What is Justice and how does it tie to God? This question can take many paths, but I hope to present part of my view here. The approach I take is to first understand how God presents justice. How we see Father and his justice is how we tend to enact it in the world. If we think of God as a vengeful consuming fire, we may lean more towards vengeance. If we see God as a merciful consuming fire, we may lean more towards mercy.
First, I would like to address possibly the most obvious issue—Are punishment and justice correlated? At this point, I would like to say yes to that question, but further explanation will come through the remainder of this post. I may refer to punishment going forward as, often, when justice is sought, it is for reasons of punishment. Therefore, I think it crucial to understand Father’s punishments to understand his justice. We look forward to a day when God will put things right—when justice will be served—but what type of justice are we looking for?
Old Testament Justice
In the Old Testament, we see very long lists of rules, and penalties for breaking them. It is important to mention, however, that all of these penalties were temporal – not punishments relating to the spiritual realm, but to the physical.
Note here that, once the penalty was paid, including if it cost someone their life, there was no more punishment—justice was served in that cultural context. It’s also important to consider here that God came to Israel where they were and was leading that culture forward, one step at a time, and that culture was to lead the entire world forward—to be the salt and light. In effect, the punishments under the Old Covenant were warnings of what that society would bring upon themselves, in the temporal, if the laws were applied in the wrong context (Deut 28).
Punishment and Jesus
It could be helpful to understand how Jesus saw the correlation of justice and punishment (emphasis mine):
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.—Matthew 23:23
Notice here that Jesus ties faith, mercy, and justice together—in other words compassionate justice that would prove faith. This sounds like an oxymoron if just punishment is for vengeance. Not only this, but Jesus states that these were part of the law. By not showing faithful, compassion filled justice, the Pharisees were actually breaking the law as God intended it.
For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.—Matthew 7:2
Here Jesus seems to state that whatever measure used to judge, and thus seek justice, will be used against us. For example, and most likely what Jesus was speaking to, if justice is enacted on others by the standards of the law we’ve defined, eventually it could come back around to bite us in the rear. Much like with Jerusalem in 70 AD, we end up bringing destruction on ourselves if we pursue self-righteous, vengeful “justice” in the name of God and the Law.
Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.—Matthew 10:15
Here is where things get a little more interesting during the inception of the New Covenant; the primary question being—How will this future day of judgment be “more” bearable? At this point, Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed long ago. However, there would be a future spiritual judgment as Jesus now begins alluding to. The interesting thing here is, Jesus states that their judgment would be “more bearable.” How is our common concept of eternal torment any more or less bearable? Will some be burning at 1000 degrees while others at 12oo? This doesn’t seem to make much sense—unless this justice/punishment/mercy conundrum has a different meaning altogether.
Perhaps it would be helpful to look at what punishment is to better understand justice.
Probably one of the most (in)famous passages of eternal “justice” comes from Matthew 25:46. I won’t make this particular post about the societal context of that statement other than to say that I believe Jesus was speaking to Israel specifically here. This doesn’t mean it cannot apply to us at all, but unpacking that here goes a bit beyond the scope of this post.
So, more to the point, I would like to investigate what these words meant: eternal punishment.
Eternal – The Greek word here is aionios, meaning “age of” or “age like.” This is an adjective that modifies something else—in this case, punishment. It is important to note that this word doesn’t translate very well into English as “eternal.” Note also that the same word, aionios, is used by Paul referencing “of the ages” past (Romans 16:25). If the ages were eternal, then how did any of them pass? How did any of them ever make way for another age?
Punishment – So we can see that aionios would be more of an age of punishment, but the question still remains—what does punishment mean? There are two Greek words for punishment in the New Testament.
Kolasis is a corrective “chastisement” for the benefit of the one being corrected.
Timoria is a punishment not for correction, but for the benefit or appeasement of the one doing the punishing—what we might refer to today as vengeance.
It is interesting to note that the former (Kolasis) is used in the eternal punishment passage.
Of all the punishment passages, Timoria is only used once, when the author of Hebrews 10:29 is referencing the coming temporal destruction on “God’s people” (v30, Israel) under the Old Covenant system—those that wouldn’t accept the New Covenant grace Jesus was offering but instead clung to the Old, and the punishments that resulted from their inability to uphold those ways.
So simply stated, the view of final justice under the New Covenant is: Aionios Kolasis—an age of corrective punishment meant for the benefit of the person receiving it. The big questions now are—if hell is suffering that never ends, how does the person receiving it ever benefit? Additionally, if hell is just complete annihilation, how does the person receiving it ever benefit since they’re being annihilated? Likewise, if hell is permanent separation from God, how does the person separated ever benefit?
So why do I go to such great lengths to explain the original Greek here? Our “eternity” doctrines are probably the ones most critical to examine in the light of our God of Love and the purpose for his justice. Like with 1st Century Israel, the Messianic justice we expect may be completely different than God’s plan for all of creation.
Ultimate justice for any crime we can consider was found in Jesus on the cross. In that Jesus was willing to lay down his life for us, we are called to lay down our lives for others. Not just our physical life though, but laying aside everything we hold so vehemently in order to reflect Jesus’ love in us. It’s easy to stake our life on our beliefs because that requires no real change, but it’s hard to live following Jesus in every moment, allowing him to transform us. This is something we learn by following the Holy Spirit within, day by day.
In other words—the depth of our relationship with God reflects in the love we are able to show others—even those we consider the most heinous aggressors—even if it costs us our comfortable way of life.
In the Old Testament, justice for those laws being broken was always related to the temporal. Often those so entangled in injustice were harmed or died when they met justice face to face. In the New, spiritual justice is specified as beneficial to the one receiving it—an age of corrective punishment, meant to change a person eternally.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. With respect to length, I will stop here with one final question: How would our enacting of justice change if pursued from the viewpoint of God’s eternal love—even for our most vehement enemies?