Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Salvation, Love and Justice - A Discussion

A couple of months ago, we were discussing whether anything is knowable. Recently, we have been discussing the nuances of salvation. Though I often disagree with Ulcer, I have great respect for him, simply because he actually cares about the topic and offers occasionally brilliant insights. Our discussions are always scintillating and require me to critically think through various philosophical and theological issues. Here are some excerpts from our most recent discussion on salvation and my responses:

Ulcer: If "God cannot simply ignore or forgive the sinner and require no death, because that would make Him unjust," then it follows that grace and forgiveness are not intrinsically just, and since God is just, then grace and forgiveness are not godly qualities. So it follows from that, that Christ's crucifixion has nothing to do with my sins being forgiven, but rather appeasing the outrage of God as you have so succinctly explained. So if it is justice to condemn and punish, why even bother to send a sacrificial lamb to take the punishment? Why not just throw us all into the incinerator, wash your hands, and be done with it? The reason cannot be because God loves us. If love had anything to do with it, God wouldn't need to punish anyone. Consider what the apostle Paul had to say about love: "Love is not provoked, it keeps no record of wrongs." (1 Corinthians 13:5) So yes, he really could simply forgive the sinner, if the sinner was truly, sincerely, deeply remorseful.
First of all, I must say that your reply is very comprehensive and clearly represents a great deal of thought on the issue of salvation. However, it does appear that you don't fully understand the Christian position.

It seems that you view God's love and justice as mutually exclusive traits. This is not the Christian position. Rather, God is both perfectly loving AND wholly just. Because God is just, He must condemn those who break the moral law and enforce the stated penalties for a given offense. Because God is loving, He desires personal relationship with each person and desires the best for each person. Though love may keep no record of wrongs, the nature of love requires chastening not only for the sake of the relationship, but also for the sake of the chastened individual. Hebrews 12:6 points this out, "For whom the Lord loves, He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives." Based on that fact, let us revisit your question. Why does God not just throw us all into the incinerator, wash His hands, and be done with it? Because God's relentless love for each person leads Him to desire relational restoration, absolution from moral guilt and righteous living for each individual.

There are a couple of things wrong with the appeasement philosophy of Christianity, besides the love problem. First of all, you deserve credit for the creative answer you gave to explain how the sacrifice of the one can pay for the many. It does make sense that is if you believe in God in the first place. There's still a problem though: Is Jesus in Hell right now? Will he be in Hell for eternity? If the punishment for my transgressions is eternal torture (or separation from God), then it doesn't matter how much Christ suffered on the cross or how pure and holy he was. You cannot outsize eternity. If it is a one-for-one trade, then only way Christ can redeem us for our sins is to be in Hell for eternity.
Now you are changing the punishment. The wages of sin is death, not eternal torture. As I stated before, death includes both the physical component and the spiritual separation. Death is not an eternal state, it is a temporal occurence which may last for a very short time, or an eternity. In the case of the unrepentant sinner, he is dead now (being spiritually separated from God), and he will remain dead eternally, supposing no change of heart. In Christ's case, He experienced a spiritual separation from God the Father while He was on the cross, dying physically. In Jesus' case, the death was a very short occurence, for death had no lasting claim on Him. He was physically dead for 3 days, and spiritually dead for no longer than that. In a like manner, for Christians who believe in Jesus Christ, death is powerless to hold them. Therefore Paul writes, "So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?' The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 15:54-57)

Still another problem is this: Even though I may have been absolved of my sins, I am still a sinner - one who sins - and I have a hard time believing that the God who was about to throw me into a pool of lava for stealing a candy bar won't eventually get irked at my mere presence again. Eternity is a very long time to go without another blood sacrifice. This is similar to the situation that a woman in an abusive marriage would be in. If her husband strikes her in a fit of rage, should she believe that he won't ever do it again? Now if God loved me unconditionally, I don't think I'd have much cause for worry, but we've already established, according to your explanation of Christianity, that my reconciliation with God has nothing to do with love and forgiveness.
Again, you have artificially divided God's loving nature from His just nature. God loves you even when you do sin or steal a candy bar. Even if He, to fulfill justice, throws you into hell, it is never because that is what He most wants to do. God, for some uncomprehensible reason, loves us in spite of the fact that we are sinners. The only reason He sends someone to hell is because of two things. First, justice demands it. Secondly, the sinner has willfully rejected God's love and His sacrifice and insisted on separation from God. Because God is just and because He respects the free choice of each person, God will send a person to hell who meets those two conditions.

