I entitled this section "Testing or formality", because it is a good way to express the paradoxical (we could also says dialectical) view of judgement in the Bible. The way our reference book talks about jugement, seems to be conflictual. But when we analyze how to reconcile the different views that are expressed by biblical authors, we finally understand where the balance is, and in this balance we can distinguish God’s plan for this world that sounds terrible: judgement. It sounds terrible because we know where we are and we fear that God could be judging (i.e. doing justice) the way we would do it ourselves! But through the Bible we can discern that God’s Judgement is neither human judgement nor the idea we have about God’s judgement.
We’ll begin with the Old Testament (OT).
As for many subjects whose principles we want to find in the Bible, "God’s Judgement" is evolutive and is more and more complex until Jesus reveals how to understand it.
There was a procedure to ask for God’s judgement that consisted in asking a question directly to God and to let him answer through the Urim and Thummim. The answer to the question was "yes", "no" or "no answer » (1Samuel 28,6). It was limited to cases when the choice was between two solutions whose results would be good or two solutions whose results would be bad. If the choice was between good and bad, God should not have been consulted at least not this way.
But this kind of judgment is not about restoring what is right or righteous. It is not about justice, as justice is not a choice between solutions, but a choice to be at the right place at the right moment with the right persons doing the right thing. Seen this way justice owes nothing to chance. Everything has to do with the choices as when the choice is implemented in an action, it is most of the time irreversible. And God respect our choices. He respects them so much that he seldom undo our actions.
So how can we find justice if we cannot undo our actions? Justice can only be restored because it never annihilates the past. And to be restored, justice needs an act of the will of all people involved.
To achieve this restoration, vengeance was one idea (Genesis 4,15.23-24). But it soon appeared to be destructive for justice itself. This is why wisdom or priestly literature found in God this principle:
“Do not harbor hatred against your brother.
Rebuke your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of him.
Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but
love your neighbor as yourself;
I am the Lord.
or Proverb 20,22
Don’t say, “I will avenge this evil!”, Wait on the Lord, and he will rescue you.
Vengeance cannot restore justice because it is a decision of one part to do her own justice. Vengeance increases inequity and never restore anything. That is why a juge is needed. But humans judgement are unsure. Calling for God seems better.
In the search for justice the next step for OT prophets is that God will repay according to the deeds (Isaiah 59,18; Jeremiah 25,14; Ezekiel 7,3; Hosea 12,3). It is an attractive idea, as it sounds like justice can be simple. And this was how justice was conceptualized also among humans in the people of God:
If any man inflicts a permanent injury on his neighbor, whatever he has done is to be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Whatever injury he inflicted on the person, the same is to be inflicted on him.
Wouldn’t it make things simple and easy to understand and also help sinners to repent? as says the parallel passage in Deuteronomy 19,20
Then everyone else will hear and be afraid,
and they will never again do anything evil like this among you.
But you can guess the limits of this retributive justice right away: it doesn’t work this way in the real world! Things are not that simple especially because the human heart is deceitful (Jeremiah 17,9). OT authors facing the principle of reality realized that in the immediate reality, God does not restore justice in this retributive way. For example:
- Job against his friends
- Qohelet (Ecclesiastes 7,15 ; 8,14 ; 9,2),
- Jeremiah (12,1s)
- Habaquq (1,2-4)
- Malachi (3,15)
- Psalms (10,13 ; 94,3-7) : here an abstract of Psalm 73:
4 They [the wicked] have an easy time until they die, and their bodies are well fed.,
5 They are not in trouble like others; they are not afflicted like most people.
6 Therefore, pride is their necklace, and violence covers them like a garment.
7 Their eyes bulge out from fatness; the imaginations of their hearts run wild.
8 They mock, and they speak maliciously; they arrogantly threaten oppression.
9 They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues strut across the earth.
10 Therefore his people turn to them and drink in their overflowing words.
11 The wicked say, “How can God know? Does the Most High know everything?”
12 Look at them—the wicked! They are always at ease, and they increase their wealth.
Earthly justice doesn’t really exist! It seems that God is not quick to implement it. And even when it is legislated there will always be someone to take advantage of the flaws in the law or even to completely ignore it. And when people are well-intentioned, there will always be conflict between people who do not agree on the moral significance of their deeds because in most cases deeds cannot be undone.
If God wanted to enforce justice in this life, he could do it. But he does not. That is why for OT authors if God’s judgement has to happen, it will necessarily be at the end of time as expressed in Daniel 7,9-14 or 12,2 (that we have already read) or even older texts like: Isaiah 26,20s Joel 4,1-17 ; Malachi 4,1-3 (3,19-21 in french versions):
1“For look, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, when all the arrogant and everyone who commits wickedness will become stubble. The coming day will consume them,” says the Lord of Armies, “not leaving them root or branches. 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and playfully jump like calves from the stall. 3 You will trample the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day I am preparing,” says the Lord of Armies.
Those wicked who, like in Psalm 73 have an easy time until they die in previous generations have prepared an unjust world for those who live in present time. And the wicked of today prepare an unjust world for the next generation. If we have to wait the day prepared by the Lord for judgement and if this day is set at the end of the world, then justice looks like injustice. And it is even clearer for us after the atrocity of the 20th century.
We will see that Jesus and Paul greatly improves our knowledge of God’s Justice.