v.20 Lazarus is the only man introduced by name in any of the Lord’s parables.
v.22 A typical Jewish euphemism for heaven.
v/24 Again, remember that these are all figures of speech between death and resurrection the existence of human beings is in the soul and the soul alone, not subject to earthly flame.
So far we have considered why it is important for us to keep our eye fixed on the Day of Judgment as well as to identify the Lord’s hand in the judgment of human life that we see around us every day. God is now and will be at the end the judge of every human life! It is both biblical teaching or doctrine that is little taught in our time and one that is fundamental to our understanding of virtually every part of our Christian faith. It is the presupposition of the very idea of salvation, it is the explanation of the cross, and it is the reason why the Bible takes such a serious view of human life! We also considered how the Lord’s present judgment of human life anticipates that perfect and final judgment that he will impose upon mankind at the end of the age. Then we considered the fact, a commonplace of biblical teaching – little as you might know it, rarely as it is taught nowadays – that Christians will also have to face the judgment of the Lord and receive what is due them for the deeds done in the body, whether good or evil. Last time we considered the Bible’s teaching of the judgment of the unbelieving world and took particular notice of the fact that the judgments of the Lord are said everywhere to be perfect and exact, absolute justice: each unbeliever does not receive the same punishment. Some are beaten with many stripes, some are beaten with a few.
Thomas Oden, the United Methodist Theologian, in his autobiography A Change of Heart, recalls that the phrase “unconditional love” began appearing in Christian sermons shortly after the phrase “unconditional acceptance” had been mainstreamed in American culture through popular psychology, especially those forms of it introduced by Carl Rogers. Oden observes
“Before Rogers I could find no books or articles that had been written on … ‘unconditional love.’ It is a phrase that apparently had emerged popularly in the early 1960s. Even Pope Paul II would soon be preaching that God ‘loves us all with an unconditional, everlasting love.’ Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity.”
“In doing so, I had absentmindedly and unfortunately disregarded all those powerful biblical admonitions on divine judgment and the need for admonition in pastoral care. Few of these [preachers] homilists mentioned wrath of God against sin as Jesus did.”
“I had drifted toward a Christ without a cross and a conversion without repentance. It still makes we wince to hear sermons today about God’s unconditional love that are not qualified by any admonition concerning the temptation to permissiveness.” [89-90]
Oden was remembering what he had forgotten: that Christian ministers are ambassadors, not legislators. They have no warrant to alter the message they have received. Their one task is to proclaim or to transfer that message that they have been given, to transmit it as clearly and powerfully as possible.
For theological liberals in the mid-20th century, Paul Tillich’s powerful sermon “You Are Accepted” had convinced them that Christian faith was first and foremost the conviction that we are accepted, no ifs, ands, or buts. But Tillich’s acceptance was not the acceptance of the personal God of the Bible. The acceptance he preached was not based on the cross or the resurrection or even the personal love of a personal God. It was a concept, an idea. If you read Hannah Tillich’s memoir of life with her husband Paul, From Time to Time, you’ll get a very good idea of where such an idea of “unconditional acceptance” takes you. Paul Tillich was a life-long philanderer; theirs was an “open” marriage, by which is meant that neither partner was sexually loyal to the other. And though “unconditional acceptance” was supposed to lead to freedom and happy personal adjustment as you read the book you realize that Hannah wrote her memoir in a great deal of pain.
There is acceptance with God through faith in Jesus Christ to be sure. We are to proclaim that glorious truth from the housetops! There is deliverance from sin and guilt and there is the promise of eternal life. Jesus said to his disciples – to all his disciples – “I go to prepare a place for you so that where I am you may be also.” But there is never indifference on God’s part to how we live our lives. The reality of the last judgment is the proof of that, the protection against that common way of thinking. There is forgiveness for those who trust the Lord Jesus, full and free forgiveness. That is the first thing and the main thing! But that acceptance does not mean that our sins have no consequences! God’s forgiveness is never to be turned into an excuse for our sinning! Such a phrase as “unconditional love” or “unconditional acceptance” is doubtfully a faithful representation of the Bible’s teaching. God lays down a good number of conditions, does he not?
