A couple years ago a Swedenborg reader named Sue from San Francisco asked me a question. She had been thinking about an incident in which a 17-year-old gang member from Oakland had been shot and killed in a San Francisco ghetto.
How is life fair when some kids grow up in comfortable, loving households while others grow up with poverty, violence, and abuse? Don’t kids who were loved and cared for have a better chance at heaven than those who experienced violence and neglect instead of love?
My first response was that no person who dies in their childhood or teen years goes to hell. They are all raised by loving and wise angel parents, and grow up to become angels in heaven themselves.
Why is that?
And what about those who make it to adulthood? Given that there is not a level playing field here on earth, is life really fair?
The key to understanding God’s eternal justice is conscience. If we live according to our own conscience we will go to heaven, not to hell. But that needs some explaining.
Sue from San Francisco asked:
San Francisco has its ghettos and project housing and I’ve often thought their location was especially cruel. The residents of our projects have million dollar views of nearly the entire Bay Area to mess with their minds. Many feel so segregated that they have no hope of joining the beautiful regions of SF. It’s bad enough to live in abject poverty. It’s torture to do so adjacent to the wealthiest, most beautiful region on earth. (It’s sort of complicated but my work has me traveling down there a lot these days.)
The project housing in Hunter’s Point is dilapidated such that many of the structures have been red-flagged as uninhabitable. Even so, people squat in the abandoned barracks. The city has little control over the tenants. Even in active, in-use units most windows are boarded over. The only paint on these structures comes in the form of graffiti, and very vile graffiti at that. The pathetic plant life—patches of unruly weeds and a few diseased trees—is actually to be admired considering the toxic chemicals polluting the soil. (This area was an old navy ship yard.)
Crime has dissipated, but there was a time when gunfire was so rampant that the police installed sensors everywhere to help them determine the origin of gunfire. This tool allowed them to pinpoint which housing units were involved.
Two years ago, a 17-year-old kid came over to SF from Oakland on a cold January night in order to kill one of the members of the Hunter’s Point housing project. Instead, this young man was himself shot at 2 a.m. and keeled over into the weeds where he’d staked his position. It was an insidiously cold night. Not so cold as to pull one into a merciful sleepy death, but cold enough to invade the bones and make a person mightily uncomfortable.
The sensors notified the cops that shots had been fired in that area. The cops, however, upon going to the scene in the dark, did not see the injured Oakland kid. Believing that the gunfire was random without causing injury, the cops drove off. The Oakland kid’s body was found in the morning. The coroner ruled that the shots were not immediately fatal but did impair him. He had lain awake or semi-conscious for approximately 3 hours before finally dying at around 5 a.m.
I think about that Oakland kid. I wonder what he thought about when he was lying in the weeds. I wonder what he wished for. I wonder what he regretted. I wonder if he thought about God. What a miserable way to die at such a young age after such a harsh existence on earth!
We are born into the natural world with a mission, so to speak, to regenerate [be spiritually reborn] into better people. If we exercise our free will to regenerate, the regeneration process takes time.
It seems to me that life is unfair in this regard, and it is sort of where I take issue with God. A person born into a loving, healthy family will have greater odds of regenerating, growing into a loving healthy adult, and thus living a life that leads them to heaven.
Some people, however, have the bad luck to be born into bleak circumstances. They never knew love. They were never given love. They were neglected. How can a person love if as a child or young adult they never experienced love? Some people are in situations where they must struggle just to survive: kill or be killed. Some people have only experienced subjugation, so not knowing any different, they in turn subjugate others.
Is not our place in the spirit world dependent upon how we lived our life in love and charity to others here in the natural world? I believe a person has to experience love and charity in order to be able to give it. To offer up a specific example, what about that gangbanger who got shot to death in the projects at age 17? What can that person expect in the afterlife if he never knew love here? And had no incentive or opportunity to regenerate?
I recognize the need for freedom and why God allows it, but it strikes me as an exceedingly unfair system where children are concerned. Some people get a head start on the path to a good afterlife. Others get no chance at all.
First, let’s be clear on one thing. God doesn’t send anyone to hell. We send ourselves to heaven or to hell by what we choose as our motives and beliefs, and by the things we do based on those motives and beliefs. (For more on this, see the article, “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?”)
How does God’s judgment work?
Despite appearances, the surprising truth is that God’s judgment is not about condemning us, or even about exonerating us. It’s about shining the clear light of divine truth on our hearts, minds, and lives so that we and everyone else can see clearly whether we have made ourselves innocent or guilty by the way we have lived our life. If we have made ourselves guilty by living a selfish, greedy life regardless of how it hurts anyone else, we will have judged ourselves to hell, and that is where we will go of our own free will.
There is plenty of support for this in the Bible, but this is not the place to get into it. For now I’ll just give you one great example of how the Bible puts the ball solidly in our court as to whether we live or die—which spiritually means whether we go to heaven or to hell. Moses is speaking to the people on behalf of God:
“Look here! Today I have set before you life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. . . . Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live.” (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19. Read the whole passage: Deuteronomy 30:11-22.)
Now about your question, here are a few basic principles:
- The default option is heaven.
- People can go to hell only if they consciously choose to do so.
- That choice must be made as a self-responsible adult.
- All children who die are raised by angels and become angels themselves.
Children and teens who die go to heaven
Your gangbanger who gets shot at 17 will end out in heaven, not in hell, no matter what he’s done. He is not yet an adult, and he is not held responsible for the influences that have made him into who he is without his choice or consent.
It’s a fuzzy line exactly when someone actually becomes an adult and is truly responsible for his or her own choices. Swedenborg seems to like the Old Testament formula of adulthood starting at age 20 (see, for example, Numbers 1:1-3; 14:26-35; Leviticus 27:1-8). I tend to think it is the time when we become independent from our parents and self-supporting. In the case of teens who end out taking care of themselves sooner than they ought to because they’re not brought up in a good family or atmosphere, I tend to think it still doesn’t happen until they hit 20 or so.
I believe teens are still acting largely in reaction to their circumstances, and don’t start making lasting, inner choices for themselves until they’re out of their teenage years.
Thinking about all the babies and children dying of disease and starvation all around the world, it is a terrible situation, and one that should be corrected. It really is best if we humans can grow up in this world, reach adulthood, and make a conscious choice about where we will live to eternity. Besides, no child should have to suffer like that.
However, all of those children who die in terrible circumstances will receive the kind of full and loving care that they could not be provided with here. They will have angel parents who care for them and raise them up to be angels themselves.
If we humans cannot take care of our children, and we allow them to die, God and the angels will take them from our hands and raise them properly in the spiritual world.
Ghetto kids who die will also be cared for by angels who love them—though some of the older and more mixed up kids may need a bit of “tough love” before they straighten out and fly right. The job of angel parents and guardians is not necessarily an easy one. But it does carry the satisfaction of knowing that whatever circumstances a child or teen may have come from, he or she will in time find an eternal home in heaven.
I believe that teens go to heaven no matter what their experience has been, and no matter what they have done under the influence of that experience.
Teens are still children, even if they are “half adults.” They are precious beings, and I do not believe that God will allow any of them to go to hell if they die before reaching full adulthood and becoming fully responsible for their own choices and actions.
Is life fair?
The issue of eternal fairness is not really a thorny theological issue for me. The principles that Swedenborg lays down are so clear, so fair, and so loving that I have full faith that God is eternally loving and fair to all human beings.
I have more trouble with just how low God allows things to sink here on earth, and just how black and brutal the experience of many innocent people, including children and teens, is here on earth, than I do with the issue of eternal fairness.
Seeing how so many children grow up in starvation and malnutrition, or enduring physical and sexual abuse, or simply growing up in a toxic atmosphere of shaming and blaming and general lack of love, breaks my heart.
We humans, not God, are the ones who create all these evils. And we humans must clean up the mess we have created—God will not enter as a deus ex machina and do it for us.
But it is still terrible for so many millions of innocent children and teens, not to mention adults. In many ways, the children and teens who die are the lucky ones. They are going to a better place, where they will be loved and cared for and brought up in an atmosphere of light and warmth.
Here is a more challenging principle that Swedenborg offers:
If God sees that a particular person has no hope of finding his or her way to heaven, or that there is no hope that a particular person will reform, but instead will only get worse, and go to a deeper hell, God will allow (not cause) that person’s life here on earth to end early rather than allow them to continue living when the only possible outcome is that the person will end in hell, or in a worse hell than she or he is already in.
This, too, is part of God’s mercy in limiting the amount of damnation and pain we humans can inflict upon ourselves.
Unfortunately, many of us who perfectly well could choose to go to heaven choose not to do so. And God will not take away that choice, even if God sees that we will misuse it and choose hell. Rather, God will not allow us to be in a situation where the evil forces upon us are so overwhelming that our freedom is taken away, and hell is our only choice.
A more useful and practical corollary to this principle is:
If we’re still alive, we can still go to heaven
Every single person still living on this earth has a possibility of going to heaven, and that possibility exists right up to the moment of death. (Although genuine deathbed repentance is extremely rare, it is still a possibility.)
I believe this should inform our treatment of every single person on this earth, hardened criminals included. Every person still alive on this earth is a person whom God sees as a possible angel. And I believe our approach to every person, including those caught in the tangles of our penal system, should take this into account.
Certainly we need to punish criminals’ misdeeds and protect the general population from them. We cannot be lenient with people who have demonstrated their willingness to harm others.
At the same time, I believe they should be treated with all the respect and humaneness that they deny to others, to the limit of what can be done while still controlling their destructive behavior. And I believe they should always be treated as people who could reform themselves if they chose to do so.
Moving away from hardened criminals, I believe that children, teens, and adults should similarly be penalized for misdeeds, but should always be treated as people who can make a free choice to live in a better way. This should be done with respect, not with a shaming “You know better than that!”
My approach is generally to convey this message: “It’s your choice. If you choose to engage in that kind of behavior, you’re going to reap the consequences. But you are perfectly capable of making different choices, and things will go better if you do. Your fate is in your own hands.”
Now to get to the main part of your question.
Here are two more basic principles:
- We go to heaven or hell based only on our freely made choices.
- We are not held responsible, nor are we given credit, for any of the circumstances of our environment or upbringing. Bad influences will not cause us to go to hell, nor will good influences gain us access to heaven.
Since the second statement is perhaps the most surprising, let’s look at it first.
Good breeding will not get us into heaven
Swedenborg identifies the good character that comes from growing up with a good upbringing in a good environment as “natural good.” And he says that nobody gets into heaven because of natural good.
The good manners and good habits that come from a good upbringing are not our choice. They are just something that was molded into us by our upbringing. So they are not spiritual virtues, but natural ones.
In fact, we can use these natural virtues as a way to press forward our own agenda more effectively. People with good breeding, politeness, and a natural ability to treat people kindly and graciously tend to get along better and go farther in this world. They can use that to amass a fortune or gain power for themselves just as much as they can use it to accomplish good for the neighbor.
So our naturally acquired good character does not gain us access to heaven. Only what we consciously decide to do with it does. If we use a naturally good character only to gain money and power for ourselves, in the end we will find ourselves firmly ensconced in hell, stripped of the veneer of good breeding that we had acquired and cultivated in the world.
Bad influences will not send us to hell
By the same token, no evil and destructive influence from our childhood or our environment condemns us to hell. We are not responsible for the circumstances of our birth and upbringing (reincarnationist theory to the contrary notwithstanding). And God does not hold us responsible for things that we are not responsible for. Simple enough?
