On Earth as It Is in Heaven

Sunday 26th July 2020
Year A, The Twelth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of the Word
Matthew 13.31-3;

May I invite you to listen very carefully to my next sentence.

The question is, can you imagine what we would have to do to merit eternal damnation. That sentence has some critical words and phrases in it, so let us go over them. The first is "imagine" which demands a stretch as far as we can go with our very limited way of understanding God; the kind of words we use of God like "almighty", "merciful" and even "loving" are merely human approximations of qualities that elude us, so the word "imagine is pretty feeble, but it is the best we have. The second term is "have to do" because none of us is a totally independent agent: we are born with certain genetic assets and liabilities which we summarise in the term "nature"; and then we acquire certain assets and liabilities from our surroundings which we call "nurture" but we do not know for any individual what the balance is between the two. All we know is that we were created imperfect and so mistakes are inevitable. But the problem goes much further in the term "we" because most of what goes wrong in the world is the result of collective commission and, even more often, omission. Which leads on to the term "merit" because all that I have said so far seems to imply at least that it is very difficult for us to deserve eternal damnation when we were created imperfect and have limited agency. We might "merit" a certain degree of cleansing between our earthly death and our risen life when heaven and earth are united, but as Western Christianity has thrown out the concept of purgatory as a place where we are refined between death and the end of time, it looks a bit like all or nothing, we are saved forever or damned forever.

Just another reminder that the words I am using are all near useless to understand the situation but I will complete the discussion in outline before going back to the beginning.

Now let us take the worst imaginable cases. Does Adolf Hitler deserve eternal damnation? For all we know, he was mentally ill rather than being pure evil and he could not have done what he did without millions of adherents, so must he take all the responsibility on himself and, if so, are millions of deaths in which he had a part worthy of eternal damnation? Or take Pol Pot who behaved in a similar manner but cannot have been expected to know anything about the Christian outlook on life and death. Like Hitler, he could not have operated alone, so is he deserving of eternal damnation?

Put this way, the rather straightforward pronouncement of Matthew which separates us into two categories looks somewhat simplistic, made more so by the fact that the surrounding text is all about how difficult it is to paint any kind of credible picture of heaven. Jesus tries the mustard seed which grows of its own accord, then a treasure which invites the discoverer's secrecy, then the pearl which requires serious self-discipline, before coming to the image of the net and the division of the fish into two. It is also important to note that the images of the treasure and the pearl require secrecy about the Kingdom rather than preaching the Good News. If Jesus was struggling to construct a convincing picture of the Kingdom we can hardly complain if Matthew finds the enterprise of describing heaven and damnation in any but the most crude terms.

But this discussion is in danger of running out of control into unhelpful abstractions. We should ask ourselves, now, this minute, whether we think we have done anything, or an accumulation of things, that merits eternal damnation, particularly as we were created as imperfect so that we could exercise free will.

So what is this all about? In the first place, the Kingdom of Heaven is not an ethereal space where our souls all congregate around God's throne, the Kingdom of Heaven will finally be realised when things are on earth as they are in heaven, that's what Jesus says is the objective of his mission; and although many people slide over it without thinking too hard, that is what our Creeds say and what Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 in that famous passage set to music by Handel: "The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible", we will not have the bodies we have now but we will be embodied; it isn't our soul which will "go to heaven" but the whole of us which will live in God's Kingdom. Except, of course, those who deserve eternal damnation.

There is a theological argument too problematic for this short talk which says that sin is essentially an action or inaction that denies our nature as being part of the Royal Priesthood in the image of God and that it is, therefore, an absence of God in us; in other words, sin is a vacuum which does not sound quite so bad as eternal fire but is, nonetheless, the most terrible thing that can befall God's creatures who were all created in love. The question we then need to ask is what kind of god, who creates in love, would damn his creatures forever for human error; and, further, what kind of God would it be who would damn almost the whole of humankind because, through no fault of theirs, it had not heard of Jesus?

There are, then, three things to think about, pray about and study: first, is there a connection between threats of hell and the politics of hierarchical control; in other words, have people been kept under control by the powerful through the threat of hell? Secondly, is it proper to fundamentally self-identify as sinners rather than as good people who could do better as part of the Royal Priesthood created to carry the good news, not a threat, to all humanity? And, finally, how much sense is there in the proposition that almost all human beings for all time have been collateral damage so that a few of us can be granted eternal life?

All of which goes to show that it does not do to slide over familiar Biblical passages.