Over on the Stupid Church People blog, I got into quite the discussion over God’s reprehensible behavior in the Old Testament. At one point I said:
"God himself ordered genocide in the Old Testament (Deut 20:16-20; Joshua 6; Joshua 10:40-41), including the murder of women and children; and yet most thinking Christians today condemn genocide. How do you (general you, not specific you) make sense of this?"
Here is one response this prompted:
The Bible is clear, all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory (perfection) of God. The word "all" is pretty clear and inclusive. This idea is reinforced by the scripture that says "there is no one who is righteous, no not one." If you are one of those people, and I'm not saying you are, that thinks you're a good person, run yourself through the 10 Commandments. And answer the next question for yourself, have you kept all 10 always, without fail? If you haven't, you have a sin problem. The Bible says "for the wages of sin is death". To me that means if you sin, you have earned death from God. Why do we freak out when God pays us what we're due, like He did the people in the account in Deuteronomy? Why do we think it's massively unfair?
This is not an unfamiliar response – it’s not like I’ve never heard Romans 3:23 and 6:23 before. And I’m used to hearing that we humans are infested with sin, depraved, and separated from God (here’s a shout out to all you Calvinists out there!). But it begs the fundamental premise that most conservative Christians don’t question: why have we earned death (i.e. eternal punishment) through our inability to lead perfect, spotless lives?
Now when I ask this question, people seem to think I want some kind of blank slate, or want God to turn a blind eye to all the nasty stuff we do, individually and collectively. That is not what I am saying. I am a big proponent of personal accountability.
But I am a big proponent of appropriate personal accountability; in other words, making reparation or payment commensurate with the wrongs I committed. I am not a fan of punishments exceeding the crime. And I am certainly not alone in this. Consider:
1. Our US criminal system operates with the same underlying assumption of appropriateness: to determine what the punishment ought to be, we distinguish between type and severity of crime (misdemeanor or felony), the motivation behind the crime (1st degree vs. 3rd degree murder) and the person’s fitness to face the consequences (“not guilty by reason of insanity”);
2. The 8th Amendment of the US Constitution reads: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
3. Outside the US, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 5), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 7), and the UN Convention Against Torture (preamble) all affirm and stipulate that no one “be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
Our modern human sense of justice is all about appropriateness and assuming a modicum of human dignity no matter how severe the wrong that has been committed. We recoil when we hear Abu Ghraib horror stories. We react to the commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence based on our sense of appropriateness (for some, a prison sentence was excessive; for others, eliminating the prison sentence was letting him off too easy). We strive for fairness in our legal and civil affairs wherever possible, even if we don’t achieve it perfectly or agree on what a fair sentence might be. (Think about it: no serious person thinks Scooter Libby deserves the death penalty for his crimes.)
So I just can’t see how God’s divine justice is served by annihilating, obliterating, and otherwise eternally punishing us for having screwed up here on earth. Why does God see fit to punish humans infinitely, for finite crimes on earth? Does that not fall under every definition of cruel and unusual punishment?
Typical response: “Well, God’s justice is different from ours.” But wait. God is omnipotent, no? So he could overlook sin if he wanted to. "No, he is perfectly just. That would go against his nature." But he's also perfectly merciful and perfectly loving, and fiery eternal hell doesn't fit with that. "Yes, he is those things. But you see, we have chosen hell through our disobedience." But how is it a choice when the way is so narrow that some of us might miss it altogether? "Jesus invites us all to the throne of God. It is our own fault if we don't accept the invitation." What exactly is the invitation? (See this post at de-Conversion.com for a great discussion of how confusing the Good News can be.) What if we don't get it just right?
Okay, let me try a different angle: Jesus commands us in Matthew 18:21-22 to forgive our brothers when they sin against us “seventy times seven” times. So how can God demand one kind of justice (forgiveness) from us, but exempt himself from the same command? He doesn’t put conditions on our forgiving others: “only forgive them if they are appropriately contrite.” “Only forgive them if they say the right words or profess the right belief.”
But somehow, somehow that escapes every possible working part of my brain, it is okay for God to withhold forgiveness, and punish us eternally.
Look, I could get on board with hell as a temporary purification, as a way of burning off our sins and sin nature, so we can then join God in paradise. In fact the rest of the Matthew 18 passage (verses 23-35) seem to support this notion of appropriate responsibility: at the end of the parable of the king and the servants, the servant who does not forgive the debt of his fellow servant is punished “until he should pay back all he owed” (verse 34). (emphasis added)
In fact, one of the most appealing aspects of Catholic theology, when I was exploring it, was the way they approached sin: they have the whole venial and mortal sin distinction, penance, and purgatory to help deal with this question of satisfying God’s sense of justice…well…justly.
But conservative, Biblical literalists don’t go there. It’s outside their paradigm to think that God’s justice might well be satisfied by something less than eternal fiery hell for those who don’t profess the name of Jesus as Lord.
Quite simply, that is a piece of theology I can no longer live with. If God exists, I will continue to hope that God forgives all of us seventy times seven times, regardless of our confessed creed, regardless of whether we believe exactly the right thing about Jesus, regardless of whether our "personal relationship" with Jesus is up to snuff. Beyond that, I will continue to hope that God holds us accountable in the afterlife for our deeds only to an appropriate degree.
Summing up, then: to hell with hell.