When stacked against his holiness, Isaiah 64:6 says even our very best deeds are like filthy rags. They are not good enough to do anything to overcome the weigh of our sin. If there were a divine set of scales, on one side would be an infinitely heavy block of sin and on the other the weightless power of our good deeds. The grounds for entering Heaven is not more good than bad, but sinless perfection. That means all of us, by nature, stand to face judgement. Romans 3:10 is clear: there is none righteous, not even one.
I watched the Netflix documentary on Jimmy Savile the other week. The first episode – which dragged a bit for Brits familiar with Savile – was clearly setup for a wider international audience. For most outside of Britain, it would be hard to comprehend how this absolute weirdo managed to get on television in the first place. Not only get onto, but remain on television. And then to get himself into such positions of trust that allowed him to carry out hundreds of acts of sexual abuse. I can see why it was a necessary context setting exercise for most people around the world.
One of the interesting insights into the documentary came from Mark Lawson, the journalist and broadcaster. Lawson – like Savile – had also been raised in Leeds to a Roman Catholic family. He recalls even seeing Savile at mass growing up. But the key insight from him about Savile was this: you cannot understand him without first understanding the Catholicism that drove him.
The fact is, not every one of Savile’s charitable acts were designed to increase his abuse. Clearly many were. But there were some that did not give him that sort of access. Yet his answer in response to why he did so much charitable work remained resolutely the same, and I am inclined to believe it. He insisted that it is not easy for anyone to get in Heaven. He admitted openly that he had done many things wrong (though did not go so far as to acknowledge what we all now know that included). But he claimed that when he gets to Heaven, he’d be alright, because against all the wrongdoing would be his charitable activities which would far outweigh whatever he had done. That was his hope. That his good deeds – to which he was deeply committed – would suffice to overcome the bad.
Outside of a Catholic worldview, of course, that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Most people in the post-Christian UK work more on an honour-shame basis these days. There are certain crimes for which there can be no grace and forgiveness. Though that list may be increasing in length and incorporating considerably less significant things, paedophilia has long been seen as so serious there is no coming back from it. For most post-Christian Brits, the scandal is that Savile might consider there could possibly be any hope of forgiveness for him. There are some crimes so serious, many believe, that nobody may escape righteous retribution.
On a Protestant, particularly an Evangelical, view things are a little different. The possibility of forgiveness – even for the most heinous of sin – exists. Indeed, Evangelicals would argue that though not all sins are equal in their seriousness, we have such a warped understanding of how infinitely offensive our sin is to a holy God that we fail to realise the extreme seriousness of what we would view as the vanilla end of sin. For the Evangelical, if we rightly understand our sin as God sees it, we would have no problem recognising the possibility of forgiveness for the likes of Savile because we would realise the distance between his sin and our own is much less than the distance between our lesser sin and God’s complete holiness.
That, of course, does not mean Evangelicals believe Savile was a forgiven sinner (for the record, I do not believe he was). For forgiveness only comes with repentance and there is no evidence whatsoever that Savile was ever repentant. Not only did he never make any effort to put right what he had done wrong (which, in the case of his crimes, would have minimally involved confessing to the police and bearing the just consequences), he continued to repeatedly indulge his sin over and over. His mocking tombstone – subsequently removed in the dead of night for fear of uproar and vandalism – insisted, ‘it was good while it lasted’. Such an unrepentant attitude, on a Protestant worldview, puts one beyond the bounds of forgiveness.
This is the real scandal of the Catholic worldview into which Savile bought. It is the scandal of the Catholic doctrine he was taught. If all that is required is enough good works stacked up against your bad, if you are committed enough, you may do what you want with impunity. The cleric that insisted, because of these things, that God would “fix it” for Savile to enter Heaven, not only blasphemed against Almighty God in misrepresenting his holiness and forgiveness this way, but left the door open for other heinous crimes to be committed the same way, so long as the perpetrator is committed to stacking up their good deeds to counterbalance them.