What It Means To Have a Just God

Today is Human Rights Day in my country, South Africa, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss another problem I see in with contemporary Christian theology: the question of justice. I have spent the last three weeks trying to convince people to let go of the (historically speaking) relatively recent and logically flawed Reformation doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. My reason for doing so is not because I wish to dismiss the Bible. Far from that, I think that seeing the Bible for what it is is critical if we are to be freed to read the Scriptures properly. In short, if the Bible is the inerrant revelation of who God is, then God is violent, and thus when Jesus, who is demonstrably opposed to violence, claims that he is the full revelation of God, he must be lying.

 

A consequence of the view that the Bible is inerrant (and therefore that violence can be legitimated) is that it allows people to confuse vengeance with justice. The awful depiction of Lady Justice as a blindfolded woman with scales in one hand and a sword in the other is just one of the bloody consequences of this type of thinking. If justice is blind, and cannot see individual people, with individual needs and with unique relationships, and if justice means applying the same rules in the same way every time, regardless of context, then it is callous and loveless. And no justice at all, really. Any good teacher will tell you that you cannot apply the rules in the same way every time to every pupil in the class and still be fair. Circumstances matter. people matter. Because we ourselves do not recognise what true justice is, as is evident in this statuesque depiction of it, our theology is incapable of distinguishing between vengeance and justice. But vengeance and justice are poles apart. Granted, there may be times when the outcomes are the same, but that does not mean that the concepts are.

 

The difference lies in the aims. Vengeance is, at its core, driven by the need to restore a wounded ego. We want compensation for what we believe we have lost. Normally, actually, we will only feel “justice” is done if we are more than compensated – if the scales tip in our favour. Naturally, this translates as injustice to our opponent, who – if allowed – seeks a similar sort of “justice” for henself. And the violence escalates. The desire for vengeance is an intrinsically selfish one, linked only tangentially to the injustice that initiated the desire. The primary aim of vengeance, then, is to assuage the pain of loss. Some losses are too great to be assuaged.

 

Justice, on the other hand, serves society, not the individual. The primary aim of justice is to restore right relationships in society. Its primary consideration is not the loss suffered by the individual, but the construction and maintenance of a social structure in which individuals may relate appropriately. Sometimes that means addressing loss as part of the project. But addressing loss is not the primary goal of justice. Social cohesion is. There is more at stake than the compensation of the victim: there is the rehabilitation of the offender. There is the impact of the now dysfunctional relationship on broader society to consider too – hurt people hurt other people. How do we mitigate that? Social cohesion requires that everyone relates appropriately. Justice attempts create the conditions under which that is possible.

 

When we reduce the gospel message to one of Penal Substitution – God punishing Jesus in our place in order to maintain cosmic justice – we diminish the work of God. We reduce God’s motives to a petty desire for vengeance to assuage a bruised ego. And you can attempt to justify any way you want to, but the obvious moral flaw in the whole system is that it is never just to punish an innocent person for somebody else’s crime. Guilt is not transferable. More than that, though, Penal Substitution satisfies only the need for vengeance (although it doesn’t even do that – vengeance, being ego-driven, is never satisfied – God still apparently needs to subject enemies to eternal torment, which seems way out of proportion to even the worst of human atrocities); it does nothing to restore proper relations. Penal Substitution Theory speaks to vengeance, not justice. In the process, it diminishes God.

 

Jesus’ teachings, on the other hand, speak to justice, not to vengeance. The concept of Teshuvah, for example, which we translate as repentance, is not a term that speaks to personal holiness, but to one’s relations with one’s society. It is illustrated in Matthew 5:23-24, when Jesus teaches: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift”. So when Jesus teaches: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”, which Matthew 4:17 suggests is the heart of his message, he is essentially saying: “be reconciled to one another, because that is the key to living in a society ruled in the way God would rule.” He is not saying: “Turn or burn”.

 

Jesus places a premium on social justice, on siding with the oppressed, on assisting those in need. Jesus very clearly associates righteousness with the willingness to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick and the imprisoned. And he aligns this with faith:  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12). Indeed, this is the expression of faith that takes root in the early church, where members of the growing church give up all possessions and live comunally, ministering to the poor. It is what prompts John (1 John 4: 20-21) to write: “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.  And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” And we all know who we ought to regard as our brothers and sisters: everybody, even our enemies. Jesus makes that abundantly clear. Establishing a just society requires that we create the conditions in which everyone can function appropriately.

