Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)

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.

Her question?

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:

Dear Lee:

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.

My response:

Hi Sue,

Great question!

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:

  1. The default option is heaven.
  2. People can go to hell only if they consciously choose to do so.
  3. That choice must be made as a self-responsible adult.
  4. 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:

  1. We go to heaven or hell based only on our freely made choices.
  2. 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.”

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Current Events, Pain and Suffering, The Afterlife
19 comments on “Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)
  1. Rob says:

    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??

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      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?

  2. Rose says:

    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?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rose,

      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?

  3. Frankly Frank says:

    Hi Lee,

    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 🙂

    • Lee says:

      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?

  4. Frankly Frank says:

    Hi Lee,

    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 🙂

    • Lee says:

      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.

  5. Frankly Frank says:

    Lee,

    Well ok I understand better where you’re focusing and why.

    Frankly Frank 🙂

  6. JX says:

    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!

    • Lee says:

      Hi JX,

      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.

    • Lee says:

      Hi JX,

      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!

  7. JX says:

    Dear Lee,

    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!

    • Lee says:

      Hi JX,

      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.

    • Lee says:

      Hi JX,

      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:

      • You don’t owe it to your parents to go into any particular profession that they would prefer.
      • You don’t owe it to your parents to support them in their old age.
      • You don’t owe your parents a picture-book wedding with the man of their dreams.
      • You don’t owe your parents a brood of grandchildren for them to enjoy and dote upon.

      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:

      Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37)

      And even more starkly:

      If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

      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.

    • Lee says:

      Hi JX,

      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?

    • Lee says:

      Hi JX,

      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.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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