The two biggest objections I have been getting on my Sunday blog posts are along these lines:
(1) “Why would a good God let bad things happen?” and
(2) “Only a sadistic being would punish us for eternity just for not worshipping/believing in him.”
Today I want to concentrate on (2), although I imagine the full explanation of (2) would also solve (1) as well…
First, let me inform people that although there are plenty of places in the Bible where hell is depicted as a place of punishment and torment, there are also plenty of places where heaven is depicted as communion/fellowship with God, and thus hell is what happens to people who reject the invitation to enter heaven. For example, two weeks ago my pastor discussed Luke 14: 15-24, where Jesus is at a meal with the religious leaders:
The Parable of the Great Supper
15 Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!”
16 Then He said to him, “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, 17 and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’ 18 But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.’ 20 Still another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So that servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.’ 23 Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.’”
Whether or not you agree with his reference, the pastor then pointed us back to Isaiah 25: 6-8 where the prophet writes:
6 And in this mountain
The Lord of hosts will make for all people
A feast of choice pieces,
A feast of wines on the lees,
Of fat things full of marrow,
Of well-refined wines on the lees.
7 And He will destroy on this mountain
The surface of the covering cast over all people,
And the veil that is spread over all nations.
8 He will swallow up death forever,
And the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces;
The rebuke of His people
He will take away from all the earth;
For the Lord has spoken. [Bold added.]
Now when I say I have “faith in God,” I don’t mean, “I abandon my reason and embrace something illogical.” No, what I mean is that I admit I don’t understand His statements and His plan right now, but I trust in His goodness and I am certain that in the next life, when I have access to more information, then everything will make perfect sense and it will be crystal clear that He created the best of all possible worlds. It will be crystal clear why so many people died in World War II, and why little Suzie died of leukemia, even though she was the sweetest little kid you’ve ever met, etc. Also–the subject of this post–I think it will suddenly become crystal clear why Jesus told people that only through accepting Him could they be saved.
Let me give a stab at what that last “aha!” realization might be like. So to be clear, these are my own musings; this isn’t coming from the Bible. But what I’m trying to do here, is imagine what someone might experience who passes over to the afterlife, and then considers the statements of the Bible from that new perspective.
Suppose for the sake of argument then when you die, there is indeed an afterlife. You are still conscious. However, you suddenly have access to all of history; you can contemplate, in one fell swoop, every event in the universe, from the moment of its creation to its destruction.
Now, from that newfound perspective–which is so far beyond our current abilities that we can barely even talk about it, let alone really imagine what it would feel like–you become acutely aware of the ramifications of people’s free choices. There are obvious things, of course, like seeing the effect of Karl Marx putting his views down on paper, when history might have unfolded very differently if he had written commercial jingles instead.
But there’s more. You realize, to your absolute horror and astonishment, how much extra misery YOU brought into the world. Even if you thought you were a “good person,” the effects of your relative slips were that much more severe. You see that when you were in a bad mood one morning, and honked on your horn unnecessarily when a lady cut you off in traffic, that set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to a bicyclist getting paralyzed 8 minutes later.
(Specifically: The lady who cut you off had been rushing to get her kid to school because they were late since she had forgotten to wash the kid’s uniform the night before. So she felt bad about that, and then you honking at her made her feel even more guilty. Then when the kid complained about something a few minutes later, she snapped at him. Now the lady felt really awful, and didn’t even look in her rear view mirror because she was so disgusted with the whole situation, and was waiting to calm down before saying something else to her kid. That’s why she didn’t notice another car–driven by a 23-year-old who was rushing to a job interview–in her blind spot. When she went to change lanes, the inexperienced driver swerved, and hit the bicyclist. None of this would have happened had you not honked your horn in anger at the lady.)
I imagine cynics will read something like the above and scoff. “Oh come on, if we start thinking like that, then everybody would be guilty of all sorts of terrible crimes…” Right, which is what Christian doctrine teaches. That’s precisely the point I’m making here.
Now in our world, people feel guilty about things they’ve done all the time. However, most of the time they can deal with it by focusing on other things, trying to make amends, or just drowning out the pain in drinking or other activities.
But what happens in the afterlife? What if there, there is nothing to do except exist and be intimately aware of how much suffering your own admittedly improper actions foisted on the world? Every time you did something that was wrong, even by your own moral code (which might differ from the code Billy Graham would have prescribed), it rippled out and was amplified by the similar transgressions of everybody else. You can’t help but obsess over how unimaginably beautiful and happy human society could have been, if you and everybody else hadn’t screwed it up so royally. You also see how much more joy and wisdom that virtuous acts brought into the mix, and you wish you had done more on that front, as well. The gap between how much of a “good person” you thought you were, versus what you did in practice, was bigger than you could possibly have imagined when you were alive. You are simply astounded at the depths of your ignorance when you were alive, and you can’t believe you walked around, feeling pretty content and justified in your actions.
I daresay that such a state affairs would be, quite literally, a living hell. And what specifically would be so awful about it? After all, it would be pretty neat to have such a keen knowledge of good and evil, wouldn’t it?
No, in that context, the knowledge of good and evil would be a death sentence. Your eternal existence would be one of inconceivable suffering and torment. You would want to forgive yourself, but you would lack the power to do. You literally would be unable to forgive yourself, and so you would persist in eternal suffering and damnation.
Unless… There would be one group of people who could escape from this torment. This particular group of people had lived just as evil lives as everybody else. The significant differences, though, are that this particular group had even while alive admitted they were miserable sinners. So that right there eased the agony in the afterlife, because at least they were now just filled in with the details about how they had hurt so many people through their failures. Yet more important, these people went further and had admitted that there was someone more powerful than they were, someone who did have the power to forgive them. And since they had subordinated their own will and desire to His, when He told them He forgave them, and that they were welcome to spend eternity in bliss with Him, they believed Him.
Unfortunately, for the others, they had decided that they would not subordinate their own will and control of their destinies to this man. They did not believe him. So even if he told them in the afterlife that all was forgiven, that they had the freedom to come join the banquet with everyone else, they wouldn’t feel right in doing so. They would prefer to remain in isolation, pondering their miserable predicament and cursing the universe for being unfair.
In closing, let me reiterate that the above are my own musings; this isn’t something that I got directly from the Bible. But suppose there is an afterlife, and to be in it feels something like the above. Would the doctrines of the Bible seem so silly or monstrous in that light? Wouldn’t Jesus’ sermons be a lot more intelligible, if He knew the above was coming, but had to convey it to a bunch of simpletons?