In today’s Gospel reading Jesus says the following: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He goes on to say that “then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
In the past, many people used to get baptized on their deathbeds because they believed that you would be denied entry into heaven if you were not baptized. Not only that, but they wanted to be able to live their lives without the requirements of living a Christian life. In some cases, it was because they believed that sins committed after baptism were unforgivable.
Whatever the reasoning, there was a strongly held conviction that baptism was a necessity for entering into the kingdom of heaven, and for this reason people began to baptize infants. When asked if people should baptize infants, Gregory of Nazianzus replied: “Certainly if danger threatens. For it is better to be sanctified unconsciously than to depart from this life unsealed and uninitiated.”
While those that baptized there infants understood the unpredictable nature of life, and wanted to baptize their infants to ensure their entry into heaven, those who waited until the end of life were banking on having the time to be baptized before death. Being baptized – at that time – required a priest, some water, and a few extra minutes.
I’ve always wondered about those people who chose to be baptized at the end of life. We may no longer believe that failure to get baptized will keep you out of heaven, or that sins committed after baptism will also slam the door shut in your face. But for the people at that time, those were very real beliefs. And yet they still decided that they would rather wait until the end of life to get baptized, taking the risk that they may not have the time before death to receive baptism.
When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk about the Rapture, and about people being sucked up into heaven, disappearing right out of the fields, or leaving behind those that they had only moments before been cooking a meal together with. The argument was made that if you didn’t want to be left behind you needed to accept Christ as your savior – to avoid eternal damnation by missing out when Jesus came back again.
Today’s passage was often used in the context of being ready for heaven, and was used as a means to try and convince people that they could never count on the unpredictable nature of life, and that they ought to convert to belief in Christ now, rather than later; without the belief in Christ, they risked eternal damnation since no one knows when their time will be up.
Whether the argument is about baptism – and about being left out of heaven due to not being baptized, or being left out due to post-baptismal sin; or whether the argument is about believing in Jesus so as to avoid eternal damnation when he returns and leaves you behind; the main focus of these arguments is still fear – fear of being left out of heaven.
Fear is a great motivator, but fear is never a long-term motivator. When people discover that their beliefs are based on fear, they often walk away from those beliefs, because once a fear is understood, it no longer holds any power.
We need to realize that there should never be any fear involved in being ready for “that day and hour.” God does not rule by fear, but by love. And that means that if we truly love God, then we have nothing to fear about the future, as loving God is the best preparation for any event.