The Desire for Justice
Justice is an idea that is not made of material. It is not something we can physically hold, scientifically measure, or weigh with scales. It is conceptual, grasped only by the mind, and based upon an even more foundational notion about right and wrong, good and bad (which also are non-material). Even so, justice is a staple of human desire. We know justice means that things are somehow being made right, and we desire this deeply.
People cry out for justice, and, to be certain, justice is needed. We are right to long for it. The problem is that justice always seems elusive and difficult. People flounder over what is right and how best to set things right when a wrong has been committed. We are often dissatisfied with how it gets carried out, and I believe there is a reason for this. Human beings acting on their own will never know perfect justice, for they themselves are imperfect, lack greater knowledge, and often fail to act on what they know is right. This is the way of the world.
Here is a conundrum. In a world without God, there is no standard for ultimate justice. In a world with God, due to human wickedness, it will appear that there is no justice. In both cases, we will think that justice eludes us and may never happen at all. This is not a new observation. Koheleth observed long ago that “there is wickedness at the place of judgment and there is wickedness at the place of righteousness. I said to myself, ‘God will judge the righteous and the wicked, since there is a time for every activity and every work.’” (Eccl 3:16-17, CSB) Much of what Koheleth said was driven by observing oppression and injustices.
If we are concerned at all with justice, the answer is not to give up on God, for without God 1) justice is an arbitrary human construct with no final standard and, at best, inconsistently applied, and 2) there can never be a time in which it can be said that final justice has happened. We would merely be at the whims of fallible people in power (with the volatile nature of politics), and it is not hard to see how that has gone. Wickedness takes over. With the powers of this world, that has always been the case, and if our hope lies only in what this world provides, we will be sorely disappointed and unfulfilled. Human justice will never be enough.
C. S. Lewis argued against God on the basis of injustice in the world, then realized his argument was going nowhere. He wrote, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” (Mere Christianity, 45-46)
To call something unjust is to assume a standard that is being violated. It is the same issue with calling something evil. Yet where does such a standard come from? People in power? Societal consensus? Does might make right after all? None of these will serve as consistent standards over time. We know there has to be more going on here.
With God, there is 1) a standard for understanding justice, even if human beings are not consistent with its application, and 2) a time in which ultimate justice is accomplished based on the resurrected Christ (Acts 17:30-31). Justice will be a reality based upon a Judge who can discern perfectly. Our hope is built upon this because we trust that “Righteousness and justice are the foundation” of God’s throne (Psa 89:14). We may not understand it right now. We will see much hypocrisy, oppression, and injustices. The world is crooked and corrupt. It is exactly what we would expect to see from the disaster of sin. For all the efforts we make to get things right, we continue to fail miserably.
Yet that is not the end of the story. We must not forget the nature of the gospel in this, for through Christ God can “be just and justify the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). Without God, not only is there no ultimate justice, there is also no ultimate grace. We are left only with the world’s terribly skewed concepts of justice, and this has never satisfied. It never will, for by observation we will see that “there is wickedness at the place of judgment and there is wickedness at the place of righteousness.”
We long for something greater, and God has something greater in mind for us. Through Christ, justice is a reality, yet so is grace. The One who has the final right to judge also has the right to supply mercy and forgiveness. The plea of Habakkuk is realized: “In wrath remember mercy” (Has 3:2). While we seek justice now, let us remember who holds final justice, who will make all things right, and who also desires that we accept the grace He so richly offers (Eph 2:1-10).