783 Tuesdays ago was that one horrific day. The day that you could call our generation’s Pearl Harbor. And 15 years later it’s still a raw wound for many of us. Especially those of us who knew people who died that day, lived or worked near those places, or had any other connection.
I’m one of those people. I grew up within the shadow of the towers, watched them go up, and suppressed my fear of heights to go to the top…twice. I knew people who died that day, I know people who escaped with their lives that day. And I’m a torn person about it.
Why? Because as a human, as a human who had skin in the game, I want the bastards who planned and pulled off those attacks to roast in Hell for at least eternity. But as a Christian…as a Christian…I’m not supposed to hope that anyone goes to Hell. I can warn them of it being a consequence, but I should always be hoping and praying that at some last moment, they seek, and receive forgiveness. It ain’t easy, and if you think it is, ask the Amish about it.
So how do I reconcile these two parts of myself? I think back to a sermon I delivered two years ago about the concept of the refiner’s fire mentioned in Malachi 3:1-4, and everyone’s favorite poster child of someone who should absolutely never enter the gates of Heaven…Hitler. I thought of how many good molecules of him would be left after all the evil (and there was much of it) was burned off. And then I thought about the millions of people whose deaths he was responsible for, compared to the thousands that the September 11th hijackers were responsible for.
And then I thought something that maybe I shouldn’t think. Something that maybe I’ll burn in Hell for, but you know…I’m human, and believe it or not, I have emotions…emotions which are still raw.
I thought of the fact that Hitler was almost totally pure evil, with no good intentions anywhere. The September 11th hijackers, however, had misguided intentions. They thought they were serving God. What could be worse than to find out when you met God face to face that you totally effed it up, and that he was not happy with you? What could be more painful than finding out that you’ve totally disappointed the one you were trying to impress?
And suppose the flames of the refiner’s fire were fueled by the disappointment that they couldn’t bear?
But there’s more…we Christians talk a lot about grace. You know, totally undeserved forgiveness. Suppose the 11 hijackers were met face to face by each of the people whose deaths they were responsible for, and offered not the hatred they expected and could understand, but an unbearable forgiveness. An unbearable forgiveness that seared off even more of the evil in them.
And suppose this went on for 100 years…until the last person who could remember that horrible day, or was directly affected by it, had finally died, and was able, from a new perspective, to offer that same painful forgiveness. After that last person came through, and the refiner’s fire had gone out, how many molecules of those 11 men would be left to join with those who suffered because of what they had done?
It’s a deliciously evil thought…the idea of tormenting someone by giving them grace that they know they don’t deserve. But it’s a double-edged sword.
Because now the focus turns to us, and the evil we’ve done since that day.
The evil we’ve done by trying to avenge the deaths of our friends and family members by taking the acts of 11 extremists out on members of an entire religion…an entire religion most of whose adherents were as appalled by the events of that day as we were.
We can gleefully think about how many molecules will be left of the September 11th attackers, but when it comes our turn to go through the refiner’s fire, and all the hatred is burned off of us…by those who are forgiving for the evil we've done since that day...
How many molecules will we have left?