Law at the Jesus Creed: David Opderbeck on Justice


Justice, Judgment, “Soul Sort Narratives,” and Love

In my post on Brian McLaren’s “Soul Sort Narrative,” we began to discuss the connection between justice, judgment and love.  As a lawyer and legal scholar, the themes of justice and judgment have always been interesting to me.  I’ve always felt a bit of awe when I receive an order from a Judge, even regarding something mundane like the exchange of documents in a civil case.  That piece of paper represents the power and authority of the United States government compelling some person or corporation to behave a certain way, on pain of sanctions for contempt of court.  When is the exercise of such authority legitimate and just?  This is perhaps the most important question any legal system must address.

One of the problems with the “Chick Tract soul sort” version of the “gospel” is that the narrative lacks any meaningful representation of how justice, judgment, and love relate to each other or to God’s character.  The problem with this narrative isn’t that God judges; it’s that the god who is depicted as judge seems to lack any sense of justice or any attribute of love.  Here is a god not unlike the gods of the pagans — arbitrary, distant, angry, petty, bent on destruction.

What do you think of when you consider God’s “justice?”  Can God’s judgments be arbitrary or must they be justifiable with reference to some notion of what “justice” means?

The Chick Tract god is not the Triune God revealed in Jesus
Christ.  As Scot McKnight notes in
his book A
Community Called Atonement
, “[j]ustice . . . cannot be reduced to
revenge or retribution.  Instead,
it is the redemptive grace of God at work in God’s community of faith that

preemptively strikes with grace, love, peace, and forgiveness to restore others
to selves, and to restore selves to others.”  God’s justice portrayed in scripture is a justice of restoration.  It is not arbitrary, but rather flows from the relational
character of the Triune God, which is a relationship of perfect fellowship and

A United States federal district court judge’s orders are
legitimate because and to the extent that they are constructed within the
communal framework of our constitutional social contract.  God’s judgments are legitimate because
they are the extension of the communal life of God into the world He created to
share in that life.  But if God is
love, why would his justice ever exclude anyone?  Can there be justice without any “sorting?”

I think Hans Boersma, in his rich book Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross, offers a helpful response: 

“Just as divine hospitality
requires at least some violence to make it flourish, so also God’s love
requires that he become angry when his love is violated. For God not to get
angry when he is rejected by people made in his image (and redeemed in Christ)
would demonstrate indifference, not love. 
.  .  . Love, it seems, requires passionate
anger toward anything that would endanger the relationship of love.”

Love requires
“sorting.”  If God is to
restore the community of peace, He must melt away that which opposes peace,
just as the refiner melts away that which corrupts the strength and beauty of
the metal.  “For he [God] is
like a refiner’s fire” (Mal. 3:2).

This connection between love, justice, and judgment does not
in itself answer a deeper question, which I think is really the question for most Christians who
wrestle with the question of “sorting”:  the nature and justice of God’s election.  I think most
people intuitively know that justice, making things “right,” requires
sorting.  The question is who
exactly gets sorted, and how.  I’ll
try to offer some thoughts on that in another post.

For now:  what do you think of the links between love, justice, and judgment?  Does “restoration” require “sorting?”  Can there be loving justice without “violence” against injustice?


"I did a bit of research on this a while ago. A few comments.Personally I ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"And then you ask, 'So what did the early church believe was the gospel?' and ..."

Which Century Changed The Story?
""Christ Himself is the Incarnate Word of God.." is true, and a disingenuous counterclaim to ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"Finding introverts on the internet is like finding the characters who aren't Waldo."

Five Signs Of Being An Introvert

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • keo

    “Can God’s judgments be arbitrary?” God’s judgments (“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy”), in Romans 9:10-21, certainly sound arbitrary, but Paul calls him just. If we presuppose that God is just, then we define his actions as just, even if they seem arbitrary to us.
    “Can there be loving justice without ‘violence’?” Well, if we define “violence” as including anger, then we make it a little more difficult. Is anger always required when my kids “miss the mark” in their attempts to do what is right? I don’t think so. Don’t I have the right to show patient understanding or to engage in corrective training?
    For those sins that are against God only, at least (and Psalm 51:4 is sometimes used to say that all sin is thus), shouldn’t God have the right to respond with patience, mercy, or understanding, rather than anger or other violence? To “absorb” or “take” some of our faults, rather than mathematically requiring his pound of flesh for each of them? I think he should. I am a bit suspicious of the “God’s character *requires* him to….” rhetoric. He knows that we are dust (Psalm 103:8-14); he knows that we are powerless to avoid sin. I take “slow to anger” to mean that he isn’t *required* to respond in anger to every mistake we make.
    Of course, Jesus clearly shows us this. He hung out with sinners all the time, sometimes becoming angry and sometimes having compassion on people for their faults, for their human condition. Where is the “God can’t tolerate sin in his presence” notion in Jesus’ revelation of the Father? I think he presents a God who is more nuanced than that.

