Adoniram Judson was tired and discouraged and disgusted-and probably even sheepish-on this New England night in the early 1800's. Only a year earlier, he'd set off in search of fame as an actor and playwright in New York City. Now he was on a journey back to the house of his father, a defeated man. Intimately familiar with Scripture from his childhood training, the parallels between this trek and that of the prodigal son surely couldn't have escaped his notice. It was a low point in his life, to be sure.
Stopping at an inn on the way, he was warned the only room available was next to a room where a man was dying, and it was likely to be loud and distressing through the night. Judson was so tired he doubted it would matter, and he took the room.
How wrong he was became almost instantly apparent.
Between the cries of the man close to death and the stirring and emotion of those with him, the noises kept him from sleeping. Willing or not, Adoniram Judson spent a sleepless night as an eavesdropping witness to the end of a human life, and it only added to the misery he himself was feeling. It's not hard to imagine him replaying the string of events that brought him to this place.
Raised in the Christian faith, the young Judson had been "talked out of it" by close college friends, some of whom were atheists, but most of whom were Deists-which alongside universalist theology was the newest fad in religion in early American history. Among those friends of Judson's at Brown University was Jacob Eames, and history records him as chief culprit in swaying young Judson from Christ and to culture.
Well into the wee hours of the morning, silence enveloped the room next door, death having finally claimed its' latest victim. Checking out of the inn the following morning, Judson asked the innkeeper if he had been a friend of the deceased. "No," he replied, explaining the young man was a stranger who had checked in on a trip, too. "Jacob Eames was his name."
Incredibly, Judson's good friend from college, and the man who "talked" Judson out of his faith, was the man who died in bed next to his room that night.
Tortured by the sounds from the next room, and by his own failures, Judson found himself wondering what eternity held for the "stranger" next door. The stunning discovery that it was his friend Eames who entered eternity's uncertainty catapulted Judson forward on his journey back to Christ. For the rest of his life, Judson would point to this night as the time when he came face to face with the deepest questions in the human soul, and his fullest understanding that those questions could only be answered by Jesus Christ. What was a journey to the home of his father turned into a journey Home to his heavenly Father, too. Despite its' redemptive impact on his own soul, Eames' death likely forever haunted Judson. After all, Eames had watched Judson give up on Jesus; how could he not be haunted by that?
The question of eternity is the most important question in the human journey, but it is the question we're afraid to ask as "modern Christians." Does Hell exist? If it does, then nothing in life is as important as warning people away from the awful eternality of its' terrible sentence. But if it doesn't, then nothing in Scripture may be counted as truth-and nothing we do, evil or good, makes much sense.
Adoniram Judson faced eternity first by listening, unknowingly, as a friend made that fateful trek alone and without the God Judson failed to stand up for in his debates with Eames. When will you face the question, and what effect will it have on you? Are we willing to play Russian roulette with the souls of those we love simply because we're uncomfortable thinking about Hell?
Until we sort out what we believe about the end of life, we will never sort out how we should live life itself.
After this experience, Adoniram Judson went on to become one of America's earliest foreign missionaries, serving the Karen people and others in Burma. Throughout his often-distressing service there, which saw him lose not one but two wives, as well as a son and beloved coworkers-and which saw him imprisoned for his work-Judson diligently translated the Bible into the language of the Burmese people. Almost a century later, over 100,000 Christians in Burma traced their salvation to the Bible Judson translated for them in those dark days.
For over three centuries, American Christians have honored Adoniram Judson for his incredible missionary service. But our reverence for heroes often does them a great disservice, turning them into one-dimensional characters who sound more like Superman than real humans. We forget that Judson saw more family members and missionary colleagues die alongside him than he saw souls added to the Church. In fact, it was years before the fruit of his work made itself known, and then in a way no human could have forecast.
We do well to remember the "bumps and missteps" of our heroes, for it helps us see them as human; an important reminder as we learn from the best of their lives without losing sight of their all-too-human condition. After all, what God wants from each of us is not some superhuman effort to be holy; what He wants, instead, is for us to choose to be in an ongoing relationship with Him. When we worship Him, He works through us. When we ignore Him or worship ourselves, He waits patiently for life's struggles to drag our attention back to Him.
Meanwhile, however, the "Eames'" of our lives slip silently into eternity's abyss.
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