The Crucifixion—Part 3


I’m still thinking through whether or not I understand Rutledge (or Anselm for that matter). When Anselm says “justice must be seen to be done,” I sense there is an important truth being expressed, but I don’t think this equates to an offering of proportionate value and magnitude to the crime. I’m sure I’m going against the mainstream.

Does it make sense to calculate the magnitude of our offense as infinite because God is of infinite value? Surprisingly, I don’t think so. God is infinitely valuable, of course. But does the severity or magnitude of a finite agency’s offense derive from the value of the offended party? Get caught stealing from a poor beggar and justice is satisfied with you’re being reprimanded. Get caught stealing from the King and you pay big-time. How much you deserve to suffer is proportionate to the value of the one you offend. That’s certainly the sense of justice in much of the world, certainly the Middle East I lived in for many years. Steal from me, do public service. Steal from King Hussein, go to jail. So, as the logic goes, steal from God and suffer infinitely.

I think this is wrong-headed. I agree all value is God’s, diversely reflected in created things and that, ultimately, it is God against whom we sin. But it seems as clear to me that the severity and magnitude of an offense is judged based on the understanding and context of the offending party. The magnitude of my offense against God derives (at least in part) from the depth of my understanding. It is not simply convertible with the value of God. And since no finite perspective could possibly comprehend the infinitude of God’s value, no offense against God can be as great as God.

That said, what’s it then mean to say that in “setting things right” (“rectifying” the fallen world, to go with Rutledge’s translation) justice “must be seen to be done”? Rutledge writes:

Forgiveness is too weak a word to embrace the full scope of what Christ has done and what he calls us too. How can we begin to speak even of forgiveness, let alone transformation, in the worst of the worst situations? The extermination of millions does not cry out for forgiveness. Never mind millions; what about just one baby burned up in a microwave over by its own father? After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice too…

Something is owed to the victims of such atrocity. No one needs to have it explained to them what is meant by the language. It is common human expectation that there should be justice, and that justice should be in some way related to the magnitude of the loss…

If when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God.


I sense something amiss here, because what is also “common human expectation” regarding justice is that forgiveness is not part of the deal. What’s expected is that those guilty for the most heinous crimes ought to suffer the equivalent to what they’ve done to others. This is no different than (lex talionis) ‘eye for eye’ and ‘tooth for tooth’ justice Christ calls us to not participate in. He calls our “common human expectation” and “blood boiling” into question. It is also not a part of our “common human expectation” that someone else suffer on my behalf what I deserve to suffer, even if such suffering is freely chosen. So there’s good reason to question our common human expectations.

What about justice for all the innocent babies abused and monstrous evils done to the poor, the weak and the defenseless? How is that “put right”? How’s it accounted for? It gets accounted for by Christ who is the only truly Innocent One suffering torture and rejection, not as a substitute for the punishment perpetrators of violence deserve, but as the consummate instance of the violence they perpetrate – consummate on account of Christ’s unique innocence – being forgiven in this case by the victim. As David Hart says, it is Christ’s innocence that saves us. Let us consider saying in addition that this would remain true had we, hypothetically, never fallen. It’s not only sinful human beings who are united by grace and faith to God through Incarnation. We don’t need God more as sinners than we needed him in any imagined, originally righteous state. Christ’s humanity was perfected by grace too. Let that sink in.

Moreover, it is what Christ does as innocent victim that sets the world right. Because he suffered as did all innocent scapegoated victims, he is in a place to offer us a means of both receiving and extending forgiveness through participation in his suffering. Only Christ as the Innocent One can offer victims a mode of identification with him that can contextualize their victimization within his own (rather than, as typically understood, by contextualizing his victimization within theirs) and thus empower victims in the forgiveness of others. At the same time, only Christ as the “forgiving victim” (thank you James Alison) offers victimizers a mode of identification in his suffering which identifies and exposes both their guilt and forgiveness. But the world is not, I don’t think, “put right” by Jesus suffering “what the persecutors deserve.” Justice is served when Jesus suffers what victims experience and forgives in return. So to answer Rutledge’s passionate call to the “boiling of blood” over evil and to the call for a suffering that is “owed” victims – which sounds very like retribution to me – I don’t know how analogously to conceive of the boiling of the blood of the impassible God of delight, and if God’s blood isn’t boiling, why should ours boil? Right here I suspect that if we consider this to be a pitiless disregard for the suffering of victims, it may be due to lack of our own participation in God’s impassible delight.