  • Randy

    I didn’t think I had anything to say here until I read your last question: “Can there be loving justice without “violence” against injustice?”
    To address this question I turn to my wife’s anabaptist tradition which has been the source of a stern “No” to this question.
    Restorative Justice does not require violence to bring reconciliation, which is the true end of seeking justice. True, current restorative justice models often function within the larger “criminal justice system” in that there is still punishment for violence done to another. A defendant may still have to do time, even after achieving reconciliation, but I am not sure that that is part of Restorative Justice.
    Approaching your question from the other end, I have dealt with returning citizens on a regular basis. From this perspective what I see is the violence that the system has worked upon them which makes it all the more difficult for them to return to society. What “good” does such violence achieve for anybody?
    Randy Gabrielse

  • I think justice requires judgment, aka truthtelling. I’m not sure judgment = sorting in the sense that those sorted out are doomed. Maybe it does. But whatever judgment is, it can’t be as facile as “getting rid of the bad people”. Because when have we not been the bad people? Who in all the stories of the Bible wasn’t one of the bad people, except Jesus himself?
    You hit the crux of the matter. It’s not about love or judgment or sorting, which we all intuitively understand. It is about election. It’s obviously not based on our actions. Making it about intellectual assent to belief propositions seems nonsensical and extremely unjust. Making it about God’s mysterious predestination makes God arbitrary and random, and our situation precarious and unknowable.
    I guess I would come down somewhere on the idea that God judges based on our response to the light we had available to us, trusting that God reaches, somehow, to everyone, regardless of their historical situation (people who lived and died centuries before Christ) and understanding (those with cognitive disabilities, the mass of humanity who are simply ignorant or who only have access to certain aspects of the gospel), and believing that to reject God and his kingdom is ultimately to reject existence.

  • Scot McKnight

    For years I’ve heard folks say that Anselm and medieval justice systems inserted the idea of satisfaction into atonement theory and God’s forgiveness, but one verse that stands out to me is Romans 3:26 where Paul says, in the context of overlooking sins in the past finally dealt with sins justly, and he did this so God could be “just and the justifier.”
    I wonder if this verse figures into this discussion.
    I’m at Pepperdine today and am not sure how much access to a computer I will have.

  • Tim

    What is “Chick Tract soul sort”? I’m unfamiliar with this term.

  • RJS

    Soul sort may not be used … but this is Chick Tract.
    An example: Creator or Liar
    And another It’s All About You

  • Rodney

    Forgive me for adding to a conversation as a newcomer.
    This is where the forensics metaphor might be pushed a little too far–especially when it comes to Paul–when we try to work out the logistics of justice/judgment and love. Even though the cross was an example of “sacred violence” (passive!), I wonder if Paul didn’t see the operation of “justice” upside down compared to Roman and Jewish law. That is, the cross revealed that the way God does justice is to show mercy. “But now, apart from the law” has eschatological implications that don’t “fit” into a this-world legal scenario.

  • Richard

    @ 7 Rodney
    Great point.
    Pax Romana (“peace of Rome”) = putting your enemies on a cross
    Pax Christus (“pecae of Christ”) = going to a cross for your enemies
    Both are peace through a cross. One is the way of Jesus and God, the other of Satan and the fallen creation.

  • DRT

    I am totally unable to conceive of my God having anthropomorphic anger. In any conversation I will have around God I will have the basic assumption that there is no anger.
    God is only Love.
    Justice, to me, requires the concept that something be just with respect to something else. I think we are discussing being just with respect to God. Or are we saying being just with respect to our peers? If I lead a murdering and tormenting life, is justice relative to how Mother Theresa was treated or relative to how God is (he am)?
    In soul sorting there is the inherent assumption that justice is being delivered relative to another child of God and that God is the agent of that sorting. I inherently have a difficult time believing that the treatment I have is relative to anything anyone else does.
    If the soul sorting is not done relative to others, then it is relative to God, and all fall short of the glory of God. So what is the sorting done based on? Whether God chose to give them grace or not?
    I don’t believe that it has anything to do with God doing the sorting. God would not sort since this somehow implies that God is making a relativistic interpretation of our worthiness. Isn’t God absolute? It seems that our ego is truly getting to us if we think that God’s justice is relative.
    I believe the soul sort is done on our own. The best concept I have of this right now is that we are going to be asked if we will chose A or B. If we chose A then we have learned the lesson. If we chose B then we have not. God is not sorting, we are sorting whether we have learned the ways of God and love. I believe one of the gospels says that it will be by our actions that we are saved…..
    The exact implementation of this is up to God. Perhaps it is reincarnation. Perhaps it is sitting in God’s lap. Perhaps it is solitary confinement with the thought of what we did in our life to keep us entertained for eternity. We do not know.
    So to answer the question, love permeates all. Justice and judgment do not need God’s participation to be effected. I personally like the elegance of us being our own judge with the measure we used.

  • dopderbeck

    Scot (#4), Richard (#7) and Rodney (#8) — Here is my take:
    it’s useful, I think, to consider Romans 3 (indeed all of Romans — all of Paul!) in light of the Jewish eschatological context from which Paul writes. The Jewish hope and expectation was for the restoration of the Temple and of the Davidic monarchy. Anselm may have contextualized “satisfaction” in terms of the relationship between a Medieval Lord and vassal and the payment of a debt of honor, but the theme of “satisfaction” exists in restoration eschatology because satisfaction of the obligations of the covenant between God and His people was in view.
    The Jewish leaders and schismatics who were looking to bring this eschatological vision to completion (e.g., the Maccabees, the Essenes)understood their role to involve both purification of the Jewish nation and military judgment of the gentiles. It was a “violent” vision.
    Jesus both confirmed and radically upset this expectation. He confirmed it in his various escthatological pronouncements and acts – e.g. Jesus’ actions in the Temple in Matt. 21 and his sermon in Matt. 24. But he radically upset it by taking all that is required to satisfy the covenant upon himself, in his death and resurrection delivering a final victory over evil, rebellion, and human covenant-breaking that none other than the divine / human messiah could deliver, and opening the way towards peace and a new covenant for Jew and Gentile, Slave and Free, Male and Female.
    So in short — my take is that “satisfaction” thought of more deeply reflects Hebraic / near eastern approaches to justice, covenant, and duty.

