The True Grit of God’s Justice

Is God bound to punish sin? George MacDonald’s answer is no. If the answer were yes, then forgiveness would be impossible. Justice and mercy would find themselves opposed to each other, generating a schism within the Godhead. But we know that God does forgive sin; hence it must be just and right for him to forgive:

If God punish sin, it must be merciful to punish sin; and if God forgive sin, it must be just to forgive sin. We are required to forgive, with the argument that our father forgives. It must, I say, be right to forgive. Every attribute of God must be infinite as himself. He cannot be sometimes merciful, and not always merciful. He cannot be just, and not always just. Mercy belongs to him, and needs no contrivance of theologic chicanery to justify it. (“Justice”)

Wickedness deserves punishment, we reply. The lex talionis enjoys a long history, and several texts in Scripture appear to support it. Yet how do we reconcile retribution with mercy? If justice demands the punishment of our sinful acts, then they must be punished to the full extent required by justice. It will not do, writes MacDonald, to think of God as first punishing sin and then forgiving subsequently: “If sin demands punishment, and the righteous punishment is given, then the man is free. Why should he be forgiven?” Clearly there is something odd about the idea of pardoning an offense after punishment has been dispensed, yet the legalist within us demands that wrongdoers endure the suffering they deserve. That they should get off scot-free offends. If I or one of my loved ones have been wounded, harmed, or murdered, I want the criminal, need the criminal, to suffer. That’s why we have prisons and executions. We may decide, for the good of all, that justice be adminis­tered through an impartial judicial process, thereby ensuring that the punishment propor­tionally accords with the crime, but retribution must be exacted—eye for eye, tooth for tooth, limb for limb.

We applaud Mattie Ross’s quest for retribution, even if we suspect it may end badly for her. She’s fearless, tough as nails, and a shrewd bargainer. She has sand, as the cotton-trader puts it. Mattie is not content to let the local law handle Tom Chaney. She will see him hanged—in Arkansas, not in Texas. Her father will be avenged. When she asks the sheriff for recom­mendations for a bounty hunter, he tells her that Rooster Cogburn is the meanest, “a pitiless man, double tough and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” L. T. Quinn, on the other hand, is the best: “He brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and again but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best that they have.” Somewhat surprisingly, Mattie chooses the ornery, unscrupulous Cogburn. She will not leave justice to good men. Tom Chaney must not escape. He must be made to pay for his crime. If that means turning to Rooster Cogburn, so be it. The law of Mattie Ross is simple: “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another; there is nothing free save the grace of God.”

Yet the infliction of pain, declares MacDonald, does not and cannot make things right:

Punishment, deserved suffering, is no equipoise to sin. It is no use laying it in the other scale. It will not move it a hair’s breadth. Suffering weighs nothing at all against sin. It is not of the same kind, not under the same laws, any more than mind and matter. We say a man deserves punishment; but when we forgive and do not punish him, we do not always feel that we have done wrong; neither when we do punish him do we feel that any amends has been made for his wrongdoing. If it were an offset to wrong, then God would be bound to punish for the sake of the punishment; but he cannot be, for he forgives. Then it is not for the sake of the punishment, as a thing that in itself ought to be done, but for the sake of something else, as a means to an end, that God punishes. It is not directly for justice, else how could he show mercy, for that would involve injustice?

God forgives—that alone forces us to reevaluate our inherited notion of retributive justice. The infliction of suffering upon the wrongdoer does not provide redress; it does not rectify; it does not restore the imbalance created by the crime. Retribution has no place in the divine heart. If God is just, he has but one duty: to destroy the sin that has entered into his good world:

Primarily, God is not bound to punish sin; he is bound to destroy sin. If he were not the Maker, he might not be bound to destroy sin—I do not know; but seeing he has created creatures who have sinned, and therefore sin has, by the creating act of God, come into the world, God is, in his own righteousness, bound to destroy sin.

‘But that is to have no mercy.’

