Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Actual Justice

In this post I want to argue that Christianity is unique amongst the world religions, in that it alone makes provision for actual justice. That is, I want to argue that Christianity alone is just.

Guilt: Fact, not feelings

First of all I want to point out that moral guilt actually exists. We all have a conscience, which accurately testifies to the reality of good and evil, and tells us to chose one and avoid the other. Though this voice is routinely suppressed and distorted, it is only by a lot of effort that anyone can finally succeed in quieting the voice of conscience completely - at which point we call them a psychopath.

From the atheist point of view, our conscience is nothing more than biology, and the guilt which it speaks of is nothing more than an unwelcome or useful (depending on how the mood takes you) feeling. This, though, fails to take account of the realities of life. When I come home feeling grumpy and take out that grumpiness against my wife or children, my guilt is real. It's not just a feeling - I really have been bad, and really do deserve a just repayment for it. My conscience isn't telling lies when it unnerves and unsettles me and tells me that there is a standard - an "ought to, but have not" - that I didn't meet. The correct response isn't for me to say "you're just an artefact of evolution - I'm taking a happy pill to make you go away." The fact is, we really are guilty, and our consciences are telling us the truth. They are God's witnesses, to tell us that no matter how much we'd like to live life our own way, in fact their are certain standards that are actually binding upon us, like it or not.

What of justice?

There's a lot that we could do from here. We might point out that most of this guilt goes apparently unpunished. The children can learn to just tolerate grumpy dad - and to take a less trivial example, Hitler died before ever being tried, let alone convicted, in any human court. And from there we might discuss the reasons to believe in punishment after death.

The point I want to make today though is that the world's religions generally claim to bring some kind of forgiveness to the offender - they say that guilt can be taken away. Do this, or do that, and your offences can be treated as accounted for - nothing to pay, and your conscience can be quiet again.

I'd like to point out that in the case of all religions apart from Christianity, this forgiveness must be bogus. How so? Because nothing is actually done about the offence committed.

Conscience being God's witness to us, a main plank of its testimony is that our sin has been committed against God. Our wrongdoing isn't just that we offended society's values (German society was happy enough to tolerate the holocaust), or a personal moral code (because we often try to persuade ourselves that our consciences must be mistaken), but that we whilst living in our Maker's world have offended the moral purity of our Maker.

This means that if guilt is to be taken away, then we're not just talking about the removal of unwelcome feelings. We're talking about atonement - restitution. We're talking about something been done to repair the dishonour done to our Creator.

Where is the atonement?

It's when we being to think in this God-centred rather than man-centred way that we can see the hopeless inadequacy of the world's religions.

Islam sets before us the five pillars - making the Islamic confession of faith, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and a visit to Mecca. But how, exactly, does this make any kind of atonement for sin? There being a God, it's perfectly obvious that to trust him and to do good works are duties which are binding upon us in any case. To do them can do nothing to pay the price for our crimes - we owe them already! God's honour and majesty must be very small indeed if taking a trip to Saudi Arabia and going through a few other outward actions can make up for a lifetime's sin.

In a similar way, the popular kind of folk Christianity around tells us that trying to live a good life like Jesus ought to tip the scales in our favour. Put all the bad on this side, and all our good on that, and hopefully we'll make it - with a bit of help from the rituals of the church. Again, though, the inadequacy of this will be obvious to any person who has truly come to see the majesty of God. What are our pathetic little good deeds compared to the infinite offence against one so glorious? We ought to do good works in any case - how can the actual doing of a few of them make up for our evil deeds? This kind of "folk Christianity" is only a slightly more sophisticated version of the ancestor worship and animism of pagan tribes. The pagans offer dead animals to appease their god; the nominal Christian offers his few notes or coins in the collection plate - but in both cases, their god is far too small, and too easily pleased.

The death of Jesus Christ

This brings us to the heart of the matter. Jesus Christ actually deals with the real problem - with actual guilt. The real Christian message can explain how there can be real peace with God - because God himself provided a worthy atonement for evil deeds.

We're talking about the death of the Son of God. To the undiscerning eye it was a tragic accident - but to the onlooker who was taught in the teachings of the prophets who had gone before, it was the fulfilment of God's plan - the perfect match of what had been written down beforehand. A sufficient atonement for sin was provided when God's Son, though being completely pure and blameless, willing allowed himself to be punished upon the cross as if he had committed all the evil deeds of everyone who had trusted in him.

The Lord Jesus made an offering which was of infinite value, matching the infinite offence against his Father's majesty. His life had been characterised by perfect love towards God and man, and was perfectly pleasing to his Father. Now he offered himself to pay the price which other peoples' sins had deserved. He made an atonement!


The nature of insufficient attempts to make up for our wrongdoing is that the work is never done. The Muslim can never stop doing his five pillars, because he's never sure that it's enough - his mind can supply no reasons why God should think that his performances so far have made up the lack, and so he must press on. And so the Roman Catholic must carry on going to mass, again and again, because he has no reason to ever believe that at last his sin has been fully accounted for by it. The pagan must offer his dead animals again, day after day and year after year.

The Christian, though, can rely upon a sufficient provision. Jesus Christ is not visiting the earth again in order to make another offering - because the one that he made was gloriously complete. Here is my confidence when the painful questions about my wrongdoing trouble me - that God has already received the offering of his Son, and raised him from the dead to prove it. I do not need to bring him any of my sin-stained efforts - because he's already received something from his Son with which he is perfectly satisfied; something received on my behalf.


Christianity actually deals with guilt. God doesn't say "OK - I can overlook it all, it doesn't have to bother me." He says, "your guilt is real, and your ill-desert is infinite - but it has been provided for. I myself have made the provision, and so you never need trouble yourself over it again."

The Christian can have a quiet conscience, because God has done it all. Through the death of Jesus, God is able to be perfectly just and to receive all of those who trust Jesus for salvation. He does not have to choose - indeed, he could not - between being just or being forgiving. He is both. "That God might be just - and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:26).

Real guilt - but a real provision for guilt. That's good news. It's my good news. Is it yours? So don't delay - trust in the friend of wrongdoers today. He never turned anyone away.

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