Hello M---, it's been quite a while since we've last communicated, but that doesn't mean I haven't thought much about you, and I hope I can see you again sometime before school is out. How are you?
Besides just wanting to reconnect, the main reason I am writing to you is because there's something I've been wanting to write to you since last year. As the subject title suggests, it concerns your question about Hector in the Iliad, and the issue of doing the right thing for the sake of the right, in spite of reward or punishment. To be honest, at first your question made me do a lot of thinking, and that often turns out to be a good thing! I feel I am better able to communicate what was in my mind and heart now than last year regarding this issue. I'd like to share with you these thoughts.
How does Christianity relate to Hector's values in the Iliad? Or do they at all?
First, let me say that they most certainly do relate, and that that which resonated in your heart about Hector is indeed right. There is no doubt that righteousness without regard to reward or punishment is virtuous; in fact, it may be said that it is essence of virtue itself.
But the relation is misunderstood and wrongly located. For example, you questioned why someone should become a Christian if the only reason was to escape hell. You compared Hector's virtuous decision with the overtly non-virtuous decision of becoming a Christian. But here is a mistake, because the situation of Hector's is not comparable to the situation of a person seeking to be justified by Christ. They are two totally different circumstances. The virtue of doing what is right in spite of all consequences does not find it's Biblical place at the salvation of the individual. However, it does find it in every place afterward. I will get to this in a moment.
The whole point of the Christian gospel is that God justifies the ungodly through the death Jesus Christ (Rom. 4:5). As we've discussed before, the emphatic design of God in the gospel is to exclude all boasting from man (Rom. 3:27). This is the feel of the "lest" in Ephesians 2:8-10 that is vital we not miss:
"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."
Lest we should boast, we are saved by grace. Who are "we" but the objects of wrath just described in verses 1-7? Yet notice that a person who is saved by grace is saved into that glorious state in Christ for the purpose of doing good works that God ordains (verse 10).
Consider the difference between Hector and the ungodly seeking to be justified by Christ. We are objects of God's wrath because of our sins. We do not deserve heaven, nor do we even deserve a chance to be forgiven. The Judge has already ruled the verdict: guilty. We have already been proven non-virtuous and are worthy of all condemnation. Unlike Hector, we are not at the crossroads, the point of making a decision to do right or wrong. We have already made that decision and HAVE done wrong. This is an essential and paramount difference. At this point, the individual has no more chance to be virtuous before God and all that remains is the patience of God and the mercy of God. That is all that there is.
So when a person becomes a Christian it is not a virtuous decision - it is not intended to be. No virtue can be done. God does not save sinners because they do this one virtuous act of accepting Christ and by that make themselves worthy to receive grace for all their past sins. Becoming a Christian is the ultimate act of humiliation, confessing yourself to be unworthy and without virtue and in desperate need of mercy. It is casting oneself upon the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. We hear news that God is merciful to men through Christ. We believe and go to Him, not offering Him one ounce of goodness, but coming to Him on account of HIS goodness.
So I freely admit that becoming a Christian is a non-virtuous act. But that's the whole point! It's all about God's mercy, and mercy is undeserved. It's about realizing the enormity of your sins and the horrors of hell and crying out for unmerited mercy.
But something else must be made clear: while coming to Christ is non-virtuous, NOT coming to Christ is also non-virtuous. Like I said before, with the sinner there is no more chance for virtue. Thinking that you are more noble because you will choose to bear your punishment is not commendable... in the eyes of God and heaven and earth you are a wicked, blaspheming, selfish, proud, abominable object of wrath, and "all your righteousnesses are filthy rags". When a sinner is thrown into hell, heaven does not sigh and say, "My, what a noble fellow... taking his punishment like that." Heaven applauds the justice of God in ridding the universe of moral trash like you. Even that very sinful defiance of God in thinking one can go to hell nobly is revolting. Pride may be admired by ignorant men on earth, but pride is that which is the most despicable and abominable thing of all to those who know in truth. And on that day everyone will know. The sinner will not go to hell strong, but convulsing with shame.
It is simply a matter of not seeing as God sees. When we see sin as it really is then we will understand that salvation is all about mercy, not about our own virtue. Though there is virtue in salvation: it is all of God.
But where does the relation between Hector and Christianity meet? As I said before, it meets everywhere after salvation.
One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is that it (and it alone) dives into this marvelous realm of righteousness and virtue and does so in the most exquisite manner. Non-virtuous and humiliating salvation is the doorway into an unprecedented glorious world of grace, love and righteousness. In fact, all that the world longs for and acknowledges to be virtuous is always out of reach because they refuse to enter through this door. Once one enters the narrow door of Christ one finds everything the heart desperately longed for.
The Bible reveals that when a person is born again into Jesus Christ they become "dead to the law" (Romans 7:4). I believe we have talked about this before. This is most radical. It is only in a position without law that this true virtue can be carried out, for where there is law there automatically comes either punishment, reward, or duty. But the Bible teaches us that it is love issuing freely from the heart is the ultimate motive that should cause us to do what we do - not law.
Let me give you a simple example to whet your appetite to understand this Biblical concept:
Which of the four motivations do you think is God's will for us?
1. The mother tells the child to do the dishes. The child doesn't want to. The mother threatens to spank the child if he doesn't do them, so he does the dishes.
2. The mother tells the child to do the dishes and then he can go out and play. The child wants to go out and play, so he does the dishes.
3. The mother tells the child to do the dishes. The child knows that he should obey his mother, so he is obedient and does the dishes.
4. The child does the dishes without being asked by the mother because he notices they need to be done and want to help his mother.
Which do you think is the way God desires for us to live? Though they seem to get better each time, there is only one that involves no command. While number three is good, number four is better. God wants us to live by love, not by law, and this is the incredible teaching of the New Testament. This is what Romans 6:14 is saying in seed form: "You are not under law, but under grace."
Here is where Hector and Christianity meet, though I think that this way of grace and love even goes beyond Hector's sense of duty (you could comment more on this than I can). But it is where they meet that is what I'd like you to see. It is not at salvation but afterward. The situation of Hector is different than the situation of the sinner. Christianity begins with the confession that there is none that can do good, and that Christ died for the ungodly. God justifies the ungodly by no merit of their own, through the atonement of Jesus Christ by faith, simply because God is gracious and merciful. Thus, faith is a humiliating thrust of an unworthy soul upon the goodness of God. That is why most people will not come.
This was crude and brief, but I hope you can at least catch my drift. I pray this might help you overcome an obstacle to believing, M---, and that you would humble yourself before your Creator and Judge, confessing yourself to be a sinner who deserves hell, but accepting God's gracious gift that He extends to you. God loves you, M---, a sinner. And HE wants you to be saved. He wants sinners who deserve nothing but a curse to enter through the narrow door and experience His grace and love, so that they may live a life of blessing to others who don't deserve it too. If God Himself is desirous to save our souls, then why should that be a false reason to come to Christ? We simply have no idea how glorious that is.
And I love you too, M---! Hope to see you soon.