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Beyond Tragedy 
by Reinhold Niebuhr

One of the foremost philsophers and theologians of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was for many years a Professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He is the author of many classics in their field, including The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, and Discerning the Signs of Our Times. He was also the founding editor of the publication Christianity and Crisis. 

Beyond Tragedy was published in 1937 by Charles Scribnerís Sons. This material prepared for Religion Online by Harry and Grace Adams.

Chapter 13: Two Parables About Judgment
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of glory: And before him shalt be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand but the goats on the left. Then shalt the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; For I was an hungered and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me. I was in prison, and ye came unto me. . . . 
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying Lord when saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.                                                               Matthew 25:31-46. 

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. . . So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard said unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour they received every man a penny. . . . But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. . But he answered one of them and said, Friend, I do thee no wrongs didst thou not agree with me for a penny? . . . Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last.                                 Matthew 20:1-16. 
The two Parables of the Last Judgment and of the Labourers and the Vineyard emphasise two facets of Christís teaching which are usually torn apart to become the bases of conflicting theologies. The Parable of the Last Judgment portrays God as judge who rewards the good and punishes the evil. The criterion of his judgment, the principle of ultimate virtue in the sight of God, is defined as compassionate love toward the needy. The Parable of the Vineyard pictures God as a generous master who pays his servants without regard for the length of their services, i.e., without consideration for the exact degree of good or evil done in their lives. This procedure, against which one servant protests in the name of justice, is defended by the masterís argument: "Is thine eye evil because I am good?" The clear implication is that the master is paying all the servants more than they are worth and is therefore justified in making no distinction between the last and the first. It implies the same viewpoint which Jesus stated more explicitly in the observation that after we have done all we could we still remain unprofitable servants. In the first parable differences between good and evil in man are declared to be ultimately significant in the sight of God. In the other they are declared to be insignificant. 

It would not be quite exact and yet it would not be erroneous to designate the first parable "Pelagian" and the second "Augustinian." Their contrasting emphases lie at the foundation of the moralistic and the supramoralistic notes in the Christian religion. In modern theology the first, more simple and understandable moralistic note has frequently been identified with the Gospels and the second with the Pauline Epistles in an effort to discredit the latter at the expense of the former. The first was supposed to belong to the "simple gospel" of Jesus while the latter was designated as "Pauline" in a judgment which usually presupposed that St. Paul had bedevilled and corrupted the simple gospel by his abstruse theology. For this reason it is helpful to draw the second, supramoralistic note from the Gospels, and more particularly from the parties; though it must be admitted that the logic of the Parable of the Vineyard is explicated in the whole of Pauline literature. 

The fact is that the contrast between these two parables runs through the whole of biblical thought. It does so necessarily because it does justice to two sides of the ultimate problem of human existence. On the one hand it is true that it makes a difference whether men are good or evil, loving or selfish, honest or dishonest. It makes a real difference, that is, an ultimate difference in the sight of God. On the other hand it makes no difference. No life can justify itself ultimately in the sight of God. The evil and the good, and even the more and the less good are equally in need of the mercy of God. 

We find this contrast in the Psalms. In the 1st Psalm we read: "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord. 

The ungodly are not so." Here the sheep are separated from the goats. But in the 143d Psalm we have an Augustinian confession: "Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight shall no man living be justified?" 

The prophetic literature abounds in the same contrast. For the sake of brevity let an example from Isaiah suffice. The word of moral judgment and condemnation: "If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword . . . cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow," is followed by the promise of mercy: "Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool?" The sharp distinction between the good and evil in the word of judgment is transcended in the assurance of forgiveness to the evil in the ultimate promise of mercy. 

Even St. Paul, who sums up the main emphasis of his gospel in the words, "For there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace," is not lacking in the note of moral distinction. He declares: "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad." 

Nor it is necessary to confine the contrast in the thought of Jesus to the two mentioned parables. The Parable of the Pharisee and Publican is perhaps the most classical expression of Jesusí preference for the contrite sinner to the righteous man who does not know that he is not righteous. Yet his insistence upon the difference between righteousness and unrighteousness can be expressed in words of terrible earnestness "Woe unto the world because of its offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh. . . . It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck." 

