I’ll be honest. For the longest time, whenever people talked about the justice of God, it scared me, because for most of my life, the justice of God was associated with hell. Here’s how it worked.
God wants to let everybody into heaven, but God is just, so God can’t be in the presence of sin, and everyone has sinned and therefore has sin “on” them. Hell is the only alternative to heaven after we die. People go to hell for all eternity because God is just.
That teaching doesn’t make any sense to our modern ears because that understanding of justice is a very old one – but not from the time of the Bible. From the time of St. Anselm.
The first iteration of that understanding of salvation was invented by St. Anselm, a guy who lived in the 11th century, and it used the analogy of a feudal lord being offended by his subject’s disobedience. If a feudal lord was offended in this way, justice required that said subject be punished. God is infinite, so an offense against God was an infinite offense, and therefore deserving of infinite punishment. Voila. St. Anselm may be accused of many things, but illogical is not among them. Mr. Spock would be proud.
Thus goes the teaching of the modern evangelical and fundamentalist streams of Christianity about God’s justice. These people who say they take the Bible so incredibly seriously and literally have substituted scripture’s view of justice for Anselm’s don’t even know it.
But what does the Bible teach about justice?
First: It has nothing to do with hell.
Second: It’s not primarily about doing violence to evildoers. In fact, violence and Biblical justice run counter to each other. Job 19:7 has Job crying out, “Violence!” and not finding the justice he had hoped for. Isaiah 5:7 says, “[The Lord] expected justice, but saw bloodshed.”
Third: It is about protecting the most vulnerable members of society. A Bible search for “justice for” finds this usage almost exclusively.
- [the Lord your God] executes justice for the orphan and the widow (Deuteronomy 10:19)
- O Lord… you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed (Psalm 10:17-18)
- The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. (Psalm 103:6)
- I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor. (Psalm 140:12)
- [the Lord] executes justice for the oppressed… gives food to the hungry… sets the prisoners free… opens the eyes of the blind… lifts up those who are bowed down; …watches over the strangers… upholds the orphan and the widow… (Psalm 146:6-9)
A search for “Justice to” has an equally impressive social justice vibe.
- Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. (Psalm 82:3)
- He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. (Matthew 12:20)
- And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? (Luke 18:7).
Luke 18:7 appears in the context of the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, in which a widow is seeking justice from her legal adversary.
Isaiah talks about justice almost obsessively. I quote below the sections that give us insights as to what Isaiah’s vision of justice looks like.
- [L]earn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
- to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! (Isaiah 10:2)
- “Give counsel, grant justice; make your shade like night at the height of noon; hide the outcasts, do not betray the fugitive; (Isaiah 16:3)
- Isaiah 53:8 says of the suffering servant, who many read as Jesus, “By a perversion of justice he was taken away.” If this passage is speaking of Jesus, no one can say Jesus’ death was part of God’s justice.
- We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. (Isaiah 59:11)
- For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; (Isaiah 61:8)
Justice and salvation, in scripture, go hand in hand. Jeremiah and Ezekiel continue the charge:
- they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy (Jeremiah 5:28)
- Thus says the Lord: Execute justice in the morning, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed (Jeremiah 21:12)
- Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3).
- I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. (Ezekiel 34:16)
- [The King of Heaven’s] ways are justice; and he is able to bring low those who walk in pride.(Daniel 4:37)
- Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity (Micah 3:9)
‘Merica, we have a lot to answer for.
Biblical justice, we see, is not so much executed upon evildoers as it is executed for the righteous and the vulnerable. It is sometimes expressed that way, but that justice is most frequently executed upon those who are taking advantage of the poor and vulnerable in society. Walton family (Wal-Mart’s Waltons, not television’s), watch out. The justice of God be comin’ for ya.
Proverbs 21:3 makes a liar out of Anselm when it says, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” God is not interested in sacrifice. (Other passages show that God detests human sacrifice.) God is interested in justice.
The Bible has a lot to say about justice as it relates to social inequalities and care for the most vulnerable among us, and nothing whatsoever to say about justice’s relationship with hell.
This is a massive deal.
This is a massive deal because wherever one finds Christians who claim to be obsessed with God’s justice as it relates to hell (which is to say, Anselm’s extrabiblical idea), one most often finds Christians who are actively fighting against God’s justice as it relates to social issues!
Scripture’s commands to take special care of the alien (stranger, foreigner) are abjectly ignored by Christians with signs and blogs screaming at Mexicans to go back home and stop taking our jobs and using our healthcare system for free.
Scripture is obsessive in its insistence that rulers do justice for the poor, but everywhere we find Christians banding together with Republicans to fight against economic justice for the poor and the vulnerable; fighting to cut food stamps, SNAP, social security, opposing increasing the minimum wage to force the unrighteous bazillionaires to give their employees enough to survive on.
We have families starving and we have Bible-believing literalist Christians bizarrely insisting, contra scripture, that it’s not the government’s place to execute justice on their behalf. God save us.
And that’s how hell hijacked scripture’s teachings about justice.
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.
12 thoughts on “How Hell Hijacked Scripture’s Teachings on Justice”
The justice of God is restorative. Justice prevents the love of God from acting. Great post!
Thanks! But could you unpack that phrase about “Justice prevents the love of God from acting”? I’m not sure I take your meaning.
Oops. Meant to say Does Not! I.e. there’s no conflict! The justice of God comes from the love of God;)
“Government does play a role, but that role ends when it perpetuates the cycle.” -Quote from my father.
The role of government to enact justice doesn’t end.
In reference to your comments on Hell, check The Parable of the Unrighteous Servant (Mat. 18). Also, The Parable of the Three Servants (Mat. 25).
I do like your point about justice being executed on behalf of the righteous and vulnerable. However, I think that your conferring of the Bible’s admonitions on social justice consists of unwarranted assumptions. Yes, we should be executing justice on behalf of the poor and needy, but I still have problems with the government’s running of the aforementioned public welfare programs in most cases.
Those parables aren’t about hell (neither mentions it) and don’t relate to justice.
It’s honest to admit (as you did) that those problems are yours, rather than claiming they’re scripture’s.
Also, I do no see how St. Anselm’s teachings were refuted here, except perhaps in the case of hell becoming an excuse or distraction for snotty Christians to not help the poor.
Refuting Anselm wasn’t my primary mission. It’s hard to refute a theological position based on scripture when no scripture exists for it, for or against.
I agree with you that there is a huge vision of justice (and also of judgment) in favour of the oppressed, not against people.
Nevertheless, I see you haven’t actually read St Alselm; only heard what some of his detractors had heard from some other people who had had heard… Read the Cur Deus homo. It’s a fascinating book.
In Matthew 3:15, or 2 Corinthians 5:21… This is the justice where St Anselm speaks about.
And, btw, Anselm doesn’t agree with punishment, but with “satisfaction”, and which is not a feudal term…
But the words «justice» and «judgment» are not always in favour of the oppressed. Sometimes they are also against the wicked. Examples: Acts 17:31, John 16:8, Revelation 19:11.
Your critique is correct: I have not read Anselm, merely about Anselm. I’ll have to read up eventually.
Regarding justice, I’m not sure those passages are specifically “against the wicked.”
Acts 17:31 is about Jesus judging the people at the last judgment. In John 16:8, justice is associated with sin and judgment. Reveletion 19 is about Jesus judging (and condemning) the “great whore”.