Forgiveness: the act of excusing a mistake or offenseP
icture a potential real-life situation in which a rich old gentleman, in the final years of his life, is seduced by his attractive, young, (gold-digging) secretary and marries her. He dies shortly after, leaving everything to her and nothing to his four eldest children (from a previous marriage). She proceeds to shut them out completely, leaving them penniless and extremely bitter. It is obvious that she intends to enjoy the windfall that her cunning manipulation of the old man has brought her. What are the abandoned children to do?
They have been deprived of their birthright and their father's legacy and name - even the house they grew up in - by the canniving trickery of a beautiful witch who makes Cruella de Ville look like dear, old auntie Ethel...
Let us look at their options:
• They could possibly have grounds [A] to sue her
in order to try and regain everything since their father had remade his will while 'arguably' in the early states of dementia and they had a 'verbal agreement' with her that she would give them something anyway (just nothing they can prove). This, however, could lead to them being even worse off since they would not have the money to fight such a case and the legal bills, if they lost, would be unthinkably high.
• So, [B] cutting their losses
and backing out of the fight would seem like a more prudent option, albeit a forced one.
They do, however, have a third option.
• This would be [C]
to make a decision to forgive and forget
, thereby absolving Cruella "Mark 2" of all wrong and carrying on with their lives without the stigma of a 20 million pound grudge. Surely
, in human experience, C has always been the best option? Three thousand years of literary history - from Medea
- have taught us that revenge (even with justice on one's side) is a dish best served cold, so obviously choice A (court battle), while maybe satisfying some of the demands of justice and retribution, is never going to leave them unscathed; it would be a bitter fight to the death - undignified, ruthless and cruel. Option B is only going to leave bitterness since they would have been forced to bow out of a fight due to factors beyond their control; a great injustice
. The sense of frustration and anger this would leave behind would eventually mellow into a grudge too huge even to contemplate carrying around. So, we are led to the conclusion that option C - to choose to forgive and carry on with life - must the best option. You avoid all the hate, conflict, anger, bitterness and emptiness associated with the first two options. You walk away from the situation knowing that you are a bigger person and, after all, money is expendable but emotional health and good relationships are infinitely more valuable in this life...
I'm hoping you have perceived the gaping hole in this line of reasoning by now... Yes, in our experience option C is going to be the only one which, for the part of the abandoned children, has any kind of decent moral outlook. But what about JUSTICE
?? We noted in option A that when we try and pursue justice for ourselves, we will always find it impossible to be objective and selfless. Option B was rejected for the very reason
that it left justice unsatisfied, thereby creating a fathomless well of bitterness. But option C, even though it avoids the personal
pitfalls of the injured parties, still leaves justice unanswered
. Who is going to call Cruella "M2" to account for what she has done
? The sad truth is that, whichever of these options people take, the Cruellas of this world get away with these kind of acts and worse every day and are left free to prosper.
Forgiveness will help me to avoid burying myself in hatred or bitterness, or even regret, but it will never call Cruella to account. What shall we say then? Only, that:Forgiveness for forgiveness' sake must necessarily exclude justice.
If I am not appealing to a higher authority who deals with justice, then any act of forgiveness I engage in must needs ignore the demands of justice; there is no alternative. This puts the atheist in a difficult position (and I do apologise for making you feel awkward if you realising this for the first time). Think about it: no one would dare infer that justice is not important so, in analysing the above scenario, an atheist would have to conclude that the only 'right' option is A
, since it is the only one which comes close to meeting the demands of justice. An injustice has been done and it must be dealt with (unless justice is not important). This, however, brings us back to the problem of forgiveness being discarded. The 'reasonable' road of higher moral integrity is C, as we have noted, but that leaves justice by the wayside.The atheist finds himself in the unenviable position of having to choose between forgiveness and justice
Does he forgive and thus (albeit unwittingly in most cases) allow/condone the spread of injustice in the world OR does he decide that forgiveness is too high a price to pay and choose instead to fight for justice and retribution? The law will do its best to ensure justice is done but forgiveness does not come into it. He cannot have both; remember true forgiveness involves not the slightest bit of retribution or even renumeration since it involves the extension of undeserved goodwill by wiping the misdemeanor from the record completely. It is: "the act of excusing
a mistake or offense."!Having come to terms with this reality, what is he to tell the now-paraplegic and amputee victims of the recent London bombings?
