Baby Hitler, Time Travel, and Retributive Justice?
The other day, at a party, I played the time-travel game with friends, which eventually became an in-depth conversation about justice, as all time-travel games do.
You know how it goes. Someone in the room starts the game by asking, “If you could go back in time just once, what would you do?”
After several obvious statements about buying stock in Apple and Google, and after the obligatory Flux Capacitor reference, and a joke about avoiding that street taco in Mexico City, and how I regret the hour and a half I gave to the movie God Is Not Dead, someone, let’s call her Angela, got altruistic and asked the question, “What about baby Hitler? Would you kill baby Hitler?”
There it is—a thoroughly enjoyable conversation hijacked. Suddenly the lives of over 70 million people are in our hands. Before I can say anything, there is always one guy, let’s call him Dwight, who blurts out too quickly, “Absolutely, wouldn’t think twice.”
Then Angela says what everyone is thinking, “But Dwight, he’s an innocent baby.” Everyone nods thoughtfully as the conversation stumbles into a debate about morality and innocence.
Then, Dwight clears his throat, “While infants are born morally innocent, since it is impossible for them to be born any other way, all men have chosen to be sinners from their youth, so…” But everyone in the room quickly yells down Dwight’s internet-stolen, sin-counting diatribe, even before he could retrieve the Scripture verse he’d memorized to prove his case.
Why? Simply put, this party is made up of people who have neither bought into total depravity nor approached Scripture transactionally in years. Also, anyone who has ever held a baby or has even a spark of a soul, knows there is no Scriptural minutia or moral manipulation that justifies killing one.
Even Dwight knows this, if he’d just shut up long enough to think about it.
Then someone, let’s call him Kevin, voiced a brilliant idea, “We can go further back and kill Hitler’s abusive father!”
For a moment, everyone sighs in relief. The problem appears solved until, of course, someone else—let’s call her Pam—asks a new but obvious question. “But why was Hitler’s father so abusive?”
Dwight nods decisively and then states the next obvious conclusion, “We’re gonna have to go even further back and kill Hitler’s grandfather.”
And there it is! Time travel exposes the flaws of retributive justice like nothing else.
You see, Hitler’s father was once an innocent baby, and so was Hitler’s grandfather, and so on, and so on. The problem with the type of “justice” that advocates retribution is that it creates a cycle of injustice, a cycle of child sacrifice, and the loss of innocence.
The kill-baby-Hitler-to-save-humanity time-travel-game? It doesn’t end until we have traveled all the way back to Adam. Then, of course, we realize that Jesus already did this at a cross—except Jesus didn’t go all the way back to Adam to kill him, and He didn’t go back seeking retribution. No, He went all the way back to Adam to restore, heal, transform, reconcile and make him whole.
“Father, forgive them,” Love said as He transcended time and space.
“It is finished,” Love whispered as He reconciled the beginning and the end, the before and the after, the in-between and the forevermore.
The fact is, the kill-baby-Hitler-to-save-humanity time-travel game doesn’t work, because retribution is a distortion of justice. Retribution is simply the fruit of an earlier injustice.
I’d like to suggest that a retributive understanding of justice is too small because it only focuses on the moment of injustice. It is a finite punishing approach to sin that condemns for eternity.
Conversely, Jesus, on a cross, revealed God perfectly as reconciling love, which is measureless and timeless. And so, reconciling love is the ultimate time traveler. He exists in every moment, all at once.
Therefore, His justice spans the entirety of our days, as well as everything before and everything after.
You see, bullies have been bullied, oppressors have been oppressed, and Hitler had an abusive father. Therefore, God’s justice must be expansive enough to restore and reconcile the bullied and the bully, the oppressed and the oppressor, the abused and the abuser, the five-year-old and the fifty-year-old, because, over the course of time, it’s the same person.
If justice isn’t about restoration, it isn’t justice. It’s revenge. And while most of the world is obsessed with that Tarantino flick, and while much of the Western church seems devoted to that atonement theory, retributive justice is nothing like Jesus.
The fact is, since before the beginning and after the end, God has always been and will always be like Jesus—there is no love that is greater.
Jesus, Measureless Love, before the very foundations of the world and after the sun has set, is on a cross demonstrating and delivering justice by laying His life down for His friend and restoring and reconciling all things. And that same Jesus is also risen! And from Him, and through Him, and for Him are all things.
Suddenly, another fella at the party—let’s call him Jim—has a brilliant thought and says it out loud, “What if God’s justice is better than we think it is? What if God’s justice is restorative? What if we partnered with Him in this type of justice? What would that mean for our families, churches, cities, and nations? What could that look like in our world?”
“That’s a good thought, Jim!” I replied. “Maybe the next time we all get together at a party, we should play that time travel game.”
This article is excerpted from my book, Leaving and Finding Jesus
Jason Clark is a writer, speaker and lead communicator at A Family Story ministries. His mission is to encourage sons and daughters to grow sure in the love of an always-good heavenly Father. He and his wife, Karen, live in North Carolina with their three children.
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