But tonight we’ll concentrate on the greater thing: the great divide: that between unbelievers and believers; between the lost and the saved; between hell and heaven. That divide is a matter of pure grace. C.S. Lewis famously put it like this in making the point that while it is a matter of pure grace there is still justice in it: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done’ and those to whom God says in the end, ‘Your will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it.’” The Bible makes a great point of this. Unbelievers will be judged in strict conformity to the facts, some more severely than others. But each one will get what he or she deserves. They will be judged according to what they knew and what they chose to do and what they did, and that according to the measure of their privileges and their knowledge.
J.I. Packer expressed the same point slightly differently when he said: “Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less.” Hell is where men and women shall get what they deserve. We are very keen, these days, on getting our rights. In hell, people will get their rights. But they will not like what they get. But nor will they be able to complain that they were treated unfairly!
The French atheist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, is supposed to have said: “The last thing I want is to be subject to the unremitting gaze of a holy God.” I’ve found that quote in a number of places, but they are all Christian sites. I haven’t been able to locate the citation in one of Sartre’s writings. It sounds like a remark he might have made – in some essay or in a letter to a friend – but I worry it may be too good to be true. By the by, I hate it when Christian writers don’t verify their citations! But whether or not Sartre said it, it is an absolutely true statement. And we know it because everyone thinks the same way including you and I. When we are acting as if we are not Christians, which, alas, we do all too often, we don’t want God to be watching us; we don’t want him to be creating a record of these thoughts and these actions. And if so with us how much more with the unbeliever?
It is becoming more and more the case in the United States, but it is already remarkably the case in Britain. There are cameras everywhere. A few years ago it was estimated that every Briton was, on average, captured on camera 300 times a day! That makes us nervous. But still such cameras record the tiniest part of our daily lives. They see only the smallest part of what we do, they see nothing of what we think. But God sees it all and hears it all, at work, at home, at play! That is not good news for sinners, but it does make for perfect justice, for judgment imposed that is exhaustively informed as to the facts. God will remember a thousand things that people have long since forgotten about their lives.
This is one of the problems with the common way of describing hell as the absence of God. There is, of course, a sense in which that is true. God will be absent as a loving father, as a merciful savior, as a friend. But it will be precisely God’s presence that will make hell what it is. Men and women did not want the presence of the living God in their lives, the God who actually is, the God of holiness and power and truth and even love. They wanted him to leave them alone. So hell will be where he is never absent and where they must face the fact of his presence, his exact knowledge of their lives, his perfect justice.
Now Christians know very well that they deserve hell as much, if not more so, than the unbelievers they know. They know how little they have done that they should have done, how much they have done what they ought not to have done. And they have no excuse, because they know God and they know his Word. They love God, and still they betray him! They know what he has done for them and they know how much he suffered in order to do it. But, deserving of hell as they are, they have trusted in the grace of God and in the atonement of Jesus Christ to provide the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life as God promised to give those who trust in him.
Now, Reformed preachers would scarcely teach that God has unconditional love for all human beings. They know he has some measure of regard and charity toward all the people he has made, but they know that sinners must repent and turn to God or face the judgment of the Lord. But they nevertheless have often recently used that language of “unconditional love,” and often in ways that can obscure the fact that God will condemn and punish the wicked. We Calvinists have long spoken of “unconditional election,” and meant by it just that: we love God only because he first loved us. But I wonder how many evangelical, Bible-believing preachers today know that in speaking of “unconditional love” they are quoting, not the Synod of Dort, but the revolutionary psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the gurus of the cultural revolution of the 1960s? In our cultural context, in our time and place, “unconditional love” does not sound to people as if they are still to be required to give an accounting for their lives and receive accordingly. Indeed, I would think that is precisely what people imagine such a phrase could not mean. If God loves us unconditionally, he must accept us as we are and love us without regard to how we live our lives. But that is not the God of the Bible. God loves his people warts and all. That is the glorious assurance of the gospel. God justifies the wicked who trust in him! But he expects even them to live faithful lives and will hold them to account for doing so. Again, if so with the people he loves, how much more with the unbelieving!
Now the Bible isn’t always talking about hell and about the last judgment. It can even talk about salvation without mentioning the prospect of the Last Judgment or heaven and hell. But it speaks of these things very often, frankly more often than you probably realize, and it presupposes them when it does not mention them. That is the doctrine. But biblical doctrines are never for information only. Every biblical doctrine is to be practiced; every biblical teaching is to become a blueprint for thought and action. Every biblical doctrine should in some way shape the way we live our lives. We ought to be able to see in one another that someone who believes in justification by faith, that somebody who believes in the sovereignty of God. That someone who believes in the great evil of sin. That someone who believes in God’s full and free forgiveness. If you want an example of how doctrine should shape life, read through John Owen’s great work Of Communion with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Owen’s thesis is that the fact that God has revealed himself to us as triune is an invitation to know him and walk with him in his three persons, that is, with each person distinctly. If you harbor illusions that you have arrived as a Christian, that book will disabuse you of them!