The difference between good and evil in history is an ultimate difference which transcends the relativities of history. The love shown to "one of the least of these my brethren" is love to God Himself. That is, the "good" deed, which in the gospel is always a loving deed, is one which enters into the very texture of eternal reality. Yet on the other hand eternal reality is determined by God and not by man. And it is revealed in the divine mercy which overcomes the evil in man and therefore the distinction between good and evil in man. It makes a difference. It makes no difference. This is the sharp contrast in biblical thought. Let us analyse both parts of this contrast more fully in terms of human experience before we consider a possible ultimate resolution of the contrast. 


It makes a difference whether men are good or evil and whether they do good or evil. In spite of all moral relativism we know fairly well what good and evil are. Utilitarian moral schemes may justify egotism to a larger degree than the gospel ethic. But there is no system of morals which does not in some way or other give moral preference to the other-regarding rather than the self-regarding act. We know that it is good to restrain the sinful tendency of the self, to live its life at the expense of other life and to strengthen the impulses by which it is bound to other life. Love is the law of life and not merely some transcendent ideal of perfection. All men may violate the law of life but there is a difference between those who seek to draw all life into themselves, and those who have found in God the centre of existence and through loyalty to Him have learned to relate themselves in terms of mutual service to their fellows. There was a difference between John Woolman, the Quaker saint, who felt the sorrows of the slaves as his own, and some pious slave-owner who used the Scripture to justify slavery and to obscure the indecency of one man owning another man as property. There was a difference between the megalomaniac Nero, delighting in cruelty and the gentle Marcus Aurelius, ruling over the same Empire but brooding with pity upon the evils of the world. There is a difference (to go from the imperial throne to the monastic life for examples) between the asceticism of a St. Jerome with his morbid preoccupation with self and that of the joyous, gentle and ecstatic St. Francis. The difference between such men continues to affect the very texture of life in centuries after their existence. 

Truth is a virtue and the lie is evil. There is a difference between men of integrity and deceivers. There is a difference between the honest scholar who devotes infinite patience to the task of separating the wheat from the chaff in the records of an age and the tendencious propagandist who makes history lie in favour of his cause. My lie strikes my fellowman with blindness. It prevents him from seeing truly what he might have seen through my eyes. Dishonesty destroys lives. There is a difference between the Manchester Guardian and the Rothermere press. Lying has been developed into a high art by the modern political propagandist. If the devil is a liar Doctor Goebbels may find a place of great eminence in the devil's domain. We will never create even the most tentative world community if those who have become our eyes and ears in a technical civilisation will not be more honest with us than they now are, and tell us truly what they see and hear. 

Courage is a virtue and cowardice is evil. There is a difference between the brave men who are fighting in Germany through these years for the freedom of the Christian gospel and time-serving ecclesiasts who cravenly submit to the pretentious claims of ridiculous Caesars, while justifying their capitulation with quotations from Scripture (usually Romans 13). The courage of Thomas More in defying Henry VIII has the quality of eternity in it. It still affects the life of the church, helping weak men to be strong. 

There is a difference between peacemakers and warmakers; between those who seek, as much as in them lieth, to live peaceably with all men, and those who wreck the peace and order of communities and nations irresponsibly and recklessly. There is a significant special blessing for the peacemakers in the Beatitudes. 

We know that selfish and unselfish people make a difference in our own happiness. Men differ at times in defining virtue and vice. Yet, on the whole, we are fairly clear about the difference between what destroys and what preserves life, what stultifies and what develops human character. These differences are immediately apparent in our experience. But we also sense something of their ultimate significance. We feel that the good and evil of the moment echo through eternity; that each produces a whole series of similar qualities in its train. Omar Khayyam is right: 

"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, 
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit 
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, 
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it." 

The ultimate judgment of Christ is not merely ultimate in time. The time symbol, that is the "last" judgment, is simply the only way in which this ultimate character in terms of quality can be stated. Each moral act stands under an ultimate judgment in every moment of time. What we do to one of the least of these our brothers is done unto Christ. Genuine virtue is an act in obedience to God's will and thereby participates in Godís creative purpose. An evil act on the other hand is destructive. And in one sense at least destruction has eternal significance. What we destroy we cannot re-create. The life which is destroyed by our heedlessness or greed or lust for power or our sensual passion may be restored by the grace of God; but from our perspective the evil we have done is eternal. Acts of restitution may mitigate the evil but they cannot completely efface its consequences. This emphasis upon the inexorable character of divine judgment is validated in every page of history and in every human experience. 


