Thoughts for these days

Occasional comments on current events from a Christian perspective

Is Christianity vengeful?

Central to the Christian faith is the teaching that every person has in some way done wrong and is unable to right the resulting damage. Furthermore, the Christian Scriptures assert that it was necessary that an individual who had done nothing wrong satisfy the penalty of what they describe as sin, if this problem was to be overcome. Whilst it is not surprising that atheists find this teaching objectionable, some may be shocked to learn that there are also Christians who believe that what is technically called ‘substitutionary atonement’ is an unhelpful and unnecessary doctrine.

In 2005 in a book called “The Lost Message of Christ”, Steve Chalke and the less well known Alan Mann said, “the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse - a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed” (p.182). I addressed their arguments at the time in an article called “From Creation to Calvary”, so will not repeat this here. Recently a more famous commentator, atheist Richard Dawkins, also expressed disgust at the teaching that the only way the God of Bible could forgive was to sacrifice His own Son. In this article I want to address his arguments by appealing to reason rather than to the Bible.

What is the charge?

On 10 March 2011 Howard Conder of Revelation TV interviewed Richard Dawkins live on air. The programme lasted an hour and the discussion in the last quarter moved on to Abraham. Dawkins interjected, “Abraham, the one who nearly killed his son? Not a very edifying moral story is it?” Conder tried to respond with, It prefigures what our Lord did, He offered His son.” Dawkins, unimpressed, came back with, It does, doesn’t it? They are both as ugly as each other, both the stories!”

For the next ten minutes Dawkins pursued this theme and it is not possible to quote all that was said here. To be fair, Dawkins did pose questions to which Conder found it hard to respond – at times one wondered who was interviewing who. Dawkins’ argument is perhaps best summarised in two answers he gave when Conder, seeking to move the discussion on, asked Is there something in particular that you can’t stand about God?” Dawkins responded, I don’t believe that God exists, so that can’t apply. There is something I can’t stand about Christianity, which is what I have just been saying about this really obnoxious doctrine of original sin, which I think is actually hideous and demeaning and a… vengeful doctrine. It is the idea that one can be absolved… that a sin by somebody else has to be paid for by a different person, which is a horrible idea. Everything about it is an obnoxious doctrine.”

Trying to defend this concept, Conder responded with the popular illustration of a judge who offered to pay the convicted person’s fine. Dawkins, remaining unimpressed, asked why the judge could not simply forgive the offender. To press his point home he asked, Given that the judge is all powerful. Given that the judge has the power to forgive if he wants to. That the only way he can do it is to sacrifice his son! I mean what an incredibly unpleasant way to do it, given that you have the power to forgive - that you are all powerful.”

Was the professor right?

At first glance Dawkins’ objection seems both rational and reasonable, but is it? More importantly, how can Christians answer this key question for someone who, like Dawkins, rejects any argument that is justified by quoting some part of the Bible? Whilst Christians may object to that position, it is actually a reasonable one for non-Christians to hold. I should qualify my own comment by saying that in regard to Christian doctrines it is reasonable and necessary to make sure that an unbeliever has a correct understanding of them by referring to the Bible. However, by contrast there are some important issues which, whilst the Bible explains them, the genuine questioner does not need to read it to appreciate the truth of what they express. The challenge for many Christians is to be able defend what they believe to be the truth in ways which do not always demand a quotation from Scripture.

In responding to Dawkins’ serious objection to Christianity, we therefore need first to be sure that he is not caricaturing the Gospel. Yes, the Bible does teach that all have sinned, and it does teach the need for ‘penal substitution’. However, these two are not one doctrine as he implies, but separate ones even though they are vitally connected. Original sin, as it is theologically described, is a stand-alone problem - it explains why human nature is as it is. However, it offers no remedy for this malaise and there is nothing in the Bible which demands that the Creator had to provide one. Sacrificial substitution is a divine response, which the Bible states arose from His grace, to a problem which is completely man-made. The LORD was under no obligation to find a way to salvage us from our self-inflicted problems, but knowing our inability to help ourselves He chose to provide us with an escape route.

