Over the last 25 years there have been dramatic shifts in the way I understand and frame my faith. Throughout my journey the one constant has been Jesus Christ and my devotion to following him. But I’ve realised that the classic evangelicalism I inherited has at its core two ways of framing the Jesus story: a retributive understanding of justice and duty-based understanding of ethics. These shape almost every part of evangelical theology and practice. In this post I will offer a brief comment upon the first.
At the heart of classic evangelicalism stands the death of Jesus. His death is understood in terms of retribution, which demands that good actions be rewarded and bad actions be punished and in each instance that the reward or punishment be strictly proportional to the act. Human beings are defiant rebels against their creator, whose actions merit eternal punishment. This places God on the horns of a terrible dilemma, for he is both loving and just. His justice demands that he punish us for our wrongdoing, while his love drives him to want to save us from that punishment. The tension is resolved by God becoming incarnate and taking upon himself the penalty we deserve. This makes it possible for God to offer us forgiveness and to begin remaking us into the people we were created to be. Those who accept God’s offer find forgiveness and salvation, and those who do not will be punished eternally.
The problems with this understanding are legion. How can it be that the actions of a short lifetime merit eternal punishment? How can justice, understood as retribution, possibly be effected by an innocent taking the place of the guilty? How can the death of Christ, which was not eternal punishment, be considered an adequate substitute for the penalty we supposedly deserve? How is it that the death of Christ becomes the great game changer when the New Testament writings focus upon the resurrection of Christ as the great game changer? How is it that God can pay the penalty for our sin on the cross, yet demand that the penalty be paid once more in the future by those who reject Christ?
In recent years a number of biblical scholars have drawn attention to the idea that justice in the scriptures is not predominantly focused upon retribution but upon liberation, deliverance and restoration. In Kingdom Ethics. Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen Stassen and David Gushee use the term “delivering justice” to describe what justice means in the Jesus story.
“If we look carefully, we discover that justice has four dimensions: (1) deliverance of the poor and powerless from the justice that they regularly experience; open (2) lifting the foot of domineering power of the neck of the dominated and oppressed; (3) stopping the violence in establishing peace; and (4) restoring the outcasts, the excluded, the Gentiles, the exiles and refugees to community.” Page 349
Christopher Marshall explores the theme of justice in the Old and New Testaments and reaches this conclusion
“The justice of God is a dynamic, active power that breaks into situations of oppression and evil in order to bring liberation and restore freedom. Its basic concern is not to treat each person as each deserves but to do all that is necessary to make things right, even though it is totally undeserved and immensely costly. Is it a restorative justice more than a retributive or distributive justice. It is God acting to end oppression and secure harmony and well-being, especially by meeting the needs of the disadvantaged and downtrodden.” Beyond Retribution
This understanding of justice revolutionises the way we read the justice of God, the nature of humankind, the work of Christ, and the end of the world. God’s basic orientation to the world is not that of angry creator and lawgiver, but that of a longing, loving Creator who is angered by oppression and exploitation but resolved to restore things to what they should be. Human beings are not primarily rebels but amazing creatures who experience varying degrees of brokenness and need to be liberated from the power of death, sin and decay which binds them. The death of Jesus does not become the resolution to a dilemma in which the only way God can resolve the tension between his love and his justice is by pulling a logically tenuous theological swifty, but is the ultimate display of God’s willingness to absorb all the evil we can muster and meet it not with retribution but with resurrection, the offer of reconciliation, a fresh start, and being remade. The end of the world is not about fire, brimstone and the destruction of humanity, but about the restoration of all things.
It’s not just theology that changes. Think of the difference to discipleship. In my experience, retributive theology seems to reinforce the individualism of our age, allowing people to be preoccupied with their own individual salvation and issues of personal/private morality. A restorative/delivering understanding focuses our spirituality on being delivered from that which binds us (for example, being delivered from greed) and on working with God for the freeing of those who are exploited and oppressed. Moreover, it provides a far better framework for theologising about the entire creation.
When we embrace a delivering or restorative model of justice the framing of our faith changes completely. Sure, bound by brevity, I have stated the contrasts between a retributive and a restorative framing in fairly binary terms. As these things get teased out there needs to be nuancing. But my point is that the tone of almost every part of our theology will shift dramatically if we embrace the restorative/delivering view of justice.