Sunday, August 25, 2019

Will Everyone Go to Heaven? Part VI: Repentance

(comment on Sunday Readings are several posts down)

Let's do another little counter-factual thought experiment to illustrate the need for repentance to enter into heaven.

Imagine you are in heaven, and everything is wonderful—as it ought to be in heaven—when suddenly you spot Cecil, the bully from fifth grade who used to give you "swirlies" for giving too many correct answers in Mrs. Othmar's math class.  You are glad to see that Cecil has made it to the perfect communion of love, so you approach him and say, "Cecil, so glad to see you!  I want you to know I forgive you for all the swirlies you gave me when we were in fifth grade."
"What you mean, 'forgive me'? Cecil responds with a smirk. "I just gave you what you deserve!"
"Are you kidding?" you say, flabbergasted.  "I deserved to have my face stuffed in the toilet for giving correct math answers?"
"Yeah, that's what know-it-all nerds deserve," Cecil shoots back, "I just needed to take you down a couple notches."

Of course such a scenario could never happen in the actual heaven.  (continued below)

For heaven to be a place of perfect peace, reconciliation, and love, there cannot be persons there who remain unrepentant of the evil they did on earth. It would spoil heaven for their victims, for whom their presence would be a source of emotional grief.

This scenario also illustrates an aspect of the relationship of forgiveness and repentance.  Forgiveness can be offered, but it is not received without repentance.  Forgiveness is like writing a check and handing it to a person.  But the value represented by that check is not actualized until the check is endorsed.  Repentance is like the endorsement of the check of forgiveness.  You sign your name, acknowledging that you are the one in need of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is only received when one acknowledges that one did something wrong, something in need of forgiveness.  Repentance entails the acknowledgment of that one truly committed evil, that one truly wronged God, others, or oneself.

One cannot be forgiven for something that isn't wrong.  If your neighbor came and knocked on your door, and announced to you: "I forgive you for mowing your lawn," you would say, "What are you talking about?  Forgive me for mowing my lawn?  I'm supposed to mow my lawn." No true forgiveness could take place in a situation like that.

But likewise, when the offending party insists on living in an alternate reality where their actions were not wrong, the process of forgiveness is interrupted, suspended, and foiled.  So if your neighbor knocks and says, "I forgive you for stealing my lawn mower," and you respond, "What do you mean?  I don't believe in private property.  It's right for me to take your goods when I want them." Then there is a real problem.

Refusal to repent is, obviously, a major impediment to entering heaven, and there are numerous passages of Scripture that warn of persons being excluded from "the kingdom of heaven" for failing to repent.  It is not that God is not merciful and forgiving.  But his mercy and forgiveness can do nothing for persons who won't acknowledge that they need mercy and forgiveness, because they actually did something wrong.

Pope Francis has said frequently that God never tires of being merciful, but we grow tired of seeking his mercy.  I fully affirm the Holy Father on this point.  We do not seek God's mercy, because we justify and rationalize our own behavior.  We won't take responsibility for our own actions.  It's always someone else's fault: its our parents fault for the way they raised us, its our co-worker's fault for the way he provoked us, its society's fault because of it's "structures of evil", it's the Church's fault for having sinners in it, it's God's fault for making us this way.  It's everyone's fault but our own.

It's amazing how blind we can be to our own evil.  In a moral theology class I took in seminary, we had to read an excerpt from a letter written by a wealthy American slave-owner of the nineteenth century.  This particular man owned a large plantation and was notoriously harsh with his slaves, and was known to have conceived children with his female slaves.  However, more than one epidemic broke out in his area of the country within a few years, and the widespread death of his livestock and human work force left him almost destitute.  In a letter to a friend after having been reduced to poverty, he lamented as if he were righteous Job, complaining that God had permitted these disasters to fall him, despite the fact that he had done "nothing! not one thing!" to offend the almighty.

Our moral blindness can be very severe, especially when our sins are condoned by society. Almost all of us today would immediately recognize the evils of that nineteenth-century slave owner, but our own day and age has its own blindnesses.  Thus, people champion the legality of killing infants in the womb, regarding it not only as not evil, but in fact a positive good, a necessary option to preserve the equality of women and keep a cap on human overpopulation.  People advocate for "reproductive rights" with religious zeal and self-righteousness, labeling anyone who defends the right of the child to live as a "misogynist", a woman-hater. Persons who embrace and shape their lives by this kind of ideology are going to have a very difficult time repenting and receiving God's mercy, because their actions do not seem wrong to them.  They may very well stand before God and not perceive God as good, but as evil, because their perspective on good and evil has been so inverted by the way they have formed themselves through thousands of individual choices over the course of their lives.

Yet our intention is not to pick on one sin or error.  There is a complementary danger of feeling self-righteous because we are "pro-life" and give money to the right causes and vote for the right candidates, and at the same time remain blind to any number of ways that we indulge our passions, ignore the needs of others, act selfishly, etc.

God is infinite in mercy.  But mercy is the forgiveness of sin, not the approval of sin.  God is infinite in mercy. But when we stand before him at our particular judgment, will we agree with God that what he calls evil, is evil?  Will we allow God to define right and wrong, and submit to his evaluation of our life?  Or are we going to stand at the judgment and dispute with God over the moral order, justifying and rationalizing our actions and refusing to accept forgiveness for them?

to be continued

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