I once called on a mother of two girls who were in our little mission church’s Sunday School. I was nervous about what I had to say. Her daughters were both out of control, disrupting Sunday School classes and even worship services. I had come to recruit her help.
She did not attend church with her daughters; a neighbor brought them. I knew that she might take offence at my request. As tactfully as I could, I stated the reason for my visit. “We could use some advice,” I told her, “on how best to help your daughters get the most from their time at Sunday School and church.” I then diplomatically explained what had been going on.
She became defensive. She recounted how she had confronted a school principal and “let him have it,” after a teacher tried to discipline one of her kids. I knew I was on shaky ground.
That’s when the earthquake happened. It was not, as I feared, an outburst of anger directed at me or the church. This woman was angry at God, fiercely angry. She seized the opportunity to tell me, whom she regarded as one of his representatives, how he had botched everything up.
Within moments, she was pouring out a story about her kind, loving, and religious mother. Next, she told me of her sadistic and abusive father. Her mother had died years earlier from a cancer that filled her final months with suffering. The God in whom she believed had apparently done nothing to relieve her. She died in agony.
Seeing her mother die like that was almost more than she could bear. Her childhood faith had been violently shaken. But then when her foul and abusive dad died peacefully in his sleep, it sent her over the proverbial edge. He had been healthy all his life. He was not even sick in his death. He suffered no pain, no worries. His heart had simply stopped.
How could God let him get away with it? After what her mother had gone through, she had thought that her father should suffer a long and painful death and then, as she put it, “rot in hell.”
I hardly knew what to say. I had been pastoring only a few years and had never encountered such hatred and malice. I gave her some pious-sounding advice and made my exit. It wasn’t long before her girls quit coming to our Sunday School. My visit did no good and may have made things worse.
That was a long time ago. If I were to have a similar encounter today (and I have had several since that time), I would not be so quick to give advice. I would listen and try to understand. Rather than use advice to shut the door to the powerful emotions expressed, I would try to stay with her in them, weeping with one who weeps.
Though I would now hesitate to advise, I would want to respond to an assumption she had made. She thought that God had let her father “get away with it.” She was mistaken. There is a reckoning. The Bible teaches that people will either be forgiven or condemned for the evil they do, but no one will simply “get away” with it.
Nazi killers who fled to Argentina and lived out their days there did not get away with it. Nor do rich oppressors who use their wealth to escape justice. Nor did this woman’s father. There will be justice for her and for him.
People’s deeds follow them, even across the border of death. Understanding this, St. Paul wrote, “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” But whether ahead or behind, a person’s sins go with them. There is forgiveness – that is the welcome news of the gospel – but there is no escape.
The mother with whom I spoke would have had a happier life had she forgiven her father. Perhaps she would have been able to do that if she had known that God had taken up her case and justice would be done.
(First published by Gannet.)
Justice Offers Forgiveness But Not Escape (Knoxville News Sentinel – Aug 1, 2021): Looper writes, “But whether ahead or behind, a person’s sins go with them. There is forgiveness – that is the welcome news of the gospel – but there is no escape.” I’m left scratching my head trying to understand the distinction between “forgiveness” and “escape.” I’ve heard many pastors liken God’s forgiveness to a Governor’s pardon. But a pardon is the antithesis of justice if the perpetrator was rightly convicted of their crime (e.g., a criminal who confesses to murder). Justice means, do the crime do the time. Right? A pardon (i.e., get out of jail free card) amounts to an escape from justice. Just ask a murder victim’s family. Eternal justice would look more like a corrections institute in the sky…more like purgatory. But the protestants did away with purgatory and substituted unconditional election/damnation, (death-bed) repentance, or universalism as a means for escaping hell, depending on the denomination. You could call it grace, but it’s not justice. Antinomianism is a glaring loophole that Apostle Paul seemingly failed to close.
Really appreciate you reading and taking time to comment. I agree that it is a difficult thing to understand, but the Bible consistently teaches both that people will be judged “according to they have done” and that forgiveness is available. If we take both those seriously, we can say: “Yes, God will bring about justice. Yes, God does forgive. And yes, I’m not sure of the mechanics by which he does both.” But that should not bother us too much; there is a great deal we don’t understand.
You mentioned universalism “as a means of escape” but it need not be so. (I, by the way, am not a universalist.) The 19th century Scots writer/preacher George Macdonald was famously a universalist, but he certainly did not see the salvation of men and women as an escape from justice – quite the opposite. He wrote, “To suffer to all eternity could not make up for one unjust word… The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner… Sin and suffering are not natural opposites; the opposite of evil is good, not suffering; the opposite of sin is not suffering, but righteousness.”
I point out that Macdonald’s position could be consistent with justice (once justice is understood within a biblical/theological framework) because I suspect that other positions may also uphold true justice. St. Paul teaches, for example, “that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. Since, then, we know what it is to fear the LORD, we try to persuade others.” Paul certainly did not think of judgment as an escape hatch, though he believed wholeheartedly in forgiveness.
Antinomianism is a distortion of the teaching on grace, as Paul himself understood (and about which, frankly, he complained). Anyone who uses grace as an excuse for sin or an excuse to short-circuit the justice process, has not understood grace.
A couple of helpful treatments of the subject are Macdonald’s sermon titled, “Justice” and Christopher J.H. Wright’s, “The God I Don’t Understand,” particularly the helpful center section of judgment and Christ’s death/atonement.
I’m finishing my read of “Arminian Theology” by Roger E Olson. I’d recommend as he addresses the similarities and differences between Reformed and Arminian theologies.