Late last year, when Stan Lee died, I was approached with two questions from one of his fans:
1. Though he didn’t seem to be a Christian, might he have had a “deathbed conversion”? 2. If there was no conversion, wouldn’t it still be reasonable to let him into Heaven? Let me venture a couple of brief answers.
First, yes, absolutely. God could have performed a “thief on the cross” rescue in the last moments of his life. And it didn’t require a committee. Lee could have, in the quiet of his room in those last hours followed the publican in Luke 18, ashamedly and desperately calling out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” and turning to Jesus as the way of forgiveness. I don’t know personally of last-hour cases, but I’ve heard of last-month conversions, particularly from ministers whose parents were lost, ministers who had spent years of prayer and care and witness urging them toward the kingdom. It happens.
I’m reminded of an old Marine, a veteran of Iwo Jima, who came to our church in Illinois saying that he “figured it was time to study for finals.” I can’t say for sure he passed, but, in his case, a sense of mortality was a great motivator. And so it’s ever worth a try at evangelism, whatever the age.
All this being said, it’s frustratingly rare to see an octogenarian being immersed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Most have settled and hardened into some hopeless place or another. As C.S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
As for the second question, the editors of the Entertainment Weekly commemorative edition seem to have come down on the side of his eternal security and bliss. For starters, the cover reads, “Stan Lee: A Life of Marvel,” and it would be a shame to deny salvation to a “marvel,” one who, in Samuel L. Jackson’s words, “made so many believe in the good, the heroic, the villainous, the exciting” and who “most of all, was giving and gracious to us all.” And, of course, it’s always interesting to see non-believers do soteriology—as when Rosario Dawson wishes him “rest in Paradise”; and even weirder, Ryan Reynolds’ exclamation, “Damn . . . RIP Stan” (a nice juxtaposition of concepts).
With a resume and accolades like this, what’s the problem? Well, even this hagiographic publication reports, “In 1947 he fell in love with a charming English hat model and actress, Joan Boocock. She was already wed, rather ambivalently, to another man, so a persistent Lee helped her get a divorce in Reno. He then married her on the spot.” And then, in his last year, “disputed allegations of fraud by two of Lee’s business associates and even charges of elder abuse on the part of his former manager arose, putting a sordid spotlight on the coda of his life.” Look, I’ve enjoyed some of his work, but it seems we might have to do some figuring on pluses and minuses if we’re going to give him a “ticket to Paradise” for good behavior.
Well, actually, no. You only do this if you don’t have a clue how one gets to Paradise. The standard religious answer is that you go through some sort of drill (trips to Mecca; observance of Yom Kippur; “right path” living to boost your karma; temple baptism and missionary service). Christ has a unique way. No drill, just faith and grace. That’s why we’re the singing faith.
Yes, but he lightened and stirred the lives of so many. Well, yes, but a lot of it depends on whether it basically amounted to putting band aids on cancer and encouraging people to develop their own powers of self-sufficiency and resolve.
As the Westminster Catechism put it, the chief end of man is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” And consider these classic words of repentance from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.” Indeed, sins of omission can be as weighty as sins of commission.
If you neglect your basic calling and purpose under God, you’re like a soldier sent out on perimeter patrol who doesn’t make the circuit. Instead, he lingers in a peach grove and then rushes back to share the fruit with the others. “How nice, but are you telling me you left a 270-degree gap in our defense while you did your thing?”
Or I think of a Styrofoam cup with a small hole in the bottom. You can stake it down as a foul line marker for kids’ baseball, give it to a VBS handicraft worker to use in helping the kids make cute pigs with marking pens and pipe cleaners; place it on your desk as a paper clip holder. But it won’t do what it was designed to do, hold hot beverages. So we don’t blame the person who tosses it away. No, we’re not inanimate objects. We’re worse. The useless cup is innocent. We’re not.
Stan Lee had nearly a hundred years on earth to glorify and enjoy God, and I can find no sign that he did either, except to the extent that his creative work gave testimony to God’s creative work, something he did not acknowledge. Rather, while entertaining Christians, he also helped to fill the emptiness of lost lives, by providing them substitute stories and heroes (Spiderman rather than Paul, Ironman rather than Lottie Moon), and so helped keep them distracted.
So he may have excelled in comics, but his life was tragic, despite the acclaim.
Mark Coppenger is professor of Christian philosophy and ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary