When it was announced that President Trump had COVID-19, some people responded with glee. Some even hoped that he would die.

In my last post, I wrote about people on Facebook responding to tragic news stories by clicking on the laugh reaction emoji under the headline. Many people were laughing that a marriage is over, that relationships are strained, that a man is struggling with addiction, that people are sick, and that people are dying. Laughing.

When it comes to the pleasure and ill-wishes regarding President Trump’s illness, some people offer what they consider to be justification for their attitudes:

  • Trump deserves it because he didn’t take COVID-19 seriously and take necessary precautions.
  • Trump deserves it because his policies cause other people to suffer and die.

Let’s give them the complete benefit of the doubt and assume that their “justifications” are valid. Would it then be appropriate for them to take pleasure in Trump’s illness and even hope that he dies?

To answer that question, let me offer a contrast.

“I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies, says the Lord God.”
Ezekiel 18:32

The death of anyone? Even a person who causes his own death because of his recklessness? Even a person who is responsible for the deaths of others? Are you telling me that God didn’t smile — even a little bit — when Hitler died?

“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why will you die?”
Ezekiel 33:11

Not only does God find no pleasure in death, He pleads with us to choose life instead. This is in particular reference to the second death. The first death is the end of a lifetime on earth. The second death is a future event — after resurrection — that we typically refer to as hell (see Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8).

The second death is a natural consequence for those who choose to disconnect from the source of life. The second death is for those who rebel against God — against goodness, light, and life. Do they deserve death? Would their death be justified? When all is revealed, I believe that we will find the answer to be yes. Still, God will have no pleasure.

That is the spirit that we desperately need. We each need a heart that sorrows when others are hurting, a heart that seeks to bless rather than curse, a heart so full of love that there is no room for hate. We need the heart of God.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
Matthew 5:43-44

When I read the first pages of the Bible, I notice that the word “good” comes up frequently. The first use of the word “good” in the Bible is in Genesis 1:4, when “God saw that the light was good.” The word is used seven times in Genesis 1, culminating in this: “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.”

The first use of the word “evil” in the Bible is in Genesis 2:9: “The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, along with the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” It is used a second time in Genesis 2:15-17: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.’”

Here we see the introduction of the twin dichotomies of good and evil and life and death, which is a theme repeated throughout the Bible. Notice that the classical philosophical dichotomy of heaven and hell is not present here, nor is it present anywhere in the Bible as a dichotomy related to eternal destiny.

Eve and Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil once they believed that God could not be trusted. The human knowledge of evil began when the first humans chose not to trust God. (Similarly, the universe’s knowledge of evil began when Lucifer chose not to trust God. See Isaiah 14:12-14.)

The knowledge of good and evil has been growing since its inception. Someday, when the knowledge of good and evil is fully mature, the question of whether God can be trusted will be settled for all time. Can God be trusted? Just how good is good? Just how evil is evil? These are the questions that will be answered when the knowledge of good and evil is fully mature.

At that time, eternal destinies can be realized. The life-and-death dichotomy that was established in the garden of Eden will come to fruition. Those who choose to trust God will receive eternal life, and those who choose not to trust God will receive eternal death.

  • God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
  • The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
  • He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death. (Revelation 2:11)

I mentioned that the classical philosophical dichotomy of heaven-and-hell as eternal destiny is not found in the Bible. Notice, too, that the classical philosophical idea of eternal suffering cannot be concluded upon consideration of all of the Bible passages regarding the final destruction of those who do not trust God. Ashes do not suffer (see Ezekiel 28:18, Malachi 4:1-3, 2 Peter 2:6, and Revelation 20:9,15). Good news!

Suffering is a result of evil. Once the knowledge of good and evil is fully mature, it stands to reason that no one will choose evil again. That will be the end of evil, which will mean the end of suffering. More good news!