You mistake. God does destroy sin; he is always destroying sin. In him I trust that he is destroying sin in me. He is always saving the sinner from his sins, and that is destroying sin. But vengeance on the sinner, the law of a tooth for a tooth, is not in the heart of God, neither in his hand. If the sinner and the sin in him, are the concrete object of the divine wrath, then indeed there can be no mercy. Then indeed there will be an end put to sin by the destruction of the sin and the sinner together. But thus would no atonement be wrought–nothing be done to make up for the wrong God has allowed to come into being by creating man. There must be an atonement, a making-up, a bringing together–an atonement which, I say, cannot be made except by the man who has sinned.

The true justice of God is restorative, not punitive. The infliction of suffering makes better neither the world nor the criminal. Mattie finally kills Tom Chaney, but her father remains dead and his family still grieves. And as the executioner of  Chaney, Mattie endures a terrible cost—not only the loss of an arm but an estrangement that endures for the rest of her life. When we see her decades later, she is a severe, hard, lonely woman. Perhaps if Chaney had begged for forgiveness, Mattie’s loss might have been assuaged and her heart softened; but he remains impenitent to the end. Repentance and atonement are notably absent in True Grit. There is only the cold satisfaction of vengeance.

How then can the eternal punishment of hell ever be right? How can we call God just if he damns everlastingly? Where is redemption? Where is the Love who died on the cross? MacDonald’s words need to be quoted at length:

Punishment, I repeat, is not the thing required of God, but the absolute destruction of sin. What better is the world, what better is the sinner, what better is God, what better is the truth, that the sinner should suffer–continue suffering to all eternity? Would there be less sin in the universe? Would there be any making-up for sin? Would it show God justified in doing what he knew would bring sin into the world, justified in making creatures who he knew would sin? What setting-right would come of the sinner’s suffering? If justice demand it, if suffering be the equivalent for sin, then the sinner must suffer, then God is bound to exact his suffering, and not pardon; and so the making of man was a tyrannical deed, a creative cruelty.

The preacher speaks boldly, some might say blasphemously. If the LORD foreknew that human beings would sin, thus necessitating their just condemnation to everlasting torment, his creation of the world can only be understood as a tyrannical deed and act of cruelty. Whatever the number of the damned turns out to be, God decided to create them anyway, knowing full well their ultimate fate. The damned are the collateral damage of divine creation—the many (or few) must suffer so that the few (or many) may thrive. What is this but a deal conceived in the depths of Tartarus. The God and Father of Jesus Christ has become a monster. MacDonald’s powerful objection is directed against the retributive model of hell (no doubt the only model he knew), but can easily be extended to issuant, or free-will, models as well. However we understand damnation, if it lacks redemptive purpose, it is an unholy abomination. The Scottish preacher continues:

The path across the gulf that divides right from wrong is not the fire, but repentance. If my friend has wronged me, will it console me to see him punished? Will that be a rendering to me of my due? Will his agony be a balm to my deep wound? Should I be fit for any friendship if that were possible even in regard to my enemy? But would not the shadow of repentant grief, the light of reviving love on his countenance, heal it at once however deep? Take any of those wicked people in Dante’s hell, and ask wherein is justice served by their punishment. Mind, I am not saying it is not right to punish them; I am saying that justice is not, never can be, satisfied by suffering—nay, cannot have any satisfaction in or from suffering. Human resentment, human revenge, human hate may. Such justice as Dante’s keeps wickedness alive in its most terrible forms. The life of God goes forth to inform, or at least give a home to victorious evil. Is he not defeated every time that one of those lost souls defies him? All hell cannot make Vanni Fucci say ‘I was wrong.’ God is triumphantly defeated, I say, throughout the hell of his vengeance. Although against evil, it is but the vain and wasted cruelty of a tyrant. There is no destruction of evil thereby, but an enhancing of its horrible power in the midst of the most agonizing and disgusting tortures a divine imagination can invent.

