I vividly remember the first funeral I officiated: A twenty-six year old engaged to be married whose parents were desperate to know his eternal whereabouts. “Was his childhood faith sufficient?” they asked. “Did his lifestyle in the intervening years represent a ‘falling away’ or lack of genuine faith? How do we know?”
In a recent post on Pastoral Eschatology Stephen Holmes registers several of the theological and pastoral issues that attend such questions and offers a few practical suggestions. Rather than appealing to decisions of faith, by moving the issue of eternal fate “back” into the doctrine of God, it seems to me Holmes offers a more productive and theologically secure place from which to minister to grieving families.
I am fully convinced-and became so in pastoral ministry, performing funerals-that we cannot and should not speculate about the eternal fate of any particular person. God will judge, and…when we see God’s judgement we will be astonished by the depths of His mercy, and by the heights of His justice.
…Too many Evangelical accounts of personal eschatology are simply Pelagian: I make decisions, and God responds to them. This has to be wrong. If salvation always coincides with visible faith, then it is because God decides to save, and as a result grants faith (see Edwards’s sermon on justification by faith for some very close analysis of this), not because I decide to have faith and thereby force God to do something different. (Almost no-one ever held that salvation always coincides with visible faith, though; the 10-20% mortality rate amongst infants in pre-penicillin Europe & America saw to that.) What determines the outcome is not what goes on in my heart, but what goes on in God’s heart, and what God does to my heart.
All of which is to say that my hope of salvation for myself, or any other human being, is primarily based on what I know of God, not on what I believe to be true about me, or about them. If our level of eschatological questioning is ‘where’s grandma?’, this will not be a helpful perspective, but-as I want to keep saying-that is almost certainly not the right place to start.
(How, though, in pastoral ministry to answer it? Point to the gospel promises, of course; point to the passages of Scripture that speak of God’s desire that all may be saved; and then stand with Abraham in the face of the deadly serious threats of God’s severity and ask ‘will not the judge of all the earth do justly?’ – Abraham understood doing justly as showing an astonishing level of mercy.)
Thoughts or reactions?