The German word “Schadenfreude,” is one we have come to use in those situations where the misfortune of another brings us pleasure—albeit one we will not openly admit to. Similarly, we have probably all had the experience of hoping for the downfall and punishment of some villain portrayed in a film or novel. In daily life, too, the humiliation or public embarrassment of a personal enemy we deem proud and conceited can seem like the welcome victory of justice. All of these are, I suppose, natural and not unusual reactions. Nevertheless, the word “natural” is perhaps imprecise in the light of who we were created to be.
In cautioning his disciples to rejoice, not because the demons are subject to them, but that their names are written in heaven, Jesus betrays his unchanging love even for those who reject and oppose him. For although Jesus must have found joy in the fact that the long reign of sin and alienation from God was coming to an end through the victory over Satan that he was soon to accomplish through his saving death, it was a joy tinged with sorrow at the fact that the rebellious angels had chosen to reject the love of their heavenly creator and thus repudiated his Father’s loving plan for all creation.
All of this should not surprise us when we consider that God, whose very being is love, cannot act contrary to his nature. Thus, to overcome and take delight in the demise of an enemy—while understandable and even expected—would be contrary to God’s very being. And so there is what we might term a divine sadness and melancholy at the persisting resistance to his love of both the demons and the hardened sinner. King David mirrors this reaction of God (albeit only dimly) when upon receiving the news of the death of his traitorous son Absalom doesn’t rejoice, but weeps bitterly and wishes that he had died instead of Absalom.
God’s sadness at those who reject his love lies at the heart of those who posit the ultimate salvation of all—thus claiming that hell is not eternal. It is said that the holy Orthodox Elder Paisios of Mount Athos used to weep over rebellion of the demons and actually prayed for them. As Catholics we are permitted to hope that all will be saved, even though we don’t know if this will happen. However, it can be instructive and revealing to assess our reaction to the possibility that all will be saved. Does this make us unambiguously happy or do we find ourselves becoming resentful like those hardworking workers in the vineyard who receive the same wages as those who began working at the end of the day?
To the degree that we find ourselves resentful and that the final salvation of the wicked seems unfair, we reveal that we are still a long way from becoming both Christlike and divine. For that glorious grace of divinization is nothing less than becoming what God is, love, and that love cannot do anything but love. And so the next time we find ourselves experiencing schadenfreude or wishing someone ill, let us realize our unlikeness to God and immediately cast ourselves upon his mercy praying for that inner healing that will bring us to that happy state in which we can truthfully say with Saint Paul, who is weak and I am not weak, who is led into sin and I do not burn with grief? For then too, our names will be written in heaven!