Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Why Hell Instead of House Arrest?

My favorite question - WHY? - was asked by fellow blogger Slapdash, who uses it to challenge my previous post:
Why does evil deserve eternal punishment? How on earth does it square with Jesus' commands for us to forgive others 70x7 times, and to turn the other cheek? Why does God insist that we forgive others for their sin/evil, but he doesn't actually have to forgive us for our sin/evil, and in fact will infinitely punish those who committed finite crimes here on earth?

Answering these questions is a bit tricky, not because there are no answers, but because I need to make sure I don't come across as though I have a right to do any more than recount them. I also don't want to give the impression that hell and eternal punishment is something I can talk about glibly. The reality of hell and the lake of fire is something that would shut every mouth, were we to grasp even an edge of it.
Nonetheless, I am going to foray into this minefield of a topic because the questions Slapdash asks are vital ones, and the answers even more so.
I think there are three aspects to what we are calling "punishment". One is just that - punishment, or moral retribution; a fair return for an evil act. When we talk about justice, we are talking about morality - not values, but rather those deep "rightnesses" that underlay our knowledge and on which the universe is hinged. Another aspect is destruction. The third is separation. (For ease' sake, I'll refer to the final dealing with evil, or "punishment", as simply "hell", although those of you familiar with the Biblical use of the word will know that I am not technically correct in doing that. Notwithstanding, I press on...)
Hell does involve a punishment - the just reward for evil. It is a punishment that all who choose evil will share, but it was not created for human beings. It was created for the Devil (Satan) and his angels. (Matthew 25:41) Humans were tricked into choosing self over God and allowing Satan to have a moral power over them, even though they were warned that doing so meant death. Hell is not our punishment, it is Satan's, but we will share it with him if we allow him to choose for us. Satan is more powerful than we are. We cannot resist him, except with God's help, who is stronger. The death of Jesus means that the torments of the lake of fire are not the just desserts of one who has stumbled and fallen, but rather the ultimate destination of one who has ultimately chosen the road of selfish pleasure (sin) over the Source of all goodness. If we choose self, we have no power against such an enemy as Satan, and he will overtake and choose for us. It is he who longs for us to be in hell.
God, knowing that we are born into a world that is already under Satan's power, demonstrated his nature- Love- when he took responsibility for our sin and took on himself the sentence of death that Evil, with the inarguable sanction of humanity's choice of self over God, had every moral right to impose. This is what both logic and our moral sense of things tells us a God who is good should do, but not one of us has the faintest inkling what it cost him, who is Light and Life and Love; who is all powerful, all knowing, and whose presence reaches throughout the expanses of all the universes - to subject himself to life as a created being and bow in submission to death, that great bastion of Evil. In any case, he took on death in recognition of two things: the moral rights of Evil over the human race, who had chosen it over him; and his own moral responsibility to them whom he had created in love. Evil no longer has the right to hang a death sentence over humanity, because God came in flesh as Jesus Christ and satisfied its claim to our lives with his own.
Thus God becomes both the enforcer of the moral laws and the one bent beneath them. He doesn't lighten the blow as he accepts sin's consequences. He forgives freely, but he hasn't forgiven us cheaply or easily. He allowed himself, for a period of about thirty years, to be mocked and ignored and thought a fool. He placed himself in a world ruled by Satan, and made himself subject to the indignities that Evil had wrought amongst his magnificent creation - hunger and thirst and tiredness and fear and pain. Then he, creator of heaven and earth, bowed himself and accepted death.
He who is God accepted such humiliation because there was no other way to satisfy the claims of sin. As Jesus comes face to face with his choice, alone in the garden at Gethsemane, he pleads with his Father, "If there is any other way..."
But there is no other way for God to be God.
A God who is unchanging AND good AND all-powerful cannot, even for a second, being good, become amoral; nor can he, being all-powerful, refuse to exert his power for good. Evil is what sets itself against good. It is not that God chooses to destroy evil, but rather that, being both good and all-powerful, it is his nature and his responsibility to destroy evil. Hell is the place where evil is kept continually in the state of destruction.
The third aspect of hell is, as I have mentioned, separation. The lake of fire takes its nature from the absence of God. God will have turned his back on such as fill its depths.
When the grandfatherly God of popular imagination is rejected, no such horrors as those of an eternal state of dying are necessitated. But when the God who is Love, Light, Truth, be rejected, what comfort can exist where he is not? I am no scientist, but I have a rudimentary understanding of what is necessitated by a vacuum. When God withdraws, there is only evil and its torments left to go rushing into the void.

