Thursday, May 5, 2016

Our Eternal Destiny: Armed Robbery, or A Warm Place By The Fire?

Today is Ascension Thursday; click here for my Ascension Thursday post on the blog Nisi Dominus. The throwback below, which first appeared on Nisi Dominus April 19th 2015, examines the (apparently) vexing question as to how Eternal Salvation differs from a mugging.. 

  Analogical thinking, it would appear, is a dying art.  I recently heard Catholic apologist and scholar Peter Kreeft on Catholic radio, and he was pointing out that brains which spend a lot of time interacting with video games and various other electronic devices simply don’t develop in the same way as those formed by extensive reading.  Among the those things that are undernourished are linear and analogical thinking.  Professor Kreeft has found that this makes it difficult to teach a subject like Theology that requires dealing with a lot of difficult and abstract ideas.

Is this your image of God?
     Over my own nearly 30 years of teaching high school students I’ve observed the same trend.  Fortunately, we still have a long way to go: while many people, especially young people, may not be as quick to grasp them as they might have been several decades ago, analogies are still the most effective way to communicate many ideas.  They have always been a preferred way of explaining Christian Doctrine: think of the parables of Jesus, or St. Paul's comparison in 1st Corinthians of the Church to a body, with all the members working together at their own assigned tasks; not only that, but one of the four traditional Levels of Meaning in scripture, the Allegorical, relies very heavily on analogical thinking.  Analogy is often the only reliable way for us who are composed of both spirit and matter to understand spiritual realities.
     Not surprisingly, analogies are also an essential tool in any dialogue with atheists and agnostics.  I recently became aware of the following analogy, which is appears to be in vogue in atheist circles: God, as we Christians envision Him, is like an armed robber with a gun to our heads, and he is offering a choice between giving him all our money (i.e., living according to the Gospel and spending eternity in Heaven), or having our brains blown out (which is spending eternity in Hell).
     Now, clearly, there are some very obvious problems with this analogy.  The vast majority of people, even many non-Christians, will have a hard time seeing going to Heaven as equivalent to getting mugged, even if we accept the premise that living a Christian life “robs” us of pleasures we might otherwise enjoy: Heaven promises something infinitely better than anything available here, whereas an armed robber does not even pretend to make our life better than it was before we met him.  And of course there is quite a lot of secular, sociological evidence that following God’s law actually makes us happier in the here-and-now.  Also, the robber analogy depicts Hell as something that God imposes on us, in which we take no initiative at all, when in fact the Catholic conception of Hell is that it is something that we choose for ourselves, contrary to God’s wish, by our rejection of his freely offered love.

Wouldn't you rather be inside?
     I propose a better analogy to communicate the eternal choice which God presents to us.  Imagine that we are standing outdoors on a cold, rainy night.  Somebody opens a door and invites us to come inside with them, where it is warm and dry (although, of course, we need to take off our wet muddy boots and our wet, dripping coats).  That’s God’s offer of eternal salvation.  We can say yes, although we are equally free to say no.  In fact, we can say “No, you can’t tell me what to do! Besides, can you prove it’s really warm and dry in there before I go in?”  and remain out in cold, wet darkness.  That’s Hell, the product of nothing but our own pride and stubbornness.

     The second analogy presents a much more accurate image of the Catholic view of our eternal destiny.  Not only that, when juxtaposed to the “armed robber” scenario, it also casts light behind it, as it were, giving observers a vivid illustration of the different worldviews that have generated each analogy: the atheist worldview which is concerned with power, force, and will, and in which one party must be the loser, and the Christian perspective, which envisions a reality in which love can triumph, and everyone can win.  Which is likely to appeal to more people in the end?

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