God’s love would have us repent, not suffer

God’s love would have us repent, not suffer

Jesus seems out of character to us when he preaches 10 times about the fires of Gehenna: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna” (Mk 9: 43-47). Or how about his threat to the Pharisees: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna?” (Mt 23: 33). Jesus teaches   “. . . and whoever says, ‘You fool’ will be liable to the fires of Gehenna” (Mt 5: 22).

Let’s admit it: we would rather hear the Lord tell the adulterous woman that he does not condemn her, and that she should not commit this sin again. Psychiatrists have a ton of work to do helping us guilt-infested people unscramble our minds from the damage we carry around with us. Priests in the sacrament of reconciliation have as much, and theirs is compounded by so many telling them they do not even know what is a sin, so they often imagine the worst. All of which eats like acid at what is left of the personal relationship the Lord wants to initiate with each of us. After all, what incentive is there to get close to an authority figure menacing us with unquenchable fire?

Just outside the southern wall around Jerusalem through the Dung Gate (sic) is the Valley of Hinnom. When David and his troops seized the city in 1000 B.C., they defiled the pagan shrines there where the Amorites and Jebusites had practiced infant sacrifice. This contempt for pagan religious ritual continued for centuries as the Jews threw their sewage and animal waste atop the site. Organic waste generates methane as it decomposes, causing fires that do not go out easily and which spring to life again. Gehenna is how they said the word in the Aramaic spoken in our Lord’s time, reserving formal Hebrew for temple worship.

Wanting only life for his listeners, and life more abundantly, he asked in a positive way why they foolishly would want to throw their very lives into the dump. He, like anyone teaching morality, the study of right and wrong, presumed a free will with which we could choose between the two we weighed. We are not predetermined like robots to mechanically select the right answer. Every evil looks attractive in some way or other to someone facing a choice. No one chooses absolute evil. People getting the moral instruction of a teacher like Jesus need help in separating the evil from the good.

So it seems that the punishment a loving God uses is one that turns the sin on its head. Since racism is a serious sin, the punishment is having an African-American win not one but two elections to the Oval Office. Think of the apoplectic rage of bigots helplessly watching their country run by one of “them.” Or how about the sexist who does the same kind of dehumanizing harm to a gender over which he feels superior? God sees to it that he becomes dependent on a wife or female nurse. Maybe a materialist becomes obsessed with the great American religion of capitalism to such an excess that she loses her reason for living when the market crashes and her god deserts her. Then too the person who dismisses human-made degradation of the environment, scoffing that we can frack our way to cheap natural gas while disregarding the fouling of the drinking water of economically disadvantaged people, only to watch brown water flow from his or her own tap. Then there is the handgun advocate who is accidentally shot by his or her child.

Picturing God as condemning people as though Dante’s inferno were biblical gets it wrong. Hell, if there is anyone in it, must be a cold place since it is the absence of Love. The heat analogy probably stems from ancients viewing an active volcano like Etna or Vesuvius. God’s love would have us repent, not suffer. This year Pope Francis assures us of God’s mercy.