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, and contributive in political life, moral and practical in personal life. 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 search for earthly justice in the here and now? As in so many issues of truth and goodness, the answer to that question depends on the axiom one employs and the warrant one chooses to apply it with (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”).

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 deserts 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 his own human sense of justice, the thought that his blessings were earned, that has kept Job on the straight and narrow. The parable makes clear that Job, indeed all the persons in the parable, dare to apply their own reasoning to God’s judgment. They claim what they regard as their due. Withhold 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 his creatures’ merits. 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, he decides what is due and therefore what is just and our duty in response is to emulate Job at the end of the parable: accept God’s authority unequivocally.  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 descendants 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 is prepared to commit filicide, an almost unthinkable evil, in what turns out to be a test of his obedience that any human conception of justice would consider insane. David’s son by Bathsheba is killed to punish David for his adultery. The Pharaoh’s heart is hardened by God so as to lead him to destruction. 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 ignore it. In the classic formulation of the issue as framed by Plato in The Euthyphro, the Bible offers an unequivocal answer to the question of whether the gods’ commands are good because the gods command them or the other way around. We find a thoroughly consistent response to the question of divine justice in Biblical text, 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.” 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 deserts 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 justice as he sees fit in violation of any human conception of the term. 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 more than just a problem of warrant, for it delineates the pre-modern and the modern axioms governing moral responsibility. Neither we nor God can have it both ways on this issue. It must be a zero-sum game. Either we decide moral issues by virtue of our own agency, however we see that capacity, or we utterly reject our capability and transfer it to some authority, in this case the God of the Bible (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“). Should we retain agency, we have no choice but to evaluate experience through the lens of whatever moral standards, system, or intuitions we value (see “The Tyranny of Rationality“). Should we surrender it, we also must surrender any judgment of the decisions rendered by the external moral agent we have transferred our agency to. We consider that agent an authority worthy of our belief or our trust (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief).

When considering warrant, these two terms denote different directions of confirmation: we look into our own private yearnings for belief: it is a profoundly intimate and personalized concoction of desires that might then move persons to transfer agency to some authority. Trust derives from some demonstrated evidence of reliability. It is a publicly defensible reason to transfer agency. Belief originates in present and private desire, trust in past repeated experience conducing to predictive judgment. Because many persons’ religious beliefs originate in their childhood trust of parents, these two very different kinds of warrants are often intertwined. They are easier to tease apart in adult conversions that might begin with either trust or belief in religious authority and then proceed as separable warrants. The conversion experience illustrates the mature yearnings of belief, the spread of Christianity in the Roman Republic the power of trust in authority. The disentanglement of the two is painful if it has been tied in childhood; it often characterizes the questioning of orthodoxy that accompanies adolescence as congregants reacquire agency and pull upon the tangled threads of trust and belief to match their faith to their understanding of their own needs. But that differentiation process, so common as to be the norm for believers in a culture of deep distrust of institutional authority, has an impact on warrant as its employment must erode trust in religious authority and replace it with the tailor-made gratifications of belief freighted with desire. The employment of belief must be an exercise of moral agency, and that action necessarily attacks trust if only because the dogmatic nature of religious authority must constrain and direct the desire characteristic of belief. Again, no easy reconciliation of the two can occur because agency must either be retained, which must see belief tugging at authority’s dictates, or surrendered to it. If belief is sanctioned, the believer moves on to a private faith rooted in a private desire, reconciling her own sense of justice to an idiosyncratic view of the divine. This then drives a private morality that the believer recognizes as profoundly her own, conducing to a modernist or postmodernist orientation. It calls attention to itself as an exemplar of the power of her own moral agency, for the postmodernist as part of a virtual circle orientation (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?) and for the modernist as a private commitment often isolated from sources of public morality (see “Belief in the Public Square”). Even in today’s atmosphere of skepticism, some persons either escape this realignment or pass through it. Their trust then continues as a premodernist orientation toward justice in severe tension with contemporary suspicion of institutional authority in general and religious authority in particular.

That difficulty concerns a conflict not only of agency but of its public expression in law. We see this in Biblical accounts repeatedly. By virtue of a surrender of agency, characters in these stories are forbidden the employment of that faculty they have forfeited. Job’s chorus exemplifies the impossible and forbidden half-surrender: they wish to both trust and question God, to both accept His inexplicable justice and apply their own judgment. In other Biblical narratives, other options are explored. Adam and Eve clearly choose their own agency over God’s and are punished for it. Abraham goes so far as to obey a truly heinous command based upon his belief in divine command. He explicitly forfeits his moral agency, surrendering it entirely to God’s authority, and his children number as many as the stars.  Jesus first raises objections to his ultimate self-sacrifice and then suppresses them so as to trust God. He is rewarded for that. It seems clear that the Biblical injunction forbidding placing any god above Yahweh applies to what might be called the god of our own reason, the idol of our own moral agency. We are clearly told to surrender it to the authority of God. No half-measure will do. This is the clear articulation of a childlike faith in God best summarized in Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We are explicitly commanded to avoid rational calculations of what is due and we are reinforced by the New Testament admonitions to universal love and mercy. Both must be blind to justice.

