Is God Just? (RJS)

The first of three cycles of speeches in the debate between Job and his friends covers Job 4-14. Each of the friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, reprove Job and Job responds to their charge. Job also reflects on his desire for a hearing in the heavenly court and either looks forward to death or wishes he had never been born. The new commentaries by John Walton (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)) and Tremper Longman III (Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms)), both their agreements and their differences, help us explore the ways that the book of Job challenges our comfortable presuppositions on a number of issues related to pain, suffering and the nature of God’s (good?) (just?) world.

Job and all of his friends have a view of the way that the world operates that can be visualized using a triangle.  They all agree that the retribution principle should govern the world. Righteousness is rewarded and wickedness punished. The difference between Job and his friends lies in the identification of the weak link. Job knows he is innocent, and questions God’s justice. The friends assume that because he is suffering Job is guilty. Bildad even infers that Job’s children sinned:

Longman 8:3-4
Does God pervert Justice?
    Does Shaddai pervert righteousness?
If your children sinned against him,
    he sent them into the power of their transgression.

NIV 8:3-4 
Does God pervert justice?
    Does the Almighty pervert what is right?
When your children sinned against him,
    he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.

We know, however, that Job is right – he did not sin and bring this suffering down on his head. His children did not die because of their own sin or because of the sin of their father.  He is wrong that this implies that God is not just. The retribution principle is the weak link in the triangle. It is not that the retribution principle never applies, but that it doesn’t apply in an absolute sense. The righteous do not always prosper, the wicked do not always suffer. Reality is far more complex.

Is Genesis 3 the solution to the conundrums of Job 4-14? Longman suggests several times in his sections on Theological Implications that the fall is the answer to the hard theological questions introduced by this section of Job, and indeed the book of Job as a whole. The retribution principle is not an absolute because we live within a fallen world. Job doesn’t deserve the suffering he has experienced because he is personally a vile sinner in the hands of an angry God. The prologue of Job does not allow us to draw this conclusion. “Have you considered my servant Job?” Yahweh asks the accuser. Yet the world is fallen, and evil exists.

In the commentary on theological imp Job’s second response (Ch. 9-10) Longman notes:

But was God unjust? Some modern readers of the book believe so … But to say that God is unjust requires us to believe that God owes Job a good life since he has been good and that it is unfair for God to take away Job’s wealth, health, and family.

But this is not the biblical view of God and human beings. Reading Job in the light of Gen. 1-3, we can say that God created humanity to enjoy the blessings of life forever. Adam and Eve are pictured as living in Eden, a place whose very name means “luxury” or “delight.” Their rebellion led to their punishment, and forever afterward human beings deserve death and not life. Job’s earlier life was not something he earned, but rather it was an act of divine grace. The message of the book of Job is not that life is fair, but that God is wise and sovereign and perfectly just. (pp. 182-183)

And in the commentary on theological implications within Job’s third response (Ch. 12-14):

God the Destroyer (12:13-25)

God’s actions in the world are double-sided. God destroys and God builds up. …In this fallen world, however, God’s actions are not always so neatly divided. In other words, the righteous are sometimes treated as if they are wicked, and the wicked as if they are righteous (Eccles. 7:15). … God does not promise perfect justice in a fallen world. But in the end all things work out in conformity with God’s justice, and the righteous receive their reward. (p. 216)

A bit later:

The Human Condition: Short of Days and Full of Trouble (14:1)

So why is life short and hard? The answer comes in Gen. 3 when Adam and Eve rebel against God. They replace God’s sovereignty with their own. By eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, they try to define their own moral standards and not allow God to do so. The consequence is death and suffering. Humans are alienated from God, from each other, from creation, and even from themselves.

So why do humans experience suffering? Because of sin. Now I am beginning to sound like on of the three friends: Job is suffering because of sin. However, as I have repeatedly emphasized in this commentary and will do so till the end, the book of Job makes very clear that Job is “innocent and virtuous, fearing God and turning away from sin” (1:1 and elsewhere). We lose our way in the book of Job if we ever forget that Job is not personally responsible for his suffering.

On the other hand, there would be no suffering and death apart from sin (Rom. 5:12-21). What the story of Job undermines is the belief that all of our personal suffering and pain and our death are the direct result of our own personal sin. … The book, though, is not denying that it is human rebellion that has marred life and brought death into the world. (pp. 218-219)

Longman’s commentary raises several questions here that I would like to ponder. These questions arise from the impression that Longman is shaping the interpretation of the book of Job to make it fit within his theological expectation. But we should, perhaps, first let each book have its own voice and then look at the overall picture that emerges.

