Atonement in the Triage Tent

A recent Radiolab podcast, called “Playing God,” explores how impossible it is to be both compassionate and fair. It retells triage situations in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, and in a hospital below the flood zone after Hurricane Katrina.

Triage, in the wake of events like natural disasters, is the process that determines who gets access to quickly diminishing medical resources. Generally, triage prioritizes care for those most likely to survive. Ideally, triage gives doctors a system that allows them to provide care justly and fairly when they are asked the impossible – to decide who gets to live, and who dies.

Triage is generally looked on favorably, but one of the reporters interviewed in this episode talks about a woman named Mama. Mama had admitted herself for a chronic respiratory problem at a nearby Haitian hospital just hours before the 2010 earthquake. She was given oxygen to keep her alive. Once the earthquake hit, Mama was quickly moved out of the hospital and into a Red Cross triage tent. Meanwhile, her entire family was crushed to death by the weight of their home, as they waited for Mama to return from the hospital.

The Red Cross doctors fell in love with this woman. She was kind, joyful, and generous even after all she had lost. However, without knowing about Mama and her story, an order was given for her oxygen to be taken away so that another, more likely to survive patient, could live. It was deemed unfair that Mama was using resources that could have been more wisely spent elsewhere.

As this reporter and the doctors watched her choking on air, and crying in pain, they abandoned “procedure,” they forgot the equitable system, they forgot fairness. Instead, they showed compassion. They administered medication – medication that technically should have been dealt to a worthier recipient – on a woman condemned to die. They saved her. And then she died a few months later.

As the reporters and producers processed what happened, they came to the conclusion that triage offers only impossible moral choices. You can’t fault the doctors for saving Mama’s life, for showing compassion. But neither could you fault someone if they chose to withhold those resources, for exercising equality. It was an impossible decision, a questionable choice, but they continued to ask, “But was it the right one? What is the right thing to do, when you decide who lives and who dies?”

The show ends with a kind of silence: the silent knowledge that choosing between justice and compassion, between fairness and mercy is impossible placed in our own hands. You can’t decide. When it matters most, we are truly incapable of being both just and fair. When life and death are on the line, we are incapable of choosing rightly between fairness and compassion.

The last words of the episode are: “We have a God role…and nobody fits it.”

Atonement can be difficult to understand. God’s justice that condemns us, and his mercy that saves us don’t seem consistent. But more than that, for many teens in particular, it doesn’t seem to matter. To us pastors, teachers, and parents it might. But it doesn’t often press up against the felt needs of our students. When I talk about atonement, I normally talk about it from God’s end. “How can God be both merciful and just?!” But I’ve never considered it from the human perspective. “How can we be both merciful and just when it really matters?”

Radiolab answers the question – we can’t.

We can choose one or the other, but we can never fully satisfy the demands of both. Triage is an intense example, but it’s no less true when death isn’t on the line. When children disobey their parents, justice demands one thing, and mercy another. And most parents recognize that they never strike that perfect balance. We always seem to punish too severely, or minimize too deeply. God doesn’t just have an atonement problem, we do. We are constantly faced with god-choices, and finding that we can’t fit the role.

But Jesus is the better triage system. Perfectly satisfying God’s demands through His death, He satisfies our demands as well. There is no person too sick, too beyond hope, to receive His saving grace.

Christ absorbs the death that justice demands of those condemned, and pours out the grace that our chronic, sin-sick hearts need to be cured. He (unlike our triage system) ensures that care will be provided to all who come to Him. More than that, when we fail to exercise both justice and compassion, He cares for the people left behind and hurting. The triage Jesus offers is nothing like ours. He does not engage in sorting, but rather offers to heal and transform us – dead men and women – into living, vibrant, new creations.


Seth Stewart is a husband and a dad, and after a decade in student ministry is now working as the Editor-in-Chief at Spoken Gospel. Spoken Gospel creates online resources that point to Jesus from every passage of Scripture. Seth spends his day writing, speaking, and being his family's chef.

More From This Author