Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Jesus the Judge

There is an analogy that I have heard for Christianity which I think bears discussing. I heard it a few times on radio sermons, and I recently had it presented directly to me in an email exchange that I had with a Christian acquaintance.

It goes like this: Imagine an honest judge in a state with a "3 strikes" law, who has his daughter come before him for the 3rd time (ignoring that he'd have to recuse himself from the case). His beloved daughter has had warnings to change, but she ignored them. Though he loves her, he has no choice but to sentence her, and apply the "wrath" of the state to repeat offenders.

But wait! Then the judge finds a way out: "I must sentence my daughter to prison, but I don't want her to go because I love her. The law demands that the sentence be carried out. Therefore I will go to jail in her place."

The point of the story is that you are the criminal, and God is the judge. By law, you deserve death for your sins, but Jesus came down to carry out the sentence in your place.

This story also tries to deal with the common question, "Why would a loving God send people to hell?" With God cast in the role of a just but sympathetic judge whose hands are tied, the "angry god" image is softened a little.

The story about the judge and his daughter is very cute and heart warming, except for one little thing. Once you stop to think about it, it doesn't make an ounce of sense.

In the first place, the law -- and I'm talking about real world, American law -- doesn't recognize the validity of one person being punished in another person's place. And it's a good thing, too! Just imagine if a serial murderer was brought to trial, and the judge sentenced him to five consecutive lifetimes in jail. But then the murderer's mother steps forward and says "Hold on! Don't put my boy in jail! I'll serve the sentence for him!" The judge would have to be COMPLETELY INSANE to allow that sort of thing to happen. Suppose the guy goes and kills again, then how good an idea was it to put the mother in jail? In principle, we don't punish crimes just because we believe in "eye for an eye" retribution. We put people in jail because it stops them from committing more crimes, and deters others from committing crimes as well.

Which brings me to the second point: Once the daughter is set free, there is no purpose for the judge going to jail, other than symbolism. Who is benefitted by having the judge locked up? Certainly not the judge. Not the daughter. Not the victims of the crime.

No, part of what makes the story sound superficially reasonable is it uses an unjust law as the example. Let's face it, "three strikes" is ridiculous. A kid who is caught possessing marijuana for her third offense has no business going to jail for the rest of her life. Whereas if the crime had been murder, or grand theft auto, the story would make you go "Hey, waaaaaait a minute..."

So if the judge decided that the law was unjust, then there are a few simple solutions: Just let her go! Strike that law from the books! Get her off on a technicality! Find her guilty and then help her appeal to the Supreme Court, hoping they'll rule the law unconstitutional! But the judge actually serving in her place? That's not noble, it's silly.

The bigger problem is that when you apply the analogy to God, you realize that the judge also created the law. Then it makes even less sense. Why does the judge "have no choice but to sentence her"? If the law has a really good reason behind it, then she should fulfill her own sentence. If she girl shouldn't be serving the sentence after all, then maybe it's time to rethink the law.

I'm reminded of Iolanthe, a comic play by Gilbert and Sullivan. In this play, a fairy falls in love with a human judge and marries him. According to fairy laws, the penalty for marrying a mortal is death. There is a dramatic scene in the end, where the fairy queen agonizes over her decision because she loves Iolanthe and doesn't want to kill her. But Iolanthe's husband, bragging about his legal expertise, has a brilliant solution: Why don't they just add a word to the law, so it says: "Let it stand that every fairy shall die who DOESN'T marry a mortal"? So the law is changed, and all the fairies scramble around to find husbands and live happily ever after.

Now that's a hilarious story. But it doesn't seem any more hilarious to me than an all-powerful being who decides that he has to subject himself torture in order to avoid carrying out a law that he wrote himself.


  1. You're right, the story you heard is silly on many levels. But I've heard what I think are better examples.

    The example I most often hear is of a relation of a judge receiving a speeding ticket. But a few years ago I heard that this version of the story started with Billy Graham. I have not tried to verify this using Google.

    A few years after gaining national notoriety, Billy Graham was travelling to his next engagement and supposedly received a speeding ticket in the South. At the time he was without money, for whatever reason.

    He went before the judge, who upon learning Graham's identity, started talking religion, asked for an autograph, listened to anecdotes, etc., for a long time.