  • Rodney

    dopderbeck #10,
    Indeed, in Matt 21 and 24 Jesus is taking on the powers in Jerusalem: temple/holiness/economics and empire/good news to ends of the earth/peace-thru-strength. But, I don’t see how divine satisfaction works there. Appeasement? And, if so, how is God placated? Instead, I’m wondering if “subversive” might be a more helpful way of getting at the eschatology of Jesus and Paul when it comes to law.’
    In other words, is this where “law” and “eschatology” don’t mix? Or, am I pushing the eschatological implications of “law and order” too far out the door?

  • #9 DRT
    “I am totally unable to conceive of my God having anthropomorphic anger. In any conversation I will have around God I will have the basic assumption that there is no anger.”
    I’m curious … when God witnesses a child being sexually abused, or people perpetrating genocide, or people secretly being sold into slavery, does this make God angry? Deep anger and revulsion are typical responses we witness from people we think are just. How do you think God reacts to these events?

  • dopderbeck

    Rodney (#11) — in the ANE context, I think, covenants usually involved a debt obligation. Think of the paradigmatic way of sealing a covenant — both parties passing in between the carcasses of sacrificed animals. It was a way of saying, “if I break my covenant with you, may I become as these animals.”
    “Satisfaction,” as I see it, doesn’t imply some crude system of exchange, like God saying “aha — a bad thought, that’ll cost you two fingers!” It implies something more grand and even beautiful and relational. It affords the covenant-breaking party a high degree of dignity: the word of the each party is valuable enough that the consequences for breaking it are severe.

  • dopderbeck

    Michael (#12) — great point. “Love” sometimes requires anger.
    I’d also add this: we can approach God as one who is not angry with us, despite our rejection of Him, precisely because of the violence of the cross. If God is just the impassive mental being of the Platonists, the cross makes little sense. But if God responds with real “passion” against all that corrupts and destroys, then the fact that He is also the “crucified God” takes on great significance.

  • MatthewS

    One of the problems with the “Chick Tract soul sort” version of the “gospel” is that the narrative lacks any meaningful representation of how justice, judgment, and love relate to each other or to God’s character. The problem with this narrative isn’t that God judges; it’s that the god who is depicted as judge seems to lack any sense of justice or any attribute of love. Here is a god not unlike the gods of the pagans — arbitrary, distant, angry, petty, bent on destruction.
    This, including the little-g “god,” is a strong statement. I understand it to be a restatement of an essential part of McLaren’s thesis.
    I’m not a fan of Chick and never use the tracts. But the Creator or Liar tract does present the story of the one true creator God. It links the flood, the calling of Abraham, and the Mosaic system to the virgin-born Jesus, sacrifice and atonement for sin. It is not a theological tome. It is a comic with an edge, one which perhaps none of us in the JesusCreed community would use. Tragically, it reduces away the here-and-now aspect of the gospel. But it presents Jesus and his life-death-resurrection as the only way to salvation. Comparing the tract to Stephen’s message in Acts 7 shows some significant points of similarity. Something like: God’s ancient story connects to Jesus and it invites judgment to reject Jesus. Scot’s point in a previous post was that McLaren’s narrative left Jesus out. These tracts put Jesus central to God’s plan, long in the making.
    The syllogism might be:
    Pagan gods are arbitrary, petty, not characterized by love.
    Chick tracks preach a deity who is arbitrary, petty, not characterized by love.
    Chick tracks preach a pagan god.
    The tracts are rough and imperfect but they do present Jesus as sacrifice and Savior, invalidating the minor premise and conclusion.
    It seems unfair to characterize the tracts as preaching something only trivially different from say, the Olympians or other pagan gods. Chick tracts often make my skin crawl when I see them because I think they are so needlessly offensive and rough but I’m just trying to say that I think we ought to be as fair to them as we are to McLaren. Reductionistic, yes. Offensive, yes. Pagan little-g god? unfair.

  • @DRT
    “I am totally unable to conceive of my God having anthropomorphic anger. In any conversation I will have around God I will have the basic assumption that there is no anger.”
    This seems a false choice. Our human anger is circumstantial. When my favorite sports team makes a crucial error, I am prone to anger, while another person experiences joy from the same fact. God is not risen to anger with either outcome.
    When a Christian dies at the age of 35, his family is liable to be very angry at the result. God, most certainly is not, as he now grows in intimacy with his creation.
    On the other hand, I may speak harshly to my wife after watching my favorite sports team makes a crucial error. My wife may take it in stride, but God is angry with the sin.
    I may profit from the sale of stock, not knowing that the stock price was inflated by illegal activity. God is angry, but not with me, for I have not sinned. Once details of the illegal activity are illuminated, people might become angry with me, supposing I had some role in the fraud.
    These example elevate God’s anger to an entirely different category. Human anger is dangerous because it is not just. God’s anger is not, because it is just.

