There is discomfort that grabs us because we simply don’t understand the gravity of our sin in the presence of a perfectly holy God.
I promised you about what really and genuinely amounts to my greatest fear. The occasion for this reflection was a movie I saw, or a series I should say, made for TV and considered by some to be the best western ever made. It’s called Lonesome Dove with Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Urich, Danny Glover, Rick Schroeder, Anjelica Huston. I should offer this caveat for those who might think about renting the film. There is some language, violence, “adult” themes, so I’m not recommending it without reservation—you make your own decisions. But it happened to be the thing that triggered the thoughts that I’ll share with you. Maybe an apology up front. These thoughts are a little abstract, I admit, and some of you will probably be saying, “Why can’t Koukl just be normal and watch the movie?” I don’t have an answer for that. This is just the way I am and this is what comes out sometimes when I watch movies.
There is really so much that can be said about my responses to Lonesome Dove, but I’m only going to develop two points.
First, there was a particular message that seemed to keep coming through in a subtle way for me. The message seemed much more applicable in the harsh environment of frontier life, but it’s no less true now. The message is this: death is sudden, it’s intrusive—it’s an uninvited player—and it’s final. And it’s finality is very disruptive because all of that particular person’s unfinished business will remain forever unfinished. Characters would be introduced in this story, plot lines would seem to develop, you’d get attached to them, you’d think “I wonder where the writer’s going with this...”, and then they get killed. There’s no warning, and there’s no resolution of all of their issues. You find yourself trying to anticipate the turns of the plot. “Oh, here’s a clean way for this to work out.” But the intrusion of sudden death here has no respect for the details of plot development, for the flow of the script or of conflict resolution. It simply assaults life. It was very unsettling when you watch it.
You say, “Lousy film-making. Too many loose ends.” But that, I suspect, may be precisely the point. Even the ending was discordant. It wasn’t finished. All of the questions hadn’t been answered. All of the threads of the plot had not been neatly tied off. It just ended, with unanswered questions, unfinished stories and unresolved relationships. You want to say, “Hey, wait a minute.” But death doesn’t wait a minute. It has a timing all its own and it doesn’t wait, and it doesn’t take your council, it doesn’t ask your permission, and it often doesn’t even warn you. And when death knocks, it’s over. Completely.
So as I watched the themes unfold over the six hours of the four videos that comprise this film, I found myself thinking about the intrusion of death and of death’s ultimate consequence: the end of any chance to change your eternal destiny. As the ad says, “You only go around once in life.” They’re right. And once it’s over, it’s over. Forever.
The ad goes on to say “Grab all the gusto you can.” And frankly, if there is no God, if there are no consequences to the choices we make in this life, then this is good council. “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die...” And I understand entirely any non-Christian who would live this way. I’d live that way too. Why not? If there’s no God, no transcendent values, why live as if there were? Why should I? Party hearty.
Of course the bad news is that people who live this way hope this is true, they don’t know this is true. And it’s not true. These are people who think they’re safe, who think there are no eternal consequences to their decisions—and even if there were they think they’ll end up on God’s good side. You know people like this who don’t give much thought to it, who think that it’s all just a big party anyway, there’s nothing beyond the grave. They hope that this is the case and, even if there is a God out there kind of making a list and checking it twice, well, we’re basically good people, aren’t we? We’ll end up on God’s good side because, in fact, some are people who, in Paul’s words, have “a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (Rom 10:2).
All of these people, rudely interrupted by death, will find themselves caught by surprise, consciously aware after death that their fate is forever cast in iron. They were wrong and now they’re lost.
This thought crosses my mind almost every time someone well-known dies. I think, it’s all over. There’s no more chances. There’s no going back. There’s no tying up loose ends. There’s no resolving relationships. Worse than that, there’s no making new decisions that will change the course of their eternal destiny. This is it.
And more than that they know that this is it. They know that all of the times that they had scoffed at people who told them that there are consequences to their actions. That there was a God who would hold them responsible. Who scoffed at the Bible and made fun of Christians. These people will know without a doubt that they were wrong.
