When people like Hitler (1889-1945) and Mao (1893-1976) die, we rejoice because we know they’re in hell. Yet how do we feel when someone with “natural goodness” whom we loved and admired dies without Christ? Suddenly hell seems brutal and unkind.
I “met” Philip Sayer (1946-1989) a few weeks ago in the television series “A.D.” (1985). He played the apostle Paul, who was converted on the road to Damascus. I was drawn to this man instantly. I saw his face and loved him. The next day, I learned that Philip had died of melanoma 25 years earlier. My heart hit the floor. I was crushed in grief. I knew that unless Jesus had intervened on his sick bed, Philip went to hell and there was nothing I could do about it.
Philip was born in Swansea, Wales, where he is buried. He counted Maureen Lipman, Madonna, Sir Ian McKellen, and Susan Sarandon (former lover) among his friends. According to friends and family, Philip had a big heart. He was a kind and loving uncle to his brother’s children. Brian May, of the British rock band Queen, was so impressed by accounts of Philip at his funeral that he wrote the song “Just One Life.”
We say to ourselves, “Surely Philip went to heaven!” No, he didn’t. The Bible is clear. Unless a man is born again from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God – heaven (John 3:3). The only door to heaven is Jesus Christ. Philip didn’t know him. Unless Jesus intervened as he was dying, Philip is consciously suffering in hell with Satan and his angels. He’s weeping and gnashing his teeth, in a fiery furnace and great darkness (Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 50; 22:13, 24:51, 25:30, 41; Luke 16:26). Since his name is not in the Lamb’s Book of Life, Philip will appear before God at the Great White Throne Judgment one day (Revelation 20:11-12). Then he’ll be cast into a lake of fire for eternity (20:15). I don’t like the facts any more than anyone else.
Jesus graciously gave us one portrait of hell in a parable. A rich man was tormented by flames, so he asked Abraham in heaven to send the beggar Lazarus with water (Luke 16:24). Abraham refused. First, the rich man enjoyed good things while alive and Lazarus evil things (16:25). Second, “there is a great gulf fixed” between heaven and hell; people can’t go back and forth even if they want to (16:26).* Resigned to his fate, the rich man asked Abraham to bring Lazarus back from the dead in order to warn his brothers, so they wouldn’t suffer in hell with him (16:27-30). Abraham refused, again. Those who ignore Moses and the Prophets won’t listen if someone returns from the dead (16:31).
Here’s the wonder. Abraham said, “They won’t listen,” but God had other ideas. Unlike his other parables, Jesus gave the beggar in this one a name: Lazarus. Who returned from the dead after four days? Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha (John 11:43-44). Many Jews believed in Jesus because of him (11:45, 12:11). I think God graciously answered the prayer of a man in hell! Does Philip Sayer pray, even in hell, for his friends and family? Does he pray they’ll hear about Jesus, repent, and believe? Will God answer these prayers? I echo them – and wonder.
I think it’s easier for public sinners to believe in Christ than those with natural goodness. Too often, the latter cling to their own works. Even the apostle Paul once trusted in them. Before his conversion in Damascus, he had great “confidence in the flesh”: “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6). After conversion, however, Paul said, “What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ” (3:7). Natural goodness was not only “loss” but “rubbish” (3:8). Paul clung to the “righteousness which is from God by faith” in Christ (3:9).
Natural goodness deceives because we justify ourselves before others; this justification is an “abomination” in God’s sight (Luke 16:15). Only God is good, perfect, and holy (Matthew 19:17). We’re born depraved sinners with deceitful hearts (Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 3:23). Our righteous acts are like “filthy rags” in God’s eyes (Isaiah 64:6). Isaiah knew this when he saw God “high and lifted up” in the temple: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (6:1, 5). Daniel felt the same thing when he saw the pre-incarnate Christ; his “comeliness” became “corruption” (Daniel 10:8, KJV). Yet people like Philip Sayer who are “ignorant of God’s righteousness” always try to “establish their own” (Romans 10:3).
Here’s the truth. Jesus Christ alone is “the end of the law for righteousness” (Romans 10:4). Only faith in Christ can save us from an eternity in hell, the just judgment of God. It’s why he died on a cross. By faith, we must submit to Christ. If we don’t, hell is our destiny when we die. Natural goodness should make us shudder. If our works can save us, then Christ died for nothing. Only the crucible of suffering reveals sin, so let us pray for divine chastening (Hebrews 12:5-10).
Like May’s song says, Philip Sayer had “just one life.” But he didn’t use it to believe in Jesus. Philip wasted his life on natural goodness instead. God has given each of us “just one life.” Let us learn from the example of Philip. Let us trust in Christ, not ourselves, for salvation. Only then will we be rescued from an eternity in hell. Only then will the door of heaven open to us.
Only one life, so soon it will pass
Only what’s done for Christ will last
Only one chance to do his will
So give to Jesus all your days
It’s the only life that pays
When you recall that we have but one life
– “Only One Life,” Lanny Wolfe (YouTube)
* All Scripture verses come from the NKJV, unless otherwise noted.