Joe Paterno, justice, and eternity

Faith & Inspiration

Conflicted. Complex. Complicated. Such are the feelings conjured up by Sunday's death of legendary college football coach Joe Paterno at the age of 85.

During his 46-year tenure as head coach at Penn State, "Joe Pa" was known for his utter integrity in a sport full of scandals and cheaters. He earned his nickname by being a fatherly figure who cared more for his players than he did about winning. Penn State never committed any major NCAA violations. The school recruited legally and honestly. Players graduated. And the Nittany Lions did win games. Lots of them. At the end of his career Paterno was the winningest coach in NCAA Division I football history.

But it is the end of his career that so complicates matters. When he was forced to step down as coach earlier this past season due to the heinous child molestation scandal at Penn State the circumstances drove many to disregard his entire legacy as a coach and mentor. And it almost seems justified when one thinks about the alleged horrors committed against those boys by former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and the knowledge that Paterno didn't speak up to stop the events when he could have.

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But how are we to think about Joe Pa? How are we to respond to the life of a man who did so much good for so many young men but failed to protect the "least of these" when they most needed a protector? And, most importantly, how does our Christian faith direct us in these understandings?

Conflicted. Complex. Complicated. There is no single side to the memory of Joe Paterno any more than there is to any other person. He was good and he was bad. He did great and wonderful things for hundreds and thousands of people, and he failed miserably in a moment of great need. But beyond this is the reality of eternity. Defining the reality of Joe Paterno cannot be limited to the space between birth and death but must be recognized as eternal.

The cry for justice in Paterno's last days was loud and passionate by many: He must be held accountable for his passivity and complicity in the harming of those children! And so he must; he deserves justice. Thus, I ask this question: Would you rather Joe Paterno face the courts of Pennsylvania or would you have him face the court of the almighty God? Is the justice of God good enough? Does it satisfy the cries for justice and punishment by so many? Indeed it must, and if it does not then it is not justice that is sought but vengeance. And whose is vengeance but the Lord's?

Do we believe that Jesus could have forgiven Joe Pa? I do not know if Coach Paterno submitted to Jesus, if he was a follower of Christ during his life or at the end. But if Christ could have claimed him and forgiven him, should we not also be able to do the same? Can we reflect on his life and legacy with grace, even if it is conflicted grace?

In light of this grace we must be willing, not to besmirch his legacy with our vitriol and hatred, but to know that our God is a consuming fire and all Joe's evil has been dealt with. God is just and every sin will be paid for. God is gracious, and for those who put their faith in him every sin has been paid for. I do not know whether Joe Paterno's sin was covered in the blood of Christ or whether it is being paid for throughout the rest of eternity. Let the legacy and memory of Joe Paterno, conflicted as it is, be a humbling and sobering reminder of the need for God's grace and the reality of His justice.

Barnabas Piper
Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.


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