So does Jesus suffer what is “owed” the victims? God forbid. I rather suspect he suffers in a manner that is able to free us from such equations. Forgiveness – if it’s real at all – suggests an entirely different economy of relations, and so must the justice we embrace challenge our shared expectations, especially if those expectations require our blood to boil or ask us to make proportionate compensation of eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. I may be missing Rutledge’s point here. My apologizes. But if not her, there are others who do adopt such a view of things.

If we construe forgiveness as Christ’s suffering the ultimate consequence we deserve, then our indebtedness is not in fact “canceled” or “erased” (Col. 2.14). Rather, it is stamped “paid,” which is not what Paul says. Nor was it true (2Cor 5.19) that “God was in Christ…not counting our sins against us.” Rather, God was counting those sins, prosecuting the case against us, making sure justice was seen to be done. That an innocent man suffered rather than us creates a drama that hides the fact that nothing is actually forgiven. Is not the point of Paul’s language here to subvert the very economy of indebtedness under which Christ dies? That the indebtedness is “canceled” (Col 2) shows its power is mythological and not of divine origin. I think this point is entirely lost on Rutledge.

Let me offer this as carefully as I can – the innocent victims of injustice are not “owed” anything (in terms of proportionate justice), they are infinitely loved which is much better, and they are called to free themselves from proportional economics by participating in Christ’s gratuitous suffering and forgiving response. What of the victimizers? They too are infinitely loved by the Forgiving Victim, Jesus, who calls them also to the same participation in an infinite impassibility that suffers without being harmed and forgives without needing compensation for the wrong done. Both victim and victimizer escape the violent math of proportional justice through the same Cross – approaching Christ either as his victimizer (which we all are on some level), or as a victim alongside him.

Is justice pure fiction, then? Are we not longing for the good and the true when we cry out to see justice done? We are indeed! But the reality we long for is not what we get when we possess our desire in terms of proportional suffering. When the parents of a murdered child see the perpetrator die in the electric chair, the relief they feel is not the satisfaction of justice God intends (not if the gospel is true). This is not to say that the renewed grief we experience when the guilty are acquitted is not a genuine longing for that justice which leaves nothing unreconciled. It is simply to say that justice is only finally satisfied when victims and victimizers transcend the distinction between justice and mercy in the gratuitous gift of Christ.

Let me suggest that justice be thought, then, simply as being brought to acknowledge the truth about one’s choices. The world is set right wherever the guilty confess, take responsibility for their choices, and are reconciled to their victims. The Cross makes this possible not by satisfying the deserved punishment, but because God in Christ suffers victimization and forgives. As James Alison says, Jesus becomes the “forgiving victim.” This “rectifies” the world. How? By creating space for both victimizers to be forgiven and victims to extend forgiveness. But there’s no suffering that compensates for wrongs. What compensates, if we must speak in such terms, is the beatitude of Christ’s sufferings where victimizers and victims meet each other within an the impassible economy of God’s delight. What we need, then, is not proportional justice, i.e., victims seeing that their perpetrators are suffering a pain equal in magnitude to their crime, but proportional forgiveness, i.e., the consummate Innocent One forgiving his perpetrators and so empowering both victimizers (to take responsibility for their actions) and victims (to extend forgiveness in Christ).

(Prodigal Son by Oleg Korolev)

15 comments on “The Crucifixion—Part 3

  1. Argue with this, go on, anyone, I challenge you!
    Brilliant Tom!
    What Jesus did through his life and death is super multi-faceted, but in terms of a primary (if that can exist) mechanism of atonement, in a one-liner, this is magnificent.

    How Jesus reconciles the victim and victimiser (which we are all both) to produce the condition for the possibility of union and therefore justice – where relations are made right- is beautiful and very persuasive to me.
    True justice never involves retribution; anger and forgiveness where made for each other.

    Though I will keep on trying to mine the depths of Jesus’ work and meaning this is a satisfying step of understanding (no, revelation) for me.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike H says:

    I’m with you.

    Maybe Rutledge addresses it elsewhere, but like you I see an important distinction between retributive and restorative justice being the degree of focus on victims (noting that the dividing line between victim/perpetrator often isn’t clean).

    As far as retributive forms of justice are concerned, in the end the victim need not even make an appearance. Maybe as “evidence”, but as long as the perpetrator is punished, “justice” has been “fulfilled” because that’s what’s “owed” to the victims. Per Rutledge’s horrific example of a microwaved baby, of course what happens to the father matters immensely. The outrage is understandable. But what about the baby? Without the final restoration of that child, no justice is possible. Ever. Not really.

