I do not think that God is just. I always thought He was, and the consensus certainly is that God is just; but now I’m not so sure that’s the case.
I was taught that justice and mercy were both virtues which God possessed and which we were to strive to uphold. I used to think that we were called to attempt as best we could to walk the extremely fine line between justice and mercy. I thought that Jesus was the only human who ever struck the perfect balance between those two concepts. But justice and mercy are contradictory concepts. To call them paradoxical is not facing the reality of their mutual exclusivity.
Over the last couple years, I’ve begun to wonder if justice is a human virtue and not a divine virtue. Think about it for a minute. Justice is simply the concept of retribution. It is attempting to balance bad karma with more bad karma. In any form, it is simply an extension of the Old Testament concept of an eye for an eye. Retribution. Over 3,000 years later, we still hold the concept of justice as central to our social order. We call our system of societal control the criminal justice system. Of course, we pretend that we are much more civilized than primitive peoples, because our constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Therefore, when one injures another, rather than returning the same injury to them, we simply lock them in a cage for several decades. We convince ourselves that we are merciful by saying things like “the punishment has to fit the crime.” But what we really want is retribution. Hence, you hear things like “lock them up and throw away the key” and “we need to hunt those criminals down and bring them to justice.”
However the individual actions and reactions play out, the underlying concept is the same: if you hurt me, then you deserve to be hurt just as badly. Never mind that hurting the offender does nothing to undo or heal the original offense. It just makes us feel better. The Scales of Justice are now rebalanced. We’re even, and we feel as if our little world is back in equilibrium.
The concept of justice seems to be hardwired into our brains. It’s as old as humanity, and it transcends every nation, race, and culture. Those who extol justice call for retribution against the offender. This is the rationale behind declaring justice a virtue.
The fact is, we need justice. We crave it, and in spite of our myopic perspective on time and space, we deem it to be one of society’s highest virtues. Yes, we extol the majesty and righteousness of Justice. We condemn the concept of revenge (except for in every action movie ever), but when we ask the government for retribution, that’s ok, because society is carrying out the retribution on our behalf. We justify our backlash against offenders by calling it justice rather than revenge, but are we simply playing word games?
Hence, when something bad happens to sinners (you know, those that aren’t Christians), they’re simply receiving God’s judgment like they deserve. We desire that God will slay those that oppose Him—especially if they persecute Christians. Because there are two kinds of sinners, you see: those that are repentant, and those that aren’t. I recommend you read Keith Giles’ article on mercy for a more in-depth look at our two-faced desire for mercy.
We say that God is just, but I’m beginning to wonder if we project our desperate human need for justice onto God. I wonder if we use God to justify our human desire for retribution. We want Him to be merciful–to us. We also want Him to be just–when we are wronged by others. I know that God is frequently portrayed throughout the bible as a God of vengeance. The prophets continually spoke of God’s impending violent retribution. Even Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, spoke of how correct God would be to punish those who hurt Christians; and he looked forward to the day when Jesus would return in flaming fire to take vengeance on those who reject Him.
That all sounds great if you’re a Christian and you divide humanity up into two teams: Christians vs everybody else. But I’m not sure that this is the attitude that God wants us to have. Haven’t Christians also trespassed against God? Haven’t we all fallen short of His standard? Has He not shown us mercy? Perhaps we should be more eager to share that mercy and forgiveness with those who aren’t aware of it than we are to pray for vengeance on those who aren’t in the club. We should never forget that we have been forgiven much and are required to forgive others in turn.
Over and over Jesus offered mercy and not retribution. He taught that if we are struck, we should not resist being struck again. If we are robbed, to offer the thief more than he wanted. If we are compelled against our will to carry a burden for another, to offer to carry that burden twice as far as was demanded. Now in all fairness, Jesus did also talk of punishment in varying degrees (Luke chapter 12). I don’t know how this fits into the picture, but I do know that He offered mercy to every single person who asked for it, regardless of their prior actions.
The question of whether or not God is just begs the question of why Jesus had to die. Is it just for God to let guilty humans off the hook? Is it just to kill His Son Who did nothing wrong? Is it just to sentence people to everlasting torture in the lake of fire for the slightest infraction? I don’t have a great answer for these questions, although I suspect that God is much more merciful than we give him credit for. And I don’t think He killed his Son because He was threatened or insulted by our sin, and yet, temporarily suspended His sense of justice so He could show us mercy.
So I no longer think that God is just. I think that, like His Son, He is merciful.
In the absence of ultra clarity on the issue, I’m inclined to lean toward the example of Jesus, who, when He suffered the ultimate injustice—his torture and execution despite the fact that He never committed a crime—simply requested, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Makes me wonder if we should be doing the same thing.