  • DRT

    #12 Michael,
    I would imagine that God would feel sorrow/bad (badly?) that we did not live up to what we could though I am not really sure that God would feel anything other than love because that is what God is. So my anthropomorphication of God’s feels would be sorrow. But I sense that God is beyond such simple descriptions.

  • DRT

    #16 kevin
    Good thoughts. Your perspective is to make the distinction between a just and nonjust anger. I simply reject that there is a just anger since anger is not in keeping with what I could conceive as a pure love state.
    I can also say, though, that Jesus exhibited some elements that could be called anger. But he was also fully human, God is not.
    I can also say that God can have a reaction to our violent dissociations with him, but it would seem to me that it would not be anger.
    There is also a temporal dimension to anger. God is slow to anger. How slow? I bet he never gets there and it is just a way for us to try and understand his state.

  • DRT

    From Matthew:
    But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.
    How can God be angry?

  • My theology of God’s love, justice, and judgement right now is quite crude, confusing, and jumbled (so I apologize for it in advance). As a regular lay person, I’m looking forward to hearing what Scott and David have to say to help me think of God more clearly and accurately.
    – When I think of God’s love, I think of God desiring the best for us for our joy and happiness (which is for us to be in shalom with God who is our source of life, and shalom with each other, a community of God’s image bearers).
    – When I think of God’s sense of justice, one of things I think of is ‘fairness.’ If someone kills someone close to me, it seems unjust for God or the courts to just let him off. I’ll be honest.. if someone kills a close family member of mine, it’ll feel unfair for him to get off scotch free. It almost feels as though he needs to feel the loss that I’ve felt or else it doesn’t seem fair… jail at the very least may help. So perhaps, at the very least, eye for an eye (his loss in jail for my loss) may the closest thing to what is deemed fair.
    Maybe this is why, some of us get angry, when innocent children get murdered, because it’s not fair that those children’s future lives have been taken away by someone who has already lived their life. Even going to jail for all of his life, may not be enough to deem it, ‘eye for an eye,’ fair.
    – When I think of God’s judgement, I think of a) the future ‘sorting’ of people to hell (not sure what it’s like exactly) and heaven, and b) the cross of Christ
    a) With regards to this future sorting when some will be punished to hell, I think it’ll be an expression of God’s wrath against those who want to rebel against Him. This anger arises out of his love, because of His pure love for Himself within the trinity and for those who are His. In the consummated Kingdom of God, God can’t have people killing others because it wrecks the shalom between God and His children and to each other, and thus out of His pure love for Himself and for His children, he punishes with wrath, those who would continue to destroy this sense of shalom and gives them over to their self-centered, void of anything like joy and peace, in a realm called hell.
    b) When I think of Jesus’ death, I think of God’s fairness and love. I think we are all responsible of wrecking shalom with each other and thus deserve an eye for an eye treatment. We have been all guilty of tainting God’s image in us and also hating what is most precious to God, which is Himself within the trinity. Thus, we are all of deserving God’s wrath, death, and separation as a punishment. However, Christ took the punishment we deserved in Himself with us for us.
    Thus, at the very least, God’s justice/fairness was satisfied by Him suffering the loss, the death, the emotional and spiritual separation, the wrath, that all of us deserved in Christ’s death. Thus, just as when we forgive others at at the cost to ourselves, God forgives us at a cost to Himself.
    However, although the cross covers the justice(fairness) aspect, it’s beyond that.. it’s grace and love, because it was God’s eye for our eye with us, for us in order to reconcile us in order to have God’s best (which is shalom with God and each other)
    These are all just very crude jumbled thoughts of mine.. any suggestions to help sort out my theology will be greatly appreciated.

  • Travis Greene

    I’m not sure your conception of God would meet a basic definition of personhood, let alone the God described in the Scriptures.
    God gets angry. That much is not beyond our understanding. What is beyond our understanding is what he does with that anger — he submits to a violent death on behalf of those he is angry with.

  • DRT

    David, thanks for posting this. I am having great fun with it.
    I thought I would sketch a couple more thoughts as it relates to satisfaction and election and sorting.
    I keep thinking that the sorting that will be done is the same sorting that takes place every day in the lives we live. We elect to take actions based on our perception of the outcomes or the conditioning that we have received (to be cold about the wording). Another way to say the concept, I would say we do the things we do because we want to make ourselves better in some way. That way is highly individualized based on our background, our conditioning, our education, our enlightenment etc.
    We elect to participate in the KoG or Eternal Life daily, hourly, minutely.
    If there is a sorting to take place in another life, whether that other life be in a heavenly realm or another incarnation (perhaps in dimensions 5-9 of M string theory), it is something that we chose in the same manner as we chose to have eternal life every minute of our lives.
    If there is a sorting, we will chose the pile we get sorted into based on our choice, which is the choice we always make.
    It is like someone hanging on a cross and choosing to follow The Way when they had nothing that they perceived to gain or lose. At that moment, when they least expected it (actually like a thief in that instance), they made their choice. He was sorted.

