Please God, Let There Be a Purgatory
“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent person suffer.” This is a foundational truth of our legal system. And nobody really believes it.
If ten child rapists are set free to prowl around playgrounds again because of legal technicalities in their trials, we boil with anger. If an innocent man who’s been on death row is exonerated due to DNA evidence, we sigh and shake our heads. One infuriates us; the other frustrates us. We don’t want the guilty to go free, nor do we want the innocent to suffer, but given the choice, we accept the collateral damage in our criminal justice system. Those sick bastards have to pay. And if that means an innocent man is convicted in some rare instances, it irks us but we accept it. Because when it comes to our thirst for justice, we all have a drinking problem.
And that’s why we harbor a clandestine doctrine in our hearts: we secretly hope there is a purgatory. At least a mini-purgatory. We can talk till the cows come home about grace, grace, grace, but when a serial murderer repents right before he’s strapped in the electric chair, we get pissed off. He needs to pay for his crimes. And I’m not talking about the death penalty; he needs to swim a thousand laps in the lake of fire. If he repents, believes, dies and goes immediately to be with Christ, there’s something sick about that. Talk about a miscarriage of justice.
And Jesus is no help. In fact, he makes matters worse. He compounds the problem with his stories that embrace injustice. Like the one about a group of workers who all pocket the same amount of cash, even though some labored all day and some loafers punched in right before quitting time. Whatever happened to fair wages? Whatever happened to justice? This rabbi comes along and subverts what every sane person knows is right and wrong. If that’s the message of Jesus, then it goes against everything I believe in. Because I believe in fairness, justice, equity, an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. And that’s why I love the idea of purgatory. It’s Plan B for anyone who doesn’t suffer enough in this world for his crimes. At least there’ll be some justice in the world to come. Don’t get me wrong; I’m fine with him eventually passing through the pearly gates, but only after he’s lost a pound or two of flesh.
It’s a miracle anyone believes the Gospel. It goes against everything else we believe in. We believe there’s no such thing as a free lunch; the Gospel is an all-you-can-eat feast that God actually pays you to consume. We believe that a person should be rewarded for the good they do, and punished for the bad they do; the Gospel rewards you despite all the bad you’ve done and punishes Jesus in your stead. We believe that justice is not served until a man has paid a sufficient penalty for his crimes; the Gospel says justice has already been served when Christ was strapped to the electric chair of the cross. We believe that, until a person is sufficiently purged of evil, there’s no way he can simply saunter into heaven; the Gospel proclaims, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
You see, the Gospel twists our legal dictum. Grace says that it is better that one person suffer than that a world of guilty people perish. Grace puts an innocent Jesus on trial and finds him guilty of all our crimes, from the petty to the heinous. In fact, at a moment that is as shocking as it is outrageous, Jesus admits to our crimes. He says, “It was not they who did that, but me. I stole that money. I murdered those people. I raped those children. I cursed God. I taught heresy. I did it all. Not they. Let them go free and punish me.”
Are you offended by that? Good. Then, you’ve come one step closer to grasping the scandal of the cross.
In the one man, Jesus Christ, the world is forgiven. God trashes his decree of condemnation and writes instead an invitation to a feast. He empties the prisons and bids us sleep in his mansion. We mention the possibility of a purgatory and he just laughs at the insanity of the notion. As if the blood of Christ was not enough to purge even the nastiest of sinners.
So we’re left with a Gospel that goes against everything we believe in by offering us the unbelievable, scandalous, unjust decree of forgiveness despite all we’ve done. No penalty. No probation. No purgatory. No ankle bracelet. Just a Father who liberates us and loves us, because he sees us covered in Jesus. It’s the most unbelievably scandalous, but believably beautiful, miracle the world will ever see.