We must now ask whether Dawkins has a correct appreciation of the nature of the Creator whom he rejects. He cannot be blamed for thinking that God is best described as all powerful and all loving. These are two of His attributes most emphasised by many Christians, but the Bible testifies that there are other equally important aspects to His character. He is also described as holy, righteous and just. This is where many people’s understanding of the God of the Bible falls short; like Dawkins, they project onto the Christian God the sentimental love which they themselves possess. Could this be why Dawkins asserted that a powerful human judge could acquit with no regard to the law which he is paid to uphold? Dawkins is not alone in assuming that forgiveness is a matter of sweeping the dirt under the carpet; even some regular church-goers live as if this were the case. There is a principle so vital involved in this matter that even the most ardent atheist would agree, if they gave it serious thought, that easy forgiveness cannot be right.

What about the victims?

The next issue we must consider is the question of right and wrong. In cultures which have been historically influenced by the Christian gospel, the standards of the Bible have traditionally been used to decide which actions and attitudes are good and which are bad. However, the same book makes it clear that human nature resists accepting these standards and that people invent many ways to avoid accepting them. Recent decades have indeed witnessed Western societies rejecting the Christian influences on their heritage as they have embraced secularism. But in cultures where any notion of a god has been discarded, there is still a need to have some way of deciding what is right and what is wrong in the way people behave towards one another. True anarchy, where everyone does what they want without any regard to the welfare of others, is a horrendous concept even to those who put their hope in there being no god of any kind. I am sure that Richard Dawkins has in his own heart and mind ‘moral’ concepts of some kind, even if he rejects those which are put forward through the Jewish Law and the teaching of Jesus Christ.

Arising out of our inner sense of right and wrong is the matter of justice. Justice has been discussed for centuries by philosophers from almost every culture and this serves to remind us that it is a concept which is deeply embedded in human nature. We all have a sense of wanting justice for ourselves, but the more distant people are from us, the less we value their right to be treated justly. All crime is committed by those who undervalue, even disregard, their victim's right to be treated with justice. Justice should underpin every legal system in human society - where this is not the case, human rights activists often seek to bring the injustices to the attention of others. I doubt whether vocal ‘new atheists’ like Dawkins would argue that justice is not an important social issue, even though they object to it being based on a moral code which has in part been derived from the Bible. Justice is a principle which is embedded in the human mind even though we might dispute the fine details of what does and what does not constitute just conduct.

All this is relevant to the question before us, because the need for forgiveness arises when someone does wrong by acting in an unjust manner. Perhaps Dawkins, like others, assumes that sin, as described in the Bible, is only an offence against God. Whilst some actions and attitudes proscribed in the Bible as ‘sin’ appear only to be things which would upset the One who claims to be God, the majority are in fact offences against human beings, be they others or even ourselves. Six out of the Ten Commandments, the best known summary of morals in the Bible, address how people treat other people. When we wrongly think of sin as wrong done against God only, we forget that so often it is other people whom we have treated unjustly by our actions. Consequently, when someone asks why God cannot simply wipe an offender’s slate clean, they overlook the need for justice for those who are victims of the wrong which has been done. However, men and women do know that justice is important, because when they consider the wrong done to be sufficiently offensive, they resist any thought that the culprit might not receive a just penalty for their transgression. There would certainly be an outcry against any god who allowed some of history’s despots to escape justice.

How can justice be secured?

In the Revelation TV interview, Dawkins demonstrated a complete lack of appreciation of the importance of justice in the Bible. Seeking to respond to Dawkins’ arguments, Conder quoted the well known phrase, A life for a life,” to which Dawkins retorted, What type of morality is that?” The answer is simple, though it was not put to him at the time. When treated unjustly, people often seek redress; the bigger the offence in their minds, the greater the need for them to ‘find justice’. The danger is though, given the nature of our emotions, that our desire to acquire justice over-reaches itself and becomes a zeal for revenge. Revenge does not know the same restraint as justice, and can easy seek to extract more in recompense than was taken away in the first place. The Old Testament ruling that if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” was highly moral because it sought to establish justice. Not only did it demand that the offender paid for their wrong, it also limited the amount of revenge which the victim or their relatives could demand. The removal of a hand could not be demanded if just a finger had been lost; a foot was not the just penalty for the removal of a toe; a human life could not be demanded if no human life had been taken. Unlike some religious laws, where limbs can be lost when the hungry steal bread, and unlike some modern secular laws, where courts award large financial damages to the rich whilst the poor cannot afford to go to court, this Biblical law sought to make sure that both victim and offender received justice.

