L/ife is not fair. It is not merely that the innocent suffer (so, too, do the good) and that the evil flourish. Everyone may be born equal in their moral dignity, but we are born very unequal in our physiological endowments, our social background, the energy our parents invest in us, our intellectual talents, and our capacity for hard work. It does not seem fair that one young man is the best quarterback in the league and another young man no good at sports at all. It is not fair that some young people can go abroad to the finest schools and that others must go to schools that are little more than places of temporary custody. It is not fair that some have high IQs and get high scores in tests while others have to work hard just to pass. It is not fair that some go to Harvard and others to junior colleges. It is not fair that some are beautiful and others plain. It is not fair that some own the newest Rolls or Mercedes while others drive old beaters. It is not fair that some live long and others die young. Or that some live relatively free from illness while others are plagued by chronic pain and disease.
It is from the unfairness of things that both envy, ideology, and demagoguery come. We hate the beautiful woman, the superlative athlete, or the rich young person. We want what they have; it is not fair that they should have so much and we so little. We spin out visions of a society in which there would be complete equality, not just of opportunity but of outcome, even if it means penalizing the talented, the innovative, the creative. (Of course such ideologists leave room for some inequality in such societies; there certainly would be some inequality of power since someone (they) would have to run the society.) We rally voters around our cause with the battle cry "Soak the rich and spread it out thin!"
But even those of us who can resign ourselves to the unfairness of the distribution of natural talents and, even worse, the unfairness of the distribution of health and happiness in this life are affronted by the success of those who appear to be evil. The leaders of the crime syndicates, business operators with vast financial empires put together on the fringes of the law, corrupt political leaders, manufacturers of hand guns and ammunition, producers of trashy movies and commercials all seem to be making it big while we live decent, hard-working lives and barely seem to make it at all.
Pious hypocrites who go to Mass every week or even every day cheat and rob and steal as soon as they are outside of the church—so, how can it be that they are rich, powerful, and happy? Why do they have long lives, expensive pleasures, fancy houses, jet-set vacations, and the best medical care that money can buy? And the ordinary honest, hard-working husband and father must work overtime or take a second job to make ends meet, cannot afford a new car, has his paycheck eroded by taxes and inflation, and can be wiped out by a sudden illness.
A number of modern writers have insisted that after Auschwitz it is impossible to believe in God, or at least in Gods goodness. When six million people could be destroyed in gas chambers because of their religion, God must not be watching, or must not care, or perhaps does not even exist.
The problem is serious, although it did not begin with the Nazi concentration camps. Auschwitz, as terrible as it was, was by no means the first mass murder in human history. How could God have permitted any of them?
And most serious of all, how can God permit me, or anyone, to die?
So there is unfairness in the world—unfairness of opportunity, unfairness of outcome, unfairness in the reward of virtue and the punishment of evil, unfairness in the obligation to die. At first we are angry, outraged, and dismayed. We may eventually resign ourselves to the unfairness of life and learn to live with it, but we are still baffled as to why God would permit such injustice in the world.
Yet there are times when we glimpse the possibility that justice will be done. Sometimes the evil get caught and are punished. Occasionally virtue is recognized and rewarded. We know that such judgments are not permanent (both the evil and the virtuous will die) or universal (many of the evil go unpunished); but still we recognize that in our own hunger for justice and our own outrage over its absence we are stubbornly clinging to "oughtness"; people "ought" to be good, those who ignore the imperatives of ethical responsibility "ought" to be punished. If pressed as to where this "oughtness" comes from, it is hard for those of us who are not ethical philosophers to answer. (It is also difficult for the professional ethicians to answer.) There is moral obligation all right, and it seems to be built into the nature of things. But one can hardly explain the presence of "oughtness" in the world unless someone put it there. If there are laws that must be followed independently of any human lawgiver, then there must be some "force" out there that created them and that imposed their obligations. He, then, must be responsible for rendering judgment against those who violate them.
Most of us don't think about such elaborate ideas as "universal ethical imperatives," but we do perceive a demand for judgment and justice to be in the very nature of things, and hence we feel that whoever or whatever is "out there" must also be a judge.
And that is sometimes not a very comforting thought, because if there is a judge, then he will sit in judgment of us.
The Hebrew predecessors of Jesus were greatly concerned about justice. Yahweh laid great demands on them and punished them severely if they were unfaithful to him. But he had promised them an inheritance as numerous as the sands of the desert. Would he live up to his promise? In the later Hebrew religion, when Yahweh was perceived as dealing, not just with the corporate person but with individual human beings, the question of justice became even more agonized. The Hebrews saw that the evil prospered and the good suffered. Doubtless the evil persons would die for their sins, but then so, too, would the good die despite their virtue. Where was the justice in that?