What then of Jesus' commands to forgive? How is it that we may let evil go its way, when he cannot?
God's command to those who have been freed by Jesus' death is to recognize that they have not liberated themselves. Just as we who have been forgiven were in need of God's goodness and mercy, so we are to offer goodness and mercy to those who will accept it from us. Just as we did not deserve what God gave, so we are commanded not to put constraints on whom we offer goodness and forgiveness. It is the same moral law that both allows us to be forgiven and makes it necessary for us to forgive. If we refuse to recognize our responsibility to forgive others, we at the same time reject God's forgiveness by denying his responsibility to forgive US.
We must forgive because he has died to offer us forgiveness. He cannot overlook evil, but, having dealt with evil on a moral level, he can set us free from its grasp. He must judge and may only forgive at his own cost.
As God, it is not only his right, but his responsibility to judge. We cannot judge each other for numerous reasons. We are fallible; God is perfect. We cannot see hearts and motives; God reads the meanings behind our thoughts. It can never be the right of one sinner to judge another sinner. What can we do, morally, except forgive?
And yet, how much it has cost God to forgive? He has paid the price with his own blood, and he longs to forgive! It is not sin that will stop him, nor evil, but only the choice to reject him, which is the natural and inalienable right of an eternal soul.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

God is Not a Big Meanie

Had an interesting conversation with one of my most broadminded friends tonight. I love getting her perspective. We talked about evil, the world, and us. I've been thinking aboout how these things relate to God.
Let's face it, God gets a bad rap in our culture for being so tough on sin. We're only human, after all, and is sin really SO bad?
There are a couple of questions on which God's reputation really hangs here. First of all, what is sin? Second, how big is it, really?
Broadly, sin is selfishness. It is the opposite of, or the absence of, love. It is the lifebreath of a greater thing - evil.
The problem with sin is this: it is much, much bigger and more powerful than we imagine.
I've been watching the Lord of the Rings for the first time. The thing that grips me is the movie's understanding of evil. Sometimes evil looks good. Sometimes it smiles and speaks softly. Sometimes it comforts the good guy when he's tired. But once chosen, it ends up with a power over the very one who chose, and a vastly greater power to destroy.
This is just myth, our society tells us. These things aren't real. Even children know the difference between reality and the movies.
This is not myth: I throw a bottle in the garbage. (Can't be bothered lugging it all the way out to the recycling bin. It's no big deal - only a single bottle.) Unless everyone in your city and my city and cities all over the world does the same thing. That's millions and billions of bottles filling up landfill sites and polluting lakes and rivers and ultimately, destroying the whole universe. We've gotten used to the idea of living in a polluted earth, whose soil lacks the nutrients to grow the plants we need to be healthy; whose air and water are full of toxins and destructive pollutants. The idea of a depleting ozone and the threat of global warming have got to be commonplace. No big deal, we suppose. Someone in the future will invent a way to fix what we've done.
We haven't yet.
Instead, even with our recycling programs and eco-awareness, we've only barely managed to slow a process that has left us on a dying planet, rampant with cancers and diseases that all our medicines hardly leave a dent in.
When we choose sin, we see ourselves as entirely in control. Just this - that's all I want. Along with our little self-indulgences, evil comes slithering smoothly through the door we've opened just a crack. That evil is destructive. It's bigger than you or me. And we give it a power and a freedom in our lives and in our world that is destroying far more than just us. Take a look at the earth we were supposed to care for. We've forgotten what it's like to breathe pure air, to drink water that hasn't been chemically treated, to eat food that doesn't have to be supplemented with synthetic vitamins. Our selfishness has opened the door to a level of destruction that is bigger than our lives, bigger than our cities. It's destroying our whole universe.
The God of all was willing to suffer and to submit himself to death in order to defeat sin. When he judges sin, he's not being tough - he's dealing the only way possible with his enemy and ours. There is no such thing as a little sin - when it comes in, it brings destruction with it. There's no overlooking it. There's no brushing it under the table. There's no excusing it with the "we're only human" mantra.
Sin and evil will either be destroyed without mercy or they will destroy without mercy.