No, Virginia, God Doesn’t Condemn Anyone to Eternal Damnation

No, Virginia, God Doesn’t Condemn Anyone to Eternal Damnation
Fire Line. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
Fire Line. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

I struggled to keep my eyes on the freeway as I drove westbound. Across the Columbia River on the Washington side, I could see flames rapidly advance across the drought-parched grasses. That was a mere ten-days ago.

Because of diligent firefighters, the fast moving fire was fully contained within a week but not before over 4000 acres burned including a large portion of the familiar trails of Columbia Hills State Park.

Lush No More. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
Lush No More. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/ This photo was taken in September of 2015 in the same valley as Lush Days (below).

As I traveled those trails yesterday, the smell of burn filled my nostrils. The monochromatic ground contrasted with singed trees. Familiar locations looked alien to my eyes. Were it not for the memories of the shape of the earth, of the scalded yet surviving trees, I would not have known this place.

Is it any wonder that dualistic thinking imagines a Hell filled with fire and its destruction? The wrath appears final. The color removed, life can seem hopeless after a fire.

Lush Days. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/ This photo was taken during July of 2014.
Lush Days. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
This photo was taken during July of 2014 in the same valley as Lush No More (above).

But hopelessness and permanence are not the nature of the earth.

The Heaven versus Hell crowd fail to observe the world as it is. Creation reflects the energy, the creator, the divine spirit I call God. Creation and Creator are not binary or unchanging.

Quite the contrary, the burnt landscape I traversed yesterday will undergo a resurrection in the spring. If the Rowena Fire from last year is any indication, the resurrection will begin before the end of the year. (See The Lichen and Leaves of Hope.)

Survivor. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
Survivor. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

The nature of the One who connects all that is with all that is, the nature of the divinity within and between us all is not binary or dualistic at all. The nature of God is not about harsh judgement, angry retribution, Heaven and Hell, and certainly not about eternal damnation.

The nature of God and creation is about a path that begins at birth and continues through death to resurrection. This is the lesson of the Christian narrative of the life and teachings of Jesus — the biblical witness.  Love overcomes even death. Love does not condemn creation or humanity to fiery Hell. It can’t; if it did it wouldn’t be love but hate.

Nature's Monochrome. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/ A burnt area is devoid of all color in Columbia Hills State Park following the Horsethief Butte Fire in September 2015.
Nature’s Monochrome. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
A burnt area is devoid of all color in Columbia Hills State Park following the Horsethief Butte Fire in September 2015.

Responding to Evil: Striving for the Loving Realm

Twenty-twelve was a bad year in the world by many accounts. Israel and the Gaza. Syria. Afghanistan. Each of these hotspots come to mind. In this country alone we had a theater shooting, we had a contentious — to put it mildly — election season, a near dysfunctional government, Hurricane Sandy wrought destruction in densely populated areas of the Northeast, and the shocking shooting of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.

It is easy to feel discouraged and beleaguered.

This image of Jesus arm wrestling Satan is not only inconsistent with much of the biblical witness, it elevates evil as an equal to God. Image borrowed from http://www.youwall.com/index.php?ver=MzI5Nw==
This image of Jesus arm wrestling Satan is not only inconsistent with much of the biblical witness, it elevates evil as an equal to God. Image borrowed from http://www.youwall.com/index.php?ver=MzI5Nw==

Though I do not believe in a personified devil, I understand those who do so. Describing what we are all witnessing as a battle between God and the devil is tempting. The world has much evil. One way to interpret it is to describe it as a battle between God and the devil. This dualistic image, however, elevates Satan to the level of the Divine One and is inconsistent with much of the biblical witness.

But evil exists.

As troubling as it is, I perceive evil as a by-product of free will. I perceive it as the result of cumulative bad choices. Cumulative choices by individuals and cumulative in the sense of multiple people making multiple bad choices. These bad choices are contrary to what God desires us to do. The result is where God desires us to respond lovingly, we create evil.

My view of evil is too troubling for many and so they turn to a personified other, a personified devil. My perception is troubling because to see evil as the result of our own choices means that we are each capable of horrendous acts. As a former early childhood education professor, I recall the shock on student’s faces when I told them that I understood child abuse. They were shocked because they could not imagine being driven to physically harm a child.

As a parent who was blessed with support systems galore, I still had to talk myself down occasionally when the combination of fatigue, stress, and frustration converged. So, yes, I understand good people, good parents who can be driven to abuse a child. Those without adequate support systems are particularly vulnerable to becoming abusive.

The reaction of many good people to the loathsome actions of others, child abuse or the Newtown shootings, is to spew their own venom toward the perpetrators. I have seen more than one person wish for a special place in hell for child abusers or the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary. This solves nothing. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 

Hating evildoers, only magnifies evil in the world. Jesus did not hate evildoers. Jesus loved those who chose the wrong path. He loved them despite their bad choices because, I believe, he saw the image of God within them. He saw the good that they were capable of doing despite the bad, the evil they chose.

To listen to God’s call on our own lives, we must be “on guard so that [our] hearts are not weighed down with . . . the worries of this life.” (Luke 21:34b NRSV. Read in context.) When we allow the worries of this life to control us or when we live by the rules of a culture that value those with financial wealth over those without, we fail to see the unfolding realm of God that began with Jesus.

We are called to focus on being part of God’s unfolding, in-breaking realm of extravagant love in the world. When we focus on responding in love even to those who do evil, we are a part of the light.

And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. (Luke 12: 29-31 NRSV Read in context.)