    Restorative justice flows from the restoration of the victim. The victim is more than just evidence of crime. Our systems of justice here and now are absolutely terrible at this imo. But theologically, I take this to mean that God’s justice entails resurrection. If justice is setting right, then the telos of justice is resurrection. It becomes only a matter of how far this “setting right” extends.

    If the child is not safe, if the wrong is beyond what can be made right, the restoration of that father is impossible. But if that child is safe, if what is lost can be unlost, then forgiveness and restoration of the perpetrator becomes possible. Part of what I take “if Christ is not raised then you are still in your sins” to mean is that, if Christ stayed dead then you are still murderers. “Payment” is not the issue. What has been done would not have been undone. The hope of Easter is not just that it has been undone but how it has been undone.

    Not all-encompassing or anything, but I read this the other day:

    “In the final judgment, God may give the parents of the man who murdered both his father and his mother permission to decide his eternal fate. If they should seek reconciliation rather than retaliation, who will claim that an injustice has been done?”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Tom says:

      Thank you Mike. I completely agree that in the final sense, ‘justice’ reduces to reconciliation; until victimizers acknowledge and confess and victims forgive, justice isn’t satisfied – that is, the world isn’t ‘rectified’ (to go with Rutledge’s understanding of justice). So justice IS reducible to forgiveness provided forgiveness entails the whole constellation of factors that make ‘taking responsibility’ possible. I think when Rutledge says “forgiveness isn’t enough” she means to say that the world isn’t “set right” simply by the fact that God has a forgiving attitude toward us. And so far she’s right – more than THAT is needed. But for me at least, when I say “forgiveness is enough,” I’m not talking about God’s abiding favorable attitude toward us. I’m talking about the concrete price God pays in Christ to demonstrate that we are forgiven. When THAT is perceived – it is enough.

      I like how you see 1Cor 15’s “if Christ be not raised, we are still in our sins.” Exactly.



    • Great reply, Mike.
      Your Corinthians thought was especially illuminating.
      When the victim is killed, resurrection (of some form) is the only hope.
      For the living, forgiveness is the only hope: both for the perpetrator (which we all are, in differing measure) and the victim who needs to find a way to survive.


  3. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    Wow, I loved every line of this. Pretty good for a post still in process!

    I’m surprised at how many people still take the approach of calling our guilt infinite because God is infinite. It seems like they’re trying to find a justification for infinite guilt and just turn to the only infinite ‘thing’ they know of. It always seemed to me like it would be easier to argue (though I wouldn’t take this path) that God’s infinitude and transcendence would get us off the hook because we are in no position to cause Him any actual harm. Additionally, our fallen world of ambiguity and ignorance would seem to mitigate our culpability.

    “…the world is not, I don’t think, “put right” by Jesus suffering “what the persecutors deserve.” Justice is served when Jesus suffers what victims experience and forgives in return.”

    That is wonderful. I absolutely love the approach of placing forgiveness at the center of true justice. Christ is the lamb who takes away the sins of the world, not because justice is satisfied by the slaughter of the innocent, but because He became the ultimate victim and thus the ultimate forgiver.

    “…justice is only finally satisfied when victims and victimizers transcend the distinction between justice and mercy in the gratuitous gift of Christ.”

    I think you’ve hit on an extremely important insight here. Focusing on who owes who, and on who deserves what, can only take us so far. As you said “The world is set right wherever the guilty confess, take responsibility for their choices, and are reconciled to their victims.” The last part of which is unfortunately so often replace with “and are duly punished.” That reconciliation must go beyond our normal categories of justice and mercy. The guilty must give themselves over entirely to justice, while the victims relinquish all power that that justice gives them over their victimizers. Then all are free.


    • Tom says:


      “It always seemed to me like it would be easier to argue (though I wouldn’t take this path) that God’s infinitude and transcendence would get us off the hook because we are in no position to cause Him any actual harm.”

      Good point. Anselm is confusing (to me) at this point. He actually says something similar. He says “Look, God is impassible. So our sin cannot actually ‘rob’ him of anything or ‘harm’ him in any way.” So Anselm admits the Cross can’t be about “rectifying God” (his state of mind, etc.) since his attitude is always benevolent. But this leaves one wondering just what exactly is being “satisfied” if, as Anselm admits, we’re guilty of an infinite offense.

