Good question...Why can't God just forgive sin, instead of demanding justice?

[Created: Dec 8,1998; Last mods Jan 16, 2005--added revisions/additions to top section (esp. point 7 on Closure), and major NEW discussion on Philosophical/Theological approaches.
[July 2005: Added a New Macro-Summary and per-Bullet Discussion links, based on a great Pushback Stream.]

Someone wrote in:

I have a friend who has recently turned Agnostic, and in a debate with him about the existence of a loving God, a few questions were brought up that I could not answer. The most thought-provoking questions were, "If God is all-powerful and all-forgiving, why must he send his son to die for our sins. Couldn't God just forgive the sins without sending his son down in human form to die? So what, so God dies for a few hours, how does that in any way forgive a sin..." And on and on... You get the idea. Of all the people in the world, this is one man I do not want to see reject God, and being of a philosophical mind, there is no other way to show him the truth but through theological interpretation of this Truth. I would greatly appreciate any response you could give me. Thank You.

Your friend's questions are quite thoughtful, and although there are many issues involved in this short section, the central one is that of the necessity of God's being good (which included being trustworthly and just) in His dealing with moral creatures. This can be a very convoluted issue, but let me lay out some of the main principles involved, in no particular order, and then let me come back and try to analyze the material. The bulk of the discussion will be on a pragmatic approach to this (e.g., community values, psycho-social needs, personal integrity issues), and the last parts will deal with the subject from a more philosophical and theological perspective.


One: God's justice (relative to punishing evil with the stated consequences) is generally related to God's anger, wrath, or "hatred" in the Bible. Although God is often caricatured as being belligerent, quick-to-anger (instead of slow to anger), easily upset about the most trivial matters, and petty in His demands to avoid His wrath, perhaps it would be helpful to survey briefly the explicit statements of what He actually "hates". Consider a few passages:

Can you see the pattern here?!

God hates treachery, violence, cruelty, callused hypocrisy-things that knowingly (not accidentally) destroy people, community, safety, trust, joy, innocence, and beauty. This is not minor ritual 'infractions' nor petty stuff! The human race simply cannot exist without large amounts of decency, loyalty, and social justice.

Ever authentic human being should scream in outrage at crimes against the elderly, at vandalism of the poor, at oppression of the disadvantaged, at domestic violence, at greed and power-oriented oppression and marginalization, at child abuse (and at the child sacrifice of the false religions Israel adopted from her neighbors!), at institutional hypocrisy that remains arrogantly insensitive to the real needs of real people...Moral outrage by moral agents (us) at moral atrocities is a mark of moral authenticity-why would we expect the Author of moral agents to be 'less moral' than we?

Later OT Judaism saw this problem-as evidenced from the OT citations above-and began to see that the problem began in the heart. So Jeremiah could link the exploitation of the poor with the evil in our hearts:

The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? 10 "I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds. 11 "As a partridge that hatches eggs which it has not laid, So is he who makes a fortune, but unjustly; (Jer 17.9-11)

Jesus, of course, confronted us even more clearly with this, as he tied all of our moral atrocities to our inner failures of integrity and compassion:

But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean.'" (Matt 15.18)

And Paul points out that having a heart of compassion and kindness for your neighbor, requires a clean heart, free of socially destructive movements-and God's wrath applies to destructive forces such as those:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. 12 Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col 3.5ff)

Notice that he starts with the same heart-problem of Jeremiah and Jesus, then ties it into more socially-visible sins (e.g., slander, malice, deceit), points out the socially egalitarian classless new order (read: "no room for oppression and marginalization"!), and urges them on to the social behaviors of compassion, kindness, forbearance, and supremely, love. It is the "active absence" of these social "moral imperatives" that legitimately provokes the wrath of moral agents (including God!).

God's emotional response of wrath, anger, outrage is the only sane, appropriate, and morally authentic one.

PushBack Discussion


Two: This connection between God's outrage and social and moral justice shows up in categories of responsibility and injury.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, an outstanding contributor in the field of philosophy, wrote this in his autobiographical essay in Philosophers Who Believe (p.272-273) about the transformation of his theological worldview relative to this subject:

"These experiences (encounters with real suffering in contexts of injustice) have evoked in me a great deal of reflection and reorientation. Justice has become for me one of the fundamental categories through which I view the world. I think of justice not so much as a virtue but as a condition of society: a society is just insofar as people enjoy what is due them--enjoy what they have a legitimate claim to. Previously the fundamental moral category for me was responsibility. Now I have come to see that the moral domain is an interplay between rights and responsibilities. To the Other in my presence I have responsibilities; but also the Other in my presence comes bearing rights. The violation of moral responsibility yields guilt; the violation of moral rights yields injury. The proper response to guilt is repentance; the proper response to moral injury is lament and outrage.

"Slowly I began to see that the Bible is a book about justice; but what a strange and haunting form of justice! Not our familiar modern Western justice, of no one invading one's right to determine one's life as one will. Rather the justice of the widow, the orphan and the alien. A society is just when all the little ones, all the defenseless ones, all the unprotected ones have been brought back into community, to enjoy a fair share in the community's goods, and a standing and voice in the affairs of the community. Biblical justice is the shepherd leaving the corral to look for the hundredth one and then throwing a feast when the one is found."

These are profound insights, that get closer to the very heart of God. Outrage and lament are the proper, sensitive, and morally appropriate responses to injury and oppression.

I suspect that "forgiveness" of moral injury, if not preceded by moral outrage or confrontation over the unjust injury, is nothing more than selfish apathy, insensitivity to the rights and worth of the victim(s), or fear of confronting the oppressor/treachery...

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Three: This notion of moral responsibility as a condition of society brings us into the very being of God.

The importance of appropriate moral response to moral actions (good or bad) is literally intrinsic in God. God is, in Himself, a community of Persons living in ultimate intimacy and reciprocity. As the triune-God, any "intra-essence" treachery would literally "destroy" God. Loyalty to persons, and loyalty to commitment, and loyalty to relationship are intrinsic and essential to God-not an arbitrary add-on. Treating persons as they deserve (be they human, angelic, or divine) is a fundamental characteristic of God. It is essential to community of ANY sort, including the Ultimate Unity-in-Community, the Triune God.

The moral law (normally summarized in the Bible as 'loyal and active love') entails obligations within community and within relationships. These are constitutive of community (e.g. covenants, kinship, social pacts) and require upholding for communities to survive. Justice is not optional for continued life; it is an essential--none of us can exist without community. Our very birth comes from a community of two, our survival abilities arise from an entire acculturating community ("it takes a whole village to raise a child"), and the vast majority of human life is dependent on specialization of labor and function, within a community. Moral law of loyalty/fidelity/care--as the opposite of treachery--is indispensable. And this community-commitment ethic springs from the Three-in-One God.

It is important to see that this moral law-the basis for the justice and/or judgment that we are discussing-is intensely personal and not simply ad hoc. The moral law is about love and community and loyalty and celebration and caring and support; it is not about speed limits and religious rituals and dress codes-except as these might affect or express love and community and the rest.

There is an intensity that sometimes frightens me in God's message in Hosea:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. 7 Like Adam, they have broken the covenant- they were unfaithful to me there. 8 Gilead is a city of wicked men, stained with footprints of blood. 9 As marauders lie in ambush for a man, so do bands of priests; they murder on the road to Shechem, committing shameful crimes. (Hosea 6.6ff)

And Jesus' application of this to the oppressive (cf. Luke 11.46) religious rulers of his day:

If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matt 12.7)

God is passionate about people, especially the innocent and "little" ones. His cry to us to show mercy instead of religious routine should (1) reveal His passionate heart; and (2) reveal the coldness of our own...This is no ad hoc religious rule we are discussing here-it is the very passion of God for people.

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Four: As a loyal covenant and community participant, God "takes a stand" to be trustworthy, dependable, and constant in His actions.

God sets forth for us what He will do, over a wide range of situations and interactions with us. If we are loyal to His imperatives of love and fairness and community-commitment (Him being included in all communities), His promised blessings are way 'beyond the call of duty'. He positively encourages us, and supports beneficent behavior with higher levels of personal satisfaction, sensitivity, depth, integration, well-being, and psychological health-and the promise of further blessings in the future. Indeed, those who show the greatest ability to produce the love-benefits for the community will be given extra resources and opportunities in the future existence of that community (cf. Matt 25.14-30).

His promised responses to those who demonstrate patterns of treachery are likewise clearly stated-and the history of religious ideas clearly shows these to be conceptually implanted in our minds and hearts somehow (Romans 1.32; cf. HI:FH). After a period of opportunity for reform and reclamation, God decides to excise the destructive and treacherous members from the future of the community (to restore the level of peace and well-being of the community).

This is not simply an external role God plays 'for the good of the community'--it is intrinsic to Him, as it is supposed to be with us. We are outraged with moral atrocity BEFORE we are grieved over the damage, and BEFORE we decide how to try to rectify/contain the damage. We are not supposed to be simple 'passionless ethicists', plugging in ethical variables into equations and seeing whether the action warrants response or not. We are supposed to emotionally/psychological responsive FIRST. This 'hatred for evil' is not the same per se as the 'decision to execute justice' (as we shall see), but this outrage and sense of violation is reflective of the personal, instrinsically 'wrong', community-irrelevant aspect of evil. It is wrong because its wrong--and we know that inside somehow.

I find it instructive that our moral outrage (a possible reflection of the image of God in us) operates even when there are NO actual damages or evils done. We can, for example, visualize an imaginary evil (sometimes experienced by moviegoers, actually) with no real historical damages, and yet still feel moral responses to the evil, the atroticity, the violation, the vandalism.

[The philosophical theologian and/or philosopher here has a head start on us here--they already know that 'good is good' in itself--without needing any justification grounded on its consequences. And, correspondingly, 'evil is evil' in itself--without any required grounding in its consequence-stream. This is based on the vary notions of good/evil, as some kind of 'ultimate'. ]

PushBack Discussion


Five: God's commitment to each community, entails some actions on His part to maintain the basis of community.

God builds human society with structures of rewards, censure, legal process, accountability, correction, reform and reinstatement, reconciliation, and nurture. These structures serve (basically) to provide for continuance of human life under adequate conditions. Although all such structures are known to be 'pliable' in the hands of the treacherous (witness the exploitation of the poor by the royal and religious elite described in the OT quotes above), they often provide structures that also can support proper behavior (cf. Romans 13).

One of these structures is removal of the treacherous from the community-either by legal execution or by exile.

This is not an issue of 'forgiveness' at all-it is that of practical community health and survival. We would think nothing ill of a leader who exiled from our community a person who had demonstrated a habit of community-threatening treachery. We are not talking about "misdemeanors" here, but of relationship-threatening 'felonies'. This is a purely practical governance function.

[That this exile of the treacherous from the community of the Future is part of the biblical hope, can be seen in some of the images of the future, such as Is 52.1; Rev 21.27; 22.15; and maybe 2 Thess 1.9.]

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Six: God's commitment to communal warmth, nurture, cooperation, robustness, development, and expansion is also expressed in His 'incentives' toward constructive lives.

Moral choices-especially in a world in which treachery still operates-are often difficult to execute. Many choices forego "present pleasure for one" in anticipation of "a greater benefit for more". In the face of competing influences on me (many of which are God-given), I need every indication that my choice will make a difference in the future. I need every indication that the choice I did NOT make would have had destructive consequences for me and my community. I need to know that principles such as "you reap what you sow" will be reliable indicators of the future consequences of my choice (and everyone else's as well). I need to be able to count on God to be faithful (and not deceitful) when He promises to bless the results of good (but difficult) choices, and to thwart the efforts of the community-destructive treacherous. I need to know that even in the cases in which the treacherous disappear from the present time in apparent ease, comfort, success, and pleasure, that their choices will yet yield the result that was promised. I need to know that my choice to not be like them was wise-that God will uphold the moral order of the universe in which I live every moment of these moral choices.

I need a world that is at least "51% predictable"-so I can order my behavior to achieve my personal, family, and community hopes. I need predictability in nature (as God provides through physical 'law'). I need predictability in living (as God provides through biological, psychological, and social 'law'). And I need predictability in the moral universe (as God provides through conscience, feedback systems, and revelation of His heart and ethical passions).

I suppose I could agonize daily (like the Psalmists often did) over the 'prosperity of the wicked' and wonder why "I have kept my hands clean in vain", but God has given me adequate warrant that their 'end' is not desirable in the least. My choices for good, for love, for compassion, for sharing, for justice have the promised wonderful consequences, upheld by the very dependability of God.

It is accordingly important to me-as one faced with difficult decisions constantly-to know that the rules that God set up to encourage responsible and beautiful action in community interests will be dependable. I need to know that God keeps His promises in holding us accountable.

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Seven: Also, as a participant of all that the community experiences, I share in its need for equilibrium and closure.

If someone does violence to my community, or to members of the community on which I depend, then I suffer. We know that families of the victims of violent crimes suffer a psychological need for justice that resembles the need for 'closure' or the need for a 'rite of passage' to reflect the new state of affairs (resulting, for example, from a murder or rape or arson), and often to let them begin the actual grieving process. Persons are somehow built to need closure, to know that 'justice has been served', especially in the case of irreparable loss, such as murder. This is not "vengeance" per se, but the need to know that the community has acted in consistency with its deepest values of loyalty to its members. When the community does not express its valuation of the loss, by requisite and proportionate response to the perpetrator of the violence, then the community is weakened, and those closest to the injustice are the ones most disenfranchised from the community. In other words, the initial violence weakened the community; the lack of proportionate community response to that violence continues that degeneration, by alienating the families of the victim.

Community-destructive acts of treachery, when unrequited by response on the part of the community concerning the value of the victim, continue "making destruction" within that community, begining with those closest to the victim(s).

What this means is that God's justice may be necessary to my ability to remain a contributing member of my community. Lack of closure may affect me psychologically, and may undermine my confidence in the moral equilibrium of the future. In some cases, I may need God to guarantee closure on crimes of malice that affect me, my family, and my community.

Although this need is often slandered as being 'revenge' or even immoral, this need for justice is at least as important as the need for restoration and reconciliation in a community (and can be a necessary precursor to reconciliation). An interesting example of this can be seen in the real world example of the end of apartheid. Lyons describes the feelings of the majority in the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

Indeed, this 'justice as pre-reconciliation' theme has been noted by our greatest thinkers:

"Early in this century [nb. the 20th century], C. A. Dinsmore wrote a book called Atonement in Literature and Life. He examined the writings of the [sic] some of the deepest thinkers in history--people like Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, George Eliot, Hawthorne, and Tennyson. He came to the conclusion that 'It is an axiom in life and in religious thought that there is no reconciliation without satisfaction' -- that is, the satisfaction of justice. He would have come to the same conclusion if he had looked at the great literature of the so-called Third World too. Leon Morris asks, 'Should we not see this as something God has implanted deep down in the human heart? Then Morris says, 'Faced with a revolting crime even the most careless among us are apt to say, 'That deserves to be punished.''" [SC:161]

[Chronological note: As I update this point, it is Dec 14th 2004, and a very highly-publicized trial has come to a close: the murder by Scott Peterson of his wife and unborn baby. He was found guilty and given the death penalty by the jury. The photo in the CNN article showed the deceased wife's mother crying/sobbing after the sentence was delivered. That is closure--not revenge. Revenge might gloat and celebrate; closure weeps in healing, and in the affirmation by the community that they and their family had indeed suffered immoral violation. The need for closure and affirmation of righteousness is not to be equated with revenge. The two may be related in some cases (in some cases reconcilation can only come after punishment has 'equalized' the parties), but the need for closure and affirmation is always legitimate and always important for the community (and its leaders) to tenderly extend to the victim and their loved ones.]

