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The Evolution of Justice

Adapted from a sermon by F. Earle Fox
at the Mustard Tree, Vista, CA, September 25, 2005

Theodicy is the justifying of the ways of God to our human ways of thinking. That may seem like an arrogant enterprise. Who are we to ask God to justify His ways to our ways of thinking? But we are impelled into the quest, for we must think, and God has called us to reason together with Him (Is. 1:18). That means we must try to make sense of what God is doing from our own, however limited, rational means.  It is not so hopeless a task as many have thought....

A bit of background. I was a Christian long before my college years majoring in philosophy. I then told the Lord that I wanted to be a Christian, but that He had to make sense. To which He replied with two thumbs up. God holds the intellectual high ground and is inviting us to join Him there. As in... "Come, let us reason together...." (Isaiah 1:18)

So, we rightly ask, how can we reconcile the justice of God with our own need for compassion, love, and salvation?

1. Vendetta Law

At the Fall in Genesis 3, the human race stepped off the sustaining Hand of God. We no longer trusted His provision for our lives. And we distanced ourselves from His Voice. Having disobeyed His command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we lost our vision, our understanding, our personal contact with Him. We closed our defensive circle against Him and against our neighbor, violating our own very purpose for existence given in the two Great Commandments.

This led, first to the murder of Abel by Cain, and then to that strange figure, Lamech, who announced to his wives: "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice: you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy fold." (Gen. 4:23 ff.)

Lamech invented vendetta law, unlimited reprisal, made notorious in America by the Appalachian Hatfields and McCoys. "You insult me, I will take out you and your clan." 

Justice had fallen out of balance, out of reality-control, and was now at the service of personal hatred and vengeance. Anyone associated with the offender was your enemy.

And, tragically, the human race began to see God in that same light, as reflected in Old Testament history, and illustrated by God's apparent vengeance against His enemies -- the slaughter, for example, of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. There is a story somewhere in Hebrew lore of a conversation in heaven taking place as the waters swept back over the Egyptians. The angels were singing and dancing with delight. God responded: "Will you sing and dance while my Egyptian people are being annihilated?" The Hebrew spirit understood the tragic circumstances to which sin leads us -- and the need to find a different perspective from which to view the event.

In Numbers, chapter 16, we read of the rebellion against God and Moses by Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who wanted to lead the people back to Egypt.

And the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron, "Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment." And they fell on their faces, and said, "O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt thou be angry with all the congregation?" And the Lord said to Moses, "Say to the congregation, Get away from about the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram."

So they got away from about the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, together with their wives, their sons, and their little ones.

And then the Lord caused the earth to swallow them up, families and all. Moses had pled for the lives of those not guilty, and God honored that request to the extent of not destroying all Israel, but the families of the rebels were destroyed.

Abraham had earlier pled with God about the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:25), "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Both Abraham and Moses appeal to God as creator and sovereign over all things.

One asks, "Does God need Abraham's or Moses' instruction on mercy?" No, of course not. There is a clue here to something afoot. God is in charge, and He knows what He is doing. So what sense are we to make of this?

My understanding of the text is that the Holy Spirit within Abraham and Moses was prompting them to challenge their own distorted image of God as enforcing vendetta law, to wipe out persons in the family or tribe who were personally guiltless. God was teaching and challenging them to challenge their own vision of Him. They had thought it was their own idea, but God did not seem to mind who took the credit.

The voice of the Spirit comes, sometimes, up from the deep levels below our own consciousness, so that we too think it is our idea. Paul tells us in Romans 8:26-29:

Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for [and in] us with signs to deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for [and in] the saints according to the will of God.

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the Image of His Son....

God was conforming the image of Himself in Abraham and Moses to the Image of His Son.

In Exodus 21:23-4 (around 14-1200 BC), we read, concerning harm done by one to another:

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth....

That is sometimes called the lex talionis (law of retaliation).  In our "enlightened" age, we think of that as harsh and unkind, what might be called the "cruel and unusual punishment" forbidden by our American constitution. But at the time of Moses, this was a limiting of vendetta law, a limiting of the amount of retribution you could exact from your enemy. For that time, it was a friendly amendment, not a cruel and unusual one.

In II Kings 14:5-6 (possibly in the 800's BC), we begin to see again a resurgence of the limitation on vendetta law. Amaziah had been made king. His father had been slain by his own servants, who then, for whatever reasons, made Amaziah king. We read:

And, as soon as the royal power was firmly in his hand, he killed his servants who had slain the king, his father. But he did not put to death the children of the murderers; according to what is written in the book of the law of Moses, where the Lord commanded, "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, or the children be put to death for the fathers; but every man shall die for his own sin". [Deut. 24:16]

The Hebrews struggled to find consistency on the issue, but the pressures of tradition, of clan, and of their terribly fragile social structures, mostly due to ignorance of and disobedience against the Lord, were more than they could resist. So they continually fell back into vendetta law, tarring the whole family and clan with the sins of the leaders, and did not see what God was telling them. One of the most difficult events to explain is Samuel's command to Saul to annihilate the Amalekites (I Sam. 15).

