Jerry Sandusky was on the TV at the gym this morning, since his sentencing is today. He made a statement continuing to deny all the allegations against him. As I saw the words in his statement on the screen, it occurred to me that hell must be something like that: to spend eternity in denial of the mercy from God that makes facing the truth possible. What would have to happen between now and the time that Jerry Sandusky dies for him to get into heaven? Here’s the problem: he was already a Christian. He already said the sinner’s prayer and got baptized. Does he have to do it again? Do his actions retroactively make his “decision for Christ” insincere? Or do they prove that he was born reprobate and should enjoy life on Earth while it lasts because his eternal fate is locked in? Or does he have to make confession and receive penance from a priest? (Surely not, because we’re justified by faith, not works, right?) The resources of popular American evangelical theology fail us at this point because they rely on a hackneyed and caricatured reading of the book of Romans. But the epistle reading from yesterday’s Daily Office — Hebrews 4:12-16 — offers new cement to patch in the quickly crumbling Romans Road of our theology.
Every evangelical growing up in the last several decades has been shaped by some variation of the “Four Spiritual Laws” version of the gospel in which we are all sinners deserving of eternal damnation, God offers Jesus’ sacrifice as a means to pay Himself back for our sin, and we have to “accept” it in some kind of way to get God to flip the switch from damned to saved. This theology is based upon making the book of Romans the trump card to everything else we read in the Bible, a habit that evangelicals inherited from the Reformation’s emphasis on “justification by faith” (Romans 3:21-31, 4:3, 5:1, etc) though Protestant theologians in past centuries were much more responsible in their Biblical interpretation. Because “justification by faith” is the cornerstone of evangelical theology, the “acceptance” part of the salvation equation cannot be anything that requires an effort an our part because that would mean that we were saved by works instead of faith. But how can our acceptance of God’s grace not involve any effort on our part? The Calvinists get around this logical problem by making our “acceptance” of God’s grace something that God automates into us. Non-Calvinist evangelicals use the strategy of equating “acceptance” with “surrender” so that it’s the opposite of making an effort. Almost all evangelicals are committed to the belief that once the switch gets flipped from damned to saved, it can’t get flipped back.
So then what happens when you have a guy who says the sinner’s prayer, despairs of his own merit before God, throws himself on the mercy of the cross, surrenders to Jesus, etc, and displays many fruits of regeneration for many years after that until it comes out that he’s been abusing little boys in the locker room? Do we say that his actions “prove” that he was an insincere reprobate when he made his “decision” for Christ? Or do we say that all Christians sin and, just like every other person who has accepted Christ, Jerry Sandusky was forgiven for his pedophilia before it even happened and even now his sin is separated from him “as far as the east is from the west” in the eyes of God? Or do we say that Sandusky has to acknowledge and ask forgiveness for his sins in order for God to reset the heavenly circuit breaker that has been tripped by this egregious crime (which would be the Catholic view and fly in the face of evangelical doctrine)? If you were Sandusky’s prison chaplain, what would you counsel him to do knowing that Sandusky already said the sinner’s prayer and accepted Christ when he was a boy?
This is where Hebrews 4:12-16 rescues us from a theology of atonement that has turned completely ludicrous. Let’s take a look.
12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
It’s important to remember when we read this passage that the great high priest Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. That means that He is both the judge in verse 12 who can penetrate underneath our outward appearance so deeply into our conscience “even to dividing soul and spirit” and the high priest in verse 14 who “empathized with our weakness” enough to offer Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. His judgment is thus a completely empathetic judgment. This is a very different depiction of judgment than many of us evangelicals were taught. We are used to hearing that “sin is sin” and because God is so infinitely perfect and un-empathetic, He is equally outraged when you say !@#$%^&* after you smash your thumb with a hammer as he would be if you abused a little boy in a football locker room. Cussing is equally worthy of eternal hellfire as pedophilia, according to the official party line, because God’s standards are infinitely high. The problem with this way of talking about things is it’s tremendously nihilistic. It’s easier to justify your own sinful behavior if you believe that you’re so filthy that God is simply going to lobotomize you with a Jesus mask when you die so that He can bear to look at you.
