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The last things: Paul Helm talks to Peter Hastie

Professor Paul Helm visited Sydney recently to give some lectures at the Presbyterian Theological Centre as well as at conference at Moore College on the theology of John Calvin to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. Professor Helm is a noted international scholar and author in the fields of philosophy and theology.

He has held the J.I. Packer Chair in Theology and Philosophy at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada from 2001-4. He still serves there in a visiting capacity. Before that, he was professor of the history and philosophy of religion at King’s College in the University of London. Before joining King’s College in 1993, he was Reader in Philosophy at the University of Liverpool. Educated in Worcester College, Oxford, Professor Helm has written many articles and books, mainly focussing on the philosophy of religion and Christian doctrine in the Reformed tradition.

Professor Helm is married and has five children. Among his many books are: The Providence of God; Eternal God; Faith with Reason; Faith and Understanding; Calvin and the Calvinists; John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford University Press 2004); The Beginnings; The Callings and The Last Things. This last book is not simply a philosophical and theological inquiry into such momentous issues as death, judgment, heaven and hell. It also breathes the spirit of one who has had to wrestle personally with these matters in the heart-rending experience of bereavement.

What has led you to write your book on ‘the last things’? Is it just a philosophical interest or have you had some deeper reason to ponder the meaning and shape of the future?

Well, it’s a little time since I wrote the book. My original aim was to produce a series of three books—one on the beginnings of the Christian life, then another about an aspect of the Christian life, which focused on our calling in Christ, and then one about the end of life. My aim was not so much to speculate about the detail of the ‘last things’, but to deal with the ‘four last things’—death, judgment, heaven and hell—in a fairly straightforward way. After all, we are all heading in the same direction, so I thought it was important to give some in-depth consideration to these issues.

One of the characteristics of the modern world is that people have become more concerned with the present life than with the life to come. Why is it so hard for us to gain a proper perspective on these ultimate matters?

I think it’s just one of the characteristics of human nature that we tend to regard the present life as more significant than the life to come. Jesus’ story about the farmer who planned to build bigger and better barns in his quest for an easy life, makes this clear. Even when we plan for the future, through retirement plans, pensions and the like, it is this nearer future, rather than life in the world to come, that preoccupies our minds. One of the difficulties we face in attempting to change these attitudes—in ourselves as well as in others—is that generally we have very hazy ideas about the world to come. The old idea that our present life is a preparation for a life to come has either gone, or is largely dismissed.

How do modern views on time impact on the church’s message and ministry? In what sense has this made us similar to the world?

Because we are so focused on the ‘here and now’ we tend to want things to happen immediately. So the idea that our lives may depend on something that it takes time to understand, such as the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that there are things about the gospel that are difficult to grasp, can tend to make us impatient. In this context, it’s relatively easy for the visual to replace the written and the spoken, and for sound-bites, even religious sound-bites, to assume a greater importance than carefully expressed truths about our faith. This is one of the ways we are absorbing the culture. I suppose that there’s nothing very surprising about this, and in fact ministers are often similarly impatient over the challenge involved in attempting to change such attitudes.

Further, none of us likes to be reminded that the clock is ticking. Hence we are concerned to preserve our youth, and even older people sometimes dress and act as if they are teenagers. When we think about the future we often think about getting older and weaker, and then death. So we identify the future with morbidity. The idea that for the Christian there is nothing to fear in death—though there may be great fear about the process of dying—tends to get muffled.

How do you explain the fact that interest in the last things within the church has been supplanted by social activism and other church ministry?

It’s always hard to keep a balance when we are thinking about present and ultimate concerns. In this connection I always think of the end of 1 Corinthians 15 and the beginning of the chapter 16. This ties both concerns together. Of course, in the original Greek there was no pause at all. It would have been written like this:

ThereforemydearbrothersstandfirmletnothingmoveyoualwaysgiveyourselvesfullytotheworkofthelordbecauseyouknowthatyourlabourinthelordisnotinvainnowaboutthecollectionforgodspeopledowhatItoldthegalatianchurchestodo

There is an impressive balance here between Paul’s concern to uphold the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s victory over sin, death and hell, and his appreciation of the present needs of the churches. So to supplant one concern by another is simply a case of the split-mindedness that affects us all.

You have said that God has inflicted death upon us for wise and holy ends. How do you justify this when most people regard death as a tragedy?

