Death…and Judgment

The Kennedy Avalanche is upon us as the TV shows, magazines and Internet articles take us back to November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

The death of President Kennedy was indeed a first-rate tragedy. It was so impactful that it overshadowed the passing of two other important figures that same November 22. I am speaking of the Christian writer C.S. Lewis and the futurist and novelist Aldous Huxley.

But the President’s brutal death at noon-day surrounded amid his police and supporters focuses the issue of death most bluntly, death at noonday, death at the peak of our powers death, death from the most surprising source, a death that will come to us all. Here is a startling reminder of the words of Hebrews 9:27 – “man is destined to die once, and after that the judgment.”

It was President Kennedy who said in one of his most eloquent speeches that “our most basic common link…is that we all breathe the same air and we are all mortal.”

November 22, 1963 made that point graphically and shockingly clear for all of us who remember.

Judgment or Condemnation?

Yes, we have to face our common mortality. And what happens then? The Bible talks about judgment and it usually conjures up images editorialized and blown up for our reading in the book of Revelation, Chapter 20 where long lines of people await their fate – or seemingly so. It is a characteristic of the last book of the Bible that doctrinal teaching such as Hebrews 9:27 is presented in Technicolor, as it were, blown up hyperbolically to make point.

The fact is that “judgment” does not necessarily imply a condemnation. Jesus spoke to this when he warmed the people of his day that some of the Old Testament’s most notorious sinners would have an easier time in the judgment than the miracle-denying people of his day, those who heard him speak and ended up opposing him.

“I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than that town (that rejected him).” That’s Matthew 10:15. He also warned: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41).

One Died for All

When we consider Christian teaching in its widest scope the future seems to indicate gradations of punishment, fewer stripes for some than others (Luke 12:47).

Even in Revelation it is an equal opportunity judgment – John sees the small and great stand before God, and those lost at sea or in others ways assumed to be without hope. This brightens the picture considerably. Judgement, then, may be the first time millions of people will hear about the death and resurrection of Jesus and what it meant for them. Christians already know that Jesus’ death and resurrection were filled with enormous significance, not only for individuals but for all creation.

He suffered vicariously for us. He was buried for us. He was raised for us as well. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 that “one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again”

Alert Christians know what Paul is saying here. Jesus’ death was vicarious, so significant that the entire human race was seen to be lost, to go down in death with Jesus. Death to the cosmos for its Creator had died. But the good news of the Gospel is that we were also raised vicariously with him to a great hope – the hope of not only escaping the penalty of sin but of being reconciled to God. All of this Jesus made possible.

Paul writes: “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich:” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

One if the three who died on November 22, 1963 thought and wrote about all of this. C. S. Lewis understood and wrote about how God has moved to redeem us from death’s worst affects. “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death,” that is, the death to follow the time of judgment yet future. Christians know that the redemption for sin has been made. The price has been paid. The victory has been won.

Hell Full of Forgiven Sinners

Yet Lewis also understood better than Huxley and Kennedy that some people – astonishingly – will not embrace Jesus’ vicarious act of atonement. In one of his sobering lines he wrote that hell – the final abode of the wicked – is closed from the inside. At the end of it all, said another writer, hell is full of forgiven sinners – people who will not accept the redemption in Christ his people have already experienced.

Yes, the death of President Kennedy on that day in Dallas 50 years ago is sobering on many levels. But November 22, 1963 can also serve a purpose. Three high profile deaths of those exceptionally talented individuals can remind us of the consequences of our own mortality. It can also call us to consider the eternal significance of the great work that was done for us nearly 2000 years ago on Calvary – Jesus Christ’s vicarious atonement which has the potential to shield us from the worst effects of death and who urges us to choose life with him here and now. May God help us all to keep choosing life in our daily walk with Him.