The Hebrews were not yet clear and consistent about the role of the individual in community. Justice was thus often applied with a broad brush, not fine-tuned to the individual guilty party.

There are more things than we can consider here, of course, but we need to raise these issues in order to see where God was leading the Hebrews.

The Hebrews went through four stages in their evolutional development of justice. Note that I use 'evolutional' in the descriptive sense, not implying a Darwinian notion of random selection. Their evolving was guided by the word of God to them (and often derailed by their disobedience).  Intelligently designed, not random. God's ideas were not evolving, only our ideas about Him. 

The first stage for the Hebrews was this wrestling with vendetta law.

2. Personal Responsibility

The second stage, which was drawn out of them by God slowly over centuries, beginning from the very start with Abraham, was an emerging sense of individuality and personal (vs. group) responsibility.

This morning's Old Testament lesson from Ezekiel 18 was a major turning point in this development of Hebrew religion. We, of a "more sophisticated" age, miss the point because we are saturated in individualism.

Every ancient culture began immersed in nature, tribe, clan, family. Only the Biblical culture was able to sustain its rise above that to a healthy sense of individuality.

But here with Ezekiel, God is no longer speaking incognito as with Moses and Abraham. "Ezekiel, this is God speaking! Tell this to the people!" Here, who gets the credit counts because the life of the whole people is at stake.

What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge"? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine, the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine; the soul that sins shall die. (18:1 ff.)

I.e., "The father and the son are distinct persons, and both are individually responsible to Me".

You can hear the struggle in the Ezekiel story. The point is repeated over and again. And the Hebrews reply to God that He is wrong:

Yet you say, "The way of the Lord is not just." Hear now, O house of Israel: Is My way not just? is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die for it; for the iniquity which he has committed he shall die. Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life. (vs. 25 ff.)

The key to the message is verses 31-2:

Cast away from you all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against Me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn, and live.

The Lord is saying, "Why are you rejoicing at the death of my Egyptian people? Rejoice at your deliverance, but not at their death! They were created and destined for glory. My intent is to save them as well as you. And if you will obey Me, I will continue to do it through you."

This transformational understanding of individual personhood is the key and foundation for the development over two millennia later of western individualism -- in a healthy sense. We see the rise of a democratic republic and equality before the law.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." No other religion or philosophy said that (or could have said that), only Biblical religion.

"Behold, all souls are mind, the soul of the father and the soul of the son." And we learned to add explicitly and out loud what was already implied -- the soul of the mother and of the daughter and the souls of all races.

We are fast returning to a paganized view of life.  The Judeo-Christian community must return to that Biblical understanding of the eternal value in the mind of God of the souls of the unborn and of the weak and infirm -- all made in His image.  

So, we have the first two stages,
(1) vendetta law, and (2) the development of personhood and individual accountability -- leading to the third stage.

3. From Punishment
to Forgiveness

Punishment generally means getting even with an offender, balancing a moral ledger book, making the offender "pay up for" his offenses. God is not in the least interested in such a process. He does keep accurate account of our moral condition. That is not in order to balance a ledger, however, but to show us the way to repentance and life. We must see the problem in order to resolve it.

The direction of Biblical revelation moves toward, not the abolishing of the law and the prophets, but the fulfilling of them (Mt. 5:17).

When Jesus says, in Matthew 5:38...

You have heard that it was said, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". But I say too you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also...,

...He is putting to rest the last vestiges of the vendetta law. He is telling us to act like His Father acts, to not balance a ledger book, but rather to spend oneself in ways to set the relationship right. The Way of the Cross.

That is precisely the "evolutionary" process. God is drawing His people into a deeper and more accurate perception and participation in His own life. That life, and the purpose for existence of the whole cosmos, is defined in the two Great Commandments, to love God and neighbor. God is raising up a community, a family, a kingdom. All of this is foundational to the Old Testament, upon which the New Testament is built.

This law of love is applied by God to all creatures, no exceptions. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

How is this to be worked out in the Christian life? How can we maintain both love and justice? If the aim is forgiveness, not punishment, how can forgiveness not be a whitewash?

We learn how God goes about this in our Epistle lesson, Philippians 2:1-13. The Son of God empties Himself to become a person like ourselves. And, in the emptying, our Judge makes Himself our Servant. If that seems like spiritual fluff, when was the last time you did that for those who offended you?

If our Judge is our Servant, then His judgement is saving, not condemning. Judgement is simply telling the truth, turning on the light, as in John 3:19.

