Is Death the Point Beyond Which There is No Return?
November 8, 2009 — 10:50

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Afterlife Christian Theology  Comments: 24

There’s a tradition in Christendom which says that faith in Jesus Christ as one’s savior, and commitment to him as lord, is necessary for salvation. (Different Christian traditions might state this requirement differently; the important point is that almost everybody who hasn’t been in contact with Christian missionaries, or isn’t part of a chain which goes back to Christian missionaries, will fail to meet this requirement.)
There’s another Christian tradition which says that one must have this faith before one’s death.
While I see somewhat strong scriptural merit behind the first tradition (despite a growing number of Christian philosophers rejecting it; I think they’re called inclusivists), I don’t see much scriptural merit behind the second tradition. Furthermore, as my friend Patrick Todd pointed out to me at the Pacific SCP, it seems arbitrary for God to pick death as the moment beyond which there is no return. From the standpoint of eternity, why then? What’s so important about that point? It seems that a less arbitrary point would be when a person has shaped his character in such a way that he would never have the faith which I described in the first paragraph of this post (this shaping might happen via what Robert Kane calls “self-forming actions”). A picture of how all this might happen is illustrated beautifully in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Furthermore, I bet that inclusivists might be more open to exclusivism if they rejected the second tradition.
So, I don’t see much scriptural merit behind the second tradition. On the more philosophical side (and hence, more germane to this blog), it seems that death would be an arbitrary point at which to judge people’s eternal destiny.

  • I have always understood that for the Christian tradition, the first tradition is just a given. I might be wrong on this but I’ve typically thought that Exlusivism/Inclusivism corresponded, for Christians, to how explicit acceptance of the Truths of Christianity had to be before death, because after death acceptance of Jesus as Lord would just be a given, something with incontrovertible evidence.
    As far as traditions go, it does seem to be the trend (Biblically and historically) that the first of those traditions is much better off than the second, but I’d always thought that a rejection of the second was Inclusivism of a sort, and a rejection of both was leaning more in the direction of John Hick’s Pluralism.

    November 8, 2009 — 18:23
  • Jonathan Jacobs

    If the question is whether there is *scriptural* basis for the second tradition, then one would need to look at all the passages which appear to indicate that immediately after death comes judgement. Here many of Jesus’s parables are relevant (the ten virgins, for example), as are others passages.

    November 8, 2009 — 19:15
  • Andrew Moon

    Ah, I forgot about those parables. Those point to imminency, but is there any evidence that they’re referring to death as the time?

    November 8, 2009 — 20:00
  • It’s only arbitrary of God to pick death as the point of judgment if God does not control the time of the individual’s death.

    November 8, 2009 — 21:29
  • Andrew Moon

    Suppose (as is plausible) that God has complete control over the time of each person’s death. There’s still the very sensible question of why that time should be the time at which a person’s fate is sealed beyond his control. And the choice of the time of death to be that time is what seems arbitrary.

    November 8, 2009 — 22:07
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    My impression is that someone who worships Tash–thinking he is the Good–is already “saved”.

    November 9, 2009 — 7:42
  • overseas

    it seems to be part of the plan for us to have to form our characters and believe or disbelieve under conditions of uncertainty and within divine hiddenness. These conditions change radically after death, it seems. So there might be no arbitrariness about that being the cutoff.

    November 9, 2009 — 7:45
  • Let T be the most appropriate time for sealing Patrick’s fate. Is the question this: Why should God ensure that Patrick dies at T?

    November 9, 2009 — 9:16
  • Gordon Knight

    To my mind, Josh is certainly right.
    But there is another issue. If our life is really an arena for salvation, a vale of soul-building, its just TOO SHORT.
    Alex: Don’t you need middle knowledge as well?
    Otherwize it seems some of us have more of a chance for salvatino than others (in virtue of more time).

    November 9, 2009 — 10:05
  • Andrew Moon

    I think to go that way is to take the inclusivist route. But even still, I think a problem arises. For any view that creates a significant belief-component into salvation, there is the question of why the person must have that belief-component before death. Why that time?
    I’ll think about that.
    You said, “Let T be the most appropriate time for sealing Patrick’s fate. Is the question this: Why should God ensure that Patrick dies at T?”
    No, the question is, “Why is death the moment at which our eternal destiny is set?”
    And as Gordon points out, for many, death seems to make life too short, especially for those who die relatively young.

    November 9, 2009 — 10:57
  • Andrew Moon

    Hmm… maybe…
    Okay, I said in the opening post:
    “It seems that a less arbitrary point would be when a person has shaped his character in such a way that he would never have the faith which I described in the first paragraph of this post (this shaping might happen via what Robert Kane calls “self-forming actions”).”
    Perhaps what I call a “less arbitrary point” is the time of death for all persons. And God’s sovereignty would ensure this. This, I think, connects with Alex’s question of “Why should God ensure that Patrick dies at T?” The answer might be explained in the above quote.
    This also solves Gordon’s problem of “life is too short,” since God is aware that the person has in fact shaped/set his character by whatever age God providentially allows that person to die. God only allows people to die when they have shaped their characters in the way mentioned in the above quote.
    Furthermore, we can add what overseas said by saying that God arranged for the time of death to be the time at which one has set his character to be the same time because people’s knowledge that it is the time of death that matters will cause the appropriate amount of uncertainty and divine hiddenness and so forth (err, or something like that).
    Unfortunately, it is implausible that all people who die have shaped their characters in this way. Maybe an old atheist who remains shaking his fist toward the heavens at the age of 90 when he dies has done so, but a young atheist at the age of 19 who grew up in a communist country (and was never exposed to belief in anything supernatural) who dies probably hasn’t.

