I recently received a letter from a student who was struggling in his faith, and the crux of the struggle was how the love of God, as described in the Bible, could be reconciled with some of the choices of God, as described in the Bible.
There are many examples of this problem, so let me pick just several representative ones. God is a loving God, and yet He is the one who commanded the slaughter of entire nations, and He is the one who declares the one who has done nothing but “not hear about Jesus” as reprobate and condemned.
With this question, and all others like it, everything rides on unspoken assumptions. What do we believe mankind is actually like? If we believe that God does to us what the Bible says He does to us, but we don’t believe what the Bible says we are like, then of course the result will be injustice. We will have a problem because we try to combine one part of the biblical narrative with our rosy evaluation of ourselves, and we can’t do it. But combining the entire biblical narrative with itself is easy.
To return to the two issues above, God tells Abraham that his descendants will not be given the land yet because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (Gen. 15:16) In other words, the judgment of God in these matter was not a blind rage, but rather exquisitely just. And the other nations that were wiped out — what were they actually like? We have a controversy with God, and so we assume that they were all peaceful little Cananites, flowers in their hair, dancing in meadows with pan flutes. But that is not what they were like at all. And as for the reprobate who does not believe in Jesus, we must remember that he is not condemned for “not knowing about Jesus.” He is condemned for violating the standards of his own conscience in fundamental ways, and for doing so every day of his life.
If a judge sentences a man to hang, this is of course unjust if we leave out of the picture the crime that the man was convicted of. But what is our basis for leaving this out? That crime is only “irrelevant” if our dedicated aim is to condemn the judge.
The Bible says that if we don’t believe in Christ, the wrath of God remains on us. But the wrath of God does not rest on us arbitarily or capriciously, as though we were a planet filled with innocent, doe-eyed smurfs. No, the Bible removes the inconsistency by reminding us that we are by nature objects of wrath.
If you start with the assumption that humans “don’t deserve it” then of course you will come to the conclusion that we don’t deserve it. And if the Bible insists we catch it anyway, then the assumption collides with our conceited faith in ourselves — and we will think that the Bible is advocating a fundamental injustice.
But what if we are flattering ourselves? What if the doctrine of a final judgment is not a doctrine of raging injustice, but rather raging justice? We may come to realize that our problem was not really with the justice/injustice part, but rather with the raging part. If everlasting Hell were unjust, then it would be possible for some to console themselves there. But the everlasting Hell is just, and that means there is no consolation.
If we were race of innocents, and some god were flipping coins to determine who would be lost and who saved, then there might be something to talk about. But we are not a race of innocents. Look around. As Chesterton says somewhere, the doctrine of original sin is the one foundational doctrine of the Christian faith which can be demonstrated and empirically shown.
If there are ten innocent citizens rounded up, and five of them are shot by a despot, there is a gross injustice. But if there are ten inmates on death row, and the governor pardons three of them, there is no injustice done at all to the remaining seven. The only question of possible injustice arises with regard to the three who were pardoned. In other words, the question of justice does not arise when we are talking about Hell. It does arise when we are talking about Heaven.
The question is not “how can a just God send people to Hell?” The question concerns how a just God can allow sinners into Heaven. A God-centered concern about justice would worry far more about Heaven than Hell. A self-flattering, man-centered approach would worry aloud, and does worry aloud, about the purported justice of Hell. But we needn’t worry. The Scriptures teach plainly that at the point of judgment, every mouth will be stopped. The Bible tells us that when it comes down to it, there will be nothing to say. The debates will be over.
The real problem, the problem of justice and Heaven, is resolved in the cross. Christ died as a blood atonement so that God could be both just and the one who justifies. God could be just and send us all to Hell. He could be the one who justifies and let us all into Heaven on a boy-will-be-boys basis. But in order to be both just and the one who justifies, Christ had to bleed.
And that is our final theodicy. Christ is the one who bled.