We create our own negative judgement when the light is turned on and we head for the bushes because we prefer our sins to the light. We create our own positive judgement when we head for repentance and the Light.

In John 8:31, Jesus tells us that if we keep His word, we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. If we believed that, we would pursue light and truth at any cost to ourselves.

The law, as we learned at a recent mealtime reading, is not an imposition, but a goal. The law is God's signpost to heaven. Obey Me and you will arrive here with Me. The law is a prescription for life, not death.

Jesus said that the law (the sabbath) was made for man, not man for the law. God is interested in persons, not laws. Laws are here only to help us find the life that God has for us.

God's purpose is therefore to bless us -- at any cost to Himself. "I have no pleasure in the death of a sinner, but that he repent and live...."

So the whole almighty power, omniscience, and judgement of God are aimed at our redemption, at our salvation, at our health and welfare, not at our death.

If all the omni-powers of God are aimed at our salvation, would not that lead to universalism? the belief that every person will be saved? Who can resist God?

The answer to that leads to the fourth stage.

4. Judgement as Sifting
& Self-selection

There is a fly in the universalist ointment -- our freewill. God is creating a freewill covenant, in which all participants must choose reasonably and freely. That means that God cannot coerce, browbeat, or threaten us into His kingdom. He has limited Himself to persuading and inviting -- "reasoning together" (as He calls to us in Isaiah 1:18). That, too, is unique to Biblical religion. No other religion or philosophy says that about Ultimate Reality.

But, we must "choose this day whom we will serve...." God will force us to choose. That is built into the nature of life. Which choice we make, for or against God, will be wholly in our hands. But choose we must. When He turns on the Light (judgement), either we choose to move into the Light with Him, or we choose to move into the dark, ultimately all by ourselves.

But if God is completely for our entering His kingdom, then how do we get into hell? What is left of judgement? Has moral accountability been evaporated into sentimentality? No, Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it.

We self-select hell by our own choice.

We have the freedom to choose the Kingdom of God, but God and God alone defines the terms of the Kingdom. He will not change those terms one whit. We either agree or not. Our choice is to enter (or not) the Kingdom on the terms God has given. That is the choice we have and the choice we are forced to make.

The "forcing" is quite simple. God is continually sifting us through the decisions of our lives. "I have you right where you need to be to do your growing," He keeps reminding me. The terms of the freewill covenant, of the Kingdom, are given, the light is turned on, and we are seen to be moving either toward the Kingdom with our attitude and behavior, or we are moving away. John 3:19. There is no coercion, just light and freedom. But the sifting is inescapable. The wheat and the chaff self-select.

Self-selection is illustrated by our Gospel lesson, Matthew 21: 28-32, the story of the two sons who are asked by their father to work in his vineyard. One says "no" but does, the other says "yes" but does not. They thus self-select their way into good (or bad) relationship with their father. The Kingdom is just so. We self-select our way into (or out of) a good relationship of trust and obedience with our heavenly Father -- the primary conditions and terms of the Kingdom being trust and obedience. Since our heavenly Father is the only possible source of being and of moral direction, we self-select ourselves into our out of life itself.

The first son revealed his bond with his father by his attitude and behavior, repentance and obedience. It was a freewill bond. The second son did likewise in the opposite direction. Our inner attitude will always, in the end, determine our outward behavior -- obedience or rebellion.

God says, "Go work in My vineyard." We can fake it with our fellow humans, but not with God. And in the end, we cannot fake it even with our fellows. The Light shines, and all things are revealed. God flushes us out into the open with the decisions we are forced by the circumstances of our lives to make. Sooner or later, we show our true colors.

The principle is illustrated in the parable of the Last Judgement (Matthew 25:31 ff.). Those invited into the Kingdom by Jesus have reached out, unknown to themselves, to Jesus, represented in the Imago Dei in which every human being is created. They, unknowingly selected (or unselected) the Kingdom.

C. S. Lewis likewise illustrates this in The Great Divorce. Those who do not want what God is offering trudge off with determination back to hell, which, they feel, is more to their liking. God gives us what we ask for. And that is the judgement. Simple, clean, and absolutely accurate.

And the principle is illustrated in Jesus' handling of Peter. He draws Peter into the circumstances where the coward in Peter, which Peter would not recognize, was forced into the open. The same thing happened with Judas. Peter repented, Judas continued to take things into his own hands.

5. Final Summation

As we move through those four stages,
(1) vendetta law,
(2) personal responsibility,
(3) forgiveness replaces punishment, and
(4) judgement as self-selection,

the perfect love of God is revealed:

    His unremitting compassion;

    His truthfulness;

    His righteousness;

    His gracefulness;

    His invitation for us to join Him in all of those things, to stand with Him on the high
                 ground of the Kingdom;

    His respect for our own choice; and

    His absolute majesty.

It does not get any better than that.

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