As I've written before in these posts about George MacDonald, reading MacDonald is what convinced me to become a universalist. And no sermon in Unspoken Sermons has had a more decisive impact upon me in this regard than the sermon Justice. This sermon, in my opinion, is MacDonald's theological magnum opus.
MacDonald begins the sermon by asking us to think about the nature of justice and punishment. Are justice and punishment the same thing? This is an important question because when Christians speak of hell as "just" they are implicitly drawing an equivalence between the "punishment" of sin and God's "justice." But MacDonald wants to push back on that notion, to suggest that justice is a far richer concept than punishment. And if this is so, no amount of punishment in hell gets God closer to achieving justice. To illustrate this MacDonald has us consider someone stealing our watch:
Suppose my watch has been taken from my pocket; I lay hold of the thief; he is dragged before the magistrate, proved guilty, and sentenced to a just imprisonment: must I walk home satisfied with the result? Have I had justice done me? The thief may have had justice done him—but where is my watch?The point here, obviously, is that a "just" result can't be found through punishment alone. No doubt punishment is a part of the picture. But, as any victim knows, "justice" isn't reducible to punishing the perpetrators. Crimes (and sin) create relational and psychological wounds that punishment cannot heal.
So what is needed for justice to be done? MacDonald suggests that justice involves the reconciliation of the victim and the perpetrator. Justice involves peacemaking and restitution:
[My watch] is gone, and I remain a man wronged. Who has done me the wrong? The thief. Who can set right the wrong? The thief, and only the thief; nobody but the man that did the wrong. God may be able to move the man to right the wrong, but God himself cannot right it without the man. Suppose my watch is found and restored, is the account settled between me and the thief? I may forgive him, but is the wrong removed? By no means. But suppose the thief to bethink himself, to repent. He has, we shall say, put it out of his power to return the watch, but he comes to me and says he is sorry he stole it, and begs me to accept for the present what little he is able to bring, as a beginning of atonement: how should I then regard the matter? Should I not feel that he had gone far to make atonement—done more to make up for the injury he had inflicted upon me, than the mere restoration of the watch, even by himself, could reach to? Would there not lie, in the thief's confession and submission and initial restoration, an appeal to the divinest in me—to the eternal brotherhood? Would it not indeed amount to a sufficing atonement as between man and man? If he offered to bear what I chose to lay upon him, should I feel it necessary, for the sake of justice, to inflict some certain suffering as demanded by righteousness? I should still have a claim upon him for my watch, but should I not be apt to forget it? He who commits the offence can make up for it—and he alone.
One thing must surely be plain—that the punishment of the wrong-doer makes no atonement for the wrong done. How could it make up to me for the stealing of my watch that the man was punished? The wrong would be there all the same. I am not saying the man ought not to be punished—far from it; I am only saying that the punishment nowise makes up to the man wronged. Suppose the man, with the watch in his pocket, were to inflict the severest flagellation on himself: would that lessen my sense of injury? Would it set anything right? Would it anyway atone? Would it give him a right to the watch? Punishment may do good to the man who does the wrong, but that is a thing as different as important.
This twofold notion of justice--an act of reconciliation requiring the participation of victims and perpetrators--is at the heart of MacDonald's notion of God's justice and atonement. This is the notion that sits behind his "universalism." That is, God just can't ship people off to hell to earn the label "just." Neither could we view hell as a manifestation of God's justice. Because hell doesn't heal the wounds of sin. Hell doesn't mend. Hell doesn't bring peace. Hell doesn't atone. As MacDonald writes:
Punishment of the guilty may be involved in justice, but it does not constitute the justice of God one atom more than it would constitute the justice of a man.After distinguishing between justice and punishment MacDonald then goes on to his second important theological move, the identification of justice with mercy. Too often in discussions about hell and God's justice it is argued that God's justice (manifested in sending you to hell) is in tension with God's mercy and forgiveness. That is, God will either punish you or forgive you. It's a binary, an either/or. Heaven or hell. Justice or mercy. Punishment or forgiveness.
MacDonald rejects all these as false dichotomies. Justice is mercy. Punishment is forgiveness. MacDonald walks through this identification of justice and mercy in an imaginary dialogue with a skeptical conversation partner:
Two rights cannot possibly be opposed to each other. If God punish sin, it must be merciful to punish sin; and if God forgive sin, it must be just to forgive sin. We are required to forgive, with the argument that our father forgives. It must, I say, be right to forgive. Every attribute of God must be infinite as himself. He cannot be sometimes merciful, and not always merciful. He cannot be just, and not always just. Mercy belongs to him, and needs no contrivance of theologic chicanery to justify it.How can this be? Forgiveness is punishment?! That's crazy talk, right?
