Deep in the Christian heart lies the conviction that the God whom they worship is holy, just, and righteous. He rewards the good and punishes the wicked. “Surely,” someone might remark, “this is the most plausible way to read the Scriptures as a whole.” A peck of Bible verses can be cited. Here are a few, first from the Old Testament:
And if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments which I command you this day, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. (Deut 28:1-2)
But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading-trough. Cursed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your cattle, and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. The Lord will send upon you curses, confusion, and frustration, in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your doings, because you have forsaken me (Deut 28:15-20)
He who kills a man shall be put to death. He who kills a beast shall make it good, life for life. When a man causes a disfigurement in his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured. He who kills a beast shall make it good; and he who kills a man shall be put to death. (Lev 24:17-21)
Take me not off with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts. Requite them according to their work, and according to the evil of their deeds; requite them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward. (Ps 28:3-4)
And now from the New Testament:
But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Rom 2:5-11)
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering—since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thess 1:5-10)
Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5:28-29)
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matt 25:46)
The texts assigning retributive justice to the Creator are seemingly countless—at the very least there are a lot of them. Hence one can understand why an Orthodox priest, in response to my article “Finding the God Who is Love,” declared that the preaching of the unconditional love of God is a form of “pastoral malpractice.” How can the divine love be unconditional when the Bible so clearly teaches that the LORD rewards virtue and punishes wickedness? And if this is so, then it is irresponsible for any pastor to mischaracterize the divine justice and minimize the requirements of salvation. For those in this school, the principle of fair and just requital serves as the fundamental hermeneutic for the interpretation of Scripture and the preaching of the Christian faith. This doesn’t mean that the divine love is not also declared. As the LORD repeatedly reminds Israel, he chose her to be his people not because of her accomplishments or her numbers but only by his prevenient grace (Deut 7:6-11). But the LORD also repeatedly reminds Israel that the covenant made on Mt Sinai may be terminated on the grounds of disobedience and apostasy: “And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish” (Deut 7:19). The curses for breaking the covenant are extensive and terrifying (Lev. 26, Deut. 28; on the conditionality of the Mosaic covenant, see John Bright, Covenant and Promise). Reward and punishment, blessing and curse—that’s the biblical ticket! Even when Jesus Christ is brought into the story, it’s only as one last opportunity for repentance before the ultimate punishment comes into play.
Yet there are other texts and other voices that subvert the retributive construal of divine justice. Jesus’ parable of the vineyard laborers immediately comes to mind (Matt 20:1-16). At the beginning of the day, the owner of the vineyard hires workers for one denarius. Three hours later he hires more workers, promising to give them “whatever is right.” He hires more workers at the sixth and ninth hour, with the same promise. And at the eleventh hour, he summons into the vineyard yet more laborers. At the close of day, he pays each laborer one denarius, regardless of how long each has worked. Those who have worked the full day are understandably upset and protest the owner’s injustice: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” The owner replies: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” However the historical, redaction, and literary critics might interpret this parable, one point seems clear: in the eyes of the initial group of laborers, the owner of the vineyard is guilty, at best, of reckless extravagance, at worst, of subverting justice. By all normal standards of fairness, those who have worked only one hour should not receive the same wage as those who have worked twelve hours. What kind of crazy calculus is this‽
It’s only one parable, admittedly; but when one adds to it the parables of the good shepherd, the woman who turns her house upside down looking for her lost coin, and the loving father who throws a feast for his prodigal son, and then adds into the mix our Lord’s scandalous embrace of sinners and outcasts, one begins to get a different picture of God and his justice. St Isaac of Nineveh saw this clearly in the 7th century. The Syrian ascetic famously dissolved the unity of divine goodness and justice and asserted mercy as the primary attribute of divinity:
Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are. Although your debt to Him is so very great, He is not seen exacting payment from you; and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious.’
How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice?—for while we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Ascetical Homilies I.51, p. 387; also see Hilarion Alfeyev, “St Isaac the Syrian“)
Isaac presents us with a vision of the divine mercy that cannot be synthesized with our commitment to the retributive justice of God. Mercy surpasses justice—but perhaps that isn’t even quite accurate, at least not as a reading of Isaac. Mercy, rather, is opposed to justice:
Mercy and justice in one soul is like a man who worships God and the idols in one house. Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is the equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves; and when it makes recompense, it does not incline to one side or show respect of persons. Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot co-exist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul. As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. (I.51, p. 379)
How then can Christians be worried about who gets their just desserts, when in Christ we are the recipients of a superabundant grace we do not deserve? The plentitude of Love overwhelms all calculation. Isaac’s teaching was as offensive in the 7th century as it was in the 1st as it is in the 21st. In his book That Man is You, Fr Louis Evely describes a scene from a play by Jean Anouilh:
The good are densely clustered at the gate of heaven, eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats, keyed up and bursting with impatience.
All at once, a rumor starts spreading:
“It seems He’s going to forgive those others, too!”
For a minute, everybody’s dumbfounded.
They look at one another in disbelief, gasping and sputtering,
“After all the trouble I went through!”
“If only I’d known this …”
“I just cannot get over it!”
Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God; and at that very instant they’re damned.
That was the final judgment, you see. They judged themselves, excommunicated themselves. (pp. 92-93)
Hundreds of years after the death of St Isaac the Syrian, God would send another prophet to teach his Church the nature of true justice. He would speak with a Scottish burr.