What is justice? It seems that in ordinary parlance justice has come to mean the assignment of punishments to those who have broken the law and harmed others. It is understood as a publicly endorsed process of vengeance. Justice equals punishment. But this is a truncated and thus false understanding of justice. One might as well look at at hand and call it a human. The human hand is distinctively and wonderfully human but it still fails to express the fulness of what it means to be human.
Justice, more fully expressed, is a contract in which a society agrees that all members of the society should be treated fairly and respectfully. It is a broad agreement to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Matthew 7.12).
Enforcement of justice is the unhappy necessity that results when the ruthless conclude they are entitled to exploit the weak and harm those who stand in their way. For the sake of society, the ruthless must be stopped. The ideal societal, God’s Kingdom, will exclude the ruthless altogether. In God’s case, absolute power establishes justice absolutely. In the ideal world everyone will be filled with delight to be in a society where all is congeniality and the absence of crime.“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” – Hebrews 10.16.
Imagine a world of mutually conscientious people. No locks or alarms on our houses and cars. No locks on the doors at Best Buy. No passwords on our computers and no hacking. No guns. No police. No armed forces. No military budgets. No jails. No marketing of useless and dangerous products. No human trafficking. No refugees. It would be an incredibly different and better world. We have become accustomed or, at least, resigned to our dysfunctional world. Christians call human inclination to injustice, “original sin”. All humans are infected with this humanly incurable spiritual disease. Scientific materialists call it survival of the fittest, I suppose. Progressives call it everyone else’s fault. God tells us that we must love one another. He is patient but, in the end he will not tolerate anything else.
Society spends much of its resources on various means of security. We keep hundreds and thousands of kids in dysfunctional schools, not because we imagine we are educating them, but in hopes that keeping them off the street will keep them away from crime. (It is not a plan that is working.) Our jails are full and overflowing. People with sufficient funds move to neighborhoods where crime is less prevalent, leaving the most vulnerable to suffer at the hands of those most likely to exploit them.
After the George Floyd law enforcement fiasco, there were many across the country who took up the call to “defund the police”. Not all people…certainly not all black people think defunding the police is a good idea. The following comes from an essay by Jason L. Riley, less than a month after George Floyd was killed. “The Chicago Sun-Times reports that 18 people were killed on one Sunday, May 31, ‘making it the single most violent day in Chicago in six decades.’ Over the full weekend, ‘twenty-five people were killed in the city, with another 85 wounded by gunfire.’ None of these deaths or shootings involved police, so there will be no massive protests over them, no tearful commentary on cable news and social media, no white politicians wrapped in Kente cloth taking a knee for photographers.
“Sadly, the only thing remarkable about the episode is that it occurred in the middle of a national discussion about policing. The political left, with a great deal of assistance from the mainstream media, has convinced many Americans that George Floyd’s death in police custody is an everyday occurrence for black people in this country, and that racism permeates law enforcement. The reality is that the carnage we witness in Chicago is what’s typical, law enforcement has next to nothing to do with black homicides, and the number of interactions between police and low-income blacks is driven by crime rates, not bias. According to the Sun-Times, there were 492 homicides in Chicago last year, and only three of them involved police.
“So long as blacks are committing more than half of all murders and robberies while making up only 13% of the population, and so long as almost all of their victims are their neighbors, these communities will draw the lion’s share of police attention. Defunding the police, or making it easier to prosecute officers, will only result in more lives lost in those neighborhoods that most need protecting.”
There were a few locations around the country in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing that pulled back police oversight. Those places quickly were overrun by anarchy. The sad fact is, and I dearly wish it were a lie, that all people are selfish, and many people become vicious and are content to exploit, steal and kill others until they are stopped from doing so. Every society in the history of the world has required policing of one sort or another.
It is only because people are so infected with sin that justice is so preoccupied with law enforcement. But the purpose of law enforcement is to establish society in which people can safely conduct their lives. People want the freedom to be able to work their jobs, earn their pay, and apply their pay to their interests. They want to apply their resources to dwelling places, clothes, food, family and friends, social groups and churches, as well as various recreational pursuits. The enforcement arm of justice helps this take place by removing the uncooperative from the scene (jail, execution) and in requiring restitution (fines, community service). There is joy in the community when a criminal leaves the world of crime and becomes a contributing member of society.
What, then, is the application of this understanding of justice in the context of an everlasting universe? If God is to establish a new Kingdom that is filled only with people whose hearts have been spiritually surgically corrected so that they act only according to the Law of Love, what need is there for policing, trying, judging, and sentencing? There is none. None of these will continue to exist.