There are however circumstances where the transgressor's ability to recompense their victims is limited. How can justice be secured if a man has cut off the hands of two men, or the feet of five women? How would Dawkins deliver justice to a family which had lost eight of its members to a shopping centre gunman? Or to five families who all lost relatives through the actions of a serial killer? In all such situations even the maligned Old Testament law of penalties limited by equality cannot deliver justice. The multiple murderer has only one life which can be taken and so the families of his victims have to be satisfied, in situations where the death penalty is still enforced, with a share of justice. Of course these days many consider the death penalty to be barbaric. This is because secular humanism cares more for the offender that it does for justice for those who been violated. However, justice for those who are hurt by the wrongs of others should be the higher priority, even though those who have offended may not always have the wherewithal to make restitution for their actions. What should happen when that is the case? How can justice be secured in such circumstances?

Perhaps the reason so many fail to prioritise justice for others is because we all know that over the years we ourselves have accumulated such great liability through our own selfishness, even if this has been built up through small transgressions, that to put it right will cost us far more than we possess. I am not simply describing the need for financial restitution, I am thinking of more important matters such as the emotional hurts with which we so easily scar one another. Such wrongs need to be put right - that is the heart of justice - but knowing what it will cost us, we commonly prefer to justify our failure to do so - and in the process, accumulate an even greater debt! Perhaps I should remind you at this point that I am restricting my arguments here to the way in which we treat other human beings. For Christians, there is the additional understanding that we have also been serial offenders with regard to the One who is to be the final judge of our lives. In contrast, atheists are perhaps tempted to assume that justice is not important given that so many never receive it in this life and when they are dead, according to an atheist’s material mindset, they have ceased to be, so recompense will, they assume, be irrelevant to both them and to their victims. One can see why many will fight tooth and nail to protect their secular ideals, for the thought of being held to account for the wrong they know they have done to others is not an attractive one.

A righteous solution?

Human legal systems have to consider more than justice alone. In part they seek some form of recompense for those who suffer at the hands of others, but they are also concerned with administering punishment as a form of deterrent to the convicted and to potential offenders. It is only through practical deterrents that wrong can be restrained in any society - people acting badly towards each other is a reality of life, even if some dispute the Christian description of the problem as sin. However, whilst human courts are concerned with both justice and punishment, they can also be blind to both. If their judgement involves capital or corporal punishment or imprisonment or ‘community service’, then they demand the guilty person suffers the penalty. However when a fine, compensation or even costs are imposed, then the court does not insist that the money is paid only by the offender, but just that it is paid by someone. Anyone is at liberty to make the payments on behalf of the one who has been judged guilty. The question however then arises, is it right that one pays the costs of wrong done by another? If they do, will the victims receive justice? Will the offender be punished? Will society be deterred from repeating their mistakes? Will the convicted think they have escaped without penalty? Or will they now be in debt to their gracious benefactor rather than to their victim, the courts or to justice itself?

In most human societies it is considered acceptable for one to pay the debts of another, be that to courts or loan sharks or to anyone. Such generosity is rarely shunned, even if the indebted party could pay the price set themselves. However, as we have noted, not many courts would allow another to serve a jail term for an offender, or to be hanged in their place - to borrow a Biblical phrase, they insist that the soul who sins shall die” or at least shall sit it out behind bars. Yet in the modern world we do hear of situations where one person gives up their own life for another: the solider who lay on a land mine to save his comrades; the boy caught in the Queensland flood who insisted that his younger brother be rescued first; the husband who was killed as he pushed his wife out of the way of a car. To die for the benefit of another, whilst not a legal provision in society, is an important human experience. Such sacrifices rarely deliver justice, but they commonly express grace.

