Divine Justice

Justice is classically defined as “to each her due,” a definition both necessary and sufficient to examine various applications of the term: distributive, retributive, moral, legal, and sociological. But what about our impression of God’s justice? Can we say anything meaningful about divine justice and does such an attempt cast any light whatsoever on our imperfect efforts here and now? As in so many issues of truth and goodness, the answer to that question depends on the warrant one chooses to apply.

The essential issue concerns what is due. The Book of Job attempts to resolve the problem of evil by establishing a distance between human and divine justice. Job and those who know him calculate his desserts based on his actions and his character: the story makes quite clear that Job is a good and blameless man who fears God. By any rational calculation, he is due God’s favorable judgment. But as Satan observes, perhaps it has been this very blessing from God that has kept Job on the straight and narrow. Withdraw it and his goodness would evaporate, Satan charges. What follows is a litany of miseries visited upon the poor man by the devil, but with God’s consent. By the end of the nightmare as Job lies cowering in the dust covered in rags and boils and praying to die, the reader must share with Job the conviction that here is a God who cares not at all about what His creatures deserve. To those who would seek to salvage some goodness for a God who visits such trials on the innocent, that hope is crushed by a lovely but terrifying divine peroration. It goes on and on. “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?….Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven?….Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? Wilt thou condemn me that thou mayest be righteous?” The thrust of God’s response may be summarized simply: as the author of our being, God decides what is due and therefore what is just. Our own sense of justice must be abandoned, surrendered to God’s, no matter how arbitrary we may find it.

This moral imperative is hardly confined to one Old Testament book. It permeates Biblical narratives as salt the Dead Sea and stifles in all cases the merely human appraisal. Adam and Eve are ejected from paradise and their descendents condemned to lives of toil and suffering even though our unhappy parents “knew not evil” in the garden and so lacked the moral sense to grasp the enormity of their disobedience to divine command. Abraham was prepared to commit filicide, an almost unthinkable evil, in what turns out to be a test of his obedience. David’s son by Bathsheba is killed to punish David for his adultery. The Pharoah’s heart is hardened by God. John the Baptist is decapitated. Jesus is crucified. The lesson of Job is seemingly difficult for believers to learn but is so often repeated that none can escape it. In the classic formulation of the issue as framed by Plato in The Euthyphro, the Biblical response to the question of whether the gods’ commands are good because the gods command them or because they are of themselves good is unequivocal. We find a thoroughly consistent response, as summarized in first Isaiah: “ I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil; I, the LORD, do all these things.”

Martin Luther summarized what might be called this orthodox Biblical response for Christians. “For were this justice such as could be adjudged as just by the human understanding, it were manifestly not divine and would differ in nothing from human justice. But since God is true and single, yea in His entirety incomprehensible and inaccessible to human reason, it is right, nay it flows necessarily, that His justice is also incomprehensible.” Put simply, it may be summarized this way. “Who are you to judge me?” Taken at face value, such a declaration should settle the issue of divine justice conclusively. Any God who boasts of having put evil into creation is one who attacks our sense of what is due at its foundation, introducing contradiction into what humans assume to be a rational appraisal of value so necessary in any application of human justice. For what we are due in human terms involves a spectrum of desserts wherein the reward should fit the accomplishment or the punishment the crime. The manifold exceptions so clearly laid out in Biblical narratives, not to mention God’s repeated bald claims of responsibility for the creation of evil itself, make clear that in Plato’s terms, the Biblical God decrees goodness as He sees fit, in violation of any human conception of the term and of all rational conceptions of justice. His sense of justice is fundamentally not our own.

Now this realization poses a problem for believers and not only modern ones. Evidently, even the writers of these narratives found it impossible to reconcile their own rational sense of what is due with the bald pronouncements of divine authority. And this is a problem of warrant. In previous posts I have examined both the problem of religious authority and our utter reliance on our own rationality (for more please see blog entry “The Tyranny of Rationality“) to make sense of our truth and goodness claims. What the conflict between authority and reason produced in Biblical authors and continues to produce in their aherents is a kind of bifocal view of divine justice (please see blog entry “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). Though the text answers Plato’s question in The Euthyphro one way, the subtext responds with the other. God seems both bound and unbound by His own goodness. He either makes or allows evil but then how are we to reconcile such ambivalence with His beneficence? The conundrum is resolved by a renewed appeal to divine justice that seeks to comfort the rational sense that simply cannot be satisfied with Biblical accounting and will not accept it.