  • dopderbeck

    DRT (#19):
    Matthew 5:22: “But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell”
    Luke 12:20: “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.”
    Obviously, the wisdom sayings of the Sermon on the Mount cannot be used as this sort of proof text.

  • Travis Greene

    dopderbeck @ 23,
    Unless this cross-reference is actually a secret prediction of Christ’s descent into hell!
    No, I don’t think so either. Proof-texts are bad.

  • DRT

    When I search for anger in the NIV I get 257 occurrences of “anger” in the OT and 13 in the NT. None in the NT refer to god as angry.
    There are 106 OT occurrences of “angry” and 10 in the NT. It does seem that there are a couple of NT occurrences of “angry” that are quoting the OT.
    I can’t see where Jesus said God is angry, except the one step removed version of the “owner of the house” becoming angry.
    I don’t think God gets angry. I think the people in the OT used anger as their interpretation or perception of God’s emotional state. The God’s are not angry, imho.

  • James Moon

    Just another thought about God’s justice… (again rambled and maybe not accurate).
    In my post above, I said justice can be perhaps seen as fairness. If someone raped and killed my daughter. I don’t have kids though, but hypothetically speaking, it’ll seem unjust (not fair) if the murderer didn’t have to pay for it in anyway and was let go scotch free. I suffered loss, my daughter suffered loss, but not him.
    Another way to help me deal with this loss would be to know that God also feels the hurt and anger that I’m feeling towards this loss and even against the one who murdered my kid (like in Rev 6:10). On the cross, God shows His wrath against what this person did. In a way, God is saying that He feels the hurt and anger I feel by punishing the murderer’s sins against my daughter and me on the cross.
    but what galvinizes and humbles me more is that it’s also my sins that have put Him and His Son on the cross.
    So, now I know that God empathizes with us not only as the fair judge to condemn these sins, he may also empathize with the righteous anger we feel when we’ve been greatly sinned against (like if someone murders a loved one of ours). While at the very same time, it’s also humbling to know that he empathizes also with our loss as an innocent one Himself, because He experienced loss due to anothers’ transgressions. What makes it more heart breaking is that it’s our transgressions that caused it.
    So now, I can even love and forgive this murderer, cuz I did far worse to God Himself as I hurt Him and who also faced my judgement as a result.

  • James Moon

    Question: In Romans 1, 2, and 3 when it speaks of God’s wrath, is that defined differently than anger?

  • DRT

    #23 dopderbeck
    I don’t know if I am being clear. I actually agree with post #23 but I am saying that being in the danger of the fire of hell and having your life demanded of you does not necessitate an actor of God.
    I demand a great deal from myself and others. I regularly am in danger of the rightful wrath of hell that my wife will unleash if she caught me ….
    My life is demanded from me every time I eat that next bite of trans fat. I am baiting it.
    Who is the actor?

  • Your Name

    #27 James
    The wrath of my mother is avenged on me every day since she threatened that I should have children just like me! Her wrath is just too!
    Ah, captcha diviners this

  • James Moon

    #29 Your Name,
    I’m not sure if you’re saying that God’s wrath is more of a passive thing.
    My understanding of what you’re saying is that if God’s wrath is about just letting us suffer the consequences of the destructiveness of our own actions without trusting His ways.
    But then, what does it say of God, when ultimately He leaves us to do this for all of eternity in a state of hell,
    And isn’t God still the being who is actually the one who’s pouring out His wrath, cuz He set it up like that in the first place.

  • Moon James

    #29 Dave,
    The actor is God because God set it up like that.
    I’m wondering do you believe in a hell afterlife, where some people will experience hell for all of eternity?

  • dopderbeck

    @ James Moon: I think “fairness” is part of “justice,” but we have to be careful to define terms here, and also not to reduce “justice” to “fairness.”
    If “fairness” means “treated on the same basis,” then I think “justice” clearly involves “fairness” in this sense (e.g., Proverbs 11:1: “The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight.”).
    However, if “fairness” means “everyone ends up the same” — which is a popular notion of “fairness” — then I don’t think this is required by justice. In fact, justice requires quite the contrary.
    I want to suggest that the Biblical concept of God’s “justice,” however, goes far beyond the basic notion of “fairness.” God’s “justice” is about “restoration” — about making everything right in a universal, cosmic sense. Things cannot be made completely right if evil remains hidden. All evil must be revealed for what it truly is. That laying bare, stripping away of pretense, calling out, putting and end to, is a classic act of “violence,” a direct and final impingement on the will of the evildoer.
    Here is a place where substitutionary models of the atonement seem beautiful to me: the God-forsaken Christ on the cross was stripped bare and judged in such a way that I can be restored in him.

