How to Turn Bad Guys into Good Guys

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Back when she was five, my daughter, who has always been oddly spiritual, composed a song called "God Loves The World"

If you listen closely you can hear my son slurping on a smoothie in the background. Here's the lyrics to her song:

God loves the world
God loves the world
God loves other people in the world 

So he can 
Turn bad guys into good guys
And bad guys wont be mean to God anymore
Cause he knows how to do that

God loves the world
God loves the world

There's some pretty sophisticated theology going on in that cute little song. But if we want to learn how to turn bad guys into good guys ourselves, we are left with the question of how can we do that? The only answer her song provides is that God somehow mysteriously "knows how to do that."

My daughter is now eight, and yesterday we were watching the classic 1962 film version of To Kill a Mocking Bird. There was a scene in which Atticus Finch deals with a hostile old woman named Mrs. Dubose. You can watch the clip below, followed by a transcript from the screenplay,

Her hands dug into the pockets of her overalls, Scout moseys past the house of an old lady sitting on a rocking chair on her front porch, and calls out a greeting,
"Hey, Mrs. Dubose."
Mrs. Dubose snarls back in a shrill voice,
"Don’t you say 'hey' to me, you ugly girl. You say 'good afternoon, Mrs. Dubose'. You come over here when I’m talking to you! Don’t your daddy teach you to respect old people? You come back here!"
Scout meets  her father Atticus coming down the sidewalk and runs to him. Approaching Mrs. Debose, he gracefully removes his hat and addresses her, Scout hiding behind him.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Dubose. You look like a picture this afternoon. My goodness gracious, look at your flowers. Did you ever see anything more beautiful? Mrs. Dubose, the gardens at Bellingrath have nothing to compare with your flowers."

Clearly thrown, Mrs. Dubose replies meekly,
"Oh, I don’t think they’re as nice as they were last year."
Atticus answers,
"I can’t agree with you. I think your yard is going to be the show place of the town. Grand seeing you, Mrs. Dubose"
Atticus then lifts his hat to her, and continues down the street.  Mrs. Debose is left speechless.

 . . . 

I turn to my daughter and say to her,

"Did you see how he turned a bad guy into a good guy just now?... Or at least he turned an angry yelling lady into a quiet one."

My daughter smiled and nodded.

"How did he do that?" I asked.

"With good" she answered.


Why Do We Need to Believe in Hell? (Part 2: Hate)

Saturday, December 05, 2015

What causes a person to not only defend the idea of hell, but actually want there to be a hell, to need to believe in hell? What drives a person to adamantly defend hell as good and right? Last time I discussed one reason, which is fear. That is, you fear for a person you care about, you fear they are headed in a wrong direction, and attempt to communicate that urgency through threat and fear.

The issue here is not whether or not the danger is real, but whether fear and threat are effective means of leading a person to change and repentance.  Those who preach hell clearly believe it is. However there is a lot of evidence that instilling fear in a person can do a lot of damage. If we want to see people repent, if we want to see people turn towards love, if we want to see bad guys become good guys, the way we do that is not through sewing seeds of fear (you will get what you plant), but by sewing seeds of love. Love breeds love. Fear breeds fear.

Is there a hell? I don't know for sure. I've never been there. But I do know that there can be very real hell on earth for people. People are capable of profound evil and hurt. The recent mass shooting in San Bernardino of course comes to mind. There is profound hurt all over the world. There is human trafficking. There's child abuse. It's staggering just to contemplate how much hell there is, how much hurting there is in the world, or even just on your street behind closed doors.

This brings up two questions from a Christian perspective. One is how we move people to turn from hurting themselves and others. I maintain that fear is not an effective means. As Paul says, it is God's kindness that leads us to repentance (Ro 2:4). However, another aspect this brings up is hate and retribution.

It is a natural human reaction for us to respond to human acts of evil with anger. We see innocent people being hurt, and it makes us mad. Every parent can relate to Jesus saying that anyone who hurts a child should have a big rock tied to the neck and be hurled in the sea. That's wrath, and wrath is just a fancy word for anger. We feel anger when we feel wronged. We have a desire for payback, for retribution, for vengeance. Probably the biggest reason people need to believe in hell, the reason they want there to be a hell, is because they want those people who have done these terrible hurtful things to suffer. If they did not, they think, that would be unjust.

