Does Unforgiveness Spoil God’s Redemptive Plans?


Orthodox Christianity claims that human beings are morally indebted to each other and to God for the damaging actions they have committed. This debt is much too large for humans to ever pay; so if they are to be forgiven, God must intervene by providing compensation for victims and on behalf of offenders. God’s provision makes it possible (at least in principle) for all parties involved to be forgiven and to forgive.

I am convinced that the concept of substitutionary compensation which underlies the Christian understanding of forgiveness is ethically defensible. For example, a negligent child damages a stained glass window which she cannot repair. Her parents draft a cheque worth the amount in damages and go with the child to the owner of the window, encouraging the child to offer the cheque penitently. If the owner accepts the child’s offer, then she is forgiven and her debt has been paid. Similarly, Christ paid for human wrongdoing by living a perfectly obedient life and by giving it away as a sacrifice to God. When we identify with Christ’s sacrifice and repent of our wrongs, God accepts the offer and we are forgiven. Because it was God himself who presented Christ as a sacrifice for us (Rom 3:25), His forgiveness enables (and indeed obliges!) us to extent a similar generosity to those who have harmed us.[1]

But even if the concept of substitutionary compensation is ethically defensible, it still raises some thorny questions about human victims who refuse to be compensated by God and insist that their human tormentors be made to pay instead. To see why, consider the following scenario.[2]

A Parable of Thievery

Suppose that Bob has seriously wronged Smith, say by stealing his life-savings, squandering it, and leaving Smith destitute. On the Christian view, Bob has not merely wronged Smith. He has also wronged God because Smith is one of His beloved creatures. Bob has also harmed himself because in wronging Smith and God, Bob has damaged his own character and failed to be the person he ought to have been.

Now suppose that Bob initiates a process of serious repentance for his failure. After a long period of incarceration during which he reforms his character, Bob exits prison with the sincere intention to make amends. Motivated by the transforming power of God’s forgiveness in Christ, Bob endeavours to find Smith, and when he does, to demonstrate heartfelt repentance by promising to pay back as much money as he can (though he will never come close to reaching the full amount).

Unfortunately, Smith has become a bitter man and he will have none of this. Suspecting that Bob has become a Christian, Smith recoils at the idea that God has forgiven Bob for stealing his life savings. Indeed, the whole idea seems outrageous: Bob can be forgiven for offending God insofar as God has been wronged by the thievery. But God is not the only injured party – Smith is too! Bob needs to be forgiven for offending Smith insofar as Smith has been wronged by the thievery, and surely that is something only Smith can do. Part of the offence was against Smith – not just against God – and so part of Bob’s debt remains outstanding until Smith forgives it. From Bob’s point of view, God cannot unilaterally forgive Smith for every part of the offence since this would imply that only God was injured by it! But if Smith was also injured, then it is also Smith’s prerogative to forgive Bob or (in this case) to withhold forgiveness.

What is Bob to do if Smith persists in withholding forgiveness? Indeed, what is God to do? These questions become all the more serious when we imagine Smith withholding forgiveness forever, despite Bob’s repeated overtures of penance and in spite of God’s intention to compensate Smith in the afterlife. In this case, does Bob remain in a perpetual state of guilt for not having been forgiven by Smith? Let take a look at that question in the next section.

The Rights of Victims

Some theologians argue that because Smith is not a Christian, he has an absolute right to withhold forgiveness from Bob. Because Bob is incapable of paying up, Smith is within his rights to reject Bob’s pleas for forgiveness and similarly reject payment from any substitute (e.g. Christ) acting on Bob’s behalf.

By contrast, other theologians argue that Smith only has a limited right to keep Bob in his debt. Bob may be incapable of paying up, but Smith should not delay forgiveness forever if Bob genuinely repents and if God offers adequate compensation for Bob’s theft. In this case, Smith’s right to withhold forgiveness is superseded when Bob and God persist in their efforts to make things right.

But even if Smith’s right to withhold forgiveness is absolute (rather than limited), does Bob’s ongoing state indebtedness to Smith pose a problem for God? Does it spoil the redemptive future God has planned for the world? It seems not. If God’s future world contains individuals like Smith who refuse to forgive others or be forgiven by God, then surely it can contain individuals like Bob who remain unforgiven by Smith. This is a sad reality, no doubt, but apparently God thought it worthwhile to populate this world with free creatures who were capable of pursuing or resisting his redemptive aims. That was a risk God was willing to take.


[1] N.T. Wright addresses the problem of Christians who, in this life, find it virtually impossible to fully forgive those who’ve mistreated them, although they have made some progress in that endeavour. There is also the problem of Christians who have genuinely forgiven but still find themselves unable to fully dispense with feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness toward the perpetrators. Wright believes this problem will be overcome eschatologically when Christians receive resurrection bodies with renewed cognitive, moral, and affective capacities. Christians living in God’s new world will be enabled to forgive because their new bodies will no longer be subject to the presence and effects of sin. It is difficult to imagine such a state, but the horror of past evils and the memories created by them will no longer be able to diminish the life of the elect in the next life. Past evils will no longer deprive us of joy because, in our resurrected bodies, we will be able to forgive each other fully.

[2] This example was inspired by N.T. Wright’s book, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2006), p.142.

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