Jesus, Justice, and Justification

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver; 
"don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?  
 Who said anything about safe?  'Course he isn't safe.  But he's good.
  He's the King, I tell you." 

Dear Bethany,

(I do apologize for the length of time it has taken me to post this.  I wanted to be sure I had put my thoughts down coherently, which took some doing, and additionally I was in New York, which took some surviving.)

I am now going to embark on the (perhaps) last installment of my answer to your questions regarding my view of Dante's Inferno.  I would like to say at the outset of this post that I am now about to deal with issues that have troubled the minds of the saints for ages past and I do not pretend to be able to give more than a cursory defense of the belief of Hell.  Additionally, I want to lay down the fundamental groundwork that I, one: believe in the immutable and infinite goodness of God; and two: I hold to the authority of Scripture as the inspired word of God.  I hope that, as was the case of the Bereans, you will seek out the Scriptures to see if what I say is true.

I hope that in my post The Knowledge of the Holy I made it plain that a comprehension and appreciation of God is a necessary and possible thing.  I hope that I made plain in that post and in the tangential post "I Call All Times Soon" that not only is a comprehension and appreciation of God necessary and possible, but that mankind was made to fit cheek by jowl with God's nature.

I want to start with a mundane example which, as a general rule, all men recognize almost intuitively.  It is an example by law: id est, that when you make an infraction, the greater the personage the greater the crime.  I will be less penalized if I execute vehicular manslaughter on a random passer-by than if I try to overrun the President.  The crime, on the face of it, is the same: but because I am jeopardizing the life of a high official the second offense, made with malice aforethought, is of a greater degree of evil.  Neither offense is any less wrong: they are both wrong; but "the punishment must fit the crime" is a very biblical notion and takes into account not only the nature of the offense but the nature of the offended.

Let us say that there was a military coup orchestrated by a consul against his overlord.  Let us also say that the overlord possessed not only all virtue (wisdom, prudence, etc.) but also lawfully possessed the right to supreme power and, by extension, the right to be obeyed.  The infraction is of the greatest magnitude.  It outstrips the normal example of one man rising up against another because in this case the overlord's possession of lawfulness and virtue commands an even deeper response of respect.  Mankind was made with the necessity of taking pleasure in goodness, in recognizing it and emulating it.  All virtue is held in fief to the virtuous overlord.  Infraction is not a mere case of denying sovereignty (I say mere): it is a break with holiness itself.  It is a most awful, cowardly, mealy, despicable action, the greatest insult against the greatest good.  It is (and this is the really clever part) the most unmanly action a man has ever done.

It must follow logically that the infraction is seen in the light of the object insulted: if the object is of an infinite goodness, requiring infinite respect, then the offense if of an infinite quality as well.  If the overlord cannot but execute holy justice (which he cannot: there is no other justice that he can show), the punishment meted out on the offender will be equal to the crime, to the offended party, and will (and must) satisfy the overlord's virtue of justice.  It would be wrong in him (mark the preposition!) to do otherwise.  And the overlord cannot do otherwise.  He cannot turn a blind eye; he cannot say "there, there, let's be friends again: pax."  As a quality of holiness justice must be done.

I hope it follows then that punishment of rebellious men is not a bad thing.  If you allow the notion that punishment of evil is in itself evil you let in the notion that God is evil.  If you let in that notion, there is no goodness in all the earth, in all of heaven, in all of time: there is no hope, there is no light: all is arbitrary and mere whim on the part of a deity we should rather fear than love.  If justice is a virtue and rebellion is evil, punishment of rebellion must be good.

I do not say that it is pleasant.  This is the great struggle of the saints.  It is awful to think of a human being suffering infinitely the infinite punishment of his infinite infraction against someone infinitely sovereign and infinitely holy.  It is that awful thought which urges those who proclaim the gospel to "Repent and believe!" for the kingdom of God is at hand.  The hour to repent our rebellion is now for the time is imminent in which we must pay back the infinite debt we owe.  It is no light matter.  But if we give ground concerning the lawful necessity of justice we rip out a major bulwark of reality.  (The more I study him, the more I find that if you deny any one virtue in God you deny it just as much in man and moral foundations begin to crumble: if you pluck a single thread in a whole stocking, the whole stocking unravels.)

As far as damnation itself goes, I will not deny that it is a terrible thing.  The wrath of God is just and awful.  But it is never excessive, and by it two attributes of God's virtue are brought to light to be experienced and appreciated by men: his justice, but also his mercy.  The wicked and unrepentant pay the penalty for their rebellion to the exact measure and honour (without wanting to do so) God's justice.  The repentant and the righteous, having thrown themselves upon the merit of someone else's payment, become living images of God's mercy.  God does not stop with merely exhibiting his justice: he has other virtues to show and teach us.

To understand justice and justification in an overarching sense one has to go back to Paul.  In Romans 5 (I highly-as-heaven suggest reading the whole letter) he tackles the subject of Eden and Gethsemane and why original sin exists and why any of us can have any hope in Christ.  Not a lot of people like the doctrine of original sin, but the truth of the matter is that, if you axe original sin, you've just axed your own hope of salvation.  The doctrine behind the doctrine is that of federal headship, that when Adam our forefather stood the test in the Garden of Eden we were counted (not magically or whimsically, but by virtue of God's design of reality) in him, so that we stood or fell with him.  He fell, and his sin passed down and down to every generation and we all imitated his sin after him.  In the same way - or in the ultimate way - when Jesus stood the very same test in the Garden of Gethsemane and passed it, and offered his pure life a ransom for the lives of many sinful, all who were subsequently born in him share in his righteousness.  By virtue of his act all men in him are vindicated.  Justice has been met.  It is not a case of a man simply naming the name of Jesus Christ and God, pleased as a parent might be that an infant said "Da-Da," calls off the whole damnation deal.  Legally, justice has been met.  The debt is not merely stricken from the books, it has been paid in full. 