The one deepest, highest, truest, fittest, most wholesome suffering must be generated in the wicked by a vision, a true sight, more or less adequate, of the hideousness of their lives, of the horror of the wrongs they have done … Not for its own sake, not as a make-up for sin, not for divine revenge—horrible word, not for any satisfaction to justice, can punishment exist. Punishment is for the sake of amendment and atonement. God is bound by his love to punish sin in order to deliver his creature; he is bound by his justice to destroy sin in his creation. Love is justice–is the fulfilling of the law, for God as well as for his children. This is the reason of punishment; this is why justice requires that the wicked shall not go unpunished—that they, through the eye-opening power of pain, may come to see and do justice, may be brought to desire and make all possible amends, and so become just. Such punishment concerns justice in the deepest degree. For Justice, that is God, is bound in himself to see justice done by his children—not in the mere outward act, but in their very being. He is bound in himself to make up for wrong done by his children, and he can do nothing to make up for wrong done but by bringing about the repentance of the wrong-doer. When the man says, ‘I did wrong; I hate myself and my deed; I cannot endure to think that I did it!’ then, I say, is atonement begun. Without that, all that the Lord did would be lost. He would have made no atonement. Repentance, restitution, confession, prayer for forgiveness, righteous dealing thereafter, is the sole possible, the only true make-up for sin. For nothing less than this did Christ die.

Critics of the greater hope often accuse its proponents of abolishing hell. Nothing could be further from the truth. But MacDonald has reconceived hell as purgatory. While lecturing on Dante, he quipped: “When the Church thought that three places for departed spirits was too many, she took away the wrong one” (quoted by Barbara Amell, “George MacDonald on Purgatory,” Wingfold 89 [Winter 2015], 39). In his novel Robert Falconer, the protagonist meets with his father and urges him to repent. His father despairingly replies there is no repentance in hell. The narrator comments:

In those few words lay the germ of the preference for hell of poor souls, enfeebled by wickedness. They will not have to do anything there—only to moan and cry and suffer for ever, they think. It is effort, the out-going of the living will that they dread. The sorrow, the remorse of repentance, they do not so much regard: it is the action it involves; it is the having to turn, be different, and do differently, that they shrink from; and they have been taught to believe that this will not be required of them there—in that awful refuge of the will-less. I do not say they think thus: I only say their dim, vague, feeble feelings are such as, if they grew into thought, would take this form. But tell them that the fire of God without and within them will compel them to bethink themselves; that the vision of an open door beyond the smoke and the flames will ever urge them to call up the ice-bound will, that it may obey; that the torturing spirit of God in them will keep their consciences awake, not to remind them of what they ought to have done, but to tell them what they must do now, and hell will no longer fascinate them. Tell them that there is no refuge from the compelling Love of God, save that Love itself—that He is in hell too, and that if they make their bed in hell they shall not escape him, and then, perhaps, they will have some true presentiment of the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched. (III.XV; my emphasis)

In the depths of Gehenna there we will find the Crucified. He will never rest until every sinner has been restored to him through repentance and faith. Such is the true grit of God’s justice.

(Go to “The Hell of Self”)

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12 Responses to The True Grit of God’s Justice

  1. Craig Hawkins says:

    A few months ago John Piper tweeted that “all sin is punished, either on the cross or in hell- God’s universe is ultimately just”. It set me to wondering if forgiveness then really exists at all in his view. Which led me to wonder what I, here in my 50th year, actually believe about forgiveness. I appreciate your thoughts on the matter, and I love hearing from MacDonald. Though my own mind is still not settled I’m grateful to be reading your ideas on the matter.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      As we will see (I think in the next article), MacDonald has a very different understanding of the atonement. His rejection of substitutionay penal atonement is emphatic.

      You may find of interest Patrick Reardon’s book Reclaiming Atonement, reviewed by our own Tom Belt here.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Garreth Ashe says:

    As someone who recently endured his minister preaching on the five points of calvinism, in a way i was thankful in the sense it confirmed why i wasnt a calvinist, and i do find impossible how you can equate love with such a depiction of god especially in the name of christ.

    But the idea of a penal understanding of atonement for me i cant find it in scriptures anywhere and for me personally if the cross is were sin is dealt with and this is the only means of how we are forgiven because gods justice had been fulfilled and wrath undone i do wonder then how it was possible that christ was forgiving sins before the cross.


