CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Written by Doug Ponder on July 10, 2016
The Cross of Christ
Crude. Bloody. Barbaric.
Outdated view of justice.
Divine child abuse.
This is how the cross of Christ is increasingly viewed in the West. Many scoff at the notion of a judge who accepts the punishment of an innocent man on behalf of the guilty. They question the type of justice that demands ‘payment’ for sins. And they wonder why God can’t “just forgive” us, as we seem to do whenever we are wronged.
I’ve heard of several mainline denominations that have removed references to the blood of Christ and the wrath of God from their hymnals. (One wonders what they do with every mention of these in their Bibles!)
One of the reasons, surely, is that references to the cross as divine punishment for sin implicates us in the process. The not-so-subtle message of the cross is that we are the guilty ones, and the wrath-bearing death of Jesus is a death that should have been ours. So when the Bible says “the wages of sin is death” (speaking spiritually and physically), it means that the judgment of death is deserved.
The Cocoon of Comfort
Yet another reason the traditional understanding of the cross has fallen out of favor in the West is that, more than ever before, our lives are remarkably comfortable. By and large, most people in Western Europe and North America live with unparalleled comforts. Every American making more than $32,400 per year—about 80% of us—are in the top 1% of global income! (So much for picketing the one-percenters.)
My point is that even the poorest and most disenfranchised Americans are statistically safer than the rest of the world from horrific acts of violence, outbreaks of disease, wars, and famines. And this creates a kind of cocoon of comfort that enables most Americans to avoid frequent encounters with gut-wrenching, life-altering, soul-stirring injustices that much of the rest of the world experiences.
But then something terrible happens, like the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by Dallas and Bristol and St. Louis and St. Paul. And in times of deep tragedy like these our cocoons are ripped open, and the sterile classroom criticisms of God’s justice vanish like voices carried away by a strong wind. People are dead. A nation is hurting. Everyone wants justice to be done.
Crime and Punishment
Somewhere inside us all, much deeper than our usual level of awareness, it seems we grasp that injustice is wrong and that the wrongdoer must ‘pay’ for what they’ve done. This is not a primal trait carried over from un-evolved ancestors. It’s not a backwards, outdated sense of justice. It’s a sense so deeply ingrained in us that every major system of justice in the world—regardless of religion or culture—incorporates some element of the truth that “the punishment should fit the crime.”
Speaking on this deep instinct, Yale professor Miroslav Volf explains why a soft-handed justice won’t do:
“Imagine speaking to people in a war zone… Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.” (Exclusion and Embrace, 304)
We yearn for justice, and we understand that “just forgiving” someone isn’t really an option. But we veer off into a deadly direction if we think this leaves room for revenge.
It’s true that justice requires a punishment for every crime, a sentence for every sin. But it does not follow that you and I are the ones to carry out every judgment:
“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Rom 12:19)
This is where the cop-killing protestors go so wrong. They’re right about our nation’s horrid history of discrimination, racism, and injustice. But they couldn’t be more wrong about how to address these problems.
Make no mistake, however. The correct response is not a flaccid ‘forgive and forget.’ Indeed, the only reason we can forgive is because the very crimes committed against us have already been paid for by Someone Else.
That is what every act of Christian forgiveness is; it is a statement that looks to the cross of Christ and says, “There is the verdict from the judge. There is the penalty for your injustice. There is the punishment for your crime. And there is price paid to forgive every sin.”
The cross of Christ, when seen as the wrath-bearing, sin-atoning sacrifice that it is, reminds us that justice will always be done. God’s judgment falls in one of two ways—but it always falls. It either falls on Jesus, who willingly takes the punishment for crimes he didn’t commit, or else it falls on those who refuse to acknowledge their punishment deserved and their need for divine forgiveness.
In this light we see that the cross isn’t some crude, barbaric thing. It is actually the only hope for the world. For by it God will “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross” (Col 1:20).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.