Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The end of grace III

The graciously delayed end
I've been posting recently on grace and eschatology, or rather, grace in eschatology, or perhaps, eschatology as grace.

God takes his time with us. He is patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentence. At least from our perspective, there seems to be a chronic postponement or delay in God's decision to call a halt to the ongoing catastrophe of life ruled by death. However, this pause is actually itself motivated by grace. Strangely, while the end will be the culmination of God's free action to defeat evil and reclaim his world, that he doesn't make it happen now is also a gift. The temporal 'gap' between rebellion and its consequences might make rebels bold. The causal 'gap' (or at least inadequacy of correspondence) between those who perpetrate destruction and those who suffer as a result might lead to the prosperity of the wicked and the pain of the (relatively) innocent. But God's patience is motivated by his desire for human repentence. While the victim cries for justice, God commits their cause temporarily to fallible and provisional human courts - courts which not only often fail, but always must fail to provide the infinite justice that grief demands. This too is gracious: avoiding the destruction of society in a mounting storm of reprisals, a multiplying echo-chamber of vengeance. Abel's blood cries from the ground, but God graciously marks Cain to prevent human attempts at pre-empting final justice.

Final judgement delayed speaks of mercy; the guilty may turn aside from their fatal path and live. Provisional human judgements upon wrongdoing are a partial and often bitter gift. But the open question of the when of divine justice grates those who have received injustices. Mercifully pausing for the sake of the guilty, graciously providing for the continuance of human society despite grievances that threaten to tear it decisively apart, God reminds us that the victim is not the only party in need. The wrongdoer is threatened by internal disintegration, social recrimination, and divine wrath. Their plight is dire indeed, and without the merciful space afforded by divine delay and the limits set upon human retribution, the self-destructive logic of their acts would itself bring about a catastrophic end.

Yet where is God's grace for the victims? How long will they have to wait for their day of vindication? Sorrowful concern for the sinner comes after righteous indignation for the sinned against. What gift does God have for them? How is the gospel good news for the poor and oppressed? The blood of Abel still cries, as does the shed blood of all the martyrs, innocents and wronged: 'how long, O Lord?'

But there is a better word than the blood of Abel. The cry of those faithfully leaving room for God's vengeance is not forgotten. But it is not answered on its own terms either. The sprinkled blood of Christ is a better word than the victim's cry for vengeance. God's justice involves not simple and immediate retribution, but a gracious sacrifice made on behalf of wrongdoers. For God's desire is that none should perish. He asks the victims to relinquish their demands, or at least to let them be transformed in the light of divine wisdom. He asks for trust: that his dealing with wrongdoers will satisfy the wronged.

Does he then go easy on the perpetrator while asking the victim to lower her expectations? Must she exchange her thirst for retribution and accept God's reforming work in the criminal instead? A partial answer is that the wrongdoer does not avoid death through repentence, but accepts co-crucifixion with Christ. But this is not the full answer. God's eschatological justice has arrived and been executed upon Calvary, but it remains hidden - as Christ is hidden. In Christ, God has begun graciously satisfying both victim and offender.

But grace is not over yet. There is more yet to come...
Series: I; II; III; IV.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Byron, I think that's one of your best posts yet. Your use of Cain and Abel is even better than O'Donovan's!

Do you think the cross "answers" the victims cry, albeit on different terms? Or do they await the answer of the last day, recognizing that as God is gracious in the present to their oppressors, so he is gracious to them too, because few people (no one?) is purely "victim" or purely "oppressor?"

byron smith said...

one of your best posts yet

even better than O'Donovan's
I don't know about better - certainly 'highly indebted to'... I was going to put a footnote acknowledging the source, but then basically forgot. If I can find the passage again I'll put it in.

And yes, that was an issue I realised I don't think I have a clear answer for, so I struggled as I wrote the post. Any ideas anyone? I agree that no one is purely oppressor and few if any are pure victim (unborn babies?), so certainly there is grace for all in God's patience insofar as all are guilty. But in what ways is there grace for the victim qua victim in the cross? That is what I was trying to answer in the final paragraphs. And how does the cross relate to the final judgment? That is what I was trying to avoid answering in the final paragraphs...

Anonymous said...

I remember a scene from the movie the Hiding Place. A brutal guard was beating a prisoner. A fellow prisoner began to pray, but not for the one being beaten. She seemed to know that the greatest need, the deeper darkness, was in the oppressor. I have not forgotten it and the sense I had that her's was the heart of the one who hung on the cross.


David W. Congdon said...

Indeed, this is a great post. The use of Cain and Abel is similar to how Jüngel incorporates that narrative in his book on justification.

But it's the treatment of the victim and wrongdoer that is the best part. You did a very nice job of balancing a christological center with an eschatological telos. Well done.

Anonymous said...

Is that picture of your own library? ;)

byron smith said...

John - unfortunately not. It's my picture, but of the Sir Christopher Wren library in Cambridge. It was, however, taken just a few metres away from a large statue of my namesakeLord Byron.