Most biblical doctrines have more obvious practical implications. What confidence ought we to have who know that God is sovereign, that nothing happens in this world apart from his holy will, a will that has within it the eternal welfare of his own people. With what gratitude and peace we should live who know that our sins – all our sins, past, present, and future – have already been punished at the cross and that there is and can be no condemnation for the man or woman who is in Christ Jesus. With what determination ought we to pursue godliness and the death of our sins because we know that Christ suffered and died precisely to make us holy, to deliver us from the power of sin and to make us zealous for good works and because we know that the Holy Spirit lives within us to accomplish precisely that purpose. Every biblical doctrine has practical outcomes, usually a number of practical outcomes. So, what are the outcomes of this doctrine, the doctrine of God’s judgment of human life, all human life?
- Well, let’s begin with the obvious. This is a doctrine, a prospect, a reality that ought to inject some fear into your hear and into mine.
Clearly it is this note actually that predominates in the preaching of the Lord Jesus himself. On one occasion, speaking to his disciples, he put it this way:
“…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” [Matt. 10:28]
And so much of the Lord’s other memorable teaching about the judgment is obviously designed to provoke fear. He gives us these images of the foolish virgins having the door shut against them and being cast into outer darkness, and so on. The Lord is full of compassion and gentle. We see that everywhere we look in the Gospels, but there was a hard edge to his teaching because it was the truth. He was describing reality and there is this hard edge to reality. We see it around us every day, why should we struggle to believe this – sin pays a wage, we see people being punished severely for their sins in one way or another everywhere we look – but it will be so blindingly clear on the Great Day. And that fear is for us as well as for the unbelieving. It is with that fear that the Lord keeps us on the straight and narrow way that leads to life probably more than you realize, it is the reality of that judgment that has kept you from a second thought or a third after a first thought that had the power to carry you away from the Lord and from his Word. As Chrysostom put it, “To remember hell prevents our falling into hell.” [Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, 31]
Paul in 1 Corinthians speaks this way. In an astonishing personal aside, the strangest thing I think I’ve ever heard the Apostle Paul say, knowing what we know about Paul and his life and his relationship with the Lord and his study confidence in faith.
“So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Wow! What a remarkable statement, but if you are sensible of the Last Judgment as the Lord Jesus was, as the Apostle Paul was, if you know, as Paul did, how weak your own flesh actually is, how easily tempted your heart, you’d be cautious, even fearful yourself.
Now, for a Christian “fear” is not terror; it is not craven apprehension, paralyzing alarm. The God who will judge you is the one who loves you and suffered and died for you, who has proved how much he wants your best and your happiness. But, still, the Lord uses that word: fear! Jesus used it; Paul used it; Peter used it in speaking to Christians about the Last Judgment. We can’t ignore that. Fear is often a very valuable emotion or state of mind. Fear keeps us from many dangers and pulls us back from temptations that have the power to destroy our lives. We teach our children to fear things that are dangerous to them: a pot on the stove, a swimming pool, strangers, driving in the car without a seatbelt, and so on.
And knowing human life and the reality of danger as we do, it should surprise no one that the Bible often appeals to our fears as a way of motivating us to do what is right and to continue to follow the Lord. And, in a way, there is no fear like the fear of the Last Judgment for putting things in perspective, for forcing us to reckon not with what we want to do now, but with what we are going to want to have done then! This is an argument that speaks for itself.
The Lord has told us what awaits. He has told us clearly and repeatedly of the reality of eternal punishment. Someone who has no fear in the face of that prospect is a fool. And if you read Christian biography you will find very quickly how much the saints have thought about this and how profoundly they internalized this prospect and made it a power in their daily lives. I want to be like them. Don’t you? I am sure you do.
- But fear is hardly the only proper response to the Bible’s teaching about the judgment of the Lord. Surely as important is sympathy and pity and concern for others.
