In what must seem like a long-running nightmare for the Vatican’s PR department, Pope Francis courted controversy – I would say outright heresy – yet again this past week.
Predictably enough, the topic arose from a complex theological issue, the resolution of which is pregnant with feeling but solved with reason.
To wit, the National Catholic Reporter tells of a young boy named Emanuele whispering a question to the pontiff about his deceased, atheist father. The pope repeated the question for the crowd to hear, saying, “‘A little while ago my father passed away. He was a nonbeliever, but he had all four of his children baptized. He was a good man. Is dad in heaven?'”
Dealing with the question of good people who die without faith is difficult, and infinitely more so when a child is the one asking the question.
Francis approached the issue using syllogism and feeling far more than scripture or traditional church theology.
“How beautiful to hear a son say of his father, ‘He was good,'” said the pope to the crowd. “And what a beautiful witness of a son who inherited the strength of his father, who had the courage to cry in front of all of us. If that man was able to make his children like that, then it’s true, he was a good man. He was a good man.
“That man did not have the gift of faith, he wasn’t a believer, but he had his children baptized. He had a good heart,” Francis said. “God is the one who says who goes to heaven,” the pope explained.
This little boy cried as he asked the Pope if his atheist father had made it to heaven
Posted by NowThis on Wednesday, April 18, 2018
Debatable theology about human goodness aside, the last line is one most every Christian would broadly agree with. The rub, however, is in what came next, excerpted below.
The next step in answering Emanuele’s question, (the pope) said, would be to think about what God is like and, especially, what kind of heart God has. “What do you think? A father’s heart. God has a dad’s heart. And with a dad who was not a believer, but who baptized his children and gave them that bravura, do you think God would be able to leave him far from himself (send him to hell)?”
“Does God abandon his children?” the pope asked. “Does God abandon his children when they are good?”
The children shouted, “No.”
“There, Emanuele, that is the answer,” the pope told the boy. “God surely was proud of your father, because it is easier as a believer to baptize your children than to baptize them when you are not a believer. Surely this pleased God very much.” (All emphasis ours.)
The pontiff’s response has received generally positive reviews in the press, writers cooing about the holy father’s sympathetic demeanor and kind, comforting words.
But in those kind, comforting words hid an enormous betrayal of clear scripture and thousands of years of theological thought and church tradition, and even worse, the nature of God himself.
At its core, the pope’s conclusion is based on a chain of reasoning that says the dad was good, God loved the dad as a father loves his son, God saw the dad try to pass on some sort of religious consciousness to his children by having them baptized, God looked favorably on that, and God — ultimately — would not abandon a good person.
This argument feels so very compelling. After all, God is love. Love never fails. How can a God who loves turn his back on the object of his love? The pope’s answer to little Emanuele feels like a warm fire contrasted against the harsh winter of the little boy’s question.
What feels good, however, isn’t always best. As the pope made this argument, those listening could directly infer that 1) people can be basically good, even if they don’t believe in God, 2) submission matters far less than intention — one might say “I couldn’t believe in God, but that’s okay because I wanted to do good”—and 3) at the end of the day God gets to pick who goes to heaven, and because He’s loving He’ll fudge the numbers just a little (or sometimes a lot) if it means saving someone from damnation.
Again, that feels so very good. The only problem is that it’s based on lie after lie after lie that the patriarchs and the prophets rejected in the Old Testament, Christ and the apostles rejected in the New Testament, and mainstream Christian theology has rejected for 2,000 years.
Making this whole topic even more complicated is that contrasted with the above, the truth here feels decidedly unpleasant (at least at first blush). The truth is that according to the Bible and church teaching:
- Man isn’t basically good (Romans 3:23, Isaiah 53:6)
- Man’s best intentions can never take the place of obedience to God’s call through the gospel (1 Samuel 15:22, Matthew 7:22-23), and the very best man has to offer God is woefully insufficient to pay the price for his sins (Isaiah 64:6, John 14:6, James 2:10)
- God cannot simply look the other way if a person has tried hard, had good intentions, or done lots of good things (Hebrews 9:22, Romans 6:23, and Ephesians 2:8-9).
Some will immediately respond, “those are very narrow, intolerant things to write.” That’s true. They are. But truth concerns itself neither with the breadth nor the acceptability of its revelation. In other words, what’s true is true regardless of our opinions. Gravity is a good example. The truth of gravity is that more or less what goes up will come down and if you act contrary to that fact, you may seriously hurt yourself. That’s pretty narrow and intolerant, but that doesn’t matter because it’s true.
To be tautological, the truth is what it is — that which corresponds with the facts. And the facts as presented in the Bible clearly and plainly stand in opposition to what the pope taught this little boy, the crowd, and now through television and the internet, the entire world.
The saddest part of this whole story isn’t that the pope faced a hard question about a hard topic and failed. The saddest part is that by trying to comfort the boy with theological sleight of hand, the pope minimized a love far greater than any we know — a love so astounding it inexorably draws us.
The fall and redemption of man isn’t a tragedy. It’s a love story. It’s the story of a God who loved his wayward creations so much that instead of watching them wander helplessly into doom and damnation, He sent his only son to teach them how to live and then to suffer, bleed, and die in their place. God literally spared not his own son, and even while we were delighting in sin and rebelling against Him, He still sacrificed his son for us.
I wonder, which is the more compelling vision of God to you? The deity who sent His son to die but will ultimately wink sin away with a grin and a nod, or a God who loved so much that even while his beloved spurned and hated him, He still sacrificed his son in hopes of saving the beloved?
In turning God into a buddy who will get you in the backdoor of heaven if you can’t make it through the front, we change the truth of God and his love into a con job — a grift that God ultimately perpetrated on Himself, needlessly killing his one and only son. The god that does that isn’t forgiving or merciful. He’s a sadist, masochist, and fool.
The God of sacrifice, however, was willing to go to every possibly length to save us from ourselves. All that He asks of us is that we believe Him and accept that sacrifice. A low bar indeed — one accessible to even the simplest minds, which is part of the gospel’s beauty.
Pope Francis, instead of helping that little boy, spun a tale that not only misdirected him but also denied him a glimpse of the ultimate love from the ultimate lover. The pontiff sacrificed glorious truth and love for ease and expedience. What a tragedy to cast aside the beautiful truth of scripture for the hollow warmth of a pleasant lie.
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