Here’s a little thought experiment.
Let’s say you heard tell of a ruler of a foreign country who decreed that all citizens of his country who broke even one of that country’s laws deserved to be, and henceforth would be, locked up and tortured for the rest of their lives.
Additionally, he took the most revered, humble, and law-abiding citizen up on his offer to take all the blame and punishment for all crimes great and small that were perpetrated by a select group of citizens, a group chosen neither by the severity of their crimes nor by any discernible merit on their part (the others were out of luck).
This left pardoned jay-walkers and murderers alike to roam the street and continue doing what they wanted with virtual impunity, although it was hoped that many would turn over a new leaf out of gratitude and the promise of a fatter retirement check. Everyone else would be tortured the moment they committed the most minor infraction, which was hard to avoid given that the laws of the land were intricate and formulated in direct opposition to basic human nature.
What would your response be to such a report?
- “Injustice! Barbarism!”
- “The real story here is grace. The demands of the law must be satisfied. Transgressors know what’s coming to them before they commit a criminal act. Justice must be served. The guilty must by no means go unpunished. After all, there’s nothing in Scripture that this violates, and his authority is guaranteed by Romans 13. But what grace the ruler shows by executing vengeance on the innocent, saving (some) from their punishment!”
- Something else?
Would the report about this ruler’s policies seem more believable or less so if you discovered through close observation that the king otherwise seemed to be a good, tenderhearted man whose ideology and policies were upheld by fair-minded folk to be the very model of fairness? What if, after your own examination, you concluded that his other demonstrations of kindness and even personal affection for his people were unparalleled throughout the world? What if his pardoned citizens upheld his chief virtues to be “justice” and “grace”?
C.S. Lewis once said (on another subject), “…nonsense remains nonsense, even when we say it about God.”
I realize I’m taking on a few different evangelical narratives here, especially penal satisfaction, eternal conscious torment, and election. I also realize that many of my brothers and sisters on an entirely different theological page will answer none of those questions I posed, but will first scramble to make fine distinctions between this hypothetical ruler and God. To them I say: you know very well what I’m getting at, and if you dismiss the legitimacy of my analyzing your doctrine of God’s justice in this way, then it shouldn’t be a problem for you to come right out and honestly answer these questions within this hypothetical construct. Right? Would such a ruler be a good, just, wise, and merciful ruler?
If you answer, “Your analogy is crude, limited, fanciful, and breaks down at various points,” I will congratulate you. I think this is exactly what happens when we try to weave together the various human approximations of the meaning of the atonement and salvation found in the NT and hold to our construct as the only inviolable doctrine.