Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why the Hell? Part 3: Retribution and Rehabilitation

This is part three of a four-post series on Hell. One Two Four

Hopefully none of you were really taken in (for too long) by my April Fool's Day post about how I've adopted a universalist view of Hell. I thought it was pretty believable, anyway. Anyway, working on that fake ending to my exploration of the doctrine of Hell prompted me to get back to work on the real conclusion--no fooling.

Though my conclusions in the fake post were based on some seriously bad, biased exegesis and deliberately ignoring many relevant verses (which my friend/theological sparring partner Mitchell was quick to point out), I did raise or reraise several real issues that I've been thinking about--the literally contradictory descriptions of Hell and our confusion about rehabilitation vs. retribution. And because of my well-known tendency to write too much, I'm only going to answer the second of these issues in this post.

The biblical/cultural tension

The Bible, especially the Pentateuch, seems to define justice around retribution--the "balancing out" of wrongdoing by doing harm to the offender. (It is definitely not synonymous with retribution, as I explored in a previous post, but does see retribution as the appropriate punishment for wrongdoing)

Retributive justice is the pattern laid down in Exodus 21:23-25 and all over the law. The main theme of the books of prophecy is the prediction and enaction of God's retributive justice against the nations for their sins. As I mentioned before, this retribution is largely temporal, consisting of physical harm, death, and destruction. In the New Testament, retributive justice takes on a more eschatological flavor. Jesus declares that the wicked will depart from Him into an "eternal fire" (Matthew 25:41) and revelation 20:11-15 similarly depicts a judgment for those who have already died.

And yet rehabilitation (the restoration of sinners from their state of wrongdoing) is also a prominent theme in the Bible. Obviously it is the core of the gospel message and many posts could be written about all the ways rehabilitation is seen in the New Testament, but even Old Testament books of prophecy like Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, and Zephaniah end not with punishment but with promises of restoration to Israel's former state of favor. So which is it--is God primarily retributive or rehabilitative when it comes to dealing with sin?

The answer is that forgiveness for sin (and rehabilitation through it) is conditioned by God on something in us--call it faith, repentance, "turning from sin", our forgiving of others, etc. This is how forgiveness works between us and others, and between God and us. We are repeatedly called to imitate God by forgiving others as He forgave us; reflecting His forgiveness is part of our role as divine image-bearers. Punishment is what happens when the condition for forgiveness--repentance--is not met, and God continues to count our sins against us. A murderer who refuses to be rehabilitated, who continues to think of himself as a murderer and kill people, is very unlikely to ever be rehabilitated and will instead accrue a good deal more punishment for himself. Similarly, we can't expect God to be able rehabilitate unrepentant sinners because rehabilitation is not a passive process, but requires the cooperation of the one forgiven.

Now contrast this short Biblical take on punishment/retribution and forgiveness/rehabilitation with the view of western culture. We skew far, far towards valuing rehabilitation over retribution. By way of modern example, Norway's prison system, which has a maximum sentence of 21 years and is highly focused on rehabilitation of prisoners, is seen positively as highly progressive (mass shooters aside) and has been showing excellent results in re-offending rates. On the other hand, consider the outcry over the man in Saudi Araba sentenced to be clinically paralyzed for stabbing and paralyzing a friend, a modern example of "eye for an eye" (or "spine for a spine") justice (later proven to be false, but still relevant here). This kind of "justice" is seen through western eyes as cruel, barbaric, or inhumane, even though it was considered progressive when it was handed down to the Israelites in Exodus. Again the question haunts us: is this view of justice, though apparently more fair and loving than a retributive view, fundamentally wrong because it doesn't match how God "does" justice?

Judgment, deferred

I don't think so. The reason is that God has a self-declared monopoly on the kind of judging that goes on in the end of Revelation. (Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30, James 4:12) Indeed, we are told not to judge (others) or we will also be judged (by God), an inversion of the command to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God. Though, interestingly, the New Testament also mentions that believers will be given authority and wisdom to make God's judgments (1 Corinthians 6:2-3, Revelation 20:4), so the command not to judge is qualified by "yet" (1 Corinthians 4:5). This verse also mentions the reason we're supposed to defer judgment to God: "He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart"--valuable information for making sound judgments that currently only He has.

In a nutshell, we don't need to ensure that perfect justice gets done because God will be the one to do so. Instead, we are to freely forgive others as He forgave us. But we can't allow our lack of responsibility for retributive judgment to lead us to forget that it is, in the end, necessary. This is especially true in our culture that sees people as having intrinsic value and rights, not intrinsic evil. In America we aren't all alike under sin, we're innocent until proven guilty (probably of some nasty crime you haven't committed that the media makes a big deal out of). We are all given a chance at rehabilitation through the Gospel, but by the same token we can't expect rehabilitation if we reject this chance.

Is forgiveness a limited-time offer?