That’s the first point, this sense as I watched these films that death is an intruder, an interrupter and a final determiner of eternity.
The second point builds on the first and has to do with my personal identification with a character in Lonesome Dove that I knew was ultimately destined for hell, and how that thought got me in touch with my greatest fear.
Any good book or film, if it’s well done, somehow draws you into its story so you become almost a participant. You identify, you connect. You feel feelings about these people. You hate the bad ones, you may even despise them. You feel this. And you love the good ones, after a fashion. Some may say, “Oh, that’s not real love.” Well, it is. It’s not enduring, but it’s a real, genuine feeling. You genuinely feel these emotions for these people. Now, the feelings are shallow, because the people are fictions; they don’t really exist. But the feelings are real for the short time they last. And if the piece is well done, then the feelings last a bit longer; they linger—and that’s what makes great fiction.
That’s what happened to me with Frodo, and Aragon, and Pippin and Merry from Tolkein’s Rings trilogy. Did you read that? You can’t help but get attached to these characters through the 1500 or 2000 pages that chronicle their exploits. I followed them all—each one—right to their graves. When the book was over I read the epilogue, then the epilogue to the epilogue, then the appendices from A through F. I couldn’t let go of these characters until they were dead and no more.
This is what happened to me, in a way, with Lonesome Dove. As a viewer I developed an attachment to a character called Captain Augustus MacRae—“Gus”—an aging but legendary Texas Ranger, a self-described philosopher, who lived day to day and took life—and death—as it comes.
I developed an emotional attachment for this man—and so did all the characters in the story, by the way, which is part of what this film is all about. I’m not going to articulate why this happened; suffice it to say that it just did. He’s likable, and in spite of some vulgar aspects of his life there’s a nobility about Gus. There is a philosopher quality, a depth, a dimension you have to admire, and you get endeared to him.
Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, surprisingly, Gus dies. And it’s not even the end of the movie. The event is somewhat protracted; it takes almost nine months before he’s even buried. And when his closest friend—Captain Woodrow F. Cull, simply called “The Captain,” another aging Ranger—finally puts him in the ground it’s 2,500 weary miles from where Gus died in Montana—which is why it took him so long to get buried. Woodrow was fulfilling the dying wish of his friend, and hauled his corpse all the way down to south Texas and buried him in a pecan grove.
But there’s a richness to the grieving over Gus, not only with the characters but with what went on inside of me as well. A grieving for Gus. It has an appeal to it. You want to feel it. You want the knot to grow in your throat. You want the tears to flow. You want to feel that. And I did. I connected with the quiet anguish of Gus’s friends because I “loved” Gus too.
As my “viewing” self—as it were—connected with this character, my other self—the self not taken up with this fantasy world of fiction—reminded me of a very simple truth: Gus is going to hell. But he really doesn’t think he is, that’s why he goes to death so easily. His parting words to Woodrow were, “We’ve had a hell of a ride. Haven’t we?” He grabbed for all the gusto, and he got it. He dies peaceably because he has no idea of the reality waiting for him beyond the grave. But Gus will be caught by surprise.
Now, consider for a moment the thought that someone you’re endeared to, someone who has admirable qualities and in the great scheme of things seems rather harmless, consider the thought that they are going to hell. You’re forced to say that for what are theologically sound reasons, that this unbeliever who you’ve become attached to, who you “love” will undergo the greatest torment conceivable for a duration of time that is not conceivable: eternity. Let’s be honest. That bothers you somehow. It bothers me.
Frankly, it was hard to imagine how God could send this man Gus to hell. And there’s a sense of injustice there that creates a struggle. Now I say “sense of injustice” because I don’t believe there’s any real injustice here. It’s a discomfort that grabs us because we simply don’t understand the gravity of our sin in the presence of a perfectly holy God.
I think this discomfort animates the belief that some people have in annihilationism, the view that instead of eternal punishment God simply destroys you. That’s it. This is what the Jehovah Witnesses believe. Those who hold this position have some arguments, they make some points, and frankly I hope they’re right. But I don’t think they are.
