A Juggernaut of a doctrine, the modern "God is love" teaching, when not properly offered, can trample everything before it, including justice and punishment--indeed even, if some modern theologians are to be believed, an eternal Hell. Now, that God is love is absolutely true. (1 John 4:8) It is dogma. But it does not follow that a God of love does not also judge and punish. Love and judgment, love and punishment are not opposites. Punishment which follows judgment is not necessarily inconsistent with love.
CORPUS CHRISTI,TX (Catholic Online) - "Punishment has some likeness to God." The assertion sounds almost blasphemous to us moderns. But this may only prove we moderns have a spiritually tin ear. Our sense of hearing is spoiled by surfeit, by saccharine assurances that God is love and nothing else, and, as the Beatles reminded us, "All you need is love."
The modern "God is love" doctrine is so comprehensive, so all-encompassing, that it is seen as fundamentally inconsistent with a God in any way punitive or judgmental.
The modern god is a consummate liberal, a divine laissez faire, laissez passer democrat with a long, flowing white beard: He is not Father God: he is avuncular: Uncle God. He allows all things and blesses all things and invites all without prejudice to the wedding Feast of the Lamb, a heaven where the sinner and saint, Hitler and Mother Theresa, like lion and lamb, shall lay down together.
A Juggernaut of a doctrine, the modern "God is love" teaching tramples everything before it, including justice and punishment--indeed even, if some modern theologians are to be believed (which they ought not), an eternal Hell.
Like Robbin the Bobbin, the modern "God is love" doctrine eats everything before it, including the church and the steeple, its priest and all the people. And yet it complains that its stomach isn't full and so it swallows whole the doctrines of punishment and judgment.
Now, that God is love is absolutely true. (1 John 4:8) It is dogma. But it does not follow that a God of love does not also judge and punish. Love and judgment, love and punishment are not opposites. Punishment which follows judgment is not necessarily inconsistent with love.
Quite the contrary, punishment is often consistent with love and required by justice. An unjust God--no less than an unmerciful God--is not a God of love.
Oddly, by excluding punishment from God in order to distill the "God is love" doctrine to a heady 200 proof, one really makes God loveless because it makes a mockery out of sin, which makes a mockery out justice, which makes a mockery out of mercy, ultimately making a mockery of love. The modern "God is love" doctrine is an ouroboric doctrine: a snake of a doctrine that consumes itself.
That punishment is in a way part of the divine nature is a truth of nature, one grasped by reason, and therefore also a truth of grace, for grace builds upon nature.
Except for the anarchist--who in this regard is an outlier whose views can be ignored--, all of us accept the State's legitimate authority to punish the wrongdoer, which necessarily implies it is a natural good.
We know that all power is from God. (Rom. 13:1; Ps. 62:11 [61:13]). This must include the power of legitimate authority to punish malefactors, else humans would not have it and its legitimacy would not demand universal assent. The power to punish is therefore found in God, the God who is love.
What is true to our natural reason, is also taught by the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (§ 2266) that legitimate public authority "has the right and duty to inflict punishment" upon malefactors, "proportionate to the gravity of the offense." This authority, as St. Thomas observes, is part of the natural law, as one of its precepts is "that the evil-doer should be punished." S.T. IaIIae, q. 95, art. 2, c.
If punishment did not have some likeness to God, the State would have no natural right or duty to punish malefactors. The power to punish could not be part of the natural law, since the natural law is nothing but the Eternal Law, which is God himself, applied to reasoning men.
This is supported by Scripture, for example: "Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?" (Lam 3:39) or "I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, says the Lord." (Jer. 21:14)
To be sure, there are some punishments that are not found in God and therefore the State cannot impose on its citizens. For example, torture. The State has no authority to use "physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred." (§ 2297)
It is not part of God's nature to use physical or moral violence vindictively to punish the guilty, frighten his opponents, or satisfy his hatreds. As the Catechism (§ 1472) states, the punishment meted out by God against sin "must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin." That's why it is wrong for any human authority to do so since no such authority is found in God, and it cannot therefore be asserted by man.
Though we are not dealing with a torturing, vindictive God, the truth still stares us in the face that "punishment has some likeness to God," the God who is love. These--to the modern ear--jarring words with which I began this reflection come from a sermon by the holy second abbot of the great monastery of St. Victor in Paris and Bishop of Avranches, Achard of Saint Victor (ca. 1100-1172). They are found in his sermon preached on the Solemnity of Saint Augustine:
"Punishment has some likeness to God, either because it is just, or because at least it happens by the just judgment of God, or because such a nature is by God's doing such that it cannot be brought into contact with another nature without suffering, like a finger brought into contact with fire."
According to our holy abbot Achard, punishment has some likeness to God if it is just, if it is allowed by God as part of his just and loving Providence, or if it is part of the natural result of bringing one nature into contact with another, such as a human flesh to fire.
The first instance Achard raises relates to the punishment of the wicked by God. "Let no one think . . . that the punishment of the wicked . . . does not come from him [God]," wrote St. Augustine in his Retractions (1.26). For the final impenitent sinner, the punishment is, as the Catechism (§ 1472) makes clear, eternal in duration. Even then, as St. Augustine notes, the punishment is not as severe as the infinite offense against God of final impenitence.
However, just punishments are meted out not only to the damned, but also to the just. Here, punishments are an occasion of merit, even sanctification.
The Church teaches that there are both eternal and temporal punishments associated with our sin. While the justified--those who die in a state of sanctifying grace--escape eternal damnation, they do not escape the temporal punishments that are associated with their sin, the most obvious of which is physical death but which also includes all manner of suffering in this "vale of tears" we call earth.
The temporal punishments justly imposed upon our sins by our loving God must be expiated by suffering the punishment or by substituting for it by God's merciful indulgence, through prayers, almsgiving or other good works, or by undertaking voluntary penances and other works of supererogation.
Temporal punishments suffered by those in a state of grace are considered by the Church a great actual grace. "The Christian," the Catechism (§ 1473) states, "must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace."
This accords with Scripture: "And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?--'My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.'" (Heb. 12:5-6)
Temporal punishments are therefore indications not only that God is love but, what is more, that God loves us intimately, even as his children.
To the extent temporal punishments are not suffered in this life, they will be suffered by the just after death in that state of cleansing called Purgatory. (CCC § 1030) This, in fact, is what abbot Achard makes reference to when he says that suffering occurs "because such a nature is by God's doing such that it cannot be brought into contact with another nature without suffering."
Following our death, any attachment to sin must be removed, like dross from gold, as we begin our eternal life in God, and as what remains of our sinful nature is purged, we suffer temporal punishments, "like a finger brought into contact with fire" in the words of Achard.
"If the work which any man has built on the foundation"--which is Jesus Christ--"survives," St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up,"--that which is not of Christ--"he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." (1 Cor. 3:14-15)
"Punishment has some likeness to God." If the words grate us, then it may suggest that there is a problem with our understanding of the living and holy God and the seriousness of our sin. It may be that we suffer from that most modern of sins, that synthesis of all sins, which Blessed John Paul II identified as the "loss of the sense of sin."
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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