Thanks to the archival power of YouTube, a old clip from the NBC drama “E.R.” came to my attention the other day.
This 2-minute scene conveys a powerful theological reflection on God, death, atonement, and forgiveness. A dying doctor who had worked in a prison is wracked with guilt over a particular lethal injection he had administered years before. He could not get the injection to work at first, but persistence paid off and the prisoner was executed. It was discovered later, however, that the executed man had been framed. Therefore, the doctor had executed an innocent man.
Now, the doctor himself is dying of cancer. The scene below shows him lying in a hospital bed. He has called on the hospital chaplain to talk to him about his spiritual condition. He is not troubled about his cancer as much as he is troubled about the thought that he is not prepared to die. If there is a God and if there is punishment for sin…he is unprepared for all of what is to come. So, he calls for the chaplain.
Unfortunately, this chaplain — though amiable, warm, and kind — is not the kind of chaplain a dying (or living) person needs. This man’s troubled soul tells him that he doesn’t need saccharine religious sentimentality or postmodern pluralism. He displays fierce anger at her theological blathering. He is a dying man and doesn’t have time to follow her therapeutic-deistic prescription to “look inside” for an answer which may prove to be no answer at all.
Watch the clip and then read some of the script below:
Dying Doctor: I don’t want to go on. Can’t you see I’m old? I have cancer. I’ve had enough. The only thing that’s holding me back is that I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what comes next.
Chaplain: What do you think that is?
Dying Doctor: You tell me. Is atonement even possible? What does God want from me?
Chaplain: I think it’s up to each one of us to interpret what God wants.
Dying Doctor: So people can do anything? They can rape, they can murder, they can steal, all in the name of God, and it’s ok?
Chaplain: That’s not what I’m saying.
Dying Doctor: What are you saying? Because all I’m hearing is some New Age, God is love, one-size-fits-all crap! I don’t have time for this now!
Chaplain: I understand.
Dying Doctor: No, you don’t understand! You don’t understand! How could you possibly say that? No, you listen to me. I want a real chaplain who believes in a real God and a real hell.
Chaplain: I hear that you’re frustrated; but you need to ask yourself…
Dying Doctor: No, I don’t need to ask myself! I need answers, and all your questions and your uncertainty are only making things worse!
Chaplain: I know you’re upset.
Dying Doctor: God, I need someone who will look me in the eye and tell me how to find forgiveness! Because, I am running out of time!
Friends, we’re all dying and we’ll all stand before the judgement seat of God one day (Hebrews 9:27). The man in this scene differs from most of us only in the sense that his remaining time on earth is much more of a known quantity. He does not live under any false illusion that he will live forever. With the end of his physical life in sight, he looks — in fear — at what happens after that.
This man’s fear has an answer, but the answer is most certainly not found “within” us. The answer is outside of our mind and heart. God ordained a forgiveness made possible by Him — through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Atonement is possible. Forgiveness can be had. But chaplains who know not Christ cannot lead a dying man to the fountain of salvation.
Many people want a postmodern sexual ethicist, but nobody wants a postmodern brain surgeon. And, when the reality of pending death brings a guilty soul to the point of soul-crisis, only the good news of Jesus Christ provides assurance that one is ready to meet God.
Lest you think for a moment that this is cinematic and not the real struggle of real people, I’ve been having an email exchange for several months with a man in his 90’s who although not a believer, he is a member of a Presbyterian church. Two wives have preceded him in death as has one child who was a Presbyterian minister. But this man does not believe in the reality of a personal, eternal, present, forgiving God. He has confessed his atheism and he seems continually mystified by my claims to know that there is a God because I know God.
Many of our conversations are circular but finally, just last night, I felt compelled to speak plainly. I sent him a message that acknowledged that time is short. He’s having fairly radical surgery tomorrow and it seemed like time to confront the reality that he’s been probing these last few months. He is going to die but he need not die without hope and confidence and assurance of resurrection from death. He need only ask and God will enter in.
Will he give his life to Christ and receive the assurance of salvation and eternal life offered so freely to him? I pray the answer is yes, but I do not know. I certainly hope that if and when he calls on a Chaplain he gets more than meaningless psycho-babble and active listening. I hope God sends a person of faith who will bear the very presence of Christ by the power of God’s holy Spirit into that holy moment when a sinner becomes forevermore one of the saints.