But what of the wicked? What of those who preferred to live according to their own designs, who decided that they were the best judges of right and wrong and who, consequently, often judged badly? What of those people who turned their backs on their Creator and who refused his grace and wisdom? What will God do with them? What does justice demand? What we see over and over is that justice is most interested in the fair treatment and protection of the innocent and the weak. Justice approaches the wicked in two basic ways. First, it calls on those who have unfairly taken from others to return and restore what they have taken. This is not always possible, and the wicked are typically either incapable or unwilling. The second way is to remove the wicked from society in order to prevent them from continuing their abusive practices. Sometimes this has meant imprisonment. Sometimes banishment. The most decisive judgment has always been a permanent separation, which is to say, a sentence of death. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. – 2 Peter 3.9.
The following is a selection of verses about justice. They are not exhaustive, by any means, but they are representative.
When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers. – Proverbs 21.15. The point is not that the righteous are filled with joy that evildoers are filled with terror. The point is that proper justice protects the righteous from exploitation and brutal treatment. The wicked generate their wealth and power as parasites. Justice disconnects them from their means, and it puts an end to their parasitic practices.
Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! – Amos 5.24. The metaphor here is not of a flood that overwhelms the countryside. Justice is seen as a constant source of life. We must have water to live. Justice is a blessing, so the cities are to be built along the riverbanks.
The LORD longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him! – Isaiah 30.18. Grace, compassion, and justice are intertwined.
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. Many people consider this their favorite Bible verse. In it justice, mercy, and humility are intertwined.
This is what the LORD Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another”. – Zechariah 7.9. Justice, mercy, and compassion are intertwined.
The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. – Psalm 33.5. Justice, righteousness, and love are intertwined.
Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: Instruction will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm. – Isaiah 51.4,5. Justice is fundamentally a blessing from God.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. – Matthew 5.38,39. This is a quote from Jesus. He is not suggesting a lifestyle of enabling wickedness. What he is suggesting is that violence tends to carry on as endless cycles of revenge. Grace can absorb violence. Many people, being granted the last word or the last punch, are surprised by grace. It is enough to get them to stop and realize that peace is better for everyone. But grace does not work on everyone. The same Jesus who said, “turn the other cheek,” also warned of a judgment to come. Grace also calls for repentance. Those who refuse to repent will eventually be punished.
Jesus was quoting Exodus 21.23-25: But if there is harm,then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. The point of the Exodus passage is that punishment is to be proportional and related to the crime committed. Proportionality was and is relevant. Disproportionality was introduced into the world by Cain. Cain presented God with a half-hearted offering, while his brother, Abel, presented a pleasing offering to God. Cain was filled with jealousy. He took offense, and he got his revenge by killing his brother. This spirit of revenge was passed down the line to Cain’s progeny. Cain’s great-great grandson was named Lamech, who embraced disproportionality as his life’s motto: Lamech said to his wives:“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:I have killed a man for wounding me,a young man for striking me.If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” Justice, as presented by Jesus, is a move away from disproportional revenge, to proportional punishment, to grace that promotes repentance and restoration for all parties. While it is clear that punishment is reserved for those who refuse to sign on to the social compact of justice, God’s clear aim is to preserve and glorify people. Destruction is the last resort. Punishment that inflicts pain and misery forever is in the spirit of Lamech. It is in a spirit opposed to the Spirit of God.
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. – Isaiah 1.17. Justice is not defined in terms of the punishment it brings to the wicked; it is defined in terms of the good done for the needy.
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. – Leviticus 19.15. Justice is about fairness. It is a fundamental statement about the equal value of all humans. This valuation is not based on money or power or achievements or aptitude. It is based on the more fundamental attribute common to all people, namely, being created in the image of God himself.
Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever. For the LORD loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish. The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever. – Psalm 37.27-29. These verses are clear about justice being a blessing. But those who refuse to abide by justice will be completely excluded from its benefits. Notice that they are not sent to a prison to rot forever; they are destroyed.
Justice is about the establishment of a perfect society. The primary work of God’s justice is not the elimination of the wicked, though this is clearly a part of the project. The primary work is the establishment of a people whose heart is in sync with God’s. All people have committed brutalities against others that would keep them from God’s kingdom. But Jesus Christ served our punishment. He died. He did not suffer torment forever. It was his death that served as a substitute for the sins of all who would look to him with trust.
But having the punishment of sin cancelled is not enough. To enter the kingdom a person must also have the heart of God. God puts his Spirit in all those who trust in him. The Spirit is a downpayment and a promise. We still struggle with the shackles of sin, but God promises a complete victory here, as well. He works on his people in their earthly lives, sanctifying them and helping them to grow in wisdom. But there remains one last big jump, which comes with the resurrection of the dead. When the Faithful are raised from death, not only will their bodies be incorruptible, so, too, will be their spirits. The hearts of God’s people will have no room for anything that is unjust. And the place of the new earth will have no room for any one who is unjust. And, so, there will be justice in the new earth.