Monday, September 6, 2010

Justice part three

I accidentally posted a blog that I was working on (Justice part four). Sorry about that if you saw it! I will edit it and have it up for real in a few days. Oops. But here is part three:

I am going theological with this post, so what out! Hopefully the meaning will translate even if you are not particularly religious.

Remember the Penal Substitution idea of some brands of Christianity? It says that because mankind has sinned against God, we deserve punishment, and Christ bore that punishment (for some at least) on the cross. God could not merely forgive, but rather He required an appeasement, a punishment, which was carried out on the innocent but willing person of Jesus.

First of all, it is questionable as to whether punishing an innocent person in a guilty person's place would really satisfy any version justice, retributive or utilitarian. Exploring this idea is not my intention here, but Ken Pulliam has written extensively on this subject, analyzing the views of many, many historical theologians, over on his blog located here.

The bigger problem with Penal Substitutionary Theory, and with the conservative Christian idea of God, is that it makes justice fundamental to His character and love secondary. Love, through Christ, is only what creates a possible escape from the foundational, unavoidable reality of God’s justice. Love becomes the servant of justice.

And in this context - what IS justice? In the traditional "retributive justice" view of Scripture, it is an "evening out" of things. An eye for an eye.

So in conservative Christianity, the foundational aspect of God’s character is that he requires revenge.

Surely revenge is an outdated idea and one unworthy of God.

But here is a different idea. I think (or hope) that love is foundational to reality. And love is identifying ourselves with others. This is the metaphysical good of the universe. According to this idea, justice as revenge does not serve much purpose. Instead, justice becomes a tool to bring about greater Love. And what exactly is this tool? It is action with a focus on bringing about correction, safety and deterrence.

Justice is now the servant of love!


  1. I believe that most current Christian theology understands Christ's death on the cross as being interpreted like this: Jesus essentially said to God - "hey, instead of punishing all of these people for their sins, punish me instead by letting me die on the cross" and then God said, "hmm, I am impressed by your love for these sinners, I will take you up on your offer and let you die on the cross and I will now forgive them of their sins. They are now washed clean" -- Is that a fair assessment? I think it is.

    So, my thoughts on this . . . How did God go about forgiving others before Christ came along? What was the point of Christ doing this? Was it because before Christ came to earth God essentially needed a LOT more convincing before being willing to forgive someone? Was Chris dying "for our sins" essentially a way to get God to forgive us more easily? Did God really want lamb's sacrificed to him, but after Christ died He said . . . "ok, that is good. I am satisfied now. You all killed the ultimate lamb so my hunger for blood is satisfied?" -- Again, what was the point of Christ doing this? I am a bit complexed on this issue. It seems to me that if I went back in time to 100 B.C. God would be just as forgiving as He is today, unless we argue that God changes His mind and that thought process seems to weaken His divinity (wishy washy God).

    Anyway, just rambling thoughts here. The penal substitution is so well described in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. It makes sense because the Witch WANTS Aslan's blood. She WANTS him dead. She is evil. Aslan lets her kill him so that Edmond may live. She is happy as she wants Aslan's blood. That all makes sense to me. However, in the sacrifice of Jesus my upbringing taught me that God was wanting Jesus to die on the cross. Essentially, God wanted Jesus's blood. That is really confusing. God and the Witch are playing the same role. I understand it better when the Witch is involved, not when God is involved. Plus, people always seem to state that two wrongs dont make a right. Well, does one wrong? Did killing Jesus really make things right? Or, was it a tragedy that he died for trying to get the people around him to open their minds to new ideas about who God is and what it means to have a close relationship with Him?

    Confusing stuff. Thanks for your post. My whole life I have understood, in my opinion, as much about the statement: "Christ died for our sins" as much as the guy sitting in the pew next to me did, but, that message never made sense to me. It just didn't ring true. And, it still doesn't. My best interpretation of it is simply to say that, with the assumption that Jesus is God and that Jesus rose from the dead after being murdered, then He showed the ultimate level of forgiveness and mercy to all those around Him by still being forgiving and merciful even after being murdered viciously. So, i can understand the Christian thought process of following Christs example by loving, forgiving, and showing mercy to the same level He did on the day He rose from the dead and continued His path of love rather than revenge (so the opposite of retributive justice, right?). Anyway, that explanation only works with the assumption that Christ and God are one.

  2. John,

    Fantastic stuff! You are so dead on when referencing CS Lewis' first book on Narnia.

    In his book, Aslan is paying a ransom to the White Witch - NOT a ransom to his Father - The Emperor Across the Sea. So who was Jesus paying a ransom to, if we interpret his death in a similar fashion? To God, who demands revenge? Obviously, we both find that idea at odds with our concept of God being good.

    I wrote that same idea in an early idea for this post, actually!

    Can I reference your ideas here in a next post? I am collecting alternate interpretations of Jesus' mission and I would like to include yours.

  3. sure man!

    funny how we both went to the Aslan thought process. We just cant get Narnia out of our heads I guess!

  4. I could be TOTALLY wrong here as I've been out of the Orthodox (Eastern Orthodox, split before Anselm and penal substitution came about) for a long while....

    But I think they view it as Jesus paying the ransom to Satan (the Witch). Because after the fall or something mankind became under the power of the devil and death.... because they separated themselves from God. And so God becomes incarnate in order and the devil is like oh I'm going to kill him.... and then he is surprised to find that Jesus conquers death.

    I think an Orthodox person could explain it better, but they have no penal substitution theory of atonement and they've been around for give or take 2000 years. Theism just doesn't make sense to me.