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Are God's Ways Fair? | Ralph Martin | An excerpt from Is Jesus Coming Soon? A Catholic Perspective on the Second Coming.

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Today when the truth of judgment is spoken, certain questions and objections are often posed. Let us briefly consider them here before concluding our treatment of the topic.

Is God Fair in His Judgments?

"Modern man" protests that a God who would allow people to be damned is unfair. Since God is love, many argue, the notions of punishment and hell must either be Old Testament leftovers or first-century cultural superstitions that are not really part of the revelation of Scripture.

This line of reasoning has a number of problems. First, accepting the parts of scriptural teaching that suit us and rejecting others is dangerous. If the revelatory status of the New Testament's clear and repeated teaching about hell and punishment is regarded as questionable, then its clear and repeated teaching about God's love should be equally suspect. On what basis do we accept or reject New Testament teaching? If we approach Scripture on the basis of what modern man finds appealing or credible or fair – using his Judgments as the criteria – we are, in effect, doing away with Scripture as the word of God. This, of course, is what many have done. As a result, some modern Scripture scholarship finds itself in the uncomfortable position of picking and choosing what are "really" the reliable parts of Scripture, but with no reliable criteria to guide the choice. It is far better to determine the intention of the scriptural teaching, submit to it, and form our own standards of judgments by it.

Indeed, Scripture itself teaches that the proper way to approach Scripture is to seek to be instructed and formed by the word of God, not to try to instruct and form it according to modern prejudices. The rebellion of fallen mankind against God is manifest, not just in the works of the fallen body, but also in the works of the fallen mind. One of these works is to exalt the understanding and mind of man over the understanding and mind of God and to sit in judgment over what God has decreed and spoken. This, of course, is nothing other than sin. The fact that this is a common way of approaching God and his word today does not make it any less sinful.

While at college, I was impressed by a statement of the French existentialist philosopher Camus: "I can't believe in a God who would allow innocent children to suffer." Sentiments like this are common today. However, now that I more clearly understand the fundamental situation of man before God, such a statement strikes me as blasphemous – not at all brave, courageous, or worthy of admiration. For mankind to describe the kind of God he's willing to believe in – namely, one who would match his impoverished, limited notion of Justice – is the height of folly. It reveals a total incomprehension of who God is and who man is. It assumes that man's "natural" understanding of the universe, unilluminated by revelation from God, is adequate. The truth is quite the opposite: man's understanding of reality is partial and often twisted and perverted.

Man cannot form judgments about what is "fair" and cc just" without a certain spiritual framework. He must first acknowledge God's work in the person and mission of Christ and understand the truths of redemption, the Lord's coming, and the resurrection and judgment of mankind. Any other perspective is folly.

Scripture does not tell us all we would like to know; it tells us what we need to know. What it already tells us, and what we need to know, is enough to silence the most impassioned of human protest. Scripture reveals to us the presence of God in our midst – a mystery of such truth, love, and Justice that only human silence and submission are appropriate. Would that Camus had recognized this, as Job did:
"Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance? ... Would you condemn me that you may be justified? . . ." Then Job answered the Lord and said: "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know. I had heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 38:2; 40:8; 42:1-6).
Job perceived the greatness and majesty of God, his utter superiority to men. With that perception, Job realized that he was in no position to demand answers from God; the initiative lay with God, and his own part was to be instructed.

Job's example remains relevant for us today. God has told us everything we need to know to be saved. When some of our questions go unanswered, we do not "demand" answers. They remain the prerogative and initiative of God, and our appropriate stance can only be a reverential silence. This is obviously not to say that the theological task to seek greater understanding is not important or fruitful but rather that, even in these important efforts at faith seeking understanding, reverence before the greatness of the mystery is essential.

When we try to wrap the powers of our weak human minds around the immensity of such realities as eternity, judgment, heaven and hell, justice and mercy, we can receive only so much light. Having encountered God, our task is then to acknowledge what we know to be true, even without knowing all that is true:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul;
The decree of the Lord is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
The command of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eye. (Ps 19:8-9)

Confronted with the reality of an unending hell, our minds sometimes strain to ask: "If man can be damned, why did God make us with a freedom that gave us such a capability?" The standard answer, and a good one, is that he gave us freedom because he wanted to confer immense dignity on us by creating us in his image. God gave us the freedom to choose, to join him or not to join him, to accept his invitation or to reject it – even though our choice would have eternal consequences. In this way, we will form a kingdom of free subjects who have chosen to be with God, not beings who have been coerced into doing the right thing.