1. Is Longman right and we should view the justice of God through Genesis 3?  Mankind in the garden forfeited the expectation of fairness. Job was granted wealth, health, and family by divine grace, thus taking it away was not unjust.

2. Is the reference back to Genesis 3 imposed upon Job 4-14?  It appears that Longman reads Job through the lens of his theology. This may, or may not be a valid approach, but the assumptions should always be up front.

3. Does Genesis 3 help to realize that God is just and that Job is not personally responsible for his suffering?

4. Is Job consistent with the idea that the righteous shall receive their reward? This conclusion appears to me imposed on the book from the outside. But perhaps this is a reasonable thing to do, or perhaps It arises from the book itself.

5. Does a less literal interpretation of Genesis 3 undermine Longman’s reconciliation of a just God and Job’s innocence? Longman, we should note, does not advocate a literal interpretation of the creation narratives as history. (See for example his book with Richard Carlson Science, Creation and the Bible: Reconciling Rival Theories of Origins.) So he does not see a literal interpretation of Genesis as necessary for a literal interpretation of a fallen creation.

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  • RJS, I just published an article on the Book of Job through a narrative lens in *Horizons in Biblical Theology* (34.2 (Fall 2012): 103-117). My contention is that the book is not really about Job’s suffering (or ours) so much as God’s credibility. Job doesn’t question God’s justice except insofar as God will not provide a hearing for Job to face the accusations against him (since, as you rightly point out here, Job is just as much beholden to retribution theory as his friends), and his suffering is not actually the center of the plot – the Satan’s accusation against God is. The book’s intent is not so much to explain why we suffer, but to demonstrate that God can be believed. And this is done primarily through a contest between the Satan and God, of which Job and his friends are merely supporting characters. This changes the tenor of the discussion away from us, which I think is important.

  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    I don’t have a problem with canonical interpretation as long as specific context and larger contexts are all considered together with no group of texts silencing another group of biblical texts.

  • Norman

    I think Longman is mixing apples and oranges in his theological application of Gen 3, Rom 5:12-21, although the underlying premises that we live in a dangerous and unforgiving physical world should be assumed. The fallen -ness from Gen 3 is in regards to faithful man attempting human means of obtaining rightness with God, while thorns and thistles (physical manifestation) simply depict the futility of that effort. Paul lays it at the root of Jewish Legalism in Rom 7-8, which originated with Adam in the Garden and which Christ sets aside lifting us up and out of Legalism into Grace by depending upon Christ alone.

    Although Longman doesn’t say he read’s Gen 3 literally he applies it theologically as if he does to an extent. His approach probably should be considered to be a hybrid approach that may work for him (and possibly others) but likely would not hold up as a consistent explanation theologically or rationally.

  • dopderbeck

    I respect Longman, but this interpretation of Job seems strained. There is nothing in the book of Job itself that suggests any link with the notion of the Fall. Indeed, most scholars thing there is no notion of a “Fall” inherent in the OT such as is later developed by Paul. So maybe this is a kind of “canonical” heremenutic, but it doesn’t seem to be what Job as such is about. This is particularly so given that Job as a text probably predates the different Genesis creation narratives as texts.

    I understand this strongly Augustinian / Calvinist approach to theodicy, even if the Genesis 3 story is not read “literally,” and there is a certain kind of logic to it. Surely, the entire sweep of the Bible, and of Christian theology broadly, is the emphasis on grace: no one, not even the most “righteous” (Job) earns God’s favor.

    The big theological question, however, is the relationship between “nature” and “grace.” A classic Christian formulation of this relationship (from Aquinas) is that “grace completes nature.” From the beginning — from Genesis 2 — human beings are created with a nature that is intended for grace. Genesis 2, before the Fall, is not a state of “pure nature” — it is a state in which nature and grace are fully harmonious as intended.

    This, I think, reframes the question of God’s “goodness” in relation to the Fall and grace: if God creates a human creature that is intended by nature for the enjoyment of grace, and God withholds grace from that human creature, can God be called “good?” Now, “grace,” to be “grace,” must be truly gratuitous — nothing externally compels God to give grace to anyone. But God, to be “God,” must be fully loving and good, and therefore to attribute to God the deliberate withholding of grace from a creature God intended for grace seems blasphemous.

