I think we mistake God. I think we take our own ideas of justice for God’s. This is the way we think about justice, we think. Therefore this is the way God thinks about justice. We think the concept of justice is fixed for all of us, God included. So our concept of justice is the concept of justice. God can’t have another concept of justice because there is only the one, the one we work with.
For us, justice is punishment. Justice is what happens to criminals who are convicted. Justice is what happens to terrible people or to middle of the road people who have done something wrong and need to be taught a lesson. Need to experience a dollop of pain and suffering for what they did. After all, we think. The transgressor has caused someone else pain or humiliation or suffering; so the transgressor deserves pain or humiliation or suffering or all three in return.
This is David’s idea when he hears Nathan’s story about the rich man with all the sheep and the cattle and the poor man with the one ewe who he raises like a daughter. Who he treats like a member of the family. And then of course the man takes the ewe from the poor man, slaughters it, and feeds it to the traveler.
David says the rich man deserves to die. But he doesn’t see the parallel. It is easy for David and for most of the rest of us, I think, to see the error in someone else but not so easy to see it in oneself.
In any event, David’s idea of justice is that the rich man should die. Why? Oh because he is unfair, is greedy, is cruel, because he has no pity. Because he kills something precious to someone else. Because he inflicts suffering on a man who is already suffering enough because of his poverty.
So David’s idea of justice is that the rich man should die.
But now let us turn to Jesus. The story of Jesus. The Gospels. For our sins, what is our justice? What punishment does God inflict upon us for our sins? He inflicts suffering and death upon his son. Upon himself. Or he allows others, who have a retributive and punitive and torment-oriented sense of justice, to inflict suffering and death upon his son. A man who has not sinned. This is God’s justice. Allowing the Sanhedrin and the crowd to kill Jesus. Giving them freedom. The freedom to become angry and to kill.
Odd. His idea of justice is to take away the reason for justice. His idea of justice is freedom and forgiveness. His idea of justice is to love us in the face of our sin. His idea of justice is to suspend punishment. Withhold punishment. Eliminate the possibility of punishment. And to substitute love.
What about those who will as Jesus says be burnt up in the fire. Be thrown onto Ghenna. Or into Ghenna. What about them?
What is God’s attitude toward these people, who he will throw into the fire. Who will be burned up and disappear? Does he love them or hate them? Is God really capable of hate? Which of us will end up in the fire and for what offenses? We don’t know. This is a mystery.
How can God love us? All of us. And throw some of us into the fire. We don’t know. This is a mystery.
When God throws—or more accurately, if God were throw (subjunctive)—some of us into the fire, is this just? (And I point out the use of the subjunctive here because it is not at all a sure thing that God will do this.) Is this God’s justice? I don’t think this is God’s justice. The Gospels suggest otherwise. Jesus suggests otherwise. God’s justice is forgiveness. Is love. Is freedom. This looks like something else.
Maybe its like coconuts. You get a coconut. You crack it open. You enjoy the inside. Maybe you share it with your friends. You put the shell in the garbage. This isn’t punishment. This isn’t revenge. This doesn’t teach the shell a lesson. You put the shell in the garbage to get rid of it, since it isn’t what you are after. It has served its purpose and now its purpose has been fulfilled. It has carried the coconut meat into our home, and it now needs to be disposed of. Is incinerated, maybe. And its ash and gases rise into the heavens.
Or maybe it’s like carbon dioxide. Maybe those who might be thrown into the fire are like carbon dioxide. Maybe they are a by-product of something else. Maybe when God breathes, he breathes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide, metaphorically speaking. Maybe he breathes some of us in—allowing us to enter his kingdom—and expels those of us who end up. Well. Being recycled in some sense. As carbon dioxide is recycled, say, by plants. As carbon dioxide is transformed into oxygen again. Let’s say. Through the mystical process of photosynthesis.
But let’s face it. This is a mystery. A conundrum. Only God knows.