So hopefully this shows how we as Christians can affirm the value of forgiveness and rehabilitative justice, even though God will display retributive justice in the end. But again, the nature of this retribution seems dubious even to me--how can God punish people eternally for finite sins? The "Hell-as-a-place" view usually gives the image of painfully contrite people screaming in flames, repenting their sins to a God who no longer cares or forgives. After all, how could anyone stay unrepentant and unregretful in that kind of eternal conscious torture? (More on the "flames" and "eternal conscious torture" in the next post) I personally don't agree with the answer I gave earlier, that our sins are infinite because the One they are against is infinite. I have really been enjoying this quote from the end of this Eastern Orthodox article on righteousness.
I had this brought home to me quite profoundly the second Sunday I attended an Orthodox church. My priest, Father Gregory Horton, had invited my wife and I to dinner at his home. As our wives worked together in the kitchen preparing the meal, he and I discussed theology. At one point, he posed the question to me, “Matthew, what is grace?” I must confess that I was a little put off by that. For a second, I felt, “Does Father really think me so spiritually immature that I do not know what grace is?” So I responded very quickly, and anyone who is listening to this who has had experience with Western Christian theology knows exactly how I answered it. I proudly asserted, and we all know this, right? “Grace is God’s unmerited favor.” Father smile at me, chuckled a little and said, “Why is it that everything is a thing for you Westerners?” I had no idea what he meant, so to end my confusion, I demanded, “Well then, you tell me, what is it?” “Grace, dear Matthew,” he replied, still smiling, “is the Holy Spirit.”
It was a revolutionizing moment in my Christian experience. As time passed, I began not just to comprehend, but also to experience what Father Gregory was telling me. The Orthodox Christian life quickly teaches us that God does not deal in things. Grace, for instance, is not some commodity that God produces. It is not something He wraps up in a spiritual package and sends to us so that we can open it up and apply it to our lives. The same must also be said for faith, or mercy, or wisdom. None of these are things. They are activities of God within the soul of a human being. Grace is God at work transforming me. Faith is the Christ who dwells within me, reaching out to the same Christ who sits on His throne in heaven. Mercy is God expressing His goodness in and through me. Wisdom is God thinking His thoughts in me. Again, this is so crucial, but it runs against the grain of this objectifying mindset that has determined, for Christians and non-Christians alike, how the Western world understand the Christian experience, and so I pray that those of you listening will really let this settle in.
Perhaps it will become clearer as we apply all this to the question of imputed righteousness. Just as with grace, or faith, or mercy, or wisdom, the Western mindset is at work here. It takes God’s activity of imputing righteousness and turns it into a thing called imputed righteousness. But just like grace, faith, mercy or wisdom, righteousness is not a thing. You cannot buy a can of it, nor is righteousness some sort of spiritual currency that God can apply to our account in heaven in order to erase the debt we owe Him for sinning against Him.
What is righteousness? It is not a thing, it is a state of being. Specifically, it is God’s state of being. It is not some thing that God produces. It is who He is. Righteousness is not even some quality or characteristic within God that He can somehow pull out chunks of and give to us to help us pay our debt to him, or use in some other way. No, righteousness is God’s perfectly humble, perfectly self-sacrificing, perfectly good, perfectly loving way of existing.
Notice the distinction: the western Christian definition of "grace" is "God's unmerited favor". The Orthodox definition is "the Holy Spirit". I'm not sure I fully agree with this definition, but it speaks to something else I've been concerned with. Theologians talk about spiritual concepts like grace, righteousness, or holiness as if they were spiritual "things" that could be quantified, and I think this betrays a wrong way of thinking about them. This translates to imagining sin as this nebulous, spiritual mass of bad-ness which we can't see or sense, but to which we continually add and which God will hold against us if we don't get it covered. I see sin as a state of being, not a thing. Our sin is infinite not because they are simply against a God who is infinite, but because it represents our state of separation from the infinite God. Without Him, we are nothing.

This clarifies the retributive justice God promises in the end times. If sin is just a thing we can have counted against us, there is no reason why people couldn't still be forgiven and saved from their punishment other than God arbitrarily deciding to stop forgiving people and let them burn. But if sin is something intrinsic (or not) to our persons, it opens another possibility. As 1 Corinthians 4:5 and 13:12 say, there is a time coming when the things hidden in peoples' hearts and minds will be revealed and we will see God face-to-face.

Could it be that at that time, Jesus' razor-sharp distinctions between sheep and goats, between His friends and enemies, will become apparent to us? Whereas now a person's attitude towards God is often muddled and convoluted, a mystery even to ourselves, it will become crystal clear; we will either love God with a love that surpasses any we've ever known, or hate Him like we never did before. And once this perfect clarity is achieved, there will be no going back; no one will change their mind. The current lack of clarity in our vision of God, far from something to simply be gotten over, should be considered an expression of mercy, because without it, everyone would just hate God.

That got really interesting towards the end. However, I have tried, as much as possible, to stick with the topic of how God's justice applies to the existence of Hell and avoid saying anything about the actual nature of Hell. That will be for next time, in what will hopefully be the actual final post.

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