For each of the Biblical narratives that establishes divinity’s unlimited prerogatives to do to His creatures as He wishes, that baldly remind the reader in the story that actions are just because God defines them that way, we find a restoration and satisfaction of what Luther calls our “merely human” sense of justice. So though Adam and Eve are condemned (think through their crime!), their heirs are promised redemption. Abraham’s knife armed is stayed, though at the last moment, so Isaac is not sacrificed to God’s will but is instead the inheritor of greatness and prosperity. Job is rewarded with greater wealth and happiness than he had lost. Jesus is resurrected and covered in glory. These resolutions conform to a consistent but largely unspoken theme concerning God’s justice: evil in God’s creation, even Satan himself, is the means to good ends, though we may not be able to know how pain is changed to joy. The evil God seems to delight in claiming as His prerogative is a mysteriously necessary tool of His will that somehow will redound to reward the faithful, just as the Biblical heroes were rewarded. As we shall be rewarded for our faith in His authority. As much as each story seeks to rebalance the scales of justice to grant God total latitude, the parts all add up to a glorious whole in which the evil each character suffers is defeated, and goodness–rationally understood–is rewarded. The omnipotent thumb will somehow balance the scales of justice, and the good will find eternal joy while the evil suffer torment for their sins. Sanity is restored to a cosmos seemingly deprived of it by a supernatural order that corrects the injustices of this world with an entirely rational justice in the next.

So the divine “order of things” that seems so disordered is seen by believers as only making sense when tuned by the music of the divine will. In this, their opponents evidently concur, for the existential literature and philosophy of the last century (for more please see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist“) is characterized by what can only be called a sense of petulance at the injustice of creation, an injustice that a godless and uncreated universe could never foster. But if unbelievers want to not have their cake and not eat it too, believers seem equally determined to be inconsistent. They stress the absolute power of divine arbitrary will while seeking to chain God to human rationality as Biblical authors did: by restoring rational standards of justice through appeal to an overarching supernatural order. When this appeal fails to appease a natural human appetite for justice in this life, they resort to a trump card they have already discarded: divine mystery. Why did one hundred infants die in some natural disaster and one wizened octogenarian survive? Why did a loved one die an agonizing death from bone cancer? In short, why does natural evil have its way with the best of us and the evildoer prosper? Their answer echoes Job. It is God’s will. Which is to say, a mystery. Is it any wonder that those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake” find such an answer unsatisfactory, particularly since such a detailed explication of God’s nature has been so carefully drawn by the dogmas of the religionists who now appeal to divine mystery, and since part of that dogma explains the divine order that guarantees “to each her due”? Why do religionists march confidently down the broad path of exegesis of the divine plan until they confront the chasm of our incomprehension of divine justice? One might think a failure to convincingly explain something so basic to faith might cause them to question some of their other elaborate explanatory models?

Perhaps the careening between incompatible conceptions of divine justice might suggest to believers and unbelievers alike that there are some very basic categories of human understanding that remain unsatisfied with either conception. How can a just God allow injustice? Is His justice so unlike our own? Or is the appearance of injustice an illusion? Or will justice be delivered in the next world? Isn’t the honest answer that we simply do not know, that an acceptance of the transcendence of divine justice must be more overarching than we wish to accept? Isn’t such an admission of our ignorance of the divine more honest than the confident assertion of doctrines that embrace both God’s justice and His arbitrariness? When we are reduced to confront the tears of the oppressed with a shrug, what allows us to then speak at such length of our putative knowledge of God’s purpose and plan? Why is it hubris to confront the inconsistency of these kinds of efforts to explain divine justice and not hubris to explain it away in such a disjointed effort? Haven’t ten thousand splinterings of Christian orthodoxy satisfied our suspicion that authority is not up to the explanatory task it attempts, that only what Augustine called “the natural light” of our reasoning can find the line between the knowable and the mysteries of faith that we so desperately seek (see “Theology’s Cloud of Unknowing”)?

It is, I suppose, possible to posit a kind of Averroism on this question, to assert as Luther did that we cannot evaluate divine justice in human terms, that some unknown fundamental difference between God’s sense of what is due and our own dooms any human attempt to make sense of this question. But such a cure strikes me as far worse than the disease of confessing our ignorance. Justice is a fundamental human characteristic, central to any moral rule and to our attempt to apply it. To posit a divine “justice” that operates on some foreign principle would not do violence to a human conception of justice, for we cannot live without it, but it would thoroughly doom any effort to establish a connection with the divine and a moral universe imitative of it. Imagine a God who actually did leave Job in rags and boils, who delighted in Abraham’s murder, who acted as viciously as the gods of Olympus. It seems a Platonic sense of justice must be as much a characteristic of a divinity as omnipotence and omniscience are. An unjust god is an affront to our concept of the divine and indicates not blasphemy to the Biblical God but an error in our conception of Him. The only correctives are a relentless humility coupled with a tireless application of reason, God’s scale on earth.




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