There is a question that comes up time and again in those question and answer sessions that happen at every Christian conference—those sessions that are so often a highlight of a good event. It is the question of justice and usually asks something like this: Can it really be just for God to punish people forever? At the recent Ligonier Ministries National Conference it was phrased something like this: Is it fair for God to punish a person in eternity for temporal sins?
Led by R.C. Sproul, the speakers answered it well. You can listen to their discussion and the rest of the Q&A in the video below. But in the conference aftermath I found myself thinking more about that common question and wanted to make an observation about it. The question is really one of scales or ratios, isn’t it? We understand that sin deserves to be punished. Human nature tells us that it is appropriate for there to be consequences for sin. So it’s not that we contest the appropriateness of some kind of punishment but the appropriateness of this specific one. Is it right to dispense a punishment so ultimately severe?
We think about a pretty normal person who lives a pretty normal life and sins in pretty normal ways. He never commits any of those really big sins. He is no Hitler, no Gacy, no Dahmer. He is faithful to his wife, he provides for his kids, he pays his taxes, but at the end of it all dies without putting his faith in Jesus. Is it right, is it fair, that he should now spend eternity in hell? Isn’t the God who would send such a man to hell like the father who would beat his son for spilling his milk? Isn’t he overreacting, punishing arbitrarily and too severely?
I understand the sentiment here. I understand the confusion. But I think I also understand why we come to this conclusion. We come to this conclusion because we look at the question the wrong way. Is it fair for God to punish a person in eternity for temporal sins? When we ask the question we tend to focus on ourselves. I only committed this sin. I only committed this many sins. I only committed this severity of sin. I’m not nearly as bad as that guy, or that one either.
But when we ask this question we ought to focus on God. We can only rightly answer the question of justice when we see who it is that we have sinned against. It’s not first a question of who has sinned but a question of who has been sinned against. We look at God and see his majesty. We look at God and see his patience. We look at God and see his love. We look at God and see his holiness. The more we look at God the more we see the depth of our depravity in contrast to the heights of his purity. The more we look at God, the more we understand the true horror of our sin, its true extent and true aim. We have not just been acting out against men but attempting to drive a knife into God. We have not just been sinning against men but committing treason against our Creator. And now, at last, we see that the consequence is not at all inappropriate.
The question of justice and the answer the Bible provides requires that we see God as he really is.
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