Swans, Jail, and Canoe-bogganing: What about <insert evil dictator here>?
You die and get to heaven. You smile at Saint Peter on the way in, high five St. Francis, and go exploring. The streets of gold lead to a park, and in the middle of the park there is a duck pond. You have always loved to feed the ducks, so you head down to the water. This place is awesome!
When you get close, you notice someone painting the pond. An easel is set up. You see the back of a man, painting a swan with his water colours. He’s really good at it.
As you approach the man, you break the silent moment with the words, “Nice swan.”
“Thanks.” And then the man turns around, and all you can see is a little moustache under his nose.
How do you feel?
“How could God let THAT person in?!?”
“No! That guy can’t be here. He’s evil!”
“How can both him and I, who lived our lives so differently, both end up here? It’s not fair.”
Good questions, right?
(Adapted from John Watson’s post, Hitler in Heaven? at http://www.redletterchristians.com)
I’m not saying that Hitler is in heaven, but I think that this illustration is a great test for our understanding of our own theology.
We’ll come back to the topic of evil dictators in a bit.
Since last week’s first sermon on hell, I have had some really great feedback. One of my favourite texts was that this topic was so refreshing. Talking about hell is refreshing. Awesome.
In our Extending the Learning conversation, some of you were sharing stories of things you’ve heard that lead to hell. Last week I named Harry Potter and working on Sundays as things people have heard lead to hell. You shared hearing that lipstick, make-up, and motorcycles are also things that lead to hell. One of you shared that when you were younger, you were told that going to Grace Mennonite church leads to hell. Wow.
And as we were laughing at all this, one of you shared something along these lines: We’re able to laugh at the absurdity of all this now, but recently, many people in our community felt the need to tell other people in the community that they were in danger of hell because they didn’t oppose a certain anti-bullying legislation or they don’t hold a correct doctrine about sexual orientation.
Whoa. This went from absurd to serious, from past to present very, from theoretical to practical very quickly, didn’t it?
Do you see what’s going in all these stories? It’s Christians telling other Christians that they are going to hell. And conveniently, the ones going to hell are always “them”. The ones who disagree with me, the ones who hold different beliefs, the ones who act differently than me, and so thus I am going to heaven and they are at risk of going to hell.
Basically, what’s going on here is that it’s the people who are most sure they are going to heaven are the quickest to tell people not like them that they are going to hell. It’s the people most sure they are going to heaven who are the quickest to tell people not like them that they are going to hell.
Convenient, isn’t it?
And also, not very humble.
Here’s a question: If you are heaven, and you are in the presence of God, and all your needs are met and you are fully content, does it matter who else is there with you?
“But, there can’t be evil in heaven!”
Who said anything about evil in heaven? I said people. Not evil.
It’s called Scapegoat Theory. Every community, especially religious ones, develop myths that tell the story of how a community gets rid of evil in its midst. A scapegoat takes the blame for evil, separating the sheep (us) from the goats (them). It can be one person (story about someone who said, “The devil must be mad that my politician won.”), or it can be an entire community, such as the Jews under Hitler. And in an effort to get rid of evil, we are usually allowed to do violence to the scapegoat. Because they’re guilty of evil, right? (even if they’re not). (Baker 65)
To whom do we project evil onto? People who watch Harry Potter? People who work on Sundays? People who don’t believe correct doctrines about sexual orientation? People who don’t believe correct doctrines about hell?
Are we guilty of scapegoat theory, where we project evil onto outsiders, and assume that hell is what they deserve, because they’re evil, and we deserve heaven, because we’re not?
Picture a person who has committed a lot of evil in the world. Hitler, bin Laden, Stalin, Mugabe, you’re next door neighbour, Assad, Amin, Gaddafi… (On a quick aside, do you notice that they’re all men? Maybe we should ban men from being leaders for 100 years or so, until they learn that being a leader means servant-hood, but that’s a digress.)
I’d encourage you to take you that image of evil in our world, and the worst perpetrators of it. Imagine you have this holy God who hates evil and suffering, and they meet. Holiness meets sin. What happens?
When we think about justice, most of us think of judges and lawyers and criminals. Most of us think about retributive justice. Most of us think about “you do the crime, you do the time.” It’s an eye for an eye, but thankfully we’ve gone away from violence towards offenders, and replaced it with fines and jail time. We understand this. You roll through a stop sign, you get a ticket. You don’t pay your parking tickets, you risk getting towed. You assault someone, you go to jail. You sell drugs to children, you go to jail. We hear phrases like “tough on crime,” and “mandatory minimum sentences” all the time.
Most of this isn’t bad. Public safety is important. Law abiding citizens are a good thing. Dangerous people not being given unfettered access to victims is fine by me.