What we are responsible for in either case is the choices we make within the circumstances of our upbringing and our life. And those choices will be judged, not by some absolute standard, but in relation to the values—sound or not so sound—that we ourselves have adopted as “good and true” based on what we were brought up with and what we were taught.
Let’s take a look at your gangbanger, but let’s say he survived to 25 instead of getting shot at 17.
Living by our conscience is the key
What are his values? What does he consider good? Let’s set aside obvious values of money, power, sex, and so on that people in all walks of life go for. Even in gangs there are codes of conduct. Generally it is the same sort of code that obtains in organized crime families.
A key part of that code is loyalty to your “family,” whoever that may be. People outside the family are expendable. They don’t count. If you kill them, that’s not bad; it’s just what you do if necessary. But you are honor-bound to back up, protect, and not cheat on the members of your own gang.
Now, that’s a moral code. It may not be a terribly good one, and it may be very narrowly applied, but it does distinguish between good behavior and bad behavior toward at least some fellow human beings.
If that gangbanger dies at 25, he is not going to be judged by the standards that someone brought up in a comfortable middle-class environment is judged by. Rather, he is going to be judged by whether he lived honorably according to the only code of ethics that he knew—which was the gang code.
Did he back up his fellow gang members? Was he willing to take a bullet for any of them? Did he split the loot with them, and not cheat them when he had the opportunity to do so?
In short, did he put someone else’s—anyone else’s—wellbeing before his own? Or did he do everything purely out of his own desire for money, power, and sex, not caring who he hurt in the process, even if it meant turning on his own gang?
Assuming he was honorable according to his own code, he will end out in heaven, not in hell.
A conscience for heaven
However, he obviously can’t live by a gang code in heaven. He’s going to have quite a lengthy stay in the third stage after death, and those angel instructors are going to have their work cut out for them! Our third stage after death, as described by Swedenborg in Heaven and Hell, is a stage in which angels teach us what we need to know in order to live in heaven. For more on this, see the article, “What Happens To Us When We Die?”
But the basic reason he will be in heaven and not in hell is that he was willing to subject himself to a law that he saw as greater than himself, rather than placing himself above everyone and everything else. And if he is willing to place some sort of law above himself, and live according to it because that is the right thing to do, he will eventually come to accept a better law than the one he was given in the particular environment he grew up in.
Essentially, he will go to heaven because he lived according to his conscience (see Romans 2:12-16). Anyone who does this is accepted into heaven after having his or her conscience re-formed according to the genuine spiritual truth of heaven.
Those who are willing to follow the law of their conscience will also be willing to follow a higher law when they see that there is a better law than the one they grew up with—and that this better law comes from God.
For a related article, see “Lee Boyd Malvo: Human Justice vs. Divine Justice.”
Who doesn’t violate their own conscience throughout their lives? Swedenborg said “its not so hard to go to heaven”, yet when I read him more I feel uttterly condemned. I just don’t get this enthusiasm over Swedenborg’s teachings. They’ve made me even more depressed. Who can live up to this??
Thanks for your comment. I am sorry you are struggling so greatly. It is, unfortunately, part of the human condition. However, it is often after our greatest struggles that we also find our greatest peace, by the grace and power of God.
I am wondering: Which of Swedenborg’s books you have read? And what, exactly, is it that you feel you must live up to, but cannot?
I missed this comment. But consider me to be fashionably late.
I haven’t read a Swedenborg book, just passages and writings by others that explain it, including you, George Dole, Jonathan Rose, etc. I can’t live up to the task of “loving others.” The thought is revolting to me. I see “others” as the enemy, and have done so since I was a child.
I have a question though that I was reluctant to ask before, but no longer. You spoke of the hypothetical gang member who though was engaged in criminal activity as a life, yet took care of his own; this person goes to heaven. Now substitute for the gang member a member of the SS Einsatzgruppen during the Nazi siege of Europe. Perhaps he is a part of a group that rounds up Jews, Gypsies, communists, etc. in the occupied territories. He loves his own German people, and thinks he is doing a good thing. Will such a man go to heaven? What if he goes as far as participating in a mass shooting of undesirables, or drops the Zyklon-B into the chamber? If a gang member can go to heaven though he takes out his enemies, can the hypothetical SS man as well?
The answer to your question may not be politically correct, but in fact the answer is yes, the hypothetical SS man could go to heaven.
But only if he genuinely, in good conscience, thought he was doing the right thing, and doing good, similar to the gang member in the above post.
I know it’s inconceivable to many people looking in from the outside that such a person could have good motives behind such horribly evil actions. But we humans cannot look directly into the heart of another person. Only God can.
However, if the hypothetical SS man was acting sincerely according to conscience, he will still have to recognize, in the afterlife, that his actions were wrong and evil. He will have to cease such evil behavior, and cease to have any desire to engage in it. If he truly did have a conscience, he will be willing and able to do this—though probably only through some very hard and painful experiences in the spiritual world. He will have to be “refined in the fire,” and all of that evil encrustation burned off of his character. Then and only then will he be accepted into heaven. And he will not likely be in any exalted position there, but will be, in the biblical phrase, among the “hewers of wood and drawers of water” (Joshua 9:27).
But if he did not have a conscience, and truly hated and wanted to destroy people who are “not like us,” he will continue to desire to destroy Jews and other “undesirables,” and he will find his way to hell. Personally, I think that is the more likely end for the people who carried out the Nazi atrocities. But God is more loving and merciful than I am, and God will save even the most miserable, misguided, destructive person if he or she has a heart of gold underneath all of that dross.
All of this is why immediately after death we go through an initial phase in “the world of spirits” between heaven and hell. During that phase everything that does not reflect our true inner character is burned off, so to speak, and our true desires, motives, and beliefs come out. Only then do we move on to our final home in heaven or in hell. On that, see:
What Happens To Us When We Die?
I’ll be referring to your section titled “Living by our conscious is the key.” I’m a little confused about this gangbanger. I keep rereading this to make sure I’m reading it correctly. Are you saying that if the adult gangbanger follows his gangs code of conduct, he will go to heaven? If he puts his family above himself and does good by them and protects them, then he’s going to go to heaven? What if he kills a police officer to protect his homie from going to prison? What if his homie tries to rob an old lady, but the old lady has a gun and intends to shoot his homie to protect herself, so the gangbanger shoots the old lady to save his homie from her? He’s protecting his family. He’s putting someone else above himself. He’s following his code of conduct. He’s only killing someone outside his family; someone expendable. Are you saying you believe he’s going to heaven because he’s following his code of conduct?
Thanks for stopping by. Your question is a good one. It certainly does seem, to anyone with a reasonable, non-criminal code of conduct, that killing a police officer or killing an old lady is an obvious wrong, and that people who do such things should not be allowed into heaven, no matter what their thinking was.
However, let me ask you a question:
Can the people who planned, ordered, and carried out the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 go to heaven?
Yes, those bombings were carried out during a long and terrible war. And yet, they killed well over 100,000 people, and perhaps over 250,000 people, many of whom were innocent civilians, including non-combatant women, children, and elderly people. The debate over whether those bombings were justified continues to this day.
In fact, as I write this, President Obama is about to visit Hiroshima; but he will not be offering an apology to the Japanese people for the U.S.’s use of atomic bombs against Japan. That’s because the prevailing view in the United States is that the bombings were justified because they saved millions of lives on both sides by ending the war before it became necessary for the Allies to invade the Japanese homeland.
And yet, many more innocent people were killed by those two atomic bombs than by a gangbanger who shoots a cop or an old lady in order to protect his homies. And not only in Japan, but in many countries around the world that were not among the Allies who carried out the attacks, the use of nuclear weapons against Japan by the U.S. is seen as falling outside the boundaries of morality and ethics even in a wartime situation.
However . . . the people who planned, ordered, and carried out the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were following their code of conduct, and acting according to their conscience.
So can they go to heaven despite the fact that they killed well over 100,000 people, many of whom were innocent civilians, including many old ladies who had no guns to protect themselves with?
Keep in mind that gang members often consider themselves to be fighting a war, and they commonly live in neighborhoods that are virtual war zones.
So you decide.
If a gangbanger is acting according to his conscience, no matter how faulty you or I believe his conscience is, can he go to heaven despite committing acts that most people consider to be flagrantly outside the boundaries of morality and ethics?
IMO living under one’s present consciousness even if it’s by an established code of organizational conduct doesn’t mean that person has a shot so to speak of getting into heaven. What it does mean though is that going to heaven is conditional depending if that person consciously knew what they were doing was wrong, i.e., murder, rape, etc.
IOW following orders and deliberately ignoring that little voice that tells you it’s wrong is the real litmus test here regardless if one came from an unprivileged environment or not. I posit that if someone overcame their crappy life’s lot on earth and did what their conscience said was right that person will likewise be rewarded much more greatly in heaven than those that did little with what they were given on earth while being privileged.
We’re all initially dealt from a random chance deck of life cards IMO. What we do with that hand we’re dealt with whether rich or poor determines IMO our ultimate destiny. That same gangbanger if instead had been born rich and privileged very well could’ve had the same lack of conscience and still would’ve been essentially a murderer, rapist, etc.
The 2 criminals on crosses on either side of Christ IMO supports my above stance. One was unrepentant till death the other one was repentant. That conversion was as you say though was extremely rare. The point being beyond that rare instance is that if one ignores their good from wrong conscience regardless of their environment or code of conduct, that person IMO automatically doesn’t get a get out of jail card. I think such a concept is the wrong message to send. I’m not saying you’re specifically saying that mind you it’s just that it kinda sounds that way depending on the perspective. The criminal on Christ’s right basically acknowledges that he should’ve listened to his conscience and repents for not doing so. The other criminal appears destined for hell because he doesn’t acknowledge that his conscience told him it was wrong.
Ultimately since only God knows our hearts whether we’re rich or poor that is what will determine our final fate. Consequently I don’t think people like that gangbanger that murders just because their code of conduct overrides their conscience telling them murder is wrong should get “extra” angel counseling and extended rehabilitation credits over those who weren’t murdering.
IOW it still all boils back down to if that individual is truly repentant for the deeds they did regardless of environmental, upbringing, or financial stature mitigating factors; and most importantly what they still think about what their conscience telling them it was wrong back then or now. If they still don’t care what their conscience said or says up against that code of gangbanger conduct then I surmise hell here I still come! Otherwise bad behavior gets essentially rewarded! What kind of message is that?
Bottomline I think you’re not putting enough emphasis on the role everyone’s knowing right from wrong innate conscience plays here regardless of all those other mitigating factors!
Frankly Frank 🙂
Hi Frankly Frank,
I appreciate what you’re saying and I agree with much of it.
However, I don’t think there’s any such thing as “innate conscience.” Perhaps there are some inborn tendencies toward what you or I might think of as a truly good code of conduct. But that can be and often is overridden by what people are taught is right and wrong from the time of their birth, and especially by the example of their parents, teachers, and other adults in the society.
This is not a matter of gangbangers “overriding their conscience telling them murder is wrong.” Rather, it’s a matter of gangbangers’ consciences not actually telling them that killing is wrong when they do it to defend their fellow gang members. When soldiers go out and fight for their country, do they believe that it is wrong to kill enemy soldiers?
What I was referring to is not in those instances where someone kills another avowed gang member to “defend their turf” because that’s what they’re expected to do. What I’m referring to is killing someone because they owe money, killing a shop owner because he refuses to pay protection money, raping another gang’s girl to prove they belong in the gang by initiation, etc. I’m talking about someone that KNOWS it’s wrong by their conscience but does it anyway because they want more than anything else to be accepted as a gang banger in their gang. They know the difference between right and wrong!
