Only occasionally does one find an individual who can humble themselves to admit that they have failed morally. But even when someone can admit such a thing, it's almost always done with a false sort of humility. "Yes, I've failed morally. I mean, I'm sure I've told a lie before. But I've never killed anyone. I'm just as good as the next guy." Some are freely willing to admit moral failure, but minimize it as something that is an insignificant, relative, acceptable norm. These individuals didn't miss the mark, they just hit it imprecisely.
In a world where most sins are relegated to the realm of minor inconvenience and displeasure, many are confused and abhorred by the Christian notion of judgment. "The wages of sin is death? Even for a little lie?" The Old Testament seems to be an antiquated, barbaric system of "morality" that could have only been dreamed up by a nomadic, ignorant, ancient people group. How else could one explain the pettiness of its judicial system? While some of the confusion levied against the Old Testament theocracy certainly resonates with me, there is a larger game afoot. Our "enlightened" culture has not suddenly come into some esoteric understanding of what true morality is - we're still rationalizing our actions just like all the cultures before us. We're simply rationalizing morality under the guise of scientism.
We have seen this same sort of thing play out historically in conservative circles with girls who bear their scarlet letter in the face of their child. Men who have had premarital sex and girls who have had premarital sex but not gotten pregnant are looked upon very differently than girls who become pregnant through sex outside of wedlock. We denigrate and disparage the one who has been blessed through the confrontation of their sin and needs assistance and ignore the continuing sin of those in need of reproach. Conservative Christians in the West, at least, have a tendency to be fine with sin that avoids a tangible sort of consequence, and we shun from our midst those who bear their scarlet letters. We, too, are consequentalists.
When you put this in the context of Christ's equating of hatred to murder or lust to adultery, the understanding of sin's nature as seen in the Bible begins to become much more apparent. Jesus is not a consequentalist. He is telling us that when murder occurs, it is the outcome or consequence of a hateful heart. The central issue in murder is not the death of another person. Death occurs all the time at the hand of disease, famine, and accidental, non-negligent killing by human hands. Those acts of nature are results of a fallen world and are on God's hands to remedy - and he will certainly right them. Since death itself is not a direct wrong of man, the wrongness in murder lies somewhere besides in the death itself. It lies in the hatefulness of the heart.
Likewise, the Old Testament shows us the severity of sins that today we think are trivial. Disrespect towards parents allowed for the death penalty. Disloyalty to God? Death. Failing to depend on God by resting on the Sabbath? Death. On the surface this seems absolutely arbitrary and trivial. How could God institute such consequences for actions that make great material for modern day sitcoms? It seems he takes things a little too seriously. There's no way a God who limits man to such an extent can be called anything other than a dictator - and one so extreme he could give Kim Jong Un a run for his money.
Prior to and concurrent with the beginning of the "Enlightenment" in Europe, the church seemed to move away from the "Jesus loves you" days of the early church, and reverted to a more Old Testament style judicial system. John Calvin, a Reformer, is often excoriated for having his hands at least somewhat involved in the State's execution of Michael Servetus. While we may recognize the wrongness of treating individuals with death for seemingly trivial actions, the church in this period got something right: ideas lead to consequences. The church in this period did not generally seem to hold to consequentialism. It didn't matter whether an individual's actions lead to the immediate or imminent harm of someone else - it mattered what their intentions were and who they were offending in the relationship (God, in many cases, but also others and sacred institutions like marriage, the family, etc). Those, who like Servetus held to ideas and theology deemed inappropriate, could be punished severely., As Christians who believe the words of Jesus on both the heart and hell, the pre-Enlightenment church was more right on the nature of sin (intentions of the heart) and just consequence (excommunication from the community through distancing and/or death) than we are today.
Now I am not at all saying that I agree with how the church implemented justice during this period, though I do agree with their conclusions about sin and just consequences. The problem with instituting such "justice" is that there is a third component to administering justice that the church missed during this period. Identifying sin and consequence is important, but the determination of guilt is also vital. While the Old Testament does indeed show us the true nature of sin and legitimate consequences for justice to be exacted, its judicial system was also implemented in a theocracy. Beyond Israel's direct rule by God, we also see in the revelation of the New Testament that the point of the Old Testament law was not so we would try harder to fulfill its impossible demands, but so we would see our inadequacy in doing so. The issue is all of our hearts and we are all deserving of the ultimate consequence of death. So where the pre-Enlightenment church instituted the just consequences for sin, they failed in their universal application of justice which would have extended even to themselves – the ones administering so called justice.