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Eight: Actually, much of the punishment (or more simply: "consequence") of evil is 'built into' the system, and does not involve any 'extra' action on God's part.

This is where the 'reaping' is internal to the destruction-doer's own character. Bernstein terms this 'reflexive justice' [HI:FH:151]:

"Within its general framework (Deut), however, is a special set of provisions worth particular note. These are sayings that describe the punishment of wickedness by the wicked deed itself. By this mechanism one punishes oneself by one's own wicked action, and the harm one does is harm to oneself. In this view the world is so composed that the perpetrator of evil becomes his or her own victim. Because these statements all show the subject of the verb that describes the action becoming the object of that same action, I call this 'reflexive justice'."

He goes on to cite some of the standard biblical texts which illustrate this notion:

He who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth to disillusionment. 15 He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made. 16 The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head. (Ps 7.14ff)

And He has brought back their wickedness upon them, (Ps 94.23)

To which we might add:

As for the head of those who surround me, May the mischief of their lips cover them. (Ps 140.9)

The nations have sunk down in the pit which they have made; In the net which they hid, their own foot has been caught. 16 The Lord has made Himself known; He has executed judgment. In the work of his own hands the wicked is snared. (Ps 9.15-note that this is attributed to the Lord)

They spread a net for my feet-I was bowed down in distress. They dug a pit in my path- but they have fallen into it themselves (Ps 57.6)

The logic of this seems rather clear [HI:FH:152]:

"It is clear that reflexive justice carries its own rationale within. When evil circles back on its perpetrators, there is no need to explain why their suffering was just."

For God to somehow 'forgive' these, would involve a suspension of the natural rules of cause and effect, a very pre-condition for the human community.

PushBack Discussion


Nine: One of the more sobering (but observable and demonstrable) results of treachery is on the character of the agent, and this is also a 'natural' consequence that requires no 'extra' action by God.

One of the most vivid statements of a case of this is Romans 1.21:

"For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened"

They began at a reasonable starting point, but by ignoring the logical and ethical implications of what they knew, they lived in 'the opposite direction' from what their heart knew, and it changed and damaged their heart. Their actions, inconsistent with what they knew, were self-modifying and self-destructive. And these hearts they carried forward with them.

There is an old saying that runs something like this:

If you think something often enough, you will eventually say it out loud.
If you say something often enough, you will eventually do it.
If you do something often enough, it will become a habit.
If you practice a habit long enough, it will become a part of your character.
If something is part of your character long enough, it will influence your thinking...

We know this in experience as the dialectic of objectivity and subjectivity: what I choose (subjectivity) becomes my past 'outside of' me (objectivity), which conditions/limits/influences what I choose next. This spiral of choices-which-change-me and changes-which-condition-my-choices can work for good or ill, and for those who choose destructive paths the spiral is degenerative.

This 'natural consequence' of our actions requires no 'extra' judgment from God at all, and it would be yet another 'anti-predictability miracle' for Him to stop this neutral spiral-principle from working. [This spiral is largely the entire basis for learning and development-we really need this to work consistently!]

C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, paints a 'picture' of the inhabitants of hell, and drawing upon this biblical motif, draws the implication of this for community-now and then (p. 20-21):

"It seems the deuce of a town," I volunteered, "and that's what I can't understand. The parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?"

"Not at all," said my neighbour. "The trouble is that they're so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he's been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he's quarrelled so badly that he decides to move. Very like he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarrelled with their neighbours-and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He's sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he'll move on again. Finally he'll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it's easy here. You've only got to think a house and there it is. That's how the town keeps on growing."

In this aspect of the "town", the character of the inhabitants were holdovers from their non-love characteristics in this life. In this case, "justice" was simply allowing the inhabitant to 'be himself or herself' consistently.

We know this. We know we become what we choose and what we practice. This is not rocket science. Humans have always known that we are still "us" on the other side of death. The only things we get to "take with us" are our character and our history with God.

Even the pagan world knew this, and even knew it was an aspect of true justice. For example:

"once it (the soul) has been stripped of the body, everything in the soul is manifest-its natural characteristics and the experiences which a man's soul has encountered through occupations of various kinds. When therefore they arrive before their judge...he halts them and scans the soul of each...he will often lay hold of the Great king or any other king or potentate and see that there is no sign of health in his soul but that it is torn to ribbons by the scourge and full of scars due to perjuries and crime-the marks branded on the soul by every evil deed-and that everything is crooked through falsehood and imposture, and nothing straight because it has been reared a stranger to truth..."

"Thus other tormentors surround those who, under the cover of an assumed external virtue, had passed their lives without being suspected. These tormentors painfully turn some of these souls inside out. They strip the skin off others to display their souls, all mottled with bruises bearing the marks of vice right up to its reasoning and superior part. Such is the punishment for a life of hypocrisy. In death the true inner self is forcibly exposed..."

This is one of the concomitants of our freedom and agency under God. We re-create ourselves by our lives, and we carry these selves for a long, long time...

PushBack Discussion


Ten: This self-inflicted destruction is itself a violation of the community, for the treacherous ones were supposed to be contributors to the whole good, as well as co-celebrants of community life.

In other words, anything that weakens one member, weakens all members. I, as a community member, raised by it and dependent upon it for much of my operational life, simply do not have the right to harm it by levels of self-destruction (regardless of Western values of self-determination, rugged individualism, or psychological alienation!). For example, if I choose to consistently imagine killing a certain person in my community, but never actually do it, I still weaken the community by growing hypocrisy and psychological fragmentation within myself, and by probably achieving much lower levels of cooperation with said individual. Jesus himself pointed out the close relationship between inner 'value commitments' and outer 'events': "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander." (Matt 15.19)

Thus, even supposedly 'invisible' crimes against the community actually affect it negatively.

We have all known people consumed by a vice, twisted by an obsession, enslaved by a bad habit, and we even have a term for certain types of this-"neurotic" (clinical defn: "inability to function socially or biologically").

[And, we might point out, this kind of 'punishment' doesn't act as a deterrent to the perp in the least. If this counts as 'punishment', then it is generally NOT recognized or integrated as such by the perp! In fact, it unfortunately weakens the 'residual goodness' of the traitor even further, creating additional impetus toward community damage...]

Needless to say, God, in His role as a member of every community, is 'injured' and 'restricted' by such self-violence (and especially of note would be hatred or apathy toward God Himself). This would stop that human community member from taking advantage of the potential contributions to him or her that God could make. By forgoing these additional benefits, blessings, empowerments, and insights, the anti-God community member would be 'robbing' the community of higher levels of his or her own contribution and celebration (in addition, of course, to their own significance, development, and happiness). Exclusion of God from someone's life has much broader implications that just for that individual.

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Eleven: In addition to the 'natural' principle of "you reap what you sow," there is an additional such principle in "you (eventually) get from God the relationship that you ask for".

God offers options for reconciliation and repair to the treacherous, but as they consistently refuse, with ever increasing stubbornness and vehemence, eventually God will "turn them over" to their wishes. This happens routinely under God's governance, both with those within covenant relationships with Him (e.g., Israel, the Church),and with those without (e.g., Pharaoh). Those that consistently and deliberately choose estrangement from, and avoidance of a relationship with God, eventually get exactly that-exile from God.

I find it fascinating, that in the one detailed glimpse that we get of after-death punishment (or at least of an image of it), avoidance of God is still somehow a higher priority than even personal peace and happiness! The suffering soul in Luke 16 does not ask or seek to go "up" to Abraham in the place of the Blessed, but asks for Lazarus to "come down" to assist him!

And the people of Revelation 16, who while experiencing directly (in human time) some of the judgment "wrath" of God, nevertheless do not seek to placate Him, but rather still curse Him!

The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was given power to scorch people with fire. 9 They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him. 10 The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. Men gnawed their tongues in agony 11 and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done. (Rev 16.8-11)

Here you have the amazing situation of apparently cogent humans, immediately aware that their considerable pain is due directly to God, and yet they will not change their position! [So much for the theory that everyone would accept Christ if they really knew what hell was like, or would change their mind once they got there...yeah, right.]

And these were those who shed innocent blood:

"You are just in these judgments, you who are and who were, the Holy One, because you have so judged; 6 for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve." [Rev 16.5]

The internal effects of their treacherous lives were manifest in their senseless and self-destructive rejection of God's still-present offer of rescue!

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Twelve: Strangely enough, most of the more-literal images of the Last Judgment involve humans as those doing the judgments, almost as a community-judgment.

We see this in a number of passages and themes:

"The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 "The Queen of the South shall rise up with this generation at the judgment and shall condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Matt 12.38)

The Jews of that time expected a human element in this process (REF:BBC, in.loc.):

"Jewish discussions of the end times featured converts among the poor who would testify against those who said they were too poor to follow God; converts among the rich, converts among the Gentiles and so on. Here Jesus appeals to pagans who converted. "

Indeed, humans will actually judge angels there (I Cor 6.3), and the judgment given to Jesus Christ is said to have been given to him because of His membership in the human community:

For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; 27 and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. (John 5.26-27)

This should not be underestimated. Even some of the less-literal images of judgment contain this element. Compare Revelation 6.9:

And when He broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; 10 and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" [Notice that the human victims appeal to God for justice--it is they who call for God's justice.]

PushBack Discussion


Thirteen: Even the idea of God's "vengeance" is generally portrayed as an expression of community-needs of justice and closure.

Verses that are often used to vilify God as a revengeful monster are actually expressions of His acting in behalf of the community's values and needs for closure and justice.

Lord, God of vengeance; God of vengeance, shine forth! 2 Rise up, O Judge of the earth; Render recompense to the proud. 3 How long shall the wicked, O Lord, How long shall the wicked exult? They pour forth words, they speak arrogantly; 4 All who do wickedness vaunt themselves. 5 They crush Thy people, O Lord, And afflict Thy heritage. 6 They slay the widow and the stranger, And murder the orphans. 7 And they have said, "The Lord does not see, Nor does the God of Jacob pay heed." (Ps 94.1)

The famous "vengeance is mine" passage in Deut 32.25, ends with verse 43:

Rejoice, O nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.

And Paul...

no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. (I Thess 4.6)

The background of this idea is that of the 'avenger of blood' in Numbers 35. In the case of willful homicide, a member of the clan or tribe was assigned the task of avenging the wrong, of 'setting things right'. He was to execute justice on the murderer, and so bring the community back into confidence in its members' loyalty to each other.

The Lord appears in many 'vengeance' contexts to play this role of 'community agent' or 'kinsman avenger'.

And he arose and went into the house, and he poured the oil on his head and said to him, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, 'I have anointed you king over the people of the Lord, even over Israel. 'And you shall strike the house of Ahab your master, that I may avenge the blood of My servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord, at the hand of Jezebel. (2 Kgs 9.7f)

Egypt will become a waste, And Edom will become a desolate wilderness, Because of the violence done to the sons of Judah, In whose land they have shed innocent blood. 20 But Judah will be inhabited forever, And Jerusalem for all generations. 21 And I will avenge their blood which I have not avenged, For the Lord dwells in Zion. (Joel 3.19ff)

In this case, God is acting as a community representative, reflecting community value and morals.

PushBack Discussion


Fourteen: There is a distinct sense in which all people do not want God's forgiveness--so why should God 'force' it on them?

We have already seen above that immediate awareness of God is not correlated in any way with a 'change of heart' toward Him, and this is merely an extension of that principle. Asking for forgiveness is a personal matter. In the case of injury, one person seeks the forgiveness of another. Asking for forgiveness is difficult for some people to do, for it involves awareness of their imperfection, of their dependence on another or Another, and of their need for personal contact with the victim of their destructive behavior. This is intensely personal, and not something received from a vending machine!

For those who will not choose to admit blame for once, will not admit that they are dependent on God for once (!), or will not approach God in their heart for once--even for the simple act of genuinely asking forgiveness--there is no obligation upon God (or any member of the community in a similar situation, for that matter) to be dishonest about the reality of the injury and the possible reoccurrence of similar treachery by someone who has no or inadequate regret for their actions, nor desire to seek repair of community relationships.

In this case, justice (as not somehow applying 'forced forgiveness' upon someone) is a perfectly natural expression of community value and worth.

PushBack Discussion


Fifteen: God, in His role as community member, has the right to hold another member accountable, and in so doing, expresses the worth of that other member.

In the parable of the Talents (Matt 25.14ff), God gives certain assets to trusted servants. They use their skills in leveraging these assets, and in return receive significantly more reward and responsibility. They are treated as responsible agents in the distribution of God's resources, and God holds them accountable and responsible as such. To hold someone accountable for their actions is a statement of that person's intrinsic worth and an estimate of their capabilities. God consistently treats us as such, and holding people accountable for their destructive behavior, or for their acts of love, is an expression in itself of our personal worth.

God (as do other community members) expects us to fulfill our part in supporting, developing, and enjoying community life. This expectation is manifested in historical cultures by accountability, both legal and social.

God does not negate our worth by ignoring our labors of love, nor by ignoring acts of treachery and victimization of others. Justice, in the sense of holding us accountable for our choices, is one expression of this "co-membership" with God in the human (or more accurately, "personal") community.

Under this motif, blanket 'forgiveness' (of those with no desire for it) is an insult to them in itself (and hence, a violation of community ethics).

PushBack Discussion

Sixteen: God, in His role as community member, has the right to reclaim assets that were 'loaned' to another community member.

In the parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matt 21.33ff; Mr 12; Lk 20), God is portrayed as someone who rented out a vineyard. As such, He still maintained the right to 'repossess' it, if the current management failed in their commitments and obligations.

In a community sphere the same applies. God, who gives life and ability and joy and pleasure and predictability (cf. Matt 5.45: "He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous"; Acts 14.17:"He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy."), has the absolute right to "repossess" those "assets" from those who squander, or even worse (cf. Ezek 16), misuse those against community health. Why would we be surprised that the justice of God would do the same at the last Judgment?

Some of the aspects of final judgment are understood as the removal of these 'loaned benefits' from those who misused them in antagonism against the human community.

PushBack Discussion


Seventeen, there is a very real sense in which the integrity of God the law-giver is at stake: He must do what He promises to do in the law.

God, as community founder and constitutive law-maker, makes some explicit commitments when laws are established for the good of the community. Laws that are of the type “If you do this, then I will surely do that” are expressions of intent, will, and commitment. If God 'lies' about something, His personal integrity is suspect—even if there are no community consequences. Consider this thought 'experiment':

There is a 'Unitarian' (non-plurality) God [just to make it simple]. He creates only two people (no angels or other spectators), Fred and Barney, and puts them into a social relationship. He gives each of them $20 USD (smile). He then creates a law, saying “Do not kill one another, in order to take their money, or I will punish you with execution.”. The law is understood, fully agreed to by Fred and Barney as being good and their guide to future conduct, and there are no subtleties involved in their interactions. Fred is bigger than Barney, and decides to exploit his prodigious bulk and kill Barney, in order to take his money. Fred consummates the act, leaving only himself alive and only himself with money.

Along comes God, and notices the dead body of little Barney, and He knows that Fred killed/plundered him for his money. God confronts Fred with his culpability and a conversation something like this ensues:

God: “Fred! I cannot believe you killed Barney! You deliberately broke an explicit law. I am now going to have to invoke the stated judgment in the Law and execute you!”

Fred: “Whoa, God! You don't have to do that, for two obvious reasons. First, punishing me is clearly not going to bring Barney back to life (i.e., the consequences of my treachery are irreversible, in main). Second, your reason for even giving us this law—to promote the health/growth of the community—doesn't even apply any more: there is no one else for me to kill (so killing me won't 'contain the damage') and there is no one else to watch the execution (so killing me won't act as a deterrent). Thus, there is no reason –based upon your original reasons for giving us the Law—for you to punish me. So, what justification can you offer for doing so?

