I am working on a Bible with notes on God’s justice, to be called, surprisingly enough, God’s Justice. Subtitle: The Flourishing of Creation and the Destruction of Evil.
A major objection I often hear is rooted in a definition of justice based in the courtroom. Justice is “what’s coming to you,” it is retribution for wrongs. For anyone who believes in the ubiquity of sin, “what’s coming to you” is hardly good news. God’s justice is wrath and punishment, relieved only by God’s mercy and love. God’s justice and God’s love are opposed to each other.
This understanding of God torn between justice and love creeps into human ethics, too. How do I see the poor in my community? Through the eyes of justice, most of them appear to get what they deserve. They didn’t apply themselves in school, their work ethic is weak, they didn’t plan well. It isn’t “just” to help them. I’m torn between being just and being charitable. Somehow I try to find a balance between them. When I offer help, I feel weak and “unjust.”
I contend, however, that this division between justice and love does no justice to the God of the Bible. His justice is inextricably intertwined with love. His justice is not “settling accounts” but “setting things right.” To set things right in his beloved creation, he must destroy evil. Sin must be dealt with. But he deals with sin through love and sacrifice. He gives up himself to sin, in order that no one need be punished. He is all love and all justice, all the time.
That is not just a New Testament version of reality. All through the Old Testament, the “just person” is generous to the poor and stands up for their rights in court. See Psalm 72 for a potent description of the Just King. The law of Jubilee–Law, mind you–is that everybody gets their land back every fifty years, regardless of what mistakes have been made. In the book of Jonah, Jonah wants retribution on Nineveh, but God delights in restoration. Is God unjust? Jonah may have thought so, but God didn’t.
I see no sign of a God torn between justice and love. His love is justice, and his justice is love.
This is a profound mystery. Our best formulations fall short. How does God punish and destroy evil while redeeming everything? The closest we come to understanding is when we study the cross on which Jesus died.