"Then you mean that it is wrong to punish sin, therefore God does not punish sin?"
"By no means; God does punish sin, but there is no opposition between punishment and forgiveness. The one may be essential to the possibility of the other."
It's only crazy talk if you've become confused about the nature of sin and salvation. As mentioned in my earlier posts on MacDonald, the great confusion is mistaking the consequences of sin for sin itself. Jesus came to save us from sin, not from hell. The confusion comes when people think that Jesus is saving us from hell, the consequence (the "just punishment") of sin. But the problem with this idea, as noted above, is that no amount of punishment gets us a just result. Nor does it address the sin still sitting in our hearts.
This really is a simple idea if you ponder it. If you have a child who is disrespectful or mean or dishonest do you really think they need forgiveness without punishment? The old "either/or" binary of heaven or hell? That the child needs mercy without justice? Of course not! These things are of a piece. You punish to save, love, and have mercy on the child. Salvation is hell in this case. And as any parent knows, the salvation of the child involves his participation. If you break Mrs. Jones' window you have to mow her grass and make it up to her. And, ultimately, even this punishment fails to save the child unless he becomes truly sorry and contrite. For only in that moment is the child truly "saved." Punishment alone doesn't bring either "justice" or "salvation." Punishment is only ever a tool toward these ends.
Here is MacDonald pulling these threads together at the end of the first half of the sermon:
Justice then requires that sin should be put an end to; and not that only, but that it should be atoned for; and where punishment can do anything to this end, where it can help the sinner to know what he has been guilty of, where it can soften his heart to see his pride and wrong and cruelty, justice requires that punishment shall not be spared. And the more we believe in God, the surer we shall be that he will spare nothing that suffering can do to deliver his child from death.Punishment and suffering, in this view, is trying to get us to confront our own sinfulness, to create in us a contrite and broken heart. To get us to loathe the sin in our lives:
The one deepest, highest, truest, fittest, most wholesome suffering must be generated in the wicked by a vision, a true sight, more or less adequate, of the hideousness of their lives, of the horror of the wrongs they have done. Physical suffering may be a factor in rousing this mental pain; but 'I would I had never been born!' must be the cry of Judas, not because of the hell-fire around him, but because he loathes the man that betrayed his friend, the world's friend. When a man loathes himself, he has begun to be saved. Punishment tends to this result. Not for its own sake, not as a make-up for sin, not for divine revenge—horrible word, not for any satisfaction to justice, can punishment exist. Punishment is for the sake of amendment and atonement. God is bound by his love to punish sin in order to deliver his creature; he is bound by his justice to destroy sin in his creation. Love is justice—is the fulfilling of the law, for God as well as for his children. This is the reason of punishment; this is why justice requires that the wicked shall not go unpunished—that they, through the eye-opening power of pain, may come to see and do justice, may be brought to desire and make all possible amends, and so become just...At this point in the sermon MacDonald turns to Christ and the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Because, it might be asked, if all sinners are, in the end, making up for their own sins (think of that watch thief at the start of the sermon coming to you to make atonement) then where is the work of the Christ on Calvary in all this? If I, personally, am atoning for my sins, then how does Christ function as an atoning sacrifice for my sins?
For Justice, that is God, is bound in himself to see justice done by his children—not in the mere outward act, but in their very being. He is bound in himself to make up for wrong done by his children, and he can do nothing to make up for wrong done but by bringing about the repentance of the wrongdoer. When the man says, 'I did wrong; I hate myself and my deed; I cannot endure to think that I did it!' then, I say, is atonement begun. Without that, all that the Lord did would be lost. He would have made no atonement. Repentance, restitution, confession, prayer for forgiveness, righteous dealing thereafter, is the sole possible, the only true make-up for sin. For nothing less than this did Christ die.
MacDonald's response to these questions take up the second half of the Justice sermon. And his response to the doctrine of subsitutionary atonement is diverse and multifaceted.
