Divine Justice


  • Human conceptions of justice depend upon a calculation of “what is due,” but how can this judgment be applied to our considerations of divine justice?
  • Biblical narratives make clear that we must abandon this conception of justice in deference to God’s unknowable calculus of divine justice.
  • Both Old Testament assertions and theological analysis of scripture confirm two contentions: first, that God’s justice must supersede human justice, second, that it is unknowable and therefore requires a surrender in trust.
  • Christians who wish to trust divine authority feel they are capable of this surrender, but that is impossible, for they must arbitrate its apparent contradictions and mysteries by the force of their belief, producing a concession to their desire.
  • This appropriation of judgment conforms with contemporary axioms of postmodern moral commitment and is difficult to avoid given the inscrutability of divine hiddenness.
  • Scripture exacerbates the temptation to belief by framing divine justice as a demand for unthinking trust in narrative texts while also subtextually seeking reader’s rational sanction of God’s justice.
  • The subtextual appeal is often framed even more basely: not merely to our sense of justice but to our self-interest in defiance of even a human sense of justice.
  • This Old Testament subtextual appeal is further entangled with a New Testament equivalence between mercy and justice and with impossible complexities involving the nature of Christ’s atonement that assault even the most fundamental notions of what is due.
  • Believers and congregants will attempt to demonstrate or even prove God’s justice, but they cannot defend it when faced with the problem of evil.
  • Even framing the issue this way requires a resumption of moral agency and denies an engagement of trust, so the search for divine justice in scripture is invariably corrosive of religious authority.
  • Honest religionists will end any discussion of divine justice by appealing to mystery and embracing a fideist acceptance, but beneath their resignation, they invariably find ways to believe that God is somehow just by human standards simply because “what is due” is central to any moral calculation.

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, as well as to strangers in personal life (see “Justice Is Almost Everything“). 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 (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”).

The essential issue in determining justice must always concern 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 Job’s own human sense of justice, the thought that his blessings were earned, that has kept him 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. The story makes clear that Job deserves none of this torture. It is definitionally unjust. 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 would appall any human conception of justice. 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 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 clear pronouncements of divine authority. And this is more than just a problem of warrant, for it delineates the premodern 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 by a grant of trust to some authority, in this case the God of the Bible (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“).

But even the attempt to sustain such a transfer challenges our moral sense so as to return trust to the capacity of the believer (see “A Problem with Sacred Texts“). “Rational inspection” is the very definition of a loss of trust. If we must rely upon our own 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 successfully surrender that capacity, we also must surrender any judgment of the decisions rendered by the external moral agent we have transferred our agency to (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief). Trust in authority can work in no other way.

When considering warrant, two terms denote different directions of confirmation. Trust derives from some demonstrated evidence of reliability. It is a publicly defensible reason to transfer agency, and when successfully engaged, it fully forfeits judgment to the authority it has deferred to. But belief cannot sustain that same transfer because it engages an entirely different source.  We tap our own private yearnings for belief, and these must proceed from whatever rational standards for what is due that we employ in that moment. These desires run the risk of being tainted by self-interested utility. Seen in this light, belief must be a profoundly intimate and personalized concoction of desires and experience that are constantly referenced by the moral agent in search of confirmation of truth and satisfactions of goodness. This pollutant to judgment disallows any surrender of agency and constantly challenges authority to comply with an idiosyncratic yearning that even the believer cannot fully comprehend. Belief originates in present and private desire for some future good wheras trust in past on the other hand likely will sustain the surrender that defines it.

Because many persons’ religious beliefs originate in their childhood trust of parents, these two very different kinds of warrants are often conflated. They are easier to tease apart in adult religious conversions that might begin with either trust or belief and then proceed as separable warrants. Trust powers public moral claims. Belief cannot accomplish that task, for in religious commitments, it involves ineffable and numinous intuitions. 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 belief and trust have been knotted together 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.

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’s desire straining against authority’s dictates, or it must be surrendered.

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.

This is not to say belief is completely self-generated, but it does call attention to its utility as an exemplar of the power of the believer’s individual moral agency. Its meaning must then be integrated into a larger sphere of value: for the postmodernist as part of a virtual circle orientation (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?) and for the modernist as a private commitment whose inherent personalism requres religion itself to be isolated from other 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 is renewed as a premodernist orientation toward justice in severe tension with contemporary suspicion of institutional authority in general and religious authority in particular. We can easily observe the alienation such a premodern orientation produces, for the trust that powers such religious authority will brook no other. We see this tension most clearly in the few theocracies that still survive. The most common way to resolve the inevitable tensions between such premodern cultures and modern or postmodern ones in determining what is due is self-induced isolationism.