Overall, we live in a system of retributive justice. Usually, you get what’s coming to you.
This isn’t that dissimilar to some of the language we use about hell. You had a choice on what to believe, on how to act… you made that choice, and now you live with the consequences, be it heaven or hell. Hell is God’s punishment for evil.
Well, here’s another question for you. Is retributive justice biblical? And from Genesis to Revelation, from beginning to end, is biblical justice static? Or is it moving in a direction? Where’s it moving us to? Should we still be living in an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” kind of world?
Before the Bible was written, it was “a life for an eye.” There were no limits on revenge. Then along comes the Old Testament and it says “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (Exodus 21:23-25). This was actually placing a limit on revenge, saying the punishment has to match the crime. And then along comes Jesus, who says:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also (Matthew 5:38-39).
Sharon Baker, in her great book Razing Hell, summarizes that biblical justice isn’t meant to be retributive, but rather restorative.
Restorative justice. Where the offender and the offended work at reconciling their relationship.
“Our typical image of God as loving on the one hand and retributive on the other puts justice and love in tension as opposites. We have a God with a split personality. In one instance, God demands retribution for sin; in the next, we see God showing mercy and forgiving sin. But when we read and interpret the Bible from the perspective of through our Jesus lens, we see that the standards of justice are driven by a desire for restoration, relationship, and harmony with God and others. In other words, divine reconciling justice is love in action that seeks to make things right, to reconcile with God and with others.” (Baker 90)
The point of justice no longer becomes punishment, but the point becomes reconciliation.
If we look at sin and evil and through the lens of restorative justice, things change a bit.
Let’s take a look at the idea of the Day of Judgment. And fire.
Often, the idea of judgement has been connected to fire.
John the Baptist, in Matthew 3:12, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Jesus says in Matthew 7:19, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Fire is connected to God’s wrath. This connection of fire to judgement has led us to assume that fire will be an integral part of hell, and thus has led us to understand fire as bad.
But, as usual, things may not be always as they seem. Here’s a question: What if fire could also be considered good?
God appears to Moses as a burning bush, God leads his people out of Egypt by a pillar of fire,
Ezekiel sees God as a flashing fire that burns with splendour (Ezek. 1:4, 13-14), and for Malachi, God is the fire that refines and purifies (Mal 3:2-3, 4:1). The writer of Hebrews even says that our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29). (Baker
Let’s use 1 Corinthians 3 as an example of how fire could be good.
11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
“Did you catch that? We all go through the flames. Some of our work will be saved, some will be destroyed, but the builder will be saved. The fire burns away the impurities, not the person. If God is the devouring fire, then standing in the presence of God is to stand in the fire. To stand in the flames means to burn away the chaff, the wickedness, and the sinfulness.” (Baker 114-115)
Adapted from Baker (115-116)
Take the image of your person who has done lots and lots of evil. Lots of it. Really bad dude. Killed thousands of people. Let’s give him a name. Let’s call him Dexter.
Dexter passes away. He prepares to go into the presence of God. His attitude smacks of rebellion, anger, and hatred because he knows the time for payback has arrived. He just knows that God is going to judge him harshly and throw him in eternal torture as punishment, and he hates God for it.
Dexter comes into the throne room of God. Glaring flames of fire, so bright and hot that he cannot see, confront him. His anger and rebellion turn to sheer terror. He moves closer to the flames, and as he does so, he realizes that the blazing fire is God. The closer he gets to God, the more deeply he feels, not God’s hatred or judgment, but God’s love. It is a love of such magnitude that, with its abundance, it acts as wrath, judging him for deficiency, and with its purity, it serves as a hell, punishing him for his depravity. God’s love and mercy, both acting as judgment, are so extravagant, so abundant, so incomprehensible that they completely overwhelm Dexter. Then he hears a voice from the fire. He does not hear, “You evil, vile murderer. I am going to get you now. Revenge, punishment, and torture forever and ever!” Instead, he hears God say with sorry forged from love, “I have loved you with an everlasting love. But look at your life; what have you done?”
Totally undone by God’s unorthodox approach, Dexter falls to his face, still afraid but with his hatred replaced by remorse. As his life flashes before his eyes, he sees all the victims, mothers crying for their lost sons, children begging for the return of their murdered fathers, the 18 year old boy dying alone on the battlefield, crying for his mother. Dexter hears their screams, sees their bloody and battered bodies, listens as they cry out for mercy. And he knows he gave none. Yet here he stands in the fire of God, receiving what he never gave. He looks to his right and sees his victims. Still in the fire, God makes him go to each one and lay his hand upon their hearts. As he does so, he feels all their pain, all of their disappointments, all of their fear, and knows that he has caused it all. Within the crowd of victims, the last one he has left to touch, he sees Jesus.
