So you're fly fishing on some beautiful tail water (a river that flows beneath a dam), let's say below Navajo Dam on the San Juan River in New Mexico. You work your way through the waist-high mild current to a small island of sand in the middle of the river. You cast your line to some prize brown trout you see just a few yards away, and quickly get absorbed in fishing.
At about the same time you entered the river, engineers a few miles upstream released more water through the dam. Within minutes, the current becomes swifter and deeper. The island on which you stand soon becomes shallow water, but it is still a very useable lie from which to cast. So all seems well. But the waist-high water you waded through a while ago is now as deep as your body is tall. And it will only be getting deeper, and the current swifter, in the next few minutes. You are well aware of how many fishermen are swept away to their deaths in just such circumstances. But so intent are you on catching one of those prize browns, you ignore conditions.
To sin is to refuse to accept conditions. It's because we don't recognize conditions that we get ourselves into waters way over our head. Like some of the knotty theological problems we are trying to reel in.
Most of those problems touch on the justice of God, and one of the most troubling questions is: How can God punish people eternally for sins committed in a finite life? I make no claim to be able to "solve" this problem, any more than the early church theologians could "explain" how exactly Jesus could be human and divine. But it doesn't hurt to try to put this in a biblical, and, I would say, a realistic perspective. It begins by accepting conditions.
To be a human being created in God's image means to accept conditions, and one condition in particular: that we are creatures and not the Creator. The refusal to accept our condition and the striving to "be like God" (Gen. 3:5) is both the original and routine sin.
Take the usual sin: simple disobedience to God's gracious commands. God gives commands that we might enjoy the life he has given us. For example, we are told not to covet. But rather than submit to our creaturely status, we long to become command makers. We revise the commandment, as if we were gods, and actually create whole societies that encourage covetousness. I'm not convinced that capitalism requires covetousness, but it certainly knows how to exploit it. Note the recent Apple iPhone ads whose main rhetorical device is an appeal to covetousness. After showing you a bunch of cool iPhone apps, it concludes, "If you don't have an iPhone, well you don't have an iPhone."
Covetousness is in itself a refusal to accept one's material conditions. But more to the point here: any reshaping of God's gracious commands is nothing but a refusal to accept the conditions of being a creature.
There are more subtle ways we refuse to accept conditions. To be a creature in a finite existence means that some decisions and actions have irreversible consequences.
With two out, the bases loaded, the game on the line, here comes the pitch. Hit it well, and your team is world champion. Miss it, and . …
You stand at the altar and exchange vows with your love, words spoken that alter forever the course of your life.
You sit in the corporate HR office, debating whether to accept the offer. Signing it means giving up all other career options, maybe for the rest of your life.
You slip on the stairs and hit your head in a fall. You go into a coma for years.
We love this condition of existence because it makes such moments dramatic, powerful, and meaningful. But we also hate it, because some small and seemingly inconsequential act—swinging a piece of wood; uttering verbal symbols; signing a piece of paper; slipping on piece of paper—can have such immense and permanent consequences.
That's one reason we're so taken with do-overs. We invent video games we can cheat at. We've created trial marriage (called living together) and temporary marriage (with no fault divorce) just in case we don't get it right the first time. We balk at any commitment so we can keep our options open as long as possible. Medical science is nothing other than an effort to have as many do-overs as possible in this life.
Rebelling Against Conditions
Surely some do-overs are good and beautiful—like many created by medical science. But there is one condition we really can't do anything about. And it troubles us deeply. The condition is what might be called the inevitability of eternity.
Once we've been brought into existence by an eternal God, even though our existence is finite, the consequences of our very existence remain eternal. From that point on, we will either enjoy eternal life with God, or suffer what the Bible calls "eternal death." In regard to the latter: whether one understands hell as conscious torment or annihilation, the consequences of rejecting God can't be anything but eternal. Once we've been created, there can be no other type of consequence regarding our existence—it's eternal in one direction or the other.
This idea is under assault these days. Some reject theism altogether, and thus even the possibility of eternal life. Such skeptics rebel against the idea that actions in this life have any eternal consequences, good or bad. But of course what they reject is only the possibility of eternal life; they seem to accept that we all will experience eternal death, permanent annihilation. So in the end, even skeptics acknowledge the eternal consequences of this finite existence.
