Occasionally, I get really deep questions turned in on our Sunday Connect Cards, and this past Sunday, I received this one:
I noticed that two of the songs played in service this morning mentioned justice as something God has and uses to demonstrate his goodness. If one of the classic arguments against belief in a personal God is perceived injustice in the Bible – God plays favorites, the wholesale slaughter of thousands of men, women, children by the Hebrews, the concept of Hell, etc. – how should we answer that charge? On a less philosophical level, how should Christians demonstrate the ideal of God’s justice in our daily lives? How do we commit to something so ephemeral and confusing?
This is such a big question that I responded to the author by email but thought it might be worthwhile to post it here as well. What follows is my response.
You are right that one of the classic arguments against God is that for one who is supposed to be loving and righteous and all powerful, there seem to be many cases of injustice that are either caused by Him or allowed by Him. Let me take your questions in sequence.
How should we answer that challenge?
What you are describing has traditionally been called the “Problem of Pain” when it comes to God. The specific formulation you have used focuses on injustice, but the argument is roughly the same. In essence, the question is whether it is rational to accept that a good, loving, all-powerful being can coexist with human suffering.
For people who conclude it is irrational to believe in such a God in the face of human suffering or injustice, there is almost never an argument that will convince them otherwise, but there are a few important considerations. First, we need to understand the logic of the argument against God.
That argument goes something like this:
- A good and loving being desires the happiness of his fellow beings.
- An all-powerful being can make his desires become reality.
- Evil, tragedy, injustice and suffering are real.
- Therefore, an all-powerful being who is also good and loving does not exist.
If items 1, 2 and 3 are true, then #4 must logically also be true.
However, strong arguments can be made for 1, 2, and 3 not being entirely accurate. First of all, a good and loving being does not desire “happiness” for fellow beings; rather, a good and loving being desires something we might call fulfillment for the beings around him. A good and loving parent does not seek for his or her child to be happy all the time. Instead, a good and loving parent may seek for a child to experience some painful punishment so to redirect that child toward a more fulfilling life. Further, a good and loving being never seeks momentary fulfillment, but long-term, maximum fulfillment.
In other words, the Christian response to #1 is to say this: A good and loving being desires long-term, maximum fulfillment for his fellow beings, even if that fulfillment involves momentary discomfort.
Secondly, some Christians have countered point #2 by appealing to human free will. Their claim is that God’s Omnipotence (all-powerful-ness) doesn’t mean he can do anything at all, but that he can only do what is logically consistent with reality and his own character. Therefore, God’s Omnipotence is somehow limited by the free choices of those people to whom he has granted free will. By his own character, he has given people free will, so to act in a way that overrules human free will would be to act in contradiction to his character, something he cannot do. In some measure, then, free will is a higher priority for God than human happiness.
In other words, some Christians respond to #2 by saying this: An all-powerful being will always make his ultimate desires reality even if it requires the laying aside or sacrifice of secondary desires.
Thirdly, there is actually a way to reconsider point #3 above. The problem as it stands is that to say evil and suffering exist is rather too simplistic. There are multiple kinds of suffering. A man who stabs a knife into the belly of another is not creating suffering that is physically any different from the surgeon who removes someone’s appendix, but no one would read of those two stories and conclude they were equivalent. In fact, everyone sees the latter suffering as what we might call purposeful suffering. After all, we have grown accustomed to referring to some forms of violence as “senseless” violence because we understand that other forms of violence might be purposeful.
In other words, the Christian response to #3 is this: Purposeful suffering exists.
Finally, the Bible very clearly adds one more consideration to this question: That is, all human suffering is temporary with the exception of the Lake of Fire final judgment. (I won’t get into the theories on that here.) The contrast to this, of course, is that heavenly bliss is eternal.
In other words, the fourth Christian point is this: Earthly suffering is temporary by nature but heavenly fulfillment is eternal.
Therefore, the proper Christian counter-argument goes something like this:
- A good and loving being desires long-term, maximum fulfillment for his fellow beings, even if that fulfillment involves momentary discomfort.
- An all-powerful being will always make his ultimate desires reality even if it requires the laying aside or sacrifice of secondary desires.
- Some earthly suffering has a purpose.
- All earthly suffering is temporary, but heavenly fulfillment is eternal.
- Therefore, the notion of a good, loving, all-powerful being is perfectly consistent with the current reality of suffering.
I hope that helps you with the philosophical side of things.
How should Christians demonstrate the ideal of God’s justice in our daily lives?
For your “less philosophical” question, we have to start by thinking about what “the ideal of God’s justice” means. The problem with the notion of justice, as you have noted, is that it is ephemeral and confusing, but it really shouldn’t be. It is confusing because the human notion of justice has, just like the human notion of suffering, been corrupted from “God’s ideal.” Humans consider all suffering to be bad even though when pressed, we understand that some suffering is beneficial. Likewise, humans consider justice to be equivalent with something called fairness or equality. That is, much of the human language about justice eventually comes down to statements like these:
- Everyone should have an equal chance for success.