His first response deals with the psychological appeal of substitutionary atonement. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement feels right to us because, as victims, we want wrong-doers to be punished. It's emotionally satisfying. We want people to go to hell:
The notion of suffering as an offset for sin, the foolish idea that a man by suffering borne may get out from under the hostile claim to which his wrong-doing has subjected him, comes first of all, I think, from the satisfaction we feel when wrong comes to grief. Why do we feel this satisfaction? Because we hate wrong, but, not being righteous ourselves, more or less hate the wronger as well as his wrong, hence are not only righteously pleased to behold the law's disapproval proclaimed in his punishment, but unrighteously pleased with his suffering, because of the impact upon us of his wrong. In this way the inborn justice of our nature passes over to evil.In short, the appeal and logic at work behind subsituionary atonement is really just a symptom of an evil impulse within our own hearts. But this evil impulse doesn't describe God's justice. God only punishes as a means, not as an end in itself:
It is no pleasure to God, as it so often is to us, to see the wicked suffer. To regard any suffering with satisfaction, save it be sympathetically with its curative quality, comes of evil, is inhuman because undivine, is a thing God is incapable of. His nature is always to forgive, and just because he forgives, he punishes.A further problem with the allure of substitutionary atonement--to have Jesus suffer the consequences of my sin rather than me getting into the hard work of repentance and reconciliation--is that it is selfish, a theological product of my sin. Substitutionary atonement is an attempt to cling to my sin ever more tightly! Let Christ suffer the consequences of my sin so I don't have to make amends and restitution. I'm off the hook as it were.
But you can't get off the hook. You can't shift the punishment of your sin onto Jesus. Why? Because God loves you! This is what parents do for their children:
Justice demands your punishment, because justice demands, and will have, the destruction of sin. Justice demands your punishment because it demands that your father should do his best for you. God, being the God of justice, that is of fair-play, and having made us what we are, apt to fall and capable of being raised again, is in himself bound to punish in order to deliver us—else is his relation to us poor beside that of an earthly father.In short, there can be no "imputed righteousness." Rather, Christ stands beside you as you work through the process of repentance and atonement. And the attempt to try to avoid this outcome, as we noted above, is just an indirect way of embracing the sin in your heart, a way of not letting it go. And God will have none of that:
The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from the consequences of our sins, is a false, mean, low notion. The salvation of Christ is salvation from the smallest tendency or leaning to sin. It is a deliverance into the pure air of God's ways of thinking and feeling. It is a salvation that makes the heart pure, with the will and choice of the heart to be pure. To such a heart, sin is disgusting. It sees a thing as it is,—that is, as God sees it, for God sees everything as it is. The soul thus saved would rather sink into the flames of hell than steal into heaven and skulk there under the shadow of an imputed righteousness. No soul is saved that would not prefer hell to sin. Jesus did not die to save us from punishment; he was called Jesus because he should save his people from their sins.So what of the teaching of substitutionary atonement? Where is the work of Christ in MacDonald's view of salvation? As a beginning, MacDonald suggests that there can be no meeting of minds on this topic if we approach the issue from a textual/theoretical angle. For MacDonald the issues aren't biblical or theological at all. He really could care less about our "theory of atonement." It's irrelevant. All MacDonald cares about is having the mind of Christ, particularly in relation to our own sinfulness. For MacDonald the issue is pretty simple: Do you hate your sin? Do you hate your selfishness, meanness, pettiness, and falseness? Do you, in short, want to live like Jesus? If you do then MacDonald has a simple question: If going to hell would help you be a better person then would you go? The answer, according to MacDonald, is that if you have the mind of Christ then of course you'd go. Because the issue isn't about avoiding the wrath of God or the punishment of sin. The issue is our desperate desire to conform to the image of Jesus. And if that is what I really want and need then why would a theory of substitution hold any appeal to me? Or even make any sense? If I hate the sin in my heart how is substitutionary atonement good news? It's only good news for people who love their sin but want off the hook.