If what you’re telling me is that the only way we learn from right and wrong is by being taught it I have to disagree. I believe we all are born with an innate conscience. I also believe we become more evil as time goes by when we deliberately ignore that conscience.
No one that I can remember ever “taught” me that slamming a knife into my playmate’s gut, or taking a bat and swinging it to the face at age 4 was wrong when we got into a disagreement on whose toy belonged to who. I just knew that it was innately wrong so I didn’t do it. Just like the innate instinct we all are born with to fight or flight when direly threatened. It’s wired into us.
So a 17 year old that doesn’t “know” popping a cap into his grandma or someone else’s innocent grandma is wrong is a real stretch to me. Hell, 4 year olds know this. Sorry I don’t care how rough their upbringing was or how poor they were. They just don’t GAS.
You hear of random shootings, revenge shootings on innocent people, all the time. Not to mention the horrific wailing by mothers when their innocent son is shot dead for no other reason that he lives across the street. C’mon. There’s no real comparison here to soldiers fighting wars for their countries and gangbangers killing, raping, and pillaging, for individual profit or higher gang status. This isn’t self defense at work here. This is pure
Am I supposed to coddle some S.O.B. heartless initiation rites gangbanger that rapes my 12 year old niece too? Where is the line drawn here, Lee? If they don’t have a conscience at all here on earth how is an angel going to make that gangbanger all of a sudden develop one? Force them to?
The ultimate point I’m trying to make here is that those same gangbangers don’t kill their fellow homie grandmothers in revenge because they don’t like the way they looked at them some morning because their conscience tells them it’s wrong. They know about the suffering at funerals, they know about familial loss, they know because they too have a conscience. They just ignore the same exact conscience voice because they can justify it by some BS gain when it’s some other gang’s grandmother.
It’s like those that go to church on Sunday and confess their sins then on Monday they go shoot some kid behind the ear “for the gang”.
Frankly Frank 🙂
Hi Frankly Frank,
I don’t think you’re giving your parents enough credit. By the time you’re four, they’ve already inculcated many things into you, most of which you probably don’t remember because memory barely goes back that far. By that time they’ve already stopped you from swiping your siblings’ or playmates toys, stopped you from hitting them, and so on. They’ve already begun molding your mind and your conscience about what’s right and wrong. Just because you don’t remember this happening, that doesn’t mean your conscience is inborn. Psychologists tell us that our first five years are critical to laying the foundations for the rest of our life.
About the gangbangers, most of them probably are headed for hell for the reasons you give: they’re aware that what they’re doing is wrong, and they don’t care because they’re making money. But we can’t definitively judge their spiritual state from the outside because we didn’t have their particular experience growing up, and we’re not in their shoes. We don’t know what their experiences were and what they believe is right and wrong. People growing up in warped circumstances can get a very warped sense of right and wrong.
Of course, as far as civil law goes (as opposed to spiritual law, not as opposed to criminal law), when they commit a crime, it doesn’t matter whether they think it’s right or wrong. They still have to be arrested and punished, both to protect society and to help modify their conscience, if that’s possible and they’re not already hardened into a life of crime. And if they’re just kids, not adults, they’re held to a different standard both by human law and by divine law. For more on these issues, see: Lee Boyd Malvo: Human Justice vs. Divine Justice?
Further, they can’t continue to pop off grandmas and rape rivals’ girlfriends in the afterlife. If they die as adults who are hardened into that life and don’t even care what’s right and wrong, they’ll end out in hell, where they will not be allowed to prey on innocent people. But if they just got royally screwed in the upbringing department, and had no decent conscience inculcated into them but at least lived according to the code of conduct that they were taught, as screwed up as it was, they’ll have a chance to leave behind their life of crime after they die. And if they do, they’ll end out in heaven, not in hell. Probably a rather low heaven because their spiritual life was never developed, but heaven nevertheless.
Well ok I understand better where you’re focusing and why.
Frankly Frank 🙂
Dear Lee, I’ve posted this question previously using another account, but I’ve recently found that the email for that no longer seems to be valid, so I’m not sure if you received it. Apologies for the spam if you did!
Anyway, as always this is an amazing, enlightening article 🙂 however, I have some questions, if you don’t mind me asking!
In the article, you stated that living according to one’s conscience is key to spiritual development. However, Christianity — as well as many other religions — also convey the paramount importance of treating others well, and loving God. However, these aren’t necessary aligned with each other, and if so, how to reconcile them? What happens, for instance, if living according to one’s conscience for some people may mean valuing mindsets and carrying out actions which are destructive, and bring about harm to others? (This might happen perhaps through destructive environments and poor education.)
I always thought that only loving others and loving God can bring us inner peace and a personal closeness with God. Does simply following one’s conscience (wherever that may lead) do this too?
Also, I’m sorry if this question might be silly, but does it also mean that people who are hard on themselves (who may hence find it harder to follow their conscience, because that conscience demands a great deal) will be in a more hellish state than someone who simply doesn’t care?
Thank you so much for your time, efforts, and patience! Your blog — and your responses to queries in the comments sections — has brought me a long long way on my spiritual journey, and I am extremely grateful. God bless and happy new year!
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comments and questions. If I missed responding previously, I do apologize. Sometimes things slip by me!
Your questions are good ones—but also difficult ones. I’ll do my best to give you some helpful thoughts so that you can sort these things out in your mind.
And at the most basic level: Life is complicated!
It might have been simple if we humans had done things God’s way from the beginning. But obviously we didn’t, whether you draw that conclusion from reading the story of the Fall of Humankind in Genesis 3 or just look around at the world and see how badly we have messed up so many things. All of this means that we are imperfect beings living in an imperfect world. Or, more pointedly, we are broken-up people living in a broken-up world. And for most of us, finding a path to healing and wholeness is complicated, difficult, confusing, and often painful—not because God made it that way, but because we humans did. And not, for the most part, because we individually made it that way (i.e., all our problems are not all our fault), but because humanity as a whole has strayed so far from God’s path for us.
Now more specifically about your questions:
Like life, our conscience may also be complicated, and even conflicted.
This could be partly because we’ve been taught things that aren’t really true, and that are even conflicting, and we are trying to live up to unrealistic or even destructive ideas of what’s good and right that have been inculcated into us. That’s why it’s important to continue learning, especially about right and wrong, and about God and spiritual life, so that we can over time correct faulty aspects of our conscience and have a more sound conscience that will more reliably lead us on a good, constructive, and spiritual path.
Unfortunately, for many people this involves unlearning a lot of things that they were taught in their churches from childhood—things that are not really true, not biblical, and do more harm than good for those who attempt to follow them. And unlearning things that have been inculcated into us from childhood can be very difficult. Even if we intellectually realize that what we were taught was wrong, emotionally we often still can’t quite get over them, and have this bad feeling in our gut that may take many years to shake off.
Still, for those who progress beyond simple, authority-based religion and move on to religion and spirituality based on understanding and enlightenment, it is necessary to examine old beliefs and inquire from a more thoughtful and humane perspective about whether they are really true and worthy of belief.
However, when our conscience comes into conflict with itself, sometimes it is not really our conscience that’s at fault, but rather the very complex, complicated, and conflicting world that we live in. We are humans, not God. We are not capable of acting perfectly in every situation. Sometimes we have to make choices between two (or more) not very good or even quite bad options, both (or all) of which will have some negative consequences even if they may also accomplish some good. And part of being tested in the crucible as human beings is facing these very tough situations and choices, and doing our best to travel the path that leads to the least long-term harm and the most long-term good.
I say “long-term” because one of the things we are called to do is to take a long view of life rather than just doing what is expedient in the moment. Sometimes what would cause the least harm and friction in the moment will only lead to more long-term pain and suffering, whereas what looks difficult and painful in the moment has a much better chance of leading to long-term good.
To use a simple, physical example, a medic or doctor who is treating someone with a deep wound can’t just slap a bandage over it and call it good. The wound must be cleaned out, and especially in a field situation, that may involve great short-term pain to the patient. However, if the medic or doctor doesn’t clean out the wound, as hellishly painful as that might be, it is likely that it will get infected and cause even more serious health problems to the patient. So as much as it would feel better just to cover it over with a bandage, it is necessary to take the more difficult and painful short-term steps in order to provide the best possibility of long-term healing.
This is where the conflict between loving the neighbor and loving God often shows itself in our conscience. We humans tend to think that loving our neighbor means being nice to them, not saying hard things, and papering over any serious problems with soothing words. But God looks at things from an eternal perspective. Recall Jesus in the Temple driving out the merchants and money-changers. That certainly was not a very nice thing to do. But where there is corruption, or even just error and wrong-headedness, and we have the ability to do something about it, taking the easy, nice route in that situation may seem like it is loving the neighbor, but in fact, in the long term, it is not, because we are letting, and even encouraging, people to follow paths that will in time bring more pain and suffering both to themselves and to others.
This is one of the reasons why loving God comes first, and loving the neighbor comes second. God, in fact, loves all people from an eternal perspective. And though some of the things God does, or allows, may seem hard in the short term, they are all calibrated to bring us the most long-term, eternal happiness and joy. So when we consider how to act toward other people, we have to consider, not just what they would want us to do right now, but what is right for us to do in the long term. This may involve directly opposing their will and their desires, if we see that will and those desires leading them down a path that will not end in good things.
This is getting long, so I’ll end this here and continue on your last two questions in a separate comment.
About simply following our conscience, I hope what I said in my previous reply sheds some light on this. Ideally, our conscience aligns us with God and with God’s will and God’s truth, and leads us toward the inner peace and closeness to God that you mention, as well as to a good life of loving and serving our neighbor. Sometimes though, our conscience either seems to conflict with loving God and the neighbor, or actually does so.
It may actually do so if our conscience itself is faulty, and needs correcting. If we do our best to follow our conscience and find that it just keeps leading toward harm, pain, and suffering for ourselves and others, then it may be time to reassess our conscience and consider that some of the things we were taught, and believe, may be mistaken and in need of correction.
Or it may seem to be in conflict because doing the right thing is going to involve some pain and suffering for ourselves and others, but that pain and suffering is unavoidable if we are to take a path that ultimately leads to good, but that in the shorter term involves struggling along a sharp and painful path to get there.
Of course, it’s not always clear which is which. That’s why it’s important to keep learning, both from study and from experience, and to continually assess in the light of new learning and experience whether we or not we are really traveling the right, or the best, path.
And in all of this, the most important thing is the serious intent to follow God and love the neighbor and do what is right, and a willingness to follow where God leads us when what we’re now doing doesn’t seem to be resulting in the good things we thought it was supposed to. Loving the truth for its own sake, and being willing to follow it where it leads us, even if it means letting go of long-cherished ideas and attitudes, is essential to any spiritual growth and rebirth that goes beyond the low level authority-based religion that I mentioned in my previous reply.
Now about people who are hard on themselves: This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be in a more hellish state, except insofar as they make life more hellish for themselves than it really needs to be. And though that can be a real problem for many people, we’re not judged by how we judge ourselves, but by how we do or don’t both intend to do good for others and act upon that intent as well as we are able given our particular circumstances.
Many people are overly hard on themselves because their parents and teachers took a harsh line with them, and told them they were bad, or no good, and not worthy of having joy and happiness in life. And though it’s true that all of us have our bad and unworthy parts, God doesn’t create anyone who is doomed and unworthy of goodness, joy, and heaven. So those parents and teachers who give overly negative and condemnatory messages to their children and their students are doing them a grave disservice. And for people who grew up with those messages, it can be very difficult to overcome them and recognize that God created them for good, not for failure.