 

This is where I think Christianity has universal applicability: the only way to restore right relationships is through love. And that doesn’t mean allowing others to use us as doormats; it does not mean silence in the face of injustice; it means doing what it takes to restore right relationships in society. Sometimes that means giving up the right to vengeance. Sometimes that means, even when we are in the right, to put our own needs aside so that we can find ways to restore the dignity of the enemy, because society only functions properly if everyone is relating appropriately. The only way a dysfunctional society can self-correct is if functional members do not contribute to the dysfunction, but actively seek ways to restore the dysfunctional to functionality. Repentance means not contributing to the dysfunction, and it means making amends for the dysfunction to which you have contributed. Remember Zaccheus?:

 

“And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way.  And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”  So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully.  And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:2 -10)

 

Do you notice that Jesus does not associate salvation with Zaccheus “believing in his name” or Zaccheus’ “washing himself in the blood of Jesus”, but with willingness to restore right Kingdom relationships? Salvation, as clearly demonstrated here, is not the act of God withholding due punishment, it is the act of embracing a relational paradigm that does not contribute to the dysfunction, and which actively seeks to restore right relationships. Salvation is about being “found”, not being spared.

 

So I can buy the idea of a God entirely devoted to justice. What I cannot accept is the notion of a God who equates justice with revenge. That smacks too much of humanity. True justice seeks restoration. A just God would not be content to punish an innocent scapegoat to assuage a sense of being wronged (essentially, ego), and let it go at that. A just God would seek the restoration of social order. And indeed, that is what we see Jesus preaching: surrendering his right to vindication in the hope of giving the offender the psychological space to heal and seek reconciliation, so that society as a whole can be restored. We see Jesus encouraging us to “pick up our crosses and follow him”, to “lose ourselves that we might find ourselves”, “to die that we might live”. Implicit in that is the recognition that we need others to be whole if we are to remain so ourselves. That means loving even when it hurts, forgiving because we refuse to contribute to the escalating dysfunction by seeking vengeance. It means conceding that perhaps if people were not conditioned adversely by their cultures, their life experiences, their educations, their genetics, even, they might make very different choices. It means not adding to the distorting lenses that prevent them from seeing why God’s way of love makes sense.

 

I agree that there is a lot about the cross of Jesus that speaks to justice. But don’t be content to diminish the power of the statement the crucifixion makes about justice by reducing it to God’s punishment. I dare you to rethink your understanding of justice, to broaden your picture of what a truly just God would try to achieve, and to look at the cross again. You might be surprised.

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7 thoughts on “What It Means To Have a Just God

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  1. You theorize, “…God is violent, and thus when Jesus, who is demonstrably opposed to violence, claims that he is the full revelation of God, he must be lying.” This is flawed reasoning because the ‘violent God’ is at the same time also a just & merciful God.

    Jesus being the fullness of God in bodily form, never negated ANY of God’s ‘violent’ actions against unrighteousness recorded in the OT. In Matthew 11 Jesus spoke of a coming ‘day of judgment’ when the citizens of certain infamous cities must consider: “will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades”. “At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have HIDDEN these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were PLEASED to do.” – Mt.11:25, 26.

    The towns Jesus referred to were ‘violently’ destroyed by God due to their wickedness. Jesus would NOT have cited these examples in His warning of impending doom if He were opposed to the ‘violent’ judgments. Certainly, if opposed, He would have indicated His disapproval.

    There is NO contradiction between the ‘violent’ actions by God in judgment in the OT and the NT narratives concerning Jesus. “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” – Jn. 1:17. Jesus said this to illuminate the CONTRAST (not contradiction) between the two Testaments (covenants). The OT was fulfilled & replaced by the NT. But to suggest that the ‘violence’ of God’s wrath displayed as judgments according to God’s Law were NOT God inspired, is to nullify the record, thereby also voiding EVERY reference to that Law that Jesus makes. Jesus cited the Law (& the related ‘violence) often. Jesus Warns repeatedly of the ‘violent’ judgment coming on those who do not repent. Mathew’s chapters 23-26, Mark’s 13 & 14, Luke 10 & 11 All warn of judgment.

    Jesus spoke also of ‘hell’. “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” – Mt. 10:28. While I agree that the traditional impression of ‘hell’ needs a deeper prayerful analysis (of which I’ve written several Articles & posted on my blog), I do NOT completely reject it absolutely. Misunderstanding ‘eternal condemnation’ is one thing, but to eliminate it altogether is simply naïve.