In short, for MacDonald the issue boils down to obedience, not exegesis or theology:
A man who has not the mind of Christ—and no man has the mind of Christ except him who makes it his business to obey him—cannot have correct opinions concerning him; neither, if he could, would they be of any value to him: he would be nothing the better, he would be the worse for having them. Our business is not to think correctly, but to live truly; then first will there be a possibility of our thinking correctly. One chief cause of the amount of unbelief in the world is, that those who have seen something of the glory of Christ, set themselves to theorize concerning him rather than to obey him. In teaching men, they have not taught them Christ, but taught them about Christ. More eager after credible theory than after doing the truth, they have speculated in a condition of heart in which it was impossible they should understand; they have presumed to explain a Christ whom years and years of obedience could alone have made them able to comprehend. Their teaching of him, therefore, has been repugnant to the common sense of many who had not half their privileges, but in whom, as in Nathanael, there was no guile. Such, naturally, press their theories, in general derived from them of old time, upon others, insisting on their thinking about Christ as they think, instead of urging them to go to Christ to be taught by him whatever he chooses to teach them. They do their unintentional worst to stop all growth, all life.This lack of obedience has created a kind of faithless timidity about the true nature of salvation which has resulted in creating a system of salvation that preserved pagan notions of appeasement and sacrificial satisfaction. It's the only way we humans can get our minds around justice. Grace, real grace, is just too big to get our heads around:
Truth is indeed too good for men to believe; they must dilute it before they can take it; they must dilute it before they dare give it. They must make it less true before they can believe it enough to get any good of it...Unable to believe in the forgivingness of their father in heaven, they invented a way to be forgiven that should not demand of him so much; which might make it right for him to forgive; which should save them from having to believe downright in the tenderness of his fatherheart, for that they found impossible. They thought him bound to punish for the sake of punishing, as an offset to their sin; they could not believe in clear forgiveness; that did not seem divine; it needed itself to be justified; so they invented for its justification a horrible injustice, involving all that was bad in sacrifice, even human sacrifice. They invented a satisfaction for sin which was an insult to God. He sought no satisfaction, but an obedient return to the Father. What satisfaction was needed he made himself in what he did to cause them to turn from evil and go back to him. The thing was too simple for complicated unbelief and the arguing spirit.For MacDonald these pagan notions and the legal subterfuge involved in subsitionary atonement make it a system unworthy of God:
The device [of substitutionary atonement] is an absurdity—a grotesquely deformed absurdity. To represent the living God as a party to such a style of action, is to veil with a mask of cruelty and hypocrisy the face whose glory can be seen only in the face of Jesus; to put a tirade of vulgar Roman legality into the mouth of the Lord God merciful and gracious, who will by no means clear the guilty. Rather than believe such ugly folly of him whose very name is enough to make those that know him heave the breath of the hart panting for the waterbrooks; rather than think of him what in a man would make me avoid him at the risk of my life, I would say, 'There is no God; let us neither eat nor drink, that we may die! For lo, this is not our God! This is not he for whom we have waited!' But I have seen his face and heard his voice in the face and the voice of Jesus Christ; and I say this is our God, the very one whose being the Creator makes it an infinite gladness to be the created. I will not have the God of the scribes and the pharisees whether Jewish or Christian, protestant, Roman, or Greek, but thy father, O Christ! He is my God. If you say, 'That is our God, not yours!' I answer, 'Your portrait of your God is an evil caricature of the face of Christ.'MacDonald then summarizes all this, making a clear contrast between his view of salvation and substitutionary atonement:
To believe in a vicarious sacrifice, is to think to take refuge with the Son from the righteousness of the Father; to take refuge with his work instead of with the Son himself; to take refuge with a theory of that work instead of the work itself; to shelter behind a false quirk of law instead of nestling in the eternal heart of the unchangeable and righteous Father, who is merciful in that he renders to every man according to his work, and compels their obedience, nor admits judicial quibble or subterfuge. God will never let a man off with any fault. He must have him clean.I'd also like to note that, in all of this discussion about substitutionary atonement, MacDonald offers the greatest verdict I've ever read about substitution theory and those who subscribe to it:
To believe it is your punishment for being able to believe it; you may call it your reward, if you will.Nice. To believe in substituionary atonement is your punishment for being able to believe it!
But the question is still out there, how does MacDonald see Christ as our atonement? Toward the end of the sermon he offers his positive view:
I believe in Jesus Christ. Nowhere am I requested to believe in any thing, or in any statement, but everywhere to believe in God and in Jesus Christ...
Jesus, our propitiation, our atonement. He is the head and leader, the prince of the atonement. He could not do it without us, but he leads us up to the Father's knee: he makes us make atonement. Learning Christ, we are not only sorry for what we have done wrong, we not only turn from it and hate it, but we become able to serve both God and man with an infinitely high and true service, a soulservice. We are able to offer our whole being to God to whom by deepest right it belongs. Have I injured anyone? With him to aid my justice, new risen with him from the dead, shall I not make good amends? Have I failed in love to my neighbour? Shall I not now love him with an infinitely better love than was possible to me before? That I will and can make atonement, thanks be to him who is my atonement, making me at one with God and my fellows! He is my life, my joy, my lord, my owner, the perfecter of my being by the perfection of his own. I dare not say with Paul that I am the slave of Christ; but my highest aspiration and desire is to be the slave of Christ.