  • Tom

    Great initial post and some great comments so far. I really agree that the question of justice in ultimate judgment does come down to the problem of election.
    The larger issue with the “soul sort” problem of justice and mercy in ultimate outcomes is actually exacerbated by other Christian doctrines, at least in certain Christian traditions. Others in the comments have pointed out that the constellation of ideas and understandings around “original sin” or “total depravity” mean that relatively speaking, God’s justice would mean that all would be “sorted” and found lacking. On the other hand, God’s character is affirmed as merciful and loving, and so God provides for sinful humanity what it can not provide for itself. Thus, God’s justice has to be satisfied by God’s own action in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, in an expression of God’s mercy and love towards the world and human beings.
    But interestingly, this is where most “soul sort” narratives leave justice behind. Apart from the universalists, everyone else is clear that some will still be found lacking, “sorted” into the category of “lost” or condemned. For those who continue to place the responsibility on human beings, the sorting is done on a relational or even existential level. It is through relational knowledge and interaction with Christ that we are sorted out as saved, that we can be justified. I think of C.S. Lewis’ famous dictum that the “doors of Hell are locked from the inside.” The idea is that the “sorting” is not done by according to works, but according to a person’s basic orientation towards God and Jesus. People basically sort themselves out, and God simply confirms what is already true of them.
    For those who put the responsibility with God, and emphasize God’s sovereign choice and election through a strong doctrine of predestination, the sorting is done according to God’s inscrutable will. The idea here is the “God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy”. It is not a question of justice, after all, justice would mean that all would be condemned. And so, the criteria of the “soul sort” is not accessible to human knowledge or understanding, nor is any appeal to justice made for the results of the “soul sort”. God has chosen who will and will not benefit (“be justified”) from Christ’s death and resurrection entirely apart from justice considerations.
    It seems to me that most (Protestant) “Soul Sort” narratives do their “sorting” on some other level than justice, mostly because of the assumption that total depravity makes any sorting done on the level of justice result in universal condemnation. This does suggest that rethinking what justice means in the context of salvation could result in some new options for resolving the problems endemic to “soul sort” narratives. I look forward to hearing what David might suggest about justice in the context of election in his upcoming post.
    I’m sorry for writing such a long post, but this question and the comments really got me thinking. Good thoughts everyone!

  • Moon James

    Here’s something way out there.. but I’m going to throw it out there…
    Within the trinity, God the father loves Jesus and the Holy Spirit, Jesus loves the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit loves the Father and Jesus. So in essence, as love circles within the triune being of Himself, God loves Himself.
    So, if God created us to love God first and foremost (which is God’s ways of loving us because us loving God is the only thing that will create peace within ourselves and with others)….. then, if we choose to not love God, say the Father but treasure our idols above the Father, would Jesus not get angry because we don’t cherish what Jesus cherishes, which is the Father? You can then say this of any of the persons in the triune God. By my idolatry, God the father’s love for His Son is so supreme, He’ll be angry if I don’t love Jesus the way I was created to. And because I don’t worship God, it’ll result in chaos and sin on earth (for e.g. my idolatry for greed will turn me into using people as means to my own gain).
    So when heaven is fully realized on earth, would Jesus not also judge us and cut us off if we continue to persist in our idolatry? God may do this because God’s glory is being compromised by my idolatry? His way of order that is designed with worship as being central for humans will also be compromised. So for the sake of others, ourselves, and in accordance to God’s love for God, would God not get angry because of idolatry and sin and thus condemn and cut people off?
    It may seem like God’s being an ego-maniac, but because of the trinity, anger and condemnation is not so much about vengeance, but more out of a sheer love for each other and not wanting a speck of sin to compromise the community of love within God.
    It may be like if say my wife and I got a dog, trained the dog to love us and obey. However, then all of a sudden, the dog starts to turn on my wife, out of my love for my wife, I’d get angry at the dog. I wonder if it’s the same with God. It’s not Jesus’ love for Himself that he gets angry at our sin, but that it’s Jesus’ love for the Father, that he gets angry at our sin.
    Just some questions and ideas.. it sounds sorted way far fetched.

  • Michael Hochstetler

    Something that can help us understand the connection between love and judgment lies in rejecting the notion that retribution against sin = personal vindictiveness on the part of God. This assumption is what makes it easy for folks like Mclaren to get away with throwing out the concept of retribution altogether in the name of a “God who looks like Jesus.” Retribution is the defeat of sin, not Divine catharsis.
    (PS-the thoughts on the Trinity from James-simply priceless. This is the kind of creative thinking that can save us from the false alternatives of fundamentalist and Mclarenist oversimplifications alike)

  • @DRT
    “When I search for anger in the NIV I get 257 occurrences of “anger” in the OT and 13 in the NT. None in the NT refer to god as angry…
    I don’t think God gets angry. I think the people in the OT used anger as their interpretation or perception of God’s emotional state. The God’s are not angry, imho.”
    So the OT prophets were merely offering their perceptions? Why would God allow the prophets to repeatedly assert a misperception. What’s the point of having prophets?
    I don’t understand why it is important to you that a loving God not become angry. Jesus clearly became angry, and yet Jesus did not sin. Being unloving is a sin, so how do you deduce that anger is unloving?

  • Emily

    #35 Michael Hochstetler: “Something that can help us understand the connection between love and judgment lies in rejecting the notion that retribution against sin = personal vindictiveness on the part of God.”
    This is a great point. I have a hard time with the whole concept of retribution. When I think of horrendous crimes, like for example, children being forces into militias (like happens in Africa), I want it stopped. I want God to judge this system, and end it. That doesn’t require retribution as such, but punishment of some sort is required to make people stop doing things.
    Another example: I am opposed to the death penalty in general, but I think it was necessary for (serial killer) Ted Bundy. I think executing him was the only way to insure that he never killed again. Not retribution, but needed to stop the crimes.
    I have struggled a lot with the concept of God’s judgment, because I come from a background that focuses on total depravity and universal condemnation. “Justice” in my church is defined solely as “punishment” and we are told God does not deal with us according to “justice.” Then how can God be just?
    And since we believe that there is nothing we can do to come to faith (by which we are saved), it is completely dependent on God’s election (and our lack of rebellion to overcome the gift of faith). This God does certainly seem arbitrary!
    It’s led me to flirt with universalism for a long time. If God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy, why shouldn’t it be everyone, since we are all equally guilty before Him?
    I appreciate this discussion, as I am trying to work the concept of judgment back into my faith, but I’m not sure how to do it.