God: “O Foolish Fred the Unfaithful, it is simple and SHOULD be obvious to you—but your failure is almost the exact mirror-opposite of my reason. I will do so because of personal integrity. I made a commitment, in giving the Law for the good of the community, that if you did X, then I would reliably and inexorably do Y to you. I am a god of my word, unlike you. I make promises and keep them—regardless of whether it accomplishes what all I hoped would happen when I gave the law. Your two 'obvious reasons' are indeed true, but My Law (of reward and punishment) is fundamentally a contract I have with each member of the community—and that includes you. I didn't just promise Barney that I would kill you, if you killed him, but I promised YOU TOO that I would do this. And my promise TO YOU to execute YOU doesn't involve/require any community benefits accruing to you, I assure you!! I made a contract with you (and here's your signature on the covenant, endorsing/agreeing to this in full) to kill you if you killed Barney. I am not a contract-breaker, promise-breaker, covenant-breaker. I keep my word—for reasons of personal integrity FIRST (as YOU should have kept YOUR word to obey the law for reasons of personal integrity FIRST, and not just out of 'fear of consequences'...which obviously didn't stop you from killing our friend the Barney the Loyal.)

What this little parable illustrates is that—lack of desired community effects notwithstanding—God must punish/bless according to His law, for reasons of integrity within God. Law is not just a 'convenience' thing. It represents commitments that God is willing to stand behind (and others which we should stand behind), and as such, does not afford God the “opportunity” to let punishment just 'fall through the cracks' on occasion. It is grounded in something deeper than just efficiency and utility among creatures. It may start there with community values in design/mind, but it is 'incarnated', as it were, in personal commitments of the ever-faithful God.

PushBack Discussion


Eighteen: Natural consequences alone are not always adequate/sufficient 'consequences' for certain types of community violations.

Certain types of crimes--of large community impact--require 'unnatural consequences' as community/judicial response. The natural consequences are not at the same magnitude as the ripples of destruction. Two examples--of different kinds of mismatches--may suffice to make this point.

Example One: The murder of a righteous, community-contributing person. If I, in an act of treachery, kill this person, the community losses all the downstream benefits of his/her life, and his/her (dependent) family would lose (at least in the historical period under discussion) much of their ability to survive and contribute significantly to the community. This massive loss of considerable downstream benefits to the community is grossly out of synch with the natural consequenses experienced by the perp himself: a guitly conscience, a hardening of the heart (maybe), some level of social alienation for self and family, public censure/discipline, experiences of social distrust (except by other nefarious elements, btw--a separate problem!). There may need to be some additional/different punitive/retributive system effects (e.g., semi-arbitrary?) levied by the govenment to bring at least the 'magnitude' (since the very kind/type of consequences are not automatically the same--i.e., the perp doesn't die himself/herself automatically--it may take state intervention to create this effect, if it's important) of the two consequence streams into rough equivalency.

[There is a separate issue with the imbalance of consequence-streams within the community. For an evil man (who is either more-bad-than-good or morally-ambivalent) to be able to continue to produce downstream negative inputs (through self, family, influence, and weakening of good workers), while a corresponding positive stream (from the good victim's self, family, influence, and support for other good workers) is eradicated through murder (or restricted through injury, theft, slander, etc) leaves the community 'mix' of influence/consequence streams skewed more toward the destructive. The health of the community is dependent on the mix being more-good-than-bad, even if the sum-total is lower. In other words, 51% bad in a population of 1000 is worse than 40% bad in a population of only 500. The issue is whether the influence/consequence streams can sustain the growth and health of the community--can the good streams outrun, out-influence, and potentially transform the bad streams. Hence, removal of a perp (and like-minded family and like-minded friends) might be more important to the community than the value the extra 'headcount' contributes to community 'critical mass'.]

Example Two: The violation of an important community-critical ethic. In the ANE this can be clearly seen in the punishments for rape. If a person raped a married women, the penalty with typically death. The rape of an unmarried women was generally NOT a capital crime. The difference was due to the importance of genetic lineage in an inheritance-based, land-centered culture. That is, parentage of an individual was essential to the social order--a rape which rendered lineage ambiguous or questionable would create significant disorder and instability in such cultures. Hence, the importance of that cultural bedrock linked, in the case of a married woman, a capital-crime consequence (i.e., execution) with a non-capital type of crime (i.e., rape). When such a bedrock was not violated--and "only" normal ethics were violated--the consequence could be non-capital (e.g., payment to the family, forced economic support of the woman for the future).

The net effect of these considerations is that some (possibly) arbitrary-looking punishments might be necessary to community balance/health, in case of wide disparity of consequence weights.

PushBack Discussion


Although this subject is much, much deeper than I have shown here (and I still have to adduce the relevant theological and philosophical arguments, below), the above explorations should suffice to show the extent to which justice is an important, and even critical, structure in our lives, our persons, our present, and our future.

Let me just repeat the above points here, before we glance at what 'flexibility' God might have in dispensing justice:

Now, if you look at the above, several things stand out:

On the basis of this, I would have to say that God cannot be un-just because it would violently destroy His own essence ["necessary existence" and all, notwithstanding (philosophical smile)], and dissolve the human community and culture into chaos of "treachery and injustice for all"...


A theological and philosophical point or two now...

I have developed this argument in the context of community values, since those flow essentially from the heart and character of our God. While this might be construed by theologians as leading to a 'moral governance' view of the atonement (although this is a separate issue), and by philosophers as essentially a 'utilitarian' ethic, it really isn't. This is solidly rooted in the "essence" of God and a few observations may make this clear:

One. God (in Trinitarian theology) IS a community--any ad extra community 'ethics' are essentially grounded in His internal community ethics.

Two. God in Christian theology is characterized by love--in His essence. As the foundation for God's community valuation, commitments, and governance, this further ties this position into the character of God.

Three. God's moral-emotional response to evil is outrage (as should be ours). His moral-emotional response to the damage caused by evil is grief (as should be ours). His moral-volitional response to both is action to correct the outcome --via punishment and healing, via rehabilitation, via redress, via upholding of moral values, via exile, via community learning and adjustment, etc. (as should be ours). All of this flows FROM Who God is, but flows TOWARDS us/community. That does NOT make it 'grounded in utility', 'grounded in community', or 'for public show only' at all. It is still God responding to evil--in forms which we (as divine-image-bearers) should manifest analogically.

Four. Outrage is a private affair, and not 'utility-oriented'. We are outraged by even theoretical/fictional scenarios involving child abuse, victimization of the unfortunate, violence against women, senseless vandalism, exploitative executives, etc. [and boy does Hollywood know this...]. EVEN IF the situation we are contemplating at some moment is entirely fictional, our moral 'who we are' becomes outraged inside. We don't become outraged to 'uphold the community values publicly' or to 'give closure to the victim-family'--we be become outraged 'foundationally' (to use the philosophical term). We visualized the scenario, then experienced outrage, but we didn't reason to the outrage--we just 'pulsed' toward it. Our moral sense was violated/provoked immediately, and not because of an implicit or explicit appeal to some other/third thing (e.g., canons of fairness, pleasure calculations).

Five. The above point is where we can see that the response of God to evil is foundational--it actually does not need an appeal to some other value to justify it. It's like 'good' . Linda Zagzebski can explain this notion this way (Faith and Philosophy, Volume 15, Number 4, Oct 1998, page 540):

"In any foundationalist moral theory there is something that is good in the most basic way. If the goodness of something is really foundational, it cannot be justified or explained by the goodness of something else, and it is usually claimed that it needs no justification or explanation. Theorists almost always hedge this claim, however, and try to think of some way of justifying what the theory says cannot be justified, as Mill does in attempting to justify the goodness of pleasure in chap. 4 of Utilitarianism."

[Tank readers will recognize this as the "what is furthest back"/ultimate/URP principle....They will also note that I have tried to justify in this article what probably doesn't really need any philosophical justification--a la LindaZ here (smile).]

Six. Evil seems to fall into this category, since it is defined foundationally, as "anti-good". Accordingly, we can either (a) GIVE a REASON for punishment ("wrath of God", in the biblical NQM sense, as in my Tank article) or; (b) there can be NO NEED to GIVE A REASON for punishment. In other words, evil is culpable/punishable BY's one of those 'furthest back' things... "Why is something good actually GOOD?"--"because that's what 'good' MEANS" (there is no appeal to a third thing). "Why must good be liked, loved, sought after?"--"Because that's what good MEANS"...Evil (as anti-good) has the same sorta character--"Why must evil be hated, repulsed, punished?"--"Because that's what 'evil' MEANS" (i.e. something that deserves a good God's censure, attack, repudiation, nullification, sterilization, damage-recovery, etc.; or, perhaps better, 'something that deserves a good agent's censure, etc.'--to include us as moral agents, a la points 3 and 4 above.)

So, I consider my position to be fully grounded in God, and in His essential response to evil (and to good, of course), but I also consider it 'obvious' why much of this 'makes sense' in a community-exalting, people-loving, beauty-valuing universe. After all, we believe the universe was architected to display, support, encourage, sustain, and reward such life, growth, beauty, healing, love (God's essential heart/character/nature)--Makes sense to me...


Let's explore another philosophical avenue on this, related to the last point above, to see why such a response to evil is necessary.

Scenario: God is a morally pure, perfect, beautiful, and loving Agent. He creates a universe that is beautiful and orderly, and creates a single/solitary (finite and derivative) moral agent inside this universe. This finite agent is constructed along the lines of moral purity (with elements such as conscience, instinct, and God's instruction insuring that initial moral choices are clear, with no room for ignorance or maturation-related problems possible at first), and this creature faces his/her first moral decision between choice A and choice B. The agent is aware that choice A is 'what God would do' (in his/her situation) and is therefore an expression of moral purity, goodness, truth, and beauty, as well as love for moral purity, goodness, truth, and beauty. Such a choice also inherently affirms the beauty of God's will--as the moral precedent and ultimate reference point for this. Since the agent is already in a morally perfect world, choice A will result in no qualitative gain in goodness, but will result in a quantitative gain in goodness (i.e., robustness and plenitude). The agent choses A, freely, instead of any alternative non-A/anti-A. God's moral beauty is therefore affirmed by the creature, and certain built-in benefits of goodness accrue to the creature (e.g. 'the joy of personal integrity').

What--if any-- is the 'required' response by God, the morally pure Agent, whose interests are in (a) preserving the moral beauty; and in (b) increasing the enjoyment of that moral beauty by others--the quantitative element? Could such a beauty-loving, moral truth-loving God be silent/neutral in such a case? No way--the God of the obligation of reciprocity ("do unto others what you would have them do unto you") would affirm the goodness of the creature, just as the creature had affirmed the goodness of God's heart in the act of making the choice. This affirmation could take many forms (e.g., praise, above-consequences blessings, additional opportunities for greater choices/responsibility) , but any of them would likely be perceived as a 'reward' by the creature.

Would there be any 'utilitarian' goal for the reward? There need not be any at all--the 'reward' was a moral affirmation that flowed (without goal!) from the heart of the morally perfect Affirmer (just as the affirmation of God by the creature during the act of the choice would not/could not be 'utilitarian' oriented--or the motivation for the good would have been perverted). In other words, the affirmation 'events' are intrinsic to the actions, and are NOT 'goal-oriented' or utilitarian. God affirms-in-reward not to 'further motivate', not to educate, not to 'set a precedent', but rather because He is "aggressively" morally good. Likewise, the affirmation of God by the creature is not to 'bribe God', nor to 'position oneself relative to future blessings', etc.--the affirmation occurs in the simple choosing of the good-because-its-like-God.

Could we use the word 'just' to describe God's response of affirmation? Philosophically speaking, justice is "each getting what he or she is due" (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy). For God's action to be considered 'just' (in this philosophical sense), the affirmation would have to be something 'due' to the creature. Without getting too technical, this would mean that some 'obligation' of sorts existed between God and any good-chooser (be it human, spirit, God, or intra-Trinitarian Agent).

Now, normally, folk like me get really nervous when we posit 'obligations' on God relative to humans. Specters of 'merit' and 'boasting' etc. start circling around in our heads, but the plain fact of the matter is that God obligates Himself in history all the time. He obligates Himself in all the covenants of the bible ("and when He could swear by nothing greater, He swore by Himself..."), and His very heart 'obligates' Him in certain trajectories of faithfulness, truthfulness, and mercy. In all these types of cases it is perfectly (theologically) legitimate to speak of God's obligations to others, since these obligations arise from God's own gracious choices and from God's own expansive heart--and NOT from some 'prior claim' that a creature might have upon Him.

In our particular case, the obligation is one that derives only from God's moral beauty (not from His position as Lawgiver)--and it is an 'obligation' shared by all moral agents. In other words, all moral agents have the same obligation to affirm the good choices of others (since the good choices of others had also affirmed their moral standards, in the act of choosing the good). I as a moral agent am under a similar moral obligation to affirm--as being good--the good choices of others. And I am NOT supposed to do this solely for 'other reasons'--solely to encourage them, train them, appear noble, etc.--but just because it was good. God--as a perfectly good moral Agent--has therefore the moral imperative (obligation) to recognize, affirm, celebrate the good choices of other moral agents. [Of course, God can go 'way overboard' in the rewarding act--!--so that "goodness gives way to grace and generosity", but this would not be 'obligation' in any sense. It might be beauty, but it would be 'more than is due' and therefore 'just, plus generous'.]

In a real sense, this is essentially a 'law' of Reciprocity. In human ethical systems, this law shows up as some variant of the Golden Rule ("do unto others what you would have them do unto you"), and has a long (and 'wide') history in ethical thought. The oldest semi-statement of this I can find is in the Old Testament/Tannach (Lev 19.18c): "love your neighbor as yourself". This core (treat your neighbor as you [as moral subject] would treat yourself [as moral object]) is essentially the core of the Golden Rule [treat your neighbor as you would have them (moral subjects) treat yourself (as moral object)]. The Golden rule can be found in explicit statements in/by Herodotus, Thales, Isocrates, Confucius, pre-Christian Jewish Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha, Hillel, Jesus, Akiba, and St. Paul.

I have written a bit on this elsewhere (letter dated Nov 3/2004), and realize that there is an implicit obligation present in that ethical base. As I treat others, so I implicitly 'authorize' and essentially 'request' others to treat me. This will become important in the next section.

Okay, now for the Choice B...

Here we are dealing with overt, explicit, informed, and willful selection of evil. This is NOT about "mistakes", ignorance, immaturity, lack of experience, cognitive errors, coerced behavior, or behavior prompted by physical/chemical imbalances (at least those uncaused by previous evil choices, of course--a separate issue). This is informed and deliberated and conscious and "willful" rejection of the good. It does not need to be a 'big' crime--it just needs to be a clear crime. The structure of the act is what concerns us (first).

So, how does this look, structurally?

The agent faces the moral choice, and is fully aware that A is in synch with God's moral purity, beauty, and truthfulness. Likewise, he is also aware that choice B is not, and therefore that it represents an alternate and opposing set of values/ethics. When the person then acts upon the basis of that opposing set of values, several things are done: (1) there is a repudiation of God's perfect morality, beauty, truthfulness; (2) there is an assertion of a superior set of values (i.e., values which center around the moral agent's pleasure, will, status, benefits, worship, etc.); (2) there is a self-deification, in which the moral agent becomes the source of 'true' values; and (4) there is an consequential challenge to/repudiation of the deity of God (as unique source of absolute ethical knowledge and ground of standards--there can only be one values-grounding-absolute in any system).

These involve denial of truth, destruction of beauty, soiling of purity, disregard for others (in this case, God), repudiation and rejection of the value/values of others, and alienation-from-the-self-as-moral-gent. Serious business...especially the first one of these...

