The human desire for justice is insatiable, and that’s a problem. It’s a problem because an insatiable desire can never be satisfied, just by definition. There is no end for our desire for justice. It’s a problem because many Christians use justice as a lens for understanding the work of our salvation. The Fathers have a term for insatiable desires. They call them “passions.” What human beings experience as a desire for justice is, in fact, not a virtue; it’s a passion, a disordered desire of the soul.
Virtues, that is, the desires that are rightly ordered, have a proper end to their desire. They can be satisfied, because they have a proper end. The experience of hunger, when rightly ordered, is perfectly natural, and is able to know and experience a sense of completion: Enough is enough. When hunger is disordered, it cannot rightly discern its end. The desire for food becomes confused, and the result is gluttony, experienced by too much or too little food.
I recall a friend, a recovering alcoholic, who said that the problem with alcohol was there was never enough. The Law in the Old Testament recognized the disordered character of human justice. It placed limits on our desire for justice. The Lex Talionis, that is, the law of retaliation, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, is not a prescription for what must be paid for an injury; it’s a limit on the maximum that may be extracted. Our desire for justice is never satisfied with an eye for an eye. We would like two eyes, a hand, a foot, an electronic ankle bracelet and six million dollars in punitive damages, and even then we’re not actually satisfied.
The disordered desire for justice becomes deeply disturbing when it’s cast in the role of theologian. Most versions of the penal substitutionary model of the atonement, in which Christ suffers as a payment for our sins, [say] that the wrath of the Father is visited on him to force him to suffer, to somehow or other fill and satisfy God’s desire for justice. Well, this version of the atonement begins with an assertion regarding God’s justice, and the requirements of that offended justice are considered infinite. Man’s sin against God is therefore deemed to be infinite. Hear this quote from the works of the early Protestant preacher Jonathan Edwards. He says,
If the obligation to love, honor, and obey God be infinite, then sin, which is the violation of this obligation, is a violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil. Once more, sin, being an infinite evil, deserves an infinite punishment; an infinite punishment is no more than it deserves. Therefore, such punishment is just which was the thing to be proved.
Edwards is slightly antique, but his reasoning continues to be standard fare for those who teach the penal substitution theory. His reasoning appears flawless: our obligation to God is infinite, so its violation is infinite. Infinite crime warrants an infinite punishment, ergo, eternity in the torments of hell.
The flaws in this reasoning are an important matter, but more important, and of greater consideration in this podcast, are the human desires that surround justice itself. I understand the desires we have. My own family has endured two murders over the course of my lifetime. I know what it is to want justice, but in fact there is nothing that can be done to satisfy that desire, for what I want, what all of us want, is for the event never to have happened, and no amount of punishment is sufficient to counterbalance the crime. The death of a murderer does not equal the death of an innocent, so when all is said and done, two people are dead. That’s not justice; it’s just sadness upon sadness.
St. Isaac of Syria famously said, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only his mercy.” The parables of Christ give an illustration of God’s justice. To the unjust servant who owed his master 10,000 talents of silver, the master demands that he be thrown in prison, so when the servant asked for more time to pay his debt, the response is the cancellation of the entire debt. Well, how was that just? As for mercy, it’s beyond anything we can imagine. The master grants not more time, but no debt. The judgment meted out in the parable is not about the debt, but about the servant’s own lack of mercy—this is in Matthew 18—so that the servant turns around and is not merciful to a fellow servant and finds himself, then, in trouble. His desire for justice from a fellow servant robs him even of mercy.
Jonathan Edwards’s contention that our obligation to God is infinite goes back at least as far as Anselm’s “infinite offense to God’s honor.” (This is about the year 1000.) The reasoning seems to be that because God himself is infinite, those things that are owed to him, our obligations, are infinite. Of course, infinite is a problematic category to apply to a creature who is, by definition, finite. Created with an infinite debt, finite creatures cannot do otherwise than burn in hell eternally.
“Infinite” is simply an inappropriate adjective to use in our relationship with God. It brings inappropriate and incommensurate results in its train. It is more accurate to say of our relationship to God and those things that belong to it that they are immeasurable. What is required is not without limit, for the infinite cannot be required of the finite, but it is beyond our finite ability to measure.
This is a far more accurate way to approach the justice of God. His justice is not properly described as infinite. In fact, what would that mean? His justice is inscrutable. We simply can’t know it, fathom it, or understand it. It’s a useless concept when it comes to understanding our obligations to God. God is just because he is not unjust, but what it means to say that God is just is simply beyond our ken.
The result of the distortions caused by faulty theologizing about God’s justice is a God who is not worthy of worship. There are those who not only glibly consign sinners to hell, but also postulate that the righteous will rejoice in the torment of sinners because of their delight in the goodness of God’s justice. Those with normal human sensibilities are repulsed by such notions. Those who embrace such heresy have their soul’s perverted desire for infinite justice confirmed. Such theology doesn’t heal the soul; it corrupts it further and feeds its passions.
St. Isaac draws us in the right direction. Though we cannot know, fathom, or understand God’s mercy, such ignorance should not limit our trust. God is a good God who loves mankind. He is philanthropos. Our salvation is rightly understood through the lens of God’s mercy, and not through his justice.
From St. Basil’s Liturgy, we hear this:
Having cleansed us in water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, he gave himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin, descending through the Cross into hell, that he might fill all things with himself. He loosed the pangs of death. He arose on the third day, having made for all flesh a path to the Resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be a victim of corruption, so he became the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first-born of the dead, that he might be himself the first in all things.
Thus, from the eucharistic prayer of St. Basil, both from this prayer and from the eucharistic prayer of St. John Chrysostom, summations of atonement understanding are virtually mute on the subject of justice. At most, St. Basil acknowledges the justice of our expulsion from paradise. Our rescue, however, is not achieved by justice, but by the merciful descent of Christ God into hell. Even St. Basil’s mention of ransom has nothing of justice about it, for a ransom is not a just payment, but the unjust demand of the wicked.
Our passions do not give us an accurate read on the world. They are the insatiable torments of the soul. Whenever they become a force in our lives, we find ourselves in torment. The greed of a lover’s jealousy, the madness of gambling, the thirst for alcohol, all of our various addictions have the character of torment precisely because they are desires which cannot be fulfilled. It is not uncommon in the modern world to treat some infinite passions as noble—a desire for justice or fairness—but it not accidental that such passions have been the fuel of obscene revolutions and mass murders. It only becomes more obscene if such noble passions are ascribed to God, whose mercy endures forever.
Glory to God.