    The question of God’s “justice” now also is cast in a new light because, classically, God is “simple” and all of His “attributes” are convertible. Goodness, beauty, truth, justice, and love as “universals” — as elements of God as the ground of “being” itself — are finally all interchangeable with each other. So if it is not consistent with God’s “love” for Him to create a human being intended for grace and then to withhold grace, neither is it consistent with God’s “justice” to do so. Again, no force of “justice” outside of God compels God to act; but God acts as He does because of who He is, and it is thus blasphemous to say otherwise.

    The strongly Calvinistic solution is to suggest that God, in fact, creates some (many) human beings who are not intended for grace but who are predestined for perdition. But reference to the Fall only upholds the justice of double predestination if (1) the state of nature into which Adam was created involved no “grace”; or (2) the Fall totally erased created human nature, if human nature was originally created to enjoy grace. Proposition (1) seems to me clearly wrong since creation itself is a gratiutous act — God created out of love, not out of compulsion. Proposition (2) seems to me unsustainable as a matter of theological anthropology and Christology — Christ could not become the “new Adam” if the “old Adam” had been utterly obliterated by the Fall. There would, in effect, be no “incarnation,” no entering into and redeeming of humanity by Christ, but rather a different kind of being altogether.

    Therefore, it seems to me that, to uphold God’s goodness and justice, we must say that God gives to each person He creates such grace as is necessary to make it possible for that person to complete his or her nature in the enjoyment of grace. The incarnation and the cross were necessary because after the “Fall” a separation was introduced between “nature” and “grace” as experienced by human beings (see, e.g., Athanasius, “On the Incarnation”). This is a gift; it is not earned. But, our “nature” is such that we are made for this gift and are capable of accepting or rejecting it, when, by grace, it is offered. Contra strong Calvinism, the Fall has not completely destroyed this capacity of our “nature” even though it produced an “unnatural” separation between “nature” and “grace.” God’s goodness and justice, the utter gratuity of God’s grace, and human freedom are thus all at once preserved; and all that seems to me both Biblically and theologically more sound than the Calvinistic tack Longman is taking.

    So, I don’t think Job is a story about God’s capacity to arbitrarily give or withhold grace. It is more a story of how God’s grace is always at work, even if its ways and reasons are hidden to us. It invites us to trust in a God who is truly good even if we can’t understand all the reasons for our suffering.

  • Dana Ames

    If one is going to read the text of scripture only, I would agree with Brad @1.

    The stream of Eastern Christianity, particularly as expressed on this subject by St Isaac of Nineveh (late 600s), tends to not read the OT literally when anything there contradicts what has been revealed in Jesus Christ. It is not held that there is a “different God” of the OT, but rather that the meaning God wants us to take away from the OT is not a superimposition of our own characteristics and foibles upon God. Everything must be read through the revelation of the Father in/by/through Christ. Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev writes, “Thus, Isaac claims, one should not interpret literally those Old Testament texts where the terms wrath, anger, hatred and others are used of the Creator. If such anthropomorphic terms occur in Scripture, they are used in a figurative sense, for God never does anything out of wrath, anger or hatred: everything of that sort is far removed from His Nature. We should not read everything literally as it is written, but rather see within the bodily exterior of the Old Testament narratives the hidden providence and eternal knowledge of God.”

    The most well known of St Isaac’s quotes on the subject:

    “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or is thine eye evil (Hebrewism: “Are you going to be stingy about this?” – DA) because I am good?’ How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change.”

    “Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves… Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul. As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures.”

    From this, I would extrapolate that St Paul’s use of the dik- words also does not have anything to do with “justice” if we understand “justice” as any sort of “payback.” This is evidence for me that N.T. Wright’s reading of the dik- words as “faithfulness/putting things right-the way they were meant to be” is consistent with early Christian thought.


  • dopderbeck

    Dana (#5) — Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent book “Justice in Love” covers some of the same ground on the dik- words and the NPP. Highly recommended for this discussion. Wolterstorff pretty well undermines the nominalistic / voluntaristic ideas of God’s “justice” that underlie approaches like what Longman seems to advoacte here.

    Particularly in that light, I don’t think I agree with St. Isaac here. Now, I’m going to go all “Western” and “Thomistic” here again, but — St. Isaac is right in that the human concept of “justice” can’t capture God’s essence, but it can give us meaningful analogical knowledge. And, the Eastern Fathers would certainly agree that properties such as “love,” “beauty,” and “justice” are universals and therefore are convertible.