Ontologically, this act "rips a tear in the universe". It is falsity in a universe in which everything else is truth, it is behavior that is alien to the moral character of the universe; it is a 'nothing', an 'anti-matter', a fragmentation of what once was whole. There are no 'edges' to it, by which it can be 'sewn back into' the fabric of a perfect universe. No subsequent good act can 'undo' this. It is its own little 'universe', free floating in God's, disconnected, unreal, parasitic, but able to send ripples of degeneration into the beauty that our universe was.

What we are looking for here is two-fold:

1. what (if any) is the obligatory response of other morally good (peer) agents to such an act?

2. what (if any) is the obligatory response of other morally good (peer) agents to such an agent?

The first one is fairly obvious.

In each of these areas, moral agents have an obligation to actively repudiate/condemn the act, and this response is due to the nature of the good and the nature of the moral agent (a bit like our instinctive moral outrage at atrocities in our world--we condemn the act in the very act of emotional outrage against it). It is NOT a utilitarian response in the least.

But what exactly does repudiation/condemnation mean? At a minimum it is a omni-directional proclamation/assertion that the act is/was what it is/was: the "denial of truth, destruction of beauty,...etc." list from above. Additionally it would contain something strong along the line of "it should NOT have been done"--by ANY moral agent. This latter amounts to a statement of obligation--the perp had an obligation (to truth, beauty, purity) to champion, celebrate, perpetuate, love, and express these values in ever-increasing "quantities" and on ever-frequent occasions.

[Note that the perp not only failed the obligation, but he also repudiated/condemned the obligation itself in the process of evil, by acting as if the obligation were not binding on him. This is tantamount to a self-repudiation as a moral agent! In other words, when I willfully reject an obligation that derives from who/what I am--a moral agent--I am essentially rejecting myself as being a moral agent. I have instead either asserted that (1) I am the only moral agent in the universe--and ground of value and obligations to value--or that (2) I am not a moral agent in a universe where other agent are moral agents. Its either self-deification or self-denunciation...]

But the response actually goes farther than proclamation--it involves the affective dimension as well. In our personal experience, this affective response shows up in our moments of moral outrage at moral atrocities (e.g., child abuse, genocide, violence against women, treachery, betrayal). There is something in us that is supposed to "love the good, hate what is evil", and this expresses itself in moral outrage. [Of course, most of our moral outrage is directed at those who allegedly mistreat us (smile), but we do have our moments when we are outraged at acts of atrocity against others...sigh/smile.]

Importantly, our repudiation/outrage is of the evil act itself--in its generic sense--and less about the specifics of the case. In other words, we repudiate murder, theft, treachery, abuse anytime they occur. Our outrage is at the evil-inside-the-act so to speak, and not the historical/specifics of the act. For example, if Fred murders Barney on Oct 20 at 3:17pm, the evil is the 'murder', not the 'Fred', 'Barney', 'Oct 20', or '3.17pm'. It is murder--anywhere, by anyone--that is repudiated by our proclamation. We don't just condemn THIS murder, we condemn ALL murders--of which this is one instance. Thus repudiation of evil--as distinct from the response to the perp--is somewhat 'independent' of the specific murderer, in any given case. Had Barney murdered Fred instead, our murder-repudiation proper would have been essentially unchanged. The sentence "That act was evil" would be just as appropriate in either case. Our moral outrage is that "someone was murdered"--not that "Fred was the one who murdered someone" (this would be a different type of shock to us).

But is there anything that is obligatory to do about the act? The act itself has become entombed in the past and no amount of proclamation, outrage, or repudiation can change that. But has also become fixed in the present, as a memory, as a precedent, and as a cause of a resultant distortion in the universe. As such, we have to provide for a continuing repudiation of it (via memorial comments, legal codification, stories, etc.). As good-champions, of course, we have related obligations to try to minimize the ripples of damage, contain/restrain the evil agent from further acts of evil (if he is still malignant), heal what can be healed, restore what can be restored, repair what can be repaired etc.--for the good itself, and not for community health. More importantly (perhaps) we need to do things to reassert and "re-enthrone" the correct values (which were repudiated by the evil act), and this brings us to question number 2: What about the agent-of-the-evil-act? What (if any) response to the agent is obligatory?

First of all, we should note that one cannot condemn/repudiate an act "omni-directionally" without confronting the perp himself with this proclamation, especially in our original scenario of only two moral agents. This confrontation will likely produce one of three outcomes: (1) repudiation of the condemnation by the perp, resulting in a FURTHER act of evil; (2) correction/conversion of the perp into a contrite and repentant agent (not the same, importantly, as the original 'good moral agent' he was before the evil--he has damaged himself internally in this process); or (3) nothing, if the confrontation is not even noticed by the perp, operating in his own created mini-verse as the local deity, or if it is not 'invasive' or 'loud' enough to command his attention.

Secondly, when this possible outcome #3 is coupled with the obligation to re-enthrone the values in the life of the perp (in either outcome #1 or outcome #3), we are thrown willy-nilly into the question of force. Force is most obviously legitimate in the case of Outcome #3, since force (i.e., punishment-looking privation) may be required to 'get the attention' of the perp, so that he is forced into choosing between Outcome #1 and Outcome #2, so we won't deal with this version of force [i.e., it is not penal, not 'deserved', not related to the magnitude of the crime, not related to closure or anything traditionally associated with justice--it is, rather, simply 'turning up the volume' in our case].

Now, let's look at the case of Outcome #1. Let's assume that the perp has been quarantined, so that further acts of willful evil are somewhat circumscribed materially. There are three sub-questions to address here, dealing with 'what should a moral agent do if the perp persists in his commitment to evil?':

It should be obvious that the first thing owed to all three of these 'constituencies' is a practical one: forcible restraint of the perp, to reduce the probabilities of further evil (even owed to the perp, as a fellow-agent, to reduce their chances of incurring further guilt, damage, alienation, etc.). In our world, this might take several different forms: geographic (e.g., exile, restrictions from going to certain places--i.e., restraining orders), spatial (imprisonment), economic (assets/wealth used to commit crimes are confiscated), influence (restrictions on holding positions of authority), even temporal (execution, capital punishment). But again, although these appear as 'sentences' levied by judges and juries in our penal system, they are not 'punishment' in the pure sense of 'what is justly deserved' for the past act, but rather perhaps a mixture of this and of 'precautions against future evil'. Clearly, exile-as-restraint would invariably mean the perp was cut off from the community of blessing (or from full enjoyment of/participation in it), and this is a privation in itself (assuming the perp would not be happier somewhere else, of course), so many of these restraint-expedients also carry a punitive effect with them. And we would hope such privations would speak loudly enough to the perp to perhaps provoke repentance and conversion, but this is not theoretical justice either.

Perhaps the best place to look at 'pure justice' would be in the case of Outcome #2--the contrite and converted perp. In this scenario, the perp was confronted with the claims of his evil and he 'came to his senses'. He agreed with other moral agents that (a) he did all the things in the "denial of truth, destruction of..." list; and that (b) he was self-obligated--as a moral agent--to do otherwise. He might even have the insight that he had taken the road of self-deification or self-denunciation, and might even make a firm commitment to never evil-ing again (and renewing his 'champion of good' activities). Granted that the past act is now repudiated and condemned by all moral agents (including the perp), what (if any) response to the perp is required for that past act? Presumably, there is no need for forcible restraint as a preventative measure, nor any need for it as a message to 'induce attention', and there there will be plenty of (obligatory) good-affirming acts toward the perp's own good act of self-repudiation and fresh commitment, so we are left with the single question of "is there still something owed to the perp, for this past act?"

Now, in modern cases, a repentant criminal often will admit blame and wrongdoing, and actually recognize the justice of his punishment, as being something "I deserve" or as being their "debt to society for their crime", but this is in an authority/law/legal context, and we haven't gotten to that arena in our discussion yet. For example:

"...the Bible talks of the fruit of repentance (Luke 3:8). This would include restitution, such as paying back money that was stolen, as Zacchaeus did (Luke 19:8). It would also include subjecting ourselves to the legal procedures of the land. This is what Charles Colson did after his conversion. He pleaded guilty for crimes related to the Watergate scandal and served a jail sentence for those crimes." [SC:159f]

[This is an important observation which might be kept in mind during this discussion]. At this present point, rather, we need to consider the principle of reciprocity adduced above.

Reciprocity says that I am 'owed' what I give to others, whether good or bad, and that my choosing to act in a certain way is an implicit request that I be 'paid back' in kind (whether good or bad). If I do good to someone, I am 'owed' a reciprocal act of goodness (under the principle of reciprocity)--regardless of whether the beneficiary wants to, notices me, has the means to, etc. The subject of the act 'earns' a response, without any reference to a response from the specific beneficiary/victim. If I have 'privated upon' someone, then I am owed (under the principle of reciprocity) to be 'privated upon' myself (and not necessarily by the victim at all--and this fact is central to this argument). It is important to note that this perp-privation flows from the ethical principle of Reciprocity, and NOT from someone's need for closure, the community's need to re-balance power, public affirmation of values, or any of the other practical matters we discussed in the first part of this article. I am owed privation (or blessing) because I 'triggered' the principle of Reciprocity. Under this principle, the morally reformed perp SHOULD say "I should be privated/punished, for that past act", and the other moral agents should agree with him (albeit perhaps with hopes of finding some way 'out'). [Notice that ONLY the morally reformed perp--the one most likely to be forgiven!--is the one who will welcome in his conscience his punishment (since it is a morally good thing to pay people what is owed them), since the UNREFORMED perp will not even admit to wrongdoing at all. In the real world, many 'medium-grade' , non-hardened criminals in fact DO this--admitting that they 'deserve' to be punished for their crimes.]

Likewise, it is important to note that forgiveness of a perp, by any victim (God, other individual, a community), has nothing whatsoever to do with the principle of Reciprocity (as it applies to the past act). It may facilitate reconciliation, rehabilitation, reparations, and reintegration of the perp back into some social group, but it cannot 'touch' the obligation of Reciprocity--the two are simply not connected at all. "I forgive you for what you did to me" doesn't mean that what is owed to the perp under Reciprocity is somehow affected. The victim is NOT the source of the moral norm, nor of the principle of Reciprocity, nor of the moral agent status of the perp! The victim simply has ZERO authority over the moral order/principle of Reciprocity. They do not have the authority to 'ignore' the moral law (of Reciprocity)--for this is the essence of the very crime that the PERP did in doing evil! Moral Justice flows from the Reciprocity principle, and not from personal attitudes of the victim toward the perp. [Even in criminal cases in Legal Justice, forgiveness by a victim does not mean the State will abandon prosecution of a child-molester, a rapist, or a murderer--the realms are simply not the same. Criminal law is "the State versus Glenn", instead of "Steph versus Glenn". And a judge doesn't typically have the right to completely override a jury's decision of guilt and its choice of sentence, even if the criminal has confessed, is repentant, etc. In non-jury cases (i.e., judge only), the judge may be "lenient" in selecting a specific sentence from the legislated range of options, but there is a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE between a 'lighter sentence than expected' and the phrase "charges dropped" or "not guilty"! ]

[There is an interesting illustration of this legal point from early Islam. Muhammad taught that personal "blood vengeance" retaliation (kisas) was a gift/ordinance of God (but which admitted of a compensation-substitute as the definition of 'pardon', btw), but that even if a blood-avenger was "satisfied" without retaliation, the perp still had to be punished (Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v. "kisas"):

"Muhammad takes it for granted that the blood vengeance of Arab paganism—in which in contrast to the unlimited blood feud, definite retaliation, although not always on the person of the doer himself, forms the essential feature of the vengeance —is a divine ordinance with the limitation assumed to be obvious, that only the doer himself can be slain: Qur'an XVII, 35; XXV, 68; VI, 152; II, 173 ff. (before Ramadan of the year 2): “To you who are believers the kisas is prescribed for the slain, the freeman for the freeman, the slave for the slave and the woman for the woman; but if anyone is pardoned anything by his brother, he shall be dealt with equitably ... and pay him compensation as best he can. This is an indulgence and mercy from your Lord.”...pardon is the abandonment of kisas with a demand for compensation instead; the law is described as an indulgence and mercy and life-giving in contrast to the often unlimited blood-feud of pagan times, because only the guilty one is slain and the life of the innocent thus preserved...In the so-called constitution of the community at Medina, which belongs to the early Medinan period, it is laid down that if any one slays a believer and is convicted, talion takes place even if the avenger of the blood of the slain man declares himself satisfied; all believers must be against the [V:178a] murderer and must take an active part against him. Here the kisas is brought from the sphere of tribal life into that of the religious-political community ( umma )...]

The astute reader might have noticed by now an interesting pattern: the Golden Rule (GR) and the Eye-for-Eye lex talionis (LT) are essentially the same principle...Whereas GR is pre-scriptive "do to others what you want done to you", LT is post-scriptive "what you did to others, will be done to you". The ethical norm of Reciprocity becomes the penal norm when it is violated. And neither of these 'reciprocal reactions' requires the actual victim to play a role. In the GR, kindness we show to the poor is 'paid back' not by them, but by others. In LT, the harm we did to someone is often 'paid back' to us by others in the community (e.g., penal agents of the community/state). This means that the 'punishment-looking' aspect of LT is not arbitrary or ancillary--it is, rather, the same thing as the 'core' ethic of the GR (i.e., reciprocity).

Inherent in this principle of Reciprocity is the notion of 'peer agents'--that all agents must treat the other agents as peer moral agents, must expect other agents to act morally, and must hold other moral agents to acting according to Reciprocity--and that therefore all are bound to Reciprocity. That means that if you are owed something under Reciprocity, then to not deliver that to you (be it good or bad) is essentially a denial of your agent-standing (and therefore morally wrong). This has the interesting implication that if (a) the perp is morally deserving of (i.e., 'owed') punishment, and (b) I as a moral agent do not deliver that deserved punishment to him, then (c) I myself am morally culpable for not treating the perp as an important/significant moral agent. In other words, if a perp TRULY is owed punishment, then a simple 'pardon' (failing to deliver what is owed, for whatever reason--assuming the debt is not somehow re-directed elsewhere?) is actually morally culpable. And, oddly enough, this culpability is due less to the Reciprocity principle than it is to the high status/nature of the perp as a moral agent. [I might, at the same time, be required to treat the perp as an "object of worth/value" (in working to help him overcome this, etc.), but "object of value" is distinctly different from "moral agent". Value is derived from one's relationship to absolute value (e.g., as ultimate reference point/ground/exemplar etc.), whereas Moral Agency is related to one's ability and responsibility to choose between good and evil (and perhaps the ability to create/destroy value). I can truly affirm the 'object of value' (the person) and yet repudiate the moral agent (the agent-in-the-evil-act). The two should not be confused for this discussion.]

As an aside, this principle of punishment-as-an-implication-of-importance might be built into our psychological natures. Ajith Fernando makes this point [SC:160]:

"Another question relating to the justice of forgiveness has been asked of me by the more westernized people in Sri Lanka. It is typical of the lightness with which modern western people regard sin. They ask, 'Couldn't God simply pronounce forgiveness? Was it necessary for Christ to go through the painful process of dying?' A French cynic has said, "The good God will forgive me, that's his job [or his specialty].'...If God simply pronounced forgiveness, that would make forgiveness cheap. Our sin is too serious for such a response. We are too significant for our wrongdoing to be taken so lightly. People who have not been corrected during their childhood, whose wrongdoing has been regarded lightly, will invariably be insecure people. Subconsciously they reason that if they were significant individuals, their actions would be taken seriously. The failure of their parents and others to punish them in their childhood communicated to them the message that they are insignificant. Some of these people become very rebellious in their effort to win the attention of people. This point has been emphasized by specialists in child psychiatry like Dr. James Dobson."

