An Angel Learns to Judge


Professor Malachi, Dean of Discernment and Judgment at The University of Heaven, tapped a file resting on the middle of his desk. “Let’s consider this candidate for heaven right here,” he said. “The man is homosexual. Do we allow him into heaven?”

The student angel Arthur shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Finally he said, “No, we don’t.”

“We don’t? Are you sure?”

Arthur paused in case he wasn’t. He almost desperately wanted to impress Professor Malachi, who had unexpectedly invited him into his office for this chat. “Well, the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is a sin.”

“Does it? What’s the first thing we teach here about sin, Arthur?”

Arthur remembered his Introduction to Judgment class. “That it’s contextual.”

“Exactly. When is it not a sin to kill?”

“When it’s done in the service of a greater good. In defense of the weak. In self-defense. Or even if it’s an accident.”

“Very good. So despite the fact that the Bible says, Thou shalt not kill … ?”

“We consider the context in which any killing has occurred before determining whether or not that killing was a sin.”

“Right. And if a woman tells her best friend that the Christmas cookies she made for her were so delicious that she ate them all, even though she really threw them in the garbage because they tasted like dead cat?”

Arthur laughed. “No sin.” He recalled his time back on earth, when he told his Grandma how much he loved the bulky purple and green sweater she’d knit him.

“Even though the Bible says very clearly Thou shalt not lie?”

“Even though. Because the larger good was served by her showing affection to her friend.”

“And the poor man who steals a loaf of bread from the kitchen of a rich man to feed his starving children?”

“No sin.”

“Despite the very clear words of the Bible’s Eighth Commandment, Thou shalt not steal” ?

“Still no sin. Because there is no judging of sin without first judging that sin’s context.”

The professor smiled. “We’ll make a master angel of you yet, Arthur.”

“Thank you, sir.” Arthur took a moment to look at the vast shimmering empyrean everywhere around the two of them.

“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” said Malachi.

“Even when I dreamed of it on earth, I never imagined anything like it.”

“Speaking of those not yet here amongst us. Right off the bat, Arthur, do you vote thumbs up or thumbs down for our gay applicant?”

“Well, I know that as a Christian on earth I definitely believed that homosexuality was a sin. That’s all I was ever taught.”

“You died in your mid-twenties, Arthur. Had you continued to hold that same belief up until the time of your accident?”

“No, I didn’t. I mean, not exactly. By then the whole issue had grown more complicated. All I ever heard growing up was that being gay was extremely sinful. I learned that basically there was no such thing as a homosexual: that gay people were really just straight people who needed to get right with God.”

“You believed it was possible to, as they say, ‘pray away the gay.'”

“I did believe that, yes.”

“As did most Christians. Did you continue to believe that?”

“Well, over time it became pretty obvious how wrong that was. It became clear that nobody could just pray away their gay—that some people really were just born gay, the same as some people are born left-handed or red-headed.”

“Ah. And what was the general Christian teaching after that became the common Christian understanding?”

“Then we were taught that while it might not have been possible for a gay person to stop being gay, it was possible for any gay person to resist the temptation to give in to their homosexual tendencies.”

“And what exactly does that mean, you think, to ‘give into one’s homosexual tendencies’?”

“I guess it means to engage in homosexual sex. To actually, physically, be gay. I mean, what else could it mean?”

“Nothing that I can see. So the new Christian idea became that gay people could, and should, will themselves to resist being at least physically intimate with others of their kind—to never, in short, have life partners in the way that straight people do. To never marry, for instance.”

“Yes. Just like everyone else, they were supposed to resist the sins that they personally were tempted to commit.”

“So by that reasoning—the reasoning that all people are sinful and need to resist whatever urges they have to sin—gay people were deemed to be no different from anyone else. Now it was inherently no more of a sin to be gay than it was to be straight. All were then understood to start out on the same moral footing. All were then innocent, in other words, until proven guilty.”

Arthur thought for a moment. “That’s right. That’s how it was.”

“So tell me, where has all this left you on the gay issue?”

“Still a bit confused. I honestly don’t know what to make of the whole question of the sinfulness of homosexuality.”

