Last week, I read the story of God deciding to destroy the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33). Basically, God decides He should tell Abraham what he's about to do. In response, Abraham says:
“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
God agrees that seems reasonable, saying: "“If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." (v. 26b). Abraham then whittles the number down and God agrees that, if He finds even ten righteous people in the town, He won't destroy it.
As it happens, God can't even find ten righteous people, so it's all a bit academic, but I still find the exchange surprising. This isn't about 'salvation' in the sense that modern Christians use that word (i.e. this is about saving people from immanent physical death, not about whether or not they get eternal life), so I need to be cautious how I apply it. But I'm intrigued/surprised that this story appears to indicate that a large number of people in that town could have escaped what God considered to be the appropriate punishment for their actions, simply because of the righteousness of their neighbours.
You could argue that that was to avoid the unjust punishment of those righteous people: i.e. everyone else would be saved in order to prevent the righteous people being caught up in something they didn't deserve. However, the continuation of the story in the next chapter suggests there might be more to it.
In Genesis 19:15-23, we see angels coming to hustle Abraham's nephew, Lot, out of the city of Sodom before it was destroyed. In verse 29 it is noted:
It seems Lot was rescued from the destruction because of his connection with Abraham. Elsewhere Genesis has made no bones about Lot being a pretty unpleasant character, whereas Abraham is described quite a few times throughout the Bible as being righteous.So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled.
God could have destroyed very-not-righteous Lot without Abraham being caught up in the destruction (after all, Abraham was quite some distance away at the time), so this wasn't about preventing the injustice of destroying those who didn't deserve it along with those that did. It was, instead, something God did because He 'remembered Abraham' - which I think means that God didn't want to make righteous Abraham sad by destroying his nephew.
It seems that simply 'mattering to' a righteous person enabled Lot to escape punishment.
And this kind of thing doesn't just occur in Genesis. At the moment Sarah, Martin and I are reading through the New Testament book of Acts. This is the part of the Bible that describes how the church developed in the early years following the death and resurrection of Jesus. It includes the story of the first person killed for following Jesus: a young man called Stephen. You can read the full story here, but I was particularly struck by one detail. In Acts 7:60 we read:
Then he [Stephen] knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.Stephen asks God not to hold his killers' sin against them - similar to how Lot's sin wasn't held again him in the earlier story. And of course, Jesus does the same thing with respect to the people who killed him, too. These people weren't 'saved' because they were close relatives to a righteous person, or because punishing them would result in the inevitable punishment of the righteous at the same time. These people were forgiven (assuming God honoured Stephen's request), simply because a righteous person chose to ask for it.
I don't totally know what to make of all this, but I find it interesting and have been pondering it a fair bit recently. I wonder if it partly explains why New Zealand is carrying on in relative stability, despite the intelligentsia who hold so much of the power in the country having so firmly rejected the very idea of God. Maybe having so many other people here who follow God is having something of a protective effect? I don't know.
And, for myself, I never pray for God to forgive others. I pray for God to help them, I pray for people who don't know God to come to know Him, but I don't pray for Him to forgive anyone other than myself. Maybe I should change that?!