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I used to correspond through the mail with an inmate named Lowell. I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered a more biblically literate person. Perhaps this was because he had come to know his desperate need for God and was given plenty of time to find him in solitary confinement. As a former member of a white supremacist prison gang, he had been placed in solitary for violent acts (I don’t know what) against blacks in the prison. Of course this was just the last in a long list of crimes committed by this relatively young man.
As his story unfolded through our year or so of correspondence, the most shocking revelation dawned on me – Lowell and I were not all that different. Had I encountered the same life circumstances which he had, I probably would have ended up in the same place. My heart reflected the selfishness, malice, and prejudice which landed Lowell in solitary. Conversely, he demonstrated genuine remorse and a desire for redemption. The last vestiges of my childish notion that humanity can be divided into “good guys” and “bad guys” melted as I figuratively gazed into the mirror of Lowell’s heart.
As a human being at the bottom of society’s dumpster, Lowell sits upon an anthropological dilemma. Should Lowell not have to “pay” for what he did? If so, who determines when the debt is paid? If not, what of his victims? During our correspondence, Lowell petitioned to be released from solitary after he had spent a year there. He was denied. The prospect of another year cut off from human contact in the name of justice nearly destroyed this man who had made so many positive changes.
So, how can we maintain the worth of an individual yet decry his evil deeds? Is such a thing even possible? The answer is yes and no. Humans will never solve this dilemma because we are incapable of separating the essence of a person from their behavior. We will never have instrumentation that precise. God, however, does have an implement which can do the job. The cross of Christ in one moment categorically condemns human evil (including mine and Lowell’s) and unequivocally declares human worth. From the cross, God in voice clear and loud declares, “I hate your murder, theft, prejudice, selfishness, and lust and I love you more than words can say.”
Lowell is probably still in prison but Lowell has found a freedom while incarcerated that he never had before. Lowell continues to suffer the consequences of his past actions but he is not defined by them. God’s scalpel, the cross has removed the sin which was entangled around the heart of a man created after the divine image. Praise God for the wonderful, horrible, crucial cross!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the reasons that people have for disbelieving God or for questioning his nature. I myself have struggled and continue to struggle with doubts. In fact, I struggle to believe those who say that they have not struggled with doubts. It’s hard to believe in God. Bad things happen. Prayers go unanswered. Then there are the contradictions between the biblical narrative and scientific discoveries. Not to mention contradictions between the biblical narrative and the biblical narrative. Finally, and most devastatingly, there are the walking contradictions, those who claim to follow Christ yet do violence to his name through their behavior.
We’ve all encountered contradictions in various forms. What we do with them will shape our souls and the course of our lives. By spending some time recently reading literature from unbelievers, I have discovered a pattern in the way they tend to process these contradictions. Their thinking tends to follow an “if, then” heuristic. For instance, “If God is all-powerful and completely good, then why is there suffering?” That’s a great question to ask as are many others posed by those who do not believe in God. It’s a logical question. I respect people who ask good questions and I feel indebted to them for helping to take my thinking to a higher level. I don’t want a faith which is untested or based on assumption.
Having said that, I want to challenge the atheistic challenge by suggesting that drawing conclusions from the “if, then” heuristic presupposes that all variables are known. For instance, a child whose parents take him to get a shot might question the love of his parents for him since he has built a heuristic that says, “If you love me, then you won’t hurt me.” We can easily see that while for this child the dilemma is very real, the contradiction exists only in his faulty perception of reality. Here is another example which I found in Scripture the other day: “The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” (Luke 23:36-37) Roman soldiers standing at the foot of the cross could not possibly understand how or why a king would submit to crucifixion. They possessed a heuristic which said, “If you have power, then you will use it in your best interest.” Looking back at this event through the lens of redemption, we can easily see that not only did the cross not challenge Jesus’ identity as the Christ, it validated it. So, there was more to be understood and the soldiers reached a conclusion too early.
Perhaps in the debate over the existence of God, some humility is called for. Perhaps at the beginning, we should all acknowledge that there is much we do not know. I’d like to challenge myself and anyone else who will accept it, to allow contradictions to elicit further discovery rather than premature conclusions. After all, the first definition for “heuristic” in Dictionary.com is, “serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of further investigation.”