Opening the Word: God's perfect justice

I recently received a review copy of “God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?” (InterVarsity Press, $15), by David T. Lamb, an evangelical professor of Old Testament studies at Biblical Seminary. It opens with this clever question: “How does one reconcile the loving God of the Old Testament with the harsh God of the New Testament?” 

When Lamb asks this question of his students, they are shocked, and “then most assume that I have simply misspoke, as I am prone to do.” But he says that “God in the Old Testament is consistently described as slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but Jesus speaks about hell more than anyone else in Scripture.” Lamb says 73 percent of New Testament references to hell are from Jesus.  

This surprises many people, both Christian and otherwise. For example, a self-described agnostic recently left this comment on the blog I moderate: “I maintain that the New Testament concept of hell was created as a marketing tool and is a direct contradiction to the tolerance and love taught by Jesus Christ.” This remark was made in the context of a larger argument about tolerance and justice. He insisted that agnostics and atheists have as much basis — or even more — for recognizing and establishing true justice as do those who believe in God. 

That belief directly contradicts the Book of Wisdom, written between 180 and 50 B.C. by an anonymous Jewish author. There is just one true God, today’s reading proclaims, and he does not have to justify his actions, “For your might is the source of justice; your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.” This truth of God’s singular nature, of course, was not quickly grasped or accepted by the Hebrews. 

The Book of Wisdom contains several profound insights into the mystery of God and his dealings with mankind. Due to his weakness and selfishness, man continually struggles with being unjust and often suffers injustices from others. But God is perfectly just in his ways, due to his perfect and complete power, or omnipotence. Thus, true justice among men is rooted in divine justice; it cannot exist otherwise. Because God is just, we have “good ground for hope,” wrote the author of Wisdom, for God also grants repentance for sins.  

But what of those who refuse to repent or who prey upon the weak and vulnerable? If justice is, as St. Augustine said, the virtue that gives to each his due, what is due the evil man? At this point, those who deny God’s existence and reject the afterlife face a serious problem, for there are grave injustices that go unpunished in this world: murder, genocide, abuse, etc. If such acts go unaddressed, what sort of “hope” can anyone really hold onto within a Godless world? If “justice” is merely a human creation, it can mean whatever we want. So, the real issue is not that atheists reject belief in God, but that they reject the truth of the moral order rooted in the nature of God. 

Jesus told his disciples that weeds will be in the field of the world until the end of time. There is no certain escape from injustices in this life. But at the end of the age, the King of Justice will throw those weeds “into the fiery furnace.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Last Judgment will reveal that God’s justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God’s love is stronger than death” (No. 1040).

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.