It’s not easy! We are faced with several different options. The first is that what happens at death is out of God’s control and He is nothing more than a bystander. The second is that our deaths are purely acts of divine sadism. The final alternative is that God has some other end in view.

I think it’s helpful to see the cross as the great pattern for our thinking. In the cross of Jesus we see death and judgment inflicted on someone truly innocent. Why? God had a greater good in mind. How the distribution of that greater good works itself out is largely hidden from us. For that reason, Paul says that we should judge nothing before the time when the secrets of all our hearts will be revealed. In other words, we should wait for all the evidence to come in. This means we need to be cautious about matching our experience of suffering with some distinct and definite purpose of God in our lives. In my judgment, the Puritans, or at least some of them, were too quick to suggest that (say) the death of a child was due to some specific sin in the parents. Is there any scriptural warrant for such pronouncements? I rather doubt it.

If Christ’s conquest of death does not actually relieve the Christian of the need to die, what exactly does Christ’s death and resurrection achieve?

It guarantees the resurrection to glory of all who are in Christ, as Paul shows. Death is swallowed up in victory.

While it’s possible to predict the day of our birth with some accuracy, is it significant that we can’t predict the day of our death?

It’s a mercy. If it was possible for us to predict the day of our death, then we would find ourselves in an unbearable situation similar to that of Jesus. He knew when he would die. But, in a sense, our inability to predict the exact time of our death is part of our inability to predict the future. While the future is under the providential control of Almighty God, Calvin at one place says that we must live as if it wasn’t! That’s because the rule of our lives is not what God does or will do, but what He requires us to do. Of course, this does not mean that we should not prepare for death; however, it certainly means that we should get on with life, whatever that may imply for us.

If the time of our death is unpredictable, how should we best prepare for it? Are there extremes to be avoided?

We must prepare for our own death by making sure of our interest in Christ and by pressing on energetically to God’s goal for us. I don’t think we should be contemplating our death constantly, for that would be morbid and crippling. But I do believe that we should live one day at a time, in the spirit of David, ‘serving our own generation by the will of God’, making plans for the next day and the day after that, always with the caveat, ‘if the Lord wills’.

Is it right and proper for a Christian to grieve in the face of death?

Yes, of course, it is. Death is unnatural. Christians are not Stoics; the Bible says that Jesus wept. At death all our ties of family, friends, places and associations are severed. There is a terrible finality to it. A life that has been lived is over.

Further, there is usually suffering, weakness and incapacity preceding death. So we are not to gloss over death and to try to make it what it isn’t. Nevertheless, while we share all this as part of our common humanity and ought therefore to weep with those who weep, we are not meant to sorrow as those who have no hope. So our sorrow, if it’s an informed Christian sorrow, will have a different character and shape to the kind of sorrow that unbelievers experience. Christian sorrow has a number of different elements to it.

Should the process of dying be any different for a Christian?

As far as the physical process of dying is concerned, Christians and non-Christians pass through a similar experience. “All things come alike to all”, as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes teaches us. But as far as our attitude to dying is concerned, which is also a part of that process, obviously a Christian should view it differently. However, although there is a real difference in attitude, we must be careful not to exaggerate the difference so that we give the impression that Christians have a romantic view of death. Our faith may be tested in the face of death.

I believe it’s important for those who are caring for a dying Christian not to expect too much from their patient. Nor, again, must we give way to the common tendency nowadays to dress death up in a pagan way that focuses solely upon celebrating the life and doings of the deceased. As I have said, death is unnatural and there is a real element of mystery to it. We must not gloss over that. Even Christians can falter on the edge of eternity. As the hymn writer has said, “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside”. Who knows what the minutes after death will be like for the dying Christian?

Is it ever right for a Christian to want to die?

Leaving aside the issue of suicide, this is not an easy question to answer because there are a number of different angles to it. Of course, Jesus wanted to die in the sense that it was part of the will of his heavenly Father. He said it was his food and drink to do the will of him who sent him. So, it was clearly right for him to desire his death, even though there were aspects of it which horrified him.

Again, there are other situations where a Christian may see death as a way of release from physical pain. It is certainly understandable that a Christian may look forward to death as Paul did so that he or she can be with Christ.

