Thursday, May 19, 2011

Reflections on hell and justice

Consider with me the following events:
  • Item #1: Rob Bell, the well-known Grand Rapids pastor formerly known as an evangelical, openly flirts with universalism and seems to deny that explicit faith in Jesus in this life is required for entrance into God's Kingdom in the next.
  • Item #2: Seal Team 6 invades Pakistan and shoots Osama bin Laden in the chest and head before burying his body at sea to be consumed by its creatures.
  • Item #3: Majid Movahedi, a 30-year-old Iranian man, is sentenced to being blinded with acid for the crime of throwing a bucket of acid in the face of Ameneh Bahrami, a formerly beautiful Iranian woman who refused to marry him. Bahrami is disfigured and blind, and her prospects of marriage or even living outside her parents' home are remote at best. Islamic law, with its concept of qisas, allows for literal enforcement of "an eye for an eye."
These things may seem wildly disconnected on the surface, but below that they are connected. They are all about justice, and about how it is achieved.

Bell's problem is that he cannot support the biblical idea that a God of infinite love is simultaneously a God of infinite holy wrath and justice. So he redefines God's love to exclude eternal hell for anyone. Yet in what sense is it just, indeed, in what sense is it even loving to allow the guilty to escape punishment? In Bell's world, the finally impenitent are to be welcomed into heaven; but that means that both rapists, torturers, pedophiles, murderers, sadists, child-sacrificers, Nazis, Communists, and dictators are all to be allowed to live forever with those they victimize. Where is the love in that? Do not even the worst of people protect their children from these things? Why would God's love mean less? Further, isn't it true that many criminals escape justice in this life and never pay for their crimes? Many murderous dictators die in their beds. Many murderers, abusers, and other assorted nasties never serve a day in prison, nevermind dance at the end of a noose. And even if people "get what they deserve," it does not seem to me that the scales are fully balanced even then. Consider that Saddam Hussein butchered 300,000 of his own people, often in ghastly fashion. Are we to believe that justice is satisfied because he was hanged? What about the other 299,999 lives he took, which debt remains unpaid?

Bin Laden's death was weird. I was elated. We who had suffered had finally put paid to a man responsible for 3,000 dead of my countrymen on 9/11 plus 18 crewmen of the USS Cole, plus two embassy bombings and Khobar towers. It was about time, in my mind, that death came for the one who had brought so much of it. Yet many of my Christian brothers and sisters told me not to rejoice in the falling of my enemy, because Christ tells us to turn the other cheek and because we ought not rejoice that the rod that struck us is broken. I found that reaction genuinely odd. Jesus' statement has nothing to do with enabling people to murder you; it is about enduring personal insult (hence the right cheek). Moreover, by any biblical standard OBL was an evil man who murdered and oppressed the innocent. By what logic are we not to celebrate the end of oppression and the bringing of justice? Is not the diminishment of the quantity of sin and evil in the world, even if by only a slight amount, in itself a good thing worth celebrating? And will not God's bringing of justice on the Great Day be just as much a cause for glorifying God as the salvation from judgment given to us who trust in Christ?

And finally, what about "an eye for an eye"? Is that a barbaric relic, a leftover idea best left in the past? Are the world's human rights groups correct to protest? It should be noted that Islamic law is hardly revered for its justice, but what about in this case? What is the appropriate punishment for blinding and disfiguring a woman simply because she refused to marry you? How do we determine?

It seems to me that true justice, biblical justice, involves both reparation and retribution. Reparation is simple-It involves repairing, to the extent possible, the damage your evil has done. Thus, in the Mosaic Law, a thief had to repay what he stole, a man who seduced a virgin had to marry her and could not divorce her, and a man whose ox caused damage had to pay for it. But there is also a retributive element, of punishment for having done evil in the first place, especially as it relates to crimes for which reparation is impossible. Thus murderers, kidnappers, adulterers, and idolaters are put to death. Likewise, the thief has not only to repay, but must pay back four-fold.

One reason I believe in hell, in addition to the fact that the Bible emphatically teaches it, is that I have to believe that a God of justice eventually balances the scales. The unrepentant sinner must pay his debt. The wicked must not be allowed to continue in their wickedness forever. Oppressor and victim must not share eternal dwellings, for that would be the triumph of Satan instead of the victory of God. Evil must be atoned, one way or another. Which, in my case, greatly magnifies the glory of the cross, at which my debt for my treasonous rebellion was paid. But we must not minimize the glory of the God who offers two pathways, one of the Substitute, whose death covers my evil, and the other of full recompense for it in my own body, by pretending that love requires us to eliminate one of those roads. Else what do we do with the bin Ladens and Pol Pots, and Hitlers, and Stalins? What do we do with the Majid Movahedis? What do we do with the more mundane evil done by ordinary sinners like you and me?

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Hi Pastor Joe,

Thanks so much for your card and prayers.

I tried to send you an email from the address listed on the church website, and it kept bouncing back to me. Could you let me know if it's up and working again?

Josh, Elaina and I will be gone tomorrow, but we're looking forward to getting back into the swing of things, and especially to Hymn Sunday.