Is God a God of love or of justice?
That has been a question in my mind over the years. Is God the God that loves everyone and saves everyone? Or does he send people to hell?
As I left evangelicalism and wandered into mainline Protestantism, I started to think that God was all about love. God saved everyone through Christ’s death on the cross and so no one gets punished? God isn’t about wrath, just about love.
But I’ve wondered over the years if there is something wrong with assuming that God is only about love and not about justice. Because if God is just about love, then whole chunks of the Old Testament are wrong. Which I tend to think is what a lot of people would like. That God didn’t have any hesitation in raining down fire from heaven to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Or to flood the earth and kill everything save the people and animals on the ark.
Pastor Jason Micheli wrote on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed Blog about the concept of a God of Wrath. He notes that most people want to focus on forgiveness, especially how we think of God in Jesus Christ:
In The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge points out in her third chapter, The Question of Justice, we commonly suppose that Christianity is primarily about forgiveness. Jesus, after all, told his disciples they were to forgive upwards of 490 times. From the cross Jesus petitioned for the Father’s forgiveness towards us who knew exactly what we were doing. Forgiveness is cemented into the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.
But Micheli concludes that God is not soley about forgiveness:
Nonetheless, to reduce the message of Christianity to forgiveness is to ignore what scripture claims transpires upon the cross.
The cross is more properly about God working justice.
The most fulsome meaning of ‘righteousness,’ Rutledge reminds her readers, is ‘justice’ understood not only as a noun but as an active, reality-making verb. Though righteousness often sounds to us as a vague spiritual attribute, the original meaning couldn’t be more this-worldly. Justice, don’t forget, is the subject of Isaiah’s foreshadowings of the coming Messiah. Justice is the dominant theme in Mary’s magnificat and justice is the word Jesus chooses to preach for his first sermon in Nazareth.
To mute Christianity into a message about forgiveness is to sever Jesus’ cross from the Old Testament prophets who first anticipated and longed for an apocalyptic invasion from their God.
And it’s to suggest that on the cross Jesus works something other than how both his mother and he construed his purpose.
The God portrayed in Mary’s Magnificat is not one that is all sweetness and light. In fact, it should put us on our knees, because this God is taking names.
I’ve been thinking about love, forgiveness and justice in light of the victim testimonies that have been taking place in a courtroom in Lansing, Michigan. This is the where over 150 girls and women have come to confront convicting abuser Larry Nassar who molested them under the guise of giving them treatment. The statement that many focused on was the one given, by Rachael Denhollander. She was the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse. Her impact statement talked about how the abuse affected her, but she also took time to talk about her faith and what her Christian faith tells her about men like Nassar who refuse to see their evil. But she that wasn’t the whole story. Here is the key part of her testimony:
In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.
If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.
The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.
Notice what she is saying here. She talks about a God of wrath that will punish men like Nassar. There is no Rob Bell “Love Wins” here, it is a fearsome justice that will happen to Nassar.
But neither is this just about punishment. She also tells Nassar that there is also grace from God, but that only comes through taking responsibilty and repenting of his sin.
Denhollander isn’t presenting a God of only wrath nor a God that is just love. Instead we see a God that is both. There is the God like the one in the Old Testament that will forgive if only the people of Israel repent from their old ways. It was only when they ignored those pleadings did God then move to punishment. There is something about her sense of judgement and forgiveness that you can tell isn’t cheap. Both are costly and both must be taken seriously.
The cross is both a sign of God’s anger at injustice and also a sign of God’s love of all creation. We need a God that can get angry when young girls are molested and a God that can offer grace to the abuser (if they acknowledge their sin).
The thing about Denhollander’s statement is the role choice has in all of this. People can choose to not acknowledge their sin, the pain that they have caused and suffer the consequences. Or, they can also seek forgiveness and repent, turning away from damnation.
But the trend especially in progressive religious circles is to take away that choice. It looks a little heartless to have a God that might allow people to be judged and sentenced to damnation.
In a 2011 column, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explains that erasing the concept of hell can limit human freedom:
Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.
Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.
In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.
The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.
If what we do has no bearing on our eternal soul, then does justice matter? We are given the freedom to choose hell or not from our decisions. If our decisions don’t matter, then justice really doesn’t matter.
Denhollander’s talk of God’s judgement showed she believed Nassar’s actions had consequences not just in the hear and now, but in the hereafter. Only if he chooses to repent and seek God’s forgiveness can the script change.
I believe in hell because it is God’s way of avenging the innocent and punishing the proud. That doesn’t mean there isn’t salvation for sinners, but it does mean to be saved, you have to know you need saving.
I believe in a God of love. I truly believe in a God that loves all of creation. But I also believe in a God of justice, a God that doesn’t like when the vulnerable are oppressed. I believe we have choice in choosing salvation or damnation.
In the end, I believe God gives a damn.