The zeal for this way of thinking about God’s judgment comes from a radical sense of God’s holiness and human frailty. I can sympathize with this zeal to a degree. The more I mature in my faith, the more inexcusable what had once seemed like slight infractions against God’s holiness appear to me. I hate my sin the more I love God, because the closer I grow to Him, the more I am able to face myself with integrity. I don’t just want to avoid saying insensitive, thoughtless things to others; I want to avoid thinking them also. I don’t just want to avoid bragging about myself; I want to avoid feeling self-satisfied. It is not that I enjoy beating myself up. Rather, the more I taste God’s joy, the more impatient I grow at any trace of bitterness within my cup. I want perfect sweetness. If I had never come to trust in the sacrifice of Christ that allows me to “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence,” I would not know what the joy of God’s holiness tastes like and I would probably still think the bitterness of my sin was sweet. Here’s the point I’m getting at: what Hebrews 4:12-16 (and really the entire book of Hebrews) depicts for me is that salvation is the empowerment to face God’s truth.
Throughout the book of Hebrews, over and over again, the question of salvation has to do with rescuing us from our phobia of God’s truth. We might say we’re not afraid of the truth, but that’s because we’ve wallpapered over uncomfortable truths about ourselves with layers and layers of rationalizations and excuses. Imagine what it would be like to be in an enormous room where every pathetic, evil thought you have ever had in addition to every evil thing you’ve done were displayed on LCD screens all around you in a way that you could not hide from. That’s one way of imagining the second half of Hebrews 4:13: “Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” To be covered in God’s wrath means to look at that truth and argue ferociously and pathetically with it for all eternity: “That’s not true! I didn’t think that! I didn’t do that! You must have doctored those images! That monster is not who I’ve always told myself that I am!”
Accepting Christ’s sacrifice for my sin makes it bearable to acknowledge the truth about my sin and hate it enough that it ceases to be a part of the self that I defend. It is indeed as far apart from me as the east is from the west, but not because it didn’t happen; it is because I have renounced defending the indefensible since I trust in the sufficiency of the sacrifice that Christ made for me. So it’s not so much a question of whether I’m sincere when I first decide that I want to give my life to Christ. It’s a question of whether His sacrifice continues to liberate me from defensiveness and denial. If I am in denial about my sin, then I have ceased accepting Christ as my Lord and savior. I imagine that all of us are in denial or genuine ignorance about certain sins. The question is this: when we stand before the One who uncovers everything, will we argue with and hide from the truth or will we approach the throne of grace with confidence?
If Jerry Sandusky is able to face the truth about his actions and renounce all defensiveness in a posture of complete contrition and repentance, then he will survive his encounter with the judge who died for his sins. Only a God with nail-holes in His hands could help an acutely sick, broken man face the horror of unspeakable sin and accept God’s forgiveness. The pain of that encounter will be intense, but Jesus’ cross makes it possible. Furthermore, only a God whose body was raped by Roman nails has the moral authority to host a banquet where it would be at all conceivable for Jerry Sandusky to stand in the same room with his victims. If Jerry faces the truth and accepts God’s forgiveness, then Jesus will be able to say to Jerry’s victims that He personally suffered every monstrosity they experienced.
I do not fully understand what exactly God does to punish sin other than the punishment that Jesus bore on the cross. We must remember that every Biblical image of hell is a metaphorical representation of a desperate loneliness and pain that cannot be described in human words. I know that God’s wrath is derived in solidarity with the people He loves who are hurt by sin; it is not a disembodied, abstract response to broken rules as evangelicalism so often depicts it. God will not allow anything that rebels against His perfect peace and justice into eternal communion with Him and those who are gathered around Him. All that I do know is Jesus’ cross makes it possible for Jerry Sandusky and his victims to share eternity together.