“Then let’s reason it out, shall we? If I correctly understood you, you no longer hold to the idea that it’s a sin just to be gay, any more than it’s automatically a sin to be, as you said, left-handed, or red-haired—which is to say, any more than it is to be straight. Yes?”


“So a person’s sinfulness is no longer determined by what they are, but rather solely and exclusively by what they do. No manifest sin exists, in other words, before a sinful action is actually committed. Correct?”


“So—and forgive my redundancy;  I just want to be absolutely certain we’re on the same page—virtually the only way to judge if anyone, gay, straight, or otherwise, has done something sinful, is by evaluating what they actually did. There is simply no other way to determine sinfulness.”

“Yes. That does make sense.”

“And what do we know to be the indispensable tool for judging the morality of any given action?”


“Context. Sometimes killing, lying, and stealing is a sin; sometimes it’s not. It depends on the context. And when we look to context to determine morality, what two qualities do we look for?”

“Harmful intent and harmful action,” said Arthur. “At the motives behind the action, and the harm that resulted from the action. Or, as you put it in one of your lectures, To find the sin, look within.

Professor Malachi brought his hand to his heart. “How it touches me to learn that one of my students has listened during class. So, what does our beloved Bible say about the context of homosexual sex?”

Arthur thought for a long moment. “The Bible says virtually nothing about any sort of  contextual situation relative to homosexuality. It just lists homosexuality as a sin. It refers to no context at all.”

“Which means that the Bible can, in no way, tell us whether or not any given act of homosexuality is a sin, yes?”

“Yes. It doesn’t do that. It can’t do that.”

“But we do know that being a homosexual, in and of itself, is not sinful. We know that we can only judge acts, not God-given states of being. And we know that devoid of context, we have nothing upon which to base those judgements, do we?”

“No, we don’t.”

“Which brings us back to the question of our gay applicant. Do we accept him into heaven, or do we reject his application?”

“Well, I guess I couldn’t say. Not at this point, anyway. In order for me to make that call I would first have to know the man—really know him—as a person.”

“Yes!” cried the professor. “That is exactly right, Arthur! Exactly right. You have reasoned through to the very heart and truth of the matter. And so you will leave this office a wiser and kinder angel than when you entered it, simply because you were willing to do that reasoning. And God bless you for that willingness, son.”

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jill

    12th paragraph: Arther laughed. “No sin.”

    Pls fix the e in Arthur. See, I’m helping. 🙂

  • Jill

    13th paragraph: “Event though the Bible says very clearly Thou shalt not lie” ?

    “Even though the Bible says very clearly, ‘Thou shalt not lie’ “?

    Definitely drop the t on even, and I’m fairly comfy about my punctuation, but that’s your expertise.

  • 1. “Event though the Bible says very clearly Thou shalt not lie” ?

    “Despite the very clear words of the Bible’s Eighth Commandment, Thou shalt not steal” ?

    Question mark should go inside the end quotes.

    2. The professor smiled. “Spoken like the master angel we’ll make of you yet, Arthur.”

    It’s clunky. I think I’d like it more as:

    The professor smiled. “We’ll make a master angel of you yet, Arthur.”

    3. The back and forth can get a little confusing to know which man is talking, but once you get into the one-for-one paragraph exchange, it’s easier.

    4. At the motives behind the action, and at the harm that resulted from the action.

    Remove the second ‘at’.

    5. So. What does our beloved Bible say about the context of homosexual sex?

    I think I’d rather have a comma after ‘So’.

  • Julie

    “Event though the Bible says very clearly Thou shalt not lie” ? Should be

    “Even though the Bible says very clearly, ‘Thou shalt not lie’?”

    Pretty sure that’s the way it should be constructed. Anyone else want to weigh in? I noticed that you were using italics for the commandments but I think the punctuation issue is better resolved if you use internal quotation marks.

  • I personally like the italics and end punctuation, because it’s less punctuation vomit? 😉

  • Diana

    End quotes missing from third to the last paragraph. “…do we reject his application?”

