One key objection people bring to Christian faith, especially to classical Western theology, is that the very idea of God punishing people rankles.
Somewhere in our intuition it just feels unfair, I guess. We don’t really want anything to do with a God who seems unjust — but the system of justice seems to require an elaborate suspension of disbelief, as I was writing about last week.
Take, for example, Heidelberg Catechism Question 14. (I spent 2013 blogging on this venerable standard of Reformed theology in honor of its 450th anniversary. I became convinced that it is a fantastic conversation partner for 21st century people learning to “speak Christianity,” so I’m still at it.) Here it is in full:
14 Q. Can another creature — any at all — pay this debt for us?
A. No. To begin with, God will not punish any other creature for what a human is guilty of.
Furthermore, no mere creature can bear the weight of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.
The answer assumes a particular picture of humanity in relation to God.
- There is an “economic” component — we are in debt to God.
- There is a “criminal” component — we are guilty and deserving punishment.
- There is also, above all, a “dramatic” component — we are the struggling hero of an epic story.
The debt and guilt are ours and we are in a world of hurt.
That is the scene we are to bring to mind. The Catechism doesn’t elaborate or defend it here. Actually Heidelberg (and most of Western Christianity) inherits this scenario from the Medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury.
Now, if you don’t think our situation before God this way, just work with me for a minute. Suspend disbelief so that you can see how the Catechism is trying to respond to our issue with God’s justice.
So temporarily accepting that we are in debt and guilty… notice how the Catechism tries to show that God is fair about it
First, God won’t punish anybody that doesn’t deserve it. That’s what lies behind the statement that no other creature, even an innocent creature, can take it for us. We can’t pawn off our problem on, say, a goat, or other sacrificial animal. The debt and guilt are human problems.
Second, this problem of our debt and guilt is not only our problem. That is what lies behind that plaintive last line: we human creatures aren’t able to handle the punishment. This creates a problem for God.
If blind justice were the only concern, then the punishment would simply be unavoidable. If it is too heavy to bear, then we get squashed — so be it.
That is why it is a great epic drama. God cares about us — we are the protagonist, and God loves us. The observation that we can’t bear God’s wrath points to God’s concern, God’s compassion.
God won’t put up with raw dispassionate justice. God is going to find us a way out.
God’s intervention to solve our crisis has a name. Spoiler alert: That name is Jesus, fully God and fully human.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments:
Do you think God is “just”? Do you think God is “fair”?
Does it make a difference to see the story of our salvation as a great drama?
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