That they should just forgive and forget? This would be tantamount to saying that the horrific acts perpetrated against them don't deserve to be punished
and they should just grin and bear it, including their vastly reduced mobility and quality of life. Perhaps he should advise them to devote the rest of their lives to the hunting down and bringing to justice of these killers, according to option A? But what happens when they are found and brought to justice? What will they then have to live for, consumed as they have been by their desire for personal revenge and justice, now that this aim has been accomplished? Even worse, what if they are never found? Consumed isn't the word.
Now, this isn't a dig at atheists. I (sincerely hope I) never criticise anything for the sake of it; a point I have already made. What we are doing here is perusing our options
. If 'forgiveness for forgiveness' sake'
(which just so happens to be the atheist's default position since he excludes appealing to a higher authority for justice from the outset) leaves us with unsatisfactory options, we are led naturally to ask the question:So how can forgiveness and justice ever be reconciled in a satisfactory manner?
Is it that forgiveness is inherently unjust?? No it is not. The fact of the matter is that any just
concept of forgiveness is simply incompatible with a materialistic or naturalistic worldview
. If I, as an atheist or agnostic, decide both to forgive and to seek justice on any given issue or occasion, that is great, but I am being inconsistent with my beliefs since any forgiveness worth its name must excuse
the act and leave it in the past without seeking justice.
But it doesn't just go this far. What I also want to demonstrate is that, not only is true forgiveness alien to an atheistic understanding of the world, it is also alien to every other worldview in existence apart from the Judaeo-Christian worldview
Now, that's a pretty major claim, some might say. Evidence? Well, I can make this claim with confidence because only in the Bible
do we witness the perfect marriage of justice and forgiveness in the same person and act. Please do get back to me if you manage to find an example outside the Bible. If you think about it, what we are talking about is the perfect paradox (a bit like life in so many areas - beauty/suffering, love/betrayal etc etc): we are talking about the possibility of both excusing an act and executing justice on it at the same time. It is simply impossible in human terms
. I was being completely unfair on the atheist from the outset because the forgiveness/justice problem is quite possibly the greatest conundrum in existence in the moral plane.
Yet, God managed to demonstrate how such an act is possible in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross
. It was, quite simply, the greatest act of justice and the greatest act of forgiveness ever seen. Actually, it was the ONLY such act ever seen or recorded in history (apart from the rest of the Bible, of course, which demonstrates exactly the same pattern in God's behaviour - the cross is simply the culmination of the whole story).
So why does the cross prove this? What happened on the cross? On the cross, Jesus was showing us that God takes injustice and wrongdoing seriously
. Jesus bore the injustice of the world on his shoulders as God punished and cursed him there, giving him everything that we deserved in his own undeserved death, which he went to willingly. But, at the same time, God was also demonstrating his perfect love, in providing a substitute - HIMSELF
- to take our punishment SO THAT HE COULD FORGIVE US
. On the cross we see how God's nature is incompatible with injustice, he could not allow us to get away with our wrongdoing and rejection of him, but we also see how his nature is love
. He wants
to forgive us and excuse us of all our wrongdoing so that we can have a relationship with him. So, he himself became our scapegoat, the perfect sacrifice of forgiveness.
See for yourself what the God of the Bible is like, the God who wants to forgive you and who loves justice. Only he can ever satisfy the demands of both of these things, but if you are honest with yourself, isn't that what you'd expect from a perfect God
? Indeed, if believing in God is ever something you have considered, could you ever believe in a God who was not
completely just and completely loving? Well, Jesus demonstrated this on the cross. By coming into our space-time context and doing this for us, Jesus was not only revealing the truth once and for all about God's existence but also his perfect love and justice.
The God of the Bible is the God of the universe and he is a personal God who wants to have a personal relationship with each and every one of us. He will also punish every injustice, including the London and Jordanian bombings but, know this: if you are trusting in Jesus today, your wrongdoings have already been paid for - you are truly forgiven!
I leave you with two verses which show how God reconciled, not only forgiveness and justice but also a world of undeserving rebels to their creator God, if they would only turn and trust in the avenue he opened up back to him on the cross of Jesus."God shows his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
(Romans 5v8)"Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no wrongdoing..."