The Apostle Paul writes that “what may be known of God is manifest” even in those who don’t believe in him (Romans 1:19 NKJV). The story of the Gospel shapes our lives more powerfully than any of us would like to admit. Our choices and reactions all reflect an innate need for mercy and a desire for a gracious consideration of our failings. Even if we don’t believe a Judge sits on the bench, we’re still asking for a not-guilty verdict. Our literature and TV shows demonstrate it even if we won’t admit it.
The CBS legal drama The Good Wife ended earlier this year. In an insightful essay for The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman argues that The Good Wife centers on the theme that “an ultimate court of law” oversees life, one where “we’d all be found guilty if all the evidence were put before the judge”—the “ignoble thoughts, craven motivations, imperfect natures” common to all people. The Good Wife’s protagonist, Alicia, an ambitious attorney, “can’t help suspecting that other, more important rules exist” than manmade laws; that “no truly honest person can plead not guilty in the court of life.” The only hope is “that, somehow, the judge will look kindly upon you.” Rothman concludes that the show “has no illusions, least of all about the ones we use to maintain our innocence.”
Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall occurs in the mind of a New York intellectual. The character, Quentin, once saw life as a “case at law,” a series of opportunities to prove himself “brave…or smart,” an “upward path toward some elevation, where…I would be justified, or condemned.” But then he “looked up one day…and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was…this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench.”
The question that worries these characters is the same one that plagues us in the absence of God. How do I know if I’m a good enough person? Regardless of how much we stuff down our feelings and soldier onward with a smile, we all feel unworthy, lacking, short of some unattainable height of moral perfection. We know, as God does, that “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10); we know that if anybody ever fully uncovered the wrongness in our hearts, we would be instantly convicted.
Secular people will find it difficult to reconcile this interior sense of judgment with their belief that no higher justice exists than the circumstantial justice our society has crafted for itself. But being a Christian means believing that the Judge is real and the verdict has been pronounced. David writes that God has “removed our transgressions from us” and placed them “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). 1 Peter tells us that God has “begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1:3), so that even convicts like us can take heart that the judgment on our shame was borne by someone else—someone so pure he could bear it and rise again. Anyone who recognizes his or her need for grace and follows it to this conclusion will ask for mercy and always find it waiting.
Sydney Carton, the hero of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, is portrayed as a cynical and resentful drunkard who sabotages his own career as a lawyer. But later in the book, walking alongside a river in Paris, a revelatory moment confronts him:
A trading-boat, with a sail of the softened colour of a dead leaf, then glided into his view, floated by him, and died away. As its silent track in the water disappeared, the prayer that had broken up out of his heart for a merciful consideration of all his poor blindnesses and errors, ended in the words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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