This is yet another reason why we need to continue learning and growing, and correcting our conscience when it is not leading us in a helpful way down helpful paths.
But the overarching principle is that even though we may be overly hard on ourselves, God looks at us from a position of love and mercy, and always sees what is good in us even if we don’t see it ourselves. And this means that there is a path to heaven for every one of us—even those of us who make it harder on ourselves than it really needs to be.
Once again, I hope this is helpful. I know that you left another comment, but I’m going to have to return to that one later, since I’m running out of time right now.
Meanwhile, here’s wishing you a wonderful New Year!
Also, what happens if two or more aspects of our conscience come into conflict?
In a book I read recently — Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe — an enslaved man was given the opportunity to kill his abusive master and perhaps guarantee freedom and happiness for the many other enslaved people in the household. He refused, arguing that, as a pious Christian, it was against his principles to commit such violence. Personally, though, I feel that should I be placed in such a situation, I would not be so certain about what to do. Killing is a terrible act, yes, but if it would bring about freedom and joy for many, many more people, could it be justified? Does utilitarianism apply? Is there such a thing as sacrificing one’s soul to love and help others?
Real life has given me a dilemma too. I have a loving family which has shown me only care and concern, and has — to them — joyful hopes for my future. Recently, my parents and aunts have been talking about how they are looking forward to me getting into a nice (heterosexual) marriage and having biological children, about how me having such a family would bring them joy.
However, I am a lesbian, so I cannot give them what they want without certain costs. Since I am not romantically interested in men, there doesn’t seem to be a way I can marry a man and uphold the integrity of marriage. At best, it would just be a sham, an unfulfilling and performative partnership for both me and my would-be husband. This goes against my conscience because I do believe in the sanctity of marriage, though, in the sense that I think such a relationship should, first and foremost, be deeply sincere. Furthermore, I would feel very dishonest, like I’m deceiving everybody — my family included. On a personal level, the idea of marrying someone I don’t truly love and having children with him pains me emotionally.
On the other hand, this is what would make my family happy, and my conscience forbids me to disappoint them, especially after all the love they have shown me. They are extremely homophobic, so being honest about my sexuality would only cause them anger, worry, and pain. And, I’ll admit — I’m just not brave (is that the word?) enough to risk alienation or hatred from them.
I understand that many of these issues will have to be sorted out by myself. However, if you perhaps have any guiding principles or suggestions, it would be deeply appreciated!
First, I meant to say earlier that I’m very glad you’re finding help and inspiration in our blog. That’s what makes it all worthwhile!
I’m going to respond piecemeal to this one too, as I have time, so don’t worry if I don’t get to your big personal and family issue right away. New Year’s Day, you know! 🙂
Anyway, I did cover quite a bit about conflicting directives of conscience in my two replies to your previous comment.
About Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I haven’t actually read it, so I don’t know all of the nuances of the story. However, my initial reaction based on your description is that killing his master might not have had all of the beneficial effects hoped for. Slavery was not just an individual thing taking place on individual plantations, but was a societal and legal phenomenon. Killing the master didn’t guarantee freedom and happiness. In fact, it might bring the whole local white population and police down upon the slaves of that plantation and cause them even worse pain, suffering, and death. So once again, not knowing all of the nuances of the story, I suspect that the choice that man faced was much more complicated than “Do an immoral thing and enjoy good results vs. don’t do an immoral thing and suffer under bad results.”
Having said that, once again, life is complicated. Though the Commandment says, “Thou shalt not kill,” there are times, I believe, when we must kill in order to prevent an even worse violation of morality and goodness. For example, if a foreign army is invading, killing, raping, and pillaging, is it really moral just to let them do that? I don’t think so. And the only thing that will stop them is deadly force. It’s similar on an individual level when someone is threatening us with burglary or death. Is it wrong to defend ourselves from that sort of evil and aggression, even to the point of using deadly force? I don’t think so.
This isn’t the place to get into a full-blown discussion of situation ethics. However, as I said earlier, often our choices are not between a good thing on one hand and a bad thing on the other, but between two (or more) things, neither of which is very good, but one of which might lead to better long-term consequences than the other. And part of being human is making those difficult choices in the moment, and then learning from them as we look back on them as well.
About doing “bad” things in general for good results, you might be interested in this article: “Can Christians be Hardass?”
I realize there are still many related issues and questions I’m not addressing in these relatively brief responses. Feel free to continue the conversation and ask any follow-up questions you may have.
Now on to your final and most personal situation and conundrum.
First, as I’m sure you’re well aware, there are many people in your very situation, and it simply isn’t an easy one. No matter what you do, someone is going to be hurt, and relationships are going to be strained or broken.
And that’s not your fault. You didn’t choose to be born lesbian into a family and subculture that is not accepting of same-sex love and marriage. That is simply the hard reality you face.
And yes, ultimately, you’ll have to sort these issues out for yourself, and make your own decision how to proceed. I can’t tell you what to do, because you’re the only one walking in your shoes. However, I would be happy to offer you some guiding principles that will, I hope, help you as you face and sort out the difficult issues you are facing, and the hard choices you will have to make.
First, the very fact that you didn’t choose to be in the situation you’re in leads to at least one critical point to understand:
You don’t owe your parents anything.
I say this, not to be dismissive of all the hard work and all the good that your parents have done for you. It sounds like they have been very good parents to you, and that is something to be thankful for.
However, many parents believe that because they have done all that hard work and made all those personal sacrifices for their children, this means that their children owe them something and are beholden to them right into their adult life.
That is wrong-headed thinking.
The moment your parents had sex and conceived you, they made themselves responsible for raising you to adulthood. It was their actions, not yours, that caused you to be born into this world. Becoming a parent means taking the responsibility for raising the child, or children, that resulted from their actions in conceiving those children. Any parents who don’t do the work of raising their children to adulthood have abdicated their responsibility, and don’t deserve to have the children they have borne. And practically speaking, if they do abdicate their responsibility, either extended family members or the state will commonly take their children away from them—and rightly so.
Because it was your parents’ will and your parents’ actions that brought you into the world, you don’t owe them anything for the fact that they worked hard to support you and take care of you, and even that they loved you throughout your childhood and teenage years. That is simply the responsibility they took on when they had children.
This means that once you reach adulthood:
In short, once again, you don’t owe your parents anything for all the hard work they did raising you and all the love they gave to you.
Of course, if they lent you some money, then you do owe them . . . some money. 😉
Once you have successfully reached adulthood, your parents have simply done their job. At that point, they have no more claim on you, and they have no more authority over you. At that point, you are an independent, self-responsible adult, and you must make your own choices and direct your own life based on your own values and your own conscience.
It is true that your values and conscience will be heavily influenced by how your parents brought you up. But once you reach adulthood, both their responsibility for you and their authority over you and claim on anything from you has ended. You now have responsibility for yourself, authority over yourself, and other than business or personal relationships you may freely enter into, only God has a claim on you.
Of course, it would not be a good idea to throw all of this in your parents’ face. Most likely they wouldn’t understand, and would just consider you ungrateful and rebellious. All of this is for your own internal consideration as you enter adulthood (I sense that you are either close to or at that point in your life), and adopt some principles by which to guide your actions.
I believe this is what Jesus was talking about when he made this statement that continues disturb people to this day:
And even more starkly:
Without getting into the intricacies of his specific language, the general message is loud and clear: When we become adults and can make our own choice about following the Lord, to put family members and family issues ahead of our dedication to following the Lord’s path for our life is to seriously fall short of what God put us on earth to do.
So my first guiding principle for you is:
No matter how much your parents have done for you, and no matter how much they love you, and no matter how good that is, and no matter how thankful you are for all of it, you cannot let their will and their views determine what you will do with your life. Once you hit adulthood, that is not between you and your parents, but between you and God.
Here is a second guiding principle:
Though marriage was, during much of human history, and even in many parts of the world today, primarily about social and clan issues such as inheritance of business and property, preserving family lineages, and so on, that is no longer what marriage is primarily about today—at least, not for people who are moving forward with the spiritual progress of humanity. Rather, marriage today is primarily about creating spiritual unions of love and understanding, and moving couples and communities forward toward a more loving, spiritual, and humane present and future.
I cover the history and recent huge changes in marriage in a little more detail in these two articles:
Throughout much of human history, we human beings have not been very spiritual at all. We have focused mostly on getting along in this world, and on the things of this world. Marriage, accordingly, has mostly been contracted for purposes of social and financial advantage, providing heirs for the family wealth, business, and name, and so on. Believe it or not, the idea that people should marry for love is a fairly recent development.
And the idea of marriage for love has developed in recent times because humanity is now entering a new and more spiritual era compared to past, largely materialistic eras. Not that there isn’t plenty of materialism still in the world today. However, today, in many if not most of the countries of the world, people commonly think of marriage first as a relationship based on love and on shared values and interests. That’s because marriage as a spiritual union—meaning a union of minds and hearts—is now making its way strongly into human society.
To apply this to your situation:
In earlier centuries and millennia, as you know, homosexual relations were forbidden in many cultures, though accepted in others. However, for people who were homosexual this often didn’t make a major difference because whom you were attracted to had little to do with whom you married and had sex with. It was not expected that you would find “love” or “sexual fulfillment” or anything like that in marriage. Rather, it was expected that you would contract a socially and financially advantageous marriage, and would produce children to carry on the family business and name, and to inherit the family’s land and possessions.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean that people who engaged in same-sex sexual relations weren’t persecuted and even executed in many societies. That certainly did happen, and it was a terrible thing. However, since marriage wasn’t generally seen as having all that much to do with love and mutual attraction, people whom we would today call homosexual commonly married and had children just like those whom we today call heterosexual. People didn’t generally expect to find personal and sexual fulfillment within marriage. They expected to collaborate on the family business and produce children to carry on the family name.
Today, in more and more cultures around the world, the situation with marriage is very different. Yes, people do still marry for social and financial reasons. However, increasingly people view marriage as a relationship in which two people have an inner connection of mutual love, shared values, beliefs, and ideals, and so on. And people commonly think that any marriage that doesn’t have these qualities, and that inner basis, is not a real marriage at all. Today such marriages commonly end in divorce, whereas in earlier times most people would have thought it ridiculous to divorce just because there was no love in the relationship.
Now getting even more specific to your situation:
In centuries and millennia past, your parents would have been quite right to expect that you would marry a man and produce grandchildren for them. That was seen as a primary purpose of getting married. Marriages that didn’t produce children were a matter of public humiliation, and often led to the breakup of that marriage.
Today, though many couples still dearly want children, and feel pain if they are unable to have children, there are also many childless marriages. And unlike in previous times, such marriages are quite acceptable in the general culture as long as the two are seen as being in love with one another and are happy and fulfilled in the marriage.
So today, though parents still commonly hope that their children will get married and have children, it is no longer a basic cultural expectation as it was in previous times. That’s because marriage is now seen primarily as a venue for mutual love and connection, and only secondarily as a venue for social and financial advantages and the bearing of children as heirs to the family name and fortune.
In other words, it’s not so much that your parents are wrong to expect you to marry a man and have children. It’s that their view of marriage is becoming more and more outdated as we progress toward a higher ideal of marriage.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with people getting married to someone of the opposite sex and having children. That is still a wonderful thing! It’s just that it is no longer the primary purpose of marriage.
