This year we are presenting the Raven Award on November 12 to Kevin Miller for his documentary with a question for a title: Hellbound?. Autocorrect doesn’t like the question mark, especially when it’s followed by a period, but I’m glad Kevin used it. Because the idea of hell raises all kinds of questions, particularly about the relationship of God to sin. (For Adam, it raises questions about God’s justice – read his reflections here.) For me, the idea of hell raises questions about punishment, like these:Does God punish sin in this life and if so, how? Does God punish unrepentant sinners in the next life with eternal suffering?
These questions have corollaries, of course:Does God reward the righteous in this life and if so, how? Does God reward a life of righteousness with eternal bliss?
You see, the question about punishment is also a question about being good. The opposite of being a sinner who deserves punishment is being a morally good person who deserves reward. If the wages of sin are eternal suffering, the wages of goodness are eternal bliss. These rules seem fair and just – we operate according to them in our communities, churches and social networks, don’t we? Think about it: criminals go to jail, law abiding citizens enjoy their freedom; disobedient children are grounded, good children earn extra privileges; good employees get raises, bad employees get fired; good waiters get big tips, bad waiters get forgotten, and so on. If fallen humanity manages to operate according to this system of justice, it only seems right that God would, too.
I was speaking with a friend of mine one day who adheres strongly to the idea of rewards and punishments. He was defending the idea that God punished sinners because evil deserves punishment. It certainly doesn’t deserve to be rewarded, and certainly not forgiven without some restitution being made, some contrition or commitment to repentance. My friend is a lawyer and of course, the idea of fair play, of punishment and rewards, of compensation for suffering and payment for wrongdoing, are all part of our legal system. I’m guessing many of you would agree with my friend that God is not only right to punish sinners, but justice requires it. So how would you answer these questions?Are you a criminal or a law abiding citizen? Are you a sinner or a saint?
If you are a law abiding citizen then you most probably agree that criminals should be punished. It only makes sense that those who are not as scrupulously honest and forthright a citizen as you should be held to account. But how do you feel when you have broken the law? When you get a speeding ticket or are fined for an error on your income tax filing? What if your child is expelled from school for a thoughtless prank or your boss docks your pay because you already used up all your sick days? From this vantage point, the accusation of wrongdoing stings and the punishment smacks of injustice. The system of rewards and punishments begins to feel a bit unfair, doesn’t it?
Similarly, if you are a saint, then hell makes infinite sense. Sinners should not get away with their sins, because that would make a mockery of your moral perfection. God is morally obligated to punish them and reward you. But what if you are a sinner? What if you have lied to an employer or cheated on a spouse? What if you have failed your child or neglected an aging parent? What if, like the Apostle Paul, you find yourself falling short of your best intentions: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do”. (Romans 7:19) Then punishment for sin doesn’t seem so essential a thing for God to do, does it? Maybe God could find it in his heart to forgive you, to give you a second chance, to believe in your promises that you’ll do better next time.
Of course, it’s easy for us to think that our sins are not so bad. That it would be okay for God to forgive our sins and punish the sins of those we judge to be truly wicked. But before you settle too comfortably into that self-justifying position, please remember two things:There are no doubt people praying to God right now to forgive them their sins and punish yours. God loves the ones you pray he will punish as much as God loves you.
Let’s not put our God to the test, shall we, by forcing God to choose whose prayer to answer, yours or those sinful others. Instead, I suggest we abandon the whole punishment and reward project all together. Let’s give up on dividing the world into sinners and saints and follow the wisdom of Nadia Bolz-Weber who dares to proclaim in her book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint: “We are simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 percent of both, all the time.” I think that’s how God sees us. God doesn’t love us because we are saints or spend one ounce of brain power devising punishments for us when we sin. God just loves us, 100 percent of us, all the time. Honestly, what God has planned for eternity is a mystery. But whatever it is, I think it’s a safe bet that we will all be in it together.
Celebrate Halloween by joining a live conversation with Kevin Miller about hell. To participate, join the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement community on Patheos.com and register for the call here.