So that there are no doubts that pain is a non-problem, three points may be made: first, there is sin; second, sin requires suffering; and, third, therefore, suffering is not a problem, not even eternal suffering, which is the ultimate form of it.
The Fact of Sin
First, then, the easy part, that there is sin in the world. Karl Menninger recently wrote a book entitled, Whatever Happened to Sin? Well, as the doctor admits, sin is still here. It is just that people do not so willingly acknowledge that fact. A spade is no longer called a spade, but some euphemism. The little boy says to his mother, “Why is it that whenever I do anything bad, it’s because I’m a bad boy; but whenever you do anything bad, it’s because you’re nervous?’’ It is nerves rather than sin. It is our glands rather than sin. It is what we eat, the environment, our biorhythm, rather than sin. In fact, it is anything but sin. Sin denies that it is sin.
The ultimate form of any vice is to deny that it is a vice, and rather to rejoice in it. That is denial with a vengeance, actually making a virtue of it. John Barrymore used to say that he did not like to be obscene and not heard. His obscenity, for him, was a virtue that deserved to be displayed and admired; he wanted praise for it. Whether or not we have become hardened so as to make sin a virtue, we certainly have made sin sinless.
No one would ever read the Bible and get the impression that God is in His Heaven and all’s well with the world. Sin started with the first man, according to the Bible. In Adam all sinned. Sin came into the world through the transgression of one man. But many view the Bible as antiquated and obsolete. People who deny sin deny what I am saying right now as I affirm sin. They will say, ‘‘Nonsense.” When they realize that I have a Ph.D. from Harvard, they will say, “That is utterly inexcusable for a person such as he not to know that sin is a mere name, and not a real entity at all.” As a matter of fact, they could get up quite a head of steam and even tell me: “You ought to know better.” When a person says to me, ‘‘You ought to know better,” he means that I am sinning by saying what I do. I am doing what is wrong, and I am inexcusable because I should know better. That is essentially what we mean by sin, violating the moral law. One ought to act according to his understanding of truth. These persons feel that I should understand the truth that there is no such thing as sin. Consequently, by affirming sin, I am telling a falsehood, which I should not do. They blame me for this and reprimand me for this wrongdoing. They say to me that I am not the type of person I ought to be. That is a rebuke as well as a definition. It is showing what sin means, and that I am a sinner, and that I deserve the verbal punishment (at least) that they give me by so labeling me.
So while they deny sin, they affirm sin. If they really did not believe that there is such a thing as sin, they would not, in effect, call me a sinner. But if they do call me a sinner, by that word or by a euphemism, then they show that they do not believe that sin is obsolete. So they find themselves in a predicament of wanting to deny sin, but unable to do so without affirming it. Sin is not only not obsolete, it is not obsolescent; and, indeed, it never can become obsolete while this world remains as it is. God’s Word has not fallen too far behind the avalanche of contemporary literature. We may tell Dr. Menninger that the only thing that has happened to sin is that people now, rather than affirming it by affirming it, prefer to affirm it by denying it.
Those who affirm sin by denying it are doubly sinners. When they call me a sinner because I ought to know better than to affirm sin, they are themselves affirming sin. Though sinning itself is bad enough, denying sin is an additional sin, so that those who deny sin are actually double sinners. In a certain sense, they argue more strenuously for sin than we traditionalists do. And they have more opportunity for sinning than we do because denying that sin exists is not a possibility for those who believe the Bible.
So, then, there is sin. Not only does the Word of God say so, but, what is far more impressive to our culture, twentieth-century intellectuals say so with a vengeance.
Sin Requires Punishment
Second, sin deserves punishment. Dr. Karl Menninger asks, Whatever Happened to Sin? He should write another book entitled, Whatever Happened to Punishment? In the opinion of many, not only does crime not deserve punishment, but punishment is the crime. Menninger himself wrote The Crime of Punishment. But when a person says that crime does not deserve punishment, he is taking the heinousness out of the criminal act. He thinks that crime does not spring from the actor, but from some external circumstance—his ghetto background or his privileged status with its irresponsibilities. ‘‘It’s not your son’s fault,” said the maid to Reinhold Niebuhr. The son of the famous theologian had been in a neighborhood brawl and was somewhat worse for wear when the maid interceded with the father, who was about to finish what the neighborhood kids had started. “It is not your son’s fault—it is the company he keeps.’’ Neibuhr’s response to the maid’s entreaty was, “It is not the company he keeps; it is his own little black heart.” The maid championed the thesis that there is no crime except punishment, whereas Niebuhr, in this case, expressed the sentiment that there is crime, and it does deserve punishment.
I think we would all agree that crime deserves punishment. Those who say that it does not say so quite consistently, because they argue that it is not crime. We agree that where there is no crime, there needs be no punishment. The question is a matter of fact rather than value judgment.
Is there such a thing as crime? We have already answered that question. If there is such a thing as sin, there is such a thing as crime, a specific form of sin. And if we all agree that there is such a thing as crime, or sin, then it deserves punishment. When I am told, “You ought to know better,” I am not only being informed, I am being rebuked. That indictment amounts to a punishment for my sin of saying there is such a thing as sin. So those who say such things prove both points—that there is sin, and that sin ought to be punished. If they rebuke me verbally, and I do not mend my ways, the question could well come up whether I ought to receive some other form of punishment. They are convinced of one thing: I ought to be punished in the most effective way.
