Hell & Forgiveness

I have some thoughts about the afterlife for those of us who aren’t saints. Or at least some opinions on the Christian view of this matter. For the moment, I’ll talk about the traditional monotheistic God who loves us all. I’ve talked some with Ariana about her beliefs as one of the most Christian people I know, and whenever we get into such topics, it’s given both of us plenty to think about.

People love to talk about the forgiving, loving, omnipotent, omniscient nature of God, and yet firmly believe that there is a Hell where people who did wrong will be placed. It’s kind of hard for me to argue against the idea of a Hell for people on the scale of humanity’s genocide leaders, but at the same time, if God is loving, all-knowing and into forgiving people, he sees into the heart of every person ever and understands why they did what they did, even the really awful people. Love is about accepting a person for who they are, even if they’re not healthy. Forgiveness doesn’t right any wrongs that were done, but if God can understand someone’s failings and love them anyway, I can’t picture him condemning his children to the worst and most eternal punishment he can come up with (and being God, I doubt that even medieval humans’ ideas come close on that). I think he would basically put them in the corner for a time-out, or guide them through practice making better decisions until they learned to do it right. If there is an omnipotent, omniscient God, then he has to have a better way of dealing with misguided children than anything humans can come up with.

It must be nice, sometimes, to believe in this God who will forgive you completely when you simply apologize for the wrongs you’ve done. To know that no matter how incomprehensible your decision was to anyone else, there is someone who knows where that decision fits in the puzzle of your mind, and will still love you afterwards. But if it works that way for people on the street, then it would have to work the same way for the despots and genocide-perpetrators too, right? That they can just ask for forgiveness? How do you sort that out, how would God sort it out? People say that only God can judge, but humans are pretty darn good about judging on their own.

I think that heaven and hell (or even including purgatory) are too black-and-white for the God that (may have) created the universe.

Although I am certainly not as good at tolerance as I should be, I’m proud that Unitarian Universalism encourages universal tolerance and acceptance of the people in the world. I’m hesitant to make general statements about our beliefs, since we tend to behave as much like a herd of cats as we can manage, but I think it is safe to say that most UUs disbelieve the concept of hell. I believe that if there is an omnipotent, all-loving higher power, he/she/it understands the hearts of every single human being who has ever lived, and could never condemn even the most terrible person to an eternal hell as described by other, more judgmental, religions. I admit to the hope that the really terrible horrible people get a little less saving – but I doubt there are people who really say “I’m going to do my best to make the world the worst it can be,” and this higher power must understand a bad person’s reasons and love that the person tried to make the world better, even if their “better world” was actually a terrible idea – and find an appropriate solution for them.

3 Responses to “Hell & Forgiveness”

  1. Ariana!
    | Reply

    Funny that I stumbled upon this! I was using your postcards and wanted to look at your recent stuff… then read the thing about the gold stars and wanted to comment on something or other… and obviously a title like “Hell & Forgiveness” would catch my eye. ;)
    I do completely understand where you’re coming from: that is exactly the beef I previously had with the Christian view of God. I still struggle with it a fair amount, really. But fundamentally, this question really comes down to whether or not you believe in “sin”. Sin being behavior that is “wrong” to the core — behavior that cannot be excused by any kind of intimate understanding of the person who behaved in that way. If there is sin, punishment makes sense; but if there isn’t, it would be wrong to institute anything beyond guiding discipline.
    So, I believe that I do things that are wrong to the core, and I believe justice dictates that someone has to pay for that (and the bill is mine). Which is, of course, where Christmas comes in. :) And especially good, Good Friday.
    Do you believe it’s possible to do things that are wrong to the core? What are your comments on my comment?? :)

    • ellen
      | Reply

      Well, I think that’s where you run afoul of the first principle of UUism: that we affirm “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” So I have trouble with the phrase “wrong to the core” as such a black-and-white judgement made by a fallible human about another fallible human. Everyone makes mistakes, and some people make pretty evil choices – but I think if one looks closely enough, they’ll find an explanation for any of those evil choices.

  2. Ariana
    | Reply

    That is an interesting comment. :) Very much contrary to our human perspective, I think, the Bible doesn’t draw a line between our moral essence and our worth. It says, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags,” (Isaiah 64:6) and, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7-8) We would have to be worth more than we can fathom for God himself to come take the punishment of death that we deserve, despite our complete lack of moral goodness (see Isaiah quote). (I am saying this is what the Bible teaches.)

    Also, the Bible says, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them,” (Genesis 1:27) and, “What are mere mortals that You should think about them, human beings that You should care for them? Yet You made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:4-5). The worth and dignity of a being created in the image of God himself is very great. And then God crowns us with glory and honor on top of that. Disciples of Jesus definitely affirm the first UU principle, at least within the framework of our conceptual interpretation of “worth” and “dignity”.

    I make no claim to be able to judge another person’s heart, “For the LORD sees the heart and knows every plan and thought.” (1 Chronicles 28:9) I can’t even judge my own heart very well, due to my fallibility. I simply have accepted the Bible on the whole as infallible, so I trust what it says about me and about everyone else.

    You say, “If one looks closely enough, they’ll find an explanation for any [evil choice]” — with an explanation, would you deem what looked like an evil choice no longer an evil one? How do you define “evil”? If evil doesn’t lie at the foundation of a choice (and thus proceed from the heart of the chooser), whence does evil originate? (Totally got to use the word whence.) :)

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