Recently, while giving a series of lectures, I was confronted by a rather angry man who accused me of being soft on hell, God’s judgment and God’s justice.
Though angry, he was, in his own way, a good man, one who had given his life in duty to his family, his church, his country and his God.
“I cannot accept what you say,” he shouted at me. “There is so much evil in the world and so many people are suffering from other people’s sins that there must be, after this life, some retribution, some justice.
“Don’t tell me that all these people who are doing these things—from molesting children to ignoring all morality—are going to be in heaven when we get there! What does that say about God’s justice?”
His lament is, in fact, quite an old one. The prophet Isaiah had the same kind of wish. For him it was not enough that the Messiah should usher in a time of peace and freedom for good people. Along with rewards for the good, he felt, there needed to be too a “day of vengeance” on the bad (Isaiah 61:2).
Interestingly, in a curious omission, when Jesus quotes this text to define his own ministry, he leaves out the part about vengeance (Luke 4:18).
There are too many of us in the church and the world today, in both conservative and liberal camps, who like this man, have the same burning need. We want to see misfortune fall upon the wicked. It is not enough that eventually the good should have their day. The bad must be positively punished.
If we are conservative, we wish this especially on those who neglect their religious duties or do not follow the sixth commandment. If we are liberal, we want God’s vengeance on the perpetrators of injustice.
All ecclesial camps today agree that justice demands that sin and wickedness be positively punished. We only disagree on what constitute sin and wickedness.
To my mind, this desire for justice (as we call it) is, at its root, unhealthy and speaks volumes about the bitterness within our own lives. All these worries that somebody might be getting away with something and all these wishes that God better be an exacting judge, suggest that we, like the older brother of the prodigal son, might be doing things right, but real love, forgiveness and celebration have long gone out of our hearts.
We are bitter as slaves and are quite outside the circle of the dance.
Julian of Norwich once described God in this way:
Completely relaxed and courteous, he himself was the happiness and peace of his dear friends, his beautiful face radiating measureless love like a marvelous symphony.
This is one of the best descriptions of God ever written. I often meditate on it and, to be honest, most times it makes for a painful meditation. Far from basking in gratitude in the beautiful symphony of relaxed, measureless love and infinite forgiveness that makes up heaven, I feel instead the bitterness, self-pity, anger and incapacity to let go and dance that was felt by the older brother of the prodigal son.
I am sitting in the banquet room, amongst all that radiance and joy, pouting, waiting for the Father to come and try to coax me beyond my sense of having been cheated. Such is my feeling. … I am not happy in the presence of messianic celebration, but, given that life is unfair, I have every right to be unhappy! Such too is most people’s feeling!
Alice Miller, the great Swiss psychologist, suggests that the primary task of the second half of life is that of grieving. We need to grieve, she says, or the bitterness and anger that come from our wounds, disappointments, bad choices and broken dreams will overwhelm us with the sense of life’s unfairness.
Her solution is simple: Life is unfair. Don’t try to protect yourself from its hurts—you’ve already been hurt! Accept that, grieve it and move on to rejoice the dance.
In the end, it is because we are wounded and bitter that we worry about God’s justice, worry that it might be too lenient, worry that the bad will not be fully punished, worry that there might not be a hell.
But we should worry less about those things and more about our own incapacity to forgive, to let go of our own hurts, to take delight in life, to give others the sheer gaze of admiration, to celebrate and to truly join in the dance. To be fit for heaven we must let go of our bitterness.
Like the older brother, our problem is ultimately not the excessive love that is seemingly shown someone else. Our problem is that we have never fully heard or understood God’s words: “My child, you have always been with me and all I have is yours, but we, you and I, should be happy and dance because your younger brother who was dead has come back to life!”