However, it is not uncommon for people to become confused in their minds as death approaches. I find it difficult to think of hard and fast rules, both for myself and for others, about how to approach death. One of the great difficulties that we face is that we may become increasingly passive as our weakness increases.

One of Jesus’ central teachings is that there is a great day of judgment. Is this consistent with our understanding that God is love? Why do people often react badly to the idea of a judgment?

I think people are often hostile to the idea of a judgment because we are living in a society which increasingly makes universalistic assumptions. In such a climate it’s hard for men and women to contemplate the idea of judgment, and it’s easy to imagine how public Christian teaching on judgment could become a ‘hate crime’.

However, in my view, this common reaction to divine judgment is not so much the result of belief in the universal love of God. I think it arises more from widespread assumptions about fairness of outcomes. People have a gut feeling that it’s unjust that anyone should be treated differently from anyone else. And so, in their opinion, a God of judgment must be a monster, a sadist, like something from a horror film. So it’s not just about the nature of love; it’s a fundamental shift in moral attitude.

From a theological point of view, what has been lost is the sense of creatureliness. We have abandoned the Creator-creature distinction. However, God is not another creature, a buddy or a benign fixer. He is the Lord. We have forgotten that this universe is his creation, and he has brought it into being for his own glory, right down to the very last atom. Such God-centred thinking is very unfamiliar and repugnant to our generation. By and large, people don’t have time or don’t want to stop and listen to this explanation.

If we want to know how the idea of judgment can be reconciled to the reality of God’s love, then we must explore the true nature of God’s love. If we do this, we will discover that God’s love is just one aspect of His one, glorious essence. That essence is loving, just, wise, and pure. It is goodness in its fullest and most glorious sense. It follows, therefore, that situations of evil call forth divine justice, just as situations of goodness call forth God’s love. God’s love is a just love, and his justice is a loving justice.

So I think that people react negatively to the prospect of God’s judgment because they misunderstand the nature of His love and they have mistaken ideas about ‘fairness’. And, above all, they refuse to accept the controlling idea that this is God’s creation and we are his creatures.

At the same time, I think we have to be careful as Christians that we do not talk about judgment in a glib and hard-hearted way. There are obvious problems about God and His relationship to evil. And we all, believers included, face the judgment. There will be some surprises. God’s judgment will be ‘according to the truth’ and many that are first will be last, and the last first.

Does Paul suggest in Romans 2:6-7, 10 that some people will actually be approved by God on the basis of works?

The standard joke about a philosopher is that he always begins an answer by saying “It all depends on what you mean by such and such”. But in this case, it really does. Here it really depends on what you mean by the words, “on the basis of… “

Let me try an illustration. Consider a boy who is sick with the measles. The doctor takes a look at his spots and declares that the youngster has the disease. Why does he do this? Not because the spots are the measles themselves. The infection we know as measles is due to the activity of some bug, a virus or whatever. That’s what the measles is, the infection. The spots are merely the sign of measles. This is how the measles—the infection—manifests itself. The doctor judges that the patient has measles on the basis of the spots, but the true basis of the measles, what lies deeper, is the activity of some bug.

Similarly, the New Testament uniformly teaches that character and action—‘works’, as we call them—are the evidence of faith in Christ’s work, and so are the evidence of God’s grace, as spots are the evidence of measles. But works are not the ground of salvation. They are merely evidence of grace, but not the basis of it. That’s the Apostle James’s point about being justified by works. Works are never the basis of our salvation, just the evidence. As Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them”. Know what? Know that they are Christians.

But how do people become Christians? We are united to Christ through faith and thus we benefit from His death and resurrection. N.T. Wright, for example, in his recent work on justification, has caused consternation by his ambiguity on this very point. At some places he seems to say what I have just said, that works are the evidence of justification. However, at other points he seems to suggest that salvation is based on works and that men and women will not be justified until the judgment, that is, after a life of faithfulness to Christ or otherwise, as the case may be.

John Piper, in his book, The Future of Justification, has drawn attention to this ambiguity. However, even in Bishop Wright’s latest pronouncement on this subject, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, his ambiguity remains. One reason for it is that he takes Romans 2, and the verses you mentioned, to be about Gentile Christians, whereas the standard view is that they concern Gentiles who have some knowledge of the law and so do not escape responsibility and hence do not escape judgment. If, at the judgment, they were to give evidence of saving grace, then they would be delivered; if not, not.

