Many Christians unfortunately believe a certain strange doctrine at the deathbeds of their loved ones. Perhaps this doctrine already has a name, though if it does I’m not aware of it. I shall call it Optative Semi-Universalism (OSU for short). “Optative” is from the Latin verb optare, which means “to wish.” Universalism is the heresy that all people will be saved, regardless of faith in Christ; we’ll get to the “semi” in a moment.
What is Optative Semi-Universalism? It is the belief that, while hell will have a human population in addition to a demonic one, none of my loved ones will make up that condemned human population. OSU still holds that one needs faith in Jesus in order to be saved, but says things like, “No one can know the human heart,” and, “God could have given him faith in the end.” Thus OSU separates the giving of faith from the means of grace, or supposes that, after a lifetime of hard-heartedness and stiff-neckedness, hearing John 3:16 once in the hour of death is like a lucky rabbit’s foot that must give faith in Christ (or perhaps even looks at Baptism as if it saves apart from faith).
While there may be such a thing as a deathbed conversion (it seems the thief on the cross was one of them), OSU counts such last-minute conversion a sure thing; whereas orthodox Christianity considers life to be a constant preparation for death, and how one has prepared does have bearing when that hour comes – not in terms of good works, but in terms of faith and of hearing the Word of Christ.
And now we can add the “semi” to Optative Semi-Universalism: not everyone is saved, but everyone whom I care about is – I hope.
Now OSU doesn’t mind if other, unknown people are damned, so long as I don’t have to say that my loved ones are. And that gets closer to the heart of the matter. Some may think, “If I loved this person so much, certainly God must as well, and even more than I do; therefore this person must be saved.” It’s true that God loves everyone more than we do. We see his great love in what he gave: God loved the world so that he gave his Son. But those who despise the Son and reject his Word can’t come to the Father. Within OSU can lurk a misunderstanding of what God’s love means.
Others may think, “It won’t be heaven if Grandma isn’t there,” and this touches the real core of OSU: the tendency to focus on heaven as a reuniting with loved ones, as opposed to departing to be with Christ.
But does not OSU flow from a genuine concern? God has given us the gift of family and friends. He has attached us to family in particular in deep and binding ways, as we see from the Fourth and Sixth Commandments, and from the very vocations of Father and Son in which God has allowed us to take part. What should we say when our loved ones die? “To hell with them”? That seems heartless and unnatural.
Yet clearly Optative Semi-Universalism is not the answer, as it replaces the Word of God with human notions. While we have great comfort concerning departed saints, what can we say concerning dead unbelievers that won’t leave us brokenhearted for eternity?
Jesus says in Matthew 10:34-37, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
On a human level, human blood is the strongest bond we have. People will do insane things for family members, make sacrifices, avenge blood. But Jesus has effected an even stronger bond than the bond of human blood. He has bound his Christians together with his blood, God’s blood. Jesus prayed before his death for all who would believe, “that they may all be one” (Jn. 17:21). Whatever earthly differences there may be between peoples, Jesus has created in himself “one new man” (Eph. 2:15), his one Church. And as St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:4-6, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
The bond with which Jesus bonds his Church together excels all bonds. And he has restructured our allegiances. We saw this in Matthew 10. Jesus did not tell us to restructure our allegiances; he said he was doing so. He does warn us about holding human allegiances as the highest allegiances, but he still speaks of himself as the one who changes allegiances. The sword that he brings cuts through human blood, such that, from an eternal perspective, it’s not about Grandma, Grandpa, Mom, or Dad. There are now only two categories of people: faithful subjects of Jesus in his kingdom, and rebels, insurrectionists, enemies of the state.
Therefore, if Grandpa persisted in unbelief on his deathbed, I don’t have to pretend he magically became a Christian at the last second and unbeknownst to anyone. Instead, I mourn on earth because he was my grandfather. And at the same time, because he has departed this earth, I no longer think in terms of this earth. If he was an unbeliever, then eternally he is an enemy of the Son of God, who came in flesh and shed his blood for me – for my grandfather as well, who hated Christ’s love. He will stand on the Son’s left hand in the Judgment while I stand on the right, and rather than begging and pleading that Jesus would reconsider sending him to the eternal fire – and rather than agreeing with Jesus’ judgment only half-heartedly – I will love the Word of Jesus (even his guilty verdict against the unbelievers!) more than I ever loved my grandfather.
C. S. Lewis illustrates this marvelously in the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle. In the first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy – four siblings – became the kings and queens of Narnia. In the final book, the ancient royalty appear to Tirian, the last king of Narnia. There stand Peter, Edmund, and Lucy in splendor. Tirian asks the obvious question, “Where’s Susan?” This is Peter’s own sister, and she’s not there! But Peter doesn’t bow his head in sorrow and sigh, “Alas!” He doesn’t weep for her. Peter looks at Tirian with steely eyes and declares, “She’s no friend of Narnia!” His allegiance is to the eternal kingdom, not his sister. And this isn’t unnatural on his part. What’s more natural than the greatest allegiance and bond holding sway over all others?
So take heart; you don’t need Optative Semi-Universalism in order to have eternal joy. In this life, perform your God-given duties toward your family members whether they believe or not. If you’re concerned about the salvation of your loved ones, talk to them while they’re alive instead of turning to OSU after they’ve gone. And once they have gone, then rest assured that the Lord’s promises do not fail. Jesus says, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn. 16:22). So also, “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17). On the Last Day (and tasted even now in the Church), “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 20:4). In the end, your heart will be undivided in allegiance, bound solely to the Lord and to his saints.