  • DRT

    James, thanks for your thoughts. I need to let that sink in.
    #36 kevin. You said “I don’t understand why it is important to you that a loving God not become angry.” Interesting thought. I need to examine that more, but my initial reaction is that anger actually involves wishes or some other form of harm on the object of the anger, and that by definition is not loving. To have the concept of anger being loving is not in my lexicon. I would express the emotion that I think you are talking about as “nonacceptance with action”, and that is a wishy washy phrase if I ever heard one. It could also be called intervention, perhaps correction, but I do have a problem with anger ( I don’t mean that I personally have an anger problem I mean….oh well).
    I think God would allow the OT prophets to use that language most likely because that was what was needed at the time.

  • Moon

    #37, Emily I’m just wondering if my thinking of justice is off. I think I come from a traditional Christian perhaps even fundamentalist background. I’m wondering, if Ted Bundy was let off, but he didn’t commit another murder again, do you think justice was served for the victims and their families? Is justice served only in the sense that Ted being sentenced, now prevents him from creating more chaos and hurts?
    I wonder if my idea of justice which revolves around balance and fairness off? Why do we get mad, when young children are murdered by a serial killer.. because we feel it’s unfair. Why does a killer get to live at the expense of the children’s life? What would be just and fair for the law courts to do, what would be fair and just for God to do?
    I don’t know.. there’s something that bothers me when to me God seems impersonal or just all happy and loving, and doesn’t empathize with the hurts and even feel anger alongside the victims against the oppressors or murderers of children.
    I want God to be just (fair with some fury emotion) and be the justifier (reconcile and restore). I guess I want God to show retributive justice against oppressors, as to balance things out (so that I wouldn’t feel a need to avenge, as outlined in Romans 12:16-20), and I also want God ultimately to restore them as well if at all possible.
    This is what I’d also like in my law courts. If someone for eg. kills my child, I want the courts to balance things out in a way that seems fair. If the courts let him go without paying a price, even though he doesn’t kill another child, I’d feel this sense of injustice, a sense of ‘how come my child dies, while he gets to live freely, it doesn’t seem fair.’ I’d also be content that after retributive justice whether in the form of his own personal remorse or loss of freedom in jail, that he does change his ways, rehabilitates, and becomes a good citizen.
    I guess I want God to be like a comic character like, Superman, someone who gets angry at the perpetrators of evil on behalf of those who have been sinned against. Knowing Superman will balance things out, I’ll be more at peace. But if Superman doesn’t get upset or do anything against the perpetrators (when people oppress others in the form of for eg. sexual or physical abuse), then something doesn’t seem right.
    To me the cross, does a whole bunch of things to me that I probably empathize with the fundamentalists that many seem to be against. On the cross, because God, in union with that oppressor takes on God’s own wrath, anger, death, and judgement that he deserves, justice has been served.
    But it also humbles me and makes me cry though, when I realize that I’m that oppressor. It makes me wanna follow Christ and cry, ‘amazing grace.’ I think this is why fundamentalists may seem stubborn about not letting go of God’s ‘wrathful side.’ I think there’s something sobering and liberating when we believe that our sins that deserved wrathful judgement cost God His life.

  • DRT

    More thoughts on anger.
    When I look at my relationship with God, I do not want God to ever be angry with me. I don’t care what I did, I don’t want God to be angry with me. If for some reason I did some terrible act, then I would hope that God would be loving and merciful in his treatment toward me.
    If I feel that way, then I have a hard time believing that it would be acceptable for God to only be angry to other people. Why would it be acceptable for me to think that I would want God to be loving and merciful toward me, but angry toward others?
    I am not even sure I would want God to issue “justice” to me. I would rather for God to be merciful and kind and loving toward me! So how can I wish that on someone else?
    For those of you who feel that if they did something really bad that it would be OK for God to dish out eternal torment to you, personally, then you can worship that God. For me, I want the one that may forgive me.
    This goes hand in hand with God’s justice. God is going to exhibit justice based on God’s standard. I don’t think we know what that standard is. But when he does that, do we want him to do it out of anger?
    Don’t we all think that if we did something really bad that perhaps there was a reason for doing it? I don’t mean for someone else, but for you. I don’t know about you but if I did something that warranted eternal damnation I would think that there would be a reason I did it. I would like God to be understanding of that reason and kind and merciful in his judgment.
    You can have the angry God.

