The True Grit of God’s Justice

Is God bound to mete out punishment? Does his justice require him to inflict suffering and privation? Do our sins deserve retribution? Torah is clear. Justice demands that our crimes deserve proportional punishment: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Dt 19:21). George MacDonald, however, gives an emphatic no to the question. 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 forgives sin; hence it must be meet and right for him to forgive. This in turn compels us to rethink divine punishment. In his sermon “Justice,” MacDonald avers:

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.

Wickedness deserves punishment, we reply. The lex talionis enjoys a long history, dating back to the Code of Hammurabi, and several texts in Scripture support it. Yet how do we reconcile retribution with mercy? If justice demands the punishment of our sins, then we must be punished. 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. As a society we may decide that justice be adminis­tered through an impartial judicial process, thereby ensuring that the punishment accords propor­tionally with the crime, but retribution must be exacted—eye for eye, tooth for tooth, limb for limb.

True Grit is a story of justice and vengeance and the thin line between the two. We applaud Mattie Ross’s quest for retribution and admire her courage, 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.” Surprisingly, Mattie chooses the ornery, unscrupulous Cogburn. She will not leave justice to good men. Tom Chaney must not escape. She will see him hang from the gallows. 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, 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 should force us to reevaluate our inherited notions of retributive justice. The infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering does not provide redress; it does not rectify; it does not restore the cosmic disorder created by the crime. Retribution has no place in the divine heart. If God is just and good, 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.

True justice is reparative and restorative, not retributive. The infliction of pain makes better neither the world nor the criminal. Mattie finally kills Tom Chaney, but her father remains dead and his family still grieves. And Mattie endures a terrible cost—not only the loss of an arm but a bitter estrangement from love that endures for the rest of her life. When we see her decades later, she is a severe, hard, lonely woman. If Chaney had begged for forgiveness, perhaps Mattie’s grief 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 sinners 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?

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 Scottish preacher speaks boldly. If the LORD has eternally determined to condemn his children to everlasting torment, his creation of the world must be described as an act of cruelty and malice. No greater good can justify this horror. Whatever the number of the damned, whether one or many, God foreknows their ultimate fate, yet decides to bring them into existence anyway. David Bentley Hart accurately diagnoses the obscenity of hell:

What then, we might well ask, does this make of the story of salvation—of its cost? What would any damned soul be, after all, as enfolded within the eternal will of God, other than a price settled upon by God with his own power, an oblation willingly exchanged for a finite benefit—the lamb slain from the foundation of the world? And is hell not then the innermost secret of heaven, its sacrificial heart? And what then is God’s moral nature, inasmuch as the moral character of any intended final cause must include within its calculus what one is willing to sacrifice to achieve that end; and, if the “acceptable” price is the eternal torment of a rational nature, what room remains for any moral analogy comprehensible within finite terms? After all, the economics of the exchange is as monstrous as it is exact.2

The damned are the sacrificial victims of divine creation. If a world, then wickedness; if wickedness, then hell. The reprobate must suffer so that the saved may enjoy everlasting bliss. What is this but a transaction conceived in the depths of Tartarus? The God and Father of Jesus Christ is transformed into 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 free-will models as well, as Hart’s analysis indicates. However we understand damnation, if it lacks redemptive purpose, it is an unholy abomination. Hell eternalizes evil and denies both the divine justice and love. MacDonald amplifies his objection:

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. If sin must be kept alive, then hell must be kept alive; but while I regard the smallest sin as infinitely loathsome, I do not believe that any being, never good enough to see the essential ugliness of sin, could sin so as to deserve such punishment.

The prophet of Scotland does not hesitate to speak of God as being morally bound to bring all sinners to true repentance. Only by such repentance is it possible to speak of evil as being truly redeemed and overcome:

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. Physical suffering may be a factor in rousing this mental pain; but ‘I would I had never been born!’ must be the cry of Judas, not because of the hell-fire around him, but because he loathes the man that betrayed his friend, the world’s friend. When a man loathes himself, he has begun to be saved. Punishment tends to this result. 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. When a man acknowledges the right he denied before; when he says to the wrong, ‘I abjure, I loathe you; I see now what you are; I could not see it before because I would not; God forgive me; make me clean, or let me die!’ then justice, that is God, has conquered—and not till then.