Does the notion of judgment actually help us to understand what took place when Jesus died on the cross?

Yes, it does. Jesus bore divine judgment for us. The New Testament explicitly says so. Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). The apostle Peter tells us that “He bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24). If you remove the idea of judgment from what took place in Christ’s death, then the Cross takes on a very different meaning and becomes, at best, nothing more than an example of heroism or love.

Some people claim that heaven is just a religious way to keep the oppressed of the world from thinking about the real issues of the day. What do you say?

This has been a common charge against Christianity, as well as religion in general, ever since it was advanced by the philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, and those who came under his influence, such as Karl Marx.

Of course, there may be something in it, though not in the strong form that Feuerbach proposed. He suggested that the very idea of heaven is a projection of our minds to compensate us for the evils of the present life. This is a form of what Marx later called ‘false consciousness’, a collective self-deception. Heaven is supposedly ‘the sigh of the oppressed’. I don’t think that this strong form in which Feuerbach stated the idea can be seriously entertained. However, there is no doubt that some have taught that the idea of heaven serves as a compensation for present injustice, and as a result people have been kept in their place.

When we come to the New Testament there is a fine balance between this life, with its challenges and responsibilities, and the world to come, or as Paul says, “the glory that is yet to be revealed”. I should emphasize that there is a fine balance that we must maintain. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find the suggestion that we should minimize our presence in the here and now by locking ourselves away, becoming hermits, or whatever. At the same time the Scriptures tell us that our hearts should be focused on heaven and that we should not ‘love this present world’ to the point where it wholly absorbs our attention and affections. We should enjoy what God has given us in this world, but the test (as Calvin put it) is: could we manage without it? Can we know how to abound and how to be abased?

What is meant by ‘heaven’ in the Bible? To what extent should it be in the forefront of our minds?

Well, the Bible usually speaks of heaven in figurative language so it’s hard to speak with a great deal of precision. However, it does assert the reality of heaven and it tells us that the risen Christ dwells there and that the life of heaven is centred on his presence. Nevertheless, some of its terminology is very strange. For example, if we have bodies in heaven then presumably heaven is spatial. But if this is so, what do we make of Paul’s reference to ‘spiritual bodies’ in 1 Corinthians 15? How is it possible to have a body which is not a physical body, but ‘spiritual’? The expression, ‘spiritual body’, seems almost oxymoronic.

No doubt the biblical language about heaven is deliberately strange, concealing as well as revealing: it’s a victory, a feast, a marriage supper, and so on. But “what we will be has not yet been revealed, however we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is”. Perhaps this ‘revealing-and-yet-concealing’ in relation to heaven is to prevent us dwelling exclusively on the future and of being captured by it to the exclusion of our duties and opportunities here and now.

In what sense is heaven a place of rest? Does this mean that it will be a leisure paradise?

Heaven is a perpetual Sabbath, a rest. But it’s not a beach! It’s a rest from the weariness and frustration of labour, from trial, and from tears. It’s the place of renewal in its deepest sense. In heaven we will bask in the imputed righteousness of Christ and in the glory of our renewed natures.

However, heaven is also spoken of as a place of activity. William Cowper once wrote that God made the garden and that man made the town. But this cannot be quite correct, since the Bible tells us that God’s gift of heaven is portrayed as a city, the New Jerusalem. However figurative this language may be, the picture of a city is surely intended to convey activity, community, productivity, and some kind of social stratification.

Part of the problem we are faced with is the extent to which our present world carries over into the world to come. It is the problem of sameness and difference. Some of the language of the New Testament suggests continuity, such as the fact that our resurrected bodies will be recognizable. Other passages speak of discontinuity, such as the earth and the sea being no more and the fact that there will be new heavens and a new earth.

It’s fashionable presently for Christian environmentalists to stress continuity, as if we have a duty to care for the environment because our present environment is to be a part of heaven. No doubt we have a duty to care for the environment. Common prudence and good sense suggest that we must, but the environment as we know it is not permanent and we must not invest it with this quality.

The doctrine of hell seems to be a central part of the message of Christ and the apostles. Do we really need it, particularly in view of the emphasis upon God’s grace in the gospel?

