When Peter stepped out of the boat to walk to Jesus on the water, we can be certain that he rocked that boat.

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Hell Fire

One of the archetypal images that has come down through the Christian tradition is the idea of a Day of Judgement followed by the casting into everlasting torment of those not deemed fit for heaven. Michaelangelo: Last JudgementChristian art is full of this - just think of Michaelangelo's great Last Judgement on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, or the first section of Dante's Divine Comdey, The Inferno. The idea is still very much alive today, and not just within Christianity.

But it has problems. I would like to outline just three.

First, harking back to my earlier argument that God knew exactly what to expect when He created humankind, having thought it all through beforehand as part of the design phase, if part of that plan included an expectation, before He had even created them, that He would end up having to consign considerable percentages of His Creation to everlasting torment, then I'm not sure that is a God I want to worship. Better, surely, never to have created in the first place, or at the very least to have decided to snuff them out. Keeping them gratuitously alive in eternal torment is sadism, pure and simple.

Second, what else does such a scenario say about the character of God? As I see it, it says He's a quitter. It would appear that He budgets a mere three-score years and ten during which time He deigns to try and woo us to worship Him, but then tires of the effort and drops us in the bin. This from someone who has all eternity to play with, all eternity to pursue us, to reach out to us, to wait for us to turn again as the father of the prodigal son waited. After a trifling 70 years He gives up! I just don't see it. Isn't there a story somewhere about a shepherd who refuses to rest until all 100 of his sheep are safely in the fold?

Third, the whole idea seems to me completely disproportionate. You hear a lot from Christians about God being a god of justice; that He requires compensation for the insult of our sins; that we have free will and that punishment is our just deserts. To which my answer has to be: how much sin can you commit in three-score years and ten? Is there anything just in handing down infinite punishment in response to a finite amount of sin?

The heart of the Christian story is that God took human form, immersed Himself in human affairs and allowed Himself to be subjected to the worst humans could do to Him to be crucified on a Roman cross in order to show that He would NEVER give up on us, even if we killed him. I have no idea what happens beyond the grave, but one thing I am sure of: if God is remotely godlike, He's not going to give up on me that easily.

The traditional idea of God as a god who requires justice - justice in the form of pay-back for sin - is vulnerable to criticism. The scenario is that before God can forgive us He requires payment for sins, and that Jesus made that payment to God. This seems to me to be a shaky metaphor for what happened on the cross.

First, it can be taken to show that God is more interested in the debt than in the children He has created, whereas even humans do better than that. Take a family where one of the children becomes a drug addict; the child steals from the mother's purse, takes household items and sells them to raise money for their habit, shoplifts, gets caught and fined, with the fines being paid by the parents. Is the primary concern of the parents the debt that this child owes to them? No, of course it isn't. Their primary concern is to save their child from the destructive habit that holds it in thrall. The debt is a minor consideration.

Second, it posits Jesus as too much a separate being from God, a third party in the transaction, stepping in between God and Man and making a debt-payment to God, whereas surely there are only two parties to this transaction: Jesus IS God, so it is God Himself on the cross, yielding Himself in self-sacrifice directly into the hands of Man. That at least is how Professor CFD Moule taught it in his New Testament Theology class. God's subjecting of Himself to the worst that mankind could do is that same counter-intuitive weak force that echoes down the centuries from Elijah's encounter with God on Mt Horeb. It's not the act of someone demanding recompense.


© Hugh de Saram 2014;