I stand at the graveside of a young student. Fifteen years old. Dead in an instant. Skateboarding on a foggy night and a car that never even saw a faint shadow, until it was too late.
I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. I’ve met this kid only one time and he attended youth group functions only a couple other times. So my brain and my heart try to meet in the awkward unknowing of my emotions.
It’s sunny today, not a cloud in sight. The temperature is rising every minute it seems. Pockets of people merge into a large crowd.
Now the first song begins. Amazing Grace finally comes into focus as the mass of people pick up on the song choice. This, in spite of the poor sound quality of the amplification system.
As the song ends a young pastor comes up to the front podium. My eyes begin to squint as the small bit of shade shifts with the pattern of the sun. Not only will the sermon deal with a difficult subject but I’m now physically uncomfortable. No chair, hot clothes, and a sun that chose to shine brighter than it has all winter long.
The pastor begins with warm words to the family about their young son. He recalls the accident that led to their son’s instant death. His demeanor reeks of sorrowful joy. A dichotomous perspective typical to many evangelical funerals.
Now the pastor begins down a rabbit trail that catches my attention. This is a moment I’ve waited for ever since I caught wind of a rumor that this fifteen year old boy had recently professed himself an atheist. How does a pastor handle the questions generated from this reality?
Some folks wonder if this student is in hell. Others wonder if there’s any chance that God let him into heaven. I think about how I’d appeal to the wideness of God’s grace and defer the judgment to God. We have no place guessing what the Divine will do… at least in definite “yes” or “no” statements.
“We know that this student accepted Christ at a VBS at a young age. This prayer saved him from hell and we can have absolute confidence that he is in heaven. His salvation is forever.”
My ears can’t believe what they just heard. Instead of appealing to mystery (which would have left room for holding the student’s atheism in tension with God’s perfect judgment), he outright appealed to a “once saved always saved theology!” How can he do this with biblical and pastoral integrity?
I know that he is probably a good guy and has good intentions, but what he just said will leave more questions than answers. I like when we live with questions when they come from a helpful premise, but this “absolute confidence” approach will create pastoral difficulties.
It is now three days after the funeral. I pull up to the student’s close friend’s house to pick up a group of boys. I offered to take them out to pizza to have some fun in the midst of all the pain.
Driving to the restaurant we engage in small talk about quirky teachers, funny movies, and Xbox 360 games. I don’t know when the right time will be to bring up the death of their close buddy, but I know questions are coming.
After ordering two pizzas we sit down at the table closest to the video games. We play until the simmering pies of goodness arrive at our table. Over slices, I bring up the issue looming in the back of our minds.
They express to me how weird it is that their buddy is dead. Awkwardness arises in their tone when asked about the funeral service. Explicitly, one of them says: “Kurt, he wasn’t a Christian anymore. He told me that he was an atheist just two weeks ago.” This same student goes on to describe how the preacher came across as a liar to everyone who knew their friend. He was not a Christian.
In the back of my mind I reflect on the pastoral dilemma that “once saved always saved” theology creates. How will I move the conversation in a healthy direction from here? Hell is bound to come up. Do I tell them that you can be a Christian even if you deny it? I certainly don’t believe that.
“Does once saved always saved apply even though he became an atheist?”
What do you think? Does this theology create interesting pastoral scenarios? How would you discuss this issue with the friends of the victim? Other thoughts? And yes, I experimented with writing in a narrative format… just to push myself
FOR MY VIEW ON THIS ISSUE SEE: Can You Lose Your Salvation? Mark Driscoll and Greg Boyd in Dialogue
Kurt Willems is an Anabaptist writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting next year by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook