More Merciful Than God

15 Feb

Before Dante’s Inferno (why don’t we care about the Paradiso, anyway? Heavens never seduce as well as hells), there was the Apocalypse of Paul. If you want Saw-series torture porn, Paul’s angel-guided tour has it all: men and women hung by their eyebrows, pierced in the gut by iron rods, knee-deep in fiery rivers, eaten by worms, barefoot in ice with their hands cut off, buried in stinky pits, and having worms wriggle out of their mouths and noses. Lots of pits, lots of worms, and lots of fire and ice.

But before we make our descent, a political strategy to preserve God’s blameless image unfolds. The stars, the sun, the ocean, and the earth repeatedly ask God to bring his judgment upon us mortals for the usual crimes, “the impieties and fornications and homicides.” They’re even willing to take retribution into their own hands, or waves, as the sea offers to “arise and cover every wood and orchard and the whole world, until [it] blot[s] out all the sons of men.” God repeatedly answers each larger-than-life figure with his “patience” for repentance: “my patience bears with them until they be converted and repent.”  Such repeated pleas for judgment by these cosmic witnesses, preceding the punishment of souls, frames God in the text as more patient than celestial and earthly bodies. The stars want you to burn for your crimes, but God is patient, my dears, God is patient.

Patient to a point, of course, for this complex hellscape to exist. Even after the torture tour begins, throughout the Apocalypse of Paul, similar attempts abound to minimize God’s culpability. Whether from the mouth of angels or the hell-bound sinners themselves, many cry out, “You are just, Lord, and your judgment is just.”  This persistent refrain, “your judgment is just,” scattered among the descriptions of anguish in hell, attempts–and, well, fails–to situate these distinctly unjust punishments in a larger framework of God’s supreme goodness. That such a refrain appears so frequently actually emphasizes the terrible injustice of individuals suffering eternally for, say, proclaiming a docetic Christology (piled into a smelly, tiny, sealed off well) or leading a “lukewarm” life composed of “righteous actions” and “sins” (standing at various depths in “a river boiling with fire”).

Unlike the angels and sinners, Paul himself doesn’t say to God, “your judgment is just.”  After hearing that those “who did not hope in the Lord” are thrown into a pit (so many pits!), Paul breaks down:

“When I heard this, I wept and groaned over the human race.  The angel answered and said to me, ‘Why do you weep?  Are you more merciful than God?  For though God is good, he knows that there are punishments, and he patiently bears with the human race,  allowing each one to do his own will in the time in which he dwells on earth.”

Again, as with the natural world’s accusations, God’s “patience” comes up. Paul continues his tour, weeping loudly as he encounters more tormented souls. Finally, Paul and the archangel Michael pray for relief for the souls, and the damned are granted a weekly Sunday reprieve, as the son of God proclaims: “I give to you all who are in punishment a night and a day of refreshment forever.'”

It is a striking omission, however, that we do not hear Paul’s reaction to the weekly respite granted to the souls in hell. Paul’s angelic guide simply asks him, as he asked before, “Have you perceived all these things?” and Paul diligently replies, “Yes, sir.”  After this Sunday rest is granted, conveniently, we are swept up to heaven, highlighting the contrast of one day of relief with an eternity of delight.

I am left wondering at Paul’s silence. Were he given another comment on the sufferings of sinners in hell, would Paul have thought one day a week constitutes an adequate alleviation of an eternity of anguish? Could he still be weeping for their plight? It is clear in the Apocalypse of Paul, as well as in most other apocalypses, that the dominating perspective is that God’s judgments–however “apparently” malicious and cruel–are just.  However, the concern for those who face eternal damnation, though portrayed as an easily corrected critique, is still present, and still complicates any claim that the torment of sinners is irrefutably just.

If damnation is the solution to laments over injustice, why do figures like Paul still cry out?

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