How should we understand the death of the Messiah? How can a good God vent his anger on an innocent man, Jesus of Nazareth–the Eternal Son and Incarnation of all Goodness, Beauty, and Truth?! How is it justice to say that God killed Jesus instead of killing us, and somehow we get let off the hook?

I have tried to answer that question here. In this post, I want to begin expounding on the answer I gave there. Namely, I want to argue that the cross is a form of poetic justice.

Those of you who follow my blog know that I often use this as a personal theology journal. Well, here I am again, using this as a personal theology journal. These thoughts are not fully formed, and are the beginnings of musings that will hopefully turn into a paper. If you’re reading this, then, we’re beginning a journey together!

So let us begin.

Justice in Aesthetic Perspective

What is justice? More precisely, what is poetic justice? These are inter-related questions. To quote myself in relation to the first question,

Suppose two kids named Generic Name 1 (GN for short–sometimes he goes by “Bobby”), and Generic Name 2 (GN2 for short, who goes by Phil and was affectionately dubbed “Philly Cheese steak” by his Dad-joke-obsessed Dad) get into a legal spat. You see, GN was at Wrigleyville when the Cubs made it to the World Series and got super drunk. With a baseball bat in hand and hallucinations in his sight, he saw a Mercedes Benz. Except…to him this was no Mercedes Benz. No. It was the bottom of the ninth and the Benz was the baseball. As he belted “take me out to the Ballgame”, he hacked the car to pieces. GN2, the owner of the car, understandably prosecuted him and won the legal spat. “He’ll be buying me more than just peanuts and crackerjacks” GN2 whimsically quipped (amusing only his Dad). GN was fined heftily.

In this scenario, penalizing GN2 is just. “Well, what makes it just?” I’ll tell you ad-hoc interlocutor! The purpose of a penalty is to show the seriousness of the offense. If I spit on you, I deserve some recourse–since spitting on you doesn’t honor you as a human being. In other words, crimes devalue the victim-it doesn’t accord the victim their due worth. The penalty is supposed to communicate “your devaluing of the victim was this serious”. Thus, the penalty, by showing the seriousness of an offense, upholds the worth of the victim.

Here, I have defined justice as “the communication of the worth of its object.” GN2’s worth as a property owner is upheld in the fine given to GN1. This, of course, is a light hearted example. To take a more serious example, consider the Stanford rapist. The guy got about three months in jail; this light penalty rightly evoked massive public outcry. But why is this? Surely, it’s because the penalty given does not communicate the seriousness of the offense against the victim. In other words, it does not properly uphold the victim’s worth.

What can be said about justice in theological perspective? I have argued elsewhere that God created the world for the display of God. Here, I will simply assume this for the sake of argument. If all things were made to display God, then the created things of the world–when working in accord with their intended God-given purposes–reveal God’s glory. That is, they reveal God. I will call this state of affairs shalomic harmony–that state of affairs in which the various parts of creation inter-relate so as to reveal God’s character. If justice is a matter of according things their due, then justice in theological perspective is a matter of treating things in accord with their God-given purposes–as what is “due” each created thing is that which is determined and assigned by God. To treat things justly–in accord with their nature–is to relate to a thing in order to enable its display of God. It is, in other words, to “call forth” the display of God in the creatures of God.

Injustice, then, occurs on two fronts. First, injustice happens when I do not communicate an appreciation of the display of God inherent in every individual. For example, if I tell Little Timmy, “hey man, you’re utter trash and you suck” and proceed to punch him in the nose for no reason at all, then I have failed to communicate an appreciation of the divine display at work in him. Second, injustice happens when I fail to fulfill my obligation to cultivate shalomic harmony. When I punch Little Timmy in the face, I am failing to call forth the display of God–either in Little Timmy or in myself. I am committing injustice against Little Timmy because I am failing to serve him–that is, I am failing to call forth and cultivate the displays of God inherent in Little Timmy.

Justice, in the face of injustice, seeks to rectify this situation somehow. That is, if justice seeks to “uphold the worth of its object”, then aesthetic justice seeks to “uphold and cultivate the displays of God in its object.” How does aesthetic justice do this? In punishing the Stanford rapist for life, say (assuming, of course, that the punishment fits the crime…which I know is a huge assumption), aesthetic justice is served. God’s worth is displayed as the victim’s worth is upheld; that is, her worth as one worthy of respect because she bears the image of the One Worthy of Respect, is communicated. Justice is also served because the particular way in which the rapist failed to reflect God’s character in his act of rape is clearly seen. His life-sentence reflects the fact that he gravely misrepresented God–so seriously that a shadow hangs over his whole life. Evil, at its root, is a distortion of God’s face in creation. Thus, his act is seen and exposed as a serious distortion of God, rather than a display of God.

The severity of the penalty embodies in its very nature the severity of the distortion of God. In exposing the crime as distortion, one upholds the worth of God by communicating the fact that the crime was in fact a distortion of God. The dignity of the victim of a crime is upheld in punishment, in that punishment reveals how the treatment she received distorts her worth rather than displays her worth as a God-revealing creature.

Poetic Justice

What is poetic justice? And how does it bear on the Cross? It seems to me that poetic justice is the establishment of justice by the very tools of injustice. Consider this example from Oliver Twist:

We see the role of poetic justice in the cruel character Mr. Bumble, in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.Mr. Bumble was a beadle in the town where Oliver was born – in charge of the orphanage and other charitable institutions in the town. He is a sadist and enjoys torturing the poor orphans.

Bumble marries Mrs. Corney for money, and becomes master of her workhouse. His fate takes a twist as he loses his post as a beadle, and his new wife does not allow him to become a master of her workhouse. She beats him and humiliates him, as he himself had done to the poor orphans. Right at the end of the novel, we come to know that both Mr. and Mrs. Bumble end up being so poor that they live in the same workhouse that they once owned.

Poetic justice is the undoing of evil by its own devices. In this case, evil is undone as Bumble, by his own greed, ends up poor, beaten, and humiliated. He receives affliction that corresponds to and reveals the ways in which he himself has distorted God’s likeness. Poetic justice, through the very means of evil itself, takes the spaces of injustice and turns them into spaces of shalomic harmony–spaces in which God’s own worth and goodness is revealed.

In aesthetic perspective, the Cross is a form of poetic justice. Through the very means of injustice and evil, God upholds his own worth and communicates his own beauty in lieu of the distortions of his beauty.

This underlying concept of “poetic justice” will serve as the integrating concepts between the various theories of atonement. In part 2, I will explain exactly how the Cross is poetic justice.