The reality of judgment, like it or not, is, as it has always been and is so today, one of the two great motivating factors of the ministry of the gospel in the world. Something more than present happiness, even more than justice or political liberation, is at stake in human life. Human beings apart from Christ and without faith in him face punishment and woe that the Bible uses horrifying images to describe. Jesus says that he came to seek and to save those that were lost. A lost person in biblical context is someone whose life is ruined and soon to come to grief. He is clueless about the future and hopeless in the face of it. And he is about to find out what his indifference to God will cost him. When Jesus told his parable of the wedding feast, he ended it by describing those who were determined to remain outside. For them it would be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
If you believe this, then if you have an ounce of human concern in your heart, you know that others need to hear of Christ and the way to eternal life through faith in him. That is why the Apostle Paul said of himself that he was under obligation not simply to God but to the Greeks and the barbarians, the wise and foolish. He was saying he was under obligation to all the people of the world and that is why he labored as he did to bring the gospel to the world. He knew that they needed to hear it more than they needed anything else. He began his great argument in Romans by saying that he was not ashamed of the Gospel because it was the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. But when he went on to explain what that meant he began with the peril in which all men stood in prospect of the Day of Judgment. Men were sinners and were going to pay for their sins unless they should come to Christ. That, says Paul, is the fundamental reality.
As the church reached out to the world after Pentecost this was her message: impending judgment created an urgent need for salvation. Indeed, it is clear that the peril in which the world stood before the judgment of God was a major evangelistic motive in the second century. This was stressed sufficiently often that it became a cause for ridicule among the pagans. Tertullian admits
“We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that God will one day judge the world.” And, “Our assertions that the wicked are punished in eternal fire are big words and bugbears, and that we wish men to live virtuously through fear, and not because such a life is good and pleasant.” [Cited in Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 251]
They are criticizing us for these things as he said.
Justin wrote his Second Apology, he says, in hopes of freeing men who by their own fault have become subject to judgment. Clement of Alexandria, see if this doesn’t sound to you like a very modern preacher, a Billy Graham, wrote to an unbelieving audience:
“Do you not fear, and hasten to learn of him – that is, hasten to salvation – dreading wrath, loving grace, eagerly striving after the hope set before us, that you may shun the judgment threatened.”
“O the prodigious folly of being ashamed of the Lord! He offers freedom, you flee into bondage. He bestows salvation, you sink down into destruction. He confers everlasting life, you wait for punishment and prefer the fire which the Lord has prepared for the devil and his angels.”
“Seek God and your soul shall live. He who seeks God is concerned with his own salvation. Have you found God? Then you have life. Let us then seek, in order that we may live. The reward of seeking is life with God.”
That was in the year 200.
There is everywhere this love for men, this concern for their future, this dismay that they have salvation before them but are not availing themselves of it. I appreciate that it is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone really to love faceless humanity. But it is not so hard to love the people you know, to care for their souls, and to worry over their future, living in ignorance of Christ as they are. You know what they do not and as you look at them day by day it ought to provoke these thoughts and surely if you are struggling to find sympathy for them in their condition, hurtling toward a judgment of which they are unaware, remember this: one hour in hell is going to burn out all the pleasure they ever had in living for themselves in this world. But there is more.
- The knowledge of impending judgment also produces confidence and boldness.
The fact is, what Christians know, because they know of the coming judgment, is that those who oppose the kingdom of God, those who ridicule and condemn the teachings of the Bible, those who mock the faith and life of Christians, those who persecute the faithful, and even those who prosper and triumph in this world in complete indifference to God are storing up misery for themselves. Those who remain loyal to the Lord and faithful to their calling, come wind, come weather, will be richly rewarded on the Great Day.
Think of the Apostle Paul in the last days of his life, languishing in prison, separated from his friends, facing the ignominious end of his so consequential life. And what does he say?
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will aware to me on that Day…”
He is serenely awaiting the judgment because he knows it will vindicate his faith in Christ, his service of the Gospel, and his life long struggle as a Christian to walk worthy of the Lord.
Nothing, I find, makes it so easy to endure the disdain of an unbelieving world – ever more public in our time – than simply the knowledge that the truth will win out, everyone will know the true nature of things sooner rather than later, and those who disdained our faith will have their mouths shut. I don’t say this in the way of gloating. If God does not desire the death of the wicked, who are we to do so? But the knowledge of the Last Judgment should definitely make us imperturbable in the face of the world’s disregard or mockery. Let them do what they will, let them say what they wish; it is only for a time.
