How odd of God

In May this year an unrepentant Ian Brady, the ‘moors murderer’, died. Terry Kilbride, the brother of a victim, hoped that Brady would ‘rot in hell’. Perhaps we agree: Brady would appear on many people’s short list of the wicked. We sympathise with Kilbride’s immediate reaction. But then, perhaps, we think about it. If you were charged with deciding Brady’s punishment, how long would you think he should be tortured? Would a week be enough? Or a year? Or would you dismiss torture altogether as a barbaric punishment always to be condemned? But if we look at the descriptions of Hell as they appear in Scripture, we find that a year would scarcely meet the case. Indeed, after 14 billion years (the age of the Universe) the pains of Hell would not really have got started. They go on forever.

So how do we cope with a God whose apparent moral approach is grotesque? The descriptions of Hell in Scripture are explicit, and, in many cases, put into the mouth of Christ. We must deal with it in the same way that we deal with the statement that the world was created in six days. At that time, in the absence of a modern judicial system, criminal punishments were typically brutal. Take your choice between hung, drawn and quartered, broken on a wheel, buried underground, or burnt at the stake. In that culture Hell makes a little more sense. We have to settle for the reality that God is infinitely just and merciful – and leave it in his hands.

Why does this matter? I want to take you back 76 years: imagine that seven year old boy cleaning his teeth in the washroom at boarding school. He is desperately trying to avoid swallowing any water, which would have broken his fast, as he feared he would not have the courage to avoid Communion in front of his friends. Yes, it was me. Some years later a teenage pupil was drowned: we were much relieved to hear that he had been to Communion that morning – and so not bound for Hell, as we probably were.

That is old history. But I wonder how much we have really changed. In 2015 the American bishops produced an excellent paper on pornography. It pointed out that using it was mortally sinful, although they specified the need for full knowledge and deliberate consent. That’s a neat phrase which on examination has no practical meaning: there is no way in which we can we be certain that any decision fulfils either criterion – even though our salvation apparently turns on it. Then we read dear Pope Francis telling us, at Fatima, that the godless life “risks leading to Hell”. I wonder how many godless victims of the three great tragedies this summer were caught in unrepented mortal sin at their sudden death. And how many failed the obligatory requirement of Baptism?

We might start by accepting that the Church ruled its community predominantly by fear for 95 percent of its history. The positive approach through virtue was of course plainly expressed but, in the human psyche, guilt and threat are far more powerful than encouragement. In the 20th century the Jesuit moralist, Henry Davis, could still speak of “indoctrinating” children until resistance to evil becomes a second nature.

It is ironic that secular society has learned that autonomy, responsibility and an understanding of values are the keys to positive performance. Of course there is a need for basic rules but the emphasis has to be on achievement. For us that is to become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And we do it step by step, even if occasionally we slip. Why waste time looking downwards when our target is above us? I have no doubt that the diminution of devotion within our modern Catholic societies can be largely attributed to the Church’s minatory tradition. Why am I not surprised to be told that nowadays the majority of British Catholics accept abortion at the mother’s choice?

St Paul speaks of God as the father after whom all fatherhood is named. As a father, I was by no means perfect but I did learn that it was not about blame and punishment. Yes, there were necessary rules, but very little was spoken about faults. The emphasis was on what the children could do if they tried, not on what they shouldn’t do. They have all remained close to me throughout a lifetime. Despite the Church’s vocabulary, I refuse to accept that God’s mercy is inferior to mine. I suspect he loves sinners more than the goody-goodies – they are opportunities for his favourite activity: forgiveness. Even for Brady I recall the phrase: “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground is mercy sought and mercy found.” I pray so.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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8 Responses to How odd of God