  • Jill

    5th paragraph from bottom: And we know that devoid of context, we have nothing upon which to base those judgements, do we?”

    Pls drop the middle e in judgments, if Webster and Shakespeare are correct. The OED and the RSV Bible like the e left in… so do whatever you feel like, I guess. Sometimes I dislike English language rules…

  • Diana

    “If I correctly understood you, you no longer hold to the idea that it’s a sin just to be gay, any more than it’s automatically a sin to be, as you said, left-handed, or red-haired—which is to say, anymore than it is to be straight.”

    I suggest changing “anymore” to “any more”.

  • Jill

    Oh, and just in case you were wondering, I still really like this essay. Even after filleting it. 😉

  • Judy

    Arthur paused in case he wasn’t. He almost desperately wanted to impress

    I would omit the almost or make it most desperately

  • Good call! I think I’ll keep as is, but maybe not. It’s a tough call right there. Lemme think on it. Thank you!

  • Yes on both. Thank you!

  • Yeah, I agree. Thank you!

  • Outstanding, Connie, each of them. All done.

  • for real, jill. thank you for both of these great suggestions. (And thanks especially for telling me WHERE the mistakes are; it takes me forever to actually find the things otherwise.)

  • no, you did great!

  • “Event though the Bible says very clearly Thou shalt not lie” ?”

    Lose the space between the quotation mark and the question mark, as well as the “t” in “event”.

  • Whoops, saw that this already got pointed out. Never mind, carry on.

  • Awesome, John! But one correction- nobody does quality, professional graphic design for free- that is not totally true. I do! But not for anyone. For you, though, definitely. And I do a lot of that stuff- graphic design, web design, branding, email marketing design, layout design… anything you need, you just let me know. I won’t charge you a dime.


  • Translator Terminator

    Hey John,

    Has any of the already translated things changed? In that case, send them over (you-know-where) so I can send you the new version.


  • Lymis

    I have a nitpick regarding the phrase, “The man is a homosexual. Do we allow him into heaven?”

    I’d lose the “a” in “a homosexual” so it reads “The man is homosexual.” Or better yet, just use “the man is gay” the way you do throughout the rest of the piece.

    Almost exclusively, calling someone “a homosexual” is something that anti-gay folks use, while gay-friendly people either use the adjective form or the word “gay.”

    The other option would be to shift it to Arthur, and have Malachi just ask “You’ve read his file, do we let him into heaven?” and have Arthur be the one to say “No, we don’t. He is a homosexual.” That would also make it appear less that Malachi is stating that his homosexuality is the only consideration and shift that condemnation right onto Arthur.

  • Lymis

    I LOVE the new cover. That’s exquisite.

  • No, that’s not nitpicking at all. It’s a real thought. I wanted to start off using “homosexual” as I did, because I wanted to start off with the most objective, clinical-sounding label I could. But I think you’re right: “homosexual” isn’t objective. I gotta run right now, but at the very least I think will change that first “homosexual” to gay.

    Well, “gay” is maybe too … intimate/user-friendly for him at this moment. I want him to be laying the question as … well, objectively at the feet of Arthur as he can, essentially. Whoops. gotta run.

  • Lymis

    So maybe it could be completely neutral and let Arthur raise the gay issue in the first place?

  • anakin mcfly

    “It just lists homosexuality as a sin. It refers to no context at all.”

    “Which means that the Bible can in no way tell us whether or not any given act of homosexuality is a sin, yes?”

    The second part doesn’t seem to follow logically from the first; an analogy would be the statement, ‘Dogs are animals’, and then saying that that statement alone cannot tell us whether any given dog is an animal.

    It also reinforces the myths that the Bible lists homosexuality as a sin and that there’s no context to be taken into account, because both are untrue, and it’s the very investigation into context that suggests the Bible *doesn’t* say that homosexuality as we know it is a sin. But I’m not sure how you could rephrase that bit without making it too convoluted. :/

  • anakin mcfly

    Though now I think about it, if it were for instance a woman saying, “men are pigs,” then in the absence of context (perhaps some man just did something horrible to her) it would be spurious to conclude that any given man is a pig (literally or otherwise). It could go both ways though, so maybe it would help to clarify.

