Wendell Berry, the Afterlife, and the Judgment of God

Wendell Berry, the Afterlife, and the Judgment of God May 22, 2014

Part 4: Progressive Reflections on Traditional Christian Themes

Wendell Berry’s novel, A World Lost, is a story about a family coping with the death of one of their own. In the final chapter, Berry reflects on the manner of man he was. This meditation gives way to a reflection on death as a pathway into the light of a more advanced spiritual realm.

Berry writes:

I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

How I wish more Christians would apply Berry’s good reasoning, common sense, imagination, insight into human experience, and his healthy image of the Really Real to their interpretations of the judgment texts in Scripture.

Berry says that “light can come into the world only as love” and that “not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows,” and yet “it has never been entirely absent.”

When divine love finally reaches us and has its final say, “All will be well.” Love will overcome.

If we could trust Berry’s vision, then our biblical images of judgment would not be so terrifying.

It should be of no surprise that the New Testament contains harsh images of judgment and much insider and outsider language. The New Testament documents emerged out of an apocalyptic milieu pervasive in Palestinian Judaism before and around the time of Jesus. Apocalyptic constructions are mostly the products of oppressed people hoping for vindication. 

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“Only when the apocalyptic expectation of judgment is completely Christianized does it lose its terror and become a liberating hope, in which we go to meet the future with heads held high . . . Then the fear of judgment will no longer hinder and paralyze the expectation of the parousia.”

If we read and filter the apocalyptic texts through the sacred tradition of Jesus, we can then Christianize the vindictive images into more liberating and hopeful symbols.  

The “furnace of fire” would be a furnace that burns up all the dross, leaving the precious metal. The fire would consume our sin and selfishness, bringing us through the flames purged and pure.

The journey through “outer darkness” would serve to dispel the inner darkness and illumine our minds and hearts to the mystery, wonder, and power of God’s goodness and grace.

The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” would be a necessary prelude to the joy and celebration that result from the experience of grace and real gratitude.

We need the darkness as preparation for the light. At first, the light may feel like a condemning light. But it is a condemnation that leads to salvation, and passing through “hell” we reach “heaven.”

It is hard to imagine what forms God’s judgment may take and how it will be expressed in the future, but I am convinced that whatever it involves, it is always an expression of love. It is nothing like the sentence or penalty of condemnation rendered from a non-feeling jury or judge.

God is always partial toward our ultimate well-being. I believe that judgment is never retributive or strictly punitive. It is always corrective, redemptive, and restorative. The ultimate intent of God’s judgment is to heal, redeem, reconcile, and transform. That may or may not be possible for all people, but I believe it is God’s intent.

If judgment were anything else, it would nullify the gospel of grace.

One afternoon when Jordan, my son, was a toddler, he was with me as I picked up a few household items at K-Mart. I told him he could pick out something for himself within our tight budget. (In those days it was very tight.) He wanted some kind of action figure that was more expensive than what we could afford. As I tried to explain that he would need to scale back, he threw a little fit in the store.

I looked him squarely in the eyes and informed him that if he didn’t settle down, he wouldn’t be getting anything. He didn’t settle down. So, I took it all off the table. Then he wanted to compromise. He picked something else out when he knew I was serious. I told him it was too late. As we made our way through the store, he was so sad and mad he couldn’t see straight.

Well, I began to have a change of heart. I thought this could be a teachable moment. So I went back, with Jordan unaware, and slipped into the cart the second item he had chosen. When we returned to the car and after I put him in his car seat, I pulled out the toy and surprised him with it.

I said, “Son, this is called grace. You don’t deserve it, but in my love for you, I decided to get it for you anyway.” I don’t think he was old enough to understand the Christian concept of grace, but he sure was delighted to get the toy. And his delight was my delight. The hug he gave me to seal the whole experience made my heart melt. It demonstrates the healing, transformative power of grace.

God’s love and grace constitute God’s settled disposition toward God’s children; God’s judgment is merely an instrument of God’s grace.

The Hebrew scholar and spiritual writer Abraham Heschel observed,

“The anger of the Lord is instrumental, hypothetical, conditional, and subject to His will. Let the people modify their line of conduct, and anger will disappear . . . There is no divine anger for anger’s sake . . . its purpose and consummation is its own disappearance.”

Since God’s judgment is an expression of God’s love, then there is nothing to fear. Whatever God’s judgment may consist of, no matter how painful it may be at the time, it is intended for our ultimate good.

Salvation is now before it is later and it relates to God’s healing and redemption of society, not just our individual lives. But society cannot be changed unless individuals are changed, and God cares deeply about our personal growth and development at each stage of our spiritual journey—in this life and in the life to come.

The journey of personal redemption is a journey from the selfish ways of childhood to the adulthood of self-giving love. It is a journey from the partial to the complete, from immaturity to maturity, from brokenness to wholeness, from the false self to the true self, from egoism to compassion, from exclusive focus on our own suffering to an inclusive solidarity with the suffering creation, especially our disadvantaged sisters and brothers within the human family.

Each journey is unique. Each has its own twists and turns, defeats and victories, setbacks and advances. None of the “hells” we each pass through are exactly alike. But I am hopeful that the God who has come to us in Jesus and calls us “dearly beloved,” will bring each one of us to final redemption.

(The above reflection was adapted from chapter 4, “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It (Salvation)” in my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith.)

Chuck Queen is a Baptist pastor and the author of A Faith Worth Living: The Dynamics of an Inclusive GospelHe blogs at A Fresh Perspective.


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