Some believers reject the Judgment, even as taught by Jesus, because it teaches that rejection of God in a finite life has eternal hellish consequences. Instead, they postulate a universe of infinite do-overs that lead eventually to salvation—and eternal life—for everyone. This idea is not new; it's a version of the ancient doctrine of reincarnation taught in many world religions. A 2009 Pew survey found that 24% of American Christians believed in reincarnation. Given our society's resistance to accepting conditions, this shouldn't surprise us.
From a historic Christian perspective, reincarnation is a rebellion against conditions. The Bible seems to state pretty clearly that the nature of being a creature in an eternal universe is that our lives now have that quality wherein decisions and actions have consequences far beyond the finiteness of those decisions and actions. The teaching of the prophets and the apostles and Jesus are uniform on this point: they all accept this condition of finite existence. It is their acceptance of this condition that gives their moral admonitions such gravity, and their vision of life such meaning.
There is a lot of talk about how unjust or unfair this is—that finite decisions can have eternal consequences. To me, some of that talk sounds like a teenager rebelling against having to do homework or chores. Philosophical rebellion is respectable in our culture, but when we rebel against the very conditions of our existence, I'm not sure what to say: That God should have created a different world with different conditions?
Not Easy to Swallow
Our objection to the inevitability of eternity, of course, is one sided. We like the idea that good finite decisions might have happy eternal consequences. But of course, this is just as unfair as its opposite. Why should a finite decision be rewarded with infinite rewards? Maybe the universalist gets this when he postulates that what eternity is about is learning to make an infinite number of right decisions that will be awarded a life of infinitude.
I for one find this a dreary and hopeless scenario. What I know about myself is this: I am unable to make right decisions and to perform right actions, certainly not to the degree that they merit an infinity of reward. What I know about myself is this:
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Rom. 7:18-20, ESV)
I very much identify with Paul here. I even identify with him when he resorts to the most dramatic language to describe our situation:
"None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one." (Rom. 3:10-12, ESV)
This is not easy language to swallow. An army of psychologists and social scientists and philosophers and well-meaning theologians try to convince us that the human condition is not as dreary as all that. But it strikes me that to accept conditions means to accept sin in all its dreariness.
It also means to accept another condition: "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). To accept present conditions means to accept that we are dead men walking. That there is no hope for us. That all is lost.
So despite our confidence in the positive side of the eternity equation, from a biblical perspective, there is no hope that I can make a right decision or live a right life that will ensure that my finite efforts will be rewarded with eternally positive consequences.
It appears that there is something seriously wrong with conditions now. We simply cannot do anything to ensure that eternity will end up being a blessing for us. Instead, we're condemned—that's what it feels like to have to live under these conditions. Condemned to a tragic existence, forever.
No wonder we hate conditions.
Then again, we know of another condition that transcends the condition we find ourselves in. As Paul put it, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! … There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 7:24-8:1).
And how exactly does one avoid the condemned life, how does one participate "in Christ Jesus"? The idea is captured in an evangelical cliché that we've grown tired of. But the cliché works in this context. To participate in the life of Christ one need only accept Christ as Lord and Savior.
In his death and resurrection, Jesus has shown himself to be Lord and Savior of the world. The hopelessness of current conditions has been transcended by a new condition: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor. 5:19). To accept Jesus means to accept the new conditions: We are not condemned. History is not tragic. We are not sentenced to an eternity of do-overs, inevitably to fail in life after life. Eternal death is not our destiny. God is.
To accept Jesus means to accept conditions, and to live as if these conditions are true.
To refuse to accept conditions is to keep on fishing even though you are about to be swept away to your death. Even more sadly, to refuse to accept conditions is to refuse the help of the drift boat that miraculously comes floating down the river. Two men, who look to be man and son, row over to you and extend their arms for you to grab so they might pull you aboard. You just reply, "I'll be okay. Don't worry about me. Besides, I don't want to leave until I hook at least one of those browns."
Life as we know it is about conditions, and accepting those conditions as they are. We may wish that conditions were different, and we may throw a philosophical tantrum to display our moral outrage at the way God made things. But it won't change conditions.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of the forthcoming God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins (Tyndale, July).
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous SoulWork columns include:
What to Do with Aunt Julie | Harold Camping and our problem relatives. (May 26, 2011)
Rob Bell Is Not a Litmus Test | What one thinks about 'Love Wins' is no test of faith. (May 5, 2011)
Mercifully Forsaken | There is a reason Good Friday is called good, and why we can be thankful when God forsakes us. (April 21, 2011)