If that were the end of it, we might face only the problem of the weakness of authority as a warrant for purely public morality, one hideously clarified by the Protestant Reformation (see “Premodern Authority“). It concerns the dissolution of public trust in the face of competing authority. This is impossible for institutions to reconcile on the basis of either belief or trust so long as the challenge confronts its right to shut off the moral judgment of followers, for even the consideration of a competing authority necessarily involves a return of rational agency to the moral agent left clueless by conflicting truth and goodness claims only her own reason can arbitrate (see ‘The Fragility of Religious Authority”). And that violates the repeated lesson of the Bible, or at least so it seems.

We cannot doubt that the text of all these Biblical narratives demands a surrender, nor can we question both the positive and the negative examples of how to commit it. They make clear that it must be total, that divine command must replace the agent’s own reason. But while the surface narrative is repeatedly explicit about that surrender, a second and contradictory message is also communicated through what might be called the lesson of all such parables. What the conflict between authority and reason produces in Biblical texts and continues to produce in their readers is a kind of bifocal view of divine justice. Though the text answers Plato’s question in The Euthyphro one way, the subtext argues for the other. God seems both bound and unbound by his own sense of justice. He either makes or allows evil, but then how are we to reconcile such ambivalence with God’s beneficence? The conundrum is resolved by a subtextual appeal to divine justice that seeks to comfort the rational sense that simply cannot be satisfied with Biblical accounting and will not accept it, thereby frustrating the transfer of moral agency the Bible so clearly commands. It seems any reader of the Bible must play a part in Job’s chorus.

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 Adam and Eve are condemned for what seems to the reader a trivial offense, one clearly committed before they had been granted moral agency (presumably to then surrender to God’s authority). But to appease any doubts that might prove corrosive to a reader’s trust, their descendants are promised redemption. Abraham’s knife arm is stayed at the last moment, so Isaac is not sacrificed to God’s will but is instead the inheritor of greatness and prosperity clearly given as a reward for Abraham’s submission to God’s sense of what is just. Job is rewarded with greater wealth and happiness than he had lost for the same reason. Jesus is resurrected and covered in glory. These resolutions conform to a consistent 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 the good, will reward the faithful, just as the Biblical heroes were rewarded. Granted, this position is camouflaged by God’s hiddenness, so the subtextual appeal even more strongly calls to our reason to decipher. But the sensitivity to a “merely human sense” of justice is clear, and that implies a submission to the very agency the text forbids. This is clearly a maze of contradictory commands that simultaneously alienates and soothes our conception of divine justice. 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– human justice 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. We are told to surrender moral agency in the text and apply it in the subtext, to define justice by arbitrary divine will that also happens to give each person his due.

