Monday, October 15, 2012

Death and Moral Responsibility: An Examination of the John Fletcher Analogy

I realize that it has been a while since I returned to the Center for Theological Studies. You may have assumed that I would never return, but God’s grace has granted me some time to return to a study of the Word of God and those who try to demolish it. While my network server was down last night, the Spirit laid it upon my heart to pick up Dr. Jerry Walls’s Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation and continue to plow through his philosophical contemplation of the Doctrine of Purgatory as well as the place (Purgatory) itself.

In the chapter I am in (chapter 2, called “Protestant Objections and Alternatives to Purgatory”), Walls addresses Protestant disagreement with Purgatory head-on and does not attempt to dismiss it. I applaud him for this; and I even agree that Purgatory, when contemplated only as a philosophical doctrine, could very well be a rather logical doctrine for not just Roman Catholics, but Protestants as a whole. Where I disagree with Dr. Walls, however, concerns his placement of the philosophical discussion above that of the theological discussion concerning Purgatory and the eternal destinations of both the saved and the unsaved. I have obtained a Master of Divinity degree in Christian Apologetics, and have pondered the questions of the existence of evil and the existence of God, evidences for the Christian faith, how Christian faith can lead the way in the societal arts, and so on (thank you so much, Dr. Bruce Alva Little, for pouring into my life). At the same time, I am not so learned or educated that I would ever place philosophy above the Word of God. The same God whose Word I read on a daily basis is the same God who has said in His Holy Scriptures, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5, NASB). When philosophy comes before the God that makes logic possible, there is a problem with the individual rather than the text of Scripture itself.

To see this truth, let us consider Walls’ use of John Fletcher in his work. In chapter 2, Walls takes the time to consider the views of Jonathan Edwards (a conservative, Calvinist theologian) as well as John Wesley, a conservative Anglican theologian known today for the theological position we call “Wesleyanism” or “Wesleyan Arminianism.” He examines the views of these two theologians (along with John Fletcher, Wesley’s dear friend) in order to show that strong, assumed “conservative” theologians argue that holiness and a transformed life must exist in any individual that desires to enter into heaven upon the end of life. As I read his analysis of Jonathan Edwards, my mind went back to Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” Although I consider myself to be distant from Calvinism (whether hyper or not), I have great respect for Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards who held to human responsibility in salvation and the need for true repentance and confession of sin. Holiness should be not only the word of piety on the lips of theologians, but also an act that demonstrates faith in the life of every Christian.

John Fletcher provides an analogy of older men and women who still long to sin as they did in their youth to show that dead men and women still desire to sin:

“When old drunkards and fornicators are as unable to indulge their sensual appetites as if they actually ranked among corpses, do they not betray the same inclinations which they showed when the strong tide of their youthful blood joined with the rapid stream of their vicious habit? Is this not a demonstration that no decay of the body, --no, not that complete decay which we call death, has any necessary tendency to alter our moral habits?” (John Fletcher, “A Polemical Essay on the Twin Doctrines of Christian Imperfection and a Death Purgatory,” from Checks to Antinomianism; Dr. Jerry Walls, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, pg. 50. Underline mine.)

Fletcher uses the example of elderly men and women to make the case that the dead, like elderly men and women, lack the ability to indulge in sin to the desired extent (although both want to do so). It seems as if Fletcher says here, “Are not elderly and the dead the same?” I would argue that at best, Fletcher’s analogy points to a similarity, though not an equivalency, between the two.

Elderly men and women are unable to do many things they did when they were young and in the prime of their lives. I have heard my grandparents speak many times of what they would do if they could go back and be “25” or “16” again. I am now 28 years old, and I even contemplate how I would have made better use of my free time in college “if I could go back”.

However – and this is where the line is drawn – the elderly and dead are not the same in every way. An elderly person, though unable to do many things, can still walk, talk, speak, eat, drink, sleep, awake, move, and so on; a dead person, however, can do none of these things. He or she will “sleep” until the resurrection, but cannot arise from the grave each morning and greet the morning sun as it rises in the East – or watch the sun set in the West at sundown. In this regard, the elderly and the dead are not alike. While the elderly are unable to do many things, the dead are unable to do anything!

