Victor Hugo was raised a Catholic by his mother, but later in life followed his father’s Rationalist views. Nevertheless, he continued to be a religious man, praying daily and incorporating religious themes into his writings. One of his two most famous novels, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) was written in part to spur the rebuilding of the titular cathedral, which was in a horrid state of disrepair. Although the book has a very anti-Catholic flavor (the character Frollo being a lecherous and avaristic priest), it did result in the renovation of the cathedral into what is still one of the most popular tourist sites in Paris.
It was Hugo’s other great (by his own admission, although it got lousy reviews in France at the time) novel, Les Miserables, that was written as a “religious book.” It is indeed full of religious symbolism. Almost every major character goes through a resurrection of sorts in order to become a better person. The book seems an indictment of social injustice, similar to the writings of the prophet Amos. The main themes are love and compassion; it is those characteristics that change people and areSome Christians have a hard time believing justice and mercy can coexist. contagious. Another theme is the natures of justice and mercy.
For those unfamiliar with the story, here is a very brief synopsis. Jean Valjean was put into prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, and ends up spending nineteen years in jail because of escape attempts. While spending the night with a priest he steals some silver candlesticks. When he is caught, the priest shows compassion by claiming he gave him the candlesticks. This prompts Valjean to change his ways. He becomes a philanthropic manufacturer and mayor, who ends up raising the daughter of one of his employees. Meanwhile, Inspector Javert is searching for Valjean to take him back to jail, because he does not believe a man can change his nature. Valjean’s foster daughter, Cosette, grows up and falls in love with a revolutionary named Marius. Valjean joins the revolution to protect Marius. Javert joins the revolution as a spy. At the barricades, Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert but spares his life. Javert lets Valjean go free so that he can save Marius. When Marius and Cosette marry, Valjean confesses his past, and they forgive him. Javert cannot reconcile his sense of justice with Valjean’s mercy, or his own, and ends up jumping off a bridge to his death. Valjean dies a respected man. (This omits several main characters and significant portions of the plot, but is sufficient for the purpose of this article.)
The character of Inspector Javert is very clearly defined, although he is rather one-dimensional. He has spent his life in pursuit of justice. The law is what is important. As far as he is concerned, Jean Valjean is merely a prisoner who is not showing his credentials as an ex-con as required by law. Justice is justice, and has no place for mercy. A man cannot change, so there is no room for forgiveness. When he shows Valjean mercy, he is so conflicted that his only possible solution is suicide.
Javert is made the antagonist of the novel because Hugo understood what some Christians have a hard time believing. Justice and mercy can coexist. Some people claim that the God of the Old Testament is a God of justice, and in the New Testament he is a God of mercy. They fail to see that such thinking requires two Gods, not one. Throughout the Bible, God is shown to be both just and merciful.
The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. (Num 14:18)
In spite of this promise, God tells Ezekiel, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.” (Ezek 18:20) Justice is tempered by mercy.
This view that man cannot change is proven false by Paul the apostle. If ever there was a man who seemed unchangeable it would seem to be Saul of Tarsus. When the Jewish leaders had Stephen stoned, Saul participated in the execution. He was so determined to destroy The Way that he even got permission to go to foreign countries to bring followers of Jesus back to Jerusalem in chains. He even describes himself as fervent in his persecution of the church.
If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Php 3:4-6)
In the next sentence, however, he says, “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.” His alteration was complete; so complete, in fact, that believers in Jerusalem did not trust his conversion. (Acts 9:26) They were like Javert.
Many Christians seem to have the same failing. A few years ago, convicted mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer was baptized while in prison. Public comments ranged from “Praise the Lord” to “He is just trying to get his sentence reduced.” Admitting that only God knows his motivation for certain, it is not up to Christians to question his sincerity. On a less extreme note, some young ladies who have gotten pregnant while unmarried have publicly confessed sin and asked for forgiveness from God and their congregations. Sometimes God has been willing to forgive, but the congregation has not (sometimes even rejecting the child as well). Now, Mr. Dahmer or these young ladies may not have turned out to be Paul, but they at least deserved better treatment than he got at the hands of the Jerusalem congregation.
Did Saul of Tarsus change? Look at the evidence. The man who was willing to take the lives of Christians gave his life to preaching Christ; further, he gave his life for preaching Christ. Over half of the New Testament was written by him. He catalogued the things that he suffered for the cause he once persecuted, and this catalogue contains things that would not be borne by an unchanged man.
Paul may be an extreme example, but he is not the only one. In fact, all one has to do is look in churches around the world to see other examples. Everyone, by nature it seems, is or becomes a sinner. “So death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” (Rom 5:12) It seems that one of the biggest questions people have is, “Will I go to hell if I…” then insert any act which may be a sin. The proper answer, from Javert’s view, is, “Yes, no matter what the first sin was.” Justice says that a person is deserving of eternal punishment from the time that person commits their first sin, regardless of the nature of that sin. Any sin thereafter just proves that one is guilty of sin.
If Javert and those of his ilk are correct, then everyone is deserving of punishment. This can lead to either of two conclusions. “I must do as much good as possible, even knowing it won’t atone, because there is so much bad in the world.” This is the more favorable of the two, even though it makes no real difference in relieving the guilt or reducing the sentence. The other option is more logical. “Since I have sinned and will be punished, I might as well do whatever I want; the punishment is the same for one sin or a lifetime of sin.” These attitudes, of course, depend on justice being the only option.
Justice can be tempered by mercy. Forgiveness is possible. A failure to see that leads only to the dilemma proposed in Les Miserables, a dilemma that resulted in suicide.
He beheld before him two paths, both equally straight, but he beheld two; and that terrified him; him, who had never in all his life known more than one straight line. And, the poignant anguish lay in this, that the twoSometimes God has forgiven but congregations have not. paths were contrary to each other. One of these straight lines excluded the other. Which of the two was the true one? (Les Miserables, Vol V, Book 4, Chapter 1)
The problem is, the two paths are not contrary to each other. Even justice has a place for mercy, and even mercy has a place for justice. That is because, by the grace of God, man can change. Paul knew this in himself, and he knew it in others.
Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor those who commit homosexual acts, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9-11)
Justice must be satisfied. Those who commit the unrighteous acts Paul lists deserve punishment. Mercy, though, allows someone else to take the punishment. That is where Jesus comes in. Someone must bear the punishment to satisfy justice. Jesus, by leading a sinless life, was able to do that for us.
Les Miserables is a religious work. The thing, though, that its antagonist, and seemingly its author, forgets is that justice was satisfied and yet mercy reigns. The love and forgiveness that are the main themes of the book are only possible because Jesus died to demonstrate them.