There was a time when there was only good. Then evil entered the picture. But evil is a companion of good for a limited time only. One of these days, if we choose to trust God, our knowledge of evil will be only a memory. We will spend eternity steeped in a fully-mature knowledge of good. That is the best news.

The image above is a depiction of souls burning in the flames of Purgatory as displayed on the facade of the Church of Ánimas (Capilla de Ánimas) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Source/License

“The practice of praying for the dead is, I think, the fundamental origin of the doctrine of purgatory. … We often want to pray for those we love who die. It’s actually fairly hard in certain Protestant services I’ve been at … where you don’t pray for the dead. My heart wants to pray for the dead that I love. That means that I’m one of those Protestants who thinks that there might be something to the doctrine of purgatory.”

This was said by Phillip S. Cary, an American philosopher who serves as a professor at Eastern University. I heard it in a course he teaches: The History of Christian Theology.

Purgatory is said to be a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are atoning for their sins before going to heaven.

Let me provide the context for the first sentence in the quote by Dr. Cary: “The practice of praying for the dead is, I think, the fundamental origin of the doctrine of purgatory.” Earlier in the lecture, Dr. Cary mentioned that Augustine of Hippo, in his autobigraphical narrative, asked readers to pray for his mother, who was dead. Dr. Cary believes that the doctrine of purgatory developed from this request. The reasoning goes like this: It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone in hell, because it won’t do any good. It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone in heaven, because they don’t need it. Therefore, there must be a third place where the soul of a dead person can be, where prayers could be beneficial.

The reasons for believing

Dr. Cary teaches that the doctrine of purgatory is not from the Bible but that it was developed during the Middle Ages, likely based on a personal request made by Augustine — a theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries. The doctrine of purgatory relies on the soul being eternal (or, at least, existing after death). Dr. Cary’s course contains a lecture about the state of the soul after death, and he makes it clear that the idea of an eternal soul is from Plato, not the Bible. He contends that the Bible teaches that, after death, the soul sleeps until resurrection. (I, too, find this in my own study of the Bible.) It is relevant here to note that Augustine was greatly influenced by Plato.

Despite all of this, Dr. Cary “thinks that there might be something to the doctrine of purgatory”. Why? His own words: “My heart wants to pray for the dead that I love.”

What was the reason that the medieval mainstream church created the doctrine of purgatory? According to Dr. Cary, it seems that they wanted to provide an explanation for Augustine’s request for prayers for his dead mother.

These are self-described Christian scholars and theologians. Their reason for believing (or wanting to believe) is not “because it is what the Bible teaches” or “because it is consistent with Bible teaching”. This particular belief is not in the Bible, nor is it consistent with Bible teaching about death or salvation. That does not seem to be a concern of these scholars and theologians.

The source of authority

I understand that not everyone shares my view of sola scriptura, that the Bible is the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice. I believe that because I believe this:

The Bible is a reliable collection of historical documents written by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses. It contains falsifiable claims that would have shut down the Christian movement at its start if the claims had been untrue. Although the documents were written by about 40 authors over a period of about 2,000 years, they are coherent in message. The Bible reports events that were the fulfillment of specific prophecies, and it contains prophecies that have been fulfilled in post-biblical times. Much of the Bible is confirmed by the writings of contemporaries and by archaeological findings. The Bible is by far the best attested writing from antiquity.

In other words, I trust the Bible as sole authority because I believe there is strong evidence that supports it as the word of God.

The basis for belief

Many doctrines of the mainstream church come, not from the Bible, but from pagan philosophy or non-biblical, non-apostolic tradition. Do you know which ones? This post isn’t really about the specific doctrine of purgatory. It’s about ideas and where they come from. It’s about our reasons for believing. The doctrine of purgatory is just one example.

It is important that we know where ideas come from, especially the ideas we embrace or reject. It matters why we believe what we believe. We would be wise to base our beliefs — not on desires or hopes or an attempted explanation of one person’s notion — but on evidence. Only then can we build a thoughtful faith that is less likely to be shaken — and more likely to be true.