Wendell Berry’s novel, “A World Lost,” is the story about a family coping with the death of one of their own. In the final chapter, Berry reflects on the manner of man he was. This meditation gives way to a reflection on death as a pathway into the light of a more advanced spiritual realm.
Berry writes, “I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment.” “And yet,” says Berry, “in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.”
How I wish more Christians would apply Berry’s good reasoning, common sense, imagination, insight into human experience, and his healthy image of the Divine to their interpretations of the judgment texts in Scripture.
Berry says that “light can come into the world only as love” and that “not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows,” and yet “it has never been entirely absent.”
When Divine Love finally reaches us and has its final say, “All will be well.”
If we could grasp Berry’s vision, then our biblical images of judgment would not be terrifying, tormenting images to be feared, but purifying images to be welcomed, invested with new meaning.
The “furnace of fire” would be a furnace that burns up all the dross, leaving the precious metal. The fire would consume our sin and selfishness, bringing us through the flames purged and pure.
The journey through “outer darkness” would serve to dispel the inner darkness and illumine our minds and hearts to the mystery, wonder, and power of God’s goodness and grace.
The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” would be a necessary prelude to the joy and celebration that results from the experience of grace and real gratitude.
We need the darkness as preparation for the light. At first, the light may feel like a condemning light. But it is a condemnation that leads to salvation, and passing through “hell” we reach “heaven.”
The journey of personal redemption is a journey from the selfish ways of childhood to the adulthood of self-giving love. It is a journey from the partial to the complete, from immaturity to maturity, from brokenness to wholeness, from the false self to the true self, from egoism to compassion, from our own suffering to solidarity with the suffering creation, especially our disadvantaged sisters and brothers within the human family.
Each journey is unique. Each has its own twists and turns, defeats and victories, setbacks and advances. None of the “hells” we each pass through are exactly alike. But I am convinced that the God who has come to us in Jesus, who knows the number of hairs on our heads, who calls us “dearly beloved,” will bring us, each one, to final redemption.