Friday, April 20, 2007

Who can forgive sins but God alone?

I just read this article which begins:
While it seems most people are resigned to express hatred toward Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech gunman who shot and killed 32 people before taking his own life, there are some who aren't thinking twice about forgiving the 23-year-old student for his heinous crimes.
First off, in one sense, what right do these people have to forgive Cho? It's not as if they were the ones wronged (murdered) by Cho. Nor are they (as far as I know) in any way related to those who were murdered by Cho. They aren't friends or relatives. Or even acquaintances. So, again, who are they to forgive Cho?

Murder, of course, is an irrevocable sin. Once it has been committed, it can never be taken back. So another question is, can Cho ever be forgiven by those whom he murdered since they are no longer alive to offer him forgiveness?

And to complicate matters, Cho took his own life. Thus, there can be no justice because Cho escaped justice.

Not that there could in fact be full and total justice anyway. After all, if one human being murders another human being, then would not justice, strictly speaking, demand that the murderer's life is now forfeit? But what of the murderer who murders 32 people? Even if Cho had been captured, tried, and convicted, and suppose executed for his murderous rampage across the Virginia Tech campus, would justice ever truly be served, since Cho only has one life to forfeit, not 32?

How can humans ever hope to mete out justice in the case of a serial or mass murder committed by a single person? The highest punishment we have -- the execution of the murderer -- would not wholly satisfy justice. If there is to be complete justice, then there must be a punishment greater than death. But there isn't. At least not in this life. Thus, this might work as an indirect pointer to the reality of a fate worse than death. And by it, perhaps, to the existence of other things.

Otherwise, life is and forever will be unfair. But if we go down this trail, at best, it's all meaningless. Vanity of vanities. At worst, well... maybe we can see how deep the rabbit hole really is another time. For now, I'll leave off making any remarks.

In addition to his multiple murders, however, Cho committed arguably the most heinous sin of all: he committed idolatry.

What is idolatry? As I understand it, it is both reducing God into something which he is not as well as placing something -- anything, including oneself -- in the place of the true God. It is not recognizing let alone accepting God for who he is, as he has revealed himself in the Scriptures. It is making him out to be something which he is not. Or making him into something which one thinks he is or should be, to conform God to one's own notions of who or what God is. It is putting God in a box. More specifically, it is the (post-modern) claim that religion and spirituality and God are whatever one decides to make of them. It is the belief that the reference point for God and religion is oneself. As I've heard Don Carson characterize it in the past, idolatry is the de-"God"-ing of God.

Witness some of Cho's statements:
I did it for them. I did it to make you stop what you did to me. The future generations of the weak and defenseless.

Like Moses, I split the sea and lead my people, the weak, the defenseless, the innocent children of all ages...

You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience. You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.

Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon on a cross? And left to bleed to death for your amusement? You have never felt a single ounce of pain your whole life. Did you want to inject as much misery in our lives as you can just because you can?
Cho compares himself to Moses and likewise to Christ. He sees himself as a martyr for the weak and defenseless. Also, Cho sees himself as the one who has been wronged by others. Perhaps wronged by his community and society. There is a self-centeredness to all he has said and to all he has done. Cho considers himself the greatest victim as well as the greatest leader, a martyr for the weak and defenseless. Psychiatrists might perhaps diagnose him as a megalomaniac, and pronounce that he has a God-complex. Of course, Cho's "megalomania" is no different than the "megalomania" of many other serial killers and mass murders -- from Hitler (cf. The Psychopathic God by Robert Waite) to Harris and Klebold. The world revolves around them. But, biblically speaking, let's cut to the chase and call it what it is: Cho was an idolater. He placed himself in the place of God.

Murder leaves behind tangible, physical evidence. There is a body. Serial and mass murder leaves behind tangible, physical evidence. There is a body count. But for the most part, modern idolatry in the West does not leave behind tangible, physical evidence. There are no wood or stone idols or carved images to bow down before. Perhaps that's one reason why idolatry doesn't seem as abhorrent to us as does something like murder. But from God's perspective, idolatry is just as bad if not worse than murder. Murder may take away human life, a human being created in the image of God. But idolatry attempts to take away from God himself, to re-fashion the Creator into an image within his creation, perhaps even after one's own likeness. It exchanges the glory of God for images resembling mortal man and/or things within creation.

Now, in Psalm 51:4, King David cries out to God, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight." What on earth could David mean that he has only sinned against God? Hadn't he sinned against Bathsheba by committing adultery with her? Not to mention Bathsheba's husband, whom he had murdered? And in fact, this says nothing of the countless others whom David likely caused or at least influenced to sin when he involved them in his cover-up! Nevertheless David has the temerity to pray to God, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight." What gives?

But David understood something we perhaps don't. David understood that, in the deepest sense, whenever we commit an act of sin, we are not merely sinning against others or ourselves, we are likewise sinning against God himself. Who God is is wound up with what God has revealed to us in his law. God is good. And as the source of good, when we sin against that which is good, we sin against God himself. As Carson (to whom I owe nearly all of my thoughts on this) states, in every act of sin, God is the most offended party. David understood this, and hence he cried out, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight." In the deepest sense, David's sin was directly against God himself.

Getting back to the original question, who are these random strangers, then, to forgive Cho, as if they were in the place of God himself?

As I mentioned above, in one sense, only those wronged can forgive Cho for his evil, murderous acts. Yet those wronged are dead. And so is Cho.

