In my previous post on Rob Bell, where I unwittingly started a debate concerning atonement theories, one of my friends James left this as part of his comments and pushback on my words.
“Can you really love this kind of God? Can you love a God who is so angry that the only way he can keep from torturing people for all eternity is to vent all of his wrath on his own son? Can you love a God who can now look the other way when people do bad things because they’ve been ‘justified’ — i.e., when he looks at them as they do horrific things he sees them covered in the blood and entrails of the son he poured out his wrath on and is somehow appeased by this?”
First, I do not know if I love this God but for me it is clear that this is the God revealed by scripture. This is the God who I must either accept or reject. To tone Him down or believe something else would require me to dismiss large chunks of scripture and aspects of God’s character that He has seen fit to reveal throughout the Bible’s witness.
Second, your objection to a God who would look at someone who has done heinous evil things as justified, and “turn the other way” touches on something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. I, and others, see that God forgives some and condemns others in a rather arbitrary fashion. God himself says that He will compassion one whom He has compassion and mercy on whom He has mercy. This statement in and of itself does not seem to be problematic, at least initially. However, for you and many others, it is offensive when we start considering the heinous evils some humans do on this earth.
How could God forgive and bring into the kingdom a rapist, a murder or an evil dictator? This goes against our hope and desire that justice will find everyone who has done evil, especially those who appear to escape punishment in this life. They do not get the punishment they deserve. We often hear people talk about some evil people really “earning their place in Hell.” The idea that people who have earned their place in Hell could end up in Heaven is offensive to us. God doesn’t give people what they deserve and in this He appears unjust or unfair. If this was not enough, it seems this same God can and will look upon loving and helpful people and condemn them. Loving grandmothers, kid brothers, the Anne Frank’s and the Ghandi’s of this world will all be condemned them to Hell for failing to accept Jesus Christ as the one path to the Father. So God could forgive and bring to eternal life a murderer but someone who has been really good in this life may be condemned to eternal torment?
This seems offensive to many because a fundamental principle for justice and fairness is that bad people deserve punishment and good people deserve a reward. This is the retributive principle that is common to many world religions and I believe is an innate sense of basic justice across cultures throughout time. Therefore, evil people being rewarded and good people being punished is unjust or unfair. To put this whole complaint against God in the form of an analogy…
Say there are two buses, one filled with convicted inmates headed to death-row for their crimes, and another bus is filled with schoolchildren. While the buses are traveling over a bridge it collapses into a frigid river. Five inmates and five schoolchildren survive the crash and as luck would have it a fisherman was in the river with a boat that can seat five passengers. The fisherman can clearly see the inmates were inmates by their uniforms and the decals on their bus and that the school-children were school-children. I think we can all agree that if that fisherman came back to shore with three convicts and two school-children there would be an uproar, and it would be an absolute scandal if he saved the inmates and left all the children to die. If he came back with five children, everyone would say that he made the right choice and was a hero, maybe even an angel sent by God. Few, if any, would raise a cry over the inmates who died in the frigid river. Society had already decided they deserved death anyway.
However, it appears from scripture that God’s forgiveness doesn’t not operate by our rules of justice and fairness. God’s forgiveness seems to be arbitrary; it is totally divorced from human merit. It is not just that we cannot earn our salvation salvation but in it appears that God decides who will come to grace and who will not.
Let me be clear on this point – I have come to believe in double-predestination because it is in scripture. I also think double-predestination is completely irrelevant because no one has any clue who God has predestined to be saved and who God has predestined to be condemned.
If God were the fisherman in the above analogy, it appears that He would come back with a mixed boat with some inmates and some school-children. Many would take this as a sign of God being unfair or unjust.
I would suggest that the fact that God’s forgiveness is totally divorced from human merit is the only reason any of us have any hope of finding forgiveness. Furthermore, I think the fact that and that God can have forgiveness on despicable murderers, rapists and dictators is our only assurance that He can also extend forgiveness to people like us. The fact that God’s forgiveness is totally divorced form human merit is good news, not a sign of any injustice on God’s part. I think more Christians would believe this if they stopped for a moment and really understood the gravity their own sin.
Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Most Christians wipe their ass with this verse.
Let me repeat that. Most Christians wipe their ass with this verse and treat it with contempt, ride roughshod over it, or cut it from their Bibles and their memory. While most Christians I have met, especially those raised in the Church, could repeat this verse from memory it stays on the tips of their tongue and by their actions, their complaints against God’s justice and their lives, deny that this is what they truly believe.
