Friday, August 23, 2019

Will Everyone Go to Heaven? Part V: Forgiveness

(For commentary on the Readings for this Sunday, scroll down to a lower post)

Let's engage in another counter-factual thought experiment about heaven.

You are in heaven, and everything is going wonderfully—as it should in heaven—but on the third day there, you run into your Aunt Alice, whom you thoughtlessly insulted when you were a teenager, and who never forgave you for that insult.  When Aunt Alice sees you in heaven, she turns her face and won't look at you.  You approach her and say, "Aunt Alice, as I've told you many times, I'm so sorry I insulted you when I was sixteen.  I didn't understand what I was saying."  "Well, I'm sorry that I just can't forgive you," Aunt Alice replies, "What you said was so hurtful, and all your apologies just can't make up for it."

Would this scenario play out in heaven?  Of course not.  Instinctively, we know heaven will be a place of complete forgiveness. All the inhabitants of heaven will be forgiven by God, and likewise will forgive one another.  Therefore, when we are in heaven, we are not going to run into anyone who refuses to forgive what we did on earth.

The implication of that, however, is that I myself cannot be like Aunt Alice.  If there is any repentant person that I won't forgive, I cannot enter heaven, because I would spoil it.  Lack of forgiveness is a choice of not-love and not-God, and it cannot exist in heaven, which is the perfect experience of communion with the God who is love and who forgives the repentant.  Entrance into heaven demands that we forgive every repentant person who ever harmed us, and while this sounds simple in the abstract, in practice it is quite demanding.  In fact, I would propose that there are some hurts that are impossible for us to forgive on our own resources, unless we have recourse to the power of the Holy Spirit.

I would like to think that every human person will have no trouble forgiving everyone else in order to enter heaven, but personal experience of doing pastoral work suggests to me that persons excluding themselves from heaven because of an unwillingness to forgive others is a very realistic possibility.  In my years as a Protestant pastor, I witnessed more than one person abandon the Christian life from an unwillingness to forgive others: for example, to forgive a spouse's infidelity.

God's willingness to forgive can offend and even "scandalize" (so to speak) us human beings, much like the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal is deeply upset by the father's willingness to forgive the younger son.  Yet the Scriptures clearly teach us: "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt 6:14-15).  This is a condition of heaven. This may sound easy in the abstract, but we dare not minimize how difficult this can be in the concrete.  The cruelty of human beings to one another is unimaginable.  There are hurts that are going to be beyond our natural ability to forgive.  There may be those, in fact, who do not wish to draw on the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive, because it may seem unjust that anyone who has been so hurtful ever be forgiven.  There may be the "self-righteous absenters", who absent themselves from heaven because they cannot forgive certain injustices, and consider it unjust of God to forgive them, too. They would rather exist self-righteously in hell then be reconciled with a God who could forgive unimaginable evils, and the repentant persons who committed these evils. Let this not be you or me.

The converse of forgiveness is repentance. Forgiveness is not accepted except by repentance.  Therefore entrance to heaven demands that we also repent of every way we have sinned against God and others.  That will be the topic of the next post.

To be continued

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