By Hannah Bowman
The traditional “four last things” of Advent — death, judgment, heaven, and hell — direct Christians’ attention to the world to come. But these Advent themes speak as well to the work already accomplished at Jesus’ first advent, and to our understanding of justice, ethics, and reconciliation-in-community in the life we live now, between coming and Coming.
Last year, I wrote a series of essays on these four topics, from my perspective as a prison abolitionist and restorative justice practitioner. I will revisit them here, to consider what we can learn from the four last things, taken together, for our Christian life in this season of expectation.
The most important death in the Christian life is not the physical death of our mortal bodies, but rather our death in baptism. In baptism we “were baptized into [Jesus’] death” (Rom. 6:3), we were “buried with him in baptism” (Col. 2:12), we “have died with Christ” (Rom. 6:8), we “died to the law” and “have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:19). We “[become] like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). Jesus’ death has ontological priority over every other death in creation. Put another way: no one has ever died as completely as Jesus. Every other death — even our own death — is a participation in Jesus’s death. But we believe that our participation in the one true death, Jesus’ death, does not occur primarily through the physical death of our own bodies, but instead at our baptisms. Because in baptism we die with Christ, and are also raised with him, the entirety of our post-baptismal life is already a participation in the eternal life to which Christ was raised.
Death in Christ sets us free from the binding realities of this world, giving us the liberated moral imagination to see new horizons of possibility for our common life together. Our renewed life in Christ, present now, sets the stage to understand the last things as present realities, not just future ones.
Vindication underlies the final judgment. Who desires judgment and who fears it? Those of us who are mighty in this world are not the ones who will be vindicated in the judgment of God — rather we will be cast down in favor of those we have marginalized. As Luke’s Beatitudes express it, “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” But for those who suffer in this world, judgment is a promise of justice. In the final courtroom, Jesus does not appear only as the judge, but also as the prisoner in need.
Judgment is not just a future reality, far from those in need of vindication now. Judgment of the world has already occurred on the cross of Christ. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John: “Now is the judgment of this world” (12:31). The crucifixion of Jesus — the death of God — makes visible all the harm we do to one another and all the powers of evil in the world. Judgment is truth-telling, the exposition of those powers of evil, revealing them as the bankrupt and ugly powers they are. Judgment is the revelation of a new way of living — the reign of God — that we know is better than the way we live now, but which we find ourselves unable to live out faithfully, or even see clearly. Our own way of living unjustly and the unnecessary suffering it causes is the final judgment of God against us, made already present in our current reality. The cross, the eschaton, and our world in between all make judgment visible.
Advent sets us between judgment and judgment: between the judgment of the world at the cross and the coming fulfillment of judgment at the end of history. We all stand under judgment for the harms done to our neighbor in this in-between time. (A discomfiting thought to ponder at the end of a year where carelessness and foolish governance in the face of a deadly disease has led to the death of over a quarter million of our fellow citizens.) The judgment of God, which is the vindication of all victims of harm, violence, oppression, and injustice, may ultimately be life-giving, but it is not abrogated. Jesus stands on the side of those for whom justice must be done.
What if heaven is not primarily a place of peace, but instead a community, created by communal participation in the divine life? Such a conception of heaven allows us to begin to imagine it as a place of communal accountability — a place where all can be welcome only because all are responsible to one another: a place of justice. This restorative justice (in our world as in the next) depends upon accountability. Restorative communities are those that enable those who have done harm to see clearly the harm they have done and to take accountability for it and make amends. The community of heaven is often imaged liturgically by the sacrament of the Eucharist, the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 21), where all come together in apparent peace and fellowship. But an equally appropriate image of heaven is the confessional. The sacrament of reconciliation illustrates the heavenly community: where we speak our sins, share our shames with one another, take responsibility, seek reconciliation — and our accountability is met with forgiveness in the divine life.