    It cannot be the case, then, that God’s “justice” and God’s “mercy” are ever at odds. It follows that “justice” and “mercy” properly understood as universals that are part of the fabric of creation are not ever truly at odds.

    How is this so? Partly it is in recalibrating our concept of “justice” to mean not just “getting exactly what you deserve” but to relate to the Hebrew concept of shalom. Partly it is in remembering that “justice” and “mercy” are both inseparably linked to “love” (hence the title of Wolterstorff’s book: “Justice in Love”).

    For a modern treatment of all this from an “Eastern” perspective, see David Bentley Hart’s “The Beauty of the Infinite”.

  • dopderbeck

    BTW, even our human concepts of “justice” are not by any means limited to or exhausted by the notion of “retribution,” contra RJS’ graph. In the common law of torts, contracts, and property, if a “wrong” is committed, “justice” is achieved by compensation, not retribution. Generally, you cannot even recover “punitive” damages in contract or property cases — you simply get back the value of what you lost. In tort cases “punitive” damages are available, but only for willful conduct, and the underlying principle is more about deterrence of others than retribution against the wrongdoer. There is, of course, a strong retributive principle in the common law of crimes (criminal law), but even here the concept of retribution is tied to what the perpetrator “took” from the repose of the community (hence criminal cases are prosecuted in the name of the State and not in the name of the victim). There is also a vast literature in contemporary criminal law scholarship calling all retributive principles into question and calling for a criminal system based more on restorative justice. Even Anselm’s writing on substitutionary atonement are not only about retribution — they are fundamentally about restoring to God the glory that is rightly due him.

    In short — it’s a mistake from the start to limit the concept of “justice” to the concept of “retribution.”

  • RJS


    Thanks. I like Longman’s commentary a lot (and Walton’s too). I’m learning a great deal from both of them. But as I read these “Theological Implications” sections I found it a bit “strained” as you say. I had hoped to get some conversation going on it for a few reasons. You bring some of them up in your comment.

    All of this, of course, effects the science and faith discussion as well – the theological reasons for the emphasis placed on Genesis 3 impacts so much.

    You put it well. I think Job does invite us to trust in a God who is truly good, or more in line with Longman’s commentay a God who is truly wise. Good and wise can’t be really separated. We trust in God’s wisdom even when we don’t understand the reason for our suffering. I don’t think we gain much by bringing the Fall in, although a “fallen” world may be an important part of the picture.

  • RJS


    I’ve adapted it – but the triangle comes from the commentaries (especially Walton) and describes how they interpret the discussion in Job.

  • Dana Ames

    David @6,

    please explain “…are universals and therefore convertible.”

    It’s ok if you “go all Thomistic,” because I know you will do it kindly 😉 Not all Eastern thinkers agree totally with St Isaac, either, but they have to grapple with him, because what he is saying is so huge. My point exactly is that our understanding of “justice” needs to be recalibrated to look like shalom.

    I have not read Hart’s book, though I would like to one day (too many books, too little time). I have, however, read a bit of Dionysius, and it rings true – that /nothing/ one can say or think can “capture God’s essence,” and that as soon as one starts talking about God as being equal to God’s attributes, God begins to be “demoted” somehow, taking a sort of “back seat” to his attributes. Like Dionysius, I don’t really think that St Isaac was saying that the human concept of “justice” can give us meaningful analogical knowledge about God. /Everything/ we know about God is what we know in/of Christ.

    I’m pushing back against the notion of God’s “justice” as nothing but retributive, or even “being fair,” as the only way Christians have ever looked at it.


  • Dana Ames

    I was writing as the next comments were coming in…

    I get what you say about the legal system and scholarship. Still a lot about recovering loss. How can anything that is God be “lost”? As with Anselm (who I like to think is sort of a “homie” of mine, since he came from the same area of Italy as my family, and whose devotional writings, like Augustine’s I find valuable), how in the world can God ever “lose” any amount of his glory? Even looking at it from the side of humanity not glorifying God, he didn’t create us because he /needed/ humans to give him glory. God doesn’t need anything.


