Friday, 8 May 2009

Who threw out the bin bags?

Recently I have been struggling with the whole concept of hell and separation from God as punishment for us rejecting Him. I struggle with that on so many different levels. How can God punish us? What sort of God is it that makes these rules,and, if we then break them, will then consign us into a place of despair and abandonement? (There are lots of other questions too about being ‘judged’ in time and then punished for eternity etc but that’s one for later). As I was thinking about these issues two things happened which have helped me ‘deal’ with this.

First, I read a superb book by Kallistos Ware compiled from his own lectures and addresses. It is called “The Inner Kingdom”. In the last chapter he asks the question: “Dare we hope for the salvation of all?” As a bishop he adheres to the teachings of the church about hell etc (although not a literal place of fire etc) but asks the question as he wrestles with the whole notion of punishment. In the chapter he quotes with approval two great writers St. Isaac of Ninevah and C.S.Lewis who both say the same thing only coming at it from slightly different angles. First St. Isaac. Bishop Kallistos writes:

“In his (St. Isaac’s) view, the real torment in hell consists not in burning by material fire, nor in any physical pain, but in the pangs of conscience that a person suffers on realizing that he or she has rejected the love of God. “

He then quotes from St. Isaac these words:

“Also I say that even those who are scourged in hell are tormented with the scourgings of love.

The scourges that result from love – that is, scourges of those who have become aware that they have sinned against love – are harder and more bitter than the torments that there are.

It is wrong to imagine that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God…[But] the power of love works in two ways: it torments thsoe who have sinned, just as happens among friends here on earth; but to those who have observed its duties, love gives delight.”

Kallistos continues: “When I first came across this passage as a student more than forty years ago, I said to myself: That is the only view of hell that makes any sense to me. God is love, St. Isaac tells us, and this divine love is unchanging and inexhaustible. God’s love is everywhere and embraces everything: “If I go down to hell, Thou art there also” (Psalm 139:8). Thus even those in hell are not cut off from the love of God. Love acts, however, in a twofold way: it is joy to those who accept it but torture to those who shut it out.” (pp.207-208)

He then goes on to quote C.S. Lewis from his book “The Great Divorce”. He writes: “…those in hell are self-enslaved, self-imprisoned. Ultimately states C.S.Lewis:

“there are only two kinds of people…thsoe who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell….The doors of Hell are locked on the inside.”

The second thing that happened was I heard the story of a boy whose bedroom was such a mess that his father feared for his health. Not only was there the usual piles of dirty and discarded clothes and empty cd cases, with the cd’s themselves scattered across the by now almost invisible carpet, but there were items of decaying food and half eaten burgers down the side of the unmade bed. At his wits end the father gave his son an ultimatum. Unless he cleared his bedroom and binned the food he would put all the contents in black bin bags and leave them out for the refuse collector. The son ignored the warning despite the grace of several extra days added to the deadline, and so the father ransacked the room and put everything into ten black bags and left them outside ready to be taken away. The son was furious with his father and refused to speak to him for days. Eventually things got back to normal and there was a marked improvement in the state of the boys bedroom.

But here’s the point. Who threw out the bin bags? The answer may seem straight forward – it was the father. He collected the rubbish, bagged it and put out to be collected. But it could also be argued the other way round, that the boy ignored the clear warnings and the extra days of grace the father allowed before he acted, and through his inaction suffered the consequences. In effect he put out his own bags.

Isn’t what happens at the end of life a little like that. Not so much God acting as our refusing to act. The punishment is there, sure, but not as some great act of retribution but as a consequence of our refusal to heed the warnings. God loves us as the father loved the son, but ultimately He will not force us to act. Hell to me is like that. Not a place for the disobedient but the ultimate destination for those who, through their own choice, chose it over and against God.

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