When he places his hand on Jesus’ heart, he not only feels the pain, sorrow, and the disappointment he has caused Jesus; he also feels the unconditional love that Jesus has for him. All the while the fire of God burns, devouring Dexter’s wickedness and evil deeds. Lest you think he gets off too easy, this is hell for him. With gnashing teeth and uncontrollable weeping, his heart breaks, and he cries in utter remorse, in unmitigated repentance, knowing he can never undo the damage he has caused. Seeing his repentance and the unendurable and seemingly unending pain he feels as the fire burns off the chaff of his evil deeds, the victims are vindicated. The one thing victims most often wish for is that their offender feel remorse and know the terrible pain he has caused them. Dexter’s immense remorse and pain at the knowledge of his sin against them satisfy this need.
The paradox of God’s fire is that the farther a person stands from God in that day, the more pain the fire causes as it burns away the impurities. Dexter doesn’t get away with murder; he doesn’t get to take a walk without suffering any consequences. He burns in God’s eternal fire. The more he burns, the closer he gets to God, until finally he stands next to God, purified, free from sin, and ready to hear God’s words.
Then Dexter hears God say, “I forgive you. Will you be reconciled to me and to those you have wronged?” Barely able to answer, Dexter nods his head in utter disbelief. Much to his astonishment, God asks Dexter’s victims to draw near to Dexter and put their hands on his heart. As they touch him, each one feels Dexter’s pain, his fear, his disappointment; they can hear his cries as a child, know his shame as an adult, and understand who he was as an evil ruler. Themselves forgiven and embraced by the love of God, they extend that same kind of grace to Dexter, forgiving him his sins against them. At last Jesus stands before him, touches Dexter’s heart, and says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love, and I forgive you. Will you enter into my kingdom and be restored to God?” And Dexter accepts. He has been judged by the fire of love; he has walked through the fire of God’s wrath; he has been purified by the fire of God’s mercy. He receives forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, and he enters the kingdom of God, tested by fire, forgiven by grace.
The possibility exists, however, that Dexter does not accept God’s offer of restoration, or that after the testing of the fire, nothing remains of him at all. Nothing. In order to preserve human freedom, which God gave to us at creation, we must allow for the possibility that some people will still reject God. The fire does not eliminate the gift of human freedom.
Some of you may be thinking: That’s an interesting story.
Others may be thinking: I still think he gets off too easy. Well, in our traditional understanding of heaven and hell, if Dexter made a death bed confession, he’d be getting off too easy as well, wouldn’t he?
One of the things I like about this story is that God’s integrity is preserved. If we take the words of Jesus seriously, we are to love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us, and walk the extra mile.
The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:19-21 that we’re to leave room for God’s wrath, and instead of us taking revenge, “If you enemy is hungry, feed him; if she is thirsty, give her something to drink. In doing this, you will be heap burning coals on their head. Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”
“Would God command us to love enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and return evil with blessing and then do the opposite? We’re told to imitate God, right? I love that Romans passage, because it really contradicts the idea of a vengeful God whose wrath demands retribution. In this case, the retributive action Is to respond in love. When we “leave room for the wrath of God,” we deal with enemies the way God does: We bless them.” (Baker 121)
But that’s still not fair! In this life, people get to do what they want and still get a chance at heaven! What’s the point of me being a Christian now! Why did I wake up on Sunday mornings and give money to church and trying to love my enemies when it’s been hard and give up my evenings to go tobogganing in a canoe with junior high kids?
Sounds a bit like a parable that Jesus told about some workers for a vineyard. Some were hired at 9 am, some at noon, and some at 5 pm, and they all got paid the same. When they cried “that’s not fair!”, the boss said: You agreed to this. I can pay people whatever I want! (Matthew 20:13-16).
It also sounds a bit like a parable about 2 sons. 1 son took half his father’s wealth, went and spent it on wild living, came back empty handed with his tail between his legs, and his father had the nerve to throw a party. When the older son heard about the party, “he came angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
But he answered, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
“My son,”, the father said, “you were always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:28-31)
If you ask me, when we’re are quick to point out who’s not going to heaven, when we are the workers who scream “That’s not fair!”, when we’re the son who is completely unaware of the good things his father has shared with him his entire life, when we refuse to join the party…. I don’t think we’re not that far from hell after all.
Because really, do any of us deserve grace?
God’s justice isn’t about putting people in hell. God’s justice is about restoration. Reconciliation. Relationships.
Because the story is about God…
renewing all things – Matthew 19:28
restoring all things – Acts 3:19
reconciling all things – Colossians 1:20
(Poets, Preachers, and Prophets – Rob Bell)
And we get to be a part of it.
** Dear internet reader. Please read the disclaimers both before and after Part 1. Thanks! **