The classic description of the problem is found in the Book of Job. That good but confused man has done everything a man could possibly do, and he still finds himself punished. His friends taunt him with the observation that he must be a sinner since only the evil are punished, but Job knows he is being treated unfairly and complains to Yahweh. Much to Job's dismay, Yahweh himself appears on the scene and gives him an answer:
"Who is this obscuring my designs with his empty-headed words? Brace yourself like a fighter; now it is my turn to ask questions and yours to inform me. Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Tell me, since you are so well-informed! Who decided the dimensions of it, do you know? Or who stretched the measuring line across it? What supports its pillars at their bases? Who laid its cornerstone when all the stars of the morning were singing with joy, and the Sons of God in chorus were chanting praise? Who pent up the sea behind closed doors when it leapt tumultuous out of the womb, when I wrapped it in a robe of mist and made black clouds its swaddling bands; when I marked the bounds it was not to cross and made it fast with a bolted gate? Come thus far, I said, and no farther: here your proud waves shall break.
Have you ever in your life given orders to the morning or sent the dawn to its post, telling it to grasp the earth by its edges and shake the wicked out of it, when it changes the earth to sealing clay and dyes it as a man dyes clothes; stealing the light from wicked men and breaking the arm raised to strike? "Job 38:2-15. It is a shattering answer. "This is my universe, Job, not yours. I made it, I know how to run it. I created the ethical imperative from which comes your hunger for fairness, and I damn well know how to enforce it. Don't try to tell me how to run my world."
It is a very tough answer, and at one level it is the only answer we are ever going to get. That God has a plan we are prepared to believe, but the designs of the plan are beyond our comprehension.
However, Yahweh gave another response to the question, and the name of that response was Jesus.
The followers of Jesus discovered justice in the Christ event. In the resurrection of Jesus, God proved himself a just and fair God. He had validated the claims made in his name by the good man who was his son. He did not permit the tomb to have domination over Jesus. Unfairness was put to rout, and the right balance of things was restored. The Christ event was an ethical experience, an experience of justice being rendered, of righteousness being exercised, of goodness being vindicated. The early Christian writers were filled with this sense of justification and vindication, and wrote with an exultation about God's judgment, which we who have been raised in the "day of wrath" tradition of the judging God cannot understand. We are afraid of God's fiery, judging wrath. Our predecessors seemed to rejoice in it. We are not sure that we are with the sheep instead of the goats. They seemed to have little doubt in the matter.
But they were closer to the Christ event and understood this aspect of it far better than we do. They experienced the judging God as a God of grace who revealed himself in Jesus. In the resurrection of Jesus the forces of evil were put to flight, and by Gods grace we were united with Jesus. The judging God was the one who leaned over backward to forgive even before forgiveness was asked. Mercy and judgment were not in conflict; mercy had been extended to humankind, the forces of evil were being dispersed. Unfairness was driven from the earth, and with the coming of grace we were awarded fairness in superabundance. We were no longer in the position of Job who could complain about what was taken away from him; God had given us something so beyond our wildest fantasies that we had no complaints at all. We had already won everything.
In moments of intense religious experience such an insight into the fairness of God was enough. You don't ask someone why he is not fair when he has just given you everything he has. Still there are, as the journalists say, many unanswered questions. Are the good rewarded and the just punished in the life that survives death? Jesus certainly alluded to both possibilities during his ministry. He was going to the Father to prepare a place for his followers. There was room for many different kinds of people there—there were many mansions. In our wildest imaginings we could not dream how splendid it would be. On the other hand, it was possible to be cut off from God and to lose the great rewards; we could be plunged into a pit of fire from which we could never escape. The "fire" references are thought by most Scripture commentators today to be part of the apocalyptic rhetoric of the era in which Jesus lived, but there is no doubt about the threat of being cut off. The grace of God was offered, it was not forced upon us. We could refuse to be united with him, and that refusal could be permanent at death. But the refusal was our choice, not
God's. We condemned ourselves. His judgment on individual persons was one of loving mercy; our judgments of ourselves could take a different course.
