Christian Hedonism says that you ought to aim at maximizing your eternal joy in God in everything you do—even if it means selling all you have and giving it to the poor, being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, returning good for evil with no hope of reward in this life, and finally dying as a nameless stranger in some foreign land.
In Romans 9:3, Paul expresses his willingness to be damned for the sake of his Jewish loved ones: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” The imperfect tense of the verb wish (“I could wish”) seems to imply that something stands in the way, and the action that is in process, namely, the willingness to be cut off from Christ, is hindered and can’t be carried through. But it’s the willingness that seems to create the problem. Is Paul acting as a Christian Hedonist?
Let me try to put myself in his place. Suppose I were standing before the Lord with my wife, whom I love very much. And suppose he says to me: One of you may enter heaven to be with me forever. Only one. And, John, you must choose which it will be, yourself or your wife, Noël.
Now this is a very dangerous hypothetical situation to imagine. It’s dangerous because it will never exist. The Lord does not put us in that situation, and he does not send the person to hell who values him so highly, and loves others so deeply, as to put their fellowship with Christ above his own. But even though it is dangerous to imagine this situation, Paul seems to do just that. He is doing this to make it as clear as he can to his Jewish kinsmen how much he loves them and wants their eternal good.
So I have tried to be as honest as my heart would let me be in answering the Lord’s question: You or your wife? Which will it be?
I believe the answer would be: Let her enter heaven.
As I have tried to imagine what would go through my head, it would go something like this. If I say: Let her go to hell and let me enter heaven, everything in me wants to curl up in a ball and chew my hands with shame. Everything in me wants to run away and hide from the face of the Lord. There are no dreams of everlasting joy, but only of everlasting shame. This is not heaven. This is no sweet communion with Christ. This is moral horror.
Not only that, but when I ponder the possibility of seeing Noël absolutely, utterly, sinlessly whole, never again to feel pain or depression or sorrow, but only breathtaking happiness in Christ, greater than she has never known, everything in me says, That would be a glorious sight. O, how I would love to see that sight. That would make my soul explode with gladness.
In other words, if I chose for Noël to be damned, heaven would be hellish for me. And if I chose for her to be saved, my hell-bound heart would sing in the flames. Heaven’s joy would be in hell.
Which means that heaven would not be heaven, and hell would not be hell. It is impossible that heaven be filled with hellish shame, or that hell be filled heaven’s joy. I suspect that precisely this impossibility is why Paul wrote Romans 9:3 the way he did: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ . . . .” Or literally: “I was wishing . . .” but the impossibility of the hypothetical situation made the wish unfulfillable. The wish cannot be carried through.
What then shall we say about the argument that Romans 9:3 as the Achilles heel of Christian Hedonism?
We shall say that Paul’s willingness to be cut off from Christ for the sake of his Jewish kinsmen, like my willingness to be cut off from Christ for my wife’s salvation, is rooted precisely in the commitments of Christian Hedonism: I shrink back from heaven as a horrible place of shame; and I embrace hell where my conscience is clear and the joy of my wife’s salvation makes me eternally glad.
In fact, I would argue that it is precisely the impulses of Christian Hedonism that make Romans 9:3 work the way it does. Christian Hedonism believes passionately the words of our Lord Jesus that, when we face a painful sacrifice, we should remember “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Christian Hedonism shrinks back with loathing from the selfishness that kills that blessedness. Therefore, Christian Hedonism drives Paul to flee from the remorse and self-loathing and horrors of conscience and divine disapproval that would come to him if he chose his own rescue over the rescue of his kinsmen.
It is difficult to imagine what Paul’s love would be if it were not this: Shrinking back from the horrors in heaven of having saved his own skin at the price of his kinsmen, and embracing the blessedness of knowing in hell he gave and did not receive.
Romans 9:3 is not the Achilles heel of Christian Hedonism. Christian Hedonism is the key to Romans 9:3.