I am sure Dawkins would not say it is immoral for a father to pay a son’s fine nor a friend the legal costs incurred by another. I am sure he would not decry the sacrificial solider, brother or husband, so why does he denounce the Christian doctrine which says the Creator is concerned to do what satisfies justice as well as love? What makes him argue that it is morally bad for the guiltless to stand in the place of the guilty when justice is being administered? Why is this principle obnoxious and offensive to him? Perhaps it is because he has only garnered a caricature of Christian teaching rather than sought the truth for himself. Perhaps, disliking the thought that he will be brought to justice for his own wrongs, he has fallen head over heels for a philosophy which assures him that justice will never be done! Or is it because he is so full of himself that he believes he has never done anything wrong? Possibly it's because he has constructed his own moral code which informs him that he is as good as anyone else that leads him to reject the Biblical reminder that we are all as bad as each other! Whatever it is that has caused his head to hate Christian teaching as much as he does, I suspect that his heart is not as comfortable as he would like it to be. If it were, then he would not be such an vehement opponent of those who are convinced otherwise.

Justice satisfied

In pondering Dawkins’ accusation, I have come to wonder whether he, or any atheist, considers justice for their fellow humans as important? Perhaps they don’t, given that they believe we are all nothing more than a temporary product of a biological process which has rewarded the fiercest and most violent whilst leaving the vulnerable dead in the evolutionary gutter. What does justice matter to the oppressed once they are wiped out by the tanks of a tyrant, if they are nothing more than a collection of chemicals borrowed by their bodies for a few short years?

By contrast, the Christian gospel, which Dawkins vilifies so passionately, is built around the essential need of justice for all. Those who have done wrong and those who have been wronged will together receive the just recompense for their actions and sufferings. What we all know within ourselves is that none of us has the resources to fully compensate for the damage we have done. If we were honest enough to face up to our selfish disregard of justice and the enormity of the accumulated claims against us by other humans, never mind a righteous God, I am sure there would be very few of us so determined to pay our own way that we would refuse the offer of a loving Father to meet the debt of their wayward child.

Justice, being the right thing to do, is very important to the God of the Bible, even though He also describes Himself as merciful. How could He deliver mercy to one and justice to the ones they had wronged, especially when faced with serial human offending? Amazingly, the Bible records that He faced this question before He created the universe, before He put mankind on the earth. His solution was to allow part of Himself, God who is the Son, to take upon Himself the responsibility of satisfying justice on behalf of others. To do that He had to live under the same conditions as we do whilst making sure He did not incur a debt of His own. How He did that is outside the scope of my purpose here, but the claim that He did is at the core of the Christian faith and it is this which Dawkins says is so offensive to him. However, until he can deliver justice to the oppressed, healing to the brokenhearted, true liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, I for one prefer put my confidence in the One who can.

Randall Hardy - May 2011

Post Script:

Between drafting and posting this comment, the world has been focussed by the announcement on Sunday 2nd May by President Obama that Osama Bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, had been killed by American Special Forces. In his speech Obama said, “And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al-Qaeda's terror: Justice has been done.” However, in the light of what I argue above, I must ask if justice was fully done. Do the families who lost relatives in the attacks of 11th September 2011 or at other times, really feel that their portion of this one man’s life recompenses them for their distress and grief? It is estimated that al-Qaeda have killed at least five thousand people - have all their families received justice through their share in the taking of this one life?

There is also the other side of the question. It was expedient that Bin Laden was not taken alive; imagine the problems a long imprisonment and subsequent trial and sentence would have provoked. However, the moral aspect must also be considered - was he treated with justice? No matter how great a man’s crimes, no matter how problematic it would be put them before a judge or jury, is it justice to execute a man without a honest trial?

I believe this incident illustrates the problems society has with delivering justice for all. The claim that ‘Justice has been done’ is a powerful sound-bite, but was justice satisfied? The families of the many victims may feel some relief from their pain, but has Bin Laden’s death relieved the wrong done to them? Will they no longer grieve their loss, will they no longer feel angry at their hurt? Does the fact that that the world’s most wanted man, even if they enthusiastically celebrated his death, was eliminated without legal process deliver them justice or a parody of it?

Thankfully, the justice which the God of the Bible will eventually deliver to all will be equal and honest. None of us will have any cause to accuse him of bias. Even those who have sought His forgiveness will see their victims receive justice, because the debt they incurred will have been met in full by a Father who cares equally for all His squabbling children. The Christian gospel informs us of His offer to put things right, but leaves us free to choose whether we want to accept His terms or to do it our way.

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