The human desire for justice is insatiable. And that is a problem. It is a problem because an insatiable desire can never be satisfied: there is no end to our desire for justice. It is a problem because many Christians use justice as a lens for understanding the work of our salvation. The fathers have a term for insatiable desires: passions. What human beings experience as a desire for justice is not a virtue — it is a passion, a disordered desire of the soul.
Virtues, the desires that are rightly ordered, have a proper end to their desire. They can be satisfied because they have a proper end. The experience of hunger, when rightly ordered, is perfectly natural and is able to know and experience a sense of completion. Enough is enough. When hunger is disordered it cannot rightly discern its end. The desire for food becomes confused. The result is gluttony – experienced by too much or too little food. I recall a friend, a recovering alcoholic, who said that the problem with alcohol was that “there was never enough.”
The Law in the Old Testament recognized the disordered character of human justice. It placed limits on our desire for justice. The Lex Talionis, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is not a prescription for what must be paid for an injury: it is a limit on the maximum that may be extracted. Our desire for justice is never satisfied with an eye for an eye. We would like two eyes, a hand, a foot, an electronic ankle bracelet and 6 million dollars in punitive damages (and even then we are not actually satisfied).
This disordered desire for justice becomes deeply disturbing when cast in the role of theologian. Most versions of the “penal substitutionary model” of the atonement begin with an assertion regarding God’s justice. The requirements of that offended justice are considered infinite. Man’s sin against God is somehow deemed to be “infinite.”
…if the obligation to love, honour, and obey God be infinite, then sin which is the violation of this obligation, is a violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil. Once more, sin being an infinite evil, deserves an infinite punishment, an infinite punishment is no more than it deserves: therefore such punishment is just; which was the thing to be proved. (Jonathan Edwards, “The Eternity of Hell Torments” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 2, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974) 83.)
Edwards is slightly antique, but his reasoning continues to be standard fare for those who teach the penal substitution theory. His reasoning appears flawless. Our obligation to God is infinite, so its violation is infinite. Infinite crime warrants and infinite punishment: ergo eternity in the torments of hell.
The flaws in this reasoning are an important matter. But more important, and of greater consideration in this article, are the human desires that surround justice itself. I understand the desires we have – my family has endured two murders over the course of my lifetime. I know what it is to want justice. But, in fact, there is nothing that can be done to satisfy that desire. For what I want (what all of us want), is for the event never to have happened. No amount of punishment is sufficient to counterbalance the crime. The death of a murderer does not equal the death of an innocent. When all is said and done, two people are dead. That is not justice – it is just sadness upon sadness.
St. Isaac of Syria famously said, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” The parables of Christ give an illustration of God’s justice. To the unjust servant who owed his master 10,000 talents, the Master demands that he be thrown in prison. When the servant asks for more time to pay his debt, the response is the cancellation of the entire debt. How is that just? As for mercy, it is beyond anything we can imagine. The master grants not more time, but no debt! (Matt. 18) The judgment meted out in the parable is not about the debt, but about the servant’s own lack of mercy.
Edward’s contention that our obligation to God is “infinite,” goes back at least as far as Anselm’s infinite offense to God’s honor. The reasoning seems to be that because God is “infinite,” those things that are owed to him (our obligations) are infinite. Of course, infinite is a problematic category to apply to a creature, who is, by definition, finite. Created with an infinite debt, finite creatures cannot do otherwise than burn in hell eternally. Infinite is simply an inappropriate adjective to use in our relationship with God. It brings inappropriate and incommensurate results in its train. It is more accurate to say of our relationship to God, and those things that belong to it, that they are “immeasurable.” What is required is not without limit (for the infinite cannot be required of the finite), but it is beyond our finite ability to measure.
This is a far more accurate way to approach the justice of God. His justice is not properly described as infinite (what would that mean?). His justice is inscrutable – we simply cannot know it, fathom it, or understand it. It is a useless concept when it comes to understanding our obligations to God. God is just – because He is not unjust. But what it means to say that “God is just,” is beyond our ken.
The result of the distortions caused by faulty theologizing about God’s justice, is a God who is not worthy of worship. There are those who not only glibly consign sinners to hell, but also postulate that the righteous will rejoice in the torment of sinners because of their delight in the goodness of God’s justice. Those with normal human sensibilities are repulsed by such notions. Those who embrace such heresy have their soul’s perverted desire for infinite justice confirmed. Such theology does not heal the soul – it corrupts it further and feeds its passions.
St. Isaac draws us in the right direction. Though we cannot know, fathom or understand God’s mercy, such ignorance should not limit our trust. God is a “good God who loves mankind.” He is philanthropos.
Our salvation is rightly understood through the lens of God’s mercy and not through His justice.
Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin…. Descending through the Cross into hell—that he might fill all things with Himself—He loosed the pangs of death. He arose on the third day, having made for all flesh a path to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be a victim of corruption. So He became the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first-born of the dead, that He might be Himself truly the first in all things (Liturgy of St. Basil).
The Eucharistic prayers of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom, summations of atonement understanding par excellence, are virtually mute on the subject of justice. At most, St. Basil acknowledges the justice of our expulsion from paradise. Our rescue, however, is not achieved by justice, but by the merciful descent of Christ God into hell. Even St. Basil’s mention of ransom, has nothing of justice about it. For a ransom is not a just payment, but the unjust demand of the wicked.
Our passions do not give us an accurate read on the world. They are the insatiable torments of the soul. Whenever they become a force in our lives we find ourselves in torment. The greed of a lover’s jealousy, the madness of gambling, the thirst for alcohol — all of our various addictions — have the character of torment precisely because they are desires that cannot be fulfilled. It is not uncommon in the modern world to treat some infinite passions as noble: the desire for justice or fairness. But it is not accidental that such passions have been the fuel of obscene revolutions and mass murder. It only becomes more obscene if such “noble” passions are ascribed to God.
His mercy endures forever.