Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Is God Just?


Christians always protray God as being a just judge. But on what basis do they claim God is just? I think primarily it is because they want it to be so; "If God is the ultimate judge, well he better be just." Or if he is not just, then he is not perfect and surely God had better be perfect. At least since the ancient Greeks people have created an ideal of perfection which is ascribed to God. And to Christians perfection includes justice, and so God must be just.

But does this ideal actually correspond to reality? One can mathematically describe a perfect circle, but that does not mean there are any in reality. To decide if this ideal is true, we need evidence. What would make good evidence for God's justice is debateable, but there is one thing that Christians will definitely accept: the Bible. What does the Bible indicate about God's justice?

But before going to the Bible, let me lay the groundwork for my argument. To show that someone is just is hard. Let's take a judge as an example. It would entail going through all (or a very wide sampling) of his cases and confirming that they were justly decided. But to show that a judge is unjust, one simply needs a few examples of unjust decisions. For example, if we found a judge accepting bribes by his clients who he gives favorable decisions to, well we would conclude he is not just, even without going through all his other cases.

We can do an analogous examination of God's judgements that we find in the Bible. For many we do not have enough information to determine whether they are just or not, or it may not be easy to determine from our vantage point. But there is a class of judgements which I believe we can clearly judge as being unjust. This class involves punishing one person for a crime committed by someone else.

What could be more unjust than being punished for someone else's crime? Surely an inherent aspect of justice is that one is punished according to one's crime, which does not happen when one is being punished for someone else's crime. Let me motivate this with two examples. Consider someone steals a car, but the judge sends his neighbor to jail as punishment. Surely that is an injustice, and one would not excuse a judge who did that intentionally and knowingly. Another example of injustice is group punishment. I remember a teacher in school punishing our whole class for making too much noise when it was just a subset of the class that was talking, and certainly not me. Group punishments might be an effective way to control his class but they are not just punishments as some people are punished for the actions of others.

Now on to the Bible. Certainly the writers of various Psalms and the book of Isaiah ascribe justice to God. Such claims are easy to make in the abstract, but are they actually true? To decide that, let's look at some of God's judgements.

Here are three examples, from many possible ones in the Bible, where God punishes or promises to punish someone for the sins of another. The first is God promising to punish children for the sins of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Moses has gone up to meet God, and then God appears to him. Exodus 34:5-7: Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

The important thing to note is that it is not just that children suffer the evil consequences of the sins of their parents. Rather, God says that he [actively] punishes children for the sins of their fathers. Tell me, how can that be just? If that is just, does justice have any meaning?

Now here is another example. Pharaoh won't let the Israelites leave Egypt, so God's final punishment on him is not just a punishment on him only but on everyone in Egypt, recorded in Exodus 11:4-6: 4 So Moses said, "This is what the LORD says: 'About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. 5 Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. 6 There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. Is that just, to kill the firstborn of the slave girl because of Pharaoh's sins? What did she do wrong that God is punishing her? Clearly he is punishing her for Pharaoh's sin.

My final example is recorded in 2 Samuel 24. It starts: 1 Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah." David takes the census, but then apparently that was a great sin: 10 David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the LORD, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O LORD, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing." God's answer is to let him choose his punishment (or actually the punishment on Israel) which turns out to be a plague: 15 So the LORD sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. So God kills 70,000 people as punishment for David's sin. How can that be just? It is not hard to find many more similar examples in the Bible. It seems to me that speaking of God's justice is a form of double-talk. If any one else killed 70,000 people to punish David for his sin, we would call it a grave injustice, but when God does it, Christians call it justice.

There are some potential replies to this argument. One is that sometimes justice entails incidental suffering on others. For example, if a father is sent to prison for his crime, then his family suffers. But note that this incidental suffering is quite distinct from active punishment; if the whole family were sent to prison for the crime of the father we would call that unjust. The examples I listed involved active punishment of the innocent, and not just incidental suffering.

Another reply is that since God gave us life, he can take it away without being unjust. But this reply goes too far. It says justice makes no contraints on God at all with regard to his creation, and so he can do anything at all to us while still being just. That is, saying "God is just" is saying nothing about how God acts towards us. If we are nothing but clay in the hands of a potter, let's scrap the whole pretence of justice; when did clay ever claim to be wronged or demand justice? But actually I think this reply fails for another reason: if one gives someone a gift, one no longer has a right to take it back. So if God has given us life, he does not have a right to take it back whenever he feels like it.

