By N.J.A. Humphrey
My grandmother died on October first. She was 94 and a half years old. She lived in her own home and died in her own bed after a long and happy life. Her last illness happened this way: reaching into a box of her favorite chocolates, she lost her balance and fell, breaking a rib. Things went downhill quickly after that and she died quietly in her sleep. She would be pleased if under “cause” on her death certificate it read simply, “Death by Chocolate.” There are certainly worse ways to go.
But where, exactly, did she go? My grandmother once described herself as a “Me, too” Episcopalian: she went to church because her husband went to church, and when my grandfather died, she stopped going to church. She didn’t resume the habit until she was in her 90s, when my father became the interim pastor of the Methodist church in her town and took it upon himself to make sure she went to church every Sunday.
Thus, while Grandma was always cheerful and loving, she was not a person of demonstrative Christian faith. Because of this, a fundamentalist relative of mine betrayed her anxiety over the state of my grandmother’s soul when she asked recently, “Do you think she knew the Lord?” My immediate reaction (which I thought, but did not say) was, “Well, if she didn’t, she does now.” Or at least, she soon will know the Lord. Whether the Lord will know her is the realquestion, isn’t it? And on this score, at least, the catholic faith is far more optimistic, if cautiously so, than the prevailing American fundamentalist approach to salvation reflected in my relative’s implicitly pessimistic question.
You see, I grew up with a particular brand of fundamentalism in which one’s eternal destiny was determined entirely by whether you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior while you were still alive on earth. If you died without doing this, you went to hell. No second chances. That’s the way God set things up, you see: The reason you needed to accept Jesus in this life was that God required a demonstration of faith.
The good news was that even if you waited to accept Jesus until you were on your deathbed, you would go straight to heaven, no matter how miserable a sinner you had been up to that point. In this view of salvation, Christianity is all about getting the right answer before the clock runs out. It is, in short, rather like a game show—such as the aptly named Jeopardy! If you answer correctly, you are rewarded. If you get the wrong answer (or fail to answer), you get nothing. It’s winner-take-all. Except that in the fundamentalist version of this game show, the losers are punished.
Ironically, Grandma spent the last years of her life in a small town named after a game show: Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, which changed its name from Hot Springs in 1950, originally as a publicity stunt. The entire show, it turns out, specialized in stunts. But this game show was not at all like the winner-take-all game shows that reward correct answers. No, grandma’s town was named in honor of an entirely different kind of game show, one that, despite its ominous name, had very little to do with getting the right answer before time ran out.
Now, because Truth or Consequences was off the air by the time I started watching TV, I had to turn to the omniscient Wikipedia and that archive of all things pop culture, YouTube, in order to understand what the show was all about. According to these sources, on the show contestants needed to answer a trivia question correctly, usually something random that no one could answer correctly (for example, “What is brought to the table, cut, but never eaten?”) before “Beulah the Buzzer” was sounded. (And usually, the buzzer went off before people even had a moment to think—the answer, by the way, is “A deck of cards.”) If the contestant couldn’t answer the ‘Truth’ portion, there would be ‘Consequences,’ usually a stunt of some sort.
Listen to this appreciation of the game show from one anonymous Internet fan, and imagine that he or she is speaking instead of the life of the world to come: “Contestants never knew what was really in store for them. … Surprise family reunions were held. Strange tests of skill and endurance were undertaken by contestants, sometimes lasting several weeks, and the progress of the contestant was monitored. … It … caught people in the act of being themselves.”
Truth or Consequences was, in short, a rather more catholic kind of game show, one which focused on how well people did at making progress toward a particular goal or end rather than on whether they knew the right answer in order to be rewarded. In this century, such game shows have come to be known as “reality shows.”
All Souls presupposes that the afterlife is much more like a “reality show” about relationships than a “game show” about answers. And lest I be misunderstood, I do not mean to imply that there are no right answers or that it’s not important whether one gets the right answers or not. If I believed that, I would be a universalist, not a catholic. I dobelieve that it is our duty to seek and to proclaim the truth in this life. And I believe that the truth is found preeminently and authoritatively in Jesus Christ. It’s just that, unlike my fundamentalist brothers and sisters in Christ, I don’t believe that seeking the truth as it is in Christ Jesus is limited to this life alone.