So a second guiding principle is:
Marriage today, in this more spiritual era, is primarily about an inner, spiritual connection involving a union of hearts and minds, and only secondarily about social position, financial advantage, and producing heirs to carry on the family name and fortune.
For more on the general nature of marriage as a spiritual relationship, please see: “How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?”
Here is a third guiding principle:
It is not acceptable to harm one person or group of people in order to benefit another person or group of people.
Here, I’ll get specific right away.
Your parents want you to marry a man and have children. However, as you say, it would be a sham marriage, without the love, attraction, and warm companionship that forms the heart of a marriage.
One of the terrible effects of the suppression of same-sex love and marriage has been that of pushing gays and lesbians into loveless heterosexual relationships and marriages.
A common pattern is that a gay or lesbian person marries someone of the opposite sex who is in love with them. However, since one partner in the marriage is attracted to people of the same sex while the other partner is attracted to people of the opposite sex, that marriage is doomed from the beginning as a real union of hearts and minds—and thus, by today’s view of marriage, as a real marriage.
This, of course, hurts the gay or lesbian person, who cannot be in a real marriage of love.
But it also hurts the straight person that the gay or lesbian person marries, who also cannot be in a real marriage of love.
Usually, because of social pressure, the gay or lesbian person does not disclose his or her sexual orientation. In many cases historically and even today, they don’t even realize or admit to themselves that they are gay or lesbian. They may get married thinking that marriage just isn’t all that attractive, but it’s something that people do anyway. This paves the way for heartbreak for their partner, who expects that the person they married will love them and be sexually attracted to them when they simply cannot love or be attracted to the person they’ve married.
And so, many heterosexuals who unwittingly marry a homosexual also become victims of the societal suppression of same-sex love and marriage.
In your case, you’re well aware of your own sexual orientation, and your desire to be with someone of the same sex, and not to marry someone of the opposite sex because it would be a sham, loveless marriage.
And you would be doing this to give happiness to your parents and extended family.
However, in giving that happiness to your parents and extended family, you would inevitably be bringing pain not only to yourself, but to your future husband, and even to your future children, as that marriage would very likely end in divorce, with all of the pain that commonly brings both to the couple and to their children.
So in this case, even though I said I can’t tell you what to do, and it’s entirely your decision, I feel I must be a little more forceful, and greatly discourage you from even seriously considering marrying a man and having children with him in order to please your family. It just wouldn’t be right to deceive not only your family, but some unsuspecting man who might fall in love with you and marry you, but who could never have with you the kind of loving marriage that he would want. The pain and suffering that results from this is far beyond any disappointment your family might feel over your not marrying a man and having children. And of course, you would be dooming yourself to the pain and emptiness a loveless marriage as well.
Further, children are heavily influenced by the marriage relationship between their parents. You would not only be hurting some man as well as yourself, but you would be passing on to your children some very broken ideas and feelings about marriage. And that’s just not a good thing to do to young and impressionable human beings.
In short, in order to benefit your parents, you would be harming yourself, your future husband, and your future children.
And that, in my view, is simply not acceptable from a moral and spiritual perspective.
In this case, the part of your conscience that is telling you not to create that kind of harm and pain for others and yourself should, I believe, override the part of your conscience that is telling you not to disappoint your parents and to do something “good” for them. It’s simply not an acceptable trade-off.
Because once again, my third guiding principle for you is:
It is not acceptable to harm one person or group of people in order to benefit another person or group of people.
I realize this puts you in a very difficult position, and that there aren’t any clear, easy answers. If you wish to continue the conversation, I would be very happy to do so. However, I’ll bring my responses to a close for now, and give you a chance to read and digest them, and respond further if you wish.
Meanwhile, please know that I admire your desire to give happiness to everyone you love, and I also admire your dedication to the sanctity of marriage. Though these are causing you much conflict in your conscience and your emotions, I believe that ultimately they will lead you toward something better for everyone involved, even if it may require moving through some painful decisions and times in order to get there.
And always, please know that whatever your parents and extended family might think of who you really are if they knew, God continues to love you as you are, and will never stop loving you with an infinite and tender love.
Thank you soooo much, Lee! Your detailed responses have been extremely helpful, and I really appreciate the effort you took to create them 🙂
You are very welcome. May God be with you as you move forward in life and face these difficult decisions.
The bible strictly condemns homosexuality. I personally however feel this is a very harsh stance that is taken in the bible but I agree with the bible that this is a sexual perversion. Two same sex people can romantically love each other, this I understand. What I struggle to understand is the anal sex in the case of homosexual partners and the lesbian sex. Is this not completely unnatural? A man and a woman is supposed to have sex, They come with the correct parts for that purpose. But man on man and woman on woman I don’t understand.
Do evil spirits or devils not play a role in these perversions or why people choose that lifestyle and find nothing wrong with it?
What is your take on this.
Your response will be greatly appreciated.
Thanks for stopping by, and for you comment and questions.
Just to be clear, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. It condemns men having sex with men. Homosexuality is a romantic and sexual attraction to a person of the same sex. That is not the same as having sex with a person of the same sex, though one commonly leads to the other. Further, the Bible does not prohibit women from having sex with women, though there is one verse in the New Testament that is commonly interpreted that way.
As for the physical act, contrary to popular belief, anal sex is not the most common form of sexual congress even among gay men. And lesbians, who are also homosexuals, engage in very little anal sex. So the idea that homosexuality = anal sex is simply wrong. Is anal sex unnatural? I tend to think so. It’s clearly not what those organs are intended for physiologically. Then again, many heterosexual couples also engage in anal sex. And nobody says that heterosexuality is evil because some heterosexuals have anal sex. It is illogical and wrong to condemn homosexuality because a greater proportion of homosexuals than heterosexuals engage in anal sex.
One of the greatest fallacies of the anti-homosexual crowd is that homosexuality is a “lifestyle” that people “choose” over “the heterosexual lifestyle.” This is simply incorrect, as has been proven over and over by many failed attempts, both secular and religious, to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals. Every effort to “pray away the gay” has failed miserably. Some of the leaders of these “conversion therapy” groups were themselves found to be engaging in homosexual relationships with the people they were supposed to be “healing.” The fact of the matter is that homosexuality is a fundamental part of the character of gays and lesbians. It cannot be changed or “repented from.” Of course, bisexuals can go either way. But homosexuals cannot.
As for whether devils are involved in it, certainly devils will attempt to pull gays and lesbians toward promiscuity and debauchery just as they will attempt to pull straight men and women toward promiscuity and debauchery. But when two men or two women are engaged in a mutually loving, faithful, monogamous relationship with one another, I simply don’t see the evil in it.
Here are some articles that take up the issue of homosexuality in more detail. The last one is an extensive (13,000 word) consideration of all of the biblical and cultural issues related to homosexuality. It will take some time and effort on your part, but to get the full picture I recommend that you read all three articles, and their comments sections.
Forgive me if I’ve asked this before, I think I may have, but the whole thing about babies and young children who die as such going to heaven opens up some questions. Follow me here. Free will is supposedly important. “God doesn’t want robots,” is often said. But if babies and young children and teenagers all go to heaven, then is free will that important? If a whole class of people don’t have to exercise their free will, then why do any?
Good to hear from you again. I hope you’re hanging in there these days.
It is a tricky question that you raise.
Yes, free will is important. Without it, we are not human. However, it takes time for us to develop into humans with free will. For most people, it takes nine months in the womb, and then anther couple of decades growing up to self-responsible adulthood. Before that time, while we are developing human understanding and free will, we are still the responsibility of our parents or guardians rather than being self-responsible adults. And until we become self-responsible adults, the default destination is always heaven, and never hell.
This is simply a matter of fairness. Here on earth children are not given adult sentences when they engage in crimes that would be severely punished if adults committed them. That’s because they are still their parents’ responsibility, and they do not have full agency and choice over their own actions. But once they grow up and become adults, they are responsible for their own actions, and the law fully applies to them.
Spiritually, it is the same principle. Children are not held spiritually liable for offenses committed before they reach full self-responsible adulthood. Their behavior has as much to do with how they are raised and their environmental influences as it does with any choices they themselves made. Even juvenile offenders are often just acting out against physical or emotional mistreatment at the hands of the adults in their lives. So they are not charged with their offenses as they would be if they were adults.
Based on all this, it is tempting to think that it would be better if we all died as children, since then we would all go to heaven.
However, aside from the practical reality that if we all died as children, the human race would cease because there would be no adults to bear children, this would also be rather like all of us being born prematurely. Premies can have a good life, but especially if they are very premature, they often have health problems because some of their organs were not fully developed and ready for life outside the womb at the time they were born.
When we die, it is like being “born” into the spiritual world. In order to have the fullest life there, we must have developed all of our spiritual “organs” here on earth first. If we die when we have not yet reached adulthood, some of those spiritual “organs” never have a chance to fully develop. Though we will continue to grow up to adulthood in the spiritual world, and will have a very good eternal life in heaven, we will be somewhat limited in the spiritual “jobs” we can do because we never developed the character and strength that comes from living out a full life here on earth.
Yes, for those of us who reach adulthood, there is always the danger of spending eternity in hell instead of in heaven. However, that is 100% our choice. If we end out in hell, it’s not because we were pushed or forced to be there, but because we decided we would rather be in hell than be in heaven. I know it may be hard to believe, but hell is 100% voluntary. And it is not the horrible place of fire and pitchforks that the Biblical literalists think it is. Even if we choose hell, we will still be able to engage in many of our favorite sick pleasures. We’ll just feel the inevitable pain that results from them, just as happens sooner or later here on earth. See:
Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
But if we choose heaven, then our life will be far more distinct, constructive, and satisfying than if we died as children. We will have been able to choose our own course in life, and build the type of character in ourselves that we wish to have. Children who die can also do this to some extent as they grow up in heaven, but as I said before, they are more limited, and must continue to live a more sheltered life than people who live out a full adult life on earth.
The ideal is for all of us to have a full lifetime here on earth. But we humans have messed this place up pretty badly. An awful lot of babies, children, and teens die unnecessarily. God has therefore provided that they can grow up in heaven and have a good life there. But that is not the ideal. The ideal is for us to fully develop our spiritual “organs” here on earth so that we can have the fullest eternal life in heaven.
I’ve spent the past some-odd months reading and learning about drug trafficking organizations, and when reading more specifically about the members of these organizations and the mind-numbing levels of violence they commit on behalf of their trade, the question of fairness keeps coming to mind and was something I was hoping you could expand a bit more upon.
The simple reality is that, with any organized crime syndicate, murder is just en everyday part of doing business. You murder to protect your territory, to keep the other members of your organization in line, and perhaps especially to send a message to rival groups. Regarding the latter, the *level* of violence that’s associated with intimidating the authorities and rival groups…well, it’s beyond violence.
A common explanation is that’s often offered is that these are just monsters, psychopaths who never had or have voluntarily surrendered their consciences. I’m sure that’s true to some degree, but really, for the most part these ranks are filled with ordinary people from some of the poorest countries on Earth. And in reading the bios of these people, I’ve found it’s largely true from the top dogs to the lowest pawns.
The vast majority of them are people who grew up in a level of extreme poverty that the Western mind could barely imagine, and where poverty exists, violence often follows. We read these stories, and in some cases, watch these appalling videos of the violence they inflict on each other and ask ‘how can they wantonly murder and torture people and then just sleep at night like nothing happened?’ Well, this is nothing new for them. Some of them have been hired assassins since they were young teenagers, and they grew up in a place where that level of violence is just an every day reality. So shooting, stabbing, dismembering…that’s just life as they know it.
