Whenever there's gnashing of teeth in the Bible, a theological danger zone is sure to follow, complete with blinking lights and signs to slow down, have caution.
After all, there is nothing more troublesome to theologians and people of faith than the problem of evil, which is the question of how a good God can allow evil in the world. It has plagued humans for centuries and captured the imaginations of Christianity's most engaged thinkers, from Augustine to Iranaeus, from John Hick to Marilyn McCord Adams.
And there is no surer biblical sign of evil is there than gnashing of teeth.
So I was close to gnashing my own teeth when I read the Gospel passage for this past Sunday, where Jesus tells the disciples that, "The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew. 13:49-50).
Biblical passages like this one never cease to trouble me, because we're all flawed. We've all made mistakes. And recognizing that we are all in need of God's grace makes it difficult to say that any of us deserves to be saved more than anyone else.
That said, I nearly took my night guard out when I started thinking about this passage in relation to the terror attacks that took place in Norway. News reports tells us -- and I've seen firsthand -- that Norwegians are a peaceful people, loving toward their families and generous toward their neighbors. The adults, and perhaps more disturbingly, the children, did nothing to deserve the violence wrought upon them by Anders Breivik.
If there's a candidate from this past week who seems most likely to be thrown by angels into a fiery furnace, shouldn't it be him?
And yet, the rub is that Jesus also says that one of the most important commandments for all who follow him is this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31). So the Bible simultaneously says that the evil shall be damned and yet, they should be loved.
Now there's a paradox that makes Zeno's or Russell's or even "Which comes first the chicken or the egg?" look easy to solve.
Given the incongruity of these teachings, it's no small wonder that some Christians are militantly in favor of punishment and judgment -- not just in the world to come but in this one as well -- while others adopt a kind of let's-just-love-everybody outlook that can feel too idealistic.
But I'm beginning to wonder whether there might be a middle ground.
The Bible says: The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The angels will judge.
God will judge.
But as for me, as a member of the human race, the Bible tells says to love our neighbors as ourselves, and so that's what I must do.
Now, that doesn't mean love is without accountability. When someone like Brevik commits a violent crime, perhaps the best way to love is to give the offender a long time-out, send him to prison and while incarcerated, encourage him to take accountability and realize the magnitude of grief he caused. If that kind of reflection is beyond his capability, then, for the sake of his soul, the loving response is to keep him in a place where he cannot perpetrate more crimes (this assumes that the prison is not an abusive environment in and of itself, which, unfortunately, many penal institutions are).
In other words, love equals caring plus responsibility, not caring minus responsibility, and sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to say, "No more. You cannot go on like this."
As I considered all of this, I found myself in the car with my husband, listening to a news report about the memorial service held at Oslo Cathedral for those who died in the attacks. The reporter, Steve Evans, was interviewing a Canon at the Cathedral by the name of Elisabeth Thorsen, and he caught our attention when he asked her this challenging question:
"The person who caused this day of grief is a Christian. What do you make of that?"
She replied, "I've heard that he is a Christian." She paused and it sounded like she inhaled sharply,
"I mean, it's very difficult to talk about that, what he has done today, because people also feel anger and great sorrow, but in church we say that we are all sinners, no matter what we have done. If it is big or if it is small, we are all sinners, and if he wants to be a Christian ... he has to ... work with the bad things that he has done and try to follow Christ."
"Can he be forgiven?" the reporter continued.
Elisabeth Thorsen replied, though her voice seemed to be breaking, "I believe in forgiveness also for him."