      I was wondering after posting this yesterday: How MIGHT one construe human guilt as ‘infinite’ given God’s infinite value? It doesn’t seem that we finite agents are capable of generating an ‘infinitely offensive’ act. But if God is the summum bonum – the highest good and greatest (infinite) value – then the value of all created things is God’s value diversely expressed. In other words, the value of creation is the value of God contingently expressed. All value is God’s value. That’s why it’s true that “against you, Lord, and you alone, that I have sinned.” But King David knows he’s sinned against others, so how is it he thinks he’s offended God “alone”? But it makes sense to view it this way IF in fact all value is Gods value expressed in and reflected by creatures. So in a sense we do offend an infinite value (God) when we fail to realize the genuine value of any person; that person’s value is a reflection of God’s infinite value. We sin against the value of what God seeks to accomplish through creation – and that does derive from (because it’s an expression of) God’s infinite value.

      But like you said, precisely because God’s infinite value is the value of an infinite and impassible beatitude and goodness – which is the good and well-being of all things – it could not be the grounds for a just consequence of infinite suffering, since no particular finite agency could, with sufficient understanding, encompass God’s value within the scope of its intention. On the contrary, an infinite value would establish the impossibility of an actually infinite offense since it would infinitely exceed any finite apprehension. You only get a proportional OFFENSE against God IF God’s value is just an immeasurably large value in comparison with (but on the same scales as) the value of creatures. THEN God’s value would compete with created values. But the summum bonum?


      Liked by 1 person

  4. Tom, I love where you are going on this post. I’m not so sure that we can entirely dispense with satisfaction, but I think we have to seriously push into what is being satisfied. I wonder if Christ isn’t simply satisfying the death penalty – if as Paul says ‘the wages of sin is death,’ then perhaps Jesus is simply taking up our death in his and rendering it powerless in his resurrection.


  5. Tom says:

    Thanks Jed. I didn’t intend to dispense with ‘satisfaction’, so if I gave that impression, my bad. Sorry. I thought I was insisting upon Christ’s having satisfied all that we require in order to achieve the happiness God intends us for. So satisfaction, I think, is just definitionally built into the journey of created being into God as telos. So I just wanted to locate satisfaction incarnationally by establishing that our infinite indebtedness (or need, or ontological poverty – however one wants to express it) to God derives from our natural finitude as created and not from any so-called infinite offense against God which earns a proportionally infinite wrath.

    I do think (as you said earlier, or perhaps in a private note) that there is a sense in which Jesus justifies God’s judgment (of death) as the consequence sin. The entire career of Christ through to Resurrection establishes the rightness of what we suffer as the consequence of sin. I just don’t think that what Jesus does “for us” is suffer this consequences per se. We’re already suffering that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like how you put that Tom. It seems to me that Paul’s terminology in Romans and Galatians is that we die with Christ, so that we also share in his resurrected life. I think you have your finger on a solid pulse here and I am certainly benefiting from how you’re working through it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Tom says:

    I’ve wondered at times where Hart stood on the question of whether Jesus suffers the punishment which the guilty deserve. Perhaps that question is now answered. In “The Power of the Sword” he writes:

    “And, still more shockingly, there is the central mystery of what is said to have happened on Golgotha: not just Christ on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who are murdering him, but the whole drama of God taking the due and natural penalty of all human cruelty, violence, selfishness, and sin upon himself, the full ‘wrath of the law’, and then offering forgiveness freely to all, exorbitantly outside the bounds of natural justice and, at Easter, outside even the bounds of natural causality.”


  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I would have thought that the victims of violence can only be made right by their eschatological rectification in Christ.


    • Tom says:

      In the final/ultimate sense, yes. Final rectification just is our deification. But what (and how) does the Cross effect this healing of both victimizer and victim? The fullness of final healing is out in front of us, sure, but we enjoy its healing effects now (at least I hope we do!). What is it about the Cross which heals and reconciles when apprehended by faith? That’s where answers diverge, no?


  8. We are helpless without grace.
    God knows that, so our actions when we can’t /won’t accept and be moved by grace don’t offend God, as so much religious thought would have us believe.
    Rather they grieve a God who is desperate for us to see our need of Godself and to be united with God and others.
    Receiving forgiveness, as we value the cost of it and feel gratitude for it, is one powerful way we can feel that the forgiving one truly values and wants the best for us.
    Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Jesus “had to” die- how else could God demonstrate the vulnerability, that when we “exploited” in our murdering of Jesus, could lead us to feel such need for forgiveness (grace?)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. […] the Cross is where God suffers that particular godforsakenness (even “spiritual death” as Fleming Rutledge urges) which is the consequence of our sin. What is there to participate […]


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s