  1. John Thomas says:

    “secular society has learned that autonomy, responsibility and an understanding of values are the keys to positive performance …” – does “autonomy” and “an understanding of values” actually change peoples’ performance (much less their nature)? I doubt it. The key to most of society’s ills, in my view, is the secular Humanist fond (ie groundless) belief that people are basically good, and will behave perfectly if treated well, and if all is “explained” to them.
    Surely, Hell is in eternity, and therefore time questions (“How long …?) are meaningless. Remove the idea of an ultimate system of (real) justice (ie. amoralism) and everything collapses.
    “seven year old boy cleaning his teeth in the washroom at boarding school. …” – goodness! For a moment I thought this boy was going to be revealed to be the young Brady …

  2. Geordie says:

    The old catechism taught us that “we are prone to evil from our very childhood and, if not corrected by self-denial, will certainly carry us along the broad road that leads to damnation”.
    I have no doubt that Our Lord has done everything possible to save us from this damnation. However the evidence before our eyes is clear. The world is a living hell because self-indulgence is treated as a right. There is very little leadership from the Church authorities on self-denial.
    What do you mean by the word’s “God’s …… moral approach is grotesque” ?

  3. Martha says:

    Quentin, I do not think anyone has a complete answer to the dilemmas you describe which have affected me very considerably through my 80 plus years, but aiming to steer a steady course between presumption and despair is probably best for most of us.

  4. ignatius says:

    Working in prison chaplaincy and attending the odd conference here and there I tend to meet quite a number of priests and fellow chaplains. Over the past five or six years I have worked quite closely with four or five priests and listened to them preach and teach. To my knowledge not one has voiced to me any inclination to pronounce on eternal destination either of themselves or of the prisoners. The same at diocesan meetings and national conferences. In trying to get my head around this topic I have not been backward in asking other clergy what they think and the predominant view is ‘there but for the grace of God am I’
    In our diocese the eldest of the ‘prison priests’ I know is in his mid eighties and the youngest in his late fourties, none of them, as I say, have to my knowledge ever preached fear of hell though most of us will have put the challenge of obedience forward at some point.
    I say all this, Quentin, because I begin to wonder if the prevalence of the doctrine of fear you describe, looms large in your own life because of your particular early circumstance?
    Another point worth mentioning is that most of the people I talk to in prison describe a badly twisted caricature of faith imposed upon them, not by priests or institutions, but by their own families.

    Finally, when I sit with a group of men and talk these things over I am aware that I am no more certain of my own soul’s destination than I am of of theirs, though of course I have the personal hope of salvation before me.

  5. tim says:

    No, Eternal punishment is the loss of the beatific vision. We may not be clear if the flames of hell are metaphorical or in some sense more literal. But CS Lewis suggested that – if the latter – they are a mercy – a means of distracting damned souls from the pain of loss.

    Lewis also says (if I remember correctly) that the gates of Hell are closed from the inside. God’s mercy – realised in Christ’s death – is sufficient for anything and anyone (even Brady). But (it seems) the sinner may refuse it. God has made us free to choose. He probably doesn’t accept the Precautionary Principle.

    We are obliged to forgive those who injure us, even if they are (or seem to us) unrepentant. But God can tell who is repentant, and He is perfectly just, So He’ll get it right. We pray: “Bring all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy!”

  6. Hock says:

    I cringe regularly at some of the words used in the Baptism service of babies. All the talk of Satan and evil. Why for goodness sake can we not deliver a positive message and leave it at that?

  7. ignatius says:

    Hock,
    I cringed the first time I said those words. But now, when I baptise, I say them loudly and clearly. They are there for a definite and obvious purpose, without them there is little point in baptising.

  8. galerimo says:

    Thanks Quentin, the fact is, if Ian Brady could do it then so could I. I am a human being too.

    I can’t deny the existence of hell nor God’s desire that all should be saved.

    Nor am I bound to any punitive morality or impoverished theology such as is described.

    How odd of God to choose the jews?

    You know the answer to that –

    But not so odd
    As those who choose
    A Jewish God
    Yet spurn the Jews

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