And if they’re not, this leaves us with a terrifying thought: there are millions and millions of people who will find themselves, by surprise, crossing the river Styx—as it were—like in Michaelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel—take a good look at the expression on their faces next time you see a rendering or it—crossing with the certain knowledge that they have been banished to a world of darkness, agony and desperate aloneness that follows one moment upon another without end. And there’s no escape. There’s no way out. There’s no hope. Forever. And they will live with this torment consciously and constantly.
Which brings us to my greatest fear. My greatest fear is that I will be among that number. Just as millions of others who thought they were safe will be caught by surprise, just as Captain Augustus MacRae would be caught by surprise, so might I.
“But you’re a Christian!” Sure, but that doesn’t always rescue me from the terrible thought that I could be right about God’s judgment, but wrong about His mercy.
This is why I’m so adamant about the notion that there is no neutral ground. There is no fence for you to sit on. There is no “undecided” or “none of the above” categories. You’ve got to place your bet. Everyone antes up. Everyone’s in the game. And at any given time your money is either on red or on black. And that, by the way, is what faith is: it’s placing your bet; it’s putting it all on the line for what you believe is true—not what I wish is true, not what I’d like to be true, not what I’m trying to conjure up or squeeze out a lot of religious feeling to support, but what I believe to be what the preponderance of evidence points to. That’s faith. Placing my bet.
That’s why, though this is my greatest fear, I have convictions that are greater than my greatest fear, based on evidence that is greater that my bets are well placed and my faith is well spent. This is why apologetics is so vitally important, because it allows us to place our bets, as it were, with confidence and conviction.
Now the problem with my gambling metaphor is that it may give the mistaken idea that faith is just a roll of the dice. I don’t believe that. It’s not pure chance and it’s not a leap of faith, but it is a risk—I can’t pretend otherwise—you could lose everything. It’s the most terrible thing anyone could ever fear, to fall into the hands of an angry God.
But, what if I am mistaken about God’s mercy? Well, I really don’t know what other view would work, frankly. Or maybe I should say, I really don’t know what other view wouldn’t work. It seems that with just about any other alternative view at death I’m either wiped from existence—annihilated—or whisked into heaven. If the atheists or the Arians—like Jehovah’s Witnesses—are right, I just get blasted into nothingness—no pain, no problem. It’s over. If human assessment of righteousness is what matters, well, I’ve led a pretty righteous life. If it was a matter of relative goodness, and that’s the perspective of most other religions in the world, or the Arains on the other side, it seems like I’m covered. That was Paschal’s point in his famous wager—if you’re a good Christian and you’re wrong, you’ve really lost nothing; if you’re right you’ve gained everything. If you’re an atheist, however, and you’re right, you’ve gained nothing, but if you’re wrong you’ve lost everything. The Christian, it seems to me, has everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Let me leave you with two short thoughts from other people. The first is from one of the sons of Korah, someone given to deep reflections on these same issues, in Psalms 49. As I read of this, think of Gus for a moment.
Psalm 49:10 “Even wise men die; the stupid and the senseless alike perish, and leave their wealth to others. Their inner thought is that their houses are forever, and their dwelling places to all generations; they have called their lands after their own names. But man in his pomp will not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.”
Psalm 49:16 “Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house is increased; for when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not descend after him. Though while he lives he congratulates himself—and though men praise you when you do well for yourself—he shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see the light. Man in his pomp, yet without understanding, is like the beasts that perish.”
That’s a serious thought.
The second thought is from Johann Sebastian Bach, a man deeply committed to Christ and to honoring Him with his skill in music. You’ll notice that on his compositions he wrote in one corner solo deo gloria (“to God only be the glory”) and the initials J.J., Jesu juva, “Jesus helps.”
Reflecting on death and going to be with the Lord, Bach writes this beautiful piece about the joy—remarkably—of dying. It’s entitled “Art Thou with Me?” I’d like to play it for you. If you listen carefully you can hear these lines, among others:
Art Thou with me?
I go with joy to my death, to my rest, to my death, to my rest.
So full of joy, will my departing be...
At least that’s the way I see it.