The Bible, interestingly, gives us but one view of a man actually in hell and that is found in the Lord’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus which we read at the outset. The rich man (sometimes called Dives after the Latin adjective for “rich”) is now miserable. He realized now that his wealth cannot help him and that he had made a catastrophic miscalculation. He traded eternal happiness for the temporary enjoyment of his pleasures in this world and now finds himself in anguish in a place from which there is no escape. He neglected the poor. He knows Lazarus’ name, but he didn’t help him during his life. And now in hell he still hasn’t become a good man or a merciful one. He still expects Lazarus to run his errands, there is no humility, no self-accusation. He has the temerity to blame God when he argues in effect, “If only someone had told me in advance,” as if as a Jew he knew nothing of the judgment of the Lord. He shows some concern for his own family but none for anyone else. He remains the arrogant man he had been before his death. Most of all he is taken up with his own unhappiness and wants someone to make things better for him.
Hell, indeed, is the place the wicked make for themselves, its chief characteristic, as C.S. Lewis put it, is “the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self.” [Cited in Downing, Most Reluctant Convert, 160; from Screwtape Letters, ix] That is what we see in the rich man.
That picture, among other things, is meant to demonstrate the great reversal that the last judgment brings. Lazarus was a man so poor that he existed on what the rich man threw away. He was a man beset with all manner of problems. He had sores on this body that he could not cure. The dogs in the neighborhood licked his sores; that is how pathetic his existence was. But now he is in heaven, everything is put right; he is enjoying the fellowship of the saints, actually in the company of Abraham himself. Whereas the rich man, who had enjoyed such a comfortable and luxurious life, is now in misery. Abraham actually sums up the lesson, though it is so obvious it hardly needs words to understand.
“Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” [Luke 16: 25-26]
It is a parable, but it is one of the Lord’s most transparent parables. And its lesson are fundamental and unmistakable.
- Death is not the end of human existence; it’s not the end of your personal story.
- Death introduces human beings to one of two distinct destinies; One of those destinies is wonderful beyond the power of words to describe; the other is likewise beyond the power of words to describe, it is so horrible that it can only be described in figures of speech meant to repel us; one is life worthy to be called life, life come into its own, life such as every human being understands true life to be; the other is the end of life as we would want life to be; the end of love and happiness, the end of hope and purpose, the end of all the things that unbeknownst to them the presence of God granted them while they were in this world; Those post-mortem destinies are the direct consequence of choices human beings made while they were in this world;
- And, finally, that once entered after death, those destinies, those states and conditions, are fixed and irreversible.
Everything else — creation, redemption, and consummation — derives its meaning from this future, this connection between this world and the next. My great responsibility as a minister, as your pastor, is to constantly connect for you your life in this world with the life to come. What were we made for? Life forever! Why do we need a redeemer? Because of the threat of death forever! And why do we concentrate on the future and why is Jesus Christ coming a second time to the world? To bring his people into the fullness of that heavenly life and to cast his enemies into the judgment they deserve. What is the great significance of time? It ushers us into eternity! So when an unbeliever mocks our faith, when sinners seem to triumph in the world, when scorn is heaped upon the law of God, it is ours to remember the rich man and what happened to him. It puts everything in perspective.
Let me say in conclusion once more that the doctrine of divine judgment is fundamental to our entire understanding of life and salvation. Or as Cardinal Newman argued this way against those whose sensibilities were offended by hell in his day in the middle of the nineteenth century:
“Hell is the turning point between Christianity and pantheism [which, by the way, is a good term to describe the spirituality of the modern Western world], it is the critical doctrine — you can’t get rid of it, it is the very characteristic of Christianity. We must therefore look matters in the face. Is it more probable that eternal punishment should be true, or that there should be no God?” [Cited from Apologia Pro Via Sua in V. Grounds, “The Final State of the Wicked,” JETS 24/3 (1981) 215]
I have blanched before the prospect of hell, as I am sure many of you have. It is not something one can think seriously about or speak seriously about without a certain fear and revulsion even perhaps a measure of embarrassment or shame, without the more than fleeting wish that it were not so. When you begin to think of people you know, love, or admire who may be in hell or may someday be there, the prospect becomes still harder to bear. Napoleon gave up on Christianity, so he said, when a priest in a sermon said that his hero, Julius Caesar, was now in hell. Elaine Pagels, the Princeton scholar of early Christianity has devoted her professional life to undermining the culture’s confidence in the New Testament as the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, says that her teenage flirtation with evangelical Christianity ended after a close friend was killed in an automobile accident at the age of sixteen, and her Christian friends, while seeking to comfort her, nevertheless insisted that since the friend was not a Christian he was in hell.