  • dopderbeck

    Dana — I should have been more clear about the “convertibility of universals.” The early Fathers to some extent, and then more directly Augustine and Aquinas, took the Greek idea of universals and located them as “thoughts” (analogically speaking) in God’s “mind” (analogically speaking”). Since God is by definition “simple” — without parts — these can’t really be “separate” thoughts or “parts” of God. So, while for us as human creatures the concepts of “love” and “justice” and “mercy” might require analytical distinctions, they are not ontologically distinct, because the universal truths of “love,” “justice,” and “mercy” all flow together from the one, undivided being of God. In effect, if you oppose God’s “love” to God’s “mercy,” you are setting up an ontological conflict in the being of God Himself — which would mean that the being under discussion is not really “God.”

    Re: Anselm — good question. Ontologically of course God doesn’t “need” anything from us, I agree. And I agree with your instinct against strong “theologies of Glory.” Nevertheless, again speaking analogically, human beings “owe” glory to God. God does not “suffer” from this (if, as classical theology holds, God is “impassible”), but there is an ontological break in the fabric of creation itself — we suffer, other people suffer, and all creation suffers, because of our sin of pride, our “original” sin, and thus incur a “debt.”

  • Dana Ames

    Thanks David.

    I get what you’re saying. I agree that God’s “parts” can’t be opposed, and that but as I understand it, in the East God’s attributes are not identified with God’s ousia, “what God is.” So there is no ontologic conflict. I agree that if “splitting off” God’s attributes were the case, the being under discussion would not really be “God,” but you can get there so much more easily from the East, and maintain the simplicity of God. The East does not consider the essence/ousia of God himself directly knowable or understandable; God is “being beyond being.” What we know God, we know through his energies/acts in/through the Person of the Son. This is where the essence/person/energies distinctions are really helpful in avoiding the ontologic problem and make so much more sense to me.

    Also, impassability in the Eastern sense does not mean “God does not suffer.” It means “God does not act from any need,” or from being driven by any of his attributes. (I don’t see “Love” as being an attribute in this sense, like holiness or justice, but I don’t have the wherewithal to be able to say why.) He is not /required/ to do anything because of his holiness or justice, etc.; if that were so, then those attributes would be “bigger” than God. That’s the biggest problem for me in the western and particularly the Protestant way of looking at soteriology. I would say that the ontologic break in the fabric of creation is due to the “original sin” of humans trying to be the source of our own life, and upon turning away from God as the source of life, being the stewards of creation, creation was subject to death and corruption – until the Incarnation and Resurrection. That’s of much greater import than merely “incurring a debt,” even with all of this problem being on the human side. It becomes something with cosmic effects and implications.

    In any case, I feel like don’t know much and I’m very inadequate at expressing my thoughts; I’m sure your friends at St Vlad’s could explain it much more satisfactorily.


    Parenthetically, I do get a little irritated at the Lutheran theology of the cross/theology of glory dichotomy. Way too narrow – but then again perhaps I don’t understand it well. I think some Evangelicals are attracted to this (and other aspects of Lutheran) theology because they get a centuries-old confessional system into which certain habits of Evangelicalism can fit (for example, istm that to require all preaching of “the gospel” in a soteriologic Ev. sense with the point being to get people to “make a decision for Christ” is a lot like the Luth. directive to constantly preach “the theology of the cross” so that all “theologies of Glory” will be dashed upon it) – but it’s much more charitable than a bare “turn or burn” mentality, and they get a liturgy, for which a lot of folks are (rightly) very hungry.

    Anyhow, good to talk with you again.


  • John McCauslin

    I have to go back to the beginning of this series: what is on trial in the story of Job is neither God nor Job, but whether human faith can survive in a world where justice is ambiguous and defies human understanding. How does faith work in a world where the retribution principle is belied by reality, where reciprocal fairness is nothing more than a human notion, and where the essence of justice from a divine point of view is at bet ambiguous, beyond human comprehension, and perhaps nothing more than human fancy?

    Is the link between faith in God and human expectations of justice wrongheaded? Should one’s faith be bound in any way to one’s comprehension of justice, human or divine?

    In Scripture God promises justice but makes little effort to define it, begging humans to write in the definition. The problem for humans is that our definitions are always self-centered, self-refeential, and always bound up with what we expect to receive – from each other and from God. And in the definitional process we also find that justice and grace are easily confused.

    The truth is, Grace is real, and justice is an abstraction, and a human one at that.

    Perhaps the bottom line lesson from Job is that in the end we must learn to accept God’s grace when we receive it – that is, constantly, and we must learn do so with a humility which arises from an understanding that Grace, in all of its forms, is a gift. A second truth is that we are called to emulate God’s graciousness, not our personal notions of justice which we superimpose over God’s graciousness.