After deliberating for a total of just 11 hours, the jury in the Casey Anthony murder trial returned its verdict: Not guilty of killing or abusing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, three years ago. Observers in the Orange County courtroom and across around the nation were dumbfounded, letting out a collective gasp. The case reminded many of the notorious acquittal of O.J. Simpson in 1995.
Anthony was convicted on just four counts of lying to the police, and she is scheduled to be released for time served within days.
"It's just terrible; I can’t believe it,” Peggy Brennan, a Florida woman, blurted out in shock. “Where's the justice for Caylee? … There will be another murderer walking the streets, and we'll see her out partying again.”
Another Florida resident, Dennis Davanzo, fumbled for words. “I'm stunned,” he said. “This is just stupid, if you ask me. To me that woman is guilty as the day is long. I just don't understand it.”
And indeed, the circumstantial evidence against Casey Anthony seemed compelling to many. “There's something wrong,” the toddler’s grandmother told a 9-1-1 dispatcher three years ago. “I found my daughter’s car today, and it smells like there's been a dead body in the … car."
Anthony’s changing story seemingly won her few defenders. For many, the jury verdict was especially galling—cable news legal analyst Nancy Grace (who derisively labeled Anthony “Tot Mom”) among them. “I absolutely cannot believe that Caylee's death has gone unavenged,” she said. “Tot Mom’s lies seem to have worked.”
Unfortunately, the Caylee Anthony case is just the latest in a long history of unsolved deaths.
The cry for justice, even vengeance, in these cases and in many more, is natural and commendable. Justice has long been regarded as one of the four cardinal virtues (the others being temperance, prudence, and courage). It secures and protects natural rights for others; it is fair; and it renders to others their due—both punishment for the evildoer and praise for the well doer. A society without justice is chaos. Not for nothing did the apostle Paul write to the church in Rome:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. … do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
So what happens when the governing authorities fail to justly avenge wrongdoing, for lack of evidence or any other reason? Is justice then impossible? Believers in the biblical God certainly don’t think so. “Vengeance is mine,” the holy Creator and Judge promises over and over in both testaments. God promises to give everyone what they deserve—good or bad.
But what if punishment of wrongdoers does not come in this life? Is God’s justice then ultimately thwarted? Not at all. No less an authority than Jesus Christ promises that those “cursed” by God “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Now we come to a problem. We’re all for justice, even vengeance (we say), and we’re certainly all for eternal life, but we’re not so sure about that “eternal punishment” thing. That kind of justice makes us uncomfortable, to say the least.
According to Gallup, while roughly 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God and heaven, a considerably smaller number, 70 percent, say they believe in the devil and hell (and that 70 percent is up from 55 percent in 1990, perhaps reflecting a new realism about human nature in the wake of 9/11).
Yet few of us actually believe that we are going to hell. Albert L. Winseman noted, “Americans who said there was a hell where people who led bad lives without being sorry are eternally damned were quite optimistic that they would not be going there themselves. Only 6% said their chances of going there were good or excellent, and 79% said their chances were poor.”
Perhaps these folks have forgotten what Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount—yes, the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Perhaps reflecting the tenor of the times, pastor and author Rob Bell has questioned both the duration and location of hell. While it is nearly impossible to succinctly summarize his thinking on this complex subject, at one point in his controversial book Love Wins, Bell writes, “We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
“And for that,
“The word ‘hell’ works quite well.
“Let’s keep it.”
This definition of hell, whatever secrets lie deep in Casey Anthony’s heart, ultimately comes up empty. That’s because, to this point at least, the killer of Caylee Anthony (whoever this is) has “gotten away with it.” Our sense of justice remains rightly offended. Surely such people deserve to pay for their crimes.
Without hell, there is no answer for unavenged victims such as Caylee Anthony. Whatever we tell a pollster, a publisher, or ourselves, our unquenchable sense of justice shows that we believe … in the necessity of hell.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Todayeditor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com/blog.