Most intellectuals are opposed to corporal punishment because they do not think it is effective, and they argue against capital punishment, that it does not deter crime. Futile punishment ought not to be administered. Capital punishment, since these people think it is futile, is resisted not because it is punishment, but because it is not punishment, that is, it is ineffective. They want crime deterred, but by an effective form of punishment. It seems, no matter how people express it, they must acknowledge that there is sin, and that sin deserves to be punished. The only differences among us have to do with the names we give to sin and the shape punishment should take.
Consider our opinion about capital punishment with respect to the killing of police officers. Why would that question ever come up? If punishment is a crime, then of course the killing of a policeman should not be punished either. When we make distinctions between killing civilians and killing policemen, we show that certain kinds of crime, at least, deserve punishment. But no one is saying that crimes do not deserve punishment. The question is what crimes do, and what punishment is effective. Apparently, some believe that though capital punishment is not effective with civilians when civilians are the victims, it may be effective and necessary when policemen are the victims. There seems to be a general impression that capital punishment in the case of murderers of police is a deterrent and therefore ought to be administered.
One form of capital punishment everybody seems to approve: killing an attacker in self-defense. That is, most people will defend saving one’s own life, even if it requires taking the life of the would-be killer. There is a great division of opinion among us at the present time whether killers, after they have killed, should be killed. But there is virtually no difference of opinion that killers, before they are successful in killing, should be killed, if that is the only way that they can be stopped.
Punishment Requires Pain
Third, suffering is necessary. If there is such a thing as sin, and sin deserves to be punished, then the punishment must be administered, and punishment that does not hurt is not punishment. We may insist that the punishment is ameliorative or helpful, ultimately, but nobody is drawing up a proposition that punishment is not painful. It is self-evident that if punishment is not painful, it is not punishment. The only point of punishment is the administration of pain. The person who does sin, who commits a crime, deserves to be punished; he deserves to suffer. One hopes that suffering will cure him of his sinfulness. At least, it will correct his behavior. He will be “scared straight” in behavior, if not softened in spirit.
In human affairs, pain is no problem. Even in our conduct, if we did not administer pain under certain circumstances, that would be a problem. It would, we think, be wrong.
Our main problem is that so much crime goes unpunished. Murderers—proven, demonstrated murderers—serve an average of about eight years in prison for killing another human being in cold blood. But most murderers are not caught at all and not punished at all. Our thinking is loose and our laws are not what they ought to be. Even judging our performance according to our own inadequate standards, we are far short of the mark. We recognize that our crime lies in nonpunishment rather than in punishment, though occasionally the punishment itself is the crime when it is excessive or when it is punishment of the wrong person. Fundamentally, our own culture in our own estimate falls under our own condemnation of not fitting the punishment to the crime, even approximately.
But when we consider God, we realize that He would see sin perfectly because sin, in the last analysis, is against Him. He is the author of the moral law by which we are constrained. ‘‘Where there is no law there is no sin.’’ Furthermore, if even we can see that sin should be punished, He would see with perfect and infinite vision that sin should be punished. Most important of all, if we punish crime (very, very imperfectly), He will punish it perfectly, precisely because He is both good and omnipotent. There-fore, we have no problem with pain inflicted by God, if it can be shown that the person suffering it deserves it, and that it is in the measure which he deserves. These two characteristics we assume, of course, would describe a divine act of punishment or infliction of pain.
Because every man is a sinner, every man deserves the wrath of God. Manifestly, he is not getting anything that approximates, much less exceeds, the wrath of God in this world. Manifestly, “he” is all of us, since we all are sinners. We deserve to suffer because, without exception, we are sinners; and in fact, we all deserve far more than we receive.
If someone says, “Look, I read in the paper just today about some gangsters exchanging bullets and an innocent bystander being killed. The innocent bystander was killed. You don’t call that divine justice, do you? Maybe the gangsters deserved to kill each other and be killed, but the innocent bystander, by definition, didn’t deserve to be killed, did he?”
“You’re right,” we reply. “Innocent people don’t deserve to be killed. And the man was innocent of any particular crime that concerned these two who were exchanging bullets.” Those two men would agree that he didn’t deserve to die. It was the other criminal, the first criminal will insist, who deserved to die. He will even say, ‘‘I didn’t mean to kill that bystander. He should have watched himself and stayed out of the fire. Too bad. But the other guy I was trying to shoot deserved to be killed. I’m glad I got him. I’m sorry about this innocent bystander.”
Yes, the man was innocent as far as their quarrel was concerned, but was he an innocent bystander in the sight of God? Obviously not, if what we have already said is true. He was a sinner under the wrath of God who had not begun to receive the full punishment he deserved. So, as far as God was concerned, he deserved that bullet. As far as God was concerned, he was not an innocent bystander. As far as God was concerned, he was a criminal too, who was receiving a deserved bullet which the gangster had no right to shoot, but which God had every right to allow to be shot. This bystander was innocent before the man who shot him, but guilty before the God who ordained permissively that he be shot.
Do people really deserve to suffer at God’s hand, and are they fairly punished? It is clear that they deserve to be punished because they are sinners, and that they have been fairly, not excessively, punished because they are sinners against God, against an infinite God.
To be continued...
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.