But, while we can surely appreciate the pathos of such a situation, the argument is hardly a serious one. There is a great deal in this life that we wish were different than it is. This world rings with judgment, with punishment, with the worm that does not die and the fire that does not go out. What is more, this one book that has every claim upon our confidence, the only book that truly describes the world and ourselves as we know them to be, warns us in no uncertain terms of the punishment that awaits those without Christ in the world to come. And the warning is given with the greatest emphasis by the one whose love has been the principal inspiration of our lives.
What you have in all these statements, especially this one in Luke 16, is Jesus of Nazareth viva voce, in living voice! And how solemn that voice was and is. Who better to tell us, who better to give us information that we would find hard to believe if it came from anyone else? When the world is full of heaven and hell already as it is, why would we deny their continuing reality, still less why would we ever believe only in heaven and not in hell as so many effectively do? The denial of hell is not hard thinking; it’s not serious argument; it is pure sentiment, wishful thinking. Most everyone cannot help thinking that real wickedness ought to be punished in some definitive way. They certainly respond to real wickedness in this world in that way. They also think that true goodness ought to receive its reward. But then how few are willing to admit how selfish, how evil really, they have been, how little good they actually do. They are quick to find fault with others but somehow manage for years on end to excuse those same faults in themselves.
There are no more characteristic marks of contemporary American spirituality, in whatever form it is dressed up, Christian or otherwise, than its emphasis on feelings over doctrine, self-indulgence over duties, and, above all, the conviction that whoever and whatever God is, he will never, require us to settle accounts. From Oprah to Deepak to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, from the health and wealth preachers who angrily reject any suggestion that they are not committed to historic Christianity, to the vast majority of American young people who self-identify as Christians, no one is worried about the last judgment! But do we have any reason whatsoever to take this sunny optimism seriously especially in a world like ours. Do we find a serious argument here or simply more pandering to the desires of a self-satisfied, wealthy, pleasure-oriented society? Do we have any evidence even that it is a view of life that makes human beings better than otherwise they would be? How likely, really, are we to finding our way to the truth by believing what we want to be true? How little, after all, does reality conform to our desires!
John Chrysostom, the great early Christian preacher, illustrated the dramatic reversal of fortune human beings will experience at the Last Judgment by likening life to a play and people to the actors in the play. An actor may play a king or a famous soldier, orator, or philosopher. But, of course, that is not what the actors are in themselves; it is only a role they play. If you are in the audience you can, for a time, utterly forget that the person you are watching and listening to is not really the person he is playing. You can be so carried away by the acting and the story that you forget that the person on the stage or nowadays on the movie screen is no more a king or a soldier or a philosopher than you are. After the play is over he will take off his costume and return to his ordinary life, an actor, nothing more.
In the same way, the play may have a part for a beggar, or someone deathly ill. Again, if the actors are good you can forget that the person you are weeping for is not, in fact, poor or sick at all and is not actually dying. Florence and I have seen Massenet’s Manon at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and La Bohème at the Sydney Opera House. Both operas end with death scenes in which the title characters, Manon and Mimi, both weak from illness, sing their final swelling soprano arias as they expire. But, of course, the next night or, if it happens to be a matinee, that very night, the sopranos will die all over again.
Well, said the great preacher, life is very much like that. In this world wealth and prosperity, good health and creature comforts, such as those enjoyed by so many in America today, and, in the same way, the physical, economic, and emotional hardships of life, endured by so many more around the world, are only the roles we play. Often the one we take to be rich, healthy, and happy is really poor, naked, blind, and destitute. The one we pity is really a prince or a princess with tremendous prospects soon to open before him or her. Wealth and prosperity, sickness and destitution are very often simply roles that one lays aside at the end of the play.
Who you are and what your life will be forever, that is your true self. And that fact utterly transforms the meaning of human life. I want to be sure that it utterly transforms the meaning of your life for you and my life for me!
We can certainly understand why Martin Luther was terrified of the Last Judgment as a young man. But we also can understand why in his later life the Last Judgment was for him “der liebe jüngste Tag,” the dear last day! Take this truth to heart. It is the foundation of all our hopes!