The doctrine of hell is one of the hardest pills to swallow for people who grapple with Christianity (not to mention for many Christians themselves). It bothers people for a variety of reasons. One example I encountered recently: after a worship service a guest asked me how, if Christianity was true, his Christian brother could enjoy eternal life without a shred of sorrow while he himself was eternally burning in hell. This fellow wasn't so much bothered about the existence of hell as its seemingly perverse impact on his family relationships.
I've taken it for granted that hell is a major stumbling block. What I didn't grasp until more recently is that what Christianity teaches about grace probably bothers skeptics more than what it teaches about hell.
This surprised me, because grace is a much-beloved idea. Grace seems as open and affirming as hell is terrible. Many people love to sing and hear "Amazing Grace" even if they don't know what it means. Many people agree that we need more grace in the world and wish there was more grace in their lives. (Maybe not Elaine Benes though.)
But when grace, in the Christian conception, is actually applied, it can be perplexing. When victims show grace (as did the bereaved families of murder victims at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015), it can awe people. But when God shows grace, it galls people.
Disturbed by grace
Earlier this year I saw an astoundingly powerful play called Martin Luther On Trial. (It's going on tour this fall, commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation; if it comes to your city you must see it.) Yet the production faces a classic no-win situation. If it had portrayed Luther as a hero (as did the fine 2003 film Luther), it would have been panned as hagiography. Instead, Martin Luther On Trial portrays an extraordinarily complex, epoch-shaping man: heroic, pathetic, and even repugnant—especially in the tortured cynicism that engulfed his later years, from whence sprang rancid anti-Semitism.
Yet some critics responded to that depiction of Luther just as disdainfully. The Village Voice (which, it must be said, gave a genuine review, not condescending snark) said the play "goes too easy on its subject" and "lets Luther slide neatly off the hook" by means of his notion of "salvation-just-because." The play doesn't conclude with an open question as to whether Luther was a good guy or a bad guy. Rather, it stakes a position that Luther was a bad guy whom God considered a good guy because Jesus, in whom he trusted, is the only Good Guy—which happens to be what Luther thought himself. The refrain that weaves its way through the play is "justice is grace." The reviewer, however, was distressed to find herself rooting for the Devil, whose "good faith" case against Luther was dismissed unfairly.
I encountered a more intimate example of discomfort with grace with a non-Christian acquaintance not long ago. She shared with me that she doesn't want to believe in hell, because she "likes happy endings" and wants to believe there is one for everyone. But at the same time, she is greatly disturbed when contemplating a happy ending for one of her parents.
Careful not to give specifics, she discreetly characterized the parent as "not a good person," especially during my acquaintance's upbringing. That parent has since had a religious experience and expects to gain eternal life. But for the daughter, this is one of the main problems with Christianity—that a person could go their whole life doing awful things and causing terrible pain for people and then in their last moments trust in Jesus and be let off the hook for all those misdeeds.
So what's the problem with grace? What do people want when they say there should be more of it and then don't like when someone gets it?
Overlooking versus forgiving
To borrow concepts from Ken Sande and Kevin Johnson's wonderfully useful little manual Resolving Everyday Conflict, when people want grace, they generally want people to overlook their flaws and foibles. Here's what that means.
People have an idea of (a) what is good, (b) what is maybe bad or maybe not, (c) what is a little bit bad but excusable, and (d) what is really bad and inexcusable. When people say there should be more grace in the world, they mean first that they want the rest of the world to agree with their definition of what is in the gray area of "maybe bad or maybe not" and then cut people (including themselves) slack in that area (in other words, to be "tolerant").
They also want people to agree with their definition of what is a little bit bad but excusable. They want people to give them a break when they do one of those things, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to accept their excuses that it was just because they had a bad day or that they didn't really mean it. This kind of grace is called overlooking.
