Understanding God's justice
Regular columnist James Knight has been pondering the relevance of the Incarnation when considering how God deals with the world’s sin.
Christians and atheists alike often bring to bear the sometimes knotty issue of how an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God can give us free will and yet inform us that we are wholly deserving of any punishments doled out to us. But I noticed when reading Genesis 15 recently that it’s quite illuminative on this issue:
“As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
This could be read as God saying something along the lines of “Even though they won’t do it, I’m going to give the nation they serve as slaves some more time to see the error of their ways and turn from their wickedness”.
It’s rather like a decent, noble teacher spotting early on that a group of his pupils are going to screw up next term but withholds himself to see if they learn the error of their ways. Except, of course, this is worse – it’s perhaps comparable to giving ISIS a window of opportunity to repent. Doubtless, this is a difficult concept to swallow as it means the death of many lives in the meantime. But something similar appears to be going on in Genesis 15 – we know the promised land had been oppressed by the Amorites - an exceptionally cruel oppressor - for hundreds of years, where virgins and firstborns were regularly slaughtered to appease their man-made god, and rival tribes were butchered and dispossessed at will.
Back then God was waiting for the time when the antidote to sin would arrive on earth – through the death and resurrection of Christ. Obviously it won’t have escaped your notice that even though the incarnation was over 2000 years ago, still the world abounds with evil and wickedness.
But I think that’s the whole point of the power of the incarnation – the point we are supposed to get but often don’t. There is actually nothing else God can do to make the overall situation any better. Yes, no doubt God could intervene to stop a few flying bullets, or negate a bomb explosion here and there, or take away cancerous cells (and I’m sure He does in all sorts of ways we don’t understand) – He could even give us new evidence of His existence if He so wished by some kind of empirical revelation (and again, I’m sure He does in all sorts of ways that are more subtle).
But the human enquiry will always feel so unsatisfactory and incomplete to many unless they can bring themselves to realise the power of the incarnation as a point in history around which everything else past, present and future revolves. It is so powerful and so comprehensive that it satisfies all our questions of theodicy and all our demands for more satisfactory evidence. And it is from that first point of realisation that all other enquiries about Christianity begin.
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich. He is also a writer for the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
James blogs regularly at The Philosophical Muser
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