The week of my fall break started off with the news that Jack Chick, the prolific author of a multitude of really messed up evangelistic tracts, died over the weekend. I spent a while critiquing Chick tracts a few years ago for fun, but I eventually gave it up simply because there’s only so much you can say about someone being relentlessly awful in the name of Jesus before you have to step back and say, “enough.”
I gave up on analyzing the tracts because I was tired of exposing myself to that awfulness (and apparently I didn’t even see the worst of it; there are tracts so bad that Chick Publications doesn’t print them anymore, but they can easily be found around the internet) and I was past being able to say anything interesting about the work. There was also the fact that I was moving out of evangelicalism altogether; my personal theology had reached a point where there was remarkably little common ground with Chick (it’s easy to think it remarkable that there ever was any common ground, but evangelicalism is a lot uglier under the hood than outsiders tend to realize), and I didn’t see any point in belaboring a topic in which I was losing interest. Better to shift more towards the social justice focused critiques of pop culture that have occupied much of my time in the last few years.
All this is to say that for a brief period in my life, Jack Chick was a significant figure. He faded into the background noise of a subculture I mourned and railed against. The news of his death was kind of like a weird blip that led to me spending an evening following conversations over in the Slacktivist comment threads. Lots of people discussed how Chick was awful, and weird. One thread of thought that emerged was the question of what Chick might expect to find in the afterlife. The Slacktivist crowd is a pretty liberal group, and among the folks there who are religiously inclined, the general sentiment is that God’s not the kind to be unforgiving, even to the most wretched of people. There was some colorful theorizing about how Chick might be made to understand how wrong he was in life, but the general consensus was that he’s in heaven. This is an idea I’ve stood by for years now, finding the universalist approach to the afterlife to be the only one that strikes me as logically consistent with a perfectly loving God.
One person pointed out that it’s problematic to promote a theology where God’s forgiveness trumps the hurt inflicted on any given person’s victims. Chick is a particularly sharp example since he had a relatively large audience for a considerable amount of time, and though he was considered fringe by many people he still espoused toxic ideas that took root to harm folks. I’ve been thinking over the problem that arises from this formulation, and it’s a tough one to suss out.
Just to clarify, the problem looks like this: a person deliberately harms other people, but God, being infinitely loving, forgives this person and allows them to reintegrate with the rest of Creation in heaven irrespective of the forgiveness of the person’s victims. It’s commonly accepted in progressive circles that victims are under no obligation to forgive or interact with their abusers.
This is a real conundrum.
See, there’s a model for forgiveness that’s built around the idea of reconciliation where the offender receives a just, but finite, punishment that grows empathy and builds towards repairing the damage done to the victim. The problem is you simply can’t compel victims to be forgiving; it’s unmerciful to require that of them. For that matter, it’s downright cruel to suggest that they need to forgive anyone for harm done to them. Forgiveness that isn’t freely given isn’t forgiveness.
So the answer to this problem that I see is that you have a theoretical model of heaven where victims are never required to interact with their abusers, and abusers must endure their finite punishment before being rehabilitated. What I’m finding myself hung up on is the question of whether this model is actually just. Is reconciliation fully attainable if the victim doesn’t want it? Does Jack Chick, after observing and understanding and repenting of all the horrible things he did and claimed in his lifetime, get to enjoy the fruits of heaven even if some of his numerous victims find the damage was too much for them to forgive? Does that kind of mercy diminish the significance of the suffering the victims endured?
I don’t know.
This one’s a complicated question, and I’m not sure there’s a totally satisfying answer.