    November 9, 2009 — 11:16
  • For what it is worth, there was a debate about these issues in recent issues of Religious Studies. Allen Plug and I have defended a position on hell that we call “escapism” in some papers. The short of it is that we argue that God should allow for people to have an unlimited number of opportunities to escape hell. I won’t bore you with the details. Two of the papers appeared in Religious Studies and a third is forthcoming in a book on the problem of hell edited by Joel Buenting. Kyle Swan and Russell Jones each wrote discussion pieces responding to Allen and me.
    I don’t have time to debate these matters. But I thought I’d bring our stuff to the attention of those who might be interested.
    Here’s the bibliographical info for our published stuff and the responses (I don’t have detailed info for our most recent paper in the Buenting book, but I can give the paper to anyone who wants a draft copy):
    Andrei A. Buckareff and Allen Plug, “Escaping Hell: Divine Motivation and the Problem of Hell,” Religious Studies, 41 (2005), pp. 39-54
    Andrei A. Buckareff and Allen Plug, “Escapism, Religious Luck, and Divine Reasons for Action,” 45 (2009), pp. 63-72
    Russell E. Jones, “Escapism and Luck,” Religious Studies, 43 (2007), pp. 205-16.
    Kyle Swan, “Hell and Divine Reasons for Action,” 45 (2009), pp. 51-61.

    November 9, 2009 — 11:30
  • Andrew:
    We do not know what, in fact, happens to people’s souls on their deathbeds. For all we kno the young atheist becomes a Christian, by a gift of grace, a split second before death. (Or already was a Christian, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, as per Josh’s suggestion.) Or else God has made her mind work faster, so in the last second of her life, her guardian angel had an intense, ten-hour long conversation with her. In other words, there is no need to posit a post-death time of decision provided by God, because God can equally well provide a pre-death time of decision if necessary, and the latter hypothesis fits better with Scripture and Tradition.
    Yeah, going for a “best” time would require Molinism. But without Molinism, God can still satisfice in this regard.
    Also, when you talk of some having more time for salvation than others, it’s worth noting that more time is not necessarily better (cf. Jesus’ words about how nobody would be saved if the time of tribulation weren’t cut short), unless one holds to some doctrine on which grace cannot be lost.

    November 9, 2009 — 11:43
  • Andrei,
    Thanks for the references; the papers (and forthcoming book) look interesting.

    November 9, 2009 — 12:49
  • Andrew Moon

    I really don’t know the scripture/tradition stuff well enough to know that a person’s having the ability to make a quick decision to accept Christ a few seconds after death would be less or more consonant with scripture/tradition than microseconds before.
    But philosophically, I just can’t see why pre-death or post-death should matter at all (other than the reason I gave in my prior comment).
    Furthermore, those scenarios seem akin to responses to PoE which state that it’s possible that the deer do not suffer intensely in forest fires or that there were not millenia of animal suffering; God turned them into zombies as they started to burn or get eaten or whatever. What I’m saying doesn’t amount to much of an argument that they’re not possible; but it just seems reasonable to believe that they don’t/didn’t happen.

    November 9, 2009 — 13:03
  • Andrew:
    Think me crazy, but I actually think the scenarios with the deer should be taken quite seriously. We think that deer suffer pain on the basis of an analogical argument–we suffer pain when we exhibit certain “pain behaviors” and undergo certain physical phenomena (like being burned), and so we assume the deer do so as well. But there may well be a disanalogy: There is (I think) a theodicy available for our case, but perhaps not for the case of the deer. A disanalogy damages any analogical argument.
    Conversion is a matter of the infusion of charity for God in the soul, and it is always a miracle when it happens. In cases of ex hypothesi miraculous events, I do not think we should make too many presumptions about how long such an event might take in external time, etc. It’s also worth noting that people do talk of “their life flashing before them”, thereby reporting phenomena which are consistent with the hypothesis of internal time diverging from external time on the deathbed.
    One reason for death to be a relevant time is that we are not angels who move body-shaped bodies around. We are embodied persons, and our decision is one we need to make as embodied persons. Death is, by (my) definition, the complete destruction of the body (the corpse is no more one’s body than the ashes after a forest fire are the forest).