    Further scholarly research into the origins of the idea & the proper etymology of the OT terminology provide ample evidence contrary to traditional doctrines. I suggest investigating my claim by visiting these LINKS: mjthompsons.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/eternal-separation-from-god/; mjthompsons.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/is-hell-a-literal-place/; mjthompsons.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/parable-of-the-rich-man-and-lazarus/.

    Those three Articles examine the claims of Christ in relation to the contemporary beliefs of the Jews to whom He ministered. A proper understanding of the Jews of Christ’s day provides a greater insight into seeming contradictions.

    Reformation Theology is NOT the perfect eternal remedy. It was merely one of many movements that has attempted to clarify sound doctrine in the face of so many errant suppositions. Without it Christendom would be under the sole influence of the false doctrines of Roman Catholicism. Now centuries beyond the primitive resources available to the Reformers, modern scholars can capably sift through their chaff. But we must be quite careful never to ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’.

    We must always examine Scripture with proper systematic interpretative skills to determine a righteous godly discernment. Of course ANY such research must ALWAYS be under the anointing and prayerful guidance of the Holy Spirit. God’s wrath & associated violence is NEVER intended against the righteous. It is reserved against unrighteousness ALONE. But to conclude that God is NEVER violent is to infer that there is no condemnation from which to be ‘saved’. If there is no consequence to sin, what need is there for a Savior?

    I leave you with these two NT quotes…

    “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord” – Ro. 12:19.

    “For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The Lord will JUDGE His people.” – Heb. 10: 30.

    Of course, if you reject the infallibility and divine inspiration of Scripture, these are probably meaningless.

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    1. The truth is that anybody will be be able to find Scriptural verses to substantiate whatever viewpoint they hold. While I do not believe the Scriptures are infallible, I do believe they have value. I just think responsible reading of them means more than trusting whatever interpretation we feel is just. And for me, that litmus test is Jesus. And just because Jesus valued the SCriptures, it does not follow that he believed they were infallible. I value the Scriptures. I even believe they are inspired by God. I still do not believe they are infallible.

      When considering the Scriptures in the light of Jesus, it is vital to attempt to understand his hermeneutics. And when one does that, it becomes clear that Jesus never uses Scripture to endorse violence. In fact, it is entirely the opposite. When Jesus quotes SCripture, and you go back to read the original which he quotes, you will notice that almost every single time, Jesus either adds something (like the “with all your mind” in Matthew 22:37) or – more often – omits something. And what he omits – almost every time – is the reference in the text he quotes to God’s violent judgment. The most striking example of this is in Luke 4, where he stops reading, essentially mid-sentence, and claims that the SCripture has been fulfilled without God’s violent judgment, as promised in the original. It is this omission that nearly gets him killed on this occasion, and it is not accidental.

      Added to that, is that this non-violence is mirrored in Jesus’ ethics. It is easy to twist Jesus’s words to create a picture of a violent God, but – assuming that Jesus’ ethics and beliefs are aligned, that his ethics are a lving expression of his theology, which I think is a fair assumption – then God is non-violent. Jesus adopts an undeniably non-violent ethic. It is the same ethical stance adopted by the church during the first three centuries of its existence (until – not co-incidentally – it gets political power). Jesus’ rejection of violence was a defining characteristic of his for the early church. Any attempt to project a violent theology of God onto him has to be regarded with suspicion.

      “But to conclude that God is NEVER violent is to infer that there is no condemnation from which to be ‘saved’. If there is no consequence to sin, what need is there for a Savior?” THis makes several assumptions. The first is that it is from God’s punishment that we are saved. This position is arguable. First, the Scriptures that speak to Jesus’ salvific work do not explicitly speak to God’s punishment, ever. They sometimes speak to God’s wrath, but I do not think that wrath and punishment should be conflated. Being saved from sin does not necessarily mean saved from punishment.

      Second, I have never asserted that there is no consequence to sin, only that the consequence to sin is not God’s punishment. Sin is a very real problem, and its consequence is death. But that “death” is a result of the nature of sin, the logical endpoint of walking a sinful path. It does not necessitate that “death” being a punishment meted out by God.

      And so there certainly is a need for a Savior. But it is not God that we need saving from, it is sin (that is, after all, what the Scriptures say – that we are saved from sin, not that we are saved from God). SIn kills. But it kills in the way a terminal disease does. Hence Jesus’ repeated use of a doctor metaphor. Sin requires salvation in the form of a doctor, not in the form of a lawyer.

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      1. We agree that Jesus is the remedy to sin. Jesus came to replace the OT with the NT. Obviously, His intent was to proclaim and promote the GRACE and MERCY of God, NOT His wrath or violence. But, a proper appreciation of the NT requires an equally proper comprehension of the OT – ALL of it.

