On a scale of Anne Frank to ISIS: thoughts on grace and inherent worth

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I’ve heard varying explanations regarding humanity’s true worth and value. Some Christians believe we all have inherent worth and value because we are made in God’s image, a mindset that fits well with the Jewish one I was taught. But there are other Christians who believe it is only when you accept Christ’s sacrifice that you gain (not earn!) worthiness. I’ve consulted many a dictionary to parse the difference between “unworthy” and “worthless,” and have loosely concluded that they are not the same thing when used in a spiritual context. We are sinners, therefore unworthy of heaven, but worthy enough for Jesus to die for us.

That being said, I have a hard time swallowing the idea that not being worthy of heaven means we all deserve hell. Eternal punishment for finite crimes – I’m still working through my beliefs about that, or what I think hell even is. Not all Christians believe it’s a literal lake of fire, but eternal separation from God – whatever that means. The definition of “good person” has as many explanations as there are people. One culture’s “good” is another culture’s evil: the members of ISIS probably think they are candidates for Muslim sainthood; most everyone I know views their actions as the epitome of evil. If “good” can be measured on a scale of Anne Frank to ISIS, do most of us slide more towards Anne? What about people somewhere in the middle? At which point on the spectrum does one become an official “bad” person?

I think it was easier for me to see myself as a lowly sinner in need of redemption because of what my boyfriend did. The rapes were bad enough, but I was also forced to walk several paces behind him if we went out in public, so people wouldn’t assume we were a couple. He’d walk so fast my little legs could barely keep up, and he would become irate if I asked him to slow down. When he eventually found someone else, and actually changed his relationship status on Facebook to acknowledge it – something he never did with me – it solidified the fact that something was obviously wrong with me. There had to be, or else I never would have been kept a secret.

I needed therapy, certainly, but more than ever I was convinced I needed Jesus to redeem me. I was literally nothing; I needed Jesus to become something, because the narrative of his life spoke to my desperate need for significance and worth. I am not shy about admitting that the reasons for my conversion were primarily emotional ones: I think they are for most adult converts, trying to make meaning out of something awful. I never pored over the Old Testament prophecies to see they really pointed to Jesus – I needed a promise of tangible redemption that Judaism didn’t have, or wasn’t ever taught to me. Jesus fit that need perfectly. Unlike my abusive relationship, it was okay, even encouraged, to make my identity all about him.

Nowhere is this point driven harder than during the worship portion of an evangelical church service. The depth of our common depravity and general helplessness is frequently set to heart-rendering, somber, or at times even catchy tunes: sticky little earworms that are so easy to learn and whose melodies you catch yourself humming while doing dishes or sitting in traffic. So catchy are these songs that you might not stop and critically consider what it is you’re singing about; I certainly didn’t.

In my college ministry days when I thought the sincerity of your faith was measured by how loud and passionately you sang, I waxed poetic about my despicable attempts at righteousness and the wickedness of my heart without so much as a “Wait, what?” I still wonder, and I’ll never really know for sure, how much I would have gone along with this if not for that abusive boyfriend who convinced me of my worthlessness long before the Gospel did.

Because she was one of my first role models, I can’t help but wonder sometimes what Anne Frank might think of all this. There’s no way of knowing how much she knew about Christianity, but if she were able to attend a mainline Protestant church service today, the girl who once wrote “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart” might be appropriately horrified. After what my boyfriend did, I couldn’t disagree with her more – but isn’t it arguable that what the Nazis did to her and her family was far worse? If she could still believe in inherent goodness in spite of what she went through, what’s holding me back?

“The world,” as Christians say, referencing anyone not following the narrow path of salvation, would come to two radically different conclusions about such a conviction: Anne is either a Jewish saint, or just plain crazy.

Frankly, whenever I read the newspaper or hear stories about ISIS’ latest crime against humanity, it’s not hard to believe we’re all inherently wicked, or at least capable of becoming so. And it goes without saying that if my boyfriend, my first love, acted manipulative and heartless from the very beginning, I never would have returned his calls. Such is the unfortunate trend of abusive relationships, for anyone wondering why so many women put up with them: they never start out that way. By the time you realize you’re in over your head and possibly in grave danger, you’re either too dependent (financially or otherwise) or too desperate to believe that that kind person still lives inside, and this violent monster isn’t who he really is.

In my case, I wanted to believe the latter; not only because I was in love, but as a way of saving face. It’s humiliating when your friends and your family figure out the truth before you do.

But just because one man I thought was good – he was a devout Catholic, believe it or not – turned out to be the opposite doesn’t mean everyone is like that (cue the #NotAllMen protests). Most people have the ability to act decent, if not outright pleasant. But we all know that some people are better at acting like it than others.

If it turns out that most humans are basically okay and don’t really need the gospel – what would we need to be saved from, otherwise? – I know the depth of my depravity. I know that I need grace for the times I thought awful things about the woman buying hotdogs with food stamps; the obese couple at the all-you-can-eat buffet; the classmate who brags about the number of men she’s slept with and wears skirts that barely cover what should be covered in public. I know I do these things; many times I feel justified in doing so. When I sing about needing a savior, I am singing for myself.

Similar sentiments and more in Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter, ranked #51 in Amazon’s top 100 ‘personal growth’ memoirs.