Our gospel text for this evening bears out this difference rather dramatically. Jesus says, “And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” Fundamentalists read verses such as this as if they applied only to this life. But catholics apply them both to this life and the life to come. For if we do not see the Son in this life, we will certainly see the Son in the next. The question for catholics is: When we see the Son, will we believe in him? For there may well be many at the Final Judgment who see the Son, and yet will still not believe in him.
In a scene in The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis describes a group of people who die and end up in heaven, but some of them have their eyes closed. They don’t believe it when the others try to convince them to open their eyes and see where they are. This is Lewis’ metaphor for hell — near to God but unwilling to see him.
What is it, then, that allows people to see the Son and believe in him, and therefore to have everlasting life? The correct answer is, of course, grace, but how is grace communicated to us? If you believe in a sort of Calvinistic double predestination, the game show is rigged: Like the Quiz Show scandals of the 1950s, some people are given the answers in advance, while others are left to sweat it out in the soundproof booth until time’s up and they’re sent packing. But catholics do not believe this. God’s grace is available to everyone; in fact, it is constantly being poured out in equal measure to everyone, living and dead. Those who benefit from God’s grace are those who want to love, who have the capacity for love, and who, by grace, continue to grow in love. In catholic theology, the state of living and growing in love until we see God is called purgatory. It is purgative because learning to love is not always pleasant or easy; we are constantly called to deny ourselves and take up the cross of selfless loving. Those of us who get a head start on this project, as I believe my grandmother did, will have an easier time of it in purgatory than those of us who are still stuck in our selfish ways.
Hell exists, by contrast, for those who have rejected and continue to reject the gift of love, who do not wish to love and have no desire to learn how to love. That such people exist now and may continue to exist in such a state through all eternity is due to the freedom humans have, in our fallenness, to reject the good and choose the evil. The thing about God that makes hell a possibility is that God gives people only what they really want; even were God to force a person to be in heaven, as C.S. Lewis explains it, such a person would effectively be in hell if that person is unwilling to be there in the first place.
So it is a matter of truth or consequences: but until the Last Judgment, the clock has not run out, so we who claim the catholic faith have reason to be cautiously optimistic. Our hope is that we and those we love will come to know and embrace the truth of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord while we are still in this life, but we have no reason to despair over those the state of whose souls are unknown to us.
We call this day both “All Souls” and “All Faithful Departed,” and at first glance, the second title would seem to limit those for whom this day is intended. Yet we must not have the presumption of either the fundamentalist or the universalist. For the former claims to know who the faithful departed are based on whether they prayed the correct prayer before they died, and the universalist claims that it is irrelevant what they believed because we’ll all end up in the same place, anyway. Both are hubristic because each claims to know the mind of God. Catholics, on the other hand, show our humility in recognizing both human freedom and divine freedom, and therefore recognize that it’s not over until God says it’s over.
We, too, have a role in the reality show called life. Our role is not merely one of spectator, for we are also contestants. In fact, in the Church we are all on one team, supporting each other as we run the race that is set before us. Our job is to carry each other’s burdens and to intercede for each other. And even when those we love have moved on to the next stage of their journey toward God, our job is to pray for them, that they will become more loving people, and that when they have reached the felicity of the Saints in Light, they will return the favor and pray for our sanctification in love.
For it is in becoming more loving people that we draw near to the Source of all Love and thereby render glory and honor and thanksgiving and worship to and for that Source. Intercessory prayer is efficacious not because it is some transactional exchange or due to the merits of the one who prays, but because in praying for others we worship the God who is able to hear and answer those prayers, and in the prayers of the Saints for us, they worship the God who is always willing to shower grace on us each and every moment of each and every day.
This, then, is the truth, and as a consequence, we may hold fast that cautious catholic optimism that is the embodiment of faith, hope, and love. May the souls of all the faithful departed, by the mercy of God, rest in peace.
The Rev. N.J.A. Humphrey is rector of St. Thomas’s Anglican Church in Toronto.