So you have the perfect storm of ingredients that would tempt someone into a life of crime. You’re poor. Very poor. You grew up with nothing, were raised with nothing, and odds are, you’re going to die with nothing. Life was never going to give you a fair shot, opportunity was never going to knock on your door. Your government is unsympathetic and corrupt, themselves often aligned with the same criminal organizations they claim to be fighting. Meanwhile, you’re living in a capitalist world, with images of material success constantly flaunted to you through media and through criminals who through their crimes have obtained everything you wish you could have yourself: money, cars, jewelry. And then one day you think: why not me? Why can’t I have what they have? I’ll never be able to earn it, and no one is ever going to give it to me. Drugs and murder? I know they’re bad, but so is starving to death. That’s just the price of doing business.
It’s a level of temptation that’s not hard to understand, even if it’s one we would resist ourselves. But even our ability to resist in some sense feels like a privilege. It’s easy to say no to a life of crime when all your needs are met and you live in a loving community supported by loving people. But when you have nothing and no one? For years? The resolve to reject evil in the face of your poverty seems like a much more difficult thing to muster. And in a way, that just doesn’t seem fair. At the same time, for every impoverished person who chooses a life of crime, there’s ten who refuse, even if only to remain poor. So it’s not like it’s impossible.
At the same time, the life-scenario I described above makes it hard for me to describe even an assassin as singularly evil. You come from a world where poverty is endless, suffering is daily, and life is cheap. As far as they’re concerned, it’s ‘I do what I have to do.’ And I know it’s evil any way you cut it. But in the way we evaluate the person who chooses that life of evil? What can I say? Good and evil and simple. But life sure is complicated, Lee…
You can say that again!
First, in our thinking about people who are living objectively evil lives, it is good to have a certain amount of humility. We cannot know the spiritual state of another person. Or to put it plainly, we cannot know whether another person is going to heaven or to hell. Only God knows that. The most we can say is, “If they are inwardly what they appear to be outwardly, then they are going to hell.”
But we can’t know for sure whether they actually are inwardly what they appear to be outwardly. All of the factors of poverty, corrupt upbringing, and so on that you detail mean that we can’t make any definite decision about whether a particular person is evil at heart, and headed to hell. That is in God’s hands, and God will take care of it.
Still, we can’t let them off the hook for their actions. Whatever may be in their heart, their actions are evil and destructive. Not judging them spiritually does not mean we can’t or shouldn’t judge them civilly and criminally. If they can be put in prison, they should be put in prison, both to punish their evil behavior and to protect innocent people from that behavior. This is quite distinct from whether they will go to “spiritual prison” after death.
Further, as you say, only a minority of people living in extreme poverty resort to crime. Some will avoid wrongdoing altogether, even if it means starving to death. Others may engage in petty crime, such as stealing food, but will not do anything more than what they have to to survive, and to keep their families alive. Only a few will go into a full-blown life of crime.
And finally, there is no need to be envious of people who are living in ostentatious wealth through a life of crime. Most of them do not come to a good end. They are always killing each other. They can never relax and just enjoy life. They always have to be watching their back. Sooner or later, their life of crime catches up to them. We see the ones who are living in mansions surrounded by pretty women. But that life doesn’t last forever. The ones who are dead, or in prison, or broken down in the alley, don’t catch our eye. So we have a false picture of the fruits of a criminal life.
For people who are struggling with hunger and poverty, and want to experience money and power, guns, alcohol, women, and power, the lure may be irresistible. Still, their material desires are driving them to a life that will let them down and lead them down very dark alleys, where they will be mugged and destroyed in the end.
The only way out of it is repentance, or else death. But if their heart actually is evil, even at death the dark nightmare will not end. It will just keep going.
I think what I’m hung up on is coming to grips with fairness, when it seems unfair that so many people due circumstance beyond their control have to wrestle with a level of temptation that is far greater than it is for other people who live comfortable lives, and so are in a better position to say no. I realize that this verges on saying there’s a level of desperation and temptation that takes away the moral responsibility for our choices, in that how can anyone possibly expect someone in a situation like that to say no to acts of evil when it means filling their stomach. I don’t believe that. And yet, poor people have to play the game of life on a much harder more than the rest of us, and the pull factor can seem, as you say, irresistible.
What’s noteworthy about the hired killers in this world is how so many of them start off as ordinary people- poor people who grow up in a world where, as I said before, life is cheap. I saw an interview with a hitman in Mexico who said he joined the army at 15, but then was unemployed after he was discharged. He began robbing people for money, but would often kill many of his victims because they tend to fight back. Later on, he realized it was more efficient and profitable to just kill people for money, so he became a hitman. Regarding the nature of his crimes, he remarked that he stopped counting the number of people he had killed because it was starting to give him nightmares. Otherwise, he seems to live a relatively normal life. He has a wife and son, and lives comfortably. For him, killing is just business.
Another hitman said that the first time he killed, it was extremely difficult. But became easier the more he did it. He was, at the time of the interview, training two 13 year old boys to do the same. Are these men psychopaths? Possibly. But psychopathy is exceptionally rare. Instead it just seems like these are people who come from a very different world where violence is the norm. You emphasized conscience as a key factor when it comes to salvation and damnation. Is it possible that their lives are just so profoundly different than ours that their conscience simply does not register murder as something worth losing sleep over? I just don’t know how else to explain a level of poverty where someone who isn’t a psychopath will commit murder for a candy bar. Either they’re evil, or their conscience has been programmed so throughly by circumstance that moral landscape they see through their eyes looks world apart from what others see.
Fairness is overrated. Yes, it’s a nice ideal for us humans to strive for. But the reality is that life in the material universe is not fair. There is no fairness in nature. The young and the feeble become prey. For humans as animals, there is also no fairness. For one variation on that theme, see:
It’s not fair that God made some people incredibly beautiful, and others just average!
It’s nice to be dealt a good hand. But as every professional poker player knows, it’s not the hand you’re dealt, but the way you play the hand that really matters. I could be holding three of a kind, and get beaten by a pro who’s packing a pair of deuces. Or I could be holding a royal straight flush, and make a lousy five bucks out of it.
Some people get a raw deal in life, and go on to do great things, or at least good things. Others have all the advantages of wealth and power, and either waste their life away or crash and burn spectacularly.
Of course hitmen are going to justify their “work.” But the fact of the matter is that most poor men who are discharged from the army don’t become hitmen. That was a choice on the part of those two men. And it was a bad choice. Sooner or later, it will catch up with them.
No doubt. As elders are so fond of reminding youngsters, ‘life is not fair.’ You might be born into much more challenging circumstances that require a much greater level of discipline and resolve to make the right choices. But the choices are still yours to make.
But I wonder, in regards to *spiritual* fairness, is it possible that some people might get, to some degree, a pass for their sinful choices because of their life circumstances?
Imagine, for instance, you’re surrounded day in and day out from a very young age with antagonistic people who are just looking for a fight. Mocking you, deriding you, egging you on. You’re already born with something of a short temper, but you do your best to keep your cool, and you do for a long period of time. But eventually, the suffocating atmosphere of antagonism just starts to wear you down. You do your best to shun the temptation to retaliate with physical violence, but finally, one day, you succumb and you strike back. And it’s understandable why. And then that just becomes the way you live because once you start down that road, it becomes ever more difficult to turn back.
Hitting someone and killing someone are obviously worlds apart, but I’m just using it as a basic example of when someone feels overwhelmed by the temptation to sin due to circumstances beyond their control.
So just like how judges take into account mitigating circumstances when sentencing criminals in a court of law, do things like our background and the difficulties they create in us doing the right thing factor into our own ‘self-sentencing’, as it were?
And would you say that it’s sometimes not possible for us to resist temptation? We’re free beings who always have free choices, but we’re also incredibly limited beings, and our resolve may be equally limited. It almost seems like there are times when a person can only take so much temptation before they give in, because no human being has the ability to resist temptation if it’s great and constant enough. I obviously don’t like this way of thinking, because I feel like it’s an affront to our capacity as moral agents who are able to make moral decisions, but is it possible that there are times where people who make the wrong choice just don’t have the power to make the right one in light of great enough temptation?
Here are the short answers to your two questions:
1. Yes, mitigating circumstances of this life will be taken into account when we metaphorically stand before the Throne of Judgment in heaven.
2. Yes, sometimes it is not possible for us to resist temptation as that is usually defined: the temptation to do something that we know is wrong. Maybe theoretically it would be possible, but practically speaking, in the moment, sometimes it is not.
But I think it is time to reframe the issues of temptation and salvation.
These lines of questioning tend to get bogged down into a low-level understanding of what temptation is, and what our salvation is based on. From there, it can easily move into outright falsity about these things. And once our mind is tangled up in falsity, we can never see the truth until that falsity is removed.
First about salvation:
The big debate in about salvation in Western Christianity is whether we are saved by our works or saved by our faith. And though that debate is not completely without merit, for the most part it entirely misses the point.
Presupposed in your examples is the idea that if a person does bad works, that will land the person in hell, whereas if the person does good works, that will land the person in heaven.
Many ordinary Christians believe this—even many nominally faith-alone Christians. And they must believe it, because their thinking does not go any deeper than outward behavior. For such people, the primary battles are whether they do or don’t yield to the temptation to do the evil that they are predisposed to do and love to do. If they wish to be saved, they must engage in that battle regardless of whether they are Catholic or Protestant, and regardless of the particular doctrines of their church.
However, people who say that we are not saved by our works are technically correct. Just not in the way that they believe. We are not saved by our faith either, and we are certainly not saved by faith alone, as such people would maintain.
Ultimately, it is God’s love that saves us. But in us what saves or damns us is neither our faith no our good works. It is our ruling love.
In other words, we will go to heaven or to hell based on what we love above all else. Though there are as many variations of this as there are people, they all fall into four general categories:
1. Love of God
2. Love of the neighbor
3. Love of the world
4. Love of self
I believe you and I have covered these in previous conversations, so I won’t take the time to define them here, and will just hope that anyone reading in gets the idea as we go along.
What this means, practically speaking, is that what people do, though it is important, is not the primary determinant of whether they will spend eternity in heaven or in hell. Rather, it is why they do what they do.
What is the primary underlying motive for a person’s actions? Is it a desire for wealth? For personal pleasure? For power over other people? If so, then regardless of the outward actions—which may even be good—such people are headed for hell.
Please understand, I am not saying that wealth, personal pleasure, and power are evil. I am saying that if the desire for them is what rules in us, such that it is more important to us than anything else, then it is evil. Having one of those things as our ruling love is what puts us on the pathway toward hell. In fact, it is hell in us. Everything else is just an expression and manifestation of that inner hell.
On the other hand, if the primary motive for a person’s actions is concern for the well-being of other people and/or a love for God and for following God’s commandments, then regardless of the outward actions—some of which may even be evil—such people are headed for heaven.
Now, sooner or later, the outward actions tend to come into harmony with the inner motives. But that “later” may not come until a person has progressed well into the spiritual world after death. Here on earth, it is quite common for the outward behavior not to match the inner motives.
For example, a person may not care one whit about the well-being of other people, but may spend a lifetime in business or politics engaged in all sorts of activities that are of benefit to others, because that is how the person gets ahead in this world and gets money and power. The deeds are good, but the motives are evil.
For another example, as in the above article, a gang member may murder someone in a rival gang, but the motive may be to protect his own gang members, who are like his family, from harm. The act is evil, but the motive is good.
