Saturday, November 16, 2013


A whole lot of seemingly unconnected ideas have been knocking into each other inside my head in the past few days. The following are not conclusions but rather questions.


As I mentioned last week, this is the time of year when the Church’s calendar directs our minds and hearts to “the last things,” the end of the world, and our own death. I’ve been thinking about the magnificent carved tympanum over the main doors of the church of St. Foy de Conques in southern France. I remember gazing up at this image, guidebook in hand, for quite awhile 19 years ago.
Tympanum  carving "The Last Judgment," Conques, France

Recently I was bothered, however, by the problem of the perfect symmetry of the image: Christ in the middle, and half the people (those on his right) are saved and enjoying heavenly delights, but fully half the people (those on his left) are damned for all eternity to be gored, bitten, half-swallowed and otherwise tortured.. Fifty-fifty. I don’t like those odds! Okay, so we can chalk that up to the demands of aesthetics: It wouldn’t do, after all, to have Christ the Judge sitting way off to one side with 99% of the humans on his right and then just one or two miserable figures on his left side in hell.

I gave a chapter test in my Religion class this week. I corrected and scored the tests and then, as usual, had to decide what constituted a passing grade on this particular test. Looking at the distribution of scores, I decided that 70% made good sense as a passing grade. Anyone below 70% got an “F.” Simple, right? But then the usual decisions came up. What about the kid with the 69%? Well, okay; he’s a good kid, so maybe I should pass him. But there’s also this kid with a 67% who lost five points on one question because he simply misread the question – I know perfectly well that he knows the correct answer. Do I give him an F? 

So, now cut to the scene of the last judgment. What’s God’s cut-off point for getting into heaven? The stakes are unimaginably high: either eternal bliss or conscious excruciating agony for billions of unending years. So, suppose a sinner misses the cutoff for salvation by half a point? (Don’t say send him or her purgatory; that’s for people who've made the cut but need to be softened up a little before their final entry into heaven.) I want to know about the person who misses the cutoff by just a fraction of a point. Can God, like a soft-hearted professor, give that sinner the half-point and send him or her to heaven? Nope! Sorry. God is “all just” and must abide by the rules.  

Poor God! I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision.  


At 5:30 in church this morning I was praying the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me a sinner.” Then I was distracted by that image of the last judgment, “troubled” is a better word, and in a snippy mood I continued my prayer this way: “Lord Jesus Christ, please do not be merciful to the really nasty sinners who have terribly offended you and spent their lives in sin and selfishness. Give them exactly what they deserve. Give all of us our just deserts.” I figured that this last part was a safe prayer since my own average has got to be at least an 85%, maybe higher.

But then another image came to me: The father in the parable throwing his arms around his prodigal son and welcoming him back with unconditional forgiveness. Hmm, that sort of messed up my prayer for divine retributive justice.

The next image was one from the French playwright Jean Anouilh. It’s the end of time and all of the just are lined up at the gates of heaven waiting to enter. Suddenly a rumor starts to spread like wildfire: “God has decided to forgive absolutely everyone. Everybody’s is going to get in, even the worst sinners!” Some of the righteous, filled with furious indignation, begin to complain bitterly, “Hey, I worked my whole life to get here while those sinful slobs spent their lives ignoring God's commandments! This isn't right. It’s not fair!” And at that instant, the story goes, those righteous complainers were damned.

Woops! No wonder Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not judge, lest you be judged” (Mt. 7:1-3)

Next image. It’s September 11, 2001, later to be known simply as “nine eleven.” The full horror of the attack on the World Trade Center 13 miles to the east has not even begun to sink in yet. But the owner of a little gas station on McCarter Highway downtown has already put an ominous hand-painted sign in his window. It reads simply “Payback’s a Bitch!” He doesn’t know who we’re going to pay back, of course; he just knows it will be a bitch when we do.

I hope you find the sign's crude language; I do. But then think of the millions of Christians who are convinced that God has those same three words inscribed in a prominent place to greet each sinner passing down that famous tunnel at the time of their death. Yup! That’s what Christians believe. “Payback’s a bitch.” If you don’t think so, just check out the tympanum at Conques: People being swallowed, chewed, burnt, and torn apart. Now that’s payback! Glad I’m on Christ’s right other side.  


So then a question posed itself: What kind of God, what kind of Jesus, is sitting on that judgment throne? I find him sort of scary. I mean, is this Jesus, the Gentle Shepherd who is all-loving and all pardoning and who gave himself up to death for us? Has he suddenly, at the moment of our death, turned into someone totally different, a cruel relentless tormentor? We make all sorts of excuses for Him to soften the dichotomy. (“People are free; it’s their choice to go to hell.” “God is not the one doing it, it’s the sinners who have chosen it". "God has no part in this.”) Maybe. 

All I know is that if the father of one of my students did such a quick turnaround I’d fear for his sanity and for his children’s safety; I’d probably consider reporting the situation to the state child protection authorities.

I’m not the first or the only one to be bothered by the theology behind all this judgment business. I wonder if Jesus, who told the parable of the Prodigal Son, isn't at least a little uneasy playing the role he’s been thrust into on that tympanum at Conques.  

Some say that the Church’s emphasizing of hell is intended as a deterrent to sin. (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church #'s 1036, 1041.) Well, if it is intended as a deterrent, it doesn't seem to have worked all that well in recent years. Where it does seem to have some deterrent effect, however, is that it deters plenty of potential followers of Jesus who find it hard to stomach a God who runs an operation in which certain of creatures who don't do God's will suffer excruciating, conscious and endless agony. Come join the Church of Jesus the Gentle Shepherd.
Meanwhile, let's pray for Pope Francis. I wonder what his God looks like?

Rembrandt "Return of the Prodigal Son" 


  1. Brother Thomas Aquinas Hall, O.S.B.November 17, 2013 at 2:29 PM

    Shortly after I was born (two/three days after), I was treated for a congenital birth defect. I only had a 50/50 chance of living, so basically, I would either live or die (I obviously lived). I believe this experience, as well as the other experiences in my life, which I also believe to be true for anyone, has shaped my thinking, like my thinking of life and death. Life and death, as well as other things that are the opposite of each other, such as being saved vs. being damned, can be reflected in the odds of 50/50, either this happens, or the other thing happens.

  2. At the empty tomb when the Angels appeared, the guards were so frightened that they were like dead men. The Angels told the women that they have no need to fear, that they knew the women were looking for Jesus. I think angels get first dibbs at the Resurrection and it is necessary to be a Christian. - CMJE