Is God’s justice different from ours?
It is not just that God’s justice is different from ours; our justice is different from ours, writes Stephen Holmes
In 2009, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who had been convicted of involvement in the ‘Lockerbie bombing’ of Pan-Am flight 103, was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds, as medical advice suggested that he was dying of cancer.
The transatlantic reaction was striking: even reliably liberal commentators in the USA professed themselves to be horrified and appalled by the release, while almost no mainstream voice in the UK criticised it. In Europe, we were convinced that justice meant allowing a dying man to die at home, with his family; in the USA, justice required a criminal to remain in prison until his sentence was served or he died.
My instincts on this matter, as on most such points of transatlantic dispute, are straightforwardly European. I know, however, that this is just instinct; I do not have a developed theory of justice which demands the release of a prisoner who is dying, just a deep sense of what feels right and just to me.
Listening to comment from ‘across the pond’, I could not doubt that people who I respected and normally agreed with, but who happened to have been to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts rather than Cambridge, England, had an equally deep sense of what felt right, that pointed in the opposite direction to mine.
Justice across cultures and history
The UK and the USA are rather similar cultures, sharing common history, a common language, and much cultural interchange at every level; if there is a difference in the idea of justice between these two cultures, then it will be no surprise that ideas of justice differ enormously across the whole spread of human culture - and across history. For St Anselm, justice required the upholding of God’s personal honour; for John Calvin, it required the implacable application of a universal law; their differing views on what Christ accomplished on the cross owe much to these different views of justice.
In some human cultures justice greatly respects the social status of the two parties: in medieval European law, to murder an archbishop was a far greater offence than murdering a mere priest. We would see such distinctions as fundamentally unjust.
Here, I think I can see an argument as to why we are right and they are wrong; I suppose they would have arguments as well, though. Tribal societies often see justice primarily in restoring the harmony of the tribe; hierarchical societies see it in the maintenance of good order; late modern societies see it in the maximising of individual liberty—our justice is different from ours…
…what, then, of God’s justice? We could try to argue that it is the perfection of one or another of our different theories of justice: God really is the perfect law-giver and judge, or the perfect restorer of community, or the giver of ultimate freedom. I don’t find it hard to think of theologies that have been built on each of these proposals—but I think the God who calls us is rather bigger than that. All of our theories of justice are various gropings towards the perfect justice that is God’s. Some may be better than others, but we cannot write any of them off, nor can we elevate any of them to a fundamental place.
So far, I have not mentioned the Bible. ‘Justice’ in the Pentateuch is something that must not be withheld from the disadvantaged, orphans, the poor, and widows. The judges, Samuel, and the kings are called to administer justice, and criticised when they do not. Job pleads God’s justice in his cause; the writers of the Proverbs insist that God loves justice; through Isaiah, God demands justice from Israel—and then, after the return from exile, promises to fill them with justice himself.
God’s justice is an ideal, a vision, a standard, against which we measure our best efforts and acknowledge our failures
The references to ‘justice’ in the NT are surprisingly sparse. I would find it hard to offer a Biblical definition of justice; the Bible seems to assume we know what is meant, and then insists that it must be properly applied.
The Bible is certainly concerned with justice reaching those who might be excluded or marginalised by society: widows, orphans, immigrants, the poor. We should similarly be concerned that justice is not impeded by sexism or racism—or by a denigration of the humanity of those who are disabled, who are LGBTQIA (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, and asexual), or, well, whatever. None of this is a definition of justice, however; it is an account of how justice must be applied impartially to all. God created all people; God loves all people; God’s concern extends to all people; our justice must reach all people without fear or favour.
We strive to do right, to do well, by all who we meet. Generally, our laws, our distillations of the best of our wisdom, enable that; sometimes they inhibit it—the best of our wisdom is very far from perfect. God’s justice is an ideal, a vision, a standard, against which we measure our best efforts and acknowledge our failures.
God’s justice is also, however, a promise: a promise that a Kingdom is coming, when every tear will be wiped from every eye, and when every pain shall cease. A promise that one day we shall awaken in God’s Kingdom, and experience God’s justice.
I am convinced that on that day we will be astonished by the righteousness of God’s justice, and that we will be astonished by the depths of God’s mercy, and that we will see all God’s judgements, and not have the slightest regret for any one of them.
Stephen Holmes is a Baptist minister and Senior Lecturer in Theology at St Andrews University
This article appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Baptists Together Magazine
Tug of war: GlobalStock / istockphoto.com
The people image: danielvfung / istockphoto.com