Yet there is this other side of the gospel teaching and of all biblical thought: It makes no difference whether men are good or evil in the sight of God, because they are all in need of God's mercy. It makes no difference whether they have laboured long or briefly in the vineyard, the first is as much in need of divine grace as the last. It is because the first are so greatly tempted to forget this that they frequently become last and the last first. It must be admitted that it is difficult to retain and appreciate this "Augustinian" emphasis in the Christian religion, without running the danger of deprecating genuine moral distinctions and of encouraging indifference toward moral striving. This danger is so great that the emphasis would not be justified if it did not justify itself in the actual experience of man. But any careful analysis of human sinfulness proves how important this insight is. 

Such an analysis leads first of all to the conclusion that every high type of righteousness is accompanied by its own characteristic sin. We may appreciate the difference between the selfish and the unselfish man but we ought to know that the man who achieves a reputation for virtue and generosity will be assailed by temptation to spiritual pride and vanity, to which he will partly succumb. If he should try consciously to overcome this temptation he may even express pride in his very protestations of humility. "Discourses on humility," said Pascal, "are sources of pride to the vain. Few men speak humbly of humility." Nothing could be more disconcerting to human self-esteem than the discovery in a survey of modern theological thought to what degree theologies which emphasise contrition and humility may become vehicles of the intellectual arrogance of their proponents. The self, wrote the Anglo-Catholic mystic Mrs. Hermann some years ago, is like an onion. Skin upon skin of self must be peeled off, if egotism is to be overcome. The simile is particularly instructive. It reveals the self-defeating character of mystical efforts to eliminate the egoistic element in thought by conscious attacks upon the self; for the onion becomes increasingly pungent as more and more skins are peeled off and is reduced to nothing when the process is completed. The increased pungency symbolises the preoccupation with self involved in the mystical effort to eliminate self; and its final destruction in the process might well stand for the ideal of self-annihilation and absorption in God which is the goal of mysticism. The relation of ego and egotism is really more difficult than is assumed in such an attack upon it. 

Every legitimate expression of the ego involves an illegitimate accentuation of its interests, which may take more and more subtle forms, but which can neither be eliminated in historic existence nor yet regarded as normative or good. A recognition of this fact involves the rejection of the Catholic conception of sainthood. Men may be saints, comparatively speaking. They may achieve remarkable heights of imaginative virtue, compared with the grosser and more common forms of self-expression. But they would cease to be saints at the moment in which they regarded themselves as such. Their appreciation by others as saints need not have the same destructive consequence, particularly not if the estimate were made by subsequent generations. But such estimates are still less than accurate if they fail to appreciate the positive evil which every form of virtue distills in human existence. Saints are still sinners, not merely because they fall short of some ultimate norm in their finiteness; but because they are bound to reveal some sinful blindness to their very finiteness, some sinful pretension exceeding their virtue in their very achievements. 

"Let us not have a theology," said a theologian recently, "which will equate Hitler and Calvin and insist that both are sinners in equal degree before God." The demand is correct insofar as it insists upon the difference between conscious self-glorification in defiance of God and unconscious egotism which may express itself in the very act of worshipping God. But the very choice of this illustration proves the error in too moralistic estimates of human nature. What the discerning eye of divine wisdom may ultimately determine about the relative virtues of Caesars and prophets of religion is not given to our minds to anticipate. But we do have enough discernment to realise that on certain levels of moral judgment, which even we can achieve, Hitler and Calvin are strikingly similar. Calvinís dishonesties and brutalities in dealing with Servetus and Castellio are significant examples of the positive evils of sinful pride and even of subtle sadism into which those who are zealous for the Lord may fall. That would be equally true if we compared any two wielders of political power and preachers of divine judgment. 