With both the past and the present at two completely different ends of the spectrum on morality, it leaves us wondering what our view of morality should then be. We certainly believe - or even know - that the harsh judgment of the past is out of the question for any society that includes human beings - all of whom are guilty criminals at the core. But at the same time, we have to recognize the absurdity of consequentialism. While the outcome of an action is the tasteful or distasteful aspect we experience, the outcome is the result of the action which must be judged, not the thing that should be judged itself. Going back to the texting example, it is ludicrous to believe that two individuals who perform the same act can be judged so differently. Such a judgment ends up being based not on the known action, but rather on the chance outcome. Why did one individual who texted while driving get a fine while the other got jail time? Because another person just so happened to be walking in the street in one instance, while not in the other. That isn't justice, it's fate.
I think the answer lies in between consequentialism and non-consequentialism. We need to acknowledge the root of sin and the just consequence for such sin, while at the same time humbling ourselves to admit that we are sinners. Understanding that we are capable of all sin because we open the doors of selfishness and pride every day - which lead to all sins - should give us perspective when dealing with those who have had the consequences of sin catch up with them. Likewise, understanding that we are dealing with intentions rather than outcomes should give us pause when passing severe judgment. How can I know the intentions of someone else's heart when I often don't even accurately perceive the intentions of my own heart? This is what the pre-Enlightenment church missed.
With a better understanding of what sin and crime truly are, I think it helps to provide a context for Israel's judicial system and our modern day system. Israel's exacting of harsh judgment was done by the will of God. I understand that it's dangerous to allow for such a claim, as anyone today could excuse great evils for the same reason. That's why it's important to look at the evidence for the Bible being the word of God, and for Israel's claim to a valid theocracy. But if sin is as severe as the Bible says it is, and God - the one who knows all thoughts and intentions - was directing Israel's actions, then certainly capital punishment was legitimate.
Such a notion also explains why our modern system works the way it does. Firstly, we give the benefit of the doubt to the accused and require very strong evidence to convict in criminal cases (not so much in civil cases). As humans who don't even know the intentions of our own hearts, the only evidence we often have to go on is what we see. We see consequences only, not actions of the heart. We can infer motives, but there is always a chance that our perception of motive is wrong, and even our perception of certain consequences and actions is often wrong. With that understanding, we should very carefully avoid falsely judging or damning someone.
Unfortunately, our culture seems to have lost the notions of intentions and sin's severity. In this culture, morals are personal value judgments, not absolutes. In our culture, when you impose your personal value judgment on another, or even share your value judgment, you are guilty of an offense if it makes the individual feel bad. These notions are caustic to rights like the freedom of speech and is why we see this freedom continually weakened today. For our society, holding ideas in your head is one thing, but saying them brings consequences. You shouldn't say things that are going to affect me. It's also why we are able to see individuals in our culture hold incoherent views on humanity - elevating humans in one breath while advocating their destruction in abortion in the next breath. We see the mother's life affected by having to bear a child, take care of the child, and possibly do all this alone and in financial poverty. But the destruction of a human that probably can't feel pain and doesn't know that its future is being destroyed is not conscious of the consequence it endures as his or her life ends. It doesn't feel the imposition of the mother's decision to abort. It never had any hopes or dreams for the future that could be stymied. Therefore, the consequences of limiting the mother’s ability to abort would have significantly more felt consequences than taking the life of one who has yet to feel any sort of imposition.
And here we are, at the debased pinnacle of human civilization. The Christian notion of the inestimable intrinsic worth and value of mankind has all but deteriorated. When we say today that one has human rights, what is really being said is that "no other human has more rights than me." When we say that humans have value, we are actually saying that "no human has more value than me." While historic Christianity would agree with both of those statements, the Christian view infuses mankind with absolute, objective, incomprehensible value. The modern view, on the other hand, says nothing of the sort. For what aid is it to me to know that I, an organism of finite, measurable value, have no less value than someone else who can be measured to the same extent? Man is an animal. Man is matter. Man is conscious. Man is... The modern consequentalists can tell us all the truths they want to about man, describing him in every way he can be measured. This methodology fails to tell us more than that we are a relatively complex conglomeration of matter, and fails to explain how a prescription for morality and justice can arise from such descriptions. What more should be done to the river that erodes the shore or the rock that crushes a pebble than to a human form of matter that reorganizes another, no more valuable human form of matter? And when we live in a society that is ruled by empiricism and measurement, how does one determine the value of a human being but through measuring them (brain waves, ability, size, level of development, awareness, etc)? And who determines which measures we should value? Descriptions about something cannot prescribe our value system. Humanity now have measurable, extrinsic value, as opposed to the historic Christian notion of intrinsic, immeasurable value. On the current system, the value follows the trait that can be measured, not the individual. And this is why individuals – whether fetuses, the disabled, the infirmed, or the aged – are able to lose their value in our society.
This brings us back to the question of justice. How can the biblical system as seen in the Old Testament be just, and even more inexplicably, how can a system that holds to eternal damnation be considered just? How can such a system possibly elevate man to a position of extreme value? If man is as valuable as I would like to argue, wouldn’t a system that dictates death and damnation for all sin erode our value? Isn’t a system that gives man utter freedom in decision making - with no bounds and no dictator - the system that truly upholds the value of man?
