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“The Religious Myth of a Cosmic Car Wash”
An Excerpt from Preparing for Heaven: What Dallas Willard Taught Me About Living, Dying, and Eternal Life
By Gary Black Jr.

Dallas recognized better than anyone I have ever known why my grandmother and countless other Christians like her find it so difficult to experience the change they desire in their lives and their characters. Dallas understood how religious views and opinions can sometimes result in disastrous consequences if applied uncritically without sound, scriptural wisdom, teaching, and judgment. Dallas told me, on more than one occasion in reference to many different contexts, “That is just part of being caught up in ‘the systems of the world.’ ” One of the more embedded systems of belief we discussed relates to an often unconscious yet powerful assumption found within many brands of Christianity regarding the nature of eternal existence in heaven. This common assumption inaccurately accepts as fact that transformative change during earthly life is nonessential or something of a luxury. Such a belief rests on the supposition that a person’s entire character will be miraculously and holistically transformed into a completely perfected state the very instant a saved soul enters heaven.

Let me try to illustrate these ideas as clearly as possible. Imagine the eternal soul of a disciple of Jesus as represented by a perfect circle, with one quarter of the circle shaded black to represent the part of the soul that has been captured or controlled by the darkness of sin. The common assumption for most people is that, immediately upon dying, the circle representing the soul will go through what Dallas called a “cosmic car wash” and emerge in heaven free of the black stain of sin. In other words, many Christians assume that, at the moment of our death, every ounce of sin is simply erased as if it never happened. And what we end up with is a perfectly completed, or whole and finished, soul. “It won’t be like that,” Dallas said of this assumption.

Perhaps a more accurate illustration would be to visualize our souls entering eternity as a misshapen circle, more oblong than round, or as a pie with a significant slice missing. Dallas argued that a disciple’s soul enters heaven completely sinless, but not complete, not flawlessly round, not whole. Our sin is removed, but incompleteness remains. Part of the problem we face in thinking about this idea comes from our confusion centered on the two words perfect and complete. We enter heaven perfect, meaning without sin, but we are not complete. We are not finished, nor is God finished with us. As an example, Dallas would say often that a small tree sprout could be perfectly developed at every stage of its maturation while remaining incomplete. Likewise, as we learn to choose to live and walk with Jesus in the intermediate state of paradise, he is able to complete the work he first began in us, bringing us to our fullness in Christ. Eventually God will finish the work he started in us (Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:23–24). But this will take some effort, time, and grace.

Dallas and I kidded that the concept of instant character transformation at death may even mean that the more stubborn among us will need more than a car wash. Perhaps there will be a celestial auto body shop to straighten, replace, or refinish every flaw, dent, and ding in our character. Dallas simply thought that the myth of a cosmic car wash is inconsistent with the biblical witness, with what we know about human life, life with God, the power of the human will, and human spiritual transformation.

To be clear, the myth at the crux of the cosmic car wash ideology is the belief that as our last breath leaves our physical body, so too, we leave all of the results or effects of our sin behind. Thus, the assumption goes, we begin eternity, from the very moment we “open our eyes” or “wake up” in heaven as shiny, new spiritual beings, utterly whole, lacking in nothing, in a state as if our sin and its effects have left no impact on our lives or perhaps never existed at all. Such a belief system drains much, if not most, of the motivation away from engaging in the difficult, slow, and patient process of spiritual transformation and character development while on earth. Instead, all the cosmic car wash requires is for us to hang on by our fingernails, keeping hold of our systems of “sin management” until we die, and the car wash will take care of the rest.

Much of the cosmic car wash theology seems to stem from a misapplication of this section of Psalm 51:

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
(Ps. 51:6–9)

This is a beautiful passage full of truth; however, there is no ample or substantive evidence in the teachings of Jesus, or in the scriptures as a whole, to support elevating the metaphors of washing or the whiteness of snow into a theological claim to validate instant, complete perfection at the point of physical death. In fact, the presumption of attaining instant, complete transformation at the moment of death may actually work against at least parts of what scripture describes as the state one assumes in eternity.

Dallas believed that heavenly existence will not be a state wherein it is as if we had never sinned. Instead, we will forever realize and be eternally thankful for the grand mercy and grace of God’s love and forgiveness. Such awareness will require an understanding of why we were forgiven, some understanding of what we were forgiven of, and the depths of love that overcame our sin. The constant realization of such huge measures of undeserved favor will be a major cause of our never-ending gratitude and worship of Christ throughout eternity. To erase the memory of sin is to also erase the conscious awareness of God’s overwhelming power, grace, love, mercy, and faithfulness.

Yet it is important to state that maintaining a memory of sin does not mean sin continues to have dominion over us. Truly, sin will have no power in heaven. But part of the memory of sin’s black stain works to create the eternal backdrop on which the illimitable brightness of God’s glorious acts throughout history will shine. And with it, the conscious depth of our gratitude and wonder of God’s works will be reflected as well.

As disciples of Jesus we are to be actively developing our ability to reign or rule with God as citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20–21). This is what my grandmother missed out on during her lifetime on earth. What Dallas came to understand and demonstrated early in his life is that one does not rule in eternity if one chooses not to be ruled in earthly life as an ambassador of the Kingdom of God. The gospel of Jesus teaches we are intended to do both: to rule and be ruled. We live in this world, but we are not from this world. We have the ability to do this now through a discipling relationship with Christ in order to prepare ourselves to accomplish God’s plan for our lives both now and into eternity.

Dallas believed not in a car wash that disrupts and separates this life from the next, but in a continuous, interactive, communicative experience and existence that connects this life and the next. I was able to hear him describe exactly this sort of powerful and joyous encounter with the heavenly realms in his last few days, which I outline in detail at the end of the next chapter. Some people define these as near-death experiences. But in reality, watching Dallas in his last few days on earth, I have come to realize these are moments when we have an opportunity to come close to what true life really is intended to be. They become near-life experiences because in these moments, death and its sting can seem as if they are as temporary and inconsequential as a mirage or mist (James 4:14).

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