Poor Paul. He gets stuck in prison for two years, and Felix, the governor, who is a rather feckless person, seems to be in no hurry to resolve his case. So Paul, and our story, comes to a grinding halt. Like I said, the end of Acts is a bit of an anticlimax. But since Paul references the resurrection in this passage, allow me to spend this post summarizing some of the thoughts on death, time, and judgement that I’ve gestured to while writing this blog.
The idea of resurrection developed in Judaism because of a concern for justice. There had been a revolt, and many people who were considered good and righteous had died unjustly. Some Jews started to worry about what this might imply about God. Could a just God allow evil to flourish and goodness to suffer without taking action in some way? Clearly not. Yet evil was flourishing and goodness was suffering. So they began to think of the resurrection as the way that God’s perfect justice could be shown on earth. Both the righteous and the unrighteous would be resurrected, and then God would judge them accordingly. When and how this would happen was an open question, and it has continued to be an open question in the intervening two thousand years. But regardless of when you think it might happen (and Jesus clearly tells his disciples not to waste time thinking about the when and the where), when it does happen God’s perfect justice will be revealed.
I have long struggled with this idea, and I’m not alone. Often the struggle comes down to a question: do you believe in universal salvation or not? My very inconclusive answer is that I don’t know. Sometimes I think that the entire worry about justice is wrong headed. If God is perfect love, then it’s not the actions of justice but the actions of love that we need to be concerned with. But even that doesn’t necessarily bring me to believing in an easy, free pass kind of universal salvation. After all, I love my daughter, but I’m not going to just forgive her and let her get away with anything she chooses to do. I love her too much for that. I think that it’s my role to help her be the best person that she can be, and sometimes that means restricting her behavior, demanding recompense, and being very honest about her failures. But here’s the thing. I expect her to do the same for me. If she, or my wife, or my dad, or my friends in the church, just let me do whatever I wanted, I would probably end up thinking that they didn’t love me very much. I would read their tolerance as indifference rather than love. Love is patient and kind, and doesn’t insist on having its own way, but it also creates a delicate filigree of relationship between us, and that relationship requires us to maintain certain practices and disciplines. We are subject to the dictates of love.
So if God is perfect love, then God loves us too much to let us simply skate off into an easy and meaningless salvation. When I am resurrected, I expect that I’ll be what I am now, a combination of righteousness and unrighteousness. I’ll still need to have my unrighteousness burned away.
I am obviously not the first person to think about this. This sort of thinking leads very obviously to ideas of purgatory, a liminal space where we can still work things out before being subsumed into the gigantic love of God. There are so many models for this, and they’re all entirely speculative. Maybe we get resurrected into an alternate dimension where we can untangle ourselves and gain freedom. Maybe in the resurrection we simply flip back through time to all of the moments when we were unrighteous, and have a kind of grand, cosmic do-over. That’s the fantasy held out by movies and shows like Groundhog’s Day and Russian Doll. Maybe we find ourselves in a gray and despairing city, waiting for a bus, like in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. It’s impossible to know, and the stories we tell about it are useful not as a definitive description, but as a comment on who we are now, before the resurrection. They use a purgatorial dream to help us understand how to work out our salvation with fear and trembling in our current lives.
In the end, I suppose I’m less concerned about the judgement of God than I am about the human potential for perfect righteousness. I agree with my friends the saints, with Paul, and with Jesus, that it is possible to live a life that really is life, to live in perfect imitation of the divine. No effort I make will allow me to do this, it can only happen through the action of grace. And perhaps that’s all the resurrection is. A time of grace during which God will help us to become sanctified.