You are quite right to say that reconciliation has nothing to do with love and forgiveness. Reconciliation is a legal concept, related to true moral guilt. Love and forgiveness are relational attitudes. However, because of God's love and desire for a joyous, personal relationship with each person, He is not indifferent to a person's choice. Because of His love, God desires that all people would choose absolution and reconciliation.

You have failed to make a good case for salvation through Christ. Now let me try.

When you offend someone (sin), you severe your relationship with them. Think of love as a cord that connects you to someone; it is the dynamic between you and I. Unselfishness, or giving consideration to the opposite end of that dynamic, keeps that connection strong and healthy. Selfish acts, from the subtle (refusing to help you with something) to the overt (physically attacking you), cuts that cord. This is something that you do, yourself. Its not that the other person - the opposing end of the dynamic - has stopped loving you, its that you have stopped loving them.

In most cases, anyone who truly is sorry, and feels the full gravitas of the unlove that they have committed against someone else, will not want to be forgiven! If someone arrives at a thorough understanding for what they've done to someone, and comes to have respect for social connection, they will want what's coming to them! But you don't have to give it to them. Instead of condemning them, you can redeem them through loving them again. You can mend the severed cord, just because. And why not? Which is better: the severed cord or the mended one? (Consider Matthew 8:5-8)

It is not possible to forgive someone who isn't sorry for what they've done (and, by the way, you also deserve credit for correctly stating that the sacrifice of Jesus must be accepted in order to work. Obviously, it doesn't matter how much you love someone; if they don't love you back, you don't have a relationship with them). However, if the offender is truly, deeply remorseful, the loving thing to do is to forgive the offense for the sake of love itself, and nothing else, no matter what. Love is awesome enough by itself to be the only thing ever needed for sins to be forgiven. Love is the meaning of life. Love is the whole reason why we exist. Why do you think God created us? He created us so that there could be a dynamic between Him and us, because it is only by that dynamic that love can exist. No one can love themselves; that's not what love is. Loving is not being obsessed with oneself; it is being obsessed with everything that surrounds you.

Indeed it can be said that Jesus Christ suffered horribly on the cross of crucifixion so that sins can be forgiven, but how, or in what way, does this get sins forgiven? Does blood and death get sins forgiven? Let’s look to John 15:13 – Jesus says “A greater love hath no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” So, God had to prove to himself (as well as us) that he really did love us enough to forgive us for anything by becoming flesh and demonstrating his commitment to that love in the greatest way that love can be expressed: self-sacrifice.
And that, Theoconfidor, is how you make the case for salvation through the sacrifice of Christ; because love - not blood and death - is what gets sins forgiven.
If salvation were merely the restoration of relationship between God and man, your case would be powerful and compelling. However, salvation involves not just one, but two things:

1 - Absolution from real moral guilt stemming from a person's choice to sin
2 - Restoration of the broken relationship between God and a person

Therefore, no case for salvation is complete unless it includes both legal absolution to satify God's justice and relational restoration. Love, blood and death are all necessary for sins to be forgiven. That is the Christian position. It may not be appealing to the modern person, but it is the truth.

Do you know what the irony is this time? I am an atheist. I do not believe in a sentient, personal creator. I believe that morality is relative. I don't believe that there is any ultimate meaning to life (which is OK because life doesn't need meaning) aside from simply enjoying it. I do believe it is very likely that a historical figure named Yeshu existed, but he was no more divine than you or I. You are the devout Christian, here. You are the one who would, presumably, claim to have a personal relationship with God. And yet, even I can make a better case for Christianity than you can. Why do you suppose this is?
If you truly do make a better case for Christianity, then why do you not believe it? I find it hard to consider a case that is unconvincing a very good one.

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