At the same time, we must always add that if God created man as he did, then it must have been the perfect way of going about it, the perfectly right means of giving him freedom, the perfect risk to run, even at the expense of rejection and damnation. His ways are perfect. He is God. He is not only fair, he is the standard of fairness; he is not only love, he is the standard of love; he is not only just, he is the standard of justice. All his words will come to pass; all he wills is to be accomplished.

Is Man Truly Responsible for His Actions?

With the development of depth psychology, a tendency already present in modern thought became predominant: namely, the belief that man is so much a product of forces beyond his control that he is truly responsible for his actions only in a rather minimal way. Man is seen as the product of "economic laws of history", social and cultural forces, and drives and desires of his own psyche, such as sex and hostility and the will to power. These attitudes have even influenced God's people and have deeply affected prevailing understandings of sin in the Church in recent years. Many moral theologians have so restricted the possibility of freely choosing to do serious wrong that serious sin and hell seem to be distant possibilities, existing mainly in the realm of memories rather than among the present truths that shape our lives and govern our actions. Large segments within the Church today are taking a very permissive approach toward sin. Christians are being led to believe that the objective standards of God, as contained in the Scriptures and taught by the Christian Church across the centuries, might not really be applicable in their own life situations or, if they are applicable, that their violation would incur no blame. [1]

Scripture's view of man's responsibility for his actions is quite different from that of thinkers influenced by modem Marxist, behaviorist, and Freudian theories. In all of its relevant parts and in its entirety, Scripture clearly holds that man is responsible before God for his actions and that he will be judged accordingly. Scripture, without denying their possible relevance, does not focus on determining the degree to which mitigating circumstances (unfortunate childhood experiences, poverty, and so on) or other people (parents, "society") may have contributed to a person's wrong behavior, thereby lessening his guilt. Scripture quite clearly shows that God expects man to obey the law he has placed within him and the law he has revealed to him, availing himself of the help provided in and through his Son and his body, the Christian people. Not to obey God in a serious matter – these are listed clearly in Scripture, and we have already considered them – puts one in danger of judgment. Even when Scripture does consider what we might call mitigating circumstances, it does not give modern man much comfort: ignorance of God's will does not eliminate punishment, even though it may lessen it. "The slave who knew his master's wishes but did not prepare to fulfill them will get a severe beating, whereas the one who did not know them and who nonetheless deserved to be flogged will get off with fewer stripes. More will be asked of a man to whom more has been entrusted" (Lk 12:47-48).

How God may judge a particular case of allegedly "mitigating circumstances" is not our place to say, just as it is not ours to determine who will be damned and who will be saved. God makes the judgments. At the same time, a Christian teacher would be extremely remiss in his duty if he did not clearly state the overall picture given in Scripture: God holds man responsible for his actions, and the prospect of damnation for those who violate his commands is very real.

Have They Really Heard the Gospel?

Since Scripture insists that men who hear the gospel and reject it are liable to damnation, various questions have been raised concerning the manner in which the gospel is presented. What constitutes an effective communication of the gospel? When can we say that someone has truly heard it? Sometimes this question is raised in an honest concern for effective evangelism. Other times it stems from the repugnance of modern man regarding clear scriptural statements about the consequences of rejecting the gospel and from his desire to rule out the possibility that he could be punished.

Is there anything in Scripture that can throw light on this question? Two passages can help us here. The first is in the Letter to the Romans, where Paul is considering what in the preaching of the gospel brings people to faith. In the course of Paul's teaching, he asks whether the Jews of his and Jesus' generation have truly heard the gospel, given the fact that most of them apparently rejected it. His answer is unequivocal: "Certainly they have heard."

I ask you, have they not heard? Certainly they have, for "their voice has sounded over the whole earth, and their words to the limits of the world." I put the question again, did Israel really not understand? First of all, Moses says, "I will make you jealous of those who are not even a nation; with a senseless nation I will make you angry." Then Isaiah says boldly, "I was found by those who were not seeking me; to those who were not looking for me I revealed myself" But of Israel he says, "All day long I stretched out my hand to an unbelieving and contentious people" (Rom 10:18-21).

