One of the problems all human beings face is the reality of guilt. But believers and unbelievers are in different positions with regard to the problem. Christians admit it is a problem and offer a solution, and unbelievers at best side-step the problem and at worst try to ignore it altogether. But most unbelievers care about justice, and they will readily take umbrage at our claim that they have no basis for their sense of justice. They will point to common sense, democratic process, personal intuition, but it remains a problem — where did they get that yard stick from? Who gave them the right to enforce their system of morality on everyone else?
Be that as it may, we can help to illustrate this fundamental problem to unbelievers by assuming a shared interest in justice for criminals. But now, what exactly is justice for criminals? Let’s say a man committed rape. He admits it, and he is sentenced to prison. How long is long enough? I realize we might have a grand discussion of the (in)justice of the prison system, but for the sake of argument, just leave that to the side for now. How long is long enough? In other words, when has “justice been served”?
Seems to me that we have both objective and subjective problems to contend with. In one instance, you may have a man who feels terrible. He feels the weight of his sin/crime, and he doubts he will ever feel bad enough. He will always be haunted by this mistake, the harm he has done. How does an atheist comfort this man? How does an unbeliever give hope to a man who knows he has caused great pain and sadness? At some point is it OK for him to move on? At what point will you tell him that he has suffered enough, understood deeply enough? But that’s just the subjective angle. How should the man be punished? If a jury gives him a light sentence is there any basis for objecting? Is it all up to popular opinion? Judicial precedent? Does the punishment have anything to do with how the man feels?
The Christian gospel maintains that the root cause of suffering in the world is guilt, both objective and subjective. Those are not identical, but they are related. People feel greater or lesser degrees of subjective guilt for actual crimes, but we instinctively know that we do not deal out justice merely based on subjective feelings. A man may feel awful for stealing a bike, but a life sentence in prison would seem utterly cruel and unusual. Another man may deserve a life sentence for a crime even though he feels absolutely at peace with himself (wrongly). The lack of subjective guilt is the cause of suffering in one case, and the crushing weight of subjective guilt is another cause of suffering in the other case. Then add to it, the relative justice of penalties, and the complications multiply. Some sentences exacerbate the subjective feelings of guilt by under or over penalizing.†
But perhaps a helpful way to zero in on one aspect of the question is this: on what basis would a non-Christian be willing to absolve someone of their crime? On what basis would you be willing to tell an individual that they should not feel guilty anymore about the rape or the murder they know they committed? At what point have they paid their debt? How do you know?
What we’re asking is: how do you quantify pain and suffering? How do you quantify a sexual violation? How do you quantify someone’s value, their worth to their family, to their community?
I would submit that all men instinctively know that you can’t count that high. There is no purely human absolution for guilt. The debt is infinite. And even where human justice approximates justice, there are still problems. Justice must include both punitive and restorative dimensions. Justice includes both a penalty for loss and pain and also the restoration of what has been lost. On both counts, a purely human justice can’t account for these costs. You cannot put back a young woman’s virginity. You cannot put back a life that has been taken.
And here is where the Christian gospel comes in. Christianity not only insists that you can’t count that high, it also insists that this does not leave us in a place of despair. The solution to this dilemma is that we need a justice that can handle the real problem of guilt. You can’t just pat people on the head and say there-there. You have to demonstrate justice credibly.
This is what Paul was talking about in Romans when he explained that he was not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus because in it, God has demonstrated his righteousness/justice (Rom. 1). Part of the way we demonstrate the truth of the gospel is by showing how it meets the human need and condition. People know they are guilty, and they also know that no amount of hand washing or hand wringing will get the stain out. The guilt of lies and theft and lust and hatred just doesn’t go away. And they have no right to absolve themselves.
And the gospel comes and initially agrees with them. This is both offensive to those who are determined to deal with their problems by pretending they aren’t there and it is the greatest relief to those who haven’t been able to convince anyone else that this is where it really hurts the most. It’s like going to the doctor with what you’re pretty sure is a broken leg but all you get is a pep talk and a few pills. What you want is an x-ray and a cast. You want someone to agree with you that the pain is real. It’s real because your leg is broken.
In the case of human beings everyone is hurt. Everyone has a broken heart, a diseased heart, and they feel the pain of guilt, the pain of contributing to the suffering in the world when they knew better. And God shows up in the person of Jesus and agrees with us. The healthy do not need a doctor, but the sick do and that’s who Jesus came for (Mk. 2:17). He came for the lost, for the blind, for the deaf, for the demon possessed, for the dead, for the guilty.
But the justice of God is accomplished through the cross. There, the only innocent human being in the history of the world suffered as a criminal, as a blasphemer, as a rebel. He became the curse of sin, and He suffered the perfect penalty for the sins of the world. It is because the penalty for sin has been paid for, that Christians proclaim the forgiveness of sins. In this way, the Christian gospel does not minimize the pain of human suffering, but it does answer it. It gives a way out, a way of hope, a way for humans to honestly move on without minimizing failures but without the crippling weight constantly pulling them down.
To the skeptics, I’m happy to admit that there may be other plausible alternatives to the Christian solution to the guilt problem. Christianity need not insist that there are no other plausible alternatives. But what you cannot do is pretend that the guilt problem doesn’t exist. That would be a dishonest response. And as far as I know, Christianity is the only contender with a serious answer. Finally, I do not pretend that pointing to the cross of Jesus answers all of our questions about justice. But Christianity begins by facing the hardest question square in the face. And that is a good and promising start.