That difficulty concerns a conflict not only of agency but of its public expression in law (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”). We see what seems a conflation of belief and trust repeatedly expressed in Biblical narratives. By virtue of a surrender of agency, characters in these stories are explicitly forbidden the employment of their capacity to judge, their own sense of justice . Job’s chorus exemplifies the impossible and forbidden half-surrender: they wish to both trust and question God, to both accept His inexplicable authority and apply their own judgment to it. This half-surrender is invariably accompanied by cognitive dissonance as the characters try to reconcile their understanding to their situation. This confusion nearly always concerns some gap between human and divine conceptions of what is due. 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 what the narrative depicts as his trust in divine command. He explicitly forfeits his moral agency, surrendering it entirely to God’s authority. It turns out well for him: he founds a nation and his children number as many as the stars. The New Testament continues this seemingly intentional emulsion of belief and trust. 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, the shibboleth of our own conception of justice. 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 that stricture is 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“). This problem concerns the weakness of authority when challenged, and 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 the trusting congregant’s duty to deny his own readon, 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 that exemplify it. They make clear that trust 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 relentlessly defines God’s authority as just because God decrees it,  the subtext appeals to the quite human conception of justice as “what is due.” This composite is made necessary by the inherent ambiguities in the text compared to the reader’s presumptions about the necessary goodness of God. 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 a thought with God’s beneficence? The conundrum is resolved by a subtextual appeal to human conceptions of justice that seeks to comfort the rational sense that simply cannot be satisfied with Biblical accounting and will not accept it, This soothes doubt at the cost of employing the very moral agency the Bible so clearly forbids to soothe it. As a consequence, every reader of the Bible must play a part in Job’s chorus.

For each of the Biblical narratives that establishes God’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 a monstrous injustice. Job is rewarded with greater wealth and happiness than he had lost for the same reason. Jesus is resurrected and covered in glory.

Now for most moral injunctions, we can find various appeals. We can obey positive law because of our civic virtue or our fear of prison. These are surely different kinds of incentives, but first, they each must be weighed by our own judgment, and second, one incentive does not specifically contradict the other. But both of these conditions are violated by the conflicting message of Biblical  narratives. The texts are relentlessly authoritarian, with God’s will invariably expressed categorically as divine commands based on trust, meaning they demand we forfeit our own moral calculus, But the subtexts abandon both positions: not commanding, but appealing to our own sense of justice and often not even appealing to human scales of justice but resorting to obviously hypothetical lures of reward and avoidance of punishment. Consider Esther’s revenge on the enemies of the Jews or the injustice of the divine plan for Jesus to be crucified. So while the entire message of the Bible seems to be a categorical command of unquestioning obedience to an inscrutable divine justice, the lessons of every parable and storyline return agency to the reader, always in the name of an entirely explicable human sense of what is due but often aiming beneath the merely human sense of justice to a far baser motive: a hypothetical appeal to self-interest.

Though contradictory, the overall intent of Biblical accounting conforms to at least one 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 requires the very agency the text forbids. This is clearly a maze of contradictory commands that simultaneously alienate and soothe our conception of divine justice. As much as each story seeks to rebalance the scales 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 religious authorities then 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 this challenge to 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. This is an odd play, for their authority depends specifically upon our trust in their ability to comprehend such things, 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? Authority’s 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 man-made, 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 their attempting to connect them violates a core axiom of their demand for a childlike trust.

This dissonance undoubtedly explains why congregants do not confront their sacred texts  on the issue of divine justice more insistently, but it also explains why in this age of distrust the number of congregants continues to decline. Is it any wonder that those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake” find no satisfactory resolution, even though a  doctrine of divine beneficence has been so carefully drawn by the dogmas of the world’s religions? As they fail in that explanatory task, perhaps because they fail, 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 trusting in the divine plan even when they confront 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 mirroring recognition that since faith is necessary, knowledge must be lacking. But that thought might attack trust and dissolving trust must not 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 beyond it into the private realm of merely permissible beliefs rather than throttle our questions in the name of a childlike trust. Admittedly, we use reason poorly and cannot properly limit the permissibility of our beliefs, but our human fallibility only makes divine fallibility seem more striking (see “To What Extent Can Uncompassed Doxastic Beliefs Guide True Moral Commitments?“). How can a just God allow injustice, 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-blown 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 appeals to authority and implore that we apply 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 a secular ethic not reliant on divine will.. 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 answer 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 to 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 replete with all the temptations to hypotheticality we see in today’s religious expressions (see “Religion and Truth)?

Should she surrender, her trust can be soothed by the composite nature of religious authority, but that requires a total acceptance incompatible with her natural and preferential freedom ( see “Our Freedom Fetish”). 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 attempt to submerge her questions in the warmth of a childlike trust or continue with her effort to comprehend divine justice through a tireless application of reason, which Avicenna called  “God’s scale on earth.”




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