It’s been fashionable for quite some time to treat the notion of God’s rewards and punishments as an embarrassment to liberal faith, and to leave it to fundamentalists who are only too keen to use it. For my own discipleship of Jesus, however, it remains essential.
For a start, the record of Jesus’ teaching in the four gospels includes many sayings that promise rewards or threaten punishment. Jesus seems quite at ease with a God who balances the persecution that will come to disciples, with eternal life in the age to come. Thinking of God’s judgement on those who harm the little ones, he says it would be better if those men had not been born. Nor is Jesus embarrassed by this topic; he returns to it often in quite a blatant way.
Of course, one can say that all of this is a primitive way of speaking and that Jesus was just using these human-all-too-human notions in a metaphorical way: he didn’t mean anyone to take them too literally. But in fact the contexts in which he said them are serious; and all talk of God is metaphorical. How could it be otherwise? So we may regard the “fire prepared for the devil and his messengers” as a metaphor for God’s punishment of those who have failed to care for the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, but the warning of that punishment still remains.
Jesus had no illusions about life in this world: he knew that it was unfair, with evil people prospering and good people suffering. He knew that fatal accidents could happen to anyone. The reputation of the Creator God required him to be a source of restorative justice, giving laughter to the poor and tears to the careless rich.
There’s a great story about Nazruddin, the Islamic mad mullah. Two boys come to him, saying that they have found 12 glass marbles. They ask him to divide them fairly between them. “Do you want me to use Allah’s justice or my own?” he asks. “Allah’s of course,” they reply.
So he gives 11 to one and 1 to the other.
If God’s justice is limited to this world, Nazruddin’s cynical parable cannot be gainsaid. Indeed if our imagination is limited to this world, the doctrine of a just God cannot be sustained. True, the book of Job has a good try at it, but Job allows himself to be bullied into surrendering his just complaint. For me, the millions of human beings who at any time cannot raise their heads from misery, are a refutation of God’s goodness, maybe even of God’s existence, if there is no restorative justice beyond this life.
But how can we dare to postulate anything so nebulous as heaven and hell? Are we not falling into speculation which ends up counting the number of angels that can dance on a pin-head? Well, Jesus, who had at least as good a grasp of reality as me, had no difficulty in imagining that the ever-present Father was present to both the living and the dead, delivering a justice which would be merciful but robust, including rewards and punishments.
In any case, whatever lies in store for me after death, I quite look forward judgement, when at last I shall know the truth about myself, It’s like my appreciation of an exam and its result; I want to know in truth how well or badly I’ve done. In the case of God’s judgement, I want to know if I’m as big an asshole as I think or….might it be otherwise? And just as I shan’t complain about being rewarded any good I’ve done, I won’t protest too much if my wrongdoing gets its comeuppance.