Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Divine justice

Heather wrote in with this topic:

I was hoping you might write in your blog on the concept of justice, because I'm finding it a little confusing. I know that conservative Christianity looks at Jesus's death as satisfying God's "justice." As in, His need for sin to be punished, and if Jesus wasn't killed, then sin would go unpunished. However, that paints a fearful picture of God, and Paul makes a lot of comments that seems to really enjoy how God's justice works. The Old Testament praised God's justice, in terms of freeing the oppressed and marginalized. Even Jesus made a lot of mentions of God's justice, and I don't see how they'd extol it so much if most of the world will get sent to hell because they don't accept Jesus as a personal Lord and Savior.

So how does the concept of God's justice work in Christian Science?

I'll give a few thoughts here, but please everyone add your own comments. And Heather, feel free to follow up with any other thoughts or questions you might have—I'm not entirely sure that I've addressed below what you're asking! :)

I've always loved the Christian Science approach to justice. It goes hand-in-hand with mercy. This approach can be summed up in these words from Science and Health: "Justice requires reformation of the sinner. Mercy cancels the debt only when justice approves."

My take on this is that God Himself, in His perfection and glory, has no need for sin to be punished because His view is that we are eternally sinless, in His image. The punishment we experience is sin punishing itself, the same way touching a hot stove burns your finger.

The punishment is inherent in the activity and thought processes of sin, and that punishment can be characterized in a general way as lacking a sense of God's holy presence. (Here's another blog entry about sin.) When sin is indulged or desired, we cut ourselves off from experiencing the Divine, which is punishment enough although we might not realize it. In fact, you can define sin as something that blocks or interferes with the understanding of the Divine.

My feeling is that the Old Testament writers, in trying to articulate this spiritual fact, assigned the punishment aspect of sin to God as a way to express their respect for His omnipotence. Perhaps they didn't fully understand that God is entirely Love, so they thought He was actually the source of the punishment. "God's justice" to me is then shorthand for the spiritual fact that sin is incompatible with the Divine, and therefore cannot and does not abide in His presence. This is a good thing, for if sin were allowable, good itself would not be entirely good.

Consequently, sin never goes unpunished. It's simply unavoidable—sin carries within itself the seeds of its own punishment and destruction. Because sin is bad for us, eventually we wake to the damage it's causing and we stop doing it. Sin is thereby destroyed through our non-participation. That's the entirety of the equation. Once sin is destroyed, it requires no other punishment. Here's how Mary Baker Eddy says it in the tenets of Christian Science: "We acknowledge God's forgiveness of sin in the destruction of sin and the spiritual understanding that casts out evil as unreal. But the belief in sin is punished so long as the belief lasts."

So, how does Jesus' crucifixion fit into this? The Bible does state that he died for our sins, and MBE agrees with this in her writings. What she clarifies though is that Jesus' martyrdom was the inevitable result of Truth breaking through to human consciousness, and the baser elements of mortal existence reacting against it. It's the global, entrenched aspects of sin that all humanity struggles with that killed Jesus. "Was it just for Jesus to suffer? No; but it was inevitable, for not otherwise could he show us the way and the power of Truth" (Science and Health).

Jesus' death and resurrection have a higher meaning than the one limited to appreciating him for his martyrdom. His followers are rightly grateful to him for his sacrifice and suffering, but the final message was one of eternal Life. As Christian Science explains, Jesus' body died; Jesus' consciousness did not. His coming back proved to his followers that existence extends beyond the death of the body, and is a point of faith we can learn from today. It was not "just" in the sense of being fair that this marvelous man had to undergo the suffering he did just to show us that. But it was "right" in the sense that we needed to be shown this truth about Life and he was willing to do it.

Personally, I try not to get this mixed up with my own responsibility for my own sins or failings. To me, it would be grossly unappreciative if I felt that Jesus' suffering gave me a "get out of jail free" card such that I didn't then still have to wrestle with and destroy my own sins. I still have to do my own work.

The point of that work is to see more clearly every day my own spiritual perfection as God's image and likeness. At times, through this seeing, the limited sense that includes sinful activity is uplifted and healed. Then the sin drops away naturally. At other times, I get nailed for sin and I suffer. This teaches me the ultimate pointlessness of sin, I stop doing it, and am rewarded with the discovery that I never needed it in the first place. Either way, I inevitably learn who I really am as God's creation—sinless and free.

Okay, I've gone on long enough, even though I feel like I'm just touching the tip of the iceberg. I'd recommend Atonement and Eucharist in Science and Health as an excellent resource for discovering more about the point of Jesus' mission. And any other thoughts you have on this subject, please weigh in!

Your ideas and inspiration are welcome! Please comment below or Contact Laura.
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At 2/20/2007 07:34:00 PM, Anonymous Heather said...

Thanks so much, Laura. :)

I'm currently reading a book by Thomas Talbott, called 'The Inescapable Love of God,' and he's aruging for a Universalist Christian viewpoint, with firm support from the Bible. He mentions what you mention here -- the verses that say God hated, or showed his wrath -- it was a human way of speaking. I know MBE mentions in Science and Health that words are sometimes inefficient, because it's using a material means to describe the spiritual (which is roughly what she says).

What Thomas argues is that God's love can be experienced as severe or wrathful, depending on one's perception. When you love someone, you want them to be perfected. So if your five year old hits another child, there is punishment involved to correct the behavior. Which is exactly what Thomas argues -- God's love appears as wrath to one who is unwilling at that time to relinquish the sinful viewpoint or false self.

So God's love would be experienced as wrath when someone is clinging to the carnal mind, because the carnal mind is incompatible with the true sinless self. And the 'wrath' is necessary in order to show how self-destructive the carnal mind is. And thus, there is no contradiction between love/mercy and justice/wrath. It's the same action; the interpretation depends on one's mental position.

At 2/21/2007 07:43:00 AM, Anonymous Dennis R. said...

That is a great book. I have it myself, and it has been a big influence in my life.

God's Love can be unsettling if one is involved in some kind of sin. It is kind of like being hugged by someone we think is an enemy. A hug from someone we love is wonderful, but from someone we perceive as an enemy it can be distasteful.

At 2/21/2007 08:32:00 PM, Anonymous Heather said...


It's a fabulous book. It was referenced in two other books called 'If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person' and ' If God is Love: Rediscovering Grace in An Ungracious World,' by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland. Both of those books were truly humbling, and made an excellent point -- in believing that God will save every person, it causes you to work harder at loving other person, since God loves them. Whereas the God saves the elect only makes it much too easy to develop the us vs. them mentality, and thus see the 'them' as less than a person, or less than God's cherished child.

Talbott's book uses a lot more Bible quotes, though. I love how he broke down Romans and showed it from a Universalist standpoint.


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