Once, a large cruise ship hit a rocky reef off shore a Mediterranean island. (No, not the Costa Concordia, although the picture is of that doomed ship.) It was midday, and there were a large number of sunbathers on a narrow sliver of beach where a lifeguard sat in the shade of an umbrella. When the hull of the cruise ship cracked open on the rocks, everyone’s eyes turned to see the ship as it began to sink into the crystalline sea.
Row on row of portholes disappeared as the craft tilted meanly toward shore. Incredulously, the sunbathers on the beach watched as the swimming pools on the top deck emptied their load. Then hundreds of people, like swarming bees, joined the spill of water and flowed over the sides of the boat into the sea. None wore life vests, for the ship had tipped with such a violent lurch that no one could open the near vertical stowaway containers holding the devices.
Suddenly, the lifeguard leapt into action. He ran swiftly into the waves, a buoy bobbing up and down as it slapped his back. One by one he approached victims of the shipwreck, tossed the buoy into their arms, and once they grabbed hold, hoisted them the 150 yards to shore. Sometimes he pulled two at once—a mother and daughter, two sisters, a grandpa and grandson. Never tiring, the lifeguard pulled one person after another after another to the beach. The scene went on for hours.
The people on the beach were astounded at the lifeguard’s energy and agility. Single-handedly he was saving hundreds of lives. But soon they saw a curious thing. Sometimes the lifeguard would approach a victim, tread water for several moments, and then pass that victim by on his way to save someone else. Even though he tossed the life ring to these individuals, they didn’t take it. One by one, those left behind grew weary. Most drowned, while a few flailed their arms, drawing the attention of the lifeguard once more.
“What’s going on?” the people on the beach cried. “Why isn’t he saving those people? Is he some kind of monster? How can he leave them to drown?!”
What the people on the beach couldn’t hear was the conversation the lifeguard had with each victim: “I’m here to save you. Will you trust me with your life?”
Many of the individuals cried, “Yes! Please save me!”
But many more responded with a scowl. Life, and their current situation, had left them suspicious and bitter. “I don’t need your help, get away! I can make it on my own.” To those who later cried out for a second chance, the lifeguard always responded by tossing them the life ring. Most, however, refused the lifeguard’s assistance and succumbed to a watery grave.
What do you think? Was the lifeguard responsible for the deaths of those shipwreck victims who refused his help? Was he a “monster” because he didn’t force his aid on them? Or would you recognize the free will of these individuals and honor their choices to try and make it to safety on their own?
Last week I spoke with a skeptic who asked the ages-old question, “How can a good God send people to hell?” In answer to his question, I related that my father had died recently, and although I cannot know for certain, he may have died never having reached for the life ring from the true and living Lifeguard, Jesus Christ (although he’d had many opportunities). But, I said, “I am convinced that whether my Dad is with God right now in heaven, or without God in hell” – for whatever hell is, it is most of all a place absent of God’s presence – “he is exactly where he wanted to be.”