What about Judgment? The Biblical Concept of Justice
It is possible that some may argue that I am ignoring God’s justice, that salvation for all sounds nice, but is forgetting that God is just. On the contrary, I am quite convinced that God is indeed just and that He will righteously judge everyone. I am also convinced that the traditional concept of hell is not an accurate biblical representation of God’s justice. Let’s begin examining the Biblical concept of justice, beginning with the principle that all are judged according to their deeds.
2 Corinthians 5:9-11
So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience.
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have 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. For God does not show favoritism.
“I the Lord search the heart
and examine the mind,
to reward each person according to their conduct,
according to what their deeds deserve.”
Then I saw a great white throne and the One who sat on it. The earth and the heavens fled from His presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne. And there were open books, and one of them was the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their deeds, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead, and each one was judged according to his deeds.…
There are several key concepts about God’s ultimate judgment of mankind in these passages.
First, it is apparent that everyone, including believers will be judged.
Second, it is clear that everyone will be judged according to their works, whether good or bad.
Third, it is obvious that we are NOT to judge others; that is God’s job.
Let’s examine each of these concepts in turn.
Everyone is judged
I think there is a prevailing notion among Christians today that we escape judgment because of our faith in Christ. This is clearly shown to not be the case by the verses we just looked at. Everyone, “great and small” is judged. What we do as Christians, and how we follow Christ actually matter and we are rewarded accordingly. We don’t escape judgment, but condemnation because we are justified by Christ for “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1). It doesn’t say we won’t be judged according to our works, just that we won’t be condemned or found guilty. Why? Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on our behalf of course!
Everyone is judged according to their deeds
The traditional doctrine of hell ascribes eternal punishment to all unbelievers, regardless of the types of sins they committed. This is in stark contrast to the biblical view that we are judged according to our deeds. Some people say that there are different levels of torment in hell but the duration is eternal in order to resolve this conflict, but this does little to fix the problem. Eternity is still eternity.
How did this concept of essentially equal punishment for sin arise then? I believe it is the result of a misinterpretation of the purpose of certain Biblical passages.
For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Passages like this are sometimes given as justification for the extreme punishment mandated by the doctrine of hell. The reasoning given is that all of us have failed to keep the whole law and are therefore guilty of breaking the whole law. Therefore, it is argued, we all deserve the same eternal punishment. I believe this interpretation is mistaken.
James is not saying that all sins are equal, but rather showing that all of us are lawbreakers incapable of earning our own salvation. We are all equally in need of Christ’s salvation. He is also encouraging us to live freely following Christ, being “judged by the law of liberty.”
Interestingly, the verse also encourages us to be merciful and concludes that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” It is quite odd, obviously, to use such a passage as proof that God will judge the world without mercy for the lost.
Don’t Judge Others
There is a tendency in some Christian circles to be judgmental of other people. Unfortunately, this probably doesn’t surprise you. But it should. Jesus Christ, whom we claim to follow as Christians, was emphatic that we should not judge others. Let’s examine a couple of his statements next…
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
These are not the only passages that indicate that we should not judge others. They emphatically declare that we should not judge and that if we do, we will be judged in the same manner. I know that deters me from wanting to stand in harsh judgment over anyone else!
Nevertheless, I’ve heard people say (on multiple occasions) that so and so “isn’t saved.” This has always bothered me and I hope it vanishes from Christian vernacular. We are incapable of judging the state of salvation of other people and are expressly told not to! Only God knows our hearts. If someone doesn’t profess to be a believer, we can be precise and use this same language in describing their views.
It is also important to remember that we too are in the process of “being saved” (1 Corinthians 1:18). And we can thank God for His grace in doing so, and for His goodness in desiring and working toward the salvation of all mankind.
Justice In The Old Testament Law
To understand the justice of God, it is important to look at the law of God. In the Old Testament, the law was given to govern the Israelites, God’s chosen people. Understanding this law is useful for informing our view of his ultimate judgment of mankind as well.
So, what do we see in the Old Testament law? Significantly, we never see a single example anywhere of unending punishment or of torture in the law. Not ever.
Instead we see fairness. Injuries are repaid “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24:20).
And in the New Testament clarifications given by Jesus of the law, we see mercy!
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”
Was Jesus abolishing the law of Moses? We will use His own words to answer this question. He said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
So, Jesus is saying that he is fulfilling the law, by showing the true heart of the law: love. This is why, when questioned about the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus responded:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Notice that all of the Law and Prophets are about love for God and love for others! This is significant, showing that all of God’s justice flows from His love.
Now let’s take a look at the most well-known of the Old Testament laws, the Ten Commandments, to see this principle.
And God spoke all these words:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lordwill not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Notice that the first three commandments deal with loving God. The fourth, keeping the Sabbath, is about both loving God by obeying Him, but also about Him loving us and giving us rest. As Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Finally, the last six commandments are about loving one another. From numerous passages, it is clear that loving others is also a way in which we love God. So we see that the Ten Commandments can indeed be summed up, as Jesus stated, by the two greatest commandments.
In addition, we see that much of the Old Testament law is about caring for others. And most of the judgments carried out against civilizations are due to the fact that people did not care for others.
"Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly."
"When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God."
Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
What? Wasn’t sodomy the sin of Sodom? Apparently not. This is not to say this wasn’t a sin of Sodom, but it clearly wasn’t the sin that God was most concerned with in this passage.
Zechariah 7:9-11 (ESV)
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear.
"Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow."
"The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?' declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty."
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
"With righteousness he will judge the needy; with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked."
The New Testament reiterates the importance of caring for those in need repeatedly.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Luke 4:17-20 (ESV)
And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him [Jesus]. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This is just a sampling. We could spend hours on all of the verses that speak of God’s love for the needy, the foreigner, the oppressed and the alone. What all of these passages show us is clear. If we are seeing God’s justice accurately, we must see his sense of social justice. He cares about people, and seems to have a special place in his heart for those that society marginalizes. Again and again in the prophets, we see this being one of the key reasons for judgment upon nations. We also see it as a primary determining factor in the consequences or rewards we receive when Jesus comes in his glory, separating the sheep from the goats (the righteous from the unrighteous).
Now consider the fact that the vast majority of people groups that have not been reached with the gospel of Jesus Christ live in developing countries and experience a great deal of poverty and oppression. Aren’t these the very people that God expresses deep love for throughout all of these passages? Is it consistent with God’s justice for Him to condemn them to eternal suffering in hell? Or will He save them, as He has stated throughout His Word?
Previous Chapter Next Chapter