Is God’s justice primitive?
‘It appears to me that, by the way you are explaining the cross, you are suggesting that God’s justice is like the worst and most primitive kinds of human justice. We would think a country pretty barbaric if it still believed in the violent punishment of crimes, and if it thought that punishment worked as some kind of system of pay-back – as if some kind of celestial scales need balancing.
‘Hold on a minute. We make sure that our justice system prevents violent payback. But you are saying that on the cross Jesus died because God wants payback in blood. We are appalled when we hear of countries where a thief has his hand cut off, or where they attempt to measure ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Humane justice has given up the idea of reprisal – that’s why we have ‘corrective services’ and not ‘punitive services’. That’s partly why we don’t have the death penalty anymore: enlightened societies think that capital punishment is ineffective and barbaric. So why should we hold God to any less of a standard?’
‘It’s a fair enough question, I think.’
‘And in any case – why does it have to be so violent? I can make sense of the violence of the whole thing if we see the violence as human: the conspiracy of the Jews and Romans to execute Jesus on trumped up charges was exposed as a vile piece of corruption by the gospels. But to say that God was actually the agent of the violence in some way… well that seems as if God’s justice is simply bloodthirsty. What does that do expect teach us that the cycle of vengeance and reprisal and retribution must continue? And what is worse: doesn’t this reading of the cross simply endorse our own acts of violence and vengeance? Doesn’t it spawn religious violence? There’s plenty of historical examples to point out of course – the crusades, for example. Even in the First World War, the cross was seen as a model for the soldiers laying down their lives on the battlefield – and hopefully shooting a few of the enemy in the meantime.’
‘Well I think it is a bit more subtle than the way you put it. First of all, I think we need to think about what sin actually is. It is a bit more than simply violating a code, although of course the Old Testament gives us an extensive code of laws. It is even more than simply disobeying God’s command – even though that’s exactly what Adam and Eve are portrayed as doing in Genesis.’
‘But the offence that human beings are involved in is something far more deep-seated than this. Human beings are guilty of striking at the very heart of the plans and person of God himself. In doing so they break with the very order of things. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga calls it ‘vandalism of shalom’ – that is, destruction of the peace of God himself. The cross itself is actually an instance of this whole problem: a failure to recognise the true God as God to the point where we combine to violently exclude him from our midst.’
‘OK – but where are you going with this?’
‘So: for God to deal with the problem of sin isn’t simply a matter of balancing the books in some bald retributive sense, as if there were an amount of sin outstanding that required X amount of blood to pay for it. Sure, the Bible uses ‘ransom’ language to talk about the cross (see Mark 10:45) but we should be careful not to push that language too far, as if there were a dollar amount involved, or a specific volume of sin requiring punishment.
‘No, God’s plan is far more creative than that. Punishment is not simply a balancing exercise, or ought not to be. It is an action which brings about a new state of affairs. In human terms, successful punishment involves an answer to the crime or sin involved. It is a judgement against it which is also a statement against it: it communicates something to the offender, doesn’t it? We know that when we punish people, we do so in such a way as they know what is happening – it would be unjust and pointless to punish them without them realising it, right?’
‘So – go with me here – we punish so as in some way to bring about a new situation in which there can be restoration or reparation. Now, a lot of the time we do this so as to discipline the offender so that he or she will repent and learn to behave differently. And we make clear – or we should – exactly what will happen if they continue in defiance. Ultimately, we cannot continue in community with those who will continue to wreck community. The new situation we bring about may be the end of the person’s involvement in it’
‘I see –‘
‘And so it goes with God in Jesus on the cross. Jesus bears the punishment we deserve… which shows us what we deserve. It tells us. It’s a warning: sin is a very severe problem, with very severe consequences, because it is vandalism of God’s peace. Wreck God’s peace, and you can’t continue to enjoy God’s peace. Determine to be in enmity with God, and so he will be with you. Exclude him; you’ll suffer exclusion. What did you expect? But the warning is a grace – a punishment that disciplines us, if we see it right, because it happens well ahead of time!
‘Is this ‘violent’? Well, I am not sure always what the problem is here. There’s no suggestion that it is sadistic. The Bible doesn’t dwell on the sheer physical violence of the cross in the way that Mel Gibson does for example. But you can’t simply deal with human beings without dealing with them as bodies. One thing is for sure: the New Testament by no means sees the cross as a licence for human violence. In fact, in Romans 13, Paul specifically tells Christians not to seek retribution, because that belongs to God. God himself has justice in mind – which is extraordinarily liberating for the imperfect business of human justice, and for the business of living with injustice. Any Christian who finds in the cross permission for violence – especially against the Jews, which has unfortunately occurred - is an unfaithful Christian.’
Feature photo: xpcfan