Cliff’s Edge –– Our Beautiful Doctrine of Eternal Death
I’ve recently been embroiled in the work of Anne Sexton (“embroiled in” because “reading” is too passive a verb to describe what one does with Sexton’s oeuvre). Anne Sexton exposed the wretchedness inside herself by impaling it with unsparing images onto the metrics of her verse, which is why her suicide in 1974 seemed less like a capitulation and more like the final instantiation of all the grisly similes and metaphors that came before.
The first draft of her book The Awful Rowing Toward God (rowing toward God would, I think, be awful) was finished, she said, in 20 days “with two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital.”
We can, through Jesus, claim all the promises of God about this life and the eternal one that follows.
In the poem, “Rowing,” she recaps highlights from her life: “I was stamped out like a Plymouth fender/into this world.” Then there was her childhood, with its “cruel houses/and people who seldom touched-/though touch is all.” Amid all this, “like a pig in a trenchcoat I grew.” But she had hope—hope that “I will get rid of the rat inside me,/the gnawing pestilential rat.” As I said, one doesn’t just read Anne Sexton as much as do emotional triage to get though her.
But to view your birth as being “stamped out like a Plymouth fender”? That’s rough. Yet baby Anne didn’t ask to be brought of out of non-existence any more than a Plymouth fender did. Of course, we do have more choices than does a car fender; but still, how much of our lives and personalities have been shaped in ways that seem no more malleable than a bumper? Or how many of us have grown up in our own versions of “cruel houses” or have a personal “pestilential rat” or two gnawing at us from within? We’re each handed a deck we didn’t choose; and worse, we haven’t always made the best choices with what we have been dealt, either.
Now according to some (Reformed) theologians, if predestined by God to be lost, then regardless of our circumstances, i.e., “cruel houses” “pestilential rats,” whatever (and despite the fact that we never asked to be born), at death we will burn in hell for eternity. According to some (Arminian) theologians, regardless of the circumstances of our life (and despite not having asked to come from non-existence to existence) our own choices, not God’s, consign us to that same eternally burning hell-fire. Either way, in an existence that we never asked for but that had been foisted on us, we suffer in hell forever.
In contrast, we have our beautiful doctrine of eternal death.
Look, like Anne Sexton, none of us asked to be born, to be taken out of nothingness and stamped out like Plymouth fenders, then handed our own versions of a life in which, perhaps, we grew like pigs in trenchcoats. Or perhaps we have it better than she did; or perhaps worse. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, thanks to Jesus, God offers us all a transformed existence now, and the promise of an eternal one with no cruel houses and pestilential rats.
Yet we can reject the offer. We can choose to return to the nothingness from which we came without our consent and from which we were given a host of variables (parents, nationality, genetics, environment) that we didn’t pick, either. Or we can, through Jesus, claim all the promises of God about this life and the eternal one that follows. Hence, our beautiful doctrine of eternal death—beautiful in contrast to the foul promise of eternity in the fires of hell for all who are, whatever the reason, excluded from the richness of heaven.
Only two choices exist: eternal life with Christ, or a return to the nothingness from which we arose. Hence, the words, spoken millennia ago in another context but echoing today: “I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deut. 30:19).
God foisted life on us without our consent the first time; He won’t the second.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His next book is tentatively titled, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity.