It occured to me that when Christians talk about sin and forgiveness and atonement and so on, that we immediately get hammered for spreading fear and false guilt. But when Christians start talking about forgiveness and salvation and new life and spotless souls, we immediately get nailed for eliminating personal responsibility. We can’t win.
But I know I can’t leave it there. I’ve got to turn that one over to see how someone outside the Christian faith would answer that. ‘Cause I myself can’t stand it when people make similar arguments against Christianity when from what I can see, they’re looking at it wrong. I think what it comes down to is that people object to the idea that there might be a system of justice outside of that which we practice and understand. When Christians start talking about sin and redemption, it goes contrary to everything we know about crime and punishment.
Judging these things is hard enough in a court of law. We can’t just have deed = punishment: there’s extenuating circumstances. There’s motivation, there’s provocation, there’s intent. Was the killer angry, or careless, or doing it for money, or psychotic? Did they understand what they were doing? Did so-and-so steal for kicks, or because they’ve got a starving family at home? Was the hacker a kid who got carried away, or a militant anarchist keen on bringing down governments? I know I’ve learned to make no judgements whatsoever until I’ve read the whole story, heard both sides. I don’t envy judges or juries the tangle of human desires and motivations, let alone laws, that must be waded through if anything like justice is to be done in this day and age.
And then you have Christians coming along and saying that eternity is judged by a whole different, crazy scheme. That there are no innocents – we are all sinners. And yet there is no sin so great that it cannot be paid for by a single, long-ago act.
I mean, we have to weigh innocence, do we not? The raped teen surely did bad things in the past, has lied and defied parents and been a normal teen. But we are idiots to say that said teen deserved to be raped – said teen is innocent of the crime. (And, we assume, far more innocent on a total scale than the rapist.) There is someone who did the crime, and there is someone to whom the crime was done, and one of them is not to be punished.
And we have to weigh the crime. We can’t go giving your average delinquent shoplifter the same punishment as Bernie Madoff, or vice versa. A billion dollars is more than ten bucks, and we punish accordingly.
And here are these Christians saying, “All have sinned, all can be saved.” It’s ridiculous. It’s absurd. It’s really, really offensive. What, the victims as well as the perpetrators? What, the children and the old people? What, the saintly guy and the thug? It’s natural to assume that if all our souls are weighed on some eternal scale, that said scale would resemble the ones in Justice’s hand – fair, even, where different deeds have different weights and can be stacked up so everyone can see.
But then I think, what’s the implication of that? I mean, if you were one of the “bad” people. Imagine reaching a point in your life when you have done horrible things and realizing that no matter what you did, no matter how hard you tried, you could never possibly atone for any of it, and that the scales were permanently tipped against you. You’ve reached your personal moral event horizon, as TVTropes puts it. There’s no going back, no salvation, no hope. What would you do?
Or what if it isn’t you, what if it’s someone else? What if someone you love has crossed that line? What about people in jail who have done terrible things? What about war criminals? What about all those slimy, greedy bankers who cheated millions out of billions? Is there no hope for them? Is there no way they can be saved? How much do they have to do? How hard is the work to come back? What penitence is enough? What suffering is enough? What will satisfy the cosmic scales? Is there no longer any meaning to repentance?
And how will we be judged? We can’t even know. There are people who are certain, who are at peace, who believe that their tally on the good side is big enough that they’ll be okay. What if they’re wrong? What if they’re missing something? Worse, what if morals have changed and it turns out they’re not so righteous after all? What if circumstances change and they end up doing something terrible?
I’ve found that I can no longer rate myself above anybody. Yes, okay, I don’t have a criminal record. Yes, okay, I’m a “decent person.” But I find that deeply inadequate to account for what I have done, let alone what I am capable of doing. Which doesn’t even mention the fears that I am, right now, not doing enough. Living in a world where eternity rested on our deeds would destroy me. It would be a world without grace, without hope, without recourse. In a world like that, a caste system builds swiftly, with no reason to breach it or even climb it. At the bottom are the depraved “untouchables” who cannot be helped, even if they want it. We could fall to a place where any light, any joy is extinguished, and there is nothing left to cling to. We could be in hell before we died.
And you know what? To reject such a legalistic cosmos is to shrug off a burden as large as the Earth. Our altruism no longer smells of duty, of “doing enough”. Forget about rating myself; ratings have gone out the window. Our deeds are no longer our destiny. I’m not doing good for fear of punishment, but for the desire that good be done, and the world made better for it. I’m free – free from guilt, from legalism, from lists and tasks and things to check off. I’m free to do what is right, and to do it for the right reasons.
I’m all for justice here on earth. The government and the courts have their purpose: to limit vice and promote virtue. Thus they must weigh crimes and innocence, and punish accordingly. Thus we can have order and peace. But I do not want them in charge of eternity. I want nothing like that anywhere near eternity. I want to know that everyone is still human, that everyone has a chance. I want to know that What Happens After is not a paycheck but an inheritance, that while there is life, there is always hope.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 6:23, KJV