Paul obviously thinks the word has been adequately proclaimed to the Jews as a whole, who were at the time dispersed throughout the known world. He considers their rejection of it as yet another outbreak of the kind of unbelief and contentiousness that God severely punished and judged morally culpable in the Old Testament. It is not a question of their not having heard or understood.

Of course, this example does not immediately put us in a position to judge whether someone has really heard and understood the gospel in a given situation. But it should put us on guard against assuming too quickly that the presentation of the message of salvation is deficient. The massive rejection of Jesus by the Jews of his day and Paul's stands as sobering evidence that even masses of people can both hear and understand the gospel and yet reject it, to their own condemnation.

For our part we should make every effort to present the gospel adequately and not remain content with unnecessarily offensive or deficient presentations. We should, of course, make every effort to ensure that our lives, actions, and relationships reflect the truth of the gospel well. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that we need an advanced academic degree in communications to communicate the gospel adequately; nor do our lives have to be perfectly transformed before others can truly hear and understand. The awe-inspiring truth is that people – and large numbers of them – can both hear and understand and yet reject.

Another passage that throws light on this question is the ending of the story of Dives and Lazarus. Dives finally pleads that Lazarus be allowed to go to the rich man's brothers to prevent their ending up in hell:

Abraham answered, "They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them." "No, Father Abraham", replied the rich man. "But if someone would only go to them from the dead, then they would repent." Abraham said to him, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if one should rise from the dead" (Lk 16:27-31).
Having a clear grasp on the sobering reality that men can both hear and understand, yet reject, is imperative if we are to conduct ourselves properly as individuals and as a Christian Church in the modern world. If we fail to face up to the genuine anti-Christian, anti-Church, anti-God hostility that is at the root of many of the most "progressive" modern trends and developments, we run the risk of taking a sentimental, foolish approach to them. One Catholic historian pointed out that many Christians find it impossible to recognize the depth and strength of anti-Christian feeling in the Western world, and they console themselves that where it does exist, it is based upon disappointment with Christians who do not live up to their beliefs. In fact, however, the Church is hated not primarily because her members fall short of her teachings but precisely because she insists on being what she is supposed to be. She speaks of God, of eternity, or right and wrong. It is the Church's fidelities that are despised, not her infidelities.

Will Many Be Lost?

In trying to grasp and interpret properly what Scripture tells us about the reality of judgment, we may naturally wonder about the relative proportions of the saved to the damned. Sometimes we ask the question in order to determine how seriously to take the word of God and how much effort to expend in keeping and following it. Scripture's answer is sobering: We must take God's word very seriously and keep and follow it very closely, for "the invited are many, the elect are few" (Mt 22:14). Compared to the number who are invited into the kingdom – all men – relatively few accept the invitation. About this Jesus explicitly warns:
Enter through the narrow gate. The gate that leads to damnation is wide, the road is clear, and many choose to travel it. But how narrow is the gate that leads to life, how rough the road, and how few there are who find it! (Mt 27:13-14).
Scripture indicates a final difficulty: the mass apostasy that will occur at the culmination of history in the events leading up to Jesus' return (2 Th 2:3). "Because of the increase of evil, the love of most will grow cold", and only "the man who holds out to the end ... will see salvation" (Mt 24:12-13). Peter says:
The season of judgment has begun, and begun with God's own household. If it begins this way with us, what must be the end for those who refuse obedience to the gospel of God? And if the just man is saved only with difficulty, what is to become of the godless and the sinner? (1 Pet 4:17-18).
Scripture indicates that one does not enter the kingdom by drifting along with the prevailing culture or by doing what most men do. Christians need to break with what most men do and how most men live and think. We must choose to submit to Christ and live as members of his body, the Church, evaluating and understanding all of reality with the mind of Christ, in the light of eternity.

C. S. Lewis expressed the importance of living our lives with an "eternal perspective" quite strikingly:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. [2]

[1] This situation has led one distinguished Christian philosopher to write an article entitled "Do Moral Theologians Corrupt Youth?", answering his question in the affirmative. (Ralph McInerny, "Do Moral Theologians Corrupt Youth?" [New Covenant, November 1979, 4-7.])

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1965), 14-15.

Ralph Martin, a leader in renewal movements for thirty years, is the head of Renewal Ministries, Ann Arbor Michigan. He is the author of a number of books including The Catholic Church at the End of an Age and Called to Holiness.

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