Justice relates to the administration of fairness and the upholding of rightness. The Bible understands God as the ultimate arbiter of justice. This is held in tension with his mercy and willingness to forgive and heal rather than to punish. 

Sin and weakness makes humans unable to act in true justice, but the Bible urges them to reflect the character of God by redressing societal imbalance and forgiving personal slights ra-ther than taking vengeance into their own hands. 

God’s inevitable justice

Moses with the ten commandments by RembrandtGod’s standards for human behaviour

In the Old Testament God gives Moses standards by which to govern the behaviour of believers, known as the Ten Commandments. The latter five regulate human interaction by establishing that taking human life, committing adultery, stealing, lying and plotting to acquire the property of others are wrong (see Exodus 20:2-17) and worthy of punishment.

Promises and warnings

The expectation of justice to come, woven throughout the Bible, follows from belief in the in-trinsic justness of God’s character Deuteronomy 32:4. For some – the righteous and those in need – the expectation is expressed as a promise (e.g. Psalms 58:11, Deuteronomy 10:18). For others – the wicked and those responsible for oppression – it is expressed as a threat (e.g. Malachi 4:1):

When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.

Proverbs 21:15 ESVUK

Some Old Testament prophets anticipate the divine establishment of perfect peace and justice on the earth through the person of the Messiah: a specially anointed liberator whom God would send to save his people Isaiah 42:1-4. Christians believe that Jesus is this promised Messiah. 

The cross

Many Christians understand that Jesus’ death on the cross resolves the tension between justice and mercy. God, in the person of the sinless Jesus, willingly took upon himself the pun-ishment for all of sinful humankind (a doctrine known as penal substitution). Thus God’s merciful forgiveness becomes available without compromising the demands of justice (see Romans 3:23-26), enabling reconciliation between human beings and God.

Forgiveness and forbearance

In the light of God’s ultimate justice, Jesus urges his followers to break the cycle of offence and revenge by choosing not to retaliate when wronged:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if an-yone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Matthew 5:38-39  ESVUK

A key line of The Lord’s Prayer is that believers can ask for God’s forgiveness in line with the extent to which they have forgiven others who have sinned against them (see also Luke 6:37-38). They are also urged to trust that God will defend their cause Romans 12:19.

Earthly authorities

In the Bible human authority figures act as administers of divine justice. Some are appointed for their wisdom and desire to honour God (2 Chronicles 19:4-7). But sometimes God uses those who don’t acknowledge him. For example, the Assyrian invasion of Israel in the Old Testament is described as God’s way of punishing Israel’s hypocrisy (Isaiah 10:5-6). However, God later addressed Assyria’s own pride and ungodliness (Isaiah 10:12-13).

Social justice

Paul stresses that believers should accept the judgement of those in authority (e.g. Romans 13:1-4) as they are agents of God’s justice. However, God’s people should pursue justice on behalf of others, especially the marginalised and oppressed Proverbs 31:8-9. Both Old and New Testaments emphasise that maintaining social justice matters more to God than sacrifice, fasting, religious feasts and tithing - see Amos 5:22-24, Luke 11:42.

Godly ‘injustice’

According to the Old Testament book of Leviticus, God’s concern for the economically dis-possessed is such that, every fiftieth year was declared a ‘Year of Jubilee’, where by any prop-erty which had previously needed to be sold was returned free of charge to its original owner, and anyone who had had to sell themselves into slavery was set free without penalty (Leviticus 25:10-11). This was ‘unfair’ to those who’d purchased land and slaves but meant that no one became too rich or powerful and everyone acknowledged that God was the ultimate provider.

Some of Jesus’ parables overturned concepts of ‘worldly’ justice:

  • The prodigal son was restored despite wasting his father’s wealth – his repentance meant that previous wrong behaviour was not held against him (see Luke 15:11-32; The Prodigal Son)
  • The two small coins of the widow were considered more precious than the large donations of the wealthy (Mark 12:41-44) – God is more concerned with the attitude of a giver’s heart
  • All the labourers were paid the same fee, regardless of the hours they had worked (Matthew 20:1-16) – God asserts that it is up to him who deserves what reward.

Justice in literature

  • In Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo the protagonist as-sumes the persona of an avenging angel, bringing his enemies to justice and helping others who have been wronged
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to expose the injustice of slavery
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960) explores themes of racial and societal injustice around the court case of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
  • Courtroom drama is a popular genre on page and screen with stories by authors like John Grisham and John Mortimer about lawyers fighting to achieve justice, e.g. for innocent clients, or against corrupt corporations.

Other references

  • The Roman goddess of justice, Justitia (Greek equivalent, Themis), is portrayed wearing a blindfold, and carrying a sword and a set of scales. The Egyptian goddess Maat and the Greek goddess Dike are also associated with scales of justice
  • The definition and implementation of justice is the question which motivates Socrate’s dis-course in Plato’s The Republic (c.380 BC)
  • Superhero fiction (e.g. in comic books and their film adaptations) is typically preoccupied with notions of (and nuanced debates about) justice.

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