God and Judgement

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Икона "Страшный суд"

Икона “Страшный суд” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today many people desire a God who is nonjudgmental. This God will not judge anyone for their behavior. Even if He does judge, He always forgives, whether or not a person is repentant. He never condemns any act as intrinsically wrong. If the Bible or church teaching that something is essential for salvation, this God says, “Religion gets in the way of a relationship with me. Be spiritual, not religious.” This God demands no religious duties. This God is easygoing when it comes to moral rules. For this God, Hell is an impossibility. All people will spend eternity with Him in Heaven.

One of the amazing facts about contemporary America is that some people will actually worship a deity like the one described in the above paragraph. This pusillanimous being is as worthy of worship as Santa Claus dropping down a chimney. A God without judgment is no God at all. He can be merciful–and mercy only makes sense in the context of judgement anyway.

If God is our Creator, it is reasonable to suppose that He would reveal Himself to man, not only though natural revelation but also through special revelation. He would have further reason to reveal Himself if human beings are fundamentally flawed. Now human beings are fundamentally flawed–it does not take the mass killings of the twentieth century or the conflicts of the twenty-first to see that this is the case. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Gulag Archipelago:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”

God would, if He is the personal God in which Christians believe, provide information essential for deliverance from this flawed state. For Christians, God reveals Himself in Holy Scripture (in Roman Catholic thought, through Holy Tradition as well). Both sources of authority for Christianity reveal a God of both judgement and mercy. God holds people responsible for both their moral and religious lives. Humans all sin–they all do things morally wrong–sometimes not knowing an action is sinful, sometimes being controlled by a force such as lust, and sometimes they plan to perform an action they realize is wrong. All sins are forgivable under the condition of repentance. An obstinate lack of repentance yields the judgment of God, and Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition make is clear that God will allow those who wish to sin to keep to themselves. It is not as much that God withdraws from them–He allows them to withdraw themselves. Since God is the source of all being, goodness, and happiness, their state can only lead to misery. Saying to the sinner, “THY will be done” is a form of judgment, for it says that the sinner cannot live in the presence of God. The attitude of rebellion against God can be fostered by a rebellion against the moral law (which is a subset of the natural law that is available to all people who are able to use their reason). Rebellion against religious limitations, especially against the “scandal of particularity” of Christianity, can also influence someone to stop following God’s revelation to man.

The Church sets theological limits through the Creeds, short statements of belief that summarize the fleshing out of Scripture via Holy Tradition. There are certain beliefs Christians must affirm–if a Christian openly denies these key beliefs (the bodily resurrection of Christ, for instance) and teaches that error, he is liable to be excommunicated. This does not imply he is going to Hell, but the attitude underlying heresy, a pride that refuses to submit to the Church’s teaching, may reflect a character that would not enjoy being in God’s presence.

Holy Scripture and Tradition also make moral demands–no one can keep them perfectly, and they are challenging. “Love your enemies” is almost practically impossible to follow, though some Christians have done so. Avoiding hatred, envy, spite, jealousy, and excessive anger are imperative on the Christian, but no one avoids practicing at least one of these flaws at some point in one’s life. The church states that abortion and active euthanasia as well as physician-assisted suicide are morally wrong–and there is an arrogance to the claim that “I have the right to determine the time and manner of my own death.” Such arrogance is spiritually dangerous. The refusal to follow the Church’s sexual morality can occur due to weakness–or someone may be sexually immoral on purpose yet realize it is wrong. There is spiritual hope for such individuals. But God’s judgment may fall upon those individuals who say that “wrong is right” and “right is wrong” concerning the Church’s sexual ethics. This also reveals an arrogance, a refusal to submit to legitimate authority. Such arrogance may result in God’s judgment in the sense that God may allow those people to do what they will on their own. I am sure He will always be open to receiving them, but they, due to their free will, could decide to eternally reject God. “The doors to Hell are locked on the inside,” said C. S. Lewis.

The Christian God is worthy of worship not only because He is Creator of all things, but also because He is our ultimate judge. He is also a God of mercy–but mercy extends to those open to correction and repentance. Others will refuse to receive such mercy, and God’s judgment is to allow them to live in such a state in their own world–that is, Hell. I personally do not want to worship Santa Claus. God in His glory, justice, and mercy is the only being worthy of worship.

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The Possibility of Punishment after Death

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Dante and Virgil in Hell

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Joseph Mengele lives a comfortable life in Argentina, even though he tortured Jews in the most hideous ways in his medical “experiments.” He dies quickly in a swimming accident. Controversial jury decisions put people back on the streets who may be murdering psychopaths. A spiteful person full of hatred tells lies that ruin the reputation of a good person, who leaves town and dies a pauper. The spiteful person gets rich and is admired by others in his community. The good suffer, the evil prosper, and so often there is no justice. How can the scales of justice be tipped in favor of justice in a world that fails so much to be just?

The Christian doctrine of punishment after death offers one answer. This is not to deny that other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have a doctrine of suffering for sins after death in a bad reincarnated state based on their aggregated good or bad karma–but this is not the Christian doctrine of punishment. I also deny the gruesome literal pictures of hell pushed on people in conservative Protestant and in some Roman Catholic Churches and schools in the past. The notion of a person suffering in a literal fire for eternity does count against the goodness of God. But C. S. Lewis‘ notion that hell is people who choose against God and refuse to come to God because they desire to do their own will rather than God’s. God just lets them be and withdraws His presence. An evil person in hell could theoretically leave at any time, but some people are so desperately wicked that they will tell God to leave them alone rather than live under God’s terms in heaven. But such a life inevitably leads to misery and a personality that gets more fragmented over time. Eventually only shards of a person remain. Living apart from God is the worst punishment of all–and given a twisted enough will this can last forever. Thus, the Christian Church has affirmed the possibility of eternal punishment as well as the possibility that hell may be empty with only Purgatory existing. I hope the latter view is correct; but the former view makes more sense of human freedom and makes more sense of psychopathy and sociopathy. Some individuals are permanently twisted–and if they are such good manipulators, with the help of a manipulative lawyer, that they “beat the system” on earth, they will not be able to beat the justice of God. In the end their existence will be miserable–they will have no one else to manipulate or hurt and will live only with their immense egos eating away at their souls. Finally their egos will eat their identity, never wholly destroying it, but making a person as near to nothingness as possible. Perhaps there will be a kernel of goodness (beyond the metaphysical good of existing) that leads all these individuals to repent and turn away from the self to God. Perhaps John Hick is correct in his universalism. If a bad person is temporarily punished to the point of seeing the error of his ways and repenting, that is a good thing. We don’t know, and hope beyond hope that the worst people will repent while finding comfort that they will receive justice after this life is over, justice that they can only avoid by repentance, faith, and love so that they are open to the grace of God. I trust that God knows better than any of us what is in a person’s heart, and He will ensure that the injustices of this life are remedied in the Eschaton.