That's why the people in Jesus' time got so angry with Jesus for speaking about grace and love of enemies. Luke tells us that on one occasion, where Jesus preached his first sermon on grace, the people became "furious" and tried to murder Jesus by throwing him off a cliff (Luke 4:28). Tough crowd. They did not want grace, they wanted wrath. They did not want to see the Gentiles receive God's mercy and redemption, they wanted them to receive divine retribution. They wanted hell.

That desire for hell is common. You might even say it is instinctual.  We don't just think of it as an animal reaction though, we associate it with justice. This idea of retributive justice can be found throughout the Old Testament, and throughout every culture, including our own. In fact, America is, among developed nations, arguably the biggest proponent of justice understood as retribution. 

Retribution can legitimately be understood as a form of justice. The question is whether it is the best or highest form of justice. It is better than doing nothing, but does it result in making things better? Does it make the world safer and people better? To some degree, yes. But there is a point where it can make things worse, resulting in a cycle of retaliation and escalating violence, all in the name of justice. That pursuit of retributive justice itself makes a hell. 

If our goal is to create justice, to stop hurt, to make people good, then the question is: Is there a better way to bring about justice than retribution and wrath? This is where the gospel comes in. If you understand the gospel, you understand that what it proposes is the opposite of hell. It proposes that the way God will make things right is not by hurting the bad guys via wrath and retribution, but by turning bad guys into good guys with undeserved love (i.e. grace). Note that this is decidedly not the same as doing nothing. People may imagine that the choice is either to retaliate or to do nothing and forgo justice, but that is not at all what the gospel proposes. It's about change that leads to the hurt stopping, and people acting in love towards one another. Grace and mercy are not in conflict with justice, but they do entail a redefinition of justice. The justice of the gospel, the justice Paul calls in Romans "the justice of God" is restorative justice rather than retributive justice.It proposes that the way God will make things right is not by hurting the bad guys via wrath and retribution, but by turning bad guys into good guys with undeserved love (i.e. grace).

Restorative justice is a higher form of justice than retributive justice. The gospel of God's saving act of grace in Jesus towards sinful humanity is a higher for of justice than the justice of hell, wrath, and retribution. It is a higher form of justice because it works better, it is more effective. It succeeds where hell fails. That's what makes it higher, more advanced, more developed, superior to the way of retribution and hell.

Those who want wrath, those who need hell see that as bad news. It means they will not get the payback justice they long for. But Paul argues that this gospel is actually good news because we are all bad guys, we have all hurt others. You may want someone to suffer, Paul argues, but there is also someone who wants you to suffer for what you did. In that economy of retribution we all lose. In the economy of grace we all win. Not by overlooking evil and hurt, but by finding a way to undo it.

Do I believe in hell? Yes, in the sense that I believe that there is clearly very real hurt and suffering and evil. I believe that suffering and evil exist. But do I believe in the justice of hell? No, I think there is a superior justice revealed in the gospel. I insist that to believe in the gospel entails disbelieving in the justice of hell. It entails moving from law to grace, moving from an inferior understanding of justice based on retribution to a superior and more morally developed understanding of justice based on restoration and love. So you might say I do believe that hell exists, but I do not believe that hell is good. I believe that the gospel reveals that hell is what God fights against, not for. To believe in the justice of the gospel is to disbelieve in the justice of hell.

What Victor Hugo wrote in the introduction of his brilliant novel Les Misérables epitomizes for me what it means to have Christ's heart for the lost,

“A society that tolerates misery, a religion that tolerates Hell, a humanity that tolerates
war, is to me an inferior one. With all of the strength of my being I want to destroy this
human deprivation. I damn the slavery, I chase away the misery, I heal the sickness, I
brighten the darkness, I hate the hatred. ”

I believe that love is stronger than hell. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

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