In the spiritual world, people will be judged primarily based on their motives, and ultimately by their ruling love, which is their core motivation. Outward actions will be taken into account only as they do or don’t reflect the person’s motives, or ruling love.
All of this is why, although low-level Christians must think in terms of good or bad behavior, if we get stuck on that level of thinking we will not be able to see or understand how salvation really works. No amount of good works will save us if our primary motive for doing them is to get our butts into heaven so that we can be served and waited on to eternity on by our own personal bevy of buxom, scantily clad ladies. (In case anyone is wondering: No, that’s not what heaven is like. Sorry to burst your bubble.)
Our good works will get us into heaven only if we are doing them because we love and care about our fellow human beings, and want to do good things for them for their own sake. Even then, it’s not the good works, but the good motives that get us into heaven. Those good motives are from God, not from us, so we still can’t take any credit for them. It is God’s love acting in us that saves us. As I said before, ultimately we are saved by God’s love.
This is why the discussion of whether someone who is “tempted and tempted,” and then “yields to temptation” and does some bad thing, such as attacking another person, is a bit of a misdirect.
That brings us to the question of temptation.
In its common, low-level meaning, “temptation” means being enticed to do something that we know is wrong. We “resist temptation” when we don’t do the thing that is enticing us. We “yield to temptation” when we do it even though we know we shouldn’t. (If we have no concept of right and wrong, we cannot be “tempted.” We just do whatever our impulses drive us to do. There is no moral conflict.)
But that is not the true meaning of temptation—especially not spiritual temptation. Yes, we could support the idea that that’s the meaning temptation by citing Jesus’ temptation by Satan after his baptism. That view of temptation is not completely wrong. But neither is it the true meaning of temptation.
Consider instead Jesus’ agony of temptation in the garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion. His temptation and agony were not about doing what is wrong or not doing what is wrong. Rather, it was a sifting of his very soul, to see if he would give in and abandon his pathway of love for the entire human race. Really, the earlier temptation by Satan was about this as well, but explaining that would be an entire blog post of its own.
Real, spiritual temptation is a trial and testing of the soul to see whether we will follow the way of selfishness and materialism or the way of love for God and the neighbor. Real temptation pushes us right to the brink of despair, at which point we believe that all is lost, and we are doomed.
The direction we take in and from that state of utter despair is our victory or defeat in temptation.
If we “curse God and die,” as Job’s friends urged him to do, then we have yielded, and have been defeated, in temptation. What this really means is that when we hit rock bottom, if we decide that God can just bugger off, and we’re going to do whatever the hell we feel like doing for ourselves and our own benefit from now on, then we have yielded to temptation. When push came to shove, we chose love of self and love of the world over love of God and the neighbor.
On the other hand, if, when everything seems lost, and when it feels as if there is no more hope for us whatsoever, we still choose to act out of concern for our fellow human beings, and to follow the love of God, then we have been victorious in temptation. When push came to shove, we chose love and goodness even when we could see no benefit in it for ourselves whatsoever.
This is the sort of temptation Jesus was facing in Gethsemane. This is real, spiritual temptation. It is not a choice of whether to do good or evil. It is a choice of whether to be motivated by self or by God. To be motivated by self (or by worldly concerns) is to be in hell. To be motivated by God (or by love for our fellow human beings) is to be in heaven.
As long as we are living here on earth, the actions that flow from those hellish or heavenly motives will often be clouded by the external circumstances of this world. This includes our genes, our upbringing, and our environment, which for some people severely distort their actions. This is why we cannot pass spiritual judgment on another person, or even on ourselves, based on the person’s outward actions. We cannot see the motives from which a person is acting. We therefore cannot know for sure whether that person is headed for heaven or to hell, no matter how good or evil the person’s outward actions may appear to be.
This world is not fair. Some people are born and bred into very evil circumstances and actions, such as the gang members covered in the above article. But that’s not what will determine their eternal fate. Rather, the motives from which they act within their particular circumstances will determine their eternal fate. And as covered in the above article, it is possible for a person to be acting from good motives even when their actions are quite evil.
In the afterlife, this will all get sorted out. People can’t keep killing other people in heaven. But if in his own warped moral code, a hitman has been acting from good motives, and it’s not just a c.y.a. excuse and justification for his evil choices and actions, then yes, the hitman could go to heaven.
But he can’t be a hitman anymore. He’ll have to give that up. If he’s not willing to give it up even in the spiritual world, where he doesn’t have to worry about food and clothing for himself and his family anymore, then he has judged himself to hell. In that case, he is murdering people because he loves to murder people, and he loves the feeling of power over other people that it gives him. That is a hellish love. A person ruled by such a love can live only in hell.
Thank you for your detailed reply. Once again, it seems the confusions I face are linked largely to a low-level understanding of certain spiritual concepts that wind up complicating the matter, and I thank you for your clarification. I also thank you for your reiteration that we are in no place to definitively say whether another person is either good or evil, and if that person is consequentially headed toward heaven or hell.
I have a fairly basic understanding of the overall spiritual scheme when it comes to how our loves ultimately determine our place in the afterlife, but what I was feeling confused by was how to map this scheme onto the complexities of everyday life, and it’s everyday life that can seem almost overwhelmingly complicated.
Because I’m not going to say that these are good people, they’re unlikely to be clinical psychopaths, and yet to say they’re evil still somehow feels too simplistic. And so I’m left scratching my head on where these people and their actions fit in the above scheme of good and evil. I feel badly that I’m sitting here talking about the moral complexities of murder, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t leave me unsure and confused.
You don’t have to respond to any of the below, but just to give you a clearer sense of where I’m coming from:
-in one of the recent cartel documentaries I watched, they were interviewing a man who was involved in the production of drugs, asking what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said that he always to be an architect, but his parents ran out of money to send him to school, so he needed work, and joined with the cartels in order to ensure healthy cash flow. He may be on the non-violent side of the business, but really, he’s involved in the production of one of the most deadly narcotics available: fentanyl. His rationale I’m sure if something to the effect if ‘well if this is what Americans want, then this is the product we will supply.’
-in that same documentary, they were interviewing two men who weren’t hitmen per se, but would act as gunmen when ordered to. When asked if they ever feel badly about the people they killed, they quickly responded with an assured ‘no,’ because ‘they wouldn’t have had any mercy on us if they were in the same position.’ And when asked if all of this was worth the tremendous risk, they similarly responded yes, because ‘everything is worth is when it comes to money.’ And it’s clear that this isn’t from the perspective of power hungry, money grubbing tycoons, but rather from poor people who have never had anything.
-people in organized crime- from the cartels to the Italian mafia- seem to have little problem in murdering and torturing their rivals. But as far as they’re concerned, they all deserve it. They chose to be a part of this life, and in this life, there are rules. You get out of line? You get killed. You kill our people? We kill ten of yours. You torture our people? We’ll make you wish you were never born. You’ve committed atrocities of your own, and you deserve no quarter, and there’s nothing to feel badly about when killing you in the most hideous of ways.
-Joseph ‘Mad Dog’ Sullivan was a notorious Irish gangster and hitman, who’s father died when he was 11 years old. With his mother struggling with the loss of her husband, Sullivan fell into a life of crime. One thing he distinctly remembers was how people at a local bar were stealing out of a glass jar marked as donations for his family in the wake of his father’s death. One day, years later, a man in that same bar approached him who for whatever reason reminded him of the people who were stealing from his fund, and in a fit of rage, murdered him on the spot.
-Even in matters of government corruption, it’s not quite so simple. There’s an old Spanish expression, ‘plata o plomo,’ which translates to ‘silver or lead,’ and the message is quite simple: either accept our bribe, or suffer the consequences. Local police and government are often on the crime payroll, but they’re often bribed at gunpoint, with politicians and police who refuse to accept them routinely murdered. If you’re an authority figure and trucks full of marauders come tearing into your municipality with automatic weapons and bags full of money, which are you likely to choose? Not just for your own life, but for the lives of your family? The decision isn’t hard, and yet, it means not only turning a blind eye to crime, but assisting them in murder, extortion, kidnapping, human and drug trafficking, and all the horrors that make up their trade.
So I look upon all these simple acts of evil, but then look upon the surrounding complexities of what motivates people do them, and when I try to internet them with the basic spiritual scheme of ‘good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell’…it just suddenly doesn’t quite feel so simple.
All of the people you describe are now living in hell. It may be hell on earth, but it is hell nevertheless. And it is probably quite similar to many areas of the hell of the spiritual world, commonly known as “hell.” The main difference is that in the spiritual hell, it’s not possible to kill anyone. That’s not for lack of trying on the part of its residents, but because everyone there is already dead. Other than that, the constant gang warfare, kidnappings, torture, and so on are pretty much what happens it some parts of hell.
The question is therefore not whether these people will go to hell. They’re already there. The question is whether they will ever choose to leave hell. Here’s where to insert all my previous discussion on this.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that although recreational drugs, especially hard drugs, are intrinsically damaging to human minds and bodies, the violence surrounding them is a product of the drug laws, not of the drugs themselves. As every rational observer knows and understands, drug laws do not work. Everyone who wants any drug just about anywhere in the world can get it. But drug laws do turn the drug trade violent, and corrupt whole nations, as described in those documentaries. The greatest evil is not in Mexico or in Central and South America. It isn’t even in the demand for hard drugs in the U.S., as bad as that is. Rather, it’s in the halls of governmental power in the U.S. and other nations, where laws are passed that cause an already bad thing—the drug trade—to become far, far worse. These laws create the conditions in which your choices are to join the cartel, cooperate with the cartel, or die.
You and I once discussed the extents and limits that our conscience has in understanding what is right and wrong. You remarked that since we have long lost our direct pipeline to God, we have needed to rely on teachers (re: religion) to help shape our conscience in terms of moral conduct. As a result, our conscience is in many ways the product of what we’ve learned and our surrounding environment. At the same time, are there some things- like murder- that no healthy conscience would accept as moral? Is that what is meant by how the law is written on our hearts? Because it’s admittedly hard to imagine how any human being can rationalize some of these atrocities even in terms of a conscience that has been basically crafted from the bottom up, and not from the top down. Are there some things in life in which we always know better?
Perhaps there are some innate tendencies toward certain knowledge, such as knowledge of the existence of God. But objectively, we’re born in complete ignorance, knowing nothing at all, and we learn everything we know from the people and environment around us.
We like to think that we “naturally” know that murder is wrong. But what in nature teaches us any such thing? Predation is an integral part of the cycle of nature. “Naturally,” there is a much better argument for amorality than for morality. Why, based on nature, shouldn’t we kill people with whom we are in competition for resources, reproductive opportunities, and so on? There really isn’t a very good argument against this from a purely materialistic perspective. Existentialism is about the best we’ve got on that score. And it’s not a very strong argument.
Our secular society likes to think that the various moral laws we humans follow—or don’t—are just a natural part of human society. But the reality is that these things are taught and learned. And historically, they are mostly taught and learned by the various religions. Even people who are now secular inherit the legacy of a thoroughly religious human history. Atheists argue that we could figure these things out without religion. But that’s not how it happened in reality. And atheists’ arguments for deriving morality without reference to God are quite weak. Survival of the fittest would be a much more logical and defensible position to take.
In short, I don’t believe you can just subtract religion from the equation, and think that we just “naturally” know that its wrong to murder. Reality simply doesn’t support that idea. In addition to the above considerations, some people do grow up in an environment in which murder is not considered to be wrong. You’ve been watching interviews with these people.
