...that God better have a damn good reason for some of this stuff. Or at least I can't.
That reminds me: a week or so ago Daniel mentioned Ananias and Sapphira in a comment, suggesting that Peter was way out of line in calling down capital punishment from God on them for what was, admittedly, a sin. I said, stipulating that I was only speculating, that I wasn't "at all sure God disapproved of what happened to Ananias and Saphira." Similarly, Janet said "Do you think Peter killed them? I don't think that God lets people call down power like that on people if he doesn't want it."
I've wanted to get back to this, because I think there's an important point here. First, since I only vaguely remembered the story (Acts 5), I looked it up, and there's actually no indication that Peter in any way caused, or asked God for, their deaths (text courtesy of Blble Gateway):
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2 with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” 5 Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6 The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.
7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” 9 Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.
Yeah, I bet it did.
But all Peter does here is confront Ananias and then Sapphira with their sin. He doesn't say anything like "Therefore the Lord will strike you down," much less "I call upon the Lord to strike you down." He does seem to know it's going to happen, at least in the case of Sapphira, in words I find very chilling. But he doesn't ask for it or threaten it. I don't think it's taking the account too literally, then, to suppose that these deaths are truly a direct act of God.
Which makes the theological problem more acute. We can't just say Peter committed one of his typically impulsive mistakes. Either you have to say this didn't actually happen, which opens the entire New Testament to a degree of skepticism that has no obvious limit, or that God killed these two people. (Well, I guess you could say it's a really really really far-fetched coincidence.)
So, if it was a direct act of God, does that mean God is a harsh judge who may kill without warning or mercy if he chooses to do so? That he need not follow the counsel of forgiveness that he enjoins on us? Or, worse, that he is sovereign beyond justice and mercy, so that even if he condemned a man to hell for one small sin we would not be entitled to question or complain?
No. I think it means that his knowledge and justice and mercy are perfect. We can only speculate about Ananias and Sapphira. We have to remember that physical death is not the end, and we don't know what happened to them afterwards. We might be inclined to assume that they went to hell, but we really don't have any warrant for that. It may be that their being snatched abruptly from this life is precisely what enabled them to avoid hell. Or it may be that God saw that they were irrevocably set toward sin. We simply don't know, and can't know from where we sit now.
I don't think that God's justice and mercy are opposing things that are somehow perfectly balanced. I believe that they are ultimately the same thing, that his justice is in the end perfectly merciful, and his mercy in the end perfectly just. And, moreover, that his knowledge of the heart is perfect, so that he truly knows, in a way that would be impossible for us, exactly to what extent a person has freely chosen sin. He can penetrate the tangle of emotions and reason and will and genes and circumstances with a precision that is simply not possible, not even remotely possible, for us. There is no possibility that he can judge a person unfairly on the basis of insufficient knowledge.
And I trust his judgments. That's why the problem of hell has never really troubled my faith. Since I first encountered it many years ago I've always been completely convinced of the idea put forth by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce that ultimately anyone who is in hell has chosen it. This is not the same thing as simply resigning oneself and one's intellect to an inscrutable God who is entitled to make arbitrary judgments which are beyond good and evil and which we are not entitled to question. It's trust in his perfection, in the fact that he is God and everything which we know is good is perfected in him. Or, rather, that everything which we know is good is an imperfect apprehension of something in him.
None of this helps very much with stories like the one I began with, though. I can tell myself that it will all work out for the best, but I can't understand why that working-out requires pain such as that young woman's family is experiencing now.