The stated position of premodern authority is that a fallen creation only can be ordered when tuned by the music of the divine command. In this, their opponents evidently concur, for the existential literature and philosophy of the last century 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 (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). I find it surprising that authoritarians don’t bring up the cynicism of disbelievers as proof of hypocrisy. But if the unchurched want to not have their cake and not eat it too, congregants seem equally determined to be inconsistent. They stress the absolute power of arbitrary divine 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. Their authority derives from their ability to explicate it, but at some point in the explanatory process, even when questioned without much rigor, they return to an appeal to mystery.  Why did one hundred infants die in some natural disaster and one wizened octogenarian survive? Why does a loved one suffer unimaginably from bone cancer? Why do the evil prosper and the good suffer in this world? Why are innocents slaughtered and the vicious bathed in their blood? Believers’ answer echoes Job’s unwillingness to confront the issue on the grounds of categorical unworthiness. It is God’s will. Which is to say, a mystery. That mystery may be explained away as Luther did, as evidence of humankind’s sinfulness, from which follows as the night follows the day a reminder that justice will be restored in the next life. When the evils are manmade, such an appeal satisfies. Human evil may be laid at the feet of sin, original or current, and so must be removed from the ledgers of God’s justice. But suffering is hardly less painful when its cause is God’s own hand: when famine strikes the child or the cyclone sweeps away the life’s labor of the poor, or one galaxy rams into another. Then creation itself, the work of God’s hands, is the perpetrator of evils. Boils, plagues, droughts, and floods are all natural and not the consequence of sin but of the natural order. Where in this maelstrom can divine justice be found? Authority will attempt to point to some hidden complexity in creation that requires such chaos or to some larger logos in which innocence must be slaughtered for good to triumph. But they cannot connect the required dots to make sense of that mystery and attempting to connect them violates a core axiom of their creed of childlike trust. Is it any wonder that those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake” find no satisfactory resolution, particularly since such a detailed explication of divine beneficence has been so carefully drawn by the dogmas of the religionists. As they fail in that explanatory task, they remind their questioner in the same breath to abandon reason altogether and summon a blind faith in God’s mysterious otherness. Is the congregation at this juncture entitled to remind their theologians that their dogma also confidently proclaims the divine order that guarantees “to each her due” through all the machinations of a consistent but buried theme in Biblical morality tales? Doctrine, dogma, and holy text march confidently down the broad path of exegesis of the divine plan even when it confronts the chasm of our incomprehension of divine justice as exemplified in actual experience.  Every explicit call to faith is also an implicit recognition of mystery. Nothing wrong with that. As Kierkegaard reminds us, if we had knowledge of God, faith would be unnecessary. But the corollary to that truth must be the reverse recognition that since faith is necessary, knowledge must be lacking. But that thought might attack trust and dissolving trust is not to be tolerated, so the mystery must be as incarnated into exegesis as God into Jesus.

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 by either the retention or forfeiture of moral agency, at least in this question. It is possible that a total surrender of rational and moral agency violates the putative slice of divinity that elevates us above the beasts, that it is in the proper exercise of our reasoning to attempt to reach for comprehension. Admittedly, we use it poorly, but our human fallibility only makes apparent injustice stand out more clearly. How can a just God allow it, much less commit it and claim it? Is God’s 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 a childlike acceptance of the transcendence of divine justice  must be more overarching than any adult can 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 arbitrariness?

Every world religion offers a constellation of answers to these questions, from naturalism to full-blow mysticism, from Plato’s demiurge to Aristotle’s impassive stone of a god, from immanence to transcendence: in short, from rationalism to fideism. These claim varying degrees of authority and appeal to varying shades of private interpretation. Even the existence, much less the truth claims, of so many competing orthodoxies must prompt 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. This frontier where knowledge shades into belief is clearly an issue of hot dispute in every major world religion, the Abrahamic ones tilting toward authoritative claims to knowledge while the great Asian ones shade into private religious belief and beyond it, into ethics. But if authority is to claim true and universal knowledge of divine command — and by the nature of its claims, it must — then its first task must be to reconcile how dogmatic religion can first demand that we surrender our moral judgment while simultaneously appealing to our rational agency to justify the very surrender it demands.

It is, I suppose, possible to posit a kind of suspension 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 (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip). But such a cure strikes me as far worse than the weakness 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 murdering his own son, who acted as viciously as the gods of Olympus. It seems a rational sense of justice must be as much a characteristic of our conception of divinity as omnipotence and omniscience are. An unjust god is an affront to the concept of divinity itself and indicates not blasphemy to the divine but an error in our conception.

That problem, once considered, leads to another. Once one re-appropriates agency to answer it, she is immediately confronted with the range of authoritative responses no matter what doctrines she is examining. At that point, her position is analogous to the dilemma of Christians in the early years of the Reformation. Even within her own faith tradition, she faces a range of practices and convictions, of doctrines and rituals, and of explanatory rigor. If she examines other faiths, she faces a far wider range of authoritative claims to truth and moral goodness, some dogmatic and others open to belief. How can she surrender her moral agency once her gaze lifts from the guidance of her own tradition? And if she is devout, she now faces the disquieting realization that the claimed power of religious authority is founded upon the alloyed nature of its claims: their truth guaranteed by their moral power and their morality assured by their truth. Where in this compounded and adamantine monolith can she place the lever of her own reasoning without fragmenting what she seeks to examine? At this point, what choice does she have but to give up her agency utterly or retain it for her own beliefs rooted in her own desires (see “Religion and Truth)? Should she surrender, her trust can be soothed by the composite nature of religious authority, but she should be careful not to interrogate it with vigor or frequency. Should she seek to understand the nature of divine justice, for instance, she will face silence fairly early in her quest as the assurances of authority trail off into the whispers of fideist mystery. At that point and undoubtedly at many others, she may either submerge her questions in the warmth of a childlike trust or continue with a tireless application of reason, which Avicenna called  “God’s scale on earth,” to seek the frontiers of desire in which belief may be permissible.





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