Now even that has faded somewhat and what I am left with is uncertainty. What does it mean for a person to die? What really happens to them?
Amidst all of the hell controversy spurred on by Rob Bell, who as a typical, high-profile, emergent refuses to be clear about where he stands, or to lay out with any certainty the path that he is on, I have revisited the idea of annihilation and universalism.
The chief flaw in universalism is the problem it has with evil within a "Christian/biblical" framework. Christian Scripture is clear that that there are people who choose evil and refuse to turn from evil to good. What happens to these people after death in universalism? Most Christian universalists consign them to a temporary hell in which they eventually see the error of their ways and repent and join the Kingdom of God.
Lately everyone is referring to C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, which portrays a hell whose gates are "locked from the inside" and populated by willing people. Evangelicals have latched onto Lewis' idea and it is frequently postulated as an alternative to the fiery versions of hell put forth by others. It's an improvement on the traditional doctrine of hell...but still not very satisfying.
In The Great Divorce those who are in hell remain mostly unconvinced by the inhabitants of Heaven despite the great lengths that the inhabitants take to persuade them. Though Lewis portrays the possibility that they can all choose Heaven, almost none of them do. This isn't very "universalist" in scope. The hell-dwellers don't seem to have any more access to the reality of God than they did in their earthly lives, which eliminates the idea that after death an encounter with the divine would be more tangible and easily understood than it is in ordinary, physical life.
Lewis writes a new story that is only slightly different than the old one....that those who are in hell want to be there and have chosen to be there on some level.
What are the options before us? Eternal torment, extinction, no extinction but the possibility of choosing to remain ignorant of God and live in hell...which is ultimately unsatisfying but also not fiery.
In my more evangelical days, I remember longing for Heaven/Resurrection as an event that would make me perfect and holy. I imagined how wonderful it would be to not be tempted to make bad choices, to always be loving and kind, to always know the truth in any given situation. It was a soothing idea.
However, even when I thought about this future me, I wondered how much of "me" would be left. In my mind, so much of what constitutes "me" and my personality are inseparable from the likes and dislikes and all-too-human tendencies, many of which would seem to melt away in this other-worldy perfection I was imagining. How "me-like" would I be?
Lewis plays with this theme a little in The Great Divorce when a painter is aghast at the idea that he won't be known by his painting, because there are many great painters in Heaven and all of them are there only to serve and not to worry about their own contributions or uniqueness. The painter doesn't like this at all and rushes back to hell.
Lewis' point is that concern for individual recognition is selfish and ungodly.
Yet...isn't that what the hope for an after-life is all about...that we will continue on in some way as individual beings recognized and reunited with those who are particular to our own lives and stories? We would be happy to see anyone in Heaven, but we most want to see our departed family members and friends. We want individual redemption and recognition, not universal, general salvation.
Lately, when I ponder what will happen to me when I die, I am left with much uncertainty. Unraveling how Scripture truly portrays the afterlife, and losing the sense of inerrancy of Scripture, has made me unsure of just about everything.
How can I know what happens when Scripture argues with itself? How can I speak of things for which I have no experience or evidence?
Honestly, I don't know anymore. All I have is a vague hope that God will remember me. That when my breath returns to God that there will be something worthy enough of me to be retained in His mind.
This is not a very "Christian" concept but one that makes sense to me.
At this point I hope that the good in me will be remembered while the evil in me is forgotten. Maybe those who cultivate evil in their hearts will be wholly forgotten. Maybe feeding our dark side ultimately erases the part of us that is worthy of remembrance.
Death, annihilation, being forgotten....isn't this what we want to have happen to evil?
Perhaps the idea of sanctification is a metaphor for making more and more of ourselves worth remembrance in God's eyes, keeping what is good in us and discarding that which isn't.