Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Advent, Day 11: Pray Your Gods

For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marvelled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

- 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10

It's passages like these that cause many people to turn away from Christianity entirely. How can we square the notion of an eternally loving God with descriptions of "punishment of eternal destruction"? It just doesn't make sense.

On the other hand, we also bristle at the notion that everyone will be forgiven for all the evil they have done. Deep down, we really want those who have wronged us to suffer for it. Maybe not eternally ... well, except in a few cases ... we can think of a few people ...

Do you see the problem? We think we have the capability to judge who deserves what. We would rather decide on their fate than to allow God to do so. We also read today from John's gospel:

Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ - John 7:10-11

In both cases, the underdog is protected from the persecutor. But Jesus doesn't punish the men who want to stone the woman to death. So which is it? Are we punished for our sins or not?

I think it's enough just to notice our tendency to want to punish. And this can even extend to ourselves. We might take the opportunity not to be punished, but in that event, will we desist from punishing ourselves? Will we accept the dignity God grants us, or will we always be wondering whether there's still a score to settle?

I'll go on the record and say that I don't believe God wants eternal punishment for anyone. It might have been comforting to the Thessalonians to hear that they would not suffer in vain, but I think it's a mistake to place the torments of hell anywhere near the center of our theology. Vengeance is not Good News.

Today, examine your understandings of justice, judgment, mercy, and forgiveness. When you look at the ways you have hurt others, how do you think God feels about them? How does God judge you? And if you trust that God loves you far more than any other human being you have ever known, what does that mean for you?

Here's a tune for today, a meditation on the gods we construct and worship--the gods that are not God. "I feel my body weakened by the years/ As people turn to gods of cruel design./ Is it that they fear the pain of death?/ Or could it be they fear the joy of life?"

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