This point is rather forceful: This alone would require God to punish evil acts of a moral agent.

Let's think about the "obligation flows" for a second. As a moral agent, I have an obligation (under Reciprocity) to visit "proportionate privation" upon the perp. That much seems clear from the above discussion. And contrite, repentant, and reasonable preps agree with this, using the language of 'merit' and 'owed' (e.g., "I got what I deserved"). But what about the perp himself? Is there obligation per se upon the perp for the past act, that would express itself in terms of obligation? What does the perp 'owe' as a moral agent (a) to others/God, (b) to the victim, and (c) to himself?

At first blush, B might seem obvious: the perp owes restitution/reparations to the victim(s). But why (since this is a philosophical discussion, everything 'obvious' is fair From whence does this debt arise? Under the above discussion of Reciprocity, the 'thing owed' was directed toward the perp from other moral agents (i.e., punishment/privation was owed TO the perp, not FROM the perp). [GR/LT/Reciprocity is essentially an Act/React type of obligation.] However, we should notice that the debt to the perp from "other moral agents" should have been more accurately phrased as from "all moral agents" or from "any moral agent"--including the perp, as moral agent. Think about this for a minute. This means that the perp, as a moral agent, owes it to himself to see to it that he is punished/privated (as a debt to him under Reciprocity). This is a significant point and falls under item C, but it's not item B, though. We might also note that the perp also owes it to himself to repudiate the evil (a la confession and renunciation?) and to reinstate the good in his own life as under his 'championship of truth', etc. But again, this is not item B.

Let's approach this by seeing what the prep owed the victim before the evil, in the pre-perp and pre-victim state. Under Reciprocity proper, the only debt would have been a 'responsive one'--to respond to moral acts by others other Reciprocity (i.e., by reward or by privation). The "do unto others" of GR is NOT stated as an obligation, but it is the qualifier ("as you would have them do to you") that creates the obligation. The actual obligation in GR could be worded like this: "IF you are going to do something to others, THEN you are obligated to do this something in accordance with your own self-values." In other words, the obligation is not TO ACT, but HOW to ACT.

However, this 'passive, responsive-only' understanding of GR quickly gives way to a larger sphere of obligation--the inclusion of the 'unsolicited good'. We want (" you want people to do to you") people to respond to us when we are hurting (not a moral act), not just when we are hurting others (a moral act). We want people to encourage us, to affirm us, to support us in basic life necessities, to enrich us--even when such acts are not RESPONSES to our own moral acts. This broadening of GR makes the withholding of such goods (at least some incidences, and subject to many qualifications) into a culpable act. The net effect of this broadening is that we 'owe' (under the broader GR/Reciprocity) to others things like comfort in times of loss, succor in need, pedagogy, encouragement, alms in cases of deprivation, relief in times of privation, affirmation in cases of marginalization/denigration, and vindication in cases of slander/misrepresentation. This might even be seen under the rubric of 'love'--we are obligated to 'love our fellow moral agent' and we are obligated to treat them as 'objects of value'.

Now, if A maltreats B (implicitly devaluing him) , then C has this obligation to succor and affirm B. [It should quickly be noted, however, that moral philosophers generally consider the obligation to benefit others as not being at the same level of obligation as that to avoid harming others. I might be morally excused for not giving a homeless family the contents of my wallet as I pass them by on the street, but I would never be excused for assaulting and hurting them.] But if C has this obligation (as a moral agent), SO DOES A. If A steals a sheep from B (and is suddenly one sheep richer thereby!), they have some level of obligation to 'give a sheep' to the now down-one-sheep B (or at least see that B gets a sheep from somewhere, without cost). And this obligation of the perp-to-the-victim is based on their mutual standing as moral agents, under the GR (or "love") obligations. This seems like a reasonable undergirding of WHY the perp 'owes' the victim repayment of loss.

That aspect--the sheep reparation--is only the material aspect of the crime, though. B was implicitly devalued by the act, in their own eyes and the eyes of other moral agents (especially A). What obligation would obtain between the perp and the victim in this aspect? How would perp A re-value victim B?

Well, how was B de-valued in the evil act, to begin with? When A 'created' his false universe, with A 'as god the moral-paradigm', B was instantly 're-defined' as an evil moral agent! If A was now the definition of truth/beauty/purity (as the Ultimate Reference Point in that system), then all the other (previously good) moral agents in the REAL universe were now suddenly all BAD moral agents in the created "universe-of-A". When good is defined as evil, then the standards switch places. What is really good becomes 're-defined' as evil in the anti-universe. A--as the creator of this universe--literally vilifies every good agent in the process of a single act of malice or treachery. Additionally, B was declared as having no 'rights of possession' to his property, his status, his reputation, whatever--everything now could be forcefully taken from B (legitimately in this system, given A's absolute standing, authority, and ownership as 'creator'). And of course, B's status in the real world was lessened--by grief of loss, by irreparable loss to happiness, by constricted viability, and sometimes by public humiliation and violation. [I think there are more elements involved, but these would certainly be included.]

This might suggest that re-valuation of B (by A) would include at a minimum: a public affirmation that B was in fact morally good and of at least peer value to A, proclamation that the evil act against B was false/ugly/fouled [e.g., an apology], a "transfer of ownership" of any stolen goods from the A-universe (where the goods belonged to A) 'back into' the real universe (where the goods belonged to B--i.e., restoration of goods), a commitment to do 'whatever is necessary' to restore as much 'peace of mind and heart' as possible to B, following the destructive violation. [Notice this last element might contain an implicit commitment to subject one's self to privation/punishment, for the sake of closure of B's family, in extreme cases.]

Notice how all of these flow from the principle of Reciprocity, and NOT from some utilitarian-type considerations. They are obligations, having nothing to do with utilitarian, practical, or personal attitudes. Forgiveness (as in 'cancellation of obligation by a victim') is irrelevant to this principle. [It will surface later, of course, in expressions like Jesus' "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors"--a GR statement if there ever was one--which will be turned around by God after the Cross in Paul's "forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you".]

Now we should make one additional small point here, lest some question the 'law-like' and binding character of GR/LT/Reciprocity upon moral agents. The existence of moral obligations are presupposed by the very term 'moral agents'--those that choose between moral alternatives (good and bad), and therefore "create" moral acts. Moral choices are between "good and evil"; non-moral choices are between "neutral and neutral". At a definitional level, moral agents are obligated to choose the good-qua-good, and Reciprocity is the 'moral standard' which (a) pur moral choices and (b) our complaints about how we are treated reveal about us to ourselves.

PushBack Discussion


Now, let's switch gears from moral philosophy to theology...

Under the first part of the article, we discussed God as Community Member/Founder. In the second part we discussed God as Moral Agent and Moral Ground. In this final section, we will discuss God as Legislator (law-maker) and Judge (law-enforcement), Sovereign Monarch, Chief Executive, and Universe Owner, in relation to the response to an evil act by a moral agent. However, in the context of Legislator and Judge, the moral agent is better called a 'citizen' or 'subject', since the image is that of governance, authority, and community rule of law. For Sovereign Monarch, he would be better called 'subject'. Similarly, in the context of Chief Executive, the moral agent is better called 'employee' or 'manager' (direct report), and in the context of Universe Owner, the moral agent might best be called 'guest'.

Legislator and Judge. Following Rawls' distinctions ["Two Concepts of Rules",] , Legislators make laws according the semi-utilitarian aims (e.g., establishing punishments and juridical procedures in such a way as to maximize community good, truth, beauty, purity), and Judges enforce laws according to retributivist rules (e.g., they strictly enforce the punishments and procedures defined by the legislative function). The two realms are separate: the Legislators do not enforce laws, but rather define enforcement policy and procedure, and Judges do not make/change laws, but simply 'measure' to what extent an alleged perp has earned the penalty prescribed by the law.

Legislators are not able to make up 'arbitrary' laws, because it is too 'expensive' to the State. They essentially 'look over' the folkways and mores of their society, analyze the behaviors for community impact, and then decide on punishments for them suitable to 'shaping' individual behavior. They cannot 'invent morality'--they can only prioritize desired behavior and sculpt the judicial process to 'encourage' that. Judges on the other hand, simply apply those rules--regardless of how arbitrary they may seem to someone. They do not have the option of 'suspending a law' or of 'pardoning a criminal' or of 'changing a sentence to something other than that prescribed by law'.

Laws do not include provisions for 'forgiveness for repentant criminals' (except in the apparently sole exception of bankruptcy laws, cf., but they make possible sentences which look like 'rehabilitation' initiatives. And Judges are accordingly not empowered to grant 'pardons' to guilty parties, and when they sentence criminals to these 'rehabilitation' initiatives it is as a retributive sentence. Even though the Legislators designed the sentence with utilitarian goals in mind, when the judge assigns it to a convicted criminal it is given as a punishment by the state. Hence, the utilitarian design of a law is irrelevant to the nature of criminal sentencing. The Judge MUST BE just, and give the perp 'what is deserved'--even if it contains rehabilitative elements.

Likewise, a Judge has no authority to ignore the laws he is sworn to uphold. In fact, neglect of duty and failure to obey the law of applying the law consistently is culpable. For a Judge to say "The law says the minimum sentence for your crime is X, but since you are sorry and have asked for leniency, I am going to ignore the law (like YOU did when you broke the law) and not give you even the prescribed minimum penalty" places the Judge 'above the law' and 'outside the law' and in violation of law.

In our case, God acting as Judge is required to 'act retributively' in applying (His own) law to citizens. He--as Judge--does not have the latitude to change the law on the fly (in fact, He cannot change it at all--since its basics flow from His unchangeable moral character!), but must 'do His job as Judge' and be just. So, as Judge God must punish the convicted with whatever penalties are specified in the Law (whether they 'look' utilitarian or not) which He is supposed to enforce uniformly.

God as Legislator doesn't actually GRANT 'forgiveness' or 'pardon'--this is a Law making/giving function. As legislator, He actually is not engaged/interacting with citizens, but rather formulating (or in this case, defining-by-His-character) laws, and establishing rewards/punishments designed to promote truth, beauty, good, purity, agents. Accordingly, God as Legislator has no obligation to do anything relative to a specific accused citizen under trial, whether forgiveness, pardon, punishment, exile or whatever.

But what about if God builds 'forgiveness' into the law? Couldn't a Judge then apply this 'forgiveness law' to appropriate cases, and withhold deserved punishment?

Let's think about that for a minute, in a human context. Such a law might look something like this: "If a person is convicted of murder, rape, child abuse, mutilation, or irreversible destruction of someone's good reputation, he is subject to these minimum/maximum penalties (A-Z), unless the court finds him repentant for the crime and truly committed to a crime-less life in the future, whereupon no sentence/punishment whatsoever is to be levied against him--there is full forgiveness."

The first obvious, major, and FATAL problem with this is that the perp's 'repentance and commitment' seems GROSSLY INADEQUATE to 'balance out' the horrendous aftermath of those crimes in the lives of their victims. Our sense of 'fairness' and 'decency' would be abjectly shocked by this, and actually our moral outrage (a response to evil) would probably also be triggered at such a disproportionate response of the State to such brutalization. Such 'forgiveness' might make a bit more "moral sense" to us at a parole hearing after a couple of decades of imprisonment/hard labor, and/or a couple of decades of amazingly altruistic good works on behalf of the victims (or other victims in the same type of class), but at the point of conviction/sentencing it would be unthinkable. And this shock would NOT be related to some 'dullness in our hearts' or 'lack of love for the criminal' -- it would ONLY come from hearts sensitive to the real extensive dimensions of this evil. It would be the pure-in-heart which would be most shocked by such miscarriage. It would be those most 'schooled by love of neighbor' that would cry out the most over this, as being an act of violation itself.

And this would not be a 'utilitarian' response--we wouldn't be outraged solely because such a judgment wouldn't 'incite the community to goodness'. We would be shocked at the 'moral outrage' level--an instinctive response that a moral atrocity was present. We might not be able to specify what should be the sentence on such a 'contrite indict-ee', but we know for sure that such 'easy forgiveness' is NOT IT.

In fact, the impact such a law would likely have on the community (if actually applied by Judges frequently) would be incredibly destructive, numbing, and substantially at odds with the designs of utilitarianism. What this means is that utilitarian Legislators would never create such a law, because it would be counter to their utilitarian goals for the community. Instead, in modern societies, Legislators settle for somewhat-less-shocking 'parole' proceedings, in which 'forgiveness' can be 'earned' by how one serves a deserved sentence (and revoked, too, by failure to fulfill the commitment to live a crime-less life).

In our case, I cannot find any reason why the same problems wouldn't show up in a divine 'forgiveness law' . [In fact, the anti-Christian objection about "If Hitler had accepted Jesus on his deathbed, he would have had forgiveness of sins for all his atrocities" is a perfect example of this 'shock'. It is morally unthinkable that such a 'mismatch' occur, and so 'forgiveness laws' of this type simply are not realistic or relevant for our consideration.]

Now, in societies which have some distinction between legislative and judicial functions of government, one can still find the notion of 'executive pardon'. For example, in the USA the President can pardon federal criminals, as State Governors can do for state criminals. Canada, likewise, has mechanisms to pardon convicted criminals.

But even here moral sensibilities are manifest. In most cases not involving some question about the legitimacy of the conviction, pardons are typically extended only to those who have already served most/all of their sentence, and so 'forgiveness' (as we are using it here) is of questionable relevance to these situations. Furthermore, some notable cases of this executive privilege demonstrate that moral notions still govern the range of usage of this:

"Many pardons have been controversial. Critics claim that pardons have been used more often for political gain than to correct a judicial error. The most famous US pardon in history was the one granted by President Gerald Ford to former President Richard Nixon on September 8, 1974. Polls showed that the majority of American citizens strongly disapproved of this pardon. Other controversial pardons include President George H.W. Bush's pardons of six men accused and/or convicted in connection with the Iran-Contra affair, and President Bill Clinton's pardons of 140 people on his last day in office.

"A presidential pardon can be granted at any time after commission of the offense: the pardoned person need not have been convicted or even formally charged with a crime. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, the Pardon Attorney will only consider petitions from persons who have completed their sentences and, in addition, have demonstrated their ability to lead a responsible and productive life for a significant period after conviction or release from confinement." []

But in these cases, the legislative, judicial, and executive arms of the government are still 'under the law' (contrary to some of the rhetoric surrounding But what about case two--that of God as Sovereign Monarch?

In the history of religions, there have been sub-traditions within each of the main monotheistic faiths which asserted/believed that God is 'sovereign over His law' (and can therefore dispense with it whenever He wants to--unlike human Judges who cannot do so). They believed that to require God to be 'just' is to limit His sovereignty.

For example, this was a fierce debate in early Islam, between the traditionalists and the Mu'tazilates. The Mu'tazila school argued that God was bound to the principles of justice by Who He was, whereas the traditionalists saw this as compromising Allah's omnipotence:

"The Lord of the universe is above all a just God, and in the end He will requite human actions as they deserve--tempered always by His endless mercy, but always based on His standards of justice and right: 'And We set a just balance for the Day of Resurrection, so that no soul is wronged in any way' (S. 2:165). As early at [sic] the second Islamic century, some Muslim thinkers, the Mu'tazilah, tried to assert that God is necessarily just--an effort to preserve the essential goodness of God. The opponents of these thinkers won the day, however, for they saw in this formulation a compromising of God's omnipotence, a limitation of God in that, if justice is elevated over God, God is no longer supreme, no longer the omnipotent, transcendent Lord of creation. From the cosmic standpoint, justice must be what God has determined it to be, nothing more, nothing less. But from the human and ethical side, God is perfectly just, with a justice that can be relied on." [WR:3GS:98; perhaps the reader can see how the last two sentences are not a problem in equivocation--it certainly escapes me. How 'justice' in the prior sentence can be different from the 'justice' in the last sentence and it still be 'relied on' is a puzzle to me...]