Critics of the greater hope often accuse its proponents of abolishing hell, but this is inac­cu­rate. In the universalist vision, hell is reconceived as purgatory. Even after death, repen­tance is still possible. While lecturing on Dante, MacDonald quipped: “When the Church thought that three places for departed spirits was too many, she took away the wrong one.”1 In his semi-autobiographical novel Robert Falconer, the young Robert searches for his sole living parent, Andrew Falconer, the father who abandoned his family. Eventually he finds him, a spiritually broken man ridden with guilt and shame. He urges him to return home to his mother.

My mother!’ Andrew exclaimed. ‘You don’t mean to say she’s alive?’

‘I heard from her yesterday—in her own hand, too,’ said Robert.

‘I daren’t. I daren’t,’ murmured Andrew.

‘You must, father,’ returned Robert. ‘It is a long way, but I will make the journey easy for you. She knows I have found you. She is waiting and longing for you. She has hardly thought of anything but you ever since she lost you. She is only waiting to see you, and then she will go home, she says. I wrote to her and said, “Grannie, I have found your Andrew.” And she wrote back to me and said, “God be praised. I shall die in peace.”‘

A silence followed.

‘Will she forgive me?’ said Andrew.

‘She loves you more than her own soul,’ answered Robert. ‘She loves you as much as I do. She loves you as God loves you.’

‘God can’t love me,’ said Andrew, feebly. ‘He would never have left me if he had loved me.’

‘He has never left you from the very first. You would not take his way, father, and he just let you try your own. But long before that he had begun to get me ready to go after you. He put such love to you in my heart, and gave me such teaching and such training, that I have found you at last. And now I have found you, I will hold you. You cannot escape—you will not want to escape any more, father?’

Andrew made no reply to this appeal. It sounded like imprisonment for life, I suppose. But thought was moving in him. After a long pause, during which the son’s heart was hungering for a word whereon to hang a further hope, the old man spoke again, muttering as if he were only speaking his thoughts unconsciously.

‘Where’s the use? There’s no forgiveness for me. My mother is going to heaven. I must go to hell. No. It’s no good. Better leave it as it is. I daren’t see her. It would kill me to see her.’

‘It will kill her not to see you; and that will be one sin more on your conscience, father.’

Andrew got up and walked about the room. And Robert only then arose from his knees.

‘And there’s my mother,’ he said.

Andrew did not reply; but Robert saw when he turned next towards the light, that the sweat was standing in beads on his forehead.

‘Father,’ he said, going up to him.

The old man stopped in his walk, turned, and faced his son.

‘Father,’ repeated Robert, ‘you’ve got to repent; and God won’t let you off; and you needn’t think it. You’ll have to repent some day.’

‘In hell, Robert,’ said Andrew, looking him full in the eyes, as he had never looked at him before. It seemed as if even so much acknowledgment of the truth had already made him bolder and honester.

‘Yes. Either on earth or in hell. Would it not be better on earth?’

‘But it will be no use in hell,’ he murmured.

Robert’s father is resigned to his doom. He thinks of himself as beyond all hope. MacDonald 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)

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

(8 April 2019; rev.)


[1] Quoted by Barbara Amell, “George MacDonald on Purgatory,” Wingfold 89 (Winter 2015): 39.

[2] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved (2019), p. 83. Also see “The Damned Are Suffering for Your Bliss.”

(Go to “The Hell of Self”)

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1 Response to The True Grit of God’s Justice

  1. Iainlovejoy says:

    I have read from Jewish sources that “an eye for an eye” never really worked like that in Jewish law: rather the wrongdoer whose eye was theoretically forfeit was instead required to pay a “ransom” for the eye in compensation to the wronged person, and in paying the compensatory “ransom” the wrongdoer redeemed his own eye, so no mutilating punishment was ever actually inflicted, nor was it intended to be.


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