        “Finding fault with them, he said, Behold, the days come, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… by a new covenant, he has made the first old. Now that which decays and waxes old is ready to vanish away… Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaks better things than that of Abel” – Heb. 8: 8,13; 12:24.

        Remove the violent ritual of sacrifice from the history of Israel and the sacrifice of Christ is worthless. “Walk in love, as Christ also has loved us, and has given Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor” – Eph.5: 2. “Sweet – smelling” indicates an approval. “It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” – Heb. 9: 23.

        We agree – “Jesus adopts an undeniably non-violent ethic.” But to conclude that contradicts and voids the OT record of God’s violence (always in vengeance) is naïve and lacking proper contextual analysis. Especially if in order to substantiate such a claim, you disregard any Scripture references that actually support and proclaim the vengeance of God.

        If we agree that wrath and punishment should be conflated, please offer an alternative explanation to what are the actual consequences of sin. You apparently DID NOT read my Article on “Is Hell a literal Place?” Had you, you would know I do NOT advocate a punishment in judgment, merely an eternal finality to evil. As stated in Jn. 3:16 – two possible destinies: eternal life or perish. Perish I understand to be a perpetual state of disintegration, ceasing to exist, expired, vanished, absolutely voided.

        You would also know that I agree “it is not God that we need saving from, it is sin”. But It is SIN that God incurs His wrath against. Both sin and hell are destined to be cast into the ‘Lake of Fire’. Whatever interpretation (and there are so many) of THAT, it should be agreed that it speaks of finality, ultimate consequence referred to as a terminal destination. Although the related imagery has led many to conclude that such punishment is an endless torture, my research resulted in a much different view.

        God’s anger, wrath, judgment, punishment must be understood not as a perpetual infliction of pain, but rather a just resolution to sin. Just as SIN is separation from God, God’s wrath separates SIN from eternal life. It eliminates the existence of any opposition to God, once and for all.

        Like the pronouncement of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole by a judge, the alternative to eternal life is eternal death. There is no hope of return or resurrection from such a death. Scripture refers to it as the second death. It is without feeling, thought, or existence. It is absolute void, ultimate numbness. Such is the result of the vengeance of God.

        Any explanation for our need of a Savior that excludes the notion of a ransom for iniquity fails to promote a true Gospel. “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many”. – Mt. : 20:28. Ransom is defined in religious terms as to deliver or redeem from punishment for sin. Legally, it means to redeem from captivity, bondage, detention, etc., by paying a demanded price. Both concepts demand an answer: by whose punishment and/or detention are the victims held?

        God required animal sacrifices (rather violent) to provide a foreshadow of the perfect and complete sacrifice of Jesus Christ . Animal sacrifice is an important theme found throughout Scripture because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). We must be careful not to second-guess God, as if our ideas might be better. The shedding of innocent blood, especially the blood of a perfect animal, the unblemished best is hard to reconcile with the loving ethics demonstrated by Christ.

        But Christ Himself agreed to become that perfect, final ransom sacrifice. “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” – 1Jn. 3:8. “What shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour” – Jn. 12:27.

        God has shown His violence to prove His control by providing the remedy Himself in Christ. An idea of a violent God does not infer He needs an anger management class. God is much higher than political correctness and needs no imperfect being helping Him to remedy His flaws. No, God is perfect in all His ways, even the ones we oppose or cannot fully comprehend.

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    1. First, I think if we need to resort to interpreting isolated Old Testament verses in ways that contradict the nonviolent ethic of Jesus, in order to frame an argument that Jesus in fact endorses a violent picture of God, then the core argument is already unstable.

      Second, assuming that this verse is indeed talking about Jesus (and I am not convinced, but let’s assume), what it does not say, is that God will punish us if we do not follow Jesus. That is a projection. What it says is that if we do not follow the Son, our paths will lead to our destruction. That is an entirely different thing. Our destruction is not tied to God’s anger – that is inferred but not explicitly stated, and it would be equally legitimate to hold an interpretation that God’s anger arises out of our refusal to follow the way of Jesus (and I would argue that this means to walk a path committed to nonviolence) because this means that his beloved children are choosing a self-destructive path.

      Of course Jesus is capable of wrath and anger. I am not denying that. I am arguing that from what is evident in Jesus’ ethics and in the trajectory of his teachings, that wrath and anger do not translate into punitive retribution on the part of God, but in forgiveness and mercy. I am not saying that sin does not make God angry. I am saying that sin does not make God violent.

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