The damnation of the wicked and the death of his son are exhibitions of his justice.  The offering of his son and his righteousness imputed to us are a triumphal parade of his mercy and grace.  In nothing that he does is God ever not good, can he ever not be praised.  I do not say that it will always be pleasant, or that, from a man's view, it may always seem fair, but the more righteousness is worked in us the more we will see what is right and true and what is not.

"I'm longing to see him," said Peter, "even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point."

4 ripostes:

  1. Thank you so much, Jenny, for sharing this. It is a very challenging subject to tackle, but one so glorious and awesome from the Scriptures, the story of justification and God's plan for salvation.

    But you did a great job.
    I so loved this last paragraph you wrote: "The damnation of the wicked and the death of his son are exhibitions of his justice. The offering of his son and his righteousness imputed to us are a triumphal parade of his mercy and grace. In nothing that he does is God ever not good, can he ever not be praised. I do not say that it will always be pleasant, or that, from a man's view, it may always seem fair, but the more righteousness is worked in us the more we will see what is right and true and what is not."

    I personally was blessed and really enjoyed those serial posts! God bless.

  2. I'm glad they have been a blessing, Joy. They have all been difficult subjects - fascinating, but difficult subjects, and, going into them, I always fear I will not be able to do them justice. Whether I have or not remains to be seen, and I would encourage you no matter what topic I am writing on to recheck my logic and theology against the Scriptures to make sure I am right.

    In addition, I wanted to share this quote which turned up in our church bulletin this morning. It said what I tried to say, but better:

    "I shall briefly sum up the charge against sin. That which sin is accused of and proved to be guilty of is high treason against God. It attempts nothing less than the dethroning and un-goding of God himself. It has unmanned man, made him a fool, a beast, a devil, and subjected him to the wrath of God, and made him liable to eternal damnation. It has made men deny that God is, or affirm that he is like themselves. It has put the Lord of Life to death and shamefully crucified the Lord of Glory. It is always resisting the Holy Ghost. It is continually practicing the defiling, the dishonour, the deceiving and the destruction of men. What a prodigious, monstrous, devilish thing!"
    The Sinfulness of Sin, by Ralph Venning

    That seems to put sin in a properly serious light.

  3. yes, Jenny, it does. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Hello! Sorry I've taken so long to reply- I've just finished by exams.
    Well, thankyou for taking the time to address this so thoroughly. I'll have to meditate on it properly to fully "get" it all, especially your later points. The thing is with this topic is it's a bit like the problem of evil, no matter how much you try to reconcile it with the existence of God (which has been adequately done, I think), the contender can always come back with an over arching argument of, say, "Well have you ever seen a child die of bone cancer?" and all careful debate and consideration seems to go out the window.
    Similarly the subject of justice has always been something that, in my head, cannot account for the emotion I feel in response to it, but that is a tendency that might be peculiar to the kind of person I am. When there are sore truths to acknowledge I tend not to try and seek them, which is bad, of course. I crave truth, but when it renders the acdeptance that others will suffer I hate to contemplate it.
    I'm currently contemplating that which really is the basis of belief in God- some say it has to be justice, that God is justice and that unless we believe this we have no hope of salvation. Others say God is, in nature and being, mercy- others say He is love, and that is all He is, and but the other day I heard to Archbishop of Bath and Wells say God, in essence, is forgiveness. Every Sunday I hear something along the lines of "Christianity is really very simple.. the key to it is X", and then I hear the next Sunday that indeed the key to it is Y! I've thought to myself that perhaps all of these things are critical and all have an equal part to play, but then why do people say that Christianity is based on one simple belief, and why does this belief seem to differ according to every scholar/teacher? For this reason I've made the decision to read by the Bible (for a while) without the aid of commentaries, online talks, concordances etc... but see whatever I naturally come to think Christianity is all about, because I've been baptised in the Holy Spirit, so I really should know the basic doctrines. Sorry for the deviation.
    On the subject of justice, I worry, to a degree, of whether or not I have a sense of it. We're all called to "do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with [our] God"... but my sense of justice seems to either be skewed or just different. This is in reference to your early point of the punishment fitting the crime. When I see a horrid criminal, all I want to do is see them reformed... I don't even think of punishing them for what they've done, at least, not initially. Yet, this must be a kind of hypocrisy, because when a sibling hurts my feelings all I want to do is hurt their's- this is a dreadful attribute that totally contends with Christ's teachings. But, that is in reference to those I know closely who I've been in conflict with for a long period, although it's just as serious. In terms of legal and spiritual justice (the two must go together, I suppose) I feel anguish for the victim, but my anguish for the wrong doer is always more penetrating, because I know the full force of them realising what they have done must be the greatest agony, and to have what must seem the whole world hating you, and to be in such an awful disposition that such basic things as good and evil aren't established in yourself seems such a horrendous existence. For that reason, I understand how punishment will help to show them the severity of their crime, but that isn't my initial expectation. It's as if, to me, reform is a priority over justice. So I can't comprehend a hell without the chance of reform... what do you think? What about purgatory?