Some people say that what really matters in Jesus’ teaching about hell is simply the idea of it. They suggest that Jesus taught about hell not because it is the destiny of any of us, but because the very idea of hell ought to deter us from the path that would lead us there. They think of hell in the same way that we think of someone possessing nuclear weapons—the possession of such a weapon is said to deter invasion and aggression of a certain kind.

However, nuclear weapons are only a deterrent if someone is prepared to use them, or at least if people believe that there is likelihood that they will be used in certain circumstances. The idea of hell cannot be part of a warning unless the warning is seriously intended and seriously understood. So there’s no reason to think that Jesus’ words about hell can be ignored.

The number of Jesus’ references to hell is impressive. Underlying his use of the idea is the reality that there is a broad and a narrow way. The interesting thing is that Jesus’ emphasis on hell is really not heard much at the present time. As theologians emphasize the idea of a universally provided grace, so the teaching about hell is downplayed. Nevertheless, the strength of Jesus’ teaching should be a warning to us, indicating that God’s saving grace, though it’s meant to be universally preached, is not applied to everyone. So hell does not negate grace, nor does grace neutralize Jesus’ teaching.

However, there’s another aspect to this which I want to consider. Within Reformed circles we have traditionally understood the preaching of the gospel and conversion as preceded by or accompanied by the conviction of sin and penitence. However, such a conviction is not simply that sin is evil, a case of us doing what we ought not to have done, but that our sins deserve the wrath of God. In Christian salvation we are delivered from the wrath to come. If the place of the law in preaching, and the conviction of sin that should accompany it, is muted, then the reality of hell becomes muted too. This is certainly not helpful.

On the other hand, I believe preachers should avoid lurid illustrations about hell. I think, for example, of Jonathan Edwards’ illustration of the spider, hanging by a thread over the roaring flames. Such an image goes beyond the sort of illustrations that the Bible itself uses, or, at least, it seems that way to me.

If it’s possible for God to save everyone, why should anyone be lost?

It’s certainly possible for God to save everyone, or so, at least, a person with Reformed persuasion should believe. However, I would have thought that it’s more difficult for an Arminian to embrace the idea of universal salvation. The idea of a universal salvation, each example of which depends on the exercise of a sinner’s free will, seems difficult and improbable to me. On Arminian assumptions, may not countless persons exercise their free will to reject Christ? How, then, can an Arminian seriously contemplate universal salvation?

But for a believer with Reformed convictions, the idea of universal salvation is a real one. If salvation depends on God’s grace, why not? The problem is that when we consider this question we reach the limit of our understanding of God’s operations. We have to recognize the unsearchable mysteries of God. “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in your sight”. The most we can say is that whatever God does must be in accordance with His character, and also, perhaps, that there are ends achieved by what He does that are not achievable in other ways.

Some evangelicals today shy away from belief in hell. They prefer to talk about annihilation. Are there any dangers in this position?

I believe that the doctrine of annihilation is excluded by the language of the New Testament. People are often attracted to the doctrine of annihilation because it seems less messy and everything is tidied up, so to speak. I certainly do not think that annihilation should be denied on the grounds that the soul is immortal such that once it has been created, not even God can bring its life to an end.

At times we face a very real temptation to rationalize certain doctrines and to speak on behalf of God in the misguided belief that we must somehow vindicate him. We feel an overwhelming desire to provide reasons for him doing what he has done. The doctrine of annihilation is one such example. Some Christians no doubt think that the doctrine of hell is an indication of some sort of divine failure. But the truth, as far as I can tell, is that God has not provided all the reasons for why he acts the way he does, and we should not be eager to fill in the gaps. There’s a place in Christian thinking for saying, ‘I do not know’, for as Paul says in that wonderful doxology at the end of Romans 11, “His ways are past finding out.” If Paul thinks like that, it ill becomes us to speculate on how the mind of God operates, or even the reasons for him doing as he does. I do not find any encouragement in Scripture for us to engage in that kind of speculation. Once again we are brought sharply up against the Creator-creature relationship.

How should preachers deal with the subject of hell in their sermons? Is there any particular purpose they should have in mind in mentioning it?

I think they should obviously not use the doctrine as a stick to beat people with. ‘Hell-fire preaching’ rightly has a bad name. It is interesting that Paul is very sparing in his descriptions of judgment, and so should we be. ‘Judge nothing before the time’!

Reproduced with kind permission from Australian Presbyterian, January 2010

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