Q&R with Brad: If ‘his mercy endures forever,’ how can death separate us from God’s love?
I posed this question at our pastor’s fraternal meeting in our area. “Seeing that we all believe God’s mercy endures forever, why is it that his mercy has no bearing on us after we die? My question is: Why do we believe that death has the last or final and decisive word and not his mercy? Any comment that you could make?
I think your question is spot-on.
In my young evangelical days, I would have cited a couple of key texts as our “gotcha deal-killers.”
1. “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment” (Hebrew 9:27). We used this verse in isolation as an ultimatum with a deadline and, in effect, communicated it as if it said: “Once you die, your fate is sealed.”
This isn’t actually what the verse says at all … from Malachi (3:2-4) to Jesus (Matthew 18:32-34) to Paul (1 Cor. 3:12-15) to Gregory of Nyssa (On the Soul and the Resurrection) to George MacDonald (The Last Farthing), the Judeo-Christian tradition has witnessed to the possibility that while post-mortem judgment may be dire indeed, condemnation does not get the final word, according to the Scriptures and the gospel. Therefore, the judgments of God may be read as restorative (Mark 9:49-50), the renewing work of a loving Father (Hebrews 12:5-13).
Certainly, Hebrews 9 cannot be made to contradict the truth that “his mercy endures forever” / “his lovingkindness is everlasting” (Psalm 136) and that even “death cannot separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39).
I think we should also read the Hebrews passage in context:
- 26 [Jesus Christ] has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
In context, the point the author is making that just as people die once and then face judgment, so Jesus died once to remove judgment (by taking away sin) so that when he comes again, he will come to bring salvation. And yes, “waiting for him” does matter to the author.
This raises a question for me. If Jesus has already judged sin in the flesh (Romans 8:3) and removed it through his self-offering death, why is there any future judgment at all? Doesn’t that set up a case of double-jeopardy. How can we be judged for sins already forgiven? The most robust answer I can see for this is that at the Cross, he forgave all sin for all time in all people, but even while forgiven, in this life we do continue to participate in sin and become enslaved by it, so that at the final judgment, we will ultimately be cleansed of it and/or freed from it. Forgiveness is wonderful, but for the sin addict, the deeper longing is final freedom from that struggle.
2. My other response as an exclusivist evangelical would have been to point to the parables of Christ that describe being shut out, locked out, or sent away. I think of the five foolish virgins who are shut out of the wedding in Matthew 25, or the goats who are sent away later in that chapter, or the ominous words, “Depart from me, I never knew you” that Christ himself declares in Matthew 7:21-23.
These warnings of judgment ought not to be ignored. Nor do we need to. But as I’ve written elsewhere, I can frame them within their broader gospel context as penultimate rather than ultimate–meaning that after judgment, there is mercy (James 2:13)–after exclusion, there is welcome (John 6:37)–and after the doors have been shut, they will forever be opened (Revelation 21:25).
To sum up the N.T. teaching on this, we might say, “It is appointed unto man once to die, then after that the judgment, then after that Christ will be Lord of all and will deliver all to his Father so that God will be all in all” (see 1 Corinthians 15:28).