The one thing they don't want is for people to be shown grace for what is really bad and inexcusable. That manifestation of grace is repellent. They don't want people who have done inexcusable things to be excused. Most of all, they certainly don't want anyone to show them that sort of grace either, because that would imply that they have done something that is really bad and inexcusable. Most people resist that notion tooth and nail.
And that is the problem with Christian grace. When people want a gracious God, they want a God who overlooks their sins (because after all, they're not really "sins" per se, right?). They want a God who recognizes that they're doing their best, that there were mitigating factors, and gives them the benefit of the doubt. What they do not want from God is forgiveness.
Forgiving is not the same as overlooking. You can overlook my offenses all day long without me ever being the wiser—and truly, we do need more overlooking grace in the world, because we are all flawed and foolish people, and many of the irritations we make for one another are, in the grand scheme of things, not that big a deal. Even God overlooks wrongs in certain circumstances and for limited spans of time (see, for example, Acts 17:29-31).
But forgiveness is different. Forgiveness says, "What you did is inexcusable, and it cannot be overlooked. I know it. You know it. We agree on it. But I am choosing to absorb the cost of the damage you have done and release it from your record in my book. You don't owe me anything, we are now on good terms, and we need never speak of this again."
Many people want to be excused, but few people want to be forgiven, because they don't want to concede how inexcusable they are. Yet forgiveness is at the core of Christian grace. Everyone wants to be justified by God, but few acknowledge that they are unjustifiable—unless the Son of God, the Just for the unjust, stands in their place (1 Pet. 3:18). He is the only thing that makes grace just.
A matter of perspective
See, when people are bothered by grace, some of it comes from a very healthy instinct. It is wrong when wrongdoing is not brought to account. Someone must do that. It is far easier to praise bereaved parents of a murder victim for forgiving the murderer when there is also a criminal justice system that won't show the killer a shred of mercy. And so it should be.
People know instinctively that if there is a God, he sits as the court of highest appeal. If he lets a killer get off, that is monstrous injustice! Yet as proper as that intuition is, right at this point is where people become trapped in their own perspective.
First, people fail to notice that in all wrongdoing, no matter how awful the damage it does to others, God is the principal offended party. He is the Maker whose creation has been corrupted, he is the Father who has been ignored, he is the Giver whose grace has been scorned by the bad deed.
Second, people fail to adopt God's standards as their own. Their definitions of what is good, what is maybe bad or maybe not, what is a little bit bad but excusable, and what is really bad and inexcusable are awry—they do not line up with God's definitions. Worse, people's definitions are carefully, if unconsciously, drawn to justify, excuse, or mitigate everything they themselves do and prefer.
Third, people fail to see that this center-of-the-universe perspective, which fails to recognize God as the central figure, is itself the worst possible offense. That is the thing that is really, really, really bad and supremely inexcusable.
When you begin to glimpse this, forgiveness becomes much more desirable. Christian grace looks a whole lot better when you realize how desperately you need it.
The dreadful bargain of grace
Yet it is at this point that one's former indignation at how unfair Christianity is becomes horrifying. Now you're the one who needs the undeserved pardon, the unjustified acquittal, yet you realize better now than ever that there is no reason to expect that you'll ever get it. It would be totally wrong for God to give it to you.
Until, that is, you take another look at the cross of Jesus Christ. Then it dawns on you that if God forgives you, it's not "salvation-just-because" after all. It's salvation because of him. Forgiveness says, "I am choosing to absorb the cost of the damage you have done." Now you see that the cross is where God absorbed it: God the Son absorbing the damage done to God—the chief Human, though innocent, absorbing the penalty for the guilty race he represents.
Receiving genuine grace requires humility that people don't naturally have, and until they gain it, they can't stand grace. Indeed, it is only by God's grace that anyone acquires the disposition to receive it. This is why the hymn calls it "amazing."
The scandal of grace is that doesn't cost you anything, but accepting it costs you everything—chiefly, your pride. It's a dreadful bargain that only a desperate person makes, but once they do they wonder how they did without it. They also find themselves showing a lot more grace to a lot more people, including those who don't yet know they need it.