From my experience, what most Christians believe would read something like this:”For those people…have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (But I’ve led a good enough life to not need God’s forgiveness like those people.)” Likely candidates for those people include really evil people, people from another culture, people from another denomination, people from another race, people from another socio-economic class, people from another political party, people from another sexual orientation, etc. Who those people are is ultimately irrelevant. The point that is irrelevant is that many Christians believe sinful people are out there as opposed to the good people, like them, in here.
I fear that many Christians come to believe Jesus blood was only needed to cover up the sins of really evil people, or at least people who are worst than themselves. Self-righteousness is pervasive in our culture and in our churches and I fear those raised in the faith are especially susceptible to this attitude. Many of my peers, who have done what is right and for the most part not turned from the ways of the Lord, fail to see their dire need for forgiveness and either fail to have gratitude for God for their own forgiveness or even complain about his justice. Scripture agrees with me on this point.
Jesus Anointed by a Sinful Woman (Luke 7:36-50)
36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,[c] and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
I fear that many Christians, like the disciples, are not really connected with their need for divine forgiveness and consequently fail to love God or extend grace and mercy to other human beings. I do not mean to suggest that Christians should go out and sin more so that they would feel this need; I think Christians need to ponder the gravity and the weight of the sins they have already committed…the sins they think are “less sins” or “no big deal.”
I think everyone, Christian or non-Christian, places our sins or character defects or mistakes on a gradient scale that’s perpetually weighted so that we are better than others or at least not as bad as the really evil people. But, in the eyes of God is the regular and routine sexual sin committed by a pornstar somehow “more” sexual sin than a Christian wife who cheats on her husband? Is a person who kills in a fit of anger somehow “more” sinful than someone who routinely and in a calculated manner slanders hundreds in Christian prayer circles? If we break the law at one point are we not all law-breakers?
I think the truth of the matter is that we have all earned our place in Hell. We are all the sinful woman, we just don’t own it yet.
Our complain against God’s apparent injustice in arbitrarily extending forgiveness, even towards really evil or bad people, falls apart when we stop thinking of ourselves as better than or distinct from other sinners, those people who really deserve to be punished. To return to the analogy above, the reality of this world is that there is no busload of schoolchildren. There is just us. A bunch of inmates en route to our earned judgment. There are no innocents upon the face of this Earth. If the fisherman returned with five out of ten inmates, his justice would not be questioned no matter which five he returned with because there wasn’t someone “better” or “more innocent” to save.
To personalize this I want to share how I came this position myself.
I am completely guilty of self-righteousness and am or have been guilty of everything I am accusing Christians of in this post. High school was probably the worst for a variety of reasons. I was raised in the Church and for the most part avoided “heinous sins.” I was better than “those people” who slept with their girlfriends, or didn’t go to Church, or stole from stores, or whatever. While I had memorized Romans 3:23 I, at the end of the day, did not act like I needed forgiveness.
However, for years I was secretly a sex addict. I got into recovery in 2008 and as part of the process I did a Fourth Step. Step Four reads: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This means we make a huge account for our lives. It is literally a list of fears, resentments, disappointments, abuses and hurts we addict are infamous for having and causing. We then take this list and work through a grid of sorts to move from blaming others to seeing our responsibility in the situation. While sometimes, such as in the case of a rape or child abuse, we come to a place where we see that we had no guilt and absolve ourselves of self-hate or self-blame that often happens after these traumas. However, many times we come to a place where for the first time we consider our responsibility in any given situation or broken relationship.
While my self-righteousness had slowly ebbed and faded I still would have felt that it was unfair for God to extend mercy and grace towards really bad people. As I have heard, and continue to hear, many stories of trauma and abuse, I really did not want to see those people in heaven. Forever. Not getting punished for what they did to my friends. Then something happened as I was working the Fourth Step again this last Fall.
I have often pondered who I hurt in my addiction to pornography. I used to think it was a “victimless crime” of sorts but I quickly had to be honest that I was hurting myself, but that didn’t matter because I really didn’t count. The self-hate inherent in that statement aside I had never robbed anyone to pay for pornography, nor used the services of a sex worker of any kind, so did I really hurt anyone? As I was working my Fourth Step a news story broke about two porn production companies who had to be shut down. An outbreak of AIDs had swept through their actors and actresses and their business had been shut down by the government. I had watched lots of porn from both of these companies and enjoyed it. I realized that in the midst of my “victimless crime” I had contributed to a system that is filled with addiction and sexual slavery and objectified women and men. Some of these male and female “objects” were now people, people who were going to die from an incurable disease. Could I really pretend, after working the Fourth Step, that I did not have any blood on my hands?
I think this is when I really saw how desperately I need forgiveness. This is when I got the fact that I need to believe in a God who will be satisfied by the death of His Son, even when the sins are very great. If this is not the case, I doubt anyone really has any hope of finding forgiveness for what we have done.