Some of St. Paul’s Teachings
It is important to keep in mind that Paul’s teachings, like those of Jesus, were radical in the extreme, subversive of the prevailing order and difficult, even today, to incorporate.
Paul recognized that, as an unavoidable consequence of sin, we were all prone to serious misperceptions: we misperceive ourselves, we misperceive each other and we misperceive God. Because of this inherent flaw, Paul believed we had to depend on God to show us the truth that we are all intrinsically incapable of seeing clearly for ourselves.
Paul’s take away from God’s knocking him on his butt on the road to Damascus was that when Jesus willingly took on human form and died for our sins, he absolved mankind of any debt we owed to God due to our sinful nature. The sin of Adam was erased by the voluntary sacrifice of Jesus; the slate was wiped clean (Romans 7:1-6).
Even more important, Paul understood that Jesus’s rising from the dead was a sign that God had vanquished both sin and death and that a New Covenant was being introduced into the world. This New Covenant replaced the Old, rendering the necessity of adhering to Jewish law not only obsolete but potentially dangerous. What was necessary for fulfillment of the New Covenant that Paul introduced was not adherence to the law but faith in the concept of God’s unconditional love for us all (Romans 3:20-24).
St. Paul on God’s Love
Taking in that God loves us unconditionally is much more difficult than it sounds. It runs contrary to everything we’ve learned in life, not just from religious education, but from the whole gamut of societal expectations. Infants are the only ones who can spit out their food, soil themselves at will and wake up crying any time of the day or night without getting in trouble for it. And since all that occurred at a time when we were too young to have any recall of it now, the experience is lost on us. The closest most of us can come to reliving the experience is when we raise our own children.
To a people as righteous as the Jews of Paul’s time were, this notion of unconditional love came as an affront, an insult, an outrage (Romans 3:23-24). They had invested so much of their time, energy and identity in following the law that the thought that others, who cared not a fig for the law, were as much loved by God as the Jews were was nothing short of a scandal.
Some Thoughts on Hell
I contend that we are far too preoccupied with our own individual salvation. I don’t blame anybody, as it is a theme frequently referenced in the New Testament. Jesus spoke about it repeatedly; that it should become a prime consideration for us only makes sense. The problem I have with it is that focusing primarily on our own salvation distracts us from the task of loving our brothers and sisters; it is our salvation which takes priority, not theirs.
We all grew up hearing about hell, the place where lost souls are cast into the flames for all eternity because they did not repent of their sinful ways. Now let me ask you a question: what would someone have to do to you for you to decide he or she ought to burn forever in hell? Commit murder? Molest children? Be a terrorist? And even if we agree that these acts require punishment, wouldn’t you agree that a sentence of all eternity seems a little harsh?