Not only is there an element of positive evil in even the most virtuous life. We are also equally sinners in the sight of God because we all fall short in terms of our sins of omission. There is no possibility of arriving at a state of perfection where one could dispense with the confession that we have "left undone the things we ought to have done." We may do no murder; but men perish because we are heedless of their welfare. We may not commit adultery and yet not escape the infraction of the seventh commandment if we think of the commandment in terms of the extension of its meaning in the Sermon on the Mount. We may not bear false witness against our neighbour by conscious word. Yet all men are liars if the unconscious processes by which they betray themselves are considered. 

It is one of the curious ironies of modern culture that in the very moment in which a rationalistic type of Christianity tended to consider the possibilities of human perfection in terms of its purely conscious activity, a secular science in the form of psychology on the one hand, and of social economics on the other, revealed the labyrinthian depths of the unconscious and the endless possibilities of evil which were hidden there. Both Marx and Freud have, each in his own way, discovered the unconscious dishonesties which dog human actions and corrupt human ideals, even though the conscious mind is intent upon virtue. The unconscious sins, of which all men are guilty, are sometimes interpreted in purely negative terms. They are supposed to represent the inertia of nature operating against the moral ambitions of the spirit. Yet there are, strictly speaking, no purely negative sins. The natural impulse, which is subtly compounded with devotion to ideals in human behaviour, is never purely natural; that is, it is not merely the animal in man, contending against the distinctively human. The freedom of the human spirit reaches down into the furthest depths of nature and disturbs its natural tranquillity, endowing natural passions with a potency unknown in the animal world. The fantastic images of our dream world, in which passions outlawed by conscience dance their defiance of our conscious laws, are the fruits of the spirit and not of nature. When the animal in us wars against the spirit, it uses weapons stolen from the arsenal of the spirit. 

The positive sins of the spirit are Promethean. The spirit of man proudly oíer leaps its moral infirmities and claims an unlawful divinity. The negative sins of man are Dionysian. In them the spirit sharpens all the dark unconscious impulses of nature and sets them at war with the requirements of virtue. Therefore what seems to be negative is not purely negative. When we leave undone the things we ought to have done we are busy doing those things which we ought not to have done. We are prevented from virtue by slavery to passions which exert a more cruel mastery than the inertia of nature. The cruelty of peasant life in Russia, as depicted by both Tolstoi and Maxim Gorki, is not merely the consequence of peasant sloth and ignorance. 

There is consequently no solution for the problem of life on the purely moral level. If there is no assurance of a divine mercy which not only creates but re-creates in the wake of human destruction, the human enterprise remains purely tragic. This is the justification for the supramoral not in all profound Christian thought, offensive as this note may be to all simple moralists who never measure the heights and depths of life but arrange their neat systems of morality on the superficial surface of conscious behaviour. 


It is not easy to harmonise the two elements in the Christian religion which do justice to the two facets of human experience, the moral and the supramoral. The Pauline doctrine of justification by faith declares that those who live by faith are declared righteous by the grace of God even though they are not righteous by their own achievements. This justification does not absolve man of his moral obligations. God forbid, that we "should sin in order that grace may abound." On the contrary, the grace of forgiveness is vouchsafed only to those who have consciously made the will of God their law of life. In this sense the tension between law and grace is resolved in the life of the individual. 

We can hardly claim, however, that the mystery of their relation to each other is finally cleared for us. The mystery is that on the one hand duty is demanded of us as if duty not done will never be done. On the other hand faith declares that man would be undone if God could not complete what we have left incomplete and purify what we have corrupted. The cross is the perfect revelation of both of these truths. In it the sin against man is revealed as the sin against God, as something more than a casual imperfection. Yet in it the merciful purpose of God, to take human evil into himself and smother it there, is also declared. But even in the cross the relation of law and mercy remains a mystery. We do not know in what sense the evil which we do has eternal significance if we also believe that God overcomes evil. Here Christian truth transcends human wisdom and speaks to us as the foolishness of God which is wiser than the wisdom of men. Yet we are able to accept this foolishness as wisdom if we have probed deeply enough into life to discredit the little systems of wisdom which have pretended to exhaust its mysteries. 

Love is both the fulfilment and the negation of law. Forgiveness is the highest justice and the end of justice. The judge of the Parable of the Last Judgment is inexorable. He consigns men to hell for the evil they have done. The householder of the Parable of the Vineyard specifically rejects the calculations of justice. This judge and this householder are both symbols of God, of the God who is at once judge and redeemer.