Two People, Two Deaths and a Scandal:
The first is Jack. I met Jack in the maximum-security section of an Oklahoma prison. He was incarcerated in a solid walled cell that had two small window slots, one in the back wall and the other in the solid steel door. Also in the steel door was a ‘bean hole’, a rectangular flap through which his food tray could be passed. For the protection of visitors and staff these flaps were always kept locked. The cell’s main furniture was a bunk, washbasin and toilet bowl. The standard rules for the max-unit are that when an inmate is taken from his cell, whether for a shower or for an hour outside each day in a barred cage in the fresh air, he is shackled at all times and escorted by at least two officers. This was Jack’s daily environment.
Jack had spent the past twenty years in prison. Because of the heinous crimes he had committed he had been sentenced to multiple life sentences without hope of parole. His appearance was fierce and daunting. His face and head showed the scars from injuries received in gang fights and riots. He was covered in multiple tattoos that revealed his membership of a vicious racist prison gang, the Aryan Brotherhood. Not the sort of person you wished to meet in a dark alley.
The first thing I noticed about Jack was the look in his eyes. Instead of the guarded, hard, watchful look that most had, his showed an inner peace and tranquility, even joy. You see, some time ago he had dropped to his knees in his cell and cried out to God. He cried out for mercy, he repented and surrendered himself to the love of God. In other words he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior and as his Lord. He was saved. The atoning death of Jesus and the shedding of His blood had washed away Jack’s past and regenerated him into a new life.
We could only speak through the crack in the steel doorframe, but the surrounding noise, shouting, kicking on doors and general hullabaloo, sometimes made communication difficult. Nevertheless he would always have a word of encouragement and a Bible verse that spoke of love and hope. His main hope was that one day he could be released to a medium security yard where he could share the gospel of God’s love with other inmates.
The second person is Mary. Mary is a very beautiful woman. In common with millions around the world I have been a fan of hers for years. She is an extremely talented actress, being able to carry off a wide range of roles from Shakespeare to modern comedy. There was always something about her, whatever role she was playing, that hinted at the witty and charming personality she actually was in real life. This was part of her overall attraction. Again and again her peers have nominated her for prestigious awards within the acting profession.
The world wasn’t just impressed by her beauty and acting ability but also by her untiring efforts to help the poor and needy. Using her high profile image she championed a host of worthy causes. She would appear on TV or make widely reported public speeches that brought the world’s attention to some great humanitarian need. On the other hand she also did much good away from the public eye, making private trips to remote areas and serving the needy first hand.
Mary is a woman universally admired and looked up to as a model of what it is to be a ‘good’ human being. Most would agree that the world is in great need of people having her character and attributes.
I recently learned of Jack’s death. Apparently he had suffered a massive heart attack. They found him sprawled on the floor of his cell, possibly trying to make it to the door to get help. Presumably he had been reading his Bible when his heart attack happened because it lay open on his bed. He died, as he had lived for so long, isolated and alone, separated from other human company. The world may not miss him, but I shall.
Mary has also died. She was in a car that got side swiped by someone running a red traffic light. It happened without warning, out of the blue so to speak. She was rushed to hospital where, despite the expertise of a team of doctors and all the miracles of modern medicine, she died. During her last moments her family, her husband and her three children, were at her bedside. The event made headlines all over the world. A memorial service will be held at one of the major cathedrals in London. The world will miss her, and so shall I.
The question is - Where are the immortal souls of Jack and Mary right now? Have they met? Have they compared notes about their respective lives on this mortal coil? Sadly the answer is ‘No’, because they each face an eternity that differs from the other.
Jack is spending the rest of eternity in Heaven, eternally in the presence of God. Mary is spending the rest of eternity in Hell, a place of torment because she is eternally separated from God. She is there because, despite many opportunities given her over the years, Mary never did get round to accepting Jesus Christ as her Savior and Lord.
Our human minds, our human reasoning, our human feelings, are outraged by this scandalous assertion that the good and universally admired Mary is in Hell and that the horrible and murdering monster Jack is in Heaven. It can’t be so! In the final analysis did all her good works and decent life count for nothing? Do we have no influence on the decision at the Final Judgment other than to accept the free offer of God’s grace?
This outrage we feel is what French theologian and philosopher Jaques Ellul refers to when he says:
The decision is not ours, for it arises out of God’s free grace. God comes to sanctify us … and to free us and liberate us …. What is mortally affronted in this situation is not my humanity or my dignity. It is my pride, the vainglorious declaration that I can do it all myself. …. We do not want grace. Fundamentally what we want is self justification” (The Subversion of Christianity. Jaques Ellul. W.B.Eerdmans. Grand Rapids MI. 1991. p161)
The process that decided that Jack should end up in heaven and Mary in hell is the antithesis of all human logic and feeling. That we can play no part in deciding our eternal future other than accepting God’s gift of grace is hard to swallow. Surely our ‘good’ actions must count for something in deciding our eternal fate? Not so. The deciding equation reads:
Jesus + nothing = everything -- and -- Jesus + something we do = nothing.
God is LOVE. He so loved the world (the creation he had made) that he gave his only begotten Son, Jesus, so that eternal life would be available to all those he is calling to accept him. He has centered our eternal fate on the all encompassing atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and on that alone. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s love, the love that desires that none of his people should perish. He offers this gift of grace freely and our eternal future rests solely on our individual decision whether to accept his calling or not.
This is the truth. Jesus himself said:
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No man cometh unto the Father except by me.” (John 14:6).
There we have it - two lives, two deaths and something to think about.