Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Answers for an Atheist (Part II)

This is a continuation of my response to Hemant "The Friendly Atheist" Mehta's video "78 Questions for Christians." You can find the original video here and the first part of my response here.

Mr. Mehta's fourth question is "Should a killer who genuinely repents be able to go to heaven?" As with his third question, I find myself responding, "It depends what you mean."

First, I'll answer a question Mr. Mehta probably wasn't asking, but some might, does such a person deserve heaven? Does he or she have any right to go there? The answer to this, of course, is no. A murdered doesn't deserve heaven, but then, neither does anyone else. The Christian belief is that heaven is an eternity of happiness beyond what any person could deserve. (Actually, heaven is more than that, Deo volente, I'll go into more detail on what it is in a future post, but this will do for now.) The Christian belief is that everybody in heaven is there because God gave them a gift that they could never, of their own efforts, earn.

I suspect, however, that what I've written above doesn't really answer the question which Mr. Mehta intended to ask. I imagine the question would be something like "Is it morally acceptable for God to grant such a gift? Surely, for someone to commit such a crime and then go heaven forever is wrong." 

I have to begin by saying that I feel the power of Mr. Mehta's point. I can understand the feeling that those who commit such crimes shouldn't be let into heaven. Indeed, it's harsher than that; my religion not merely offers the possibility of heaven to murderers, rapists, child molesters and others, but it tells the victims of such people that they should desire the repentance and salvation of the one who offended against them. I can well understand why so many people find this offensive.

I'll also say that I find the response of some evangelical protestants that justice is served because Jesus was punished in the place of such offenders unsatisfying. The idea of justice being satisfied by another person being punished in the culprit's place, however innocent and willing the other party might be, is not obviously reasonable.

So, what can I say in response to this? To begin with, I have to note one substantial difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. The Catholic Church teaches that there is a difference between eternal and temporal punishment and that, temporal penalties may remain to be paid even after eternal punishment is forgiven. Put simply, this means that, some form of punishment may (and usually will) remain to be undergone. This is why Catholics believe in Purgatory, a place where repentant sinners who die with some degree of temporal consequences for their sin unpaid will undergo a period of purification.

This is a substantial difference between the Catholic and Evangelical Protestant views. On the view held by most Evangelical Protestants, a person could commit any number of horrible crimes, evade capture for his entire life, sincerely repent on his death bed and go straight into paradise. On a Catholic view, such a person would very likely still have payment for his sins to undergo after death before he is admitted to heaven.

While some may find the above answers Mr. Mehta's objection, I can well imagine that others will reply that, no matter how much penance and purification, no matter how long someone spends in purgatory, there are some crimes so terrible that a person guilty of them should never be admitted to heaven. While I certainly sympathise with such a position, I can't agree with it. The reason I can't agree is this: I've done some pretty bad things in my time, nothing as bad as murder or rape, but I've hurt people, including people I care abut. As I said, I've never done anything like murder and I'm pretty sure that most of my fellow human beings, if they knew everything I've done, would agree that I've done nothing that can't be forgiven.

However, while most of my fellow human beings may agree that I've done nothing unforgivable, my entrance to heaven depends not on what my fellow human beings think, but on what a perfectly sinless and holy God thinks. Once that Holy God decides that some sins will be beyond His forgiveness, I have no confidence that He will draw the line where I'd like it to be drawn.

Update:  I have now written a response to the question asked by Fr. John F. in the comment thread below.



  1. This is very good. But what would you say about the sin against the Holy Spirit? What is that sin and why is it unforgivable? And if it is unforgivable is that a qualification to your excellent response thus far? I look forward to reading what you have to say about this. Fr John F

  2. Thanks for the question, Father, I will answer it, but I want to answer some more of Mr. Mehta's questions first, because I think my answers to those questions will help lay the groundwork for answering yours.