Forgiving the Unforgivable

I am sure you have seen the recent interview with Adam Lanza’s father in the New Yorker, or at least summaries of it from other news sources.

Adam Lanza is the young man responsible for the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He killed six workers and twenty little children. He had already killed his mother and later, he committed suicide.

Many sources are saying that Peter Lanza, Adam’s father, says that he wishes his son had never been born.

I can’t even imagine the amount of pain that would cause a parent to say such words about his own child.

Some people are very angry with the father for saying this: “If he turned out this way, it’s probably your fault! You’re the parent!” Others, however, seem gratified: “Even his own father admits how horrible he was.”

It’s a statement that reaches into the heart of existence and of sin. I do not know if human beings ever have the right to say it.

But I guess the first thing that jumped to my mind when I read Peter Lanza’s words were the words of Jesus Christ just before he was betrayed by his friend Judas:

The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had never been born. (cf. Mark 14:21 and Matthew 26:24, emphasis added)

Those words always make me shudder.

It’s hard to imagine Our Lord, the one who made us, saying that about anyone. But He does. He did. It has always bothered me.

Similar phrases come to mind: “Well, you’re God! You created him! You knew this was going to happen!” And on the other hand: “But he is your creation. How can you regret someone you yourself made?”

Jesus forgives those who are killing him on the cross (Luke 23:34) and when he confronts Judas in the garden, he calls him “friend” (Matthew 26:50). I am sure he did not use this term sarcastically–he always spoke the truth. Judas was his friend.

Despite everything, Jesus was reminding Judas of their true relationship and Judas’ true identity. The Gospel of Luke adds that Jesus also reminds Judas of his freedom–that he is choosing to perform an action: “Do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48)

Likewise, when Jesus says it would be better “for that man”–for Judas–if he had never been born, this must also be true. Judas’ crime is so terrible that–for Judas, from his perspective–it would have been better never to have lived at all. This choice has made his life such a privation–has emptied his life of so much (all?) of its goodness–that a lack of living would have been better. Death would be better.

Perhaps that is true of Adam Lanza as well.

Jesus does not say it would be better for Judas never to have been created, or that He (as God) regretted creating him.

But there is a terrible truth in His words. There are things worse than death. Apparently betrayal of this magnitude is one of them.

Or killing children–which seems to me a similar kind of betrayal. The betrayal of innocent human persons. For Christ was the most innocent of all.

But I do not think Peter Lanza has the last word concerning his son. I think, ultimately, the last word resides with the victims and their parents–many of whom have actually forgiven Adam Lanza.

The thing about forgiveness is that it is the most radical kind of love. Love says, “It is good that you exist.” Forgiveness says, “Despite what you have done, it is still good that you exist.

Forgiveness locates a person’s identity not even in his chosen sins, but rather in his status as a child of God.

Which is why, with Hans Urs von Balthasar, we are not only permitted to hope but indeed ought to hope “that all men be saved.”

8 thoughts on “Forgiving the Unforgivable

  1. Lovely. I continue to be impressed and moved by your thoughts.

    And now that I finally figured out how to reply to your blog, here is the quote form Mr. Lewis that I wanted to post earlier in response to your blog about teaching one thing about writing:

    “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

    By the way, I’m a HS teacher now and all I can say is this is no job for the elderly! 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment!

      I love this quote by Lewis. The truth has its own way of being ever fresh and new without the writer having to “dress it up”.

      Congratulations and (many) sympathies for your new job! Teaching high school is the hardest thing I have ever done, and likely will ever do (at least professionally). But I love it and hope God will help me to keep loving it.

  2. Fascinating post. To take up the more theological side of it, I’ve always been intrigued by Balthasar’s universalist leanings; I’m sympathetic, but it also seems rather modern(ist?). I’ve also been reading a ton of Augustine recently, whose approach is much more traditional, for good or ill.

    Recap: Augustine argues that Judas’ damnation isn’t good for HIM, but it is GOOD. Yes, evil is a privation of good, so it’s theoretically impossible to have nothing good in your life, but that doesn’t mean every life is good for the person living it. The lives of the damned (and of Satan) are good insofar as they teach the saved the full extent of God’s justice, which would be obscured if all were saved.

    Cf. Romans 9:21-24 (RSV): “21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

    Augustine also says that if we knew that someone was predestined for damnation, we would not pray for them even when they were alive.

    1. I agree with Augustine (and your summary of him) here: “Augustine argues that Judas’ damnation isn’t good for HIM, but it is GOOD. ” That is, if Judas is, in fact, damned.

      Augustine is also right that “if we knew that someone was predestined for damnation, we would not pray for them even when they were alive.” But of course we don’t know if any particular person is predestined for damnation. The salvation of particular persons (the saints) is revealed to us, but the damnation of particular persons never is. And so therefore the answer to “should I pray for [this particular person’s] salvation?” is always a resounding yes.

      That seems to be the heart of Balthasar’s argument. Since we 1) don’t know whether or not any particular person is damned and 2) we DO know that God wills that “all men be saved”, 3) we therefore have the duty to hope for the salvation of any particular human being and, thus, ALL human beings.

  3. I was thinking about this part of what you said: “Love says, ‘It is good that you exist.’ Forgiveness says, ‘Despite what you have done, it is still good that you exist.'”

    I think that is true, depending on your reason for saying “It is good that you exist.” If your reason is that they were created by God and are kept in existence by him, that’s true. And that reason surpasses the truth contained in the idea that others can judge that “I would be better had he never been born,” because God’s statement is from the standpoint of eternity while there’s is from the standpoint of experience since some recent historical event, not even knowing what the future will hold (and if they do think they know the future, there’s usually a twinge of determinism in that statement, then)

    1. Chris, I agree with you. I did mean it is good because “they were created by God and are kept in existence by him.”

      I didn’t fully flesh this out in my post, but there also seems to be a clear distinction between “being born” and ever “existing” at all. I mean, maybe in an ancient context saying “it would be better if he had never been born” does have to do with existence at all… but I’m doubtful about that.

      I still think Christ’s words are very much directed to Judas himself– it indeed would be “better for [Judas]” to never have been born rather than to have committed such a grave sin.

      But it’s a strange alternative Christ presents here, in a way, since Judas did not have much choice about being born, whereas he definitely had a choice about betraying Jesus.

      Again, I think the point is that there are things worse than death. Death would have been better for Judas than his betrayal.

      Perhaps, in a twisted way, Judas senses this and this is why he commits suicide. Although of course I am not condoning this choice of his, either.

  4. I’ve felt badly since I read Mr. Lanza’s thoughts. It’s alright to think such a thing if one must, but what a scandal against humanity and God to say it aloud. It’s okay to be true to loving someone, no matter how awful their actions,. Jesus was. That undying love was the means of our salvation.

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