- People who are somehow disadvantaged should be given greater attention and assistance to give them the same chance of success as others.
- Everyone should be tolerant of everyone else’s positions except for the position of intolerance.
- All opinions are equally valuable.
We could list many more phrases that come from our modern understanding of justice. However, the ancient understanding of justice incorporated phrases like these:
- Everyone gets what they deserve.
- Men deserve more pay than women because they are the primary source of income for their families.
- Some people are detrimental to society as a whole and they should be expelled from that society.
- People who have stupid opinions should be publically vilified.
You see, our modern notion of justice is “individual” justice. This justice seeks to produce balance among all the individuals. In fact, the recent movie “Batman Begins” defines justice as exactly that: balance. However, the ancient notion of justice was societal justice. That justice sought to maintain the integrity of the society. One focuses on society and strives for “integrity” while the other focuses on individuals and strives for “balance.”
The problem is that in both cases, notions of integrity and balance are vaguely defined and therefore questions of right and wrong and how to correct what’s wrong are viewed from two different perspectives. Currently, much of our political debate between the Republicans and the Democrats is really a debate between these two notions of justice.
Nevertheless, over both cases, we can identify a unified definition of justice as something like this: Justice is doing what’s right and righting what’s wrong.
Based on that definition, we actually have something to go on when it comes to Christians living out God’s ideal of justice in our daily lives. All we have to do is consider what God would mean by doing what’s right and what God would consider righting what’s wrong.
Consider this verse:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. — Micah 6:8
In this verse, there are three concepts: walk humbly with God, act with justice, love mercy. In this context, justice refers to living according to God’s law for human interaction while mercy refers to a desire to offer people what they don’t necessarily deserve. Jesus would condense the two concepts of justice and mercy into the one concept of love when he declares the greatest commandment:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” — Mark 12:30-31
In defining this kind of love, Jesus reminds people that the golden rule is our standard for how we should treat others, and total surrender is the standard for our relationship with God.
Therefore, according to this idea, “justice” or doing the right thing boils down to the two elements of first, relentless personal obedience to God, as an individual (there is no notion in Jesus’ greatest command about imposing that obedience to God on others), and second, doing for others exactly what you would have them do for you were the tables turned.
Put in that context, much of the current debates lose power. If I were the person in need, I would appreciate BOTH governmental assistance AND a personal relationship with someone who could be a mentor, advocate, and friend. I would want the challenge to use my time and talent more effectively, but I would want the environment to be set up so I could actually use my time and talent. I would want HELP to become more personally CAPABLE so that I could eventually become more RESPONSIBLE. See, if I were the person in need, I would want a solution that is simultaneously, systemic, personal, and uplifting. I don’t want someone to just hand me a fish, nor do I want someone to hand me a pole, but I want someone to take me fishing, give me my first pole, and maybe even give me a few of their fish as they train me to do it myself.
So, from the perspective of Jesus and the teaching of the Bible, justice and mercy must always go hand in hand under the umbrella of Golden Rule Love, and all of that must find it’s place under the larger umbrella of me living in personal total surrender to God.
So what does that mean for daily living? I think it boils down to a few things:
- The Christian who wants to work for justice must be first of all living in humble submission to God, doing what he is doing because of God, and according to God’s guidelines.
- The Christian who wants to work for justice must consistently ask of every justice issue, “What would speak love to me were I in that person’s shoes?”
- The Christian who wants to work for justice must seriously research the social dynamics of societal systems, mental health, economics, etc. so that efforts to speak love into the lives of others will be maximally effective.
- The Christian who wants to work for justice must use whatever influence he or she may have, politically, economically, personally to speak love into the lives of others and to draw others to join the cause.
What does it mean for you and for me? It means we should strive to understand the systems at play which lead to situations of perpetual inequity, and we should strive not for the building of equity, but for the showing of love.
How you live that out and how I live that out is going to be different for each of us, but it must ultimately be motivated by the desire to serve God and love others.
With that perspective, justice isn’t confusing at all. It’s just asking the question of the Golden Rule over and over from the perspective of total surrender to God.
One final thought on God’s judgment
I want to say just one more thing. Much of our thinking about justice requires that we also think about judgment. The process of righting what’s wrong seems to always include punishing the wrongdoers, and therefore, any notion of God’s justice must also consider God’s judgment. Again, one component of justice is righting the wrongs, and one component of righting wrongs is judging evil. On this point, the Bible is also very clear. Judgment in the sense of punishment or condemnation is always and only the prerogative of authority. Wrongdoing in the church is to be handled with church discipline. Wrongdoing in society is to be disciplined by the authorities of that society. Sin is to be judged by God himself in the last days.
Where we fail is when the person without authority offers judgment. When we condemn or disdain our brothers and sisters, we do so in sin because we do so without the proper authority. Therefore, justice implies judgment only when the actor for justice also holds the authority to judge. Without authority, justice allows no room for judgment, revenge, or anything like it.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear what you think about all this. Leave a comment below with your own feedback.