The Christian notion of justice, as with almost every other Christian idea, centers around relationship. We were created to live in relationship with God, nature, others, and self. Anything deemed sin on Christianity is something that offends our relationship in one or more of these realms. Our sins often transgress several of those relationships, always offending God, and almost always involve offending our fellow man in some way as well. To offend one who has inestimable worth is surely a great offense, and much weightier than we recognize. To lust is to view another human as an object to use for our pleasure – one whose worth lies not in themselves, but in their ability to fulfill my felt need or desire. Lust that leads to adultery also has one viewing the other party in the marital relationship as a lesser object, since one is willing to participate in the breaking of their covenant and their rights to their spouse. Selfishness in the form of greed fails to view all things as God’s property and falls short on the issue of stewardship and love. The pinnacle of sin against our fellow man is, of course, hatred. It is what leads us to view our fellow man as an object in our way that we destroy to get what we want. It does not merely temporarily offend, it completely cuts off a person from existence, and therefore the relationship and potential for reconciliation.
But even a view where we elevate man to his proper position doesn’t explain an eternal punishment for sin. How can we be punished eternally for what is done temporarily? Again, the nature of the punishment should fit the nature of the one offended – not, as consequentalists believe, what is the tangible result of the sin. As an example, consider a woman who kills a mouse. Killing has taken place in an instant, and there is no punishment for him. Most would agree that the mouse who was the offended party has extremely little value in comparison to the human and her prerogative to keep her family free from vermin and potential disease. The relationship with the mouse was of much lesser consequence than the woman's personal health, and even less consequence when we think about the the woman's responsibility to her family.
On the other hand, were a man to kill another man in an instant, he can be sentenced to a life of imprisonment. Despite the momentary nature of his action, his sentencing is extremely lengthy. The difference between the killing in both situations is not the act, but rather the one being offended. The sentencing in both situations was extremely different for the very same action due to the relationship in the offense. When we apply this to our sin, recognizing that our sin – as trivial as some of it may seem – is against an infinitely valuable and holy God, it puts into perspective both the severity and length of punishment. The God of infinite value has been offended by man. Our acts of rebellion committed against such a being are worthy of infinite punishment.
When most think of punishment, they view it as some vindictive sort of measure. It seems like punishment is causing one to suffer for what they did. When enough suffering is exacted, then punishment is over. While suffering is certainly a side effect of punishment, I think this view of punishment misses a few key components of what we see in the Bible.
First, ultimate punishment in the Bible is separation from relationship. The punishment is a removal of grace and favor and leaving one to their own devices. As C.S. Lewis puts it, the gates of Hell are locked from the inside. Hell is essentially man left to his own devices and will. This leads to tremendous anguish, but it is man’s own doing, not necessarily God’s direct, torturous punishment. Separation from relationship - especially from God - is very painful.
Second, punishment seems to me to be less about exacting suffering from the offending party and more about upholding the value of the offended. Imagine that someone murdered another individual. At the trial the judge reprimands the murderer and sentences him to one day in jail. We would be appalled! While there may be some desire for us to see the murderer suffer, a large component of our disgust would be due to the trivialization of the offended victim. The victim’s life was essentially worth the loss of one’s freedom for a day. This would be a huge disservice to the value of human life.
When we see punishment in our society today, it is no wonder we have such a bad taste in our mouths when pondering hell. As prison times for serious offenses seem to wane – particularly in Europe – we see the devaluation of man’s worth. Punishment is no longer about upholding the victim’s value, but rather about locking individual’s up until we’re sure there will be no more negative consequences from them in society. It’s all about fixing the criminal, not upholding human value. While I strongly resonate with notions of grace and mercy and I think prisons should seek to reduce recidivism rates through mentorship, training, education, etc – wee run into a very slippery slope when we throw off prison’s punitive nature completely. Turning men into rehabilitated machines cannot make up for a society that views the worth of humans in a trivial light.
Unfortunately, our modern consequentialist society has lost the more Old Testament notions of justice. While this is good in some ways as we seek to protect the innocent accused and acknowledge our own limitations as humans as we judge others, it is terrible in its loss of human value. Our society has thrown off notions of intrinsic value and objective moral truth, choosing to now measure this value as it measures everything else. We see this leading to hypocrisy and infanticide in pre-birth abortion and advocacy for post-birth abortion. We see this in the creeping notions of euthanasia in Europe and some states. We see it in the limiting of free speech and we see it in the return of behaviorism to the public schools and prison systems. Man is now a complicated machine who is as valuable as his functionality and performance. But rather than uphold the value of man in his freedom and dignity, consequentialism undermines our rights and value by providing parameters for which a human, like any other machine, becomes obsolete.