What about John Fletcher’s argument? Is there any truth to it? No. One such example that the apostle Paul offers up in Romans 7 concerns the marriage bond. Paul states:

“Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning her husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man” (Romans 7: 1-3, NASB).

Did you notice the phrases “as long as he lives,” “while he is living,” and “if while her husband is living”? These phrases place a condition upon the truths affirmed in them. That is, “as long as he lives,” he is to remain married to his wife (and she to him). Upon his death, however, “she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.” Paul says that the marriage bond is broken in the death of one spouse, freeing the other to take another spouse in the bonds of marriage. If you do not believe this is true, why is it that when couples marry, part of their vows consists of the phrase “Til death due us part”?

What happens at death that nullifies the marriage contract, the idea of paying bills and taxes, the action of voting, reporting to work, working to provide for one’s family, and so on? Death is a separation between an individual and his or her loved ones and friends. Death, as the Old Testament says it best, is a “cutting off” of an individual’s life, a time when believers such as King David “sleep with their fathers” (cf. 1Kings 2:10; 11:21, 43; 14:20, 31; 15:8, 24, etc.) and identify with those who have died and gone on to their eternal reward (“the church triumphant”) rather than those who remain on the earth (“the church militant). Jesus says that, whereas living individuals marry, deceased persons do not (cf. Luke 20:34).

This notion of marriage, however, seems to disagree with Fletcher’s notion. If, as Fletcher says (and Walls quotes him in agreement), the dead still have sinful inclinations as though they were alive, is it not the case that the dead still want to marry despite their buried state? Yet and still, however, Jesus says that the afterlife does not consist of marriage, but that humans are as the “sons of God,” or the angels. Do angels marry on a certain basis? If Jesus’ words in Luke 20:34, Matthew 22:30, and Mark 12:25 are true, then angels do not marry and humans in the afterlife will not, as well. Why do deceased individuals not marry, if they want to marry? They do not marry because they do not need to. The human longing for companionship is an earthly lust that does not exist or pose a problem for Christians who are in eternity with Christ.

We see the singleness idea as transcending the marriage state in the Scriptures. Not only do we have Jesus’ words that singleness prevails in heaven (which will last “for ever,” as compared to the small amount of time that life on earth will last), we also have the words of Jesus to the disciples in the context of divorce:

Not all men can accept this statement [“it is better not to marry,” Matt. 19:10], but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and then there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:11-12).

Jesus says that there are “those to whom it has been given” to refrain from marriage and remain single. This statement directly opposes the “there is someone for each of us” statement that many families speak to their single relatives. In line with Christ, the apostle Paul offers his words of wisdom to the Corinthian congregation:

“So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better” (1 Corinthians 7:38).

In other words, marriage (the desired state for many) is a gift, but so is singleness. In the words of Paul, singleness is the better gift because it “is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:36).

There are those here who are “eunuchs,” whether deemed so by God at birth, a result of the sinfulness and wickedness of the world, or of their own choice. Jesus does not condemn these reasons for why an individual remains celibate for a lifetime; instead, He tells the disciples that those who are called to be single are to live a life of singleness. Even in his discussion, He does not condemn those who choose to live the married life. Unlike many statements about singleness that have been made by many believers, I will not “rub in” Paul’s words about the exalted state of singleness.

Fletcher’s statement (and Walls’s) is that deceased individuals have the same sinful desires as those who are alive; but to presume this is to forget that such sinful inclinations are the actions of living, human beings. Humans are hungry when they are alive; they are thirsty when they are alive; they are tired when they are alive. As they near the time of death, however, they begin to put away the earthly necessities of food and drink. I saw this with my own mother; three days before she breathed her last, she slept. She did not eat food nor consume any drink. For her, the human inclinations of hunger and thirst belonged to humans who expected to live another day. She, however, knew her time on earth was coming to an end. Neglecting to eat and drink (and knowing that to do so was a cognizant choice to die) was mom’s way of accepting the end that was soon to come. In the same way, my sister Danielle and I chose to not resuscitate mom, should she stop breathing on her own. We did so not because we wanted her to die; our choice to not resuscitate was our way of surrendering to the will of God, a will that we acknowledged as greater than our own.

I will continue with more on Jerry Walls’s work on Purgatory in my next post. God bless...

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