  • Allie

    I think John’s right in this case, because his intended audience is people who are not gay-friendly and it’s more likely to reach them if the angel starts off speaking the language they expect.

  • Allie

    It’s amazing what you can get for free if you ask! We won’t do graphic design for free, but my husband is a professional illustrator who would be willing to donate work. He can knock out line drawings in a variety of styles from realistic to comic. If you ever have a book where such illustrations would greatly improve the impact, let us know and we’ll see if we can come up with something you like.

    I don’t think of this sort of thing as “free” so much as tithing.

  • Allie

    Hmm, good points.

    I also don’t like the phrasing “refers to context.” Think it might be better, “It just lists homosexuality as a sin. There’s no context at all.”

  • David S

    God, you’re awesome.

  • that Mike guy

    “… virtually the only way to judge if anyone, gay, straight, or otherwise, has done something sinful, is by evaluating what they actually did. There simply is no other way to determine sinfulness.”

    I don’t think “virtually” is needed here or even correct. Nothing virtual about it – the only acts that are sinful are acts. Actually, that works for any attribute, not just “sinful”. The only pickles that are flamboyant are pickles.

  • Al

    “to give into their homosexual tendencies”, and again, to “give into one’s homosexual tendencies”, should be changed to, “to give in to”, since it’s about giving in, not going into.

    Love the new cover too, tho.

  • Matt

    Using the adjective form could be a nice compromise. Arthur could maybe even spend a little time waffling over terminology–I know the straight people in my life occasionally do that, even when they consider themselves “gay-friendly.”

    They simply don’t have an ear for what sounds natural and what doesn’t, because they are not the target and are unaware of the history. It may help your audience to be silently reassured, “It’s okay not to know,” which may assist them in grapping with what can seem like a very confrontational topic.

  • Matt

    11th paragraph from the bottom:

    “Context. Sometimes killing, lying, and stealing is a sin; sometimes it’s not.”

    Is the semi-colon strictly necessary here? It may be more of a stylistic choice. There are a few ways to go about it. You could put a period, or a comma (though I personally think that would make too many commas). I just feel like the sentence would flow a bit better without needing to pause a little longer for the semi-colon, when it feels like the entire sentence would be said in one breath. Maybe add an “and” before the second “sometimes.”

    “Despite the very clear words of the Bible’s Eighth Commandment, Thou shalt not steal”?

    It doesn’t come through in my copy-and-paste job, but at the end of this sentence be sure that your quotes remain unitalicized on both ends–easily fixed with a good Word program.

    I just got back from work and class and my brain wants a break, but I edit wikis for grammar, spelling, and punctutation in my spare time. And I just couldn’t resist this!

    Just a quick aside: Thank you for using “LGBT” on the cover. It feels nice to be included fully in the discussion :).

  • Matt

    And I just caught another–in that second quote (“Despite the very…”), the question mark needs to be inside the quotes.

  • Lymis

    Fourth paragraph leading into the fifth –

    Arthur states bluntly that “Well, the Bible very clearly states that homosexuality is a sin.” That statement essentially goes unchallenged. I know that digging into that is not the point of this essay, and that it is specifically addressed in other places in Unfair, but it seems Malachi should at least react to that statement. Because the case against “homosexuality” is far less clear than the case against lying or killing, or even eating shellfish. So, yes, Malachi is right to get to the main point – context as the heart of sin – but he doesn’t react the blunt assertion of Arthur’s comment.

    What about starting the fifth paragraph with Malachi saying, “Does it? What’s the first thing we teach here about sin, Arthur?”

  • Jan

    This isn’t a punctuation nitpick–but I was vaguely bothered by the idea that Arthur the angel was a human before he died.

  • Jill

    God, so are you.

  • Jill

    It is great. Can’t wait to get my fresh, new copy.

  • David S

    Hi Matt – I say yes on the semi colon. Two complete sentences without a conjunction are correctly joined by a semicolon – and I personally think the sentence is stronger as a whole thought.

