Heaven, Hell and Heath Ledger’s Soul

An Orthodox Christian college student ponders salvation

So Heath Ledger passed away a few weeks ago, the final outcome of a long struggle with depression, substances, and wild living. While the thousands dying of starvation and neglect around the world are undeniably a bigger concern, I did find myself shocked and saddened. Although my generation has seen turmoil and tragedy in the world, from 9/11 to Iraq to Katrina, we haven’t really had a single Kurt Cobain-type figure around whom we can rally.

My favorite authors, from theologian Rob Bell to columnist Chuck Klosterman, find deeper meaning in pop culture, and in my own life, art, music, literature and film have always been tied to understanding God and appreciating His universe. I was baptized and raised Orthodox Christian and still maintain those core beliefs. It seems, however, that in times of confusion I tend to find my deepest comfort and hope in a film or a song. At the Methodist college Ohio Northern University, where I’m in my third year, questions of meaning in art and culture come up in all settings, from parties to classes, from Bible studies to late night conversations.

Heavenly Debate

My thoughts on Ledger really began in the latter setting. The night he died, all the girls in my dorm who had had crushes on Heath were talking amongst themselves about his death. Eventually, we got onto the subject of eternal destiny. Someone said, “I hope God lets Heath Ledger into heaven.”

I immediately spoke up, “I’m pretty sure He will.”

Then, a debate broke out among the faithful. “But he died from a drug overdose!” “He may have committed suicide!” “We don’t know if he believed in Jesus!”

“Yes, salvation is through Christ alone, but…”

“No but! NO buts!”

This is just a glimpse of the conversation, and though it’s been determined now that Ledger’s death was accidental, we were uncertain of the details at first. The essence of the argument, however, was that many of the students I spoke with couldn’t accept the idea that Jesus would just let anybody in regardless of their faith. In the end, all we could agree to was that we tiny humans can never know for sure where someone goes on the other side.

Pardon Me?

Putting aside the major problem that some people might only be concerned for his soul because he was hot in A Knight’s Tale (hey, I’m guilty for wanting Hendrix, Entwistle, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Keith Moon, Cobain, and Bonham all to be in Heaven cause I know it’d be a hell of a band)…what can we say about getting to heaven?

In our Medieval Christian Thought class, we talked about Martin Luther, who said that salvation was not by works (actions); it is only through faith that we accept the free gift of God’s grace. Our professor asked us if we really believed this? Then he brought up a good argument: if we learned that God had decided to pardon Hitler but send Mother Teresa to hell, wouldn’t we think it unfair? If we would, then we believe salvation is judged by works.

“Should Heath Ledger be saved on the merit of his contribution to the world (dubious),
or on the merit of his acting talent (more dubious), or because lots of girls think he’s hot (absurd)? No. Heath Ledger should be saved because
God loves him.”

We can’t let go of the idea that if someone was a “good person,” they should be saved. Believe me, I understand; I can name several “non-Christians” (ranging from Gandhi to my late friend David) who were finer examples of compassion and Christ-like life than some Christians I know. And because God is just and loving, I believe God has shown these people mercy and love in the next life and that they are in heaven.

Anyone and Everyone

But what about people who’ve faced some obstacles and have been less than saintly? What about Heath Ledger? I believe that Luther was partially right; God’s grace alone saves us, and this goes beyond our works. I’ll take it further; God is capable of forgiving anyone, as anyone will agree, but God’s grace and salvation also can extend to anyone and everyone.

I can’t deny that Jesus was the Son of God; God incarnate, showing His love for us by coming down onto our level to show us the way out of the darkness. It is through Christ alone that humans have the opportunity to go to heaven.

However, just because it is Christ who has provided this gift, does this mean that only explicit followers of Christ are able to attain this gift? (There is plenty of Scripture to support this view; no laundry list is needed.) If grace is a free gift, can’t God decide to be over-lenient with just how and when it is offered to people?

How Much More

I’m reminded of my pastor at the conservative evangelical church I attended in high school who was asked to speak at the funeral of a youth who had committed suicide. When asked tough questions about eternity our pastor said, “God is more interested in bringing people into heaven than keeping them out.” When someone told me this quote, my jaw dropped.

Somehow the best grandparents never forget their love for their grandchild. Even if their grandchild does something terrible they will never lose sight of the little bit of good, no matter how eclipsed, within that child. How can God, the supreme source of Love in the universe be less loving than this grandparent? We can turn to the Gospel of Matthew: “Is there a man among you who will offer his son a stone when he asks for bread?…If you now, bad as you are, know how to give your children what’s good for them, how much more will God give good things?”

The God I believe in is a God of love.

From Here to Eternity

Should Heath Ledger be saved on the merit of his contribution to the world (dubious), or on the merit of his acting talent (more dubious), or because lots of girls think he’s hot (absurd)? No. Heath Ledger should be saved because God loves him.

Down here on earth, it’s a struggle to get in tune with the absolute truth of God, with no small debate going on constantly. I’m not going to say with certainty that God is a nice grandpa who will forgive everybody for everything. As the girls and I agreed, we humans cannot know for sure from this side of eternity.

Scripture provides verses that may challenge my assertion, but as a whole, Scripture also presents a view of God as a being extraordinarily compassionate and forgiving. A creator who, time and again, goes to unprecedented lengths to show us sinful, fallen humans that this conflicted, broken world is somehow redeemed.