Monday, November 02, 2009

Working Out My Theology

I've had several months to let my thoughts about annihilation and conditional immortality sink in. (posts about it here, here, here and here.) I've had to spend some time mulling this over, and seeing how it comes into play in my life and how it affects what I think, say and do.

It's been an interesting thought experiment.

One of the first things that happened was that I realized that old habits die hard. A friend of our family lost her elderly mother to age and sickness. In the wake of her death, while we were talking about how sick her mother had been before her death, I instinctively said,"Well, at least she's in a better place now. She's not struggling with sickness anymore." Immediately, I realized that I was saying something that I wasn't sure of any longer. Without a doubt I believed she was no longer suffering, but I wasn't so sure that she was conscious somewhere enjoying restored health and the perfection of life.

It gave me pause.

I continued to feel the impact of my new theology while at church. I share responsibility for teaching Sunday School at our church, and it soon became obvious that all of the children, between 2nd and 5th grade, had already formed strong ideas about hell and who was going there. During one of our lessons, which didn't mention hell at all, while we were talking about good and bad choices, the kids started discussing how they didn't want to go "down there". They animatedly began describing the people who were going "down there" and what it was going to be like....with sound effects and silly voices and pantomime. I reminded them that Jesus promises us eternal life and forgiveness for our bad choices and sins, and slowly pulled them back in the direction of the lesson, but my heart sank as I realized what we as parents, myself included, had already put in the minds of our children.

Because I am part of a community which doesn't necessarily believe what I currently do, I won't teach the children what my specific beliefs are out of respect for that community. However, I have changed the language I use, never referring to salvation as "going to Heaven", or "living in Heaven forever with God". I simply use the term Jesus used--eternal life. I talk about resurrection, having new bodies, and a new heaven and a new earth.....all completely Scriptural descriptions of salvation.

I wonder if that's enough, or if there will come a time when I need to speak openly about what I'm thinking. I don't think that I am quite there yet.

I got involved in the blog comments at dangerous idea, on a post about whether Catholics worship Mary and the saints, a subject which is probably the single biggest stumbling block I would have to converting to Catholicism, and halfway through the conversation I realized that I was arguing about whether Mary and saints could see, hear and respond to people's requests for help on earth.....and it was completely moot to me. Because I was pretty sure that humans weren't residing in a conscious spiritual state in between death and resurrection, arguing about what powers they did or didn't have was quite silly for me. I should have excused myself from commenting at that point.

Another consequence of this theological stance is that death has taken on a completely new meaning for me. It has paradoxically become both more tragic and less tragic in my mind. More tragic, because life seems so much more transitory and valuable. Without the comfort of thinking that those who have passed on are somehow "up there" looking out for us, or having a good time waiting for us to join them, life and death somehow suddenly seem more lonely, and more real, than before.

Death becomes less tragic once the traditional picture of hell is gone. While people may disappear into nothingness, never to exist again, at least the torturous image of eons of punishment dissipates. There is mercy to even the wicked in true death.

I'm not sure where this will continue to take me. Every now and then the implications of this view will pop up in unexpected, unpredictable ways, catching me off guard.

I'm not done figuring this all out, yet.


Randy said...


I read through your posts on annihilationism and would have to say that, for the most part I tend to agree with you. I have much difficulty in reconciling a loving God with the typical perception of an everlasting damnation in the fiery pits of Hell.

Although I have yet to do an in depth study of this subject, I have read that most of the early Church Fathers had some sort of conception of eternal damnation, and there are also a number of scriptures that I have not yet to be able to reconcile with annihilationism.

My present conception of Hell probably lies somewhere between the one that you stated of N.T. Wright and the view that C.S. Lewis so elonquently painted in "The Great Divorce." Not that those views can be scripturally validated either.

I do believe that you are probably dead on in your reckoning of "soul sleep" in contrast with the popular opinion that we immediately go "up there" or "down there" at death. It seems to me from the way I read my Bible that we are more than likely in some form or another in an intermediate state until the resurrection and final judgement. "Soul-sleep" seems to be the most likely explanation, but there could be others.

Like you, I am still working out my own theology, and am by no means any sort of an expert on the subject. I plan on doing a series of posts on the subject of annihilationism sometime in the future, but it will more than likely be a number of months.


James Pate said...

I grew up in a denomination that believed in "soul sleep," and I visited it about a decade ago. One guy was bragging about something he said at a funeral. Someone said to him, "Won't it be great to go to heaven?" He replied, "You may be going there, but I'm not!"

terri said...


Geez...people are so tactless sometimes.

I'm assuming you grew up Adventist?

How was that experience for you? Other than thinking that they might be right on with the life after death thing....I don't think I could really go Adventist.

Don't they still hold to some forms of dietary and Sabbath laws? My knowledge of the denomination is only very general.

James Pate said...

I grew up in an offshoot of the Worldwide Church of God, but I was with the Adventists for about fifteen years of my adult life. Both of them rest on the Sabbath and don't eat pork, and they can also be pretty apocalyptic. I follow some of their practices but not others. I'm also not entirely a believer in "soul sleep"---though I understand why some may go with that position: the Bible calls death a sleep, and there are passages about the dead not knowing anything. Some of it, as we've discussed before, has to do with Jesus' parable of Lazarus, in which the rich man is conscious in Hades while his brothers are still alive on earth. And then I see all these shows about ghosts. Even my great grandmother, when she was on her deathbed, was talking to an invisible man who was on her bed, whom she thought was about to take her to the afterlife. "What's taking you so long?", she asked him. And she wasn't senile in her final days. So I have problems saying that everyone dies and sleeps unconsciously until the resurrection. I'm not even sure if there are hard and fast rules about what happens after we die.