If this seems like a harsh view of heavenly rest, it is helpful to consider it as participation in the triune life of God. Our communal life in heaven is our participation in the divine community, in the life of reconciliation mediated by the divine Spirit. Our continuing communal confession and reconciliation to one another participate in the divine drama of separation and reunion. The work of justice and reconciliation in the community of heaven is, fundamentally, not our work, but the working out of the self-giving love of the trinitarian persons in and through our lives. Jesus’s death and resurrection are not simply requirements to bring us to heaven — instead they structure the logic of heaven, the framework on which the heavenly community hangs. Our communal life of justice in heaven (and so, also, our baptismal life of justice on earth) is grounded in God’s gift of grace, the self-emptying of God to death, even death on a cross.
If we all live our lives between judgment and judgment; if God’s judgment is inescapable; and if we reject the sacrificial logic of incarceration and exclusion that allows some to be saved at the expense of the damnation of others, then we must face the question: what does the justice of God look like? Judgment is not opposed to mercy; rather judgment reveals harm for the sake of making ongoing accountability and repentance possible.
The life of reconciliation is the life of justice. Our participation in the triune life of reconciliation is the work of our eternal life. But as our death by baptism provides our entrance now into eternal life, the justice of ongoing accountability and reconciliation provides a model for justice now: a foretaste of heaven on earth.
We are subject to God’s judgment and mercy simultaneously. God’s judgment is not ultimately about our punishment or purification, but about vindicating those who have been harmed, righting wrong power relations, and revealing to us and the world the truth of our actions. Each of these acts of judgment is also an act of mercy and truth-making aimed at love and good, not our suffering. Whatever hell is, it must be consistent with such a unified picture of this judgment-mercy.
Instead of denying the existence of hell, or flattening its dialectical reality, we can look to Jesus’ descent into hell. The fullness of hell is always borne by Christ. There is no hell outside of or apart from Christ. The fact of Jesus’ solidarity with us under judgment provides the key to the mysterious dialectic of God’s merciful judgment: hell is the reality of standing always under unavoidable divine judgment, and the reality that Jesus mercifully stands alongside us, and that therefore God himself is in the depths of hell. The concrete judgment which we face as a constant possibility, for this life and the next, is the judgment already experienced as a reality by Jesus. The defining fact of hell is that God arrives in it as Emmanuel, God with Us. In Emmanuel, we can face the merciful judgment of God and see it as one unified act of love and solidarity. God’s mercy is not a way God saves us from judgment and hell. Instead, God’s mercy and judgment coincide. God’s setting the world right results in our condemnation as sinners — and in that condemnation, God’s mercy pursues us as Emmanuel. Hell cannot be dispensed with. But even hell is ultimately in Christ. Even in hell, judgment is completed and found to be mercy.
Participation in the triune life connects our life here on earth to the eternal life in heaven, eternal life that we participate in already by virtue of our death in baptism. But participation in the triune life also connects heaven to hell — through Jesus’ descent into hell.
The possibility of hell persists, as a sign of the reality of judgment. But by our participation in Jesus’s death, we enter into a new life — the eternal trinitarian drama of relationship and reconciliation. Jesus’s descent and forsakenness in hell, with us, is part of that drama.
We die by baptism into Jesus’s death. We face hell alongside Jesus, whose solidarity with everyone in hell reveals the new and life-giving side of judgment — judgment intended for the vindication of all victims and for the reconciliation of all things. We rise with Jesus into the new life produced by that judgment: a life of ongoing accountability to one another in a community structured by the loving, self-giving relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We do these things at the end of history, at Jesus’s coming. And we do them now, in our baptismal afterlife that makes present in the church and in the world Jesus’s ongoing presence of solidarity with those who have been harmed and those who have done harm: with those crying out for the justice to come, and with the damned. Jesus’s presence undergirds the ongoing practice of accountability and the hope of reconciliation in communities here on earth.
Perhaps the doubled vision of the advent past and the advent to come — what Fleming Rutledge calls “apocalyptic transvision” — is in fact tripled vision: of the one who was, and is to come, and is. We see Jesus as he came into the world a baby; we see his apocalyptic arrival at hand — and most closely, we see him here, now, as we live out the last things in our common life on earth. With tripled voices, we respond with the ancient Advent cry of the church: Maranatha; come, Lord Jesus.
Hannah Bowman is a graduate student at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles; a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates; and the founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons (christiansforabolition.org).
Listen to Amber Noel interview her on The Living Church Podcast about prison reform and COVID-19.