I was 19, and I had just drunk myself to death. It was late August 1973, at sometime near midnight. I had downed the best part of a litre of vodka and sunk into semi-consciousness, and then passed out.
I saw my body slumped on the floor as ‘I” left, going up. At this point my language becomes only approximate. It serves badly to express what happened, but it’s all we have, and we have to use the best words we can find.
I was standing before an intensely bright Light. Except that of course it was not a light. All light derives from it. And it was not an it. It was deeply personal; and it was obvious that all we call personal flows from it. And the Light was both singular and plural at the same time. One, but not single or alone.
And I was being judged. It came to mind my mind that I was in the Courts of Heaven, and this was the moment of judgment.
Suddenly, I heard a voice, or a sound or a phrase. The words came to me “And there was silence in heaven for half an hour.” I must have heard those words at some point in a service on earth, but I had not recollection of them. They come from Revelation chapter 8 and describe the moment the great metaphysical conflict in heaven.
The Courts of Heaven withdrew in judgement and I was left, suspended, exposed, waiting, judged.
A very strange thought came to mind. “If I am to be sent to hell, I will go with a certain amount of satisfaction knowing that justice has been done – that there is justice at the heart of everything.
And I waited.
And the Courts of Heaven came back and I learnt that I had been forgiven; and that I was to be returned to the earth.
I came back to my body and, or regained consciousness, it was dawn which on that day was just after 5.00.am.
Had it been a dream or something more real? I remembered how badly my body handles alcohol. A few pints of beer and I know about it for days, yet having drunk a litre of vodka, I found myself not only with no ill effects physically, but feeling physically and mentally clean and pure, and exceptionally well.
All I wanted to do was to keep that sense of being forgiven. And as I thought about it, I knew immediately I could only do that if I passed it on and forgave others, and so became a conduit of forgiveness.
But Who was God? Who had judged and forgiven me. Ultimate Reality, yes, “All That Was”, yes. But what was His name. How could I find him again.
In the days that followed the imPact of the experience diminished and I took up my life where I had left it off. But the experience remained lasered into the back of mind.
About two years later, my life hit a dreadful crisis. And I thought, “only God can help me now, and I have to find out Who He Is.”
I found myself shortly afterwards in a Cathedral listening to an Anglican evangelist describing who Jesus was. I had been in the environs of the Church of England since I started singing in a choir aged 9. But somehow I had never heard in a way that got into me.
Suddenly I now saw that the “Light of the World” might well be the same Light I had encountered; that the forgiveness of sins he won on the cross, might have been what had been given to me.
I decided I would provisionally convert and follow Christ. 48 hours – renewable. I would examine what was happening every 48 hours, but meanwhile I would say my prayers, read the Gospels, stop eyeing up women, forgive my enemies and love God.
I began to experience what William Temple noted; “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.”
But to my enormous surprise, I also experienced evil in the most raw and terrible state. The taste and smell of hell. The experience of accusation and despair.
This was a great embarrassment. How could I distinguish between mental illness and real spiritual, metaphysical conflict?
And that was the beginning of a journey stretching over the decades to the present day.
MAKING JESUS KNOWN.
Today, marking Advent, the beginning of the Christian year, a friend of mine (++ Cranmer) wrote that “Perhaps if instead of being concerned with people’s eternal salvation we showed them love, and then let them wonder, ask, seek and hopefully find?”
Of course that is not untrue. But ‘love’ has become such a problematic portmanteau word, and what we think of as love so close to uncritical indulgence, that it may not help us very much. And it’s not as if over the last 50 or so years, dripping as they have been with therapeutic concern for self-acceptance, which the church has bought into, that this has been unheard. Heard, but ineffective.
In Advent the Church has more often looked to the four last things as a way for preparing for Christmas. Death, judgement, hell and heaven.
The church seems terrified of telling the truth that we find in the Gospels about the awful reality of judgement coming. But the society we live in has a very keen sense of moral accountability. It is scrupulously careful where it recognises it and where it is blind to it.
It is rightly energised about our moral accountability when it comes to the ecology. We have poisoned our oceans and our marine life with plastic. We are guilty and we will have to pay the price. But our neighbours are blind to the moral guilt we accrue over anything having to do with sex. Deaf to the cries of the unborn, ripped untimely from their mothers’ wombs to be crushed. Deaf to the emotional bankruptcy that follows a lifestyle involving multiple partners. Blind to the tsunami of sexually transmitted diseases crippling young and old alike.
If we offer them Jesus as an additional source of love, I suspect they may feel awash with love – or at least sources they think (wrongly) will be a safer bet for delivering love. Because they will also hear that in return for this love, Jesus asks for everything, a complete surrender of our cherished autonomy; a putting to death of our gluttonous pride.
Perhaps we should get back to warning them that hell is real, moral accountability it real, judgement is real and coming, and only Jesus can save them.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” (Matthew 25.31)
They haven’t heard the soft words of love which they mistake for self-indulgence. It may be the time has come to risk social opprobrium and tell them the other stuff that Jesus taught. On their last day, there will come a time when they stand before a purity and a justice beyond imagination, and will be weighed in the balance and found wanting.
Only Jesus can save them. Only Jesus will save them. But they have to consent. They have to be willing to flee hell for heaven and let the sacrifice of Jesus pay their moral debt, and be carried by Him to heaven.