Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Demands of Justice and the Mercy of God

Back when I was a practicing Christian, one of the things I had the hardest time understanding was how a loving God could condemn any of his children to eternal torment. The standard explanations I got usually went along the lines that God doesn’t actually condemn anybody to Hell; instead people choose to go there themselves by not accepting and following God’s word. And then there would be some discussion about the importance of free will and how God can’t force anybody to be good.
Underlying this explanation, however, are the core concepts of Divine Justice and Divine Mercy. Divine Justice, it is said, is an absolute principle that demands that a price is paid for every sin. That’s just the way it is. If you sin, you need to be punished for it. However, because God loves us all so very, very much, He decided to come up with a way to let us off the hook. Since the demands of Divine Justice are so incredibly powerful, God figured out that the only way to get around those demands was to have an all-powerful being sacrifice Himself for everybody else’s sake. To, in effect, take responsibility for the sins of the entire world, to take the blame, and therefore pay the price Himself. And that is why He decided to send His only begotten Son (or send Himself, depending on what version of Christianity you adhere to) to suffer and die on the cross for us. And why would He do this? Why, because He is a loving God who believes in being merciful. After all, wouldn’t you spare your children pain and suffering if you had the power to do so?
Of course, this Divine Mercy has a catch to it. God isn’t just going to be merciful to every Tom, Dick or Harry who wants to avoid being tormented for all eternity. No, if God is going to go to all this trouble to sacrifice His Son (or Himself, if you prefer), then the least we can do is acknowledge that sacrifice and do a few small things like be baptized, pray to Him, try to keep His commandments, ask for forgiveness each and every time we make a mistake, maybe donate to His church (whichever one that actually is), etc. No big deal, right? And anybody who isn’t willing to put in that teeny bit of effort in order to be saved, well, they deserve to burn in hell for all eternity for being such ungrateful little pricks, right?

OK, so obviously I’m embellishing the explanation a bit. What is typically said is simply along the lines of the following:
Justice demands that our sins are punished, and God’s mercy allows us to escape that punishment if we choose to accept it.
But the implications are all there. And here’s where it all breaks down to me:
  • Why does Divine Justice demand that all sins are punished? And who decided that all sins are equally punishable with eternal torment? If God created the universe and is truly omnipotent, then He made the rules in the first place and can change them as He sees fit, right? If cheating on a test warrants the same punishment as committing genocide and the punishment for both is eternal freaking torment, where’s the justice in that (“Divine” or otherwise)? Instead of providing a “loophole”, why wouldn’t a merciful God just not set up a system of ridiculously draconian and over-the-top “justice” in the first place? I’m not even talking about getting rid of punishment altogether, mind you [Christian folk really do seem to love the idea of the guilty getting their just deserts, don’t they?], but simply making the punishment fit the crime and acknowledging that no crime is worthy of eternal freaking torment!
  • Even if you want to argue that the draconian justice system is OK since God has provided an easy way to avoid that justice, this ignores the fact that the vast, vast majority of humanity will never actually be able to take part of that mercy. Even if you could figure out which of all the many different Christian denominations is the “right” one to follow, for most of human history Christianity either didn’t exist or was a small minority belief. Even today, there are billions of people who are born, live their entire lives, and die without ever having the chance to hear about God’s merciful offer*. And even if they do hear the offer, no evidence whatsoever is ever provided to convince people to abandon their beliefs and switch over to the correct religion (whatever one that happens to be).
So, the bottom line is that God supposedly set up a system whereby any sin is punishable by eternal torment, and then decided “in His mercy” to create a loophole that the majority of His children would either never have a chance to accept or would have no good reason to accept, effectively condemning the vast majority of humanity to suffer in agony for all time and eternity through no fault of their own.
Gee, what a guy!

* I should note, by the way, that the Mormon church has come up with a way to deal with this problem. Or at least to attempt to deal with it. True, not everybody will have a chance to hear the Gospel during their lifetime, but anybody who didn’t will have another chance in the next life. And, since baptism is an absolute requirement for salvation, Mormons therefore perform many thousands of “proxy” baptisms on behalf of all those who might decide to accept the gospel in the next life. Unfortunately for this proposed solution, though, (a) I don’t think they’ll ever get all the billions of people who lived and died without hearing the Gospel and (b) that still leaves all those who heard the gospel in this life and didn’t choose to accept it for whatever reason. Mormons further get around the idea of “eternal torment” by claiming that those who reject the gospel even after hearing it won’t actually be sent to hell but will instead get to live in the “Terrestrial Kingdom” of heaven, which is basically just like earth but without all the disease and natural disasters. So, no eternal glory with God, but not a bad place to be. For all time and freaking eternity!

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