“I don’t want to go to Hell.”
I can’t tell you how old I was when I first had this thought, but I know that I was younger than 10. Growing up in the “Bible Belt”, I had heard more than a few sermons on the topic of Hell, Fire, Brimstone, Eternal Torment, Separation from God, etc. I’d read Revelation (I was a precocious young Biblical scholar), and so I knew about the Lake of Fire, where all unrepentant sinners go when they die (or when Jesus came back, whichever came first.)
It scared the Ever-Loving Crap out of me.
Many Christians would tell you that’s the point: you should be terrified of Hell. That’s why we come to Jesus, to stay out of the fiery pit. You accept His blood as the payment for your sins, or you burn for eternity. That’s the justice of God.
It was a justice that terrified me.
And so, every bad thought that I had drove me to my knees in repentance. Every unkind word sent me into a spiritual death-spiral. God, my teenaged years were terrible: I’d look at a pretty girl, or kiss her, or… do other things, and I would be so convinced of my unworthiness and awfulness before God’s frightening justice that I would literally have to respond to an altar call to “recommit my life” or even be re-baptized before I could feel worthy again.
I hated myself, because I was convinced that God hated me.
I knew that I could make God love me, if I could only not curse, or not look at girls lustfully, or read my Bible every day… or something. But, my failure to do those things consistently made me absolutely certain that God’s justice demanded my Eternal Roasting.
When I came back to my faith – after many years of doubt and distance that I have described in other posts (https://theunlikelyevangelist.com/2014/01/13/how-i-almost-lost-god-this-summer-and-how-im-moving-forward/) – I dispensed with this “God of Justice”, as best I could. God was love, not justice. Justice was something that conservatives brought up when you started talking too much about Grace, Love and Mercy. The “Hyper-Grace” and “Hyper-Love” accusations that get leveled at Progressive Christians are normally accompanied by the question “What about Justice?”
I can’t tell you when the change happened to me, but I can tell you that I’ve had justice on my heart all week. Part of it was that I spent a day at the State Capitol, where I saw a great deal of systemic injustice being perpetrated by lawmakers. Part of it is that one of my favorite bloggers wrote about justice and the Cross. Part of it is that I began reading The Ragamuffin Gospel. But, a lot of it is just the urging of the Spirit, an urging to reconsider the way I feel about Divine Justice.
I’m starting to understand justice by falling for grace.
I’ve always been taught that sin is mankind’s natural condition – that death entered into the world through Adam (metaphorically or literally, it doesn’t matter). My own experiences in the world have taught me this: no matter how perfect the system, if you add human beings to the equation it will become corrupted. Look at Communism: an entire system based on the idea of sharing with those in need – but add humans to it, you get the reign of tyranny and oppression that was the Soviet Union. Jesus taught people to love their enemies – and humans turned that (somehow) into justification for the Crusades and the Inquisition. Wars, corporate greed, sexual slavery, addiction – all of these point to a tendency for mankind to be naturally self-destructive.
In short, we can’t help but live in sin. And, I’ve always been taught that it is my sin that separates me from God, that requires His Justice.
So, I started thinking about addiction, and how addiction becomes the natural state. I am addicted to nicotine, and I have family members and friends that are addicted to alcohol, barbiturates, opiates. When we recognize an addiction in ourselves, and we seek therapy or ministry for it, we recognize that it is an illness. We are out of balance. We have no control. We don’t speak of ourselves as “former addicts” or “ex-addicts”: we are always recovering. Addiction is our natural state, the state that we will “default” to; we seek to bring ourselves back into balance, and to keep ourselves there. The same can be said of mental illness: the disorder is my “default” state, and I am constantly struggling to bring myself back into balance, into harmony with the person that I want to be.
The loving response of a friend or family member to someone who struggles with addiction or mental illness is not to punish. Our friends and family members recognize that we are not evil – though the things that we do while in the throes of addictive behavior or while having an episode of anxiety or depression or mania might seem evil. We’re sick. We’re out of balance. The loving response to someone who is sick is to heal them, or bring them to someone who can. The addict or the person with untreated mental illness is in need of reconciliation. The demands of justice for an addict are to help her recover. The demands of justice for someone who “acts out” while dealing with mental illness are to reconcile him to the people who do not suffer his burden.
If we, who are imperfect, know how to give good gifts…
Here’s where I began to love the God of Justice: when I realized that the response of a perfect, just God to an imperfect creature could never be punitive.
An Almighty God who punished an imperfect creation for acting on default could never be considered a Just God.
But, an Almighty God who reconciled, who brought back into balance the creatures that He meant to be the Imago Dei… that would be a just God, a God who could honestly be called good.
And this God has to be the God that Jesus spoke of:
When I love my enemies, I am reconciling with them.
When I give to the poor, I am bringing them back into balance.
When I comfort those who mourn, I am helping them heal.
And when I realize that sinners are being reconciled, I can no longer think of those “sinners” that are different than me as people to be judged, or rebuked, or condemned.
They’re being brought back into balance, just like me.
They are learning to live as the Image of God on Earth.
And just as a community of recovering addicts will stand beside each other, regardless of successes or failures, so too must I stand with the rest of humanity in this painful process of coming back into balance.
And I must wait, with baited breath, as the God of Justice reconciles us all, until we look like Him once more.
My love to you, wherever you are.