Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Human Jurisprudence and Divine Justice

If justice means giving each person his due, then there is no justice in human legal systems.

Suppose, for example, that a small girl is murdered. How will you recompense her parents? You can’t. You can sentence the murderer to death by hanging or to life in prison with hard labor and no parole, but no matter what you do to him, none of it will make the parents whole, because none of it will bring back their little girl. The murderer may have gotten what he deserves, but the parents and family haven’t, and of course neither has the deceased child.

Or suppose you are a man and you are gang raped by a bunch of other men, and beaten and left to die, and you spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair. Can human legal systems give you back what you’ve lost? Make the trauma and the horror never have happened? Let you walk again? No. No matter what the court does to the rapists, it will not compensate you one iota. It may uselessly gratify your hostility some, but indulging your hostility will actually further harm you as a person. (It will make your hostility grow, too, and crave further gratification.)

There is no true justice in human systems of jurisprudence. They cannot restore a life or make the damage disappear. But God can. No, what God does is even better than that: He transforms the trauma and the injury into something whereby we benefit, profit, grow, so we end up better off than we might have been, had it not happened. We get back all we had lost and much, much more.

God’s justice, then, consists of putting things back to rights. His justice means righting the wrongs, correcting them, rather than uselessly retaliating. His justice means making things as good as they originally were but even better, far better. God’s Justice means when he encounters evil, He transforms it into a good that would otherwise not have existed. Justice is perfecting His creation, damaged by sin. Justice means abolishing wrong, eliminating evil, exterminating death. It means healing the sick, making then lame walk, setting the prisoners free, liberating the people from their oppressors, giving the widow and the orphan what they need, vindicating righteousness.

And punishing the wicked? No. Converting them, rather! True justice, notice, would also restore the murderer and the rapist, and bring them back to their family and friends, new persons, healed, sanctified, made beautiful. That would be the highest justice, because that would be making things as they ought to be, as our loving God intended them to be.

Yet – because God wouldn’t define anything as sin if it weren’t harmful, especially to the perpetrator – the wicked do punish themselves, and in this way (in contrast to the Penal Substitutionary theory of Atonement) the right people are punished, the guilty instead of the Innocent. The right person is also inflicting the punishment: the sinner himself, tegether with satan. And the punishment is in exact proportion to the sin. (If I touch the hot stove, my finger is burned. If I jump from a bridge, I drown. If I tell a lie, I become calloused and false, and hollow.) This is not yet the highest form of justice, but it is the kind most people lust after. Yes, I put it this way because it is totally unchristian to hope anybody will ever suffer for any reason. Or to suppose it is God inflicting the suffering, when it is the sinner all by himself, with no help from anybody but the devil and perhaps other sinners. If you are hoping the wicked will suffer, well, they will, but you have some serious repenting to do for hoping it.

But I’m only hoping it, you say, because otherwise there’s no justice. But there is. It just isn’t the kind you had in mind, the kind driven by hostility and fear, the punitive kind. It’s True Justice, God’s justice.

So where is this True Justice, which consists of correcting rather than punishing injustice, and making everything even better than it was before things went wrong? This True Justice is eschatological, a long word meaning it only appears, in its fullness at least, at the end of the world.

So what’s to make us think it will, if it never yet has?

But it has. We do not yet see the full-grown plant, but the first green leaves do already appear, and they appear in Jesus Christ. He heals the sick, makes the lame to walk, sets the prisoners free, releases us from the bonds of sin, renews and restores His people, corrects ignorance, brings wisdom to cure our foolishness, love to counter our hatred and fear, and His own Body and Blood to doctor or corruptibility and mortality. He vanquishes death and He promises to come again when the time is right, this time in all His glory, to put the whole house in order once and for all. (Beware, all ye who have investments in the disorder!) He comes again in power to consummate all the work of His own hands.