On a few occasions, I've heard people complain that the Christian worldview allows people to avoid the consequences of their actions. By accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, they are able to have all their sins forgiven and escape eternal punishment. This implies that someone may live a life of sin, then on their death bed repent and be able to escape eternal punishment.
The atheist, specifically, points out that all people face consequences of bad actions (whether the consequences are carried out naturally or by the state). They state that the Christian worldview not only does not offer any better "justice" than naturalism, but even offers people a way to escape consequences.
I understand this concern. However, I want to look at it a bit more closely, because I hear it from both unbelievers and believers.
First, I want to point out that not all actions that we would consider "wrong" have a natural consequence. Some do have natural consequences, but a lot of times, those consequences are delayed and are not tied to the original action. And others (if perceived) may be interpreted differently by different individuals or cultures. Nature is not a good place to look for moral guidance.
Even if I were to grant that nature should be left to carry out consequences, what about the mass murderer who shoots himself before the authorities arrest him? That person will never suffer natural consequences of his "wrong" actions, not to mention any consequences from the state. Are we, then, to conclude that the murders were not morally wrong?
Revenge vs. Justice
Second, let's consider that this concern may originate from our desire for revenge, not justice. We have problems identifying what "justice" even is. I mean, a person can commit murder, yet only be locked away for life; while another murderer is killed for his action. Can you identify which consequence was "just"? If the former, then the second might be seen as overkill (no pun intended). If the latter, then justice was not served in the first situation. Each of us needs a different reaction from those dispensing "justice" to feel that the offender has been served appropriately. I think that this is better described by the word "revenge".
Let's continue with the idea that our desire for revenge is actually justice. A person commits a murder; every person who has been affected would need to carry out their individual "justice" on that murderer. The result would be that the murderer may end up dying 100 deaths (certainly more than the one he was responsible for), many of those deaths may be in the same manner that he killed his victim. But has "justice" been served since he suffered much more than he caused? Who is to say that it is or is not justice?
Nature and Government Are Simply Not Enough
Natural consequences exist to keep the level of evil the human heart is capable of in check, to a point. Those placed in authority should act according to the moral law given by the One who has placed them in power, to also mitigate the evil in man's heart. Of course, those in authority are men full of evil just as those they lead and judge; that is why a governmental system of checks and balances is so important but not perfect (but that is another story).
The Jealous Christian
When Christians express the concern that someone may be forgiven for a life of sin on their death bed, we are expressing a desire for revenge. We know that they will escape eternal punishment, and that doesn't seem "just" to us. I might even say that some Christians are jealous because they have the desire to do something that they think would be really pleasing, but is not moral. The person who repented on the death bed probably got to carry out that desire, yet is still forgiven. As Christians, we need to examine our own hearts if we ever express this concern.
Is Christianity Inconsistent?
When naturalists complain about this, it is normally because they are pointing out what they believe to be an inconsistency, contradiction, or injustice. We have to remember that sincerity and authentic desire to spend eternity with a just God for all of eternity is required (See my post about hell) to be saved. God knows the heart; He knows if the person is just saying certain things because they think that by doing so, they can avoid eternal punishment. Just saying words is not going to save someone. Just because someone says that they believe, does not mean that they actually do. They may just be speaking a few trite phrases when they're about to "kick the bucket" in an effort to avoid eternal punishment. God knows their heart and cannot be manipulated. If God could be manipulated in this way, I would agree that a great injustice is being committed, but then I would also have to examine if I agree with that because of my desire for revenge and not justice.
We have a responsibility to God (read my post "Does Responsibility Exist?") to act morally. We act offended and desire revenge because we believe that we hold objective value and that offending something of good value is wrong. However, we derive our objective value from God (read my posts about Human Equality). We have not been offended by evil (even though we think that we are because of the value we place on ourselves). God is the one who is offended. God alone has the authority to carry out ultimate punishment. That means that God alone knows when and how to execute absolute justice. The fact that He is a just God, means that He will execute perfect justice...not revenge.
Justice and Mercy
The hardest idea for people who raise this criticism is that God is a merciful God. Perfect justice includes mercy. Since God is the one responsible for holding us responsible, He may choose to show mercy, but mercy is not the opposite of justice (revenge is), so they are not incompatible. Mercy does not undermine justice...it undermines revenge. Justice is not the concern of people raising this criticism, its revenge. That is why many people are repelled by the idea of mercy and the Christian faith.
Ultimate Justice Is Served
Funny thing is that if there is no afterlife for consequences to be served, someone can commit mass murder and only experience justice for a maximum of one of the people murdered. The murderer can even escape that punishment by committing suicide. On the naturalistic view, many consequences can be escaped and are escaped. But this shouldn't bug any naturalist, because morality is not objective; the offended have no intrinsic value, and there is no foundation for the responsibility to act "morally" or be "punished".
The Christian worldview, properly understood, does not allow anyone to escape consequences, while naturalism, properly understood, allows anyone and everyone to escape consequences whenever they desire to.
This is the latest single from the band Hawk Nelson. Pay close attention to the final verse...
"We know it sounds absurd; we don't get what we deserve,"...the reason it sounds absurd is because of our desire for revenge. The desire for revenge comes from our pride. We feel that we have been offended...and that deserves further punishment. Part of being a Christian involves letting go of our pride (See post "Pride vs. Confidence"- Is it really so dumb to give it all away?). If we can do this, we don't have to be concerned about if a sinner "escapes" eternal punishment. Instead, we can rejoice in the fact that there will be one more to join us in the eternal, loving fellowship with the Creator we betrayed but loved us enough to take on the punishment for our betrayal so that forgiveness may be offered to us. THIS is the power of God's crazy love for you and me. If we can put aside our pride and our desire for revenge, we can see clearly how mercy, justice, and love logically come together...and we can personally experience the joy that results from it.
I have spent this post telling everyone that they need to leave judgment to God. This is only part of the picture. If you're curious about when is appropriate for Christians to judge, see my series "Judgment Day".