When examining the topic of justice, it is helpful if we start from a definition of justice. Here is a definition offered by an English dictionary: “Justice is fairness in your behavior or in the way that people are treated.” It is also used for “the system that a country or other group of people uses in order to make sure that people obey laws and that punishment is given to those people who break the law.” (Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary)
One of the lynchpins of justice and fair treatment is the freedom for us to disagree, or to even be vehemently in opposition to one another while still being treated equally. As we look at God, we see that He has given us all life. From Mother Teresa to Adolf Hitler—even Satan himself—all received their life from God. The Bible tells us, and our experience confirms it, that God provides all the necessities of life to everyone regardless of their predisposition towards Him. He causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on good and the wicked. (See Matthew 5:45)
God really does seem to be treating us equally, at least for now. When asking ourselves, “Can God be trusted?” we really have to look at the end game to see what God is truly like. This is something with which the Christian church has struggled. Because in the final analysis, it seems to many Christians that God is saying this: “Love me and obey me. If you don’t, I’ll tolerate it for a while. But in the end, if you are not on my side, I’ll get you.”
Many have rejected this kind of a God, and rightly so. No matter how many times we say “God is love,” and quote John 3:16, if the end game is that we either love and obey God or He will kill us—or worse still, torture us in flames for eternity—the fact of the matter is that we have a ruthless dictator on our hands. Eternity is an awfully long time to live under His rule.
This has been a question with which atheists and agnostics have taunted the Christian community for a long time. More recently, though, the question has been put squarely in the middle of the Christian community with Pastor Rob Bell trying to wrestle with these exact questions in his controversial book Love Wins.
Sin is not something harmless that merely irritates God, causing Him to forbid all these annoying things on pain of death. No! Sin, in and of itself, is destructive. God advises us to keep away from it for our own good.
What about all that wrath and anger that seem to accompany the final events? There is some interesting imagery describing Jesus’ return, which depicts people running away in terror from an angry—lamb. The key to all this is found in the second half of Romans chapter 1.
vs. 18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. vs. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts… vs. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts… vs. 28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. (see also John 3:19-21)
God simply gives them up to their choice. That is God’s wrath! And you will consistently find this across the Bible.
Whenever the Israelites are going off after idols and their society is deteriorating, God sends a warning: you have aroused my wrath, you have aroused my anger and my justice will be executed upon you. And then what does He say? I will give you up, I will let you be conquered by the nations who worship those same idols that you seem to be so keen on, and you can see how you like them apples. God always gave them up to their choices. Or to put it in terms of justice, God honored their choice.
In the end, God simply honors our choice. You cannot get any fairer than that. If we want to live with God, if we enjoy the kind of atmosphere that God offers, the kind of atmosphere that promotes life and well being, God will honor our choice. We will get to live with Him forever. If we prefer darkness, if we would rather die than live with God in the life-giving atmosphere of heaven, He will honor that choice too. Revelation 22:11 says, “let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.”
Q: Where are the lights turned on? A: At the power station. Over there, they pretty much have just one setting: on. What we have in our homes is a mechanism with which to turn them off. Can you imagine what life would be like if you could never switch anything off? Your electric bill would be huge for one, but the lights and noise of running appliances would drive you insane! So we have buttons on things to shut them off when we don’t need them.
God is like the power station. He has given us life—always on. We are the ones with the on/off switch. We are the ones who choose whether the life that He gave us will be temporary or eternal. Life is a gift from God. Life can only come from God. There is no life apart from God. And so if you reject Him, if you reject His gift of life, the simple truth is that you cannot stay alive on your own; you will die. But you are the one making that choice. This is ultimate freedom. This is ultimate fairness.
What about the punitive aspect of justice? In the end when the wicked are raised back to life, as described in Revelation 20, does Adolf Hitler just get to switch off, die, and that’s it! Doesn’t he need to pay for his crimes? Isn’t the fire in verses 9, 14 & 15 literal? Or is it something else?
Seung-Won Han was a student at Newbold College, UK. He had come from South Korea to the UK, to learn English and build a bright future for himself. He had been there for a little over 2 months and he had just enjoyed going on tour with the college choir during spring break. It was a Monday evening, March 17, 2003, when he went to town with a group of friends from college to have some fun. Unfortunately, the driver had had a bit too much fun during the course of the evening and about midnight was racing back towards the college with his four passengers, driving under the influence. About half a mile from the college, he lost control of the vehicle in a roundabout and slammed the car into a big road sign. Seung-Won was riding in the middle of the back seat. At the impact, he was catapulted through the windshield and landed on the pavement, some 20-30 feet from the car. He died from his injuries.
In a small, close-knit community like Newbold College, which only had about 300 students, this had a very profound impact on all of us. About a week later, Seung-Won’s parents came over to hold a memorial service and take his body back to South Korea. While they were there, his father asked to meet with the young man who drove the car that fateful night. None of us envied him on that appointment. But as we found out what happened at that meeting, tears rolled down all over the campus once again. The father of Seung-Won had embraced the young man and told him that he forgave him and loved him.
And so I have to ask you: What is justice? Is it the 3 years in jail that the court decided would be just punishment for this young man? Is it to carry the guilt, knowing that your actions killed a friend and having to then face his family? Is it the forgiveness of the father? What would have been true justice? It would be for Seung-Won to be restored back to life, would it not? Because in its essence, justice is to make something right after it has gone wrong.
In contrast, the way we try to set things right here on earth is quite limited. We aim for justice by taking away something, usually property or freedom, from the person who took something away from another. And so everyone ends up with less. We often cannot restore a situation to its original state, so we are stuck with punishment as a means of justice, as a way to try and balance things out.
But God is not limited like we are. He has the power to completely restore what has been lost. Seung-Won didn’t want to die, his parents didn’t want him to die. Even the driver didn’t want him to die. So true justice for all, in this case, would have been his restoration to life.
I would be willing to bet you that, if given the choice, those who had lost their loved ones to war and concentration camps, would much rather have their loved ones back than having to settle for seeing Hitler punished. I would bet you that the families of the 3000 people who perished on 9/11 would trade the news of bin Laden’s death any day if they could see their loved one walk through the door again. We can’t do that, but God can.
After all the wrongs of this world, the good news is that God can set all things right by restoring them not just to their original state in a sinful world, but can restore them to His original ideal. God can completely heal and restore. He can restore the loved ones you have lost. He can restore the innocence that was taken away from you. He can restore your health. He can restore your mobility. He can restore your abused body and mind. He can restore this planet and this Universe to peace and happiness. The best news of all is that He will. Revelation 21:1-7 describes the scene:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”
God is just. He deals fairly with everyone, giving them complete freedom to choose. He then honors those choices. His justice is restorative—setting things right by restoring them to their former state, or better. The promise of God’s justice is a promise of hope. It is a promise that we can look forward to. Sin will not rule this world forever. God will restore this world to its original state. He will restore peace throughout the Universe, not by force, but by granting us complete freedom, and by demonstrating His commitment to preserve our freedom at any cost. The day of God’s justice is a day of restoration.
Adapted from a presentation at Friday Night Genesis, June 3, 2011
© David Lorencin