  • dopderbeck

    @Moon (#39) — beautiful comment!
    It seems to me that much of the discussion (great discussion, BTW) of “anger” and “wrath” revolves around what these terms mean to us in our own personal experience. I’ve experienced and perpetrated human anger and wrath that at times has been out of control, irrational, vindictive, and cruel. If I completely “lose it” in anger, looking back, I often realize that I was mostly angry at myself — I was “projecting” my own failures onto someone else.
    This is not like the righteous “anger” of God. Here we do have to step back and remember that all our language about God is analogical. “Righteous anger” or “just wrath” — the sort of revulsion we feel over the sorts of crimes Moon mentions — are highly imperfect analogies for God’s internal state, which ultimately is something we can glimpse only very dimly. God never “loses it” and all of God’s dispositions are always perfectly consistent with love. This is probably impossible for us humans to understand at a real gut level because it is never true for us.

  • dopderbeck

    @DRT (#40): When you say “dish out eternal torment to you,” I think that is several steps beyond the basic issue of “justice and judgment” or whether God experiences “anger” or exhibits “wrath.” This gets well into the next subjects: election and grace. The fact is that God has not dished out eternal torment to us, or at least not to all of us, because He is the crucified God who dishes out grace. Now, the question is, “but who receives grace, and why?” and “what do we mean by ‘eternal torment’?” Book upon book has been written on these questions, and literally blood has been spilled over them, so I’m not going to presume to venture a real “answer” in any blog comment or post. However, I will try to offer at least a few of my halting thoughts in my next post.
    My preview is this: at the end of the day, we cannot really know and we have to trust in the goodness and justice of God; but (1) we do know that God is good and that He is just and not arbitrary; (2) it is right and Biblical to hope and believe that in God’s goodness and justice His mission of salvation is universally comprehensive in scope; (3) yet scripture, tradition, reason and experience tell us that not every person will experience God’s salvation — the cosmic universality of God’s salvation does not lead to universalism; and (4) those of us who have tasted God’s salvation are elected for mission — a mission of great joy and hope despite its great difficulties.

  • keo

    dopderbeck #41, if our *language* about God (or at least God the Father) is analogic, then all the more reason to pay attention to Jesus’ actual *response* to sin and sinners in the gospels, as I said in my first comment. Jesus truly reveals the Father; if we have seen Jesus, then we have seen the Father.
    The only “wrath” I see in the gospels was against hypocritical religious folk and those engaging in business (or racketeering) in the temple, not against “sinners.” We see no *pattern* of Jesus dealing harshly or in anger with the ordinary sinners around him, including his own disciples and even Judas. Think about that one: Judas is never presented as “the one Jesus was always chastising and punishing for his many, many sins of omission and commission.”
    What should we understand about God’s love and anger and “what his holy and righteous character requires him to do” from how Jesus treated us?

  • keo

    And if we want to understand what scripture says about God’s “soul sort,” then we really should wrestle with Romans 2:6-10, too:
    God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
    Chick does a very poor job of presenting the positive half of these Biblical criteria!

  • dopderbeck

    keo (#43) said: Think about that one: Judas is never presented as “the one Jesus was always chastising and punishing for his many, many sins of omission and commission.”
    I respond: Well, whatever we make of the differences between Matthew 27 and Acts 1, Judas’ suicide clearly is presented as a just end to his betrayal of Jesus.
    I agree with you on the “positive” criteria in Romans 2 and indeed throughout Paul’s theology. The trick is tying this theme to Paul’s other great themes of election and grace.

  • keo

    dopderbeck #45, where do see you Judas’ suicide “clearly … presented as a just end”?
    “The trick is tying this theme to Paul’s other great themes of election and grace.” Indeed, that is the trick. Isn’t it fascinating that we have to engage in such tricky work, to put the pieces together on such a crucial question? The more I read the scriptures, the more amazed I am by how un-simple they are, and how much interpretation is required to gain a grasp on some of the doctrines — doctrines that, nonetheless, are often presented as obvious.
    Jesus loves me. Clear. Exhaustive criteria for salvation? Not so clear.

  • dopderbeck

    @keo — re: Judas: particularly in the narrative of Acts 1, this seems clear. Certainly it isn’t a gentle treatment of the character.
    Yeah, when I say “the trick” I don’t mean its simple, like a card trick — or that it can be done in any really satisfying way. You’re right. Multifaceted, complex, and not amenable to summary in a few basic statements.

  • DRT

    Sure, I will concede that God exhibiting wrath and anger depends on the definitions of wrath and anger. But I contend that wrath and anger or coopted by the evil end of the emotional persona enough that we would want to recharacterize the notion that God is angry and wrathful.
    Perhaps, sensitive and fatherly. Fatherly? Fatherly? The more I think about that the more I like it. Didn’t someone else refer to god as his Father?
    Perhaps for some anger and wrath in a controlled and loving manner is Fatherly. Perhaps some of us have never seen that. I think anger and wrath are pregnant with other meanings and should be condemned to eternal damnation as words. I think they may cause more sin than they cure.
    The thesaurus is great fun for this. Perhaps huffy and rancorous.
    I do like displeased and affronted for anger. And how about impassioned for wrathful.
    Perhaps captcha will come through for this. Lachesis baby. Wow, cool.

  • keo

    dopderbeck#47: Sorry, but I don’t see the judgment on Judas’ suicide. I see evaluation of the betrayal as “his wickedness” (Acts 1:18), but no commentary on his death or the manner of his death. Perhaps you’re getting something from the the Psalm quote that I’m not picking up? Or interpreting “reward” as suicide / death rather than as a reference to the thirty pieces of silver? Peter’s tone in his narration of the facts sounds pretty neutral, to me.