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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Unchristian, Sure … But is it Wrong?

Strictly speaking, an unchristian thought is a desire, wish or inclination that does not conform to the principles taught by Christ.

But the term is frequently used much more broadly in our culture and even in religious circles to describe things considered outright evil. If a sentiment is unchristian, the assumption is often that it is automatically wicked, uncivilized or unconscionable

And in many cases, that’s quite true. But maybe not in every case.

Is it possible, perhaps, to be “unchristian” without being wrong?

The Question of Justice

Consider for a moment the question for justice: there are times in human history when the administration of God’s justice is to be deferred in order to allow the opportunity for repentance. If God himself “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”, if the Lord Jesus taught that we are to pray for those who persecute us and love our enemies and if Paul could say “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them”, that ought to be pretty clear.

To be “Christian” is to pray for the immediate consequences in this life of men’s actions to be delayed for the sake of a greater harvest; to pray, in effect, that injustice may have sway, if only temporarily. Stephen expressed this wish as he was being stoned when he cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”.

But really, the example of Christ should be more than enough incentive to pray for those who hate us, though of course we are also under orders. Wishing the judgment of God on others during our current era is indisputably out of bounds, no matter how much certain individuals might deserve it. In this “day of salvation”, we should be able to say with Paul that we put no obstacle in anyone’s way so that no fault may be found with our ministry.

The Limits of Intercessory Prayer

But there are limits, even for the Christian. John says:
“If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life — to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.”
Now I’ll dodge the obvious question: I have no intention of getting into a debate about what constitutes “sin that leads to death”. Others have laid out a number of plausible options, though William MacDonald’s Believers Bible Commentary has the most comprehensive list I’ve seen. My point is that whatever it may be, there is a variety of sin that occasions the judgment of God in this life and is … well, terminal. And once it is evident that judgment has been pronounced, it would be fairly arrogant for the Christian to presume to be more gracious, loving and forgiving than God himself. One may pray if one wishes, but John makes it clear we cannot do so with the confidence of a positive outcome.

More Forgiving Than God

Some folks, though, are so forgiving that they have no problem believing that God doesn’t really mean what he says about the finality of judgment. Rob Bell makes the case that the ultimate good is that we ought to hope for the reconciliation of all humankind, and to suggest otherwise is distinctly unchristian. This is fine, so long as we append to the word “humankind” three more little words: “… in this life”. The problem with Bell is that he does not stop with the death of the sinner but posits an infinity of chances after death.

Origen and the Cambridge Platonists, among others, argued that God’s judgments are exclusively remedial, so in theory even after death there is always opportunity for those under judgment to repent. But to hold this position is to do away with either the responsibility of man (if God eventually overrides his will) or else the justice of God.

My hope for the reconciliation of any human being ends when he or she dies, having rejected the Lord Jesus as God’s provision for sin. After that, the writer to the Hebrews tells us, comes judgment.

It is neither “unchristian”, nor is it “wrong”, to be grateful that God is just, and that unrepentant sin and rejection of his Son will meet with its due reward.

Further, not all eras of human existence have been Christian. Not all saints are Christians.

Pre-Christian Saints

We will spend eternity with a large number of people from all over the world who have been saved — just as we are — by the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, but who had no specific knowledge of his teaching, his will for the believer or maybe even who he was. They reasoned, like Abraham, that “God will provide for himself the lamb” and were justified by their faith.

When saints like these cried out for justice, were they wrong? In what are often called the Imprecatory Psalms, they said things about the unrighteous like:
“When he is tried, let him come forth guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few; may another take his office!
May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children!”
Were they wrong? I, for one, am reluctant to pass judgment. These were not Christians after all, and their cries for justice are preserved for us over and over again. Their writings were inspired by God; the apostles quote them.

Others are not so hesitant to weigh in with their opinions:
“… there is a considerable list of Psalms which the Christian church would do well to preserve only in the ancient record, as evidence of the pit from whence we have been dug.”
All respect to Earle Cross, but I do not believe these are the cries of the pit.

We cannot, as Christians, enter into the spirit of their cries for vengeance. But we ought to be careful about critiquing the sentiments they express. They are not a product of our age or our experience. They grasp something about the justice of God that we have forgotten.

Post-Christian Saints

We will also spend eternity with a “great multitude … from every nation” who have died for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus in the coming Tribulation. Revelation 6 through 8 is an interesting study in that regard. Here is what these individuals who believe so fervently they are willing to suffer and die for it have to ask their Saviour:
“O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
This is a cry for vengeance, not justice, and the cry receives its response from heaven. The prayers are heard, combined with incense by an angel often held to be the Lord Jesus himself, and are hurled in judgment on the very people they have condemned.

What are we to say about such things? They are much bigger than we are. I refuse to stand in judgment on the sentiments of those who are ready to die for my Saviour when God himself does not.

Final Thoughts

What I will say is this: God is indisputably a God of love, and Rob Bell has got that right. So right, one might say, that he’s missed out on the fact that he is also a God of justice.

Jesus Christ, in the words of the old hymn, is the “trysting place where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet”. His character is impeccable; in absolutely perfect balance. But it cannot be judged by the standards of men, who love to pat each other on the back and congratulate each other for attaining new heights of PC tolerance.

Are these Jews and Tribulation martyrs “unchristian” in their sentiments? Absolutely.

Are they wrong? I won’t be the one to tell you that.

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