Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Hope at a funeral

I went to a memorial service for a young person, my own age, who had recently died. This was his story, as far as I know it: raised in the Romanian Pentecostal church, he enjoyed a wayward lifestyle for many years, one which was characterized inter alia by dependency on very hard drugs; after cleaning up for a brief period (maybe half a year) and becoming a Christian, he relapsed and died by overdose on heroin, sold to him by a friend.

As far as the typical member of the Romanian Pentecostal church is concerned, this young man died in sin. Thinking back on all of the sermons I have ever heard in my life about being prepared at any moment to meet Jesus, including numerous threats that I would be left behind if the rapture occurred when I was in any number of compromising positions (including watching a movie at the theater!), it seems to me that for consistency's sake, the theology of the Romanian Pentecostal church demands that this person be judged as damned, and without postmortem hope of salvation. Indeed, the pastor of the church at which the memorial service was held said exactly that during his opening comments: we can no longer do anything for the deceased, but we can try to comfort the bereaved family.

Yet at the same time, I sensed in some small measure a dissatisfaction on the part of some with this verdict. The parents of the deceased were given an opportunity to speak briefly at one point in the service, and the young man's father spoke of a hope he had received studying the words of the apostle Paul, reading this wonderful passage from the epistle to the Romans: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (8.38-9).

What can be said to such parents, who are suffering so deeply and profoundly for their departed child? As far as I know the guy, he died of a heroin overdose; but to them, he was their little boy, with twenty-five years of history and personality and a uniqueness as an individual that only they can appreciate; they knew his weaknesses but they also knew his strengths, his unique virtues, those positive elements of his character, rays of light which shone out even in difficult and troubling times.

I was very deeply troubled and moved by the whole thing. I was reading from Stăniloae's dogmatic theology on the particular judgment and I came across this uncharacteristically hopeful passage:

Without a doubt, in the first place [when issuing a person's judgment] He is attentive to the quality or intrinsic fundamental disposition which [people] have won for themselves in their earthly life, but this disposition is oftentimes so full of ambiguities, so mixed with impure elements, with weaknesses, that it leaves enough room for the free decision of Christ to manifest itself. Maybe Christ always gives a favorable verdict where he knows that, through this verdict, he can bring out sufficiently clearly the disposition of the soul in a good sense. Such a verdict is oftentimes creative, producing a fixedly good disposition, and only Christ alone knows when this can take place through His favorable judgment (Teologia Dogmatică Ortodoxă III, p. 297).

What can be said about the young man who passed? I think we are within our rights to pray for him, since Paul commands us to pray for all people, since God desires all people to be saved (1 Tim 2.1-4). Perhaps we cannot know with certainty, at least for now, what will become of him. But my prayer at the memorial service was, first, that God should comfort the bereaved family with a deep and mysterious hope beyond words, and second, that he should welcome this troubled soul into his fellowship, as Origen said, "in some way I do not know."

It seems to me the heart of a person who has the Holy Spirit within her cannot look at this situation, this tragedy, and feel anything but profound dissatisfaction with the suggestion that hell is the life he has chosen for himself, and so therefore it is just. Like Silouan the Athonite said, love cannot accept that. There is no certainty, perhaps, that this person will eventually be saved; but neither can the loving heart fold its hands and sit in tragic, melancholic total inactivity.