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ER and the power of a guilty conscience

I haven’t seen the TV programme ER for years, but a friend drew my attention to a powerful scene in a recent episode called “Atonement”. It is between the hospital chaplain and an older patient, dying with cancer. He had been a prison doctor who administered lethal injections to those sentenced to death.

In one of the cases, after a young man was executed, a policeman was found to have framed the suspect. The doctor is wracked with remorse and wants forgiveness as he now faces his own death. The hospital chaplain is introduced and the dialogue goes like this:

: How can I even hope for forgiveness?
Chaplain: I think sometimes it's easier to feel guilty than forgiven.
Patient: (Looks confused) Which means what?
Chaplain: That maybe your guilt over these deaths has become your reason for living. Maybe you need a new reason to go on.
Patient: I don't want to go on. Can't you see I'm old? I have cancer. I've had enough. The only thing that is holding me back is that I am afraid. I'm afraid of what comes next.
Chaplain: What do you think that is?
Patient: (Looking more surprised) You tell me. Is atonement even possible? What does God want from me?
Chaplain: I think it's up to each one of us to interpret what God wants.
Patient: (Flabbergasted) So people can do anything? They can rape, murder they can steal all in the name of God and it's ok?
Chaplain: No! That's not what I'm saying.
Patient: (Now agitated) What are you saying? Because all I'm hearing is some New Age, God is love, one size fits all crap. No! I don't have time for this now!
Chaplain: It's ok. I understand…
Patient: (Interrupts angrily) No you don't understand. You don't understand! How could you possibly say that? Now you listen to me. I want a real chaplain who believes in a real God and a real hell.
Chaplain: I hear that you're frustrated, but you need to ask yourself . . .
Patient: (Interrupts again) No I don't need to ask myself. I need answers, and all your questions and your uncertainty are only making things worse.
Chaplain: I… I know you're upset…
Patient: I need someone who will look me in the eye and tell me how to find forgiveness because I am running out of time.

It is a powerful moment. It highlights the reality of the power of a guilty conscience, and the inadequacy of shallow answers to such guilt. The reason that guilt has such power is because the guilt is real. That’s what I like about the Bible’s teaching about forgiveness – it deals with real guilt. And it deals with it in a real ‘blood and guts’ way.

Guilt is real. Hell is real. But sometimes in an effort to make God seem nice, people do away with the realities that provide real help. Without acknowledging a real God and a real Hell there is no help for those with a guilty conscience.

The real God (Jesus) went through the real Hell (facing punishment) so that guilty people could come to him and ask him to accept them and forgive them. And because of that he says, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).