  • David S

    …Grammar Girl is one of my favorite podcasts! Yes, I’m *that* guy.

  • Lymis

    I’d agree with you if the sentence didn’t appear in the middle of a whole discussion on other apparently explicit and categorical statements that something is forbidden for which context is necessary to determine whether it is a sin.

    The point is that in every other case, no reference is given to context and yet we all (or at least, trained angels all) understand that you have to include context, and that the apparent prohibitions of homosexuality are similarly situated – there’s no support for a blanket condemnation with no consideration of context.

  • Lymis

    Seventh paragraph from the bottom:

    “Which means that the Bible can in no way tell us whether or not any given act of homosexuality is a sin, yes?”

    I’m not sure that says what you want it to say. The Bible can, indeed, guide us to a determination of whether a given act is a sin – is it loving, does it honor God, does it treat one’s partner as equal to one’s self?

    It’s the mere fact that it seems to in a list of prohibitions that provides no context. A homosexual act (as defined in the piece) isn’t sinful merely because it’s a homosexual act. But other things in the Bible can inform our evaluation of whether it is a sinful one.

    Maybe something along the lines of “Which means we have to look deeper to determine whether or not any given act of homosexuality is a sin, yes? Because just listing a prohibition doesn’t address every possible context?”

  • spinning2heads

    I’d just…be careful with the word “homosexuality.” I know that technically it’s the word to use in the context, but that word was coined to describe a disease. The disease of being gay or lesbian. Which makes it a tricky word, since that is not a disease at all.

    Also, a person is “a homosexual” or just “gay,” meaning, no one ever says “the man is a gay.” Another way to say that is that “homosexual” is a noun, and “gay” is an adjective. I think that an adjective is better, because rather than defining a person as one thing it describes one thing about that person. Am I making sense?

    I think, since you are talking about a dude, it would be better to just replace “homosexual” for the word “gay.”

  • mike moore

    LOVE the new cover.

  • Lymis

    Homosexual can be an adjective as well, for everything from people and orientations to actions and situations.

    It’s worth pointing out (something John already knows) that outside of the scientific community, the word homosexual is used far more often by anti-gay people than it is used by gay friendly or gay people to describe ourselves. It’s only my opinion, but I think John stuck a very good balance.

    Switching all the places he uses gay to using homosexual would not make the piece come across as neutral – gay people might well see it as oddly homophobic.

  • n.

    is the subtitle on the cover meant to echo The Jewish Question?

    if yes, then good work subtly nazifying the dehumanizers.

    if not, then what were you thinking?!

  • n.

    mixing myths, yeah…

  • I was thinking that it was a good subtitle.

  • When it comes to this issue of homosexuality and even homosexual marriage I notice that there is great emphasis placed on emotions and the emotional side of this who agenda. Henceforth its agenda has grown alot of steam as a result. I don’t hear much talk about right and wrong and the foundations of marriage and why marriage is there in the first place.
    In America, homosexual marriage is going to pass because people will be swayed by the emotions of it. Will Polygamy be next? After all, most of them love each other as well, right? For what reason would it be not accept is ok?

  • n.

    HA! well… it is.

  • n.

    and why not, if all parties are consenting adults?!

  • n.

    also probably marriage should be a civil thing and we should have the ability to create civil families of different kinds, say if people want to become siblings or other family relationship as adults… that should be possible. they should just be required to keep the civil relationship for a certain amount of time (or better, some other requirement that would cause people to take it seriously).

  • Lymis

    …. unlike straight marriage, in which, apparently, emotions don’t play a part….

  • Mikeybegood

    John, thanks for a beautiful piece of writing.

    About 23 paragraphs from the bottom, or about 36 from the top:

    “So by that reasoning—the reasoning that all people are sinful and need to resist whatever urges they have to sin—gay people were deemed to be no different than anyone else.”

    One of my few remembered rules from Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” is that it may be higher than, stronger than, nit-pickier than, but ALWAYS different from. Makes sense.

  • spinning2heads

    Hm. You are completely correct, neither term is neutral. But I don’t understand why seeing the word “gay,” which is generally speaking a term people use to self-identify, would be seen as homophobic. I think the word “homosexual” is oddly homophobic, given it’s clinical history. At least, it always makes me cringe a little. I’d much rather be called me “gay.”

