Christ: Judgment and Mercy

The image is jarring, unsettling, even a little bit scary.

Most icons are inviting. But the Christ Pantocrator icon, especially the oldest known version, the one found at St. Catherine’s monastery in Egypt, gives one pause. The icon depicts Christ with two quite different facial expressions juxtaposed together. As one gazes at the right, Christ’s eye is blackened and enlarged, almost engorged it seems in anger. The eyebrow above it is arched, the chin and mouth below it drawn tight.

The other side is a different story. The features are softer, there’s a note of sadness in the eye.

One common interpretation is that the icon depicts both Christ as divine judge and Christ as the God of mercy. As faithful Christians it is axiomatic for us that Christ, as fully human and fully divine, shares fully in the divine attributes, which include justice and mercy. What is so arresting about this icon is its insistence that we do not become so focused on one that we lose sight of the other.

St Catherine's Monastery icon.

St Catherine’s Monastery icon.

This is always a challenge and it seems especially so today. For some of us, it is easy to be judgmental Jeremiahs. It is easy to condemn a world throbbing and writhing in sin. For others, the suffering that sin leaves in its wake might move us more towards mercy.

One of the classic gospel stories that exemplifies Christ as merciful God is in John 8. The Pharisees have apprehended a woman caught in the act of adultery and dragged her before Christ. The Pharisees recite the law of Moses, mandating death by stoning. (This is incorrect, incidentally, death is the penalty, but the manner of death is not specified by this crime.) As we remember from the story, Christ’s response is to permit only those who are without sin to cast the first stone.

Soon the crowd dissipates, leaving only the sinless One and the sinner. Looking around herself, woman sees not one of her accusers left to condemn her. “Neither do I condemn you. Go, from now on do not sin any more,” Christ declares.  

So how can such an episode be reconciled with the Christ who tells his disciples in Matthew 10 that the towns that reject the gospels will suffer more than Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment? Or the Christ who calls down this prophecy on Jerusalem in Luke 19: “They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”

Then there’s this jeremiad in Matthew 18: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!”

Where’s the mercy for that person?

The truth is that gospels present us with a Christ of both profound mercy and prophetic judgment. To tell a story of Christ who forgives without justice does not capture the whole picture, as the Christ Pantocrator icon reminds us so well.

But how can we reconcile these two seemingly opposed tendencies? How can One who forgives a crime that warrants the death penalty also talk about a coming judgment in which a city will be demolished and its children smashed to the ground, with no hint of hope for them?

No doubt, a careful exegesis of all the above texts will show a hidden harmony between mercy and justice in each case. In the story of the adulterous woman, for example, Christ does not annul or ignore the law. And yet the woman herself is spared condemnation. The solution offered by St. Augustine has become a classic formulation for Christians:

What is this, O Lord? Do You therefore favor sins? Not so, evidently. Mark what follows: “Go, henceforth sin no more.” Therefore the Lord did also condemn, but condemned sins, not man. For if He were a patron of sin, He would say, “Neither will I condemn you; go, live as you will: be secure in my deliverance; how much soever you will sin, I will deliver you from all punishment even of hell, and from the tormentors of the infernal world.” He said not this.

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas works out a solution for us on the plane of philosophy. Mercy and justice, he writes, can be found in all of God’s works. For Aquinas, creation is the example par excellence of this truth. In creation, the idea of justice consists in the “proper order and proportion” of things, Aquinas says. There is also justice in the sense of something due to someone or something else. He offers the example of men possessing hands. Hands, he says, are due to us on account of our rational souls. Our rational souls, furthermore, are necessary in order that we may be truly men. But why ought we to be men?

In other words, why did God bring us into existence in the first place? For Aquinas, this was an act of mercy. “So in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy,” he writes.

But beyond Scriptural exegesis and philosophy, there lies another solution and that is the Incarnation itself. Ultimately, our struggles to, for lack of a better word, balance justice and mercy today is really another chapter in our faithful contemplation of how it is possible in the first place for God to fully man while remaining fully divine.

All of which brings us back to the Christ Pantocrator icon. (Pantocrator, by the way, is taken from the Old Testament names for God as Lord of Hosts and God Almighty.) Today, the icon is regarded as a call to accept Christ as both judge and forgiver.

But it dates back to the earliest times of the Church when the Incarnation itself was a hot topic. The above version of the icon is often considered a visual testament to the still newly defined dogma of the Council of Chalcedon (in 451), which established once and for all our understanding of what we mean by the Incarnation as being the fullness of divinity and humanity united without diminishment in the person of Christ. This is the ultimate of juxtapositions. Perhaps it is only in greater contemplation of the Incarnation itself that we will truly find the way to live out both out both God’s justice and mercy in our lives.

image: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • BillinJax

    “Ultimately, our struggles to, for lack of a better word, balance justice and mercy today is really another chapter in our faithful contemplation of how it is possible in the first place for God to be fully man while remaining fully divine.”

    One could reason that being Divine has its omnipotent privileges and we humans as sons of God, having been given life by the very breath of the Creator, have the unique privilege of possessing an eternal soul through the mercy Love embodies. Yet the same Love which has the power to create, “in its own image”, must in justice allow freedom as part of its nature. As a consequence of our nature with freewill, sin is then not only an offense against that supreme Love but also an affront to our own being and the freedom we have been blessed to possess. Thank God for the confessional.

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