"In traditionalist eyes, God's absolute Will could be nothing but arbitrary. Things were good or evil simply because God said they were, because that was 'God's good pleasure', as the Quran had it. The Mutazilites found that an unacceptable notion and preferred the other, apparently more just option, even though it meant that God had to conform to some external necessity. God decreed the good because it was already good, good by nature." [WR:TM:II:164]

"By virtue of his justice [according to the Mu'tazila], God has to be just and can do nothing else than deal out reward and punishment with greatest precision, almost mechanically. The orthodox who adhered to hadith and sunna, without recourse to speculative reasoning, protested vigorously. Is God not free to punish and to forgive whom he wants? Anything less would impair his omnipotence and sovereignty as a creator, a ruler and a judge. God is not constrained to do anything." [EncyQuran, s.v. "Reward and Punishment"]

"And just as the omnipotence of God was limited in the moral kingdom by his holiness or righteousness--so in the natural world it was limited by his wisdom. Even the presence of evil and mischief in the world was accounted for by the wisdom of God, who sends everything for the best. A production or object of Divine activity, evil is not. "God may be able, indeed' -- so an earlier generation had maintained--'to act wickedly and unreasonably, but he would not do it.' The later Mutazilites taught, on the other hand, that God has no power at all to do anything which is in this way repugnant to his nature. Their opponents, who regarded God's unlimited might and unfathomable will as directly operative in all doing and effecting were indignant at this teaching, and compared its propounders to the dualistic Magians. Consistent Monism was on the side of these opponents, who did not care to turn man and nature into creators -- next to and under god --of their acts or operations." [History of Philosophy in Islam, De Boyer, p.46]

"While no Muslim theologian, of whatever persuasion, has ever asserted the contrary and described God as “unjust”, it is the manner in which the Mu'tazila conceive this necessary justice of God that characterizes them. For one such as al-Ash'ari [a traditionalist], God is necessarily just whatever He does; He would be so even if He acted in a contrary fashion. God, according to al-Ash'ari, is not subject to any rule; rules are applied only to us, on account of the Law which God has imposed upon us. For the Mu'tazila, on the other hand (and here again there is a form of “analogy of the invisible to the visible”), God is subject, in this respect, to the same laws which apply to man; that which is just or unjust for us—i.e., that which our reason, for its part, tells us to be so—is the same for God. This is why, from the Mu'tazila point of view, the necessary justice of God is not only fact, it is for Him a permanent obligation; in the name of His justice, God is required to act in such-and-such a fashion, since otherwise He would be unjust. Whence arises the question which the Mu'tazila were constantly debating (a question which, for al-Ash'ari, would be quite meaningless), which is whether God has the power to be unjust, or, in a broader sense, to act badly; this is a question with no satisfactory answer, since, whether the answer be affirmative or negative, either the justice of God, or his omnipotence, will be compromised. " [EncyQuran, s.v. "Mu'tazila"]

One can be truly appreciative of the aims of both sides here: one attempting to safeguard the omnipotence of God and one attempting to safeguard the intrinsic goodness of God. And this discussion has cropped up many times in history. Historians of philosophy/theology will recognize here a version of the Euthyphro question, but this problem simply doesn't occur in classical Judeo-Christian thought, because it is based on a false bifurcation between the will of God and the heart/nature of God:

"In his Euthyphro, Plato asked whether the gods command something because it is right or whether it is right because they command it. Plato's philosophy implied that moral ideals, like other forms, exist independently, guiding both men and gods. But medieval Christian theologians found that unacceptable. Some of them argued that God's commandments are what they are because he freely and sovereignly willed them thus (a position known as voluntarism [TN: note the similarity to the early Islamic traditionalists]). But could God have made stealing and lying right, had he so chosen? Do God's commands really make morality that arbitrary? Could God as well have commanded us to torture innocent children with relentless cruelty? Plainly not, for we are not speaking of either a sadistic or an amoral deity, but of a God who is just and loving, both Creator and Redeemer, who by virtue of his own character would do no such thing...God's will cannot be separated from his nature. He wills what he does because he is the God he is. What he wills for us invariably relates to his own justice and love, and to his good purposes in creation and redemption." [Ethics, Holmes, p.76f]

It is no 'compromise to omnipotence' to say that God choses what His heart wants, and that His heart always wants the same thing--goodness. This is no limitation on God. In fact, the contrary may be self-stultifying. To be consistent, the traditionalists have to exempt the actions of God from having any basis, reason, or qualification (in this case, His nature as good) other than His arbitrary impulses. But this would still involve a 'limitation', which we could expose with a simple question: "Could God ever will what He didn't want to do?" If so, then He is His OWN limit on His sovereignty (forcing Himself to do what He didn't like). If not, then His omnipotence is "limited" by His own desires/'good pleasure'! This looks oddly similar to the 'can God make a rock so big He could not lift it?' puzzle, and this is the kind of difficulty theologians get into when they over-dissect things [e.g., the classic Paradoxes of Omnipotence (e.g., Is Allah omnipotent enough to will Himself out of existence? to make Himself a female under 20 years of age? to make Himself a Trinity? to come to earth in an Incarnation? see what I]

Anytime you start 'carving God up' into 'components' (e.g., will, nature, mind, 'good pleasure', anger, etc.) in this way (and the Muslim divines know that they cannot do this without endangering their future...its an absolute-unity-of-God, you run into these pseudo-problems (in ANY religious tradition--Christianity included). On the contrary, God is the ONLY non-fragmented Individual in the Universe--He is the only Agent whose heart, mind, will, emotions, plans are in TOTAL harmony, total synch, total interdependence...He is the only Agent totally free to be completely just, completely good, completely loving--in a way that defines for us (as Exemplar) what those very words mean. Our notions of justice and goodness can only be 'measured by' God's lived-in-front-of-us justice and goodness, and this can ONLY work if there is no equivocation of terms...His justice must be core-and-surface analogical to ours.

So, notions of God being "under the Law" or the Law being 'external to God' are fallacies of misplaced concreteness. God's life is lived-law, and the universe was constructed 'after the pattern shown on the mount'. There is no reason whatsoever that God cannot make a covenant and bind Himself to that obligation--He is sovereignly free to do so (and has been proclaimed to have done so in ALL the major monotheistic religions). There is no reason why God cannot publicly exhibit His character as moral law (in revelation), and then set the example/guidance for us by living in conformity to His own heart.

[Before I move on, let me just submit a thought question to the reader. Consider this scenario. There are two rival Gods A and B (pardon the ontological problems with this for a minute--smile). They both claim to be Just and Merciful, but One (God "A") forgives evil (upon repentance etc.) without any requirement for punishment, essentially not requiring/fulfilling Justice in those cases--only Mercy/Pardon. The other Divine Claimant (God "B") forgives the evil-doer, but requires at least some punishment for the evil act to still be meted out somehow (perhaps on a sacrifice or substitute), thus fulfilling Mercy and Justice simultaneously in that case. Would it be fair to describe one of these Contenders as Mercy-OR-Justice (but not BOTH virtues being satisfied at the same time, in ANY actual case...i.e., each case judged leaves ONE of the virtues unsatisfied), and the other One as Mercy-AND-Justice (with BOTH virtues being satisfied in each case of forgiveness)? Which One of these two rivals might be considered more in line with GR/LT/Reciprocity and moral law as discussed above, if justice really is as morally important as our discussion has seemed to indicate?...Since they both forgive the evil-doer, they both are 'equal' in treating the 'objects of value' as being of worth (i.e., they are both equally Merciful to the evil-doer), but does One or the Other treat the evil-doer as a significant moral agent more consistently (e.g., by taking their moral acts much more seriously--or even, 'much more REAL')? Does One or the Other seem to take evil itself more seriously in these cases (in coherence with Their claims to absolute purity), by not simply ignoring its existence? How consistent with claims to ultimate purity and holiness does the ability to simply 'turn off moral outrage over atrocity' instantly (like a light switch), without the slightest involvement of law about such atrocities (i.e., upon true repentence--NOT a judicial act at all) seem?...They BOTH are interested in/require 'true repentance' for restoration of the evil-doer, so they are both equal in this aspect/goal, but would this imply that they are EQUAL in MERCY, EQUAL in GOAL, but that One is more JUST than the Other?...and--even though it is not central to the point being 'suggested' here (smile)--IF the (alternate) means of justice somehow 'cost God B something', then would this not elevate the value of the Mercy/Forgiveness by that amount (over a Mercy/Forgiveness that 'cost God A' nothing? Perhaps making Forgiveness "B" stand out in relief a little more--something like the difference between 'an Easy Forgiveness' and 'an Expensive--to God--Forgiveness', maybe? ...just a thought question for those interested in such things...(there's a theological prize hiding in that question for those who think through]

Under Chief Executive, our scenario approximates the biblical motif of the "Cultural Mandate". We are here to further God's will and plan for robustness, plenitude, and beauty. Our role approximates that of 'manager' or 'direct report' under God (biblical: "Stewards"), accountable to our Supervising Executive. If we commit an overt and malicious act such as sabotage or embezzlement, what 'obligations' would God have in this scenario?

Under western law, the CEO would have to report the crime to the legal authorities, to the governance board of the company, to the public reporting agencies (e.g., SEC, NYSE), and to the stockholders. In this legal environment, the CEO would only be required to dismiss the employee, and perhaps file charges against him/here to facilitate return of any stolen property (apart from the normal repudiation-type tasks before the employees etc.). In this legal environment, any penal action would be left to the authorities, so this case (under western law) doesn't involve any obligation to 'pri-vate upon'--only to exile and seek Damages. The CEO is ethically obligated (in this context) to seek justice in the courts, but would not authorize/administer that justice himself/herself. Moral outrage, of course, would be very appropriate for all concerned--employees, vendors, customers, stakeholders, etc.; and there might be issues of personal betrayal (if the CEO had mentored the perp).

However, if we collapse the legal system 'down' to a single firm--let's say a lower court judge committed a gross offense against the peoples--then the "CEO" (in this case, a higher judge) might have to also mandate a sentence. But this still doesn't fit, since the judge is not acting as "CEO", but as judge in that case. So, nothing immediately comes to mind for our discussion here (I think the accountability of Stewards, in the biblical image, creates obligations but the ones most prominent are ones on the part of the steward--not the Boss. The steward has a debt to repay for loss via theft anything taken unlawfully from the Boss. But this is a little off our direction here.)

Finally, under Universe Owner, where we are 'guests', the issue would be relative to our destroying/soiling/vandalizing the property of our gracious Host (including our own persons and faculties). The Owner clearly has a right to demand justice and require reparations, but I am not sure he would have an obligation to do so. There would be issues of betrayal of trust, no doubt, and a stewardship responsibility on the part of the Owner to 'expel' the malicious guest (to minimize damage to the Universe).

OK. There are a couple of other issues to mention here before I wrap this section up:

  1. There are other theological avenues which might be worth investigating, but this should be enough for our purposes. I am thinking specifically of the ANE/ME notion of an "attack" on someone's Honor. Honor and Shame are major sociological elements in biblical times, and they have some overlap with our laws of slander, libel, and defamation of character--all of which are met with SERIOUS purely-punitive responses in our society. This might be a fertile area to think through.

  2. Most of the discussion herein has focused on the effects of evil on interpersonal relations between humans and God, and humans and humans. However, the biblical data suggests that the sin's moral ugliness is much more pervasive and polluting than we might suspect. The passages in Hebrews where Christ has to purify/cleanse the 'heavenly sanctuary' (Heb 9.23--our pollution had defiled God's dwelling in heaven?!) and in Colossians where Christ 'makes peace' in the 'heavens' (Col 1.20) suggest that evil is even more serious than even this discussion might suggest.

  3. One philosophical issue we have not discussed--but which would be relevant in some cases above--is that of distributive justice. For example, as a Universe Owner I might not be obligated to pursue justice against a malicious guest in solo, but I might have an ethical 'pressure' on me to do so--if I have so pursued every other such perp. In other words, I might (only might) be considered unfair if I prosecuted some offenders and not all (barring relevant distinctives, of course). Selective application of justice is unjust in itself.

  4. As I reflect on the "essence" of evil now, I am so aware and disturbed by the immensity/intensity/density (?) of the tiniest act of real evil...I cannot even find words 'violent enough' to describe what that really IS—it's beyond simple destruction or impurity or dissonance...its ontology is so different than that of our universe....beyond negation, beyond privation, beyond “anti-matter” (which has structure and order to IT, at least)...a conscious, malicious, vandal-virus?...worse than 'chaos' or 'disorder'...the very opposite(?) of the reality/essence of God Himself?...what could possibly 'undo that'? Maybe nothing—maybe that's why we have to have a New Heavens and a New Earth—evil has worm-holed this one to near nothingness...? And how could any moral agent not respond in outrage, in cries for remediation, in demands for justice against that horror-grower, malice-maker, beauty-slasher aspect of our character...I suspect that the deeper one's view of evil is, the less this question of "why punishment?" even makes sense--the moral sentiment alone (assuming the horror of evil doesn't numb it through shock!) might indicate that "evil actions should automatically trigger moral judgment actions" is a properly basic belief (in the philosophical sense--needing no defense).

  5. There is a huge discontinutity between human legal systems and this issue of God's moral judgment on evil, and so I seriously question the automatic applicability of complex human courtroom processes to that of God's Final Judgment.. Human legal systems are hampered by what one writer called 'multiple irreconcilable goals'. Courts/Judges are trying to dispense justice, protect the public, deter crime, reduce repeat offenses, apply old laws to new cases, (re)habilitate criminals, reform sentencing methods, distinguish degrees of culpability for the same external act--all at the same time, and with every case being different! They are trying to 'make up for' failures in our families, in our educational systems, in our economic structures/policy, in our religious/charitable organizations, and do all this in a changing context of public philosophy, rhetoric, policy, and funding for institutions to help them! There are no cases which are 'just about justice', nor or there any 'just about reclaiming the criminal back into society'. By contrast--our topic here--the 'Final legal judgment of God' is only about justice. All the other goals of education, acculturation, rehabilitation, etc are handled 'outside of court', and before anything 'comes to trial', for God. He has providence, religion, conscience, family, etc--many, many 'programs' and 'institutions' which are supposed to preclude/prevent 'judgment ever even coming up'...His benevolence efforts are always 'pre-trial', and often 'in juvenile courts'. To use biblical terminology, He 'disciplines', He 'chastises', He 'calls out in the streets', etc. He is absolutely involved in all the non-justice, acculturation, habilitative, pedagogical, exemplary, deterrence aspects of life (which our courts are often shackled with, while trying to do 'justice' too), but for God, these are all done "before any charges are filed". His patience ("He knows that we are but dust") and gentleness and transformative efforts are done repeatedly, but they are all 'pre-trial'. But when something comes to Final Judgment, when all is said and done, and all efforts at transformation have failed, and all appeals to the heart of the perp have been met with further malevolence, there is nothing left but Justice. God has postponed this as long as possible...Theologians would say that the Final Judgment is about "the impartial satisfaction of eternal justice". So, the old divine Dabney can point out ("Christ our Penal Substitute"; notes in brackets/italics mine):

"Let us take the true theory, that the just punishment of guilt is dictated primarily by God's essential attribute of distributive justice, not expediency [note: 'expediency' God had pursued throughout the lifetime of the perp]; that the remedial and deterrent effects of punishments among human sinners who are still under a dispensation of hope [note: these effects are real, and are designed for those God still 'hopes to change' before Trial] are secondary and subordinate in God's purpose [note: i.e., His purpose in this Final Judgment, specifically]; and that in his punishment of reprobate men and angels, these have no place at all [note: after the Final Judgment, when the 'theater of moral agent action' has been completely altered, none of these pre-judgment factors will apply, as far as we are told], but God's whole purpose is moral equalization in his government by the due requital of sin (just as by the due requital of righteousness) to the glory of his own holiness and honor. [Note: there is a singleness of purpose in this Judgment, which radically differentiates it from our human courts]"

Summary(?): It's probably impossible to summarize such a disorganized, labyrinthine discussion as the above (I get tired even THINKING of trying to make one...sigh). But I can say that most of the rocks we looked under, showed us another reason why justice is important, obligatory, and pervasive--and serious enough an issue to warrant something as extreme as the Cross, as a way to have "mercy and justice kiss one another"...

