Fairness

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[a]

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[b] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[c] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Matthew 18:21-35 (NIV)

Many people in life want to be sure that life is fair. This seems like a principle everyone should be able to support. Some work hard to combat what they identify as unfair aspects in life. There are even individuals who not only seek fairness for themselves but also seek fairness for others in situations totally unrelated to their own lives. Sadly, even with all the efforts made to ensure fairness for all, life is still filled with unfairness. Part of the struggle is that what one person identifies as fair does not always match another person’s definition. Add to this that situations outside of human control can make for an unfair dynamic.

This dilemma of unfairness appears in a story which Jesus tells in response to a question about forgiveness. Jesus is approached by Peter who wants to know how many times he should forgive another person. Peter wants to know what a fair expectation might be. Jesus gives a surprisingly high number of times and then tells a story. In the story, a man is forgiven a debt in full. After the debt is forgiven, he encounters another man who owes him a debt. Instead of forgiving the second man’s debt, he has him jailed. Bystanders witness both situations and determine the first man is being unfair so they report him to the one who had forgiven the original debt. This angers the forgiver so he reverses his decision and gives the man the same punishment he gave another. Jesus tells the listeners that so it will be with the Father.

Amazing how the understanding of what is fair can produce such different results. The first man owed a debt. What would be fair in this situation is that the debt be paid using any means available. The person due payment does not require what is fair but instead forgives the debt completely. Then an identical situation presents itself but this time it is the first  debtor who is owed the debt. Here is where the definition of fairness can be a challenge. As in the first account, it is fair to expect the debt to be paid using whatever means available. However, it can also be argued that what is fair in the second situation is altered because of the action of the man who forgave the original debt. The fair thing to do now is for the debt to also be forgiven in the second situation or at minimum more time to be allowed.

We owe a tremendous debt to God. It would be absolutely fair for God to demand payment. Scripture tells us that the wage of sin is death. Yet God does not demand payment but instead offers full and complete forgiveness. In order for us to be fair towards others when they sin against us, we must offer them full and complete forgiveness the same number of times God does for us.

Going To Hell

One of the most important realizations which I came to after spending some years studying the Bible is that the Bible is written with a lot of imagery. This is understandable for various reasons. First, the accounts which we find in the Bible today came to us from an oral tradition. Second, the telling of these experiences and stories happened when there was no such thing as a printing press, motion pictures, televisions, or computers. Third, as humans, we try to relate events, experiences, and complex thoughts to something which helps us to make sense of whatever we are discussing. Together, these lend themselves to the use of imagery. The speakers and eventually, the authors of the Bible relied heavily on imagery. This is an important fact when people of the 21st century attempt to interpret Scripture. (For more thoughts about interpreting Scripture, see my post Word by Word.) It is also important when dealing with this post’s subject matter.

Last week I wrote a post regarding my understanding of heaven. (See Is This Heaven.) I thought that it made sense to follow up that post with one on my understanding of hell. Much of what I communicated in last week’s post applies to hell as well. I do not believe hell is a physical location. Hell is not the place of eternal punishment. There is no being in a red suit with a forked tail holding a trident or pitchfork. There are no boiling pots of hot lava with stone walkways running through them. There are no endless torments designed specifically for the person who is supposed to be sent to hell. All these are images which have been created over time based on someone’s interpretation of Scripture (often the book of Revelation) or through horror stories passed down through generations.

My understanding of hell and any Scripture which may lend itself to the concept of hell is that this is truly a human construct. The details of hell and evil lie within the human spiritual and psychological components. Let me try to unpack that a little for you. For me, hell is living without God. The only way that this reality could ever be (if it truly could ever be) is because a person has totally rejected the existence of a supreme spiritual being. God is the English name given to the supreme spiritual being which Christians, Jews, and Muslims acknowledge but is not the sole name humans give to this being. Therefore, I am not saying that using a different name for the supreme spiritual being other than God is the qualifier here but instead that a person rejects that there even is such a being.

It is also important to note here that I do not believe that God (which is the name I will use throughout this post since I am a Christian) EVER rejects ANY human. Why this is important is because it means the action is taken by a human and not God. This also means that God never leaves the person but that the person lives as if God does not exist. For me, living as if God never exists would be hell.

I think it is also important to deal with the misconception that God created a location labeled hell as a place for eternal punishment. Again, imagery used in the Bible has led to this interpretation. But when you truly study the passages containing such imagery (example: Matthew 13), you see that the issue being addressed is a person or persons who have chosen to reject God. The imagery is to help people understand what the life experience would be like if a person chooses to deny God’s existence and design for life.

In summary, my understanding of hell is that it is not a place but more a description of a person’s possible spiritual and psychological state. A state which we have been fully released from by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection if we will accept the new status which God has given freely to each of us.