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 Cruel Doctrines 

June 8, 2007 
Cruel DoctrinesJohn Henry Newman, the most famous Catholic convert of the nineteenth century, once shocked many readers by writing that it would be better that the whole world perish, in the most extreme agony, than that a single sin — even a very minor sin — should be committed. Newman was renowned for his personal moderation, but he followed the logic of his beliefs wherever it led. When attacked for saying this, he calmly repeated the assertion and explained that he could not retract a word of it.

Today's column is "Cruel Doctrines" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Cruel DoctrinesFrom time to time I get taunting messages demanding to know (for example) what kind of a cruel God would demand that Abraham sacrifice his only son, preventing the deed just a moment before it was executed. I received another one in this vein the other day.

Cruel DoctrinesThis point has been made hundreds of thousands of times, but everyone who uses it yet again — the tone is invariably triumphant — thinks he has come up with a real stumper. “So this is the sort of depraved deity you believe in, is it?”

Cruel DoctrinesAs it happens, I heard the answer, by chance, a long time ago. During a boring drive down the East Coast, I happened to catch a radio sermon on Abraham and Isaac by some hillbilly preacher I’d never heard of. He told the old story with a passion that brought tears to my eyes. Poor Abraham! Yes, it must have seemed to him that the Lord was cutting his heart out.

Cruel DoctrinesBut, the homespun homilist went on, the Lord rewarded Abraham’s faith many centuries later, by sacrificing his own Son, from the seed of Abraham! This put the whole story in an entirely different light for me. What had seemed grim became glorious.

Cruel DoctrinesUnbelievers often call doctrines they dislike “cruel.” I’ve never understood this. A doctrine may be unpleasant; but then, so are many facts of life. The question is what is true. Do you refuse to buy life insurance because the idea that you are mortal is “cruel”?

Cruel DoctrinesC.S. Lewis quips somewhere that to hear people talk, you’d think St. Augustine actually wanted unbaptized infants to be damned! The truth, of course, is the reverse: he thought infants should be baptized because he wanted them to be saved. Right or wrong, Augustine differed from his detractors in one respect: he resisted wishful thinking about Original Sin.

[Breaker quote for Cruel Doctrines: How Christianity shocks delicate atheists]Cruel DoctrinesAnother idea that some have is that one of the joys of heaven will be beholding the torments of the damned in hell. At first this may seem the ultimate in gloating schadenfreude: watching our enemies writhing in deserved agony. How can you square that with Christian charity? It seems, on the contrary, the extreme of unholy vindictiveness.

Cruel DoctrinesBut maybe it means something very different. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “The saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked by considering the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy. And thus the Divine justice and their own deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed; while the punishment of the damned will cause it indirectly” (Supplement to Summa Theologica, Question 94, Article 3).

Cruel DoctrinesThus those in heaven will be fully reconciled to, and rejoicing in, God’s perfect justice. Let’s suppose that we ourselves, by his mercy, are saved, forgiven, brought to spiritual perfection as Christians. If so, we will rejoice when our enemies are saved too. We’ll no longer regard them as enemies!

Cruel DoctrinesAnd if God’s justice condemns our best friends, our spouses, and even our favorite children, then we may take joy in their eternal damnation as well — but it will be anything but the kind of vengeful pleasure we know in this life.

Cruel DoctrinesSuch complete submission to the Divine Will is so hard to imagine that it feels strange, almost monstrous, even to discuss it. I can only suggest remote analogies, as when we laugh ruefully at ourselves as we endure some minor suffering or mild rebuke we know we deserve and could have avoided: “I guess I asked for that, didn’t I?” “I had it coming.” “I should have expected it — what on earth was I thinking?”

DoctrinesThat’s rather how I think of Purgatory; as a place, or a state of being, where we regret and rejoice at the same time. Our deserved pain purges us, but it also prepares us: the pain of justice is also the promise of mercy.

Cruel DoctrinesIf our conception of God is so “cruel,” by the way, how is it that we put so much stress on his mercy and loving kindness? Especially if our belief not only springs from our own cruelty, but also makes it worse? Ah, the unfathomable mysteries of atheism!

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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