But, as we see here, in quite another sense, God -- who created us and whose we are, at least as creatures (if not redeemed in Christ) -- is the most deeply offended party of all in any of our transgressions. Any and every sin we commit is a slap in the face against him, if not worse.

And since it's patently transparent Cho never repented of his sins (murder, idolatry, etc.), but rather died in them, the following may come across as a hard saying, but it is a biblically unavoidable one: there is no forgiveness for Cho. The wrath of God abides on him forever.

This may be the last word for Cho, but this isn't the last word for us. If you have never turned away from your sins -- whether they be as large as Cho's or as small as to be indiscernible even to those closest to you -- and pleaded with God to have mercy on you, do you think there will somehow be forgiveness for you when you stand before God? Do you think you can escape the just wrath of God, who is the most offended party in all your sins?

Reader, consider these things.


  1. First of all, great post. I have one small thing to point out. (*gasp*) Don't worry, it doesn't affect the validity of any of your points. In fact, it strengthens one of them. :-)

    Patrick said:
    After all, if one human being murders another human being, then would not justice, strictly speaking, demand that the murderer's life is now forfeit?

    Strictly speaking, simply taking the murderer's life does not satisfy justice. Justice involves reciprocity. That is, I steal a dollar from you, I must return the dollar I stole and give you a dollar of my own so that I now experience the pain I caused you.

    In murder, this would mean that the killer must restore life to the victim, then have his own life taken. But of course humans cannot resurrect the dead.

    We can only fulfill the part of justice that we are able to fulfill: the forfeiting of the life of the murderer. So we do what we are able to do; but in the strictest sense, justice has not occured even with the death of the murderer.

    Naturally, then, this continues for multiple victims too: Cho would need to resurrect 32 victims and die 32 times in order for full justice to occur (in our lifetime).

    This, I think, makes your argument even stronger about the "unfairness"/injustice (in our lifetime) of what happened.

  2. A very fine post, Patrick. The notion of unconditional, third-party forgiveness is very popular in the contemporary church. But I see no warrant for it in Scripture. As I've written elsewhere:

    One element is the fallacy of unconditional forgiveness. Many Christians believe it to be their Christian duty to forgive everyone, period.

    One thing they forget is that the Gospels were written to the church, to the Christian community, just as the Mosaic Law was addressed, in the first place, to the covenant community.

    This doesn't mean that there's one standard for insiders, and a totally different standard for outsiders. But what makes a faith-community a community is a certain level of mutuality and reciprocity. One cannot transfer this without qualification to those who are not signatories to a common ethic.

    Even in the church, forgiveness is contingent on repentance: "if your brother sins, reprove him, and if he repents, forgive him" (Luke 17:3). Notice that there are three conditions in view: (i) the offender is a "brother," a fellow Christian; (ii) the offender is penitent and contrite, and (iii) the offended party is forgiving the offender for a wrong done by the offender to the offended party. In other words, I can forgive Jim for what Jim did to me (personally), but I can't forgive Jim for what Jim did to John.

    Beyond that, what does it mean to forgive the dead? Either he's in heaven or hell. If in heaven, God has forgiven him; if in hell, he's unforgivable.

  3. By the way, since Patrick mentioned Carson as his source for much of what he wrote, I should include my source too!

    The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses by Vern Poythress (P&R Publishing, 1995) gives a great overview of the Old Testament Law and the purpose behind much of the symbolism in the tabernacle, etc. Included in it is a look at the Old Testament's concept of justice, which includes the views I summarized in the reciprocity points.

    Poythress is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors, the more I read of him. Most of what I've read from him has been more technical than the popularist Reformed writers (e.g. Sproul, James White when he's not doing Greek analysis!, etc.), but he's not as technical as reading a Systematic Theology textbook, etc. This, of course, does vary a bit from book to book. It's been a few months since I read The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, but I don't remember it as being very technical until the end.

    In any case, I'd highly recommend it.

  4. Cool, thanks guys, for the additional refinements and remarks. Really insightful, to say the least. :-)

  5. If there is no God, there are no sins, then?

    If God ALONE can do it, will sins still exist, but will not be forgiven?

    God is always used for circular logic. The great Spaghetti Monster could be used, too.

    The real debate (duely avoided in the USA) is about gunlaws.

    more info here, if you care.

  6. u2r2h said:
    If there is no God, there are no sins, then?

    Since a sin is a violation of divine law, then yes. If there is no God, there is no divine law to break.

    You said:
    God is always used for circular logic.

    1. Everything "u2r2h" says is true.

    2. "u2r2h" wrote a response to comments.

    3. Therefore, "u2r2h"'s conclusion is true.

    There. An example of a circular argument that, amazingly enough, doesn't use God!

    Therefore, I propose a second syllogism:

    1. People who say stupid things are stupid.

    2. What "u2r2h" said was stupid.

    3. Therefore, God.

    And I'm not through yet!!!

    You said more fully:
    God is always used for circular logic. The great Spaghetti Monster could be used, too.

    But your second sentence refutes your first. If "The great Spaghetti Monster could be used" then it does not follow that "God is always used for circular logic."

    You said:
    The real debate (duely avoided in the USA) is about gunlaws.

    Duely? Sure, pistols at dawn sounds fun.

    By the way, you obviously haven't been paying any attention at all if you think gunlaws haven't been the center of debate since the leftists started salivating over the deaths of innocent people who were killed by a GUN THAT PULLED ITS OWN TRIGGER!!!

    Man, those evil guns.

    I realize this is a bit like me picking on elementary school kids, but when you get serious about your objections I'll get serious in my responses to you.