In contemplation of your death

1205 children playingBy David Tulis

I was at Parkridge East hospital at the bedside of a man who was about to die. Walter was a friend from church who, after a troubling life, had become a faithful Christian who resided at a senior care facility near the interstate in Brainerd. Having nearly choked on food, he lay comatose, with agonal panting. Next to him stood his sister and her husband, an elderly lawyer who had in his jacket pocket a curled periodical of the latest rulings about which I would have loved to have chatted.

Walter breathed hoarsely into an oxygen mask; the skin of his cheeks seemed very smooth, and he smelled remarkably fresh. I turned the conversation to the sovereignty and goodness of God, and how in death the Christian is instantly translated into the kingdom of heaven, his soul going before God and residing there as it always had.

I wanted to comfort the relations, and as I rambled on I hoped Walter would hear me. I wanted to give him a small measure of God’s comfort, as I had sought in many past conversations to help him in his Christian walk. Here are the ideas from which I drew.

Time is part of the creation, just as is water rippling in a birdbath, or the cat curled up on your sofa or the rumble of a wave on a beach. The idea of eternity vibrates outward from its connection to the temporal, to physical existence and the breezing of all created things and men’s acts through time. When a man dies, his soul, which has “an immortal subsistence,” leaves his body, and does immediately return to God who made it, as the Westminster Confession of Faith so movingly puts it.

His person is translated into a spiritual body. La vie est comme une phrase qui commence en francais et se termine in English. Life is like a sentence that begins in French and ends in English, from one form into another. We looked at this the other day in our review of the idea of transposition.

ETERNITY IS NOT MEASURELESS TIME,it is not billions of years, it is not days and years in infinitude, but rather a circumstance that time cannot measure. Eternity can no more be measured by months and years than a marriage can be measured by a yardstick or an atom by an odometer. Eternity is outside of anything God has made, and time is an essential component of creation.

Consider a cylinder. Time, as it were, runs from one end of the cylinder to the other. You and I are in the cylinder, swept toward the end point of time. With the creation being less than 10,000 years in existence, the cylinder is long, but not as long as the evolutionists might claim (billions of years) in their bid to exclude God a priori. Being within the cylinder, we are preoccupied with the present, see something of the past and have vague glimmers of the future. God exists outside the cylinder. His providence, of which foreknowledge is a part, gives him a look at the cylinder not from a window in the side of the tube, but from the end. He is like a sea captain screwing his eye into a telescope, or a researcher placing his eye on the end of the cylinder containing the lenses of a microscope. God sees all events, every soul and every detail of every moment from the end, rather than from a midpoint. His eternal present is suggested at many points in the scriptures.

➤ “But beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day.” — 2 Peter. 3:8

➤  “You turn man to destruction, and say, ‘return, O children of men.’ For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night. You carry them away like a flood *** .”  — Psalm 90:3-5a

➤ When Moses asks God whom should he say sent him to the people of Israel for their rescue, God replies, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14).

THE ONLY WAY FOR a day to equal a thousand years is for God to see time from the perspective “from the end” rather than “from the middle.” C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters examines this matter with great insight. The premise of the book is that the senior devil, Screwtape writes missives to a junior tempter, Wormwood, who has been assigned as his “patient” a recent convert to Christianity. The devils are appalled that humans are half spirit, half animal, and this “revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father (Satan) to withdraw his support from (God). As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.”

To avoid giving away a story you haven’t read, I will refer obliquely to the passages in this slim volume. In death, the “earth-born vermin enters the new life” very easily. The demon snarls about the “hybrid”:

How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous[.] I know what the creature was saying to itself! ‘Yes. Of course. It always was like this. *** You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?’ As he saw you, he also saw Them. I know how it was. You reeled back dizzy and blinded, more hurt by them than he had ever been by bombs. The degradation of it! — that this thing of earth and slime could stand upright and converse with spirits before whom you, a spirit, could only cower. *** But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realized what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself to be alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not ‘Who are you?’ but ‘So it was you all the time.’ (Page 132)

THE WORK OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH is to push back the frontiers of darkness and hopelessness in which many people live. Every year more than 300 women in our county destroy their children before birth. I believe many secretly realize they are dealing with a human soul.

A woman considering abortion looks at her situation in a short-term perspective. Her qualms would force take her outside her place in the cylinder, as it were, but she shrivels her heart to close off the thought of eternal consequence.

Abortion is a short-term and urgent fix, an evident necessity. A woman can go through with it pragmatically, draining meaning from life, seeing everything as random; she dehumanizes herself and the unborn infant to strike a violent blow for her private liberty. This slap must be violent, for the woman seeks to free herself from the enslavement of motherhood. She may demand forgiveness, or count on it, as a woman in a Tennessean newspaper abortion series of May 19 said.

Does God’s providence encompass sinful acts — crimes? It is the view of the church, insofar as she is faithful to the biblical truths revived in the Reformation, that God has charge of all things, has authority over every circumstances, is so expansive in his scope that nothing escapes His notice or His sovereign decree, not want nor hunger, nor pain nor joy. For if even an atom eludes God’s sovereign will to pursue its own course, God would not be God, and His incapacity would be seen not just in relation to the atom, but every human circumstance, from the first day of creation, like a bomb shockwave exploding outward spherically and extending forever, vacating God’s jurisdiction over every other atom.

Any son or daughter of God who has been given God’s grace to believe and repent, occupying their lives within the creation of time, are certainly and effectually saved. The idea of sovereign grace and election, pursuant to Ephesians 1 and many other passages,  implies that others are left to themselves, are not given the grace of God’s favor. If God intends to save a man, He will generously and certainly affect repentance in his life. The sinner will recognize his true state as a sinner who has offended a holy and perfect God, and be transformed in his ethical orientation.

Abortion and the war against it will persist to the last ring of time, the final millimeter, the terminus of the long cylinder or tube that is time. Boys and girls whom God intends to save from their mothers’ hand, He will save. Those to whom He does not intend to give life outside the womb, He lets fall to the mercies of the clinician. Of the death of any one child of whose story we learn, we can grieve. Of the death of thousands of children considered as an uncounted population, we seek solace in the providence and blessed will of God and, gazing aloft, consider it as a well-deserved national judgment.

MY SONS SLOG THROUGH a question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism that touches on the question of God’s effective and superintending will in the affairs of men.

Q. 31. What is effectual calling? A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

God knows his children, those whom He has effectually called, at whatever stage of human development. At the death of any one of them, as Lewis imagines it in Screwtape, his soul rises to the creator, where he had always resided in eternity, known to God from before the foundation of the earth.

[I first published this essay Aug. 28, 2012. — DJT]

Sources: C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Penguin, 1988)

Drawing from Elizabeth Orton Jones in Small Rain, Verses from the Bible, 1943, 1966