I feel the need to balance what I’ve been talking about with a proper acknowledgement of the other side of the crime equation: the scores of innocent civilians who are caught in the crosshairs. This whole time I’ve been talking about the tragic circumstances of the criminal, but that is to say nothing of all the families who will never see their loved ones again, and who have no sense of closure because they simply have no idea what happened to them. There are some parts of Mexico where so many mass graves are uncovered that journalists don’t bother reporting on any below a certain number; where people gather around mortuaries each week in the hopes that body parts will come in that will help them identify their missing loved ones. Mother’s who don’t sleep and can’t sleep because they wake up wondering what happened to their children. Are they alive? Did they die badly?
Innocent civilians who are murdered because they don’t wish to join their life of crime, refuse their extortions, or who are killed for no other reason than to create fear and intimidation in the local population. Politicians who are murdered because they promise change, and journalists who are murdered because they have the courage to report the truth. I feel for anyone’s suffering, but it is the suffering of the local population who have nothing to do with crime who my heart truly breaks for.
I feel like 9:25-12:00 in the following documentary represents both ends of what I’m talking about. The suffering of ordinary people from acts of evil, and then what motivates someone to commit them.
Bottom line: murder and warfare, whether engaged in by nations, organizations, or individuals, is horribly evil and destructive. No discussion of the potential of criminals to get into heaven should blur that harsh reality.
I happen to believe that most career criminals will go to hell if they don’t repent. Other people came from similarly bad situations and environments, and didn’t become career criminals. Being a criminal is still a choice on the part of the one engaging in it. And its a bad choice. Some of them may not be acting from a ruling love focused on self and the world. But odds are, most of them are acting from those motives in their heart. Many of them know it, and even declare it plainly.
Once again, we can’t make any definite judgment. But the greatest likelihood is that people who, as part of their regular path of life, engage in murder, rape, theft, and other terrible evils that are forbidden in the Ten Commandments, will make their bed in hell when their life on this earth is over.
Did you mean to link to a documentary? If so, it didn’t make it into your comment.
Hi Lee, I think I’ll respond to everything you just wrote in this one reply.
I think what’s troubling me is what I might refer to as ‘The Godfather effect,’ in that I’m presented with evil people who’s evil is nuanced by an apparent level of goodness. These characters- just as with people in real life- are not one-dimensional killing machines. They live and work according to a strict moral code, one that often spares non-combatants because to hurt them would simply be wrong. Justice is in fact a big part of their way of life- they just happen to abide by their own system of it. And they hold both friends and rivals accountable to the system they all agreed to abide by. In this life, there are rules, and rules have to be followed. They’re very family oriented, give generously, and I daresay in many ways live with integrity. At the same time, these men are also cold-blooded killers. And when looking at their religious devotions, hypocrites. For all their talk of justice and family, all their efforts ultimately culminate with the same two ends: money and power. And yet, their way if life dates back centuries to time and place of harsh historical conditions.
So when I watch The Godfather or other movies that depict the complex inner and outer lives of gangsters, I almost always catch myself wondering ‘are these guys going to hell?’
Does it make sense that I might be troubled by these questions in light of what we’ve discussed, or am I creating a conundrum where none exists because I’m getting distracted by exteriors that sit atop ugly interiors? Am I just not able to identify a monster when I see one?
One thing that you brought up that I haven’t really talked about is repentance, and I realize I’m talking about succumbing to a life of crime as something that has no exit. There’s nothing to say that you can’t one day ‘wake up’ and repent from the horrible life you’ve led. I do believe that generally speaking, the farther you travel down the road of evil, the harder it is to turn back, and there are no doubt countless criminals who may have started out from ‘necessity’ who are very much in it for pleasure at this point. They operate with a level of heartlessness and cruelty that simply cannot be explained in terms of the circumstances I’ve describes earlier.
Unfortunately, many people involved in this life feel that change is not a practical possibility for them. Because once you’re in, you’re in. You can’t one day tell your boss that you’ve had a change of heart and want out. You’re given orders, and orders have to be followed. If you are unwilling to kill, then it’s you and your family who ends up on the chopping block. Your only way out is prison or death. It is never right to commit murder, even as an act of self-preservation. But this grim reality would seem to complicate the path toward repentance.
With regards to drug policies and the war on drugs, I am in agreement with you. However, the reality is that drug trafficking is a major but not the only source of revenue for these groups at this point. Like most crime syndicates, they also specialize in human and weapons trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and resource theft. Take away the drugs, and they’ll just further emphasize their other ventures, with civilians likely taking the brunt of it as they further target them in order to recover their lost drug revenue.
And yes, I meant to add a link to my last post, and it actually shows up as a thumbnail on my end, which was a bit concerning, as I didn’t mean for it to appear like that. But in case it doesn’t appear at all, here’s the URL (space between www and YouTube):
A Bloody Week in Ciudad Juarez: A cartel killer tells all
[Edited by the host to make a working link to the YouTube video. This was a problem with the badly designed new WordPress comment editor, which is far less capable than the previous editor, and buggy as well.]
One last thing, did you mean to include corrupt officials as among those are essentially in hell? Because while I’m not making any moral judgements of the person who accepts a bribe at the threat of death, I certainly understand why they would. No one would wish to risk their lives or their families by refusing a bribe when they can instead take it, especially in a place like Mexico which notoriously underpays and under supports their police forces. At the same time, accepting an envelope full of money each week is more than just grim sacrifice you had to make to ensure you’re safety. You’re obviously enjoying the money that came from yielding to a bribe that was made to you at gunpoint. So, yeah. There’s that. I don’t know, Lee. Did I mention that life is complicated?
Everyone in those violent parts of the world is living in hell. They may or may not have hell in their soul. In other words, they may or may not be evil people. But whether good or evil, they are living in hell on earth.
Yes, organized crime will always have crimes to commit. But take away the illegal drug trade, and the rest becomes far more manageable. One of the largest sources of revenue for organized crime will be gone, making them far less rich and powerful. Meanwhile, the huge number police that were formerly wasted on an endless and ineffective war on drugs can focus on combating the remaining crimes.
Being fiercely devoted to family is compatible with having self-love as one’s ruling love. Family is seen as an extension of oneself, almost as part of oneself. So it is just an extended self-love. The moment any family member steps out of line, the former “love” turns into intense and murderous hatred. This shows that it was never really love in the first place. At least, not love for other people. It was love for oneself and one’s own benefit in other people. There’s a huge difference.
In general, though, yes, someone brought up in that atmosphere, who continues in the family tradition, may or may not be an evil, hellish person. That’s all covered in the above article. No need to repeat it here.
And it’s true that once you’re in that life, you’re unlikely to get out of it alive. That’s why getting into it in the first place is a bad choice. That’s true even if it seems to be the only choice. Yes, life is complicated. But God will sort these things out. The only people who go to hell are people who, as self-responsible adults, chose evil when they could very well have chosen good, based on their own conscience.
This is a difficult conversation to have, in large part because I’m sitting here, talking about the moral complexities of the worst of crimes and the gravest of sins: committing murder. And yet, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t troubled by realities that admittedly add a layer of complexity and make it all not quite so simple. Because so much of what I’ve talked about sits at the intersection knowing something is wrong, and feeling desperate enough where you feel it’s ok to do the wrong thing.
Because the people I’ve talked about are fully aware of how moral gravity of their actions, especially in a deeply religious country, like Mexico or Brazil. They know that murder is the worst of sins, they fully acknowledge what they’re doing as bad, and the money that they get from it as dirty. And yet, they weigh that against the desperation of their lives and the bleakness of their futures, and they choose to act accordingly, with many believing that it wasn’t truly a ‘choice’ in the sense that they could have realistically chosen any other way of life.
And that’s what calls into question the issue of fairness, because I have to believe there are many ‘good’ people among us who, had they lived their lives, might have made the same choices, choices that seem unconscionable to them at present.
Because I’ve never lived in a dog eat dog world. I’ve never had to choose between taking life and going hungry. Or had to worry that showing mercy would signal weakness and make me vulnerable to violence myself. To quote The Last King of Scotland, “[In this place], you meet violence with violence. Anything else? You’re dead.” I’ve never come within 1,000 miles of a place like that. We’re all born into this world as equally free agents capable of making moral choices, but there are people in that same world who are born with so much that is stacked against them, pulling them toward a life of evil, whereas the rest of us have the advantage of both resources and community that dissuade us from ever considering it in the first place- because we never had the need to. We don’t *need* the way those who have nothing need.
My knee-jerk reaction to all of this is that it doesn’t feel to me that each person has an equally fair shot at heaven, anymore than someone with an eating disorder doesn’t have a fair shot of sticking to their diet when they’re surrounded by junk food through no fault of their own. But that’s just a knee-jerk reaction, and I acknowledge it as such, because this is where your article’s emphasis on conscience comes in.
You pointed out that we are all born in total ignorance and have to basically assemble our consciences through a variety of influences. In that way, a person who behaves immorally can have a conscience that is every bit as clear as a morally upright one, because everything is weighed against your conscience, and your conscience has no intrinsic connection to God.
And it’s true, even cold blooded killers like those we see in gangster movies operate according to *some* moral code. They’ll refuse to harm women or children, or will only target other gangsters, the rationale being that they’ve chosen to be part of this life, to play by these rules, and have surrendered their innocence. Or some make peace with their atrocities by telling themselves the people they killed were all bad in their own right. It’s all an ultimately horrifying moral code, but it is a code, nonetheless.
It’s obviously a grim and regrettable reality, that we’ve lost our natural connection to God and have to build our consciences ourselves, but it also would seem to explain why and how people who commit even the gravest of sins could still be saved? Do I have that right?
In general, yes, that’s the situation. However, I would make two points:
1. People who are born into organized crime families are usually not poor. In fact, some of them grow up quite rich and privileged. If they commit crimes, it is not motivated by poverty.
2. Most people who grow up in poverty do not become hardened criminals. Some of them may engage in petty crime such as stealing food to feed themselves and their families. But most of them will struggle to get by honestly, even if they are gradually starving to death. Only a very small minority will turn to serious crime such as becoming hired hit men. People who are stuck in poverty still have choices to make. Poverty does not force people to become murderers.
Do you believe in some sort of “objective morality”? This is bothering me so much ultimately, because the concept of good and bad looks so subjective to person to person but at the same time we have some things like murdering or taking advantage of the others as a universal bad thing…
I know the Ten Commandments are a very good start to look at it, but I’m curious about your point of view.
Currently i’m watching an channel called Inspiring Philosophy on YouTube and he has very good points defending Moral Realism. There is also the Moral Argument for God’s existence in philosophy circles. Those all defend some type of moral objective duties 🙂
This, of course, is a complicated question. However, the short answer is that yes, I believe there is an objective morality, of which the Ten Commandments give one common example.
At the same time, particular individuals in different cultures and families are taught a culturally relative set of morals that goes on to form their conscience, such that even if some particular action is not objectively immoral, they will believe it is due to their training, and for them it would be immoral to do it because it is against their conscience.
Another way of saying this is that evil is objective, but sin is subjective. An action may be objectively evil, but a particular person may not believe it is evil, and therefore it is not a sin for that person. If that person does it, it will not condemn him or her spiritually, but it will still cause damage because of its evil nature. Similarly, an action may be objectively not evil, but a particular person may believe it is evil, and therefore doing it is a sin for that person. Doing it will condemn him or her spiritually, even though from an objective perspective it does not do any real harm.
Thank you again, Lee!