    On the other other hand, maybe using the word “homosexual” draws in a reader who is from a church that is generally clueless, and uses that word? That seems a stretch though.

  • Lymis

    I think you got my comment exactly backwards.

  • Lymis

    I vote for the internal single quotes as well – though I’m fine with the italics. One pictures that an angel quoting the Bible gets some sort of Hollywood special effects audio reverb when speaking the text.

  • spinning2heads

    Oh…you’re right, I did. But then, if that’s the case, aren’t you agreeing with me?

    John used the word “homosexual” a lot of times in the essay above, and my comment was meant to ask him to rethink that, and consider switching it to “gay.”

  • Lymis

    Then I read yours backwards as well – it sounded like you wanted him to complete eliminate the word “gay.”

    I think a use of the word homosexual – especially by Arthur, in this context, is appropriate, and the shift to gay later in the piece works for me. I think it’s a good balance.

  • Allie

    Oh Lordy, my mom always corrects me on that when I speak. I’m embarrassed for not having caught it.

  • Not sure what else people have found correction-wise, so here’s my two cents:

    1. “Judgment” should be spelled without an “e” after the “g.” This is in the first several paragraphs.

    2. “which is to say anymore than it is to be straight” – change the “anymore” to “any more.”

    3. Third paragraph from the end does not have ending quotations marks.

  • SugarMags

    Yes, I was too. Bothered, that is. Because I know the thought running through the mind of the reader John *wants* to reach: “HA! Why would I listen to anything this guy says. Not only does he think homosexuality is not a sin, he even thinks angels used to be humans. His theology is so bad, his argument is automatically invalid.”

  • SugarMags

    Glad I searched this one before posting it. I concur: “give in to”

  • Anyone who wouldn’t read me because of that wouldn’t read me anyway. The idea that angels used to be human is a common convention of storytelling in our culture. It’s safe to employ; no one sane is going to sweat the theology of it. And if they do … part of my business is being comfortable with the understanding that you can’t please everyone.

  • SugarMags

    Hey John. Last night I was thinking about this piece, because I really like it. But something about it was nagging me ever since the first reading and last night it hit me, so I thought I’d share. It’s already been mentioned by a few folks that if the theology is slightly off, a lot of your target audience will automatically shut their minds, particularly as relates to the person>>angel concern. But the other thing I noticed is that the entire premise for whether this man gets into Heaven is his sexual orientation…..and there is no mention of his salvation through Christ. I realize that may be part of your point: the church judges people by their sins, God judges us worthy of heaven based on the sacrifice of Christ. I’m just not sure that’s clear, because the story goes on about judgment of sins in general, i.e., as if sin were the issue for getting into heaven, rather than salvation/faith/Jesus. Yes, each person is judged for their sins. But, by angels? Do angels decide if humans get into heaven or not? My understanding of salvation is that Christ is our only judge, and our sins (past, present, future) are wiped clean at the moment of belief in Christ’s saving work of grace on the cross. Really, that whole concept should obviate any NEED for this kind of writing anyway….right? No one should give a rat’s patootie about anyone else’s sin or salvation if they’ve got Jesus. So again, I realize that’s very likely the POINT of this piece. I just have doubts that the target audience will see past any of their immediate impressions about YOUR theology and dismiss everything else you say out of hand. Maybe my *own* theology is still messed up by my long exposure to the almost-fundies. So feel free to correct me if you disagree. It’s just a thought that’s been bugging me, and I wanted to get it out there for discussion.

  • Toliniega Szebora Dobrowieść

    The problem is, that the context does not change if something is a sin or not. Stealing is always wrong. Of course it’s better to steal the food than to let your children die but the context does not make it neutral. It only makes it a lesser evil but it’s still a sin. And when it comes to killing, the 10 commandments say about murder, not killing. If you kill in self-defence, it’s not a murder.

    Also, people cannot become angels. No way. But it’s just a fiction so it doesn’t really matter.