Like so many, I was shocked and devastated to hear the news this week that comedy icon Robin Williams had died, apparently by his own hand. What a loss. The first question that popped into so many of our heads was Why? How could someone who made so many people happy be in such despair? As the reports began filtering in afterward–news about his struggle with depression, and his recent diagnosis with Parkinson’s, some of the blanks were filled in for us, and even though we still grieve the loss–and even though he should still be with us today–we at least begin to get a glimpse of what this man was going through in his personal life, and what those closest to him were seeing as to his private struggles.
I don’t get much input these days from “Christian” outlets, but just getting a few tidbits here and there, it is apparent (and predictable) that at least in the blogosphere, Christians are already jumping on the where-is-Robin-Williams’-soul bandwagon, declaring their belief that this man is now in hell, and using it as a cautionary tale. This practice is now highly distasteful to me, but I have to admit with a certain amount of chagrin that I understand this rationale, because it is exactly how I used to think. As a well-brought-up evangelical, I was conditioned to focus more attention on where a soul spends eternity than how that soul lives this temporal life on earth. I was conditioned that the point of death was often the most critical moment of a person’s life, because one act committed during life would determine where that soul would spend eternity. If he/she had accepted Christ as Lord (even at the moment of death), that person was “in.” If not, that person was “out.” Heaven or hell.
What I mean to say is that in earlier days, I would have heard the news about Robin Williams and immediately “gone there,” lamenting that given his career, his often-blasphemous take on spiritual matters, etc., and that he had taken his own life (which was obviously a sin), Williams had likely not prayed the “sinner’s prayer,” and his soul was most likely in hell.
Now, I’ve rambled on about these things before, and unlike some others, I do not question the existence of hell. While I readily admit that the Bible itself is more vague on the subject than most evangelicals are, there’s plenty of Biblical evidence to support the belief that hell exists, and that people go there. But what has changed about me is the assumption about who is “in”, and who is “out.” I think that speculation is counterproductive, because it draws a huge line from the little bit that we do know to the whole realm of what we don’t know. Let’s use what happened with Robin Williams as an example…
We don’t know the condition of his soul at the moment of death.
We don’t know his history with God, despite what he did on stage at different times during his career.
We don’t know the ways in which God might have been dealing with him in the background.
We don’t know, nor can we judge, the man’s heart. Only God knows that.
…And frankly, it’s none of our beeswax.
It’s been awhile, so I disremember exactly where I heard it–but one of the things that never left me among the many, many books I read a few years ago about thinking missionally is the analogy of church as digging wells versus building fences. Most of us in the evangelical/charismatic traditions have had a “fence” mentality about our faith–a distinct, usually theological, boundary between who is “in” and who is “out.” If you had accepted Christ, you were inside the fence; if you hadn’t, you were outside it. It informed the way we built structures and tried to attract people into them, rather than going out to where they were. It also informed the way we saw people. I can remember seasons in my life where every time I saw a new face, I conducted a mental survey: was this person “in” or “out”?
What a waste of brain power.
But an alternative view of church is the analogy of digging a well–forming an oasis in the desert, and opening it up to everyone, no matter where they happen to be in their faith. Some people may hover at greater distances to the well than others, but the well does its own attracting. In this framework, we no longer conduct the internal surveys about who is “in” or “out” of relationship with God. It’s not really about changing theology about whether hell exists, or who goes to heaven or hell. It’s about abandoning the question. We just maintain the well, and let God deal with the rest.
I remember sharing this paradigm shift with a pastor who had been a friend of mine for years. He completely missed the point. After I shared this analogy, his question was, “What is the criteria for determining who is saved and who is not?”
In or out?
It was easy to read between the lines. He wasn’t just asking me to clarify the analogy. He was asking me to recount the path of salvation. He was making sure I was still “in.” 🙂 Either way, he couldn’t get his mind around it.
Here’s where I’m going with all this. It isn’t that I am an inclusionist or a Universalist–that’s not where I’m going with this at all. I do not believe that all roads lead to God–only one road does. However, I have given up as fruitless the task of determining on God’s behalf who is on that road. I still believe there has to be a point of conversion for all of us, but I also recognize I can’t convert or save anyone–only God can. Neither do I believe any longer that the church should be the self-appointed police of the road to salvation. Our job is to follow Christ, to reflect His nature, and to participate in His work on the earth–not only to share the good news, but to live it out in front of people. The invitation is extended to everyone, but even Jesus said that none of us has the ability to come unless the Holy Spirit draws us. It’s okay, even right, to make the message clear. But as to who accepts that message, and at what point in their life they accept it–that’s a matter of the heart. Not even praying the “sinner’s prayer” is sufficient proof that someone has accepted Christ, because the words themselves are meaningless unless the heart resonates with them. In other words–no matter how many fences we build, the truth is that we are simply incapable of knowing who is really “in” and who is “out.” So why are we wasting so much time and energy on that aspect, when there are so many other wells we could be tangibly digging?
If Robin Williams had died seven years ago, and you asked me where his soul was, I’d have told you, “Probably hell.” But if you ask me today whether Robin Williams is in heaven or hell–my answer will be, “I don’t know, and it’s none of my business. Or yours.” The state of Robin’s soul is between God and him, where it has always been. I sincerely hope that there was a point of conversion, even if it was at the point of death–but it’s not for us to know. I will miss his joy and his antics, and I grieve with the others who loved and appreciated his gift, but it’s pointless to waste time speculating on whether he is “in” or “out,” because that’s something we can’t possibly know. God would be better served if we leave Robin Williams to Him, and focus on digging wells for the people who are still yet among us, and who still desperately need the water.