    November 9, 2009 — 13:30
  • Andrew Moon

    Well, I don’t think you’re crazy. =)
    I think that we should distinguish between
    a) a scenario’s being epistemically possible and
    b) a scenario’s being probable enough so as to be worth taking seriously.
    I agree in both the PoE case and the last minute conversion cases that they are possible.
    I have a harder time taking the cases seriously in both cases. Take the PoE case. Do you think we should take seriously, for example, the possibility that holocaust victims in gas chambers were suddenly blocked from their pain? Suppose a Christian friend of yours had a relative who was the victim of a violent crime which ended in a gruesome death. Should we comfort your friend by pointing out that much of the pain might have been blocked by God? If this is truly a possibility worth taking seriously, then I see no reason why we shouldn’t. I could make the same point about the deaths of millions because of AIDS around the world.
    (I would like to express my hesitance as I use these examples; it’s not obvious to me that these cases shouldn’t be taken seriously.)
    The “life flashing before one’s eyes” is interesting, and I think adds plausibility/probability to those scenarios, I think. Maybe this evidence sets apart these cases from PoE cases.
    You said, “We are embodied persons, and our decision is one we need to make as embodied persons.” I don’t see why we should believe in the second conjunct of this sentence. Why couldn’t we make the decision unembodied?

    November 9, 2009 — 14:04
  • Mike Almeida

    We think that deer suffer pain on the basis of an analogical argument–we suffer pain when we exhibit certain “pain behaviors” and undergo certain physical phenomena (like being burned), and so we assume the deer do so as well. But there may well be a disanalogy: There is (I think) a theodicy available for our case, but perhaps not for the case of the deer.
    I definitely don’t think deer suffer on the basis of some analogical argument. I don’t think that you suffer for those reasons, either. I knew that people and deer suffer long before I heard about analogical arguments. I’d know that people and deer suffer if I became convinced that analogical arguments fail.

    November 9, 2009 — 16:33
  • Dan

    I take the following places to support the “second tradition.”
    Ps. 32:6 (cf. 2 Pet. 3:5-9)
    John 8:24
    Heb. 9:27

    November 9, 2009 — 16:42
  • Mike Almeida

    Suppose being saved amounts to accepting Christ as savior. The real problem, it seems, is that for any time T at which we dod not accept Christ, there is some other time T + n, such that (T & n)[]-> you freely accept Christ. Something like that is true in all cases, I’d bet. So, I’m claiming that for each existing person P there are opportunistic circumstances O such that P can exist long enough (on earth or otherwise) to find himself in O, and (P in O) []-> P accepts Christ. If that’s true, then it is hard to see why we are not all given that opportunity.

    November 9, 2009 — 17:02
  • Keith DeRose

    I certainly agree about the weakness of the scriptural support for the menacing doctrine of no chances after death. Here’s what I wrote about that doctrine years ago on my Universalism and the Bible web page:
    In fact, I think no other doctrine can even compete with “no further chances” in terms of the following three factors. No doctrine even comes close to a) being so strongly believed by so many evangelicals despite b) being so utterly disastrous in its consequences and c) having so little by way of Scriptural support.
    Those who think that some kind of (or something in the neighborhood of) explicit acceptance of Christ is needed for salvation might find the following substantial theological advantage to the claim that there are chances for such saving acceptances after death: Almost everyone has categories of people who haven’t/don’t accept before death but whom they think may end up saved, anyway: In addition to those who die in infancy & childhood and those who live(d) in places where they never heard about Jesus, there’s just about everyone who lived before Jesus, including, apparently, many heroes of the Old Testament, who don’t seem to have had any explicit knowledge of Jesus (though maybe some believed in him under a term like “the coming Messiah”). A fairly common way for those who deny chances after death to handle such cases is by way of special exemptions from the explicit-acceptance-of-Christ requirement. But, first, that raises the danger that reaching people with the good news of Christ, and even the coming of Christ himself, does horrible (anti-saving!) harm to some–those who would have qualified for the special exemption but for…. . And, anyway, given my sense for why the explicit acceptance requirement would be in place, it’s hard for me to see why God would be having *anyone* in heaven who isn’t accepting of Christ. More plausible, I think, to suppose the explicit acceptance requirement applies across the board, but to also suppose it can be met after death, when many people can decide whether to accept under better circumstances. So the various classes of folks mentioned above will get in through post-mortem acceptance–as can others who failed to accept before death.
    Yes, I think it is/will be extremely easy to be saved. (Well, our part is easy: all the difficult stuff is done for us by someone else!) And it seems that might bother some of the earlier commentators on this thread. But I think there’s good Biblical reasons for thinking the hard part of this is borne by someone else and that consequently it is wondrously easy for us humans to be saved (given that the hard part is already accomplished).

    November 10, 2009 — 20:47
  • Andrew:
    I believe about each of these cases that either there was actually no pain (or no bad pain) or else there was an applicable theodicy. The more evidence you present against the second disjunct, the more evidence I have for the first, both because I know the disjunction (it is entailed by the proposition that God exists, which I know) and because the stronger the evidence against the existence of a theodicy, the weaker the analogical argument.

    November 11, 2009 — 8:49
  • Luke Gelinas

    In addition to Andrei’s suggestions, there is also an interesting paper by Patrick Toner which some might find relevant:
    “Divine Judgment and the Nature of Time,” Faith and Philosophy 22 (2005)

    November 11, 2009 — 17:35
  • And a response by me a year or two later in the same journal. 🙂

    November 12, 2009 — 8:23