Recently, I finished reading the second volume of Theology of the Old Testament by Walther Eichrodt. In this volume, Eichrodt discusses sin, punishment, angels, death, and immortality as seen through the eyes of the ancient Israelites. The chapter on punishment really caught my attention. In the past few days, I have started to see the connections between ancient Judaism and Christianity. In fact, I find that Christians have gone through almost the same sort of spiritual obstacles, so to speak, as the Jews. In this post, I will attempt to discuss some of these obstacles, mainly the question of sin and punishment and the consequences of the ancient Jews’ and Christians’ responses. I understand that what I will be discussing is pretty controversial, but I will post my reflection anyway so that others can respond to it. I feel that tracing our history can prepare us for what is to come. Although we should be coming to a better and better knowledge of God and his workings in the world, we are just living and reliving the same spiritual experiences. How can we escape from this cycle?
Eichrodt notes that during the Babylonian exile, the Israelites became once again aware of the power of YHWH. After all, Isaiah and Jeremiah strongly engraved into the Jews’ minds the conviction that the Assyrian and the subsequent Babylonian invasions were decreed and willed by God in punishment for His people’s stubbornness to obey. In the book of Lamentations, the poet cries, “How the Lord has covered the Daughter of Zion with the cloud of his anger! He has hurled down the splendor of Israel from heaven to earth; he has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger” (2:1). Clearly, God’s power is here acknowledged and feared. People felt as if God had abandoned them, and that He would never save them. However, He did, and after returning from the exile, the Jews started to wonder that maybe God was not to be taken so seriously. Instead of seeing liberation from exile solely as a result of God’s free compassion for His people, the Israelites stopped fearing God – that is, until the prophets reminded the Jews of the law and their obligation to keep it. Soon, the law that used to be seen as a means of communication between the Covenant God and His people came to be seen merely as a bunch of rules that needed to be followed. Inevitably, the law overshadowed God. In addition, sin, seen as a violation of the law, was broken down into mortal and venial sins. Some sins had to be worse than other ones. No one can deny that. But eventually, venial sins ceased to be so sinful, and those who felt as if they had not committed mortal sins came to believe that they were without sin. The Israelites came to see sinlessness as a state that could be realized. People came to believe that Abraham and Job had achieved perfection, so naturally, others could too. A great chasm was slowly built between the so-called saints of Israel who kept the law and the sinners who had committed grave sins.
This was the situation in first century Palestine. The Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus encountered really felt as if they were sinless in the eyes of God. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). Jesus showed these Jews that they were still sinners, grave sinners in fact. By reminding them that all people sin and stand in need of repentance and forgiveness, Jesus uncovered the Truth that had been buried for so long, that “[t]here is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). But surely some sins are graver than others. This we can all agree on.
This is where the concept of purgatory emerges. The early Church needed to address the distorted view that many Jews had of sin and punishment. How can someone accept what happened on the cross if he/she does not feel in need of salvation? Venial sins are sins in fact; so, if the punishment for mortal sins is Hell, what is the punishment for venial sins? The Christians came to believe that only if there was punishment for these sins would all people realize their need for God’s grace. Purgatory was the solution. This is what I believe happened in the early Church.
Why would I care to follow God if there was not a punishment for disobeying Him? Certainly, there is a problem with looking at our relationship with God in this way, but unfortunately the threat of punishment is probably one of the greatest reasons why people worship God. Love becomes secondary. However, in the Middle Ages, the fear of purgatory and Hell came to dominate Christians’ lives to the point that people like St. Thomas More could say that God was the chief jailor of a prison from which no one could escape. Early on, people came to realize that they could not stop sinning, and though they knew subconsciously that Jesus could forgive all sins, people felt as if they could never escape from the wrath of God. In addition, witches were real. With evil everywhere, there was no place for joy, peace, or freedom in religion. It is no wonder that church leaders could exploit this great fear of God to finance grand cathedrals. People were only too happy to buy an indulgence if they could get to Heaven. Although it may seem silly to us that Frederick the Elector of Saxony owned 17,443 relics, he really believed in their power to save. In many ways, Christianity was replaced by a sort of Voodoo.
Martin Luther had a solution. Sola fide. Sola gratia. Ultimately, Luther argued, we are saved by grace alone. We cannot buy our way into Heaven. In this, all Christians agree that he was right. Formerly a distraught monk, Luther was only too glad to find a way out of his predicament. Purgatory, Luther felt, was an obstacle to salvation. It wasn’t a solution anymore. A few centuries later (and thanks to the Age of Reason), the concept of cheap grace dominated Protestantism. Instead of an irrational fear of God, complacency kicked in. Now, instead of flagellants, there were couch-potato Christians. But lest we think that this was solely a Protestant problem, let’s fast forward another couple hundred years. In 1959, Pope John XXIII announced his decision to hold a Vatican council in hopes of bringing about an aggiornamento, or a renewal of the Catholic Church. Fear was still a large part of the Catholic experience, and John hoped to alleviate some of that fear. Unfortunately, the Second Vatican Council was greatly misunderstood, and cheap grace came also to dominate much of Catholic thought.
Neither Purgatory nor grace alone is the cause of a misunderstanding of God. In fact, it seems to me, that for a time they helped the faith of Christians. Christian faith throughout history has swung from extreme to extreme. We must reach a middle ground. We must have a healthy fear of God and realize that punishment exists, but we must also realize that Jesus has made us truly free and accept the gift of salvation he has given us. Only from avoiding extremes can we escape from this cycle. Only from a true understanding of the nature of God can we help build up the Kingdom on Earth. We must rediscover God not to create a new solution to our problems, but to understand His Truth. In many ways and places in the world, Protestants and Catholics are in the same place spiritually. Only by working together can we learn from each other and escape the cycle and accept and worship God fully and completely. This is why reconciliation amongst Christians is so important.