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6 thoughts on “On a scale of Anne Frank to ISIS: thoughts on grace and inherent worth

  1. Sam the dude says:

    As Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar said :

    “our [Jewish] way is to honour every nation according to their paths, as it is written in the book of prophets: ‘because every nation will go in the name of the L-rd.'”

    He was specifically referring to Hinduism , but it has broader principles.

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  2. Vox Veritas says:

    With regards to your struggle with the notion of Hell and what we could do to merit such a fate, I think this post I recently ran across would provide much food for thought:

    http://www.barnhardt.biz/2015/04/26/notes-on-hell/

    It is from a Catholic, and so it may not make total sense to you at first, but the only point I would think that needs to be clarified for a non-Catholic is the term “mortal sin.” If you do not know, mortal sin is what could be considered the “tipping point” where if a person dies in this state, they will be condemned to Hell. To commit a mortal sin is to commit (or omit) an act that is:
    1. of grave matter (very seriously offensive to God),
    2. committed with full knowledge (you are aware it is so), and
    3. with full intent (you are under no duress, whether physical, emotional, or psychological)

    Other than that, I hope you will find the above link helpful. Know that I am praying for you.

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  3. Jo-Shu says:

    Well, it reminds me of something Brian Zahnd tweeted: “If your theology of sin and punishment treats Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank the same, you’ve got some serious rethinking to do.” What did he mean by that, exactly? I’m not sure. He didn’t elaborate. He doesn’t like to elaborate on things. Still, it bears mentioning. Hell or no hell, they’re not the same — they’re just not — and I don’t care what some guy said about Total Depravity. The human condition is more complicated than, “All people are utterly bad.”

    (Though to be fair, that’s not really what Total Depravity means. It only has to mean we’re fallen in all the parts of our being — mind, body and soul, or just body and soul if you’re not into the whole tripartite thing. The problem is when they make it sound like everyone’s Hitler. No. Everyone’s fallen; not everyone’s Hitler. That should be obvious. But for some people, it’s not.)

    You read Balthasar? What you said at the end echoes of him: “Hell is to be contemplated strictly as a matter which concerns me alone. As part of the spiritual life it belongs behind the ‘closed door’ of my own room. From the standpoint of living faith, I cannot fundamentally believe in anyone’s damnation but my own; as far as my neighbor is concerned, the light of resurrection can never be so obscured that I would be allowed or obliged to stop hoping for him.”

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      Have not read Balthasar, but now I might have to. And I have met plenty of people who will insist that Anne Frank and Hitler WERE the same, in that they both had the same sinful nature, but one obviously caused more earthly consequences than the other. If Hitler repented and accepted Christ before he died, he could have gone to heaven while Anne Frank, who presumably died a Jew, would go to hell.

      This paired side by side with God’s infinite mercy. As much as I’d like to believe that God’s justice system is indescribably more advanced than mine, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t disturb me. And so I keep reading, keep discussing, keep praying, because I’m not one to half-ass anything or quit because it’s difficult.

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      • Crystal says:

        “And I have met plenty of people who will insist that Anne Frank and Hitler WERE the same, in that they both had the same sinful nature, but one obviously caused more earthly consequences than the other. If Hitler repented and accepted Christ before he died, he could have gone to heaven while Anne Frank, who presumably died a Jew, would go to hell.”

        This disturbs me too, Beth. More than that, it’s just plain disgusting and offensive to the victims of the Holocaust, Jewish and otherwise.

        As for me, I sometimes struggle mightily with the fear of eternal torment. I tend to believe in hell because I would not like to go through life not believing in hell, and end up there due to self-deception. On the level of Hitler’s punishment I find the doctrine of eternal torment absolutely fitting and just. Yet on Anne Frank’s level I find it unfair and disturbing. I’ve been told, you accept Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for your sins, and if you don’t you face separation from God and eternal torment in hell – and the Lake of Fire after the Great White Throne Judgment. I’ve also heard that there are different degrees of punishment in hell – like, if both Hitler and Anne Frank went to hell, Hitler would be punished far more severely than Anne Frank because he did so much more evil in his life, but they’d both be punished for being unrepentant sinners because neither one was covered with the righteousness of Christ which covers the sinner after they have repented of sin and turned to Christ (the thought of Anne Frank being in hell with that creature makes me wince).

        What I’ve been taught about eternal punishment of the wicked makes sense to me but I wonder about how fair it is. Yet I wonder if annihilation is not eternal punishment. What worse punishment would there be than being eternally snuffed out, ceasing to exist? If Hitler and Anne Frank faced the same fate that would equally be unjust, because Hitler deserves to suffer for eternity for what he did and never be snuffed out of pain into a blissful non-existence.

        Now for something personal: Jonathan Edwards discusses hell in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. That sermon was used as a bully club over my head when I did something naughty once and I’ve been triggered every time I’ve heard it mentioned or referenced (especially by the people who punished me) ever since, to the point where I caused a scene over it at a home group 😦

        I wish I knew how to overcome these triggers. The people who hurt me think the triggers are good, because they are showing the convicting work of God in my heart or some such nonsense. But they’re bad, because I don’t want them to have power over me. Could someone please tell me how to overcome these triggers so I can calmly accept hearing quotes or references from that particular sermon? Thanks.

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