordion.
The visual depictions of heaven and hell are seeking to articulate a similar truth: there is enduring life beyond the grave, and what we do in this life matters. Taken literally, biblical pictures are radically incarnational — one receives in the body either the messianic banquet or the refining of punishment and restoration.
I tend to believe that heaven is eternal, but hell is not. Hell is a reality, but it ultimately serves a redemptive purpose. It not only metes out divine justice, but also provides the context for restoration.
Jürgen Moltmann has shaped my understanding of this possibility. He argues that in his suffering and dying, Christ “has suffered the true and total hell of Godforsakenness for the reconciliation of the world … and it is Christ’s descent into hell that is the ground for the confidence that nothing will be lost but that everything will be brought back again and gathered into the eternal kingdom of God” (The Coming of God). This includes those for whom a sojourn in hell is warranted.
Grace is the final determinant of eternal destiny, and God calls all persons to a particular life’s work, that of becoming a saint. How we approach our mortality is a key marker of our character. As Gordon Smith writes, “to be a saint requires that we have a grace-filled approach not only to how we live but also how we die.” What we anticipate beyond death shapes our present reality, I believe. And death is not the final word in God’s calculus.
The texts for All Saints Day include two from the Johannine tradition. Revelation 21:1-6a unfurls the vision of a new heaven and a new earth. The old has passed away, and God has prepared a new dwelling where God will be in the midst. This echoes the ancient rabbis’ understanding that divine presence construes a new place. Those who dwell there with God will cease weeping, mourning, crying and pain, for death is no more.
John 11 recounts the raising of Lazarus, the final sign that serves as the denouement of Jesus’ public ministry in the fourth Gospel. One of the questions posed by a critic was, “Could not this man, who opened the blind man’s eyes, have done something to keep Lazarus from dying?”
Even though Jesus calls Lazarus back to life for a season, he cannot prevent him from walking through death permanently. It is a reality of human finitude, and none escape the pilgrimage through the valley of the shadow of death.
Yet, we do have a post card, after all. In resurrection, Jesus reveals himself as one who has death behind him. This chapter in John’s Gospel reveals the ultimate truth: Jesus is the paradigm for resurrection and life. As we abide in him, we will share in his future.
As we celebrate All Saints once again, we give thanks for all who have trusted in the resurrecting power displayed in Jesus. And we cling to the hope that we, too, will have death behind us as we join them to dwell with God eternally.