The reality of forgiveness

I was talking with a Christian guy the other day and he suggested that the Jews were forgiven for murdering Jesus because Jesus asked for them to be forgiven when he was on the cross. I couldn't reconcile myself to this idea and it began a long meditation in my mind on the reality of forgiveness.

The suggestion put to me (as I understood it) seemed far too simplistic and naïve. I know that I used to struggle with the idea that God actually did punish people for doing bad things. I never used to believe it. But now I do. I was pulled up short when I read the Tablet of Fu'ad, which is published in Summons of the Lord of Hosts, pages 177 to 181. In it, Baha'u'llah describes what happened to one of his persecutors when he died. You can say that the imagery used in the tablet is symbolic, but Baha'u'llah is describing a horrible reality that Fu'ad experienced when he died. Oh yes, as far as I'm concerned, hell is a reality all right—an inner one in the soul—and God does punish. Besides, Baha'u'llah is crystal clear that creation works on the twin pillars of reward and punishment. "The Great Being saith: The structure of world stability and order hath been reared upon, and will continue to be sustained by, the twin pillars of reward and punishment." (Baha'u'llah: Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p 164)

But those issues aside, how does forgiveness work? We know, for example, that God can forgive any sin, if God so wills. There's no doubt that God could have forgiven the Jews for that despicable act of cruelty and injustice against Jesus. But what I can't reconcile myself to is the idea that this forgiveness might happen without our contrition, without our first accepting the truth of what we've done; for example, the Jews continue merrily on their way after murdering Jesus and then they all die and end up in heaven just because Jesus said on the cross that he'd forgiven them! Now that is naïve, to my mind. As I've been saying to myself ever since I began wrestling with this: that makes a mockery of salvation. What's the point in trying to be good when you might strike it lucky and get forgiven and end up in heaven anyway?

Such thinking can only go on inside the head of one who does not understand that heaven and hell are inner realities. You can't just go from the hell of murdering Jesus to the heaven of houris in the blink of a blessing. That's not how forgiveness works. It's the same kind of thinking that the suicide bombers get into. When they kill others, they are in their inner hell of hatred for those they are killing. But then they naively expect that something magical will happen to their souls when they shed their physical body. Their souls will suddenly shift from that place of hatred to a place of love. They're dreaming! They're conveniently side stepping the messy and painful process of real inner spiritual development, the very process they should have been on in the first place.

It is true that, in one sense, the realty of forgiveness is unceasingly raining its mercies on us. God is all-forgiving. But the problem for the sinner is accessing that reality. Sure, in one sense, the Jews were forgiven for what they did. Jesus had already forgiven them. But the Jews did not know the reality of that forgiveness. To access that reality, you have to walk the spiritual path. There are no short cuts. So, from God's transcendent vantage point, there is only forgiveness and mercy, but within the hearts of the Jews, there was only the hatred that lead them to kill Jesus. To reach the reality of God's transcendent forgiveness, you have to retrace your steps and walk back through your sins. You have to face them and clean yourself of them. You can't get to God's forgiveness by turning a blind eye to them. God's forgiveness doesn't absolve you from facing what you've done. It's more that, when you find the courage to face it, it will be forgotten forever. It's not held against you for eternity unless you hold on to it for eternity.

"Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed." St John 3:20