Justice Theology vs. Forgiveness Theology
There are two basic viewpoints on how sin is dealt with by a deity. Either the deity is just, and sin is treated like a crime against the deity, and punishments are meted out in a judicial way. In some cultures, this meant each person went before the deity or their chosen arbiter, and possibly plead their case, or were at least a witness to their case being plead. Those whose evil deeds outweighed their good were punished, and those who had done good were rewarded.
It was a simple, elegant system. Of course, different cultures added different embellishments. Some reflected the justice systems they knew, others the systems the desperately wished for. Some people, however, end up in the Not So Nice Place, whatever that particular religion calls it or describes it as.
At some point, someone came up with the idea of forgiveness in the face of this justice. Whether in the form of someone else standing in for the sinner (as in Christianity) or the deity just outright forgiving the misdeeds of the sinner (as in Islam) the concept is basically the same. The deity forgives all crimes, no matter what they are, given that the sinner does something specific. In Christianity, the basic act is to believe in Jesus (John 3:16). In Islam, it is to become Muslim, which has a host of things associated with it, from daily prayer to eating specific things to this that and the other thing (depending on the branch of Islam).
The problem with justice theology versus forgiveness theology is that forgiveness theology turns what is effectively a “perfectly just” system into a perfect system of bribery. Imagine, if you will, a judge who hands out nothing but death sentences. However, if you go to his son, before your trial, and tell him you love him, the son will go to his dad and tell him to go easy on you… but that is the only way not to hang. That’s the flip side of the coin, the nasty little secret that forgiveness theology carries along. You cannot just “be good” and expect to be treated well in the after life. No, in forgiveness theology, if you have not greased the right palm, into the fire you go. It makes all actions on Earth, save the bribery, completely meaningless. An evil person can kill and eat children, and end up in heaven, given he has accepted Jesus into his heart, and his victims, all Muslim and Jewish children, will burn in Hell. Some Christians talk about how God is “infinitely just” but the whole idea behind forgiveness theology throws justice out the window. True justice does not bow to bribery. Absolute mercy and absolute justice are absolutes that cancel each other out. If someone deserves death, and gets no punishment at all, then where is the justice?
The concept of a stand in taking the punishment for the sinner in some forgiveness theologies is an adaptation of the older sacrificial justice theologies, such as Judaism, which had a complex system of sacrifices. This concept goes back into the misty pre-historical record period, the idea that the deity or deities are just like humans and, when angry, can be soothed in specific ways. In a very real way, Christ as a human sacrifice is just a slight adaptation of the same ritual source as the Aztec ruler autosacrifice on the feast of Huey Tozoztli.
If your parent is angry, or not giving you what you want or need, you give them something they want, or something to get their attention.
What we are left with is a very powerful, and dangerous, concept. First, a theology based on the concept that one can be forgiven for any crime (nearly; most forgiveness religions have something that is unforgivable, usually something along the lines of “talking bad about the religion/our deity/our holy man”) which means that the leaders of these religions can commit atrocities, and even ask others to commit atrocities, even acts that their religion expressly forbids. This means that spreading faith by the sword, although possibly embarrassing later, can be psychologically excused by the believer. You would be hard pressed to find a Catholic who is truly angry at the Holy Roman Church for the acts committed during the Crusades or the Inquisition. Most merely wave it off as “Oh, well, that was another time, another culture”. The same thing happens with modern Muslims and horrendous acts committed by ISIS, Osama Bin Laden, and others. Some blame others for driving them to do it, others merely say, “Oh, well, they don’t represent my faith!”
Second, it allows for hypocritical behavior on a smaller level as well. Loving Christian parents feel justified in throwing their homosexual children in the street, ignoring certain commands of their faith in favor of others. Muslims who hurt or kill other Muslims, while other Muslims declare that Islam is a religion of peace.
I think one problem with forgiveness theology is that it has to assume that people are born bad, or it loses part of its power. Judaism is a culture as well as a religion; a Jew is a Jew from birth because of culture, not necessarily because they were born bad. Christianity teaches that the sin of Adam and Eve is a stain on every human (ignoring Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:20) and therefore we must seek forgiveness from birth.
Finally, although religion was already an extension of tribal “us vs. them” mentality, moving from one tribe/religion to another under justice theology was difficult. That meant that wars fought between groups were for land, wealth, slaves, power of the group. This meant that peace could be brokered if there was a balance of power, which happened more often than not. With the change to forgiveness theology, conversion became not only possible, but desirable, and, in some religions, strongly suggested or ordered by the deity. This added another reason for war, one that pushed peace off the table. When god wants souls, who can stand in his way? This began bloody warfare that lasted thousands of years and only settled down once believers were so horrified by the industrial slaughter of the infidels that they finally settled down.
One of the short list of good things Hitler did that was good for the world was to end most Christian conversion by blood. And, like every other thing on the list, he didn’t set out to do it.
We are now faced with a religion that has the same idea, Islam. How we deal with it will determine the shape of the 21st and probably the 22nd and possibly later centuries. I sincerely hope it will not take another holocaust to disgust the common Muslim enough to forcibly put a halt to the extremist clerics.