In one of my favorite courses–“The Seven Deadly Sins”–we spend some time at the end of the course talking about issues of forgiveness, including questions like: Do Christians always have to forgive? What is the relationship between forgiving and forgetting? Do we retain a memory of sin–both sins we committed and sins done to us–in heaven, or is the memory of those sins, which are presumably forgiven, wiped out?
I have been thinking anew about those questions in light of the verdict against Sandusky–a verdict that I freely admit to finding very gratifying. As far as I know, to the end, Sandusky insisted that he had done nothing wrong; and, unless things change radically between now and his sentencing, he doesn’t seem to plan on apologizing or asking for forgiveness. So, for someone like Sandusky, what does the Christian concept of forgiveness even mean? I have read that Sandusky is a Christian–at least, he was reported to be a regular church-goer, with a Christian bumper-sticker on his garage door–and so it seems to me to be relevant question. Even if you don’t believe that Jesus died for everyone’s sins, at the very least, Christian doctrine has been pretty clear that Jesus’ death atones for the sins of believers; which means that, in theory anyway, the terrible crimes Sandusky committed against all those young boys are forgiven.
But, if you are like me, it feels profoundly unsatisfactory to just leave it at that. What if Sandusky doesn’t ASK for forgiveness? Is he still forgiven? What if he asks God, but doesn’t ask the victims themselves? Is it enough to tell God that he is sorry privately while still professing his innocence publically? What if he isn’t repentent at all, and regrets not the acts themselves but only getting caught? Is forgiveness a give-and-take between us and God? Does it require something of us before it is granted?
I’m not entirely sure about those questions, but here’s what I do know. Luther recognized that if we were required to confess each and every sin before God in order to receive forgiveness surely we would either collapse in despair and/or frustration before getting even half-way through the list, or spend our entire lives on our knees, trying to keep up verbally with our sinful thoughts and actions. Either way, the end would be hatred of ourselves and God. Forgiveness, then, is a gift–pure and simple, and God doesn’t demand that we pay for it or earn it in any way. However, at the same time, God cares deeply and passionately about all God’s children, especially the most vulnerable [recognize abused children here!], and I believe it both angers and grieves God greatly when we sin against each other. God doesn’t just let us off the hook, giving us a free pass to do whatever we want as long as there’s a “sorry” at the end of it.
Therefore, here’s what I think: I think we ALL are held accountable for our sin–whether or not we are “sorry,” whether or not we repent. Somehow, in some way, in the process of the resurrection, in the process of the final death of the old Adam, in the process of tranforming into our spiritual bodies, we will know the injury and misery we inflicted upon others from the inside out, and we will see our own sin through the eyes of others. It will be painful, even agonizing; but through that process we also will come to know that injury and misery healed, and we will see that sin expunged. We will be wiped clean. We will be made new. And, finally, through that process–and maybe only through that process–our communion with God and each other will be complete and perfect.
I guess what I am trying to say is that if “heaven” means anything at all, not only will it have to transform the hell that Sandusky’s victims experienced at his hand, granting them healing and new life, but Sandusky himself will have to experience and be purged of that same hell, before they, he–any of us, really–can stand reconciled in love before the beautiful, gracious face of God. I may not be able to imagine how that possibly can happen–I may not even be able to WANT that to happen, especially for those, like Sandusky, who commit the most abominable atrocities–but, regardless, I do believe in the power of God to do the impossible, and I trust that God’s solution to all this is going to be even more amazing than I can imagine. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.