Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die, says the Lord, and not that they should turn from their ways and live? - Ezekiel 18:23
The Old Testament is a gold mine for Christians who want to justify their anger. So often, God is presented as commanding the utter destruction of the wicked. The law sets the death penalty not just for murder but for such offenses as adultery, striking or cursing one’s parents, and witchcraft. When we read of the conquest of the promised land, we read of whole populations being slaughtered, women and animals included, at God’s command. We are distanced enough from these stories that they may not disturb us, but imagine the outcry if a movie were made that actually portrayed one of these slaughters. Imagine watching it not just for five minutes, but for a full day. Is this truly the will of God?
Ezekiel, on the other hand, insists that the Lord has no pleasure at all in the death of the wicked. Has the divine mind changed, and if not, who is right?
Our theology is definite and consistent on the subject. Ezekiel is right There is no such thing as the wrath of God. What we see reflected in the violent passages is what Swedenborg calls “an appearance of truth.” To put this in simplest terms, it certainly does seem to us at times that God is angry with us. It is a very short step from this to the conviction that God is angry with the people who offend us. Whether it involves the official cruelty of an Inquisition or a terrorist bombing or the murder of workers in an abortion clinic, people have heard the voice of God commanding the death of the wicked. There is no use pretending they have not, and the Bible, bless its heart, does not pretend.
What God says and what we hear, though, are not necessarily the same thing. God may say to Abraham, “Sometimes I think you love Isaac more than you love me,” and Abraham hears, “Go sacrifice your son.” The Lord is constantly calling us toward himself, and we are frighteningly capable of hearing this as a command to eliminate anyone who seems to be getting in the way.
One of the most striking, and in many ways hardest, statements in our theology is found in § 1079 of Arcana Coelestia.
Where there is no charity, there is love of self, which yields a hatred of anyone who does not agree with us. This means we do not see anything in our neighbors except what is wrong, and if we do see anything right we either discount it completely or put a negative interpretation on it. It is totally different if we are dedicated to charity. . . . [Then] we scarcely see what is wrong with other people but notice everything that is right and true about them. If we do see things that are wrong and false, we put a positive interpretation on them. All the angels are like this; and they get it from the Lord, who bends everything wrong toward good.
This is not easy. It means we look at someone who has just cheated us shamelessly, and see a desperate attempt to make life worth living. It means we look at someone who has been battering his wife and see the effort to fight off feelings of utter worthlessness. It does not mean that we ignore the wrong that has been done, not at all. It means, rather, that we recognize the hard fact that this wrong will happen again and again unless the perpetrators get in touch with the Lord’s gifts within them, that they “turn from their ways, and live.”
We need to be realistic. There is no guarantee that we can get through to the best in another individual, and destructive behavior needs to be controlled. If we need metal detectors at the entrances to our public buildings, they should be there. The only way to control some of us is to lock us up. This can take care of the more severe symptoms, and such symptoms do need to be taken seriously.
However, in moral as well as in medical matters, it is a disastrous mistake to think that the disease has been cured because the symptoms have been suppressed. A splint does not cure a broken leg, and aspirin does not cure cancer. As long as there is ill will, as long as there is fear or rage, we are at risk. There is need of a diagnosis of the disease itself and if there is to be any plan for an actual cure.
Our reading from Genesis, seen in the light of our theology, offers a kind of diagnostic manual. Sodom and Gomorrah can stand for anyone who has offended our moral sensibilities, anyone we feel has incurred the wrath of God. The critical question involves that individual’s motivation. We cannot respond appropriately unless we have some idea why he or she behaved in this outrageous way; and in looking at the decreasing series of numbers in Abraham’s intercession, Swedenborg sees different motivations (Cf. Arcana Coelestia 2141).
The first, fifty, may come as a shock. These are people who, in traditional Swedenborgese, have “truths that are full of good.” These “truths,” I would suggest, are not things we learn from books, even from the Bible, except as they affect the way we see each other. Every situation we find ourselves in is vastly too complex for us to understand. There is vastly more to everyone we meet than we can possibly know. So in order to function at all, we select and simplify. To be “in truths that are full of good” is to look at each other clear-sightedly because we are dear to each other. it is to see from authentic values rather than superficial ones.
There is a chance that the individual described by “fifty” is simply out of our league spiritually. The Lord himself was seen as a lawbreaker, was accused of being a glutton and a drinker. We may be dealing with someone who, as the saying goes, is marching to a different drummer. We don’t have much to teach such people, but there is a lot we could learn from them.
The second, fifty minus five, has “less good, but what they have is still united to truth.” This could include many of us, with our mixed motives. We see what we should do, and do it partly because we know we should and partly for the sake of our own self-image. Here we might put the Lord’s disciples, drawn by his person and his vision, but still prey to the desire to be “greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus could turn to Peter and address him as “Satan,” and Peter could become one of the apostles who changed the world.
The third number is forty, the familiar symbol of a passage through temptation. For Swedenborg, spiritual temptation is not an urge to do something wrong, but a feeling of being abandoned by the Lord, a feeling of hopelessness To yield to this kind of temptation is not so much sin as it is despair, and we can lash out, verbally or even physically, in desperation.
The fourth number, thirty, has to do with struggles against our own evils. In this case, what we need to recognize about the person who has offended uswhen everything goes right. Occasionally you read of the battered wife who will tell of moments of genuine intimacy that have kept hope alive for her. There is that side—it doesn’t show very often.
Ten is similar to twenty, but on the truth side. There is “some affection for what is true.” I’m reminded of a relative in one of James Thurber’s stories who was “subject to unpredictable moments of lucidity.” If you catch such individuals at the right time, they will actually listen. The hope is slight, but real.
That, lastly, is the message of our responsive reading. Yes, this person may be a desert, but “the desert shall rejoice and blossom like a rose.” Yes, this person may be blind and deaf, but the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Perhaps one of the most radical claims of our theology is made late in Heaven and Hell (§ 597), where it is baldly stated that as long as we live in this balance between heaven and hell, the Lord always takes care that we have some freedom to choose between them.
Actually, our success rate may be very small. Freedom works both ways, and no matter how loving our hearts or how insightful our diagnosis, we cannot force anyone to change. All we can say is that the chances of success are virtually nil if we do not believe it is worth trying.
Contrary to popular opinion, we do not prove our morality by the number of sins we condemn in others or by the vehemence of our condemnation. We prove our morality by living morally ourselves. We prove that a moral life is worth living by demonstrating that it does not lead to bitterness or self-righteousness but to thoughtfulness, peace of mind, intimacy, and joy. “It is totally different if we are dedicated to charity. . . . [Then] we scarcely see what is wrong with other people but notice everything that is right and true about them. If we do see things that are wrong and false, we put a positive interpretation on them. All the angels are like this; and they get it from the Lord, who bends everything wrong toward good.”