My conclusion is that God, as we see portrayed in the Bible, is not just. Read and see, you will find plenty more examples of God punishing some people for the crimes of other people. Furthermore, if God is not just in this world, why should we think that he will be just in the next? I think Christians have to either give up their cherished ideals of God or else give up the Bible. They can't both be right.

8 comments:

  1. I think your struggle with God's justice is legitimate. It's one that I have wrestled with. But the question for me is backwards. God is holy, which means separate. He cannot be in the presence of sin. We are ALL guilty and deserve the harshest punishment. If you say that someone was innocent and didn't deserve punishment, you are making quite a statement. It's simply not true. We all have sinned and are guilty before God. So it's not that God is unjust in punishing the innocent, it's that He is merciful in not punishing all who rightly deserve it. Something to ponder.
    Joe

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  2. Surely justice requires proportional punishment. Say you drive 5 mph above the speed limit. Would it be just to sentence you to death? I don't think anyone would call that a fair or just punishment. With the same reasoning I claim we do not all deserve the "harshest punishment." What exactly is the crime or "sin" that deserves the harshest punishment? Simply being born? Is that just?

    If your claim is true, then it is meaningless to claim God is just as it benefits no one. We might as well say God is "foo."

    Daniel

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  3. I'm surprised that you forgot the most obvious example in the Bible of someone being punished for others' sins: Jesus.

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  4. That's a good point. Although the doctrines about Jesus say that was voluntary, which changes the picture. Also I didn't want to get into the issue of atonement.

    Daniel

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  5. I'm not sure what you mean by "harshest punishment". It's really a matter of being in God's presence or not being in the presence. And that's something we choose.....just like Jesus who voluntarily went to the cross. We only have two choices. One to accept God's sacrifice for our sins and live with Him or to reject it and live apart from Him. God is simply ratifying our choice....as opposed to "sending" us somewhere for "harshest punishment". It's our choice.

    I'm can't quite relate to the concept that God is not just. If you start with the contention that God and sin cannot occupy the same space then sin must have consequences and must be atoned for. There must be satisfaction for those sins. Knowing that we could not ever satisfy them in and of ourselves, God allowed Jesus to take our place. You seem to know the gospel message. So contrary to being a "benefit to no one", God's justice provides a plan for every person to obtain the rightness of Jesus simply by acknowledging they can't pay the price themselves and that Jesus has already paid it. It is freely offered to all and so is, at least, a potential benefit to everyone. God's justice is served, yet we don't suffer the sentence. What is more just than that?
    Joe

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  6. What do you mean by "God and sin cannot occupy the same space"? Isn't God everywhere including everywhere in this world? Isn't there sin in the world? Then God and sin surely occupy the same space.

    As for the consequences of sin: if someone sins against you, can't you choose to forgive him? Actually you are told by Jesus to forgive others. Then surely God can similarly choose to forgive people. He doesn't need a blood payment; forgiveness dependent on a payment is not true forgiveness. And for that matter nor is blood payment a form of justice, as the person who is guilty is not being punished. Rather, atonement by blood follows the ancient religious practices of appeasing gods by giving them food via sacrifices. So I would accept that blood atonement is a form of appeasement; but do we really believe in a God that must be appeased by the sacrifice of human blood?

    Daniel

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  7. At the beginning of the post you said: "At least since the ancient Greeks people have created an ideal of perfection which is ascribed to God." If you are referring to the Olympian Gods, this is surely incorrect, since they were clearly portrayed as imperfect. If not, what are you referring to?

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  8. Nigel,

    That's true about the Olympian gods; they certainly weren't perfect. But Aristotle's first cause or unmoved mover is an example of perfection that at least Aquinas ascribed to God. And there are various other categories and Platonic forms and ideals such as "one substance" used to describe God and the trinity; these were crucial to defining orthodoxy (see the Nicean creed), and were inherited from Greek philosophy rather than Hebrew prophets.

    Daniel

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