But Jesus was quite guarded in his comments on the afterlife. Unlike many other religious founders, he did not go into any great detail about either the joys of heaven or the pains of hell. Hence the imagination of Christians filled in the details with superabundant richness. We should distinguish carefully between the revelation in Jesus and the work of Christian imagination. From the former, about all we know is that God wills for us eternal happiness, and that we can refuse to accept the gift and cut ourselves off from him. God establishes his fairness by giving us our wildest dream; but by leaving us free to turn away from it, he gives us a choice. We can have eternal life if we want it; we can rise from the dead as Jesus did, but only if we unite ourselves with Jesus. Perfection in this union is not demanded, and we are readily forgiven when we err, but we still must respond to the gift. Eternal life, Jesus tells us, is about love and about freedom in response to love.
Beyond that, Jesus is modest and reserved about details. We cannot imagine how good things will be, so, in effect, we are told we shouldn't try. We will live, and that is enough.
And it is the life that we have here on earth that will continue. We will not survive death as some sort of depersonalized life force or a shadowy soul cut off from the body. The immortality of the soul was a Greek philosophical concept that was foreign to Hebrew religious thought. The early Hebrews knew of Sheol, in which the shades of the dead continued, but these shades were not the real persons. You were not yourself without your body. So the later Hebrew thinkers concluded that Yahweh's love must involve survival of the individual person and they spoke, not of the survival of the "soul," an idea that they could not grasp, but of the resurrection of the body. It was resurrection that Jesus preached, not immortality. The whole person survives and not just a ghost. The body, like the soul, was saved by Jesus, so the body must also enjoy the triumph of Jesus.
The details are not provided—much to the joy of theologians, who have agonized over them ever since. We do not know how that part of the human person that survives death continues to relate to the body or to the material world until the time when all bodies and souls are reunited.
We have no notion of how the blessed will occupy themselves throughout eternity (though some works of Christian piety make their existence sound dreadfully dull). We simply know that they will be alive. We do not know what the unblessed will do; in fact we do not know whether in the long run there will be any unblessed. We do not know for a fact that there is any human in hell. If the details were not provided, the reason must be that they were not considered to be important. Heaven and hell are presented as realities that demand a choice, and it is the choice that is important, not the details of what comes after it. We must either ally ourselves with the passionately loving goodness that animates the universe and freely offers itself to us or run the risk of being cut off from that love. Wild imaginings about the details may do no great harm, but they should not distract us from the critical challenge of the choice.
The blessed will be alive and active. As far as images go, the everlasting fish fry of Marc Connelly's Green Pastures is probably as good as any.
Contemporary Catholic writers note very carefully that heaven and hell are very different kinds of realities, (Hence this question is concerned with the mystery of heaven and not with the mystery of heaven and hell.) Heaven is a certainty, hell only a possibility. God came that we might have life, and have it we shall. The gift of God's loving goodness will be accepted and responded to at least by some—about that there can be no doubt at all. Will it be rejected in the final moment by some (wherever and whenever that moment may be)? The possibility of such rejection cannot be denied; human freedom requires that the possibility remains open. Whether in fact it has ever been rejected is something that we simply do not know, nor do we have any right to draw limitations on how far the divine generosity can go. The good will be rewarded, the evil punished; but whether there will be at the end any evil at all is a matter about which we know nothing. More important is the fact that as long as we live there is for us the possibility of rejecting the divine gift. Such a possibility—and it must be a real one for freedom to mean anything at all—is far more important than academic debates about what may have happened to the great villains of history.
The Christian believes in life. It was life that triumphed in the resurrection. He believes in superabundant, gracious, never-ending life. She believes, as G. K. Chesterton put it, that life is far too important to ever be anything but life. And because he believes in life, he lives confidently. He is afraid of death because he is human, but the fear does not paralyze him or turn him into a cautious naysayer. She takes her chances and she lives. He does not like the unfairness in the world, and he does not understand it. But he knows that we will all be treated fairly ultimately because all of us have been given a chance at a life that is too important to ever be anything but life.
So he lives with hope and with fear, caught between the possibility of heaven and hell; but he lives bravely and openly with an expectation of resurrection. In John Shea's words/As for that death which all men move toward hesitantly, perhaps the most useful virtue man can take with him is a capacity for surprise."
Our acceptance of the grace of God's love is always hesitant and imperfect. We know from the Scripture that the imperfection of our union with God is not held against us. But still it does not seem unreasonable to believe that some kind of final preparation may be necessary to perfect our acceptance of the gift before we receive its fullness. The Catholic doctrine of purgatory conveys both the fact of our imperfection and the presumed possibility of some final preparation. The where and the what of purgatory are beyond our knowledge, of course. It is important to note, however, that it is a doctrine of mercy and not of judgment. As Jesus insisted over and over again, divine justice is mercy.
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