[Macro-Summary: July 2005]

On the basis of some further interaction with a good-Christian, lover-of-mercy, deep-thinker (in the Email Pushback Excursus), I have formulated this semi-summary (FWIW):

1. All after-the-fact correction of deliberate moral evil (not sins of ignorance) is punishment (i.e. suffering). From the simplest, mildest rebuke (“what you did was wrong, and good people do NOT do such things, Junior”), with its perceived ‘attack’ and its (hopefully) consequent shame-leading-to-change, to simple spankings, groundings, restricted privileges, to an F on an exam for cheating, and on to the strongest privations possible—ALL involve some displeasure, constriction, shame, forced meetings with victims, embarrassment, social stigma, involuntary labor, etc. When the moral rebuke/censure (uncomfortable, unsolicited in itself) is coupled with additional unsolicited and restrictive efforts to change the perp (e.g., “restorative justice” processes or more traditional fines/penalties/privations), the suffering of the perp is even greater. Whether or not the person changes, whether or not the corrector even intends to produce change or not, and/or whether the correction is given ‘in love’ or not, the effect of ‘unsolicited correction’ is still ‘undesired/uncomfortable consequences’. There are certainly forms of correction which are less physically painful, but the element of unwanted privation/displeasure is inherent in the act of moral correction (the foundation, obviously, being moral judgment of an act/perp—one doesn’t correct someone for moral behavior that is NOT judged to be wrong). Suffering is always present to some degree in every act of moral censure made by ANY good moral agent UPON ANY moral perp. In most punishments or 'corrections' in modern societies, the discomfort, suffering, or privation element is the primary focus or intent of the act (e.g. fines, floggings, a month in jail), but this element is integral to even the 'getting the attention' aspect of the simplest outright rebuke.

2. This notion of “unsolicited correction” is contrasted in the Bible with two other elements: ‘solicited correction’ (i.e. wisdom), and ‘unsolicited hardship’. In the former, we ASK for correction to our moral views—before we violate a moral. Since at this stage the act is essentially a cognitive/learning step, there is no real ‘suffering’ involved in changing our views—its just simple education. In the latter, we are placed in hardship conditions to ‘toughen us up’, but this is not related to moral failure. It is ‘unsolicited discomfort’, but it doesn’t ‘affront us’ with claims of our personal failure. By contrast, after-the-act moral censure/correction in the bible is always phrased as ‘rebuke’, ‘chastening’, ‘discipline’, ‘punishment’ .

3. Chastening might be seen as “punishment/suffering, in hopes of change”, but even when we have no real hope for change, we still apply the chastening. Habitual offenders still spend the night in jail, even though no one in the Police station really believes it will make a difference. Parents still ground their kids, even though the kids are defiant and in total disagreement over the act itself—and have no intention of STOPPING the behavior, but only of NOT GETTING caught. In practically hopeless cases, one doesn’t just ‘forgive’ the perp because it won’t do any good—be it gentle or harsh.

4. Such punishment-without-hope (or, I suppose, in some cases, ‘punishment without conscious intent to reform’) still serves a basic moral function: it ‘confiscates stolen goods’ and returns the perp ‘back down to the real’. When a perp experiences pleasure from abusing or violating someone, accumulates wealth through fraud or theft, gains advantage through disadvantaging a victim, or validates their own sense of elite superiority by effective oppression and exploitation, these ‘gains’ are not theirs—they are not the ‘rightful owners, of earned benefits’. They are ‘stolen’, and it was wrong for them to acquire them in that way, and it is wrong for them to continue to enjoy them. The continued enjoyment of these are also misleading—they are NOT that important, powerful, blessed, etc. [Accordingly, it is wrong for moral authority or moral community to allow this wrong situation to continue.] Proportional punishment attempts to ‘reverse the transaction’ somehow, by trying to ‘confiscate’ the pleasure/gain through neutralization/offsetting of it. Suffering/Privation—associated directly in judgment with the specific act which brought the pleasure/gain—is a way to get the pleasure back down to ‘pre-evil’ , ‘earned’ levels for the perp, when what they were enjoying was really theirs. Punishment thus ‘repossesses’ the ill-gotten positive gain, by the addition of a negative counter-weight (with hopefully some level of proportionality). Biblical images of this center around ‘bringing low the exalted” and “leveling the high”. Removal of what is not earned or legitimately gained reduces the perp ‘back down to the real’—who they really are, and what is really theirs.

5. Notice, unfortunately, that this (a) doesn’t recompense the victim at all unless the goods were recoverable and transferable [Stolen money might be thus; rape and murder are not]; (b) might not produce change in the perp [It might humble them, but it might also make them mad and more evil, like ANY censure might do!]; and (c) would not necessarily bring the influence-streams into balance [A lifetime reputation of an important/good family, destroyed by a non-respected con-artist, could never be ‘balanced’ by deprivations to the already-despised con-artist]. All three of these items are ALSO goals for punishment, but often cannot be accomplished by ANY MEANS. Punishment in these unfortunate cases is restricted to the moral act of ‘confiscating unearned/stolen pleasures and gains’. But this is a morally legitimate goal in itself. [There are other things punishment does, of course, such as re-affirm community values, deter others, affirm the significance of the perp, etc, but this point is just a very practical one. Deontic ethics don’t even require this goal to justify punishment, btw.]

6. God’s processes in moral development fall into two categories: preventative and reactive. Preventative processes include conscience, religious/moral education, ‘practice’ in safe social units such as the family, acculturation, positive role models (including God), learning from the mistakes/correction of others, role models of ‘repentance’, reward/recognition systems, some level of attempted ‘temptation level control’ via the use of social/government/providential control mechanisms, and a pre-moral learning period (when its just a cognitive mistake and not a volitional choice). These are consistently emphasized in God’s Word as being His ‘preferred way’ to produce ‘carriers of beauty, grace, and goodness’.

7. God’s reactive methods—responses to deliberate crimes and evil—are characterized by patience and gentleness. [Many would accuse God of being ‘soft on crime’, since He seems ‘unreasonably’ patient with the damage-doing treacherous.] He always leads with warnings (while not abandoning His protection of and provision for the perp!), then escalating chastening (still accompanied by warnings and offers of forgiveness to the very end), finally ending in cataclysmic judgments on the incorrigible (often with a context-switch play to redeem some FUTURE generations). This likewise is repeated in the OT/Tanaach often:

Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. 12 And he did evil in the sight of the Lord his God; he did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet who spoke for the Lord. 13 And he also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar who had made him swear allegiance by God. But he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord God of Israel. 14 Furthermore, all the officials of the priests and the people were very unfaithful following all the abominations of the nations; and they defiled the house of the Lord which He had sanctified in Jerusalem. 15 And the Lord, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; 16 but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, until there was no remedy.” (2 Chr 36.11ff)

And now, because you have done all these things,” declares the Lord, “and I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear, and I called you but you did not answer, 14 therefore, I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. (Je 7:13).

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh. 22 “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. 23 “But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.’ 24 “Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward. 25 “Since the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have sent you all My servants the prophets, daily rising early and sending them. 26 “Yet they did not listen to Me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck; they did evil more than their fathers. (Jer 7.21)

Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law that I commanded your ancestors and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.” 14 They would not listen but were stubborn, as their ancestors had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. 15 They despised his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their ancestors, and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false; they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do as they did. 16 They rejected all the commandments of the Lord their God and made for themselves cast images of two calves; they made a sacred pole, worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. 17 They made their sons and their daughters pass through fire; they used divination and augury; and they sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. 18 Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight; none was left but the tribe of Judah alone. 19 Judah also did not keep the commandments of the Lord their God but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced. 20 The Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel; he punished them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until he had banished them from his presence. (2 Ki 17.13ff; NRSV)

8. The prophetic warnings God gave Israel and Judah were similar to those we do in the early stages of ‘restorative justice’: shaming, group censure, dramatic/role-play (e.g. Ezek), forced restitution, detailed exposure to the plight of the victims, emotional appeals, (religious) education, calls to “rehab” (i.e., ‘do justice and…”, Jer 22). And, when that failed (in the main, that is), warnings of more traditional/contractual punishments (i.e., the Deuteronomic Covenant Penalty stipulations) were given and often implemented on a micro-scale, initially, and escalating as necessary for the perp/community. As pointed out in the PushBack-Exchange, sometimes strong punishment is the MOST loving thing to do for the most-stubborn perp (with the highest possible chance of ‘success’), and the ONLY loving thing to do for the rest of the innocent, suffering community. And, sometimes, it is the ONLY response actually possible—when softer corrective responses have repeatedly proven useless and unheard, earlier and easily reversible-upon-repentance privations have met with failure/defiance, then ignoring the atrocity is unthinkable, and only punishment will express the appropriate level of moral outrage:

But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart;
They have turned aside and departed.
24 ‘They do not say in their heart, “Let us now fear the Lord our God,
Who gives rain in its season,
Both the autumn rain and the spring rain,
Who keeps for us
The appointed weeks of the harvest.”
25 ‘Your iniquities have turned these away,
And your sins have withheld good from you.
26 ‘For wicked men are found among My people,
They watch like fowlers lying in wait;
They set a trap,
They catch men.
27 ‘Like a cage full of birds,
So their houses are full of deceit;
Therefore they have become great and rich.
28 ‘They are fat, they are sleek,
They also excel in deeds of wickedness;
They do not plead the cause,
The cause of the orphan, that they may prosper;
And they do not defend the rights of the poor.
29 ‘Shall I not punish these people?’ declares the Lord,
‘On a nation such as this
Shall I not avenge Myself?’
30 “An appalling and horrible thing
Has happened in the land:
31 The prophets prophesy falsely,
And the priests rule on their own authority;
And My people love it so!
But what will you do at the end of it?
(Je 5:23).

9. But God didn’t like ANY of this process, as He explicitly told them. “No pleasure in the death of the wicked”, “Why will you die, O Israel”, “Turn and live”, "He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men", etc. Consistently, in the very middle of a prophecy of doom would be a prophetic lament from God’s heart, grieved over the suffering which would be entailed, and the offer of a ‘last-minute conversion option’ (cf. Jeremiah 22 with the preceding Jeremiah 21!). God doesn’t like punishing, but He does it when it is the right (and sometimes also the loving) thing to do. There are no human hearts as anti-suffering, anti-punishment, eager-to-save, and loving as God, nor are there human hearts more patient than God. [Philosophically, btw, it is incoherent to assert that a derivative moral agent could ever be ‘more’ moral, compassionate, patient than the Ground of both morality and personal agent existence. Someone who asserts that they are more compassionate than the biblical God because they wouldn’t have punished someone in a given biblical punishment had they been God, only shows that they are less informed/aware and less sensitive to the multiple issues involved in the situation—not that they are ‘less combative or harsh’… Their sentiments might be noble—and there is no doubt in my mind that God wrestled with these sentiments much more deeply than they in that process—but true love for/commitment to humanity, both individual and communal, is different from simple sentimentality. ] When God speaks of the provocation of Israel and Judah ‘to His face’ in Jeremiah 32.30f, He describes it as “from their youth” (around 1000 years!) and for Jerusalem “from the day it was built” (almost 500 years). God put up with increasing evil—enduring, warning, still protecting/providing, seemingly hoping all the time—until the time of the punishment of the Exile. And even then, He promised a restoration of the nation (and protection for those who surrendered in obedience to His instructions) once the core of that beyond-hope generation was finished. None of us would allow our loved ones and community to be abused by the treacherous for so long—because of some good-hearted, punishment-abhorring hope of redemption we had the treacherous themselves.

10. Of course, in some cases God had to act with more ‘finality’ in history. In some cases, individuals (or groups) were both so destructive and so incorrigible that excision from the community was the only merciful thing to do for the community (and maybe even for the perp, at that point). On some occasions in the OT/Tanaach, God had to either exile or execute individuals (or groups) who were ‘beyond social redemption’. That is, leniency with them was simply used as a weapon by the treacherous to do more treachery. They responded to NOTHING—even harsh, traditional punishment forms. On the surface, this might look like a simple a-moral, ‘medical’ excision (i.e., to protect the community, but not as a moral judgment/punishment on the perp), but the two are actually equivalent. A decision that a perp was beyond-51% socially DEstructive was equivalent—given a moral law to be socially CONstructive—to a judgment that they were morally Destructive too. One implied the other, in the context of a community-valued moral law. [And of course, exile/execution is by definition exclusion/privation from the locus of blessing—the community of the good/blessed]

11. Now, when one juxtaposes the fact that God hates/postpones punishment with the fact that God has to use it (frequently?), one is confronted with a reality important to our discussion here: the universe-system operates under constraint(s). There are numerous constraints on what can be expected in this system. First, finite agents can only bear a finite ‘cost’ of forgiveness, before they either expire, or violate their other moral imperatives to protect family, replenish the earth, leverage their gifts and resources under stewardship accountability, etc. One cannot expect a finite community to be ‘infinitely forgiving to the steadfastly treacherous’—there are just not enough resources and too many OTHER responsibilities of the humans. Secondly, perps are finite and can only ‘hold out so long’ against evil-created processes of decay and moral deadness. In other words, in the life of a persistently evil-chooser, at some point the cancer of evil will obliterate the last internal voices calling them to ‘repent’. While in the beginning of their career of evil, there would have been God-given contrary influences inside (e.g., conscience, traditions, family memories), as evil was chosen more and more, these good voices will succumb to death. These people cannot stay ‘infinitely corrigible’. There is a Point of No Return in their personal choice, and therefore a personal Point of No Redemption (since they can no longer desire or ask for it from God). This may occur while living on earth (humans would never know this, of course), but it certainly will occur no later than at the post-mortem judgment before God, when they become ‘finished’ and ‘fully and solely who they are inside’. Punishment on such a past-the-point person could not even hope to influence them toward redemption, but could only hope to accomplish some of the other goals/uses of punishment (e.g., individual restitution, community deterrence, ‘confiscation of stolen goods’, restraint of community-damage, deontic satisfaction, etc).

12. One of the largest categories of constraint applies to ALL moral agents, including God: the “Simultaneous Moral Equations” constraint (my terminology, for what philosophers wrestle with in the Hierarchical Ethics debate). Moral agents have to be act in such a way as to ‘optimize’ ALL of the moral demands at the same time. I am supposed to help you as far as I can, but not to the point of sinning myself (e.g., I can help you make money, but not help you rob a bank to get money). I am supposed to be gentle with you in confronting you with your evil, but not to the point that I let you continue violating somebody in my presence while I am being ‘non-forceful’ and appealing to your conscience. And so on… This applies in a big way to Moral Authority (e.g. God): His moral directive to Love Each and ALL may require Him to forcefully eliminate a loved-saboteur who is destroying the lives of other/multiple loved-innocents. Even a human judge who (theoretically) hears the trial of his multiple-homicide son cannot let his love for his son override his commitment/obligation to the larger community. One commitment acts as a moral boundary condition to the other. At some point Love for the Many must act against Patience and Verbal-Only-Correction-Gentleness toward a serial killer. And, in the case of God, there is some version of a constraint about Agent Moral Freedom (under most/many theological systems—at a general level-- God can force a perp into a jail cell, but NOT force the perp to choose good against his will…would we use lobotomy as a ‘rehabilitative punishment’??). There are moral constraints of Fairness, Truth, recognition of the value of others, ethical integrity, social fidelity. This type of ‘simultaneous equations’ constraint single-handedly assures that we will not get a solution in which every value is optimized, but one in which the total ‘mix’ is optimized. God works to maximize some values (“how many people freely and honestly accept His offer of forgiveness”), minimize others (“how many people suffer while God is patient with the wicked”) while some are fixed (“God cannot sin in trying to save others or protect others”).