  3. John Sobert Sylvest says:



  4. Iain Lovejoy says:

    As an aside, my understanding is that according to Jewish tradition and evidence too in the Bible the “lex talonis” of an eye for an eye etc was a legal fiction, and OT justice in practice if not in principle restorative, not retributive. The idea was apparently that the injured plaintiff would haul the defendant before the judge and demand his vengeance, and if guilty the defendant’s hand or eye or whatever would be forfeit in accordance with the law, but then the judge would then go on to set a “ransom” of compensation for the victim by which the defendant could “buy back” his eye from him, and thus the victim would be compensated, equilibrium restored and justice done. If I am understanding this correctly the retributive loss of hand or eye was no more than a theoretical threat to enforce the judgement.
    OT law did not, on this understanding, introduce blood fued, vendetta, “honour killings” and bloody revenge, which have existed from time immemorial but instead was intended be a substitute for them.


    • Ian, it was actually an improvement if one considers the Ancient Near Eastern context of justice. In the Mosaic code, the judgement fits the crime (‘eye for an eye’) as opposed to disproportionate, where in some manslaughter charges the offender and his family could be executed in the right circumstances. But, as the OT record indicates, just because a crime called for a certain ‘maximum sentence’ it was not necessarily enforced – which your point about legal fiction does point to. The Mosaic Law, far more than instituting Divine justice, was concerned about holding the forces of chaos at bay by instituting a just society.


    • I should have added, that Christ totally redefines this all anyway, dispensing with talionic justice.


  5. Bob says:

    Universalism is too theologically neat and speculative and dances to close to Marcionism along with the sacrificial system for my taste. You have to explain away Is. 53 and the eye for an eye verses. Dare we Hope that all will be Saved
    Mattie Ross is a wonderful character one of the best Coen brothers films


    • Sonya says:

      Brad Jersak just posted a short commentary on this chapter that addresses your concern. If you’d like to see it it is at


      • Bob says:

        Thanks Sonya, I’ve read his book a more Christlike God…still. I think his hermenutic and most of USA EO in general embrace this hermeneutic is that the Bible is read through the lens of Christ.and his actions. I think Universalism one side as PSA and ECT is on the other. neither is emotionally satisfying and both. have philosophical issues. In honesty and integrity Can’t go to either side. All that I can affirm is that God is good and loving and confess the Nicene Creed


        • Sonya says:

          I’m sorry if I came across as trying to convince you. I just wanted to point you to someone who addressed your concern.

          But just to add fodder to your rumination have you read David Bentley Hart’s article, “Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics”? Hart may be argued with, but at least he can’t be accused of not being a philosophically light-weight.


  6. Grant says:

    ‘The preacher speaks boldly, some might say blasphemously. If the LORD foreknew that human beings would sin, thus necessitating their just condemnation to everlasting torment, his creation of the world can only be understood as a tyrannical deed and act of cruelty. Whatever the number of the damned turns out to be, God decided to create them anyway, knowing full well their ultimate fate. The damned are the collateral damage of divine creation—the many (or few) must suffer so that the few (or many) may thrive. What is this but a deal conceived in the depths of Tartarus. The God and Father of Jesus Christ has become a monster.’

    To add further to this, what does this do to the Cross, to Our Lord’s Incarnation as a whole? For those who affirm infernalism, what is the Cross compared with those poor souls, created from eternity for this purpose (and as this makes clear, it doesn’t matter if you affirm Calvinist determinism, or give free action to God’s conscious creatures, their actions are all secondary enfolded into His Primary act of creation in which He knows all they do which becomes part of His creation from eternity, you end up in the same place). They are nothing less than the saved Christ, those suffering in their stead, the ones on whom the whole creation and redemption story of the Cosmos depends, it does incalculable damage to salvation in Christ, since it is really by the damned any would be saved. And God cannot be called the Good as such, or Love as such, given that He would create with this end in mind for a number of His creatures, such would be a monster, Reality itself would be monstrous and certainly not love. What would salvation even look like under a Reality as terrible as this, one wonders, it would seem not salvation but just damnation of a different kind.


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