    Then, as Billy Graham was about to leave, the judge surprised him by switching back into his judging persona, and reminded him that there was still this matter of the fine ... the law wasn't suppressed just because the guilty party was a famous man of God.

    But the judge then said something like, "look, the fine has to be paid or you have to spend time in jail. You don't have the time to do that, and you have no money, so ..." The judge then took off his robe, "... I'll write the check for you." He wrote out a check, then put his robe back on, and gavelled, "fine paid." Billy Graham (supposedly) then used that story very often in his preaching as the Jesus Paid for Your Sins analogy.

    This story makes a lot more sense than the Three Strikes story:
    - There'd be no question of recusing,
    - it makes more sense to pay a fine for someone than to go to jail for them (because the law actually allows it),
    - once Billy Graham goes free, it still makes sense that the judge's check was accepted and not returned by the county,
    - the law is not so ridiculous as the "Three Strikes" law (the judge isn't likely to find the law unjust),
    - there was neither time nor reason for Graham to stay locked up for an unlikely appeal,
    - and God is still cast as a just but sympathetic judge.

    Of course, the judge still isn't the author of the law in this analogy. But then again, a King who created a law for which there was a fine, which his own son then broke, might still pay the fine to himself to show how just he was to his people. I'm not saying that makes sense, but I can see it used as an empty political gesture.

    Don't get me wrong, the analogy is still completely wrong-headed in my mind. I'm just pointing out that there are better versions of the story out there.

  2. Anonymous9:32 AM

    Better in what sense? The Graham analogy doesn't hold. Paying a traffic fine is in no way equivalent to paying with your life.

    It also doesn't make sense in another way: if Graham were already famous enough for the judge to know of him, how is it he had no money (Dr. Graham lives an opulent lifestyle).

  3. Better than the story Russell heard in that it was plausibly true. Better in that there wouldn't be an obvious conflict of interest. Better in that it makes sense to pay a fine for someone else, but not to go to jail for them. Better in that once Graham is free, it still makes sense for the county to keep the check. Better in that the law broken and enforced is not so ridiculous as the "Three Strikes" law. Better that there was neither time nor reason for Graham to stay locked up for an unlikely appeal.

    Finally, Graham didn't have to be very famous for someone to have heard of him -- that's a nit that there's no point in picking. In the 50's or 60's (whenever Graham's early days were), credit was much more rare.

    I agree the analogy to a God paying the penalty to a law he created is far from perfect. Analogies are never perfect. But the Graham analogy isn't bad at illustrating how Jesus' claim of sacrifice works, given the ridiculousness of the claim in the first place. The one Russell heard was just god-awful. Some analogies are less horrendous than others.

  4. You're both right.

    The story that really relates to Christianity makes no sense at all, whereas the story that is remotely plausible has very little to do with Christianity.

    And there you go. :)

  5. Anonymous2:06 PM

    Elsewhere, I combined this with "Kissing Hank's Ass", resulting in absurdity.

    The real problem is that the story of Jesus makes for a good story, but doesn't work in real life. Kind of like asking why Harry Potter doesn't carry a cell phone so he can call someone in case he gets in trouble.

    AIUI, it goes something like this: there are Rules. In order to get people to obey the rules, they're enforced: if you're caught breaking a rule, you have to sacrifice something of yours: a bird for a minor transgression, a couple of bulls for something major, and so on. This way, you're encouraged not to break the rules: if you're caught, you'll wind up with less than you have now.

    Over time, people forgot the reason for having sacrifices, and just internalized that breaking a rule -> sacrifice, and the greater the crime the greater the sacrifice.

    So sacrificing a sheep "pays" for a greater crime than a dove. A bull pays for a greater crime than a sheep. Sacrificing a human, especially a relative, especially one's firstborn son, pays for an awful lot of crime. So imagine how much crime you could pay for by sacrificing a god.

    In this sense, the Jesus story makes for good drama, but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

  6. Anonymous7:41 PM

    "You're both right.

    The story that really relates to Christianity makes no sense at all, whereas the story that is remotely plausible has very little to do with Christianity.

    And there you go. :) "

    Which is the point I was trying to make. You just did so much better.