Rachel Held Evans died last week as the result of a severe allergic reaction to some medications. She was a very popular blogger, she was on a really unfortunate theological trajectory, and she was only 37 when she died.
Where I would like to begin is with a prayer that the family and loved ones of Rachel Held Evans would be enabled by God to find solace and comfort in their grief, and that they would find it in the gospel. That gospel is a sure word in an uncertain world, it is a firm word in a slippery place, and it is a pure light in a world full of darkness. This blessing that I would extend to the Evans clan is heartfelt, and the condolences are sincere. This really is a sad one.
Some might wonder about this, but it is in no way an attempt to minimize the differences that I had with her. At bottom, those differences had to do with the absolute authority of God’s Word, whether any of us feel like submitting to it or not, and consequently when a time comes to put those convictions into practice, I should be absolutely willing to do so. It would be utterly inconsistent to contend with her about the reliability of Scripture, and then in her death for me to turn around and act like Scripture was somehow unreliable or not authoritative.
Anybody who has followed the theological churn on the web for the last ten years or so knows that RHE was one of my adversaries. We were not on the same page, at all. So what does that doctrinal hostility mean in a time like this? It means that if I have maintained that we are to live by the Scripture, then I must live by the Scripture.
“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
She was certainly an adversary. RHE was genuinely hostile to a way of reading and applying the scriptures that I hold dear, and she made free about expressing that hostility, and so it seems to me that this is an occasion for straight-up application. Her teaching was filled with dangerous error, and she led many people astray. So even if she was no all-out persecutor (whom we are also to bless), and the most she did to me personally was block me on Twitter, how much more should I be willing to extend a blessing, and express public condolences to her family and friends?
According to Jesus, seeking good for your adversaries is not a way of subsidizing their errors. Loving them is not approving of their hostility, but is rather a means of helping to overcome it.
And so that is what I seek to do. We worship and serve the God of all comfort, as Paul puts it, and He is certainly able to wield His sovereign comforts in ways that will surprise us all when all things are revealed. My prayer is that RHE, perhaps somewhere in the course of the medically-induced coma she was in, will have been found by Christ, and as a result will be found in Christ at the last day, and that the ground of her acceptance will be the absolute perfections of the Lord Jesus, plus nothing else. I pray that the fellowship we did not have here will be put to rights there. Thus far the blessing and the hope.
Now I also recognize that this might generate more than a few problems or questions, which I am going to seek to address some of them below.
There are times when death puts our (relatively trivial) disputes into perspective. We don’t know what caused the falling out between Euodia and Syntyche—we have no idea, in fact—but they certainly were on the outs with each other. But we do know an important fact about both of them, and that is that Paul said their names were both in the book of life, and that their squabble, whatever it was, has long since been put right.
“I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life” (Phil. 4:2–3).
But as these women were valuable co-workers with the apostle Paul, we can assume that their dispute was a personality clash, or over something comparatively minor like that. Whatever it was, Paul wanted them to simply put it aside on the grounds that their names were both in the book of life. That is one way of putting things in perspective. I dare say that both of them since have had a good laugh over how they both wound up mentioned in the book of Philippians, leaving a record of their squabble for all posterity. And you can count your blessings perhaps—at least the tangle you have been in with that Smith guy for the last three months is not going to wind up in the Bible.
With that said about “perspective,” death should not be treated as a universal disinfectant, fixing everything. Paul would not have said the same kind of thing about Alexander the coppersmith. The harm that he did to gospel work was not limited to his lifetime. But nevertheless, even when the differences are theologically weighty, as they were between RHE and orthodox faith, someone’s death can still help bring things into perspective. However this is only true if the truth matters to us.
Death is a great facilitator, but it is a facilitator in two opposed directions—one direction edifying and the other not. Death can occasion a great and brutal honesty about our condition, on the one hand, or it can generate the most frightful lies on the other. This is just another way of saying that faithful men have always used death as a reminder of the truth, while unfaithful men use death as an occasion for more lies.
On the side of honesty, Scripture tells us that the house of mourning is a place of wisdom.
“It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart” (Eccl. 7:2).
So dying well is the capstone of living well, and you cannot live well unless you are being faithful to Christ, to His Spirit, to His gospel, and to His Word. In order to die in wisdom, you should want your entire life to point toward that end, also in wisdom.
But the natural grief that surrounds death is also something that too many people use as a means of forsaking wisdom. The reality of death is used for getting all kinds of people into heaven—but on our terms, not on God’s. But dying under tragic or sad circumstances is not the same thing as gospel. Salvation depends upon the death of Christ, and not upon the death of any of the rest of us. Death by itself should be a reminder to us of our sinfulness, and not a sentimental time for us to assume that anyone who dies is going to go “upstairs.” Too many of us understand the joke about people coming to the funeral of the town’s biggest blackguard, miscreant and scamp, and ten minutes into the proceedings, everybody is checking their bulletins to see if they are in the right place.
Part of learning wisdom about our own approaching deaths is found in the run-up. This means we have to be honest with ourselves, and not just honest about the deceased. There is no way to be honest about death without being honest about what goes before it.
One time the Lord was traveling, and a Samaritan village refused them hospitality. John and James, being sons of thunder, wanted to know if He would like them to call down fire from heaven, the same way Elijah had done. The Lord rebuked them, even though Elijah really had done that, right there in the Bible, and He rebuked them because they did not know their own hearts (Luke 9:54-55). It is quite possible to be on the right side in the wrong way.
When someone like RHE dies, and the first thing that some among the orthodox want to do is score some doctrinal points off of it, this reveals that there is a rot within that orthodoxy. We often don’t know the spirit we are of. We are not playing with poker chips—these are eternal souls. If we believe that RHE’s doctrine was trifling with souls, then let us not do the same thing from the other direction.
This is why the law of God requires certain things of us that run contrary to our flesh. These sorts of things are daily reminders of ultimate realities.
“If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him” (Ex. 23:5).
“Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him” (Prov. 24:17–18).
So the best thing we can do in a circumstance like this is to stand by the gospel we profess, walking none of it back, extend genuine condolence to the Evans family, hope for the best with regard to RHE, and put all our disputes, whether weighty or insignificant, into a context of a momentous and everlasting glory and joy.
“Eustace even recognized one of those very Dwarfs who had helped to shoot the Horses. But he had no time to wonder about that sort of thing (and anyway it was no business of his) for a great joy put everything else out of his head” (The Last Battle, Loc. 15911).
So may God in His great kindness bless Rachel Held Evans. RIP.