13. A suggestion by an objector that a really good, compassionate, and loving God (more like them, obviously…smile) would have designed a better system, might be amusing, did it not trigger memories of our race’s consistent failures in this area. Humanity has tried countless times to come up with legal theories, penal procedures, law codes, rehabilitation processes, social forces, and moral education all designed to ‘redeem as many as possible, while protecting the public at large’—and nothing we have tried has worked except marginally and in niches. The literature of the western world is replete with chronicles of poorly-understood failures and ever-striving attempts. The harshest systems in the world produce either low crime--along with ‘suppressed life’, human-rights abuses, and ‘brow-beaten hearts’—or higher crime altogether. The loosest systems in the world produce the same violent crime rates as similarly-sized ‘punitive states’ (with incidence rates increasing, as their cultures gets older…). But apart from our audit trail of failure of ‘doing any better’ in actual attempts, the conceptual proposition that there IS a better theoretical system is entirely speculative. Among ethicists and legal theorists, no one has come up with a ‘better’ proposal—they all have flaws and weaknesses and trade-offs, and show no demonstrable improvement on the biblical one. [In fact, most moral philosophy and legal theory has NO/LITTLE treatment of biblical forgiveness: “Moral philosophers have largely ignored the concept of forgiveness, certainly in comparison to the attention they give the related concept of punishment…” (Berel Lang, “Forgiveness”, Amer Philo. Qtrly, 31:2, p.105)] All theories are subject to the “Simultaneous Equations” problem. We have no practical grounds and no theoretical grounds for believing we could improve on the one depicted in the bible, without causing some other variable to ‘run amok’ [Remember The Lathe of Heaven (]. And sometimes when I hear this objection/suggestion, I wonder if the person really believes they are ‘smart enough’ to design a complete alternate universe in which their solution would really work (and which would still be a universe recognizable to us). [I personally can come up with tons of ‘alternatives’—“Right before God is supposed to punish someone, He turns them into a butterfly and they fly away happy and harmless” or “Just as someone is assaulting someone, God switches the nervous system feeds around just then, so that the perp FEELS the pain on his victim, in the course of the act”—but I have as much confidence in one of these ‘unconventional alternatives’ being a ‘real solution’ as I would in OTHER ‘more conventional alternatives‘ people suggest. Together, they are all just speculative, well-meaning-but-naïve, and indefensible at best, to presumptuous and self-divinizing at worst. Most of these speculations are probably well-meaning fantasies--I have them too, but I don't use them to support a belief that I am morally and emotionally superior to God! I know what they are (expressions of compassion from a heart made in God's image) and I know what they are not (coherent, verifiable, well thought-out, bullet-proof alternative designs for the Universe). [Half the time the suggestions are not even ‘strongly conceivable’, and conceivability is not related to possibility anyway—see “Conceivability as a test for Possibility”, by Paul Tidman, American Philosophical Quarterly, 31:4, Oct 94, pp297-308] I can grieve at every documented case in which God had to mete out punishment, but it is unwarranted (and probably “hubris-istic”) for me to assume that His grief was less than mine…

14. A special variant of this “the design could have been better” has to do with the biblical timetable of judgment: “It is appointed for mortals once to die, and after that the judgment” (Heb 9.27). In biblical theology, all pre-mortem punishment (other than capital punishment) has a chastening ‘hope’ to it—it is moral in itself, of course (‘confiscation’, reduction to the ‘real’, demonstration, community protection, etc), but it also hopes to incite the perp to re-evaluate their life and values, and to entice the perp to seek the Lord of Love for change and forgiveness. The Scripture consistently affirms that all humans are constantly confronted with ‘witnesses to morality’, so that interaction with ethics is continually and pervasive in all areas of ‘normal’ human life. It also affirms that people are subject to external influences (especially early in their choice history) and therefore corrigible. The nature of evil, however, reduces this corrigibility gradually but steadily, and some individuals may become incorrigible before death. Theologically, we understand that at death people become morally incorrigible (i.e., at a VERY generalized, non-theological level: the “happily-bad-souled” become all-bad, and the “reluctantly-bad-souled” become all-good), and therefore, that after death, there is no possibility of ‘repentance’ nor of ‘apostasy’. It’s all done at that point, after the ‘larval stage’ of earthly life. At this point, punishment of the incorrigibly-treacherous can have no hope of redemption/reformation--they have successfully 'steeled' themselves against all overtures of Love-- but can only serve the goals of exclusion from hurting the New Community and removal of ‘stolen pleasures’/reduction to the real (and fulfillment of contracted promises/covenant, of course). [I addressed in the Email Discussion why ‘forgiveness’ is inapplicable/inappropriate/irrelevant at this stage.] These individuals then are sent to a Penal Colony with other like-minded folks, where the community is not forgiving, not patient, but swift to treachery and swift to retaliation/revenge. It is to this ‘timetable’ or process that some object. Now, some can object that perhaps God should ‘send them back down again, for another round/chance’ or ‘convert them to good against their will, right then and there’, but this may be as nonsensical as my turn-them-into-butterflies alternative (especially considering personal continuity issues and derivative freedom constraints). Why do we believe that is/was ever even a theoretical OPTION? Again, we are just—IMHO—stabbing in the dark, speculating wildly and/or presumptuously, trying to out-God God…I don’t have the slightest reason to believe the best of us—individually or collectively—could come up with a better alternative. And I don’t have the slightest problem believing that the Creator of the Universe, the Order-maker of nature, the Lover on the Cross, the Forger of renewed and sensitive hearts, the One who came in Rescue, and the One who will usher the humble into the New Community of Peace, Safety, and Love has a ‘privileged epistemic position’ relative to what alternatives there were, and a heart so charged with love, passion, beauty, compassion that any choices made relative to any supposed alternatives were made in our interests…and were made with such a depth of love and tenderness that it would reveal/expose (by comparison) our finest and noblest moments of goodness to be decidedly sub-divine, in the fullest and most-faded meaning of that expression…

15. One final point: I identify this God-the-ground of my/our compassion, mercy, love for beauty, and love for people (as well as the source of all the beauty and balance in nature and physics) with the God of the Bible. Conceivably, one might philosophically ‘back into’ a God-the-moral-ground, who is understood to be supra-human in love, forgiveness, patience, wisdom, social law design, commitment to community and the poor, etc—as I argued above that He is—yet do so in explicit rejection of the identification of this ‘theoretically wonderful God’ with the God of the Bible. They might object that the God of the Bible does too much punishment, does it too quickly, and/or uses warnings that are ‘too harsh’ instead of more coddling, etc. To me, there is a huge theological problem here: the implied silence of this philosophically-derived wonderful, “outgoing”, extroverted, redemption-oriented, community-loving God. If this God really, really cares this much for us, it would be hugely dissonant for Him/Her/It/They to not reveal that love, forgiveness, social law, etc and their beautiful Heart to us who would appreciate such a Companion. This is almost at the contradictory level: “I want the best for you, but I will NOT tell you what that is, how to reach it, how to deal with challenges, how to recover from failure and/or treachery, or even THAT I WANT the best for you”. Love beyond some certain level MUST disclose itself (at least at THIS god-level) and teach the creatures how to achieve good/happiness. Without getting into ‘comparative religion’ territory, I want to point out that the closest ‘match’ between the content of revealed religious literature and this philosophically-derived wonderful God occurs in the Bible. Only the monotheistic religious even HAVE a furthest-back God who can ‘feel’ mercy and offer personal forgiveness. [The traditional Eastern religions’ personal deities are NOT ultimates, and the Ultimate in those systems is not ‘personal’ in the sense we are talking about here, capable of love and forgiveness.] Among the monotheistic religions—all of which claim God is compassionate, merciful, forgiving (yet fair, patient, and consistent in eventual punishment), Christianity stands out as having the absolutely most vivid expression/demonstration of this love, compassion, eagerness-to-redeem, and pursuit-of-forgiveness in the incarnation and self-sacrifice of Jesus the Son of God on the Cross for the sin of the world, as God’s aggressive movement toward reconciliation and restoration of fallen mortals. Nothing else comes close to the incandescence, historical concreteness and immersion, and revelatory explicitness of this act. There are many amazing acts of beauty in the OT/Tanaach—Exodus, Return from Exile, and God’s long-running appeals to Judah through the prophets come foremost to my mind (beauty shared between Biblical Judaism and New Testament Christianity)—but the gift/incarnation of the Son is on another order altogether: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His absolutely unique Son…Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world…God made His love evident to us, in that while we were yet sinners and enemies, Christ died for us…”. If there WERE such a philosophically-plausible God and if He/she/it WERE as good-hearted as He would need to be to ground the many brilliantly beautiful and tender hearts I personally know, then there is every reason to believe that His love has been communicated to us in history in SOME sacred literature, and the best ‘candidate’ for that is the Judeo-Christian Bible. The match is too close. So, it won’t do any good to say “I’ll take the Wonderful God of my philosophical construct, but reject the punitive God of the Bible”. You are stuck with this: (a) such a Wonderful God is essentially propelled to communicate its intentions and relate warmly to its moral creatures; (b) such a Community-Loving God is going to reveal laws for community development/healing in a more ‘explicit’ manner than the vagueness of ‘conscience’ and ‘intuition’; (c) such a Redemptive/Good-seeking God is going to communicate what reality, the future, and the human condition are like [and it might not be ‘pretty’, but it will absolutely be helpful and constructive to know where the ‘potholes’ are in the dark]; and (d) such a Universal-Loving God would have to protect this love-letter to us from radical distortion [some, even a lot, of distortion could theoretically be allowed, of course, but not the parts that communicated His goodness of heart—implying that IF the many punishment passages were INCONSISTENT with His love, compassion, mercy, etc, THEN those could NOT have been ‘allowed in’ at that magnitude, NOR be so interwoven with the love message of the Cross. Errors of ‘weights, measures, distance, and headcount’ could conceivably be allowed to be corrupted, but He/she/it could NOT let His message of aggressive love be twisted into something about ‘punishment’, if rescue-from-punishment were NOT a central expression of His redeeming love. Bet on it.

There is much more to be said on this subject, and there are many works on Philosophical and Theological ethics which discuss theories of punishment, etc. in detail. I don't think the terms of the discussion in some of those (utilitarianism versus retributivism, assertive retrib versus protective retrib, etc.) are broad enough to fully account for how God actually plays out evil/punishment scenarios in our lives (e.g., it is difficult in the extreme, IMO, to map onto even hybrid util-retrib systems three common biblical processes: (1) God forgives "because of" (?) someone else's intercession; (2) God's delay of punishment (retrib) in pursuit of character transformation (good); and even (3) simple forgiveness. If punishment IS a 'moral imperative' (a la Kant)--and I believe it is (but so is the flexibility on God's part to do any of these three in large scale must be grounded on some massively intense, "pre-paid" punishment-addressing act...ah, but I have accidentally stepped into the wonder of soteriology, haven't I (sly smile)...]

[For the reader who wishes an introducion into philsophical ethics of punishment (i.e., largely discussions of utilitarianism versus retributivism), I would recommend Ethics by Arther Holmes, and Christianity and Philosophy, by Keith Yandell (and the biblio and footnotes in those). For additional perspective, the reader could consider the discussion in Legal theory contexts. There are many websites that discuss the application of these two main theories (and their variants) to Western legal problems. These sites also speak of the challenges of justive versus XYZ in our legal system, recidivism, etc. E.g., (esp on "Protective Retributivism") (the last two are on Rawl's theory of justice)]


But there is more to be said...fortunately!

God's application of the 'discretionary' acts of justice is subject to His wisdom and heart. [By discretionary, I refer to any punishments that are not 'built in' to the system and not automatically incurred by the doing of treachery. This would apply to some of the post-death judgments, but not all.]

For example,

But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless. 8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

Notice, though, the 'risk' He bears on these options:

Tough position to be in, I would think...I recall Jesus' comment in Luke 7.28ff:

I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." 29 (All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus' words, acknowledged that God's way was right, because they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.) 31 "To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: "'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.' 33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."'

Those religious leaders would complain about any position...and so do we, apparently.

And, at some level, God was sensitive to the "unjust reputation", for Paul argues in Romans 3.23f that:

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished- 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

He wanted it to be very clear that the way to reconciliation was not by the 'whim of a deity' but through perfect satisfaction of the just demands of a just God! In other words, the relationship of peace that I personally enjoy with a morally perfect God is one that is grounded on the solid and unchanging bedrock of His completely satisfied justice! There are no "unpaid claims" against me, no "open issues", no "future debts" to cloud our relationship. God somehow took these upon Himself on the Cross, with the result that He is "just" to forgive me, and I can relax in my heart in His morally perfect presence! What incredible kindness, to construct such a God-costly plan to reconcile me to Himself, without compromising my confidence in His moral integrity! "Justice and Mercy are met in Thee"...


In this article we have looked at the question of 'why justice?' from three different perpectives: community values, philosophical, theological (and hybrids of these). We found many, many good reasons and/or groundings for the intrinsic moral appropriateness of justice. Together, these should give the reader adequate peace-of-mind relative to questions of fairness, goodness, and legitimacy of God's just dealings with His moral creatures.


I stand amazed at His heart...all the complaining we do about His lack of decisive intervention in cleaning up the mess we made and make, doesn't stop Him from being patient enough with us to woo us, and to give us every opportunity to ask Him to clean up our own personal heart-mess...we always want Him to "fix" everybody else, to take away "their" free-will to do and think evil, but we balk at asking Him to give us new hearts, loyalty to Him, and teeth-gritting love for our fellow community-members.

Much of the damage we do cannot be reversed in this life, due to the build-in character of much of it, but we can have a new heart "implanted" by God. If I destructively cut off my arm in a fit of self-anger, He doesn't grow that back when I approach Him for reconciliation and re-instatement. But I can ask Him for a new heart (in addition to, and in conflict with, the "old" one I grew over the years, cf. Galatians 5.16-25), that will over time produce more and more beauty and kindness and patience and sensitivity and loyalty and faithfulness and even moral lament and outrage over the treachery and injury of others like my former self...

What is also amazing is that He really didn't need to do this...the Cross was not "our idea" and the Cross cost "us" nothing! That the community-in-One God would come to earth, take on our human form, and then "circle His justice back upon Himself" in all its vividness, is the most incredible demonstration of other-centered action I could possibly imagine. Jesus told his followers: "greater love hath no man, than that he lay down his life for his friends".

Our treacheries range from the vivid violence of oppression, to the community-disabling of deceit and betrayal, to the community-weakening wearing of arrogance and harboring of hatred, to the community-restricting deadness of apathy. But all of these begin in the heart, and all of these can be taken to the Salvager of Lost Lives and exchanged for a new heart that grows healing into lives around us, and traded for a new access in confidence to the great warmth, benefits, insights, and interactions with the consistently faithful Member of all Communities, the Living, Loving, and Loyal Lord.

Glenn Miller
December 8, 1998 // January 2, 2005 // Jul 4/2005

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