How to Subvert Divine Justice and Turn Everybody’s Lives Upside Down

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.

(Go to “The Father, Justice, and the Hermeneutic of Love”)

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8 Responses to How to Subvert Divine Justice and Turn Everybody’s Lives Upside Down

  1. God’s kindness towards me is so undeserved that I do not think that I am in a position to judge whether anyone else deserves or does not deserve that kindness. I am the boy who has squandered his Father’s wealth.


  2. Tom says:

    Looks like St. Isaac concedes that a retributive notion of divine justice are the only notion of justice available, so he has to oppose it to mercy. But that’s to make justice an evil. Why the opposition?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      My guess, Tom, is that the opposition which St Isaac posits is due to his ascetical concerns. He is writing as an ascetic to ascetics.


  3. Really? So the God who wishes us to understand Him, to love Him as we do understand Him, who longs for fellowship with us — confuses us with a Bible that is pages and pages of contradictory statements? Which is it? Either He is just and vengeful and disobedience is punished, or He is loving, and merciful, and in a sense, it doesn’t matter what we do because we are all forgiven in Christ.

    There are days that I feel like I am hanging on to both my theological sanity and my faith by the slenderist of threads. I keep reading your posts, Father, hoping to find some sort of place where it all makes sense, but haven’t found it yet. The problem is that these contradictions are like ignoring cancer – it doesn’t go away and it just gets worse.

    Could it be that the Bible, rather than being the word for word dictation of God to the prophets, is rather a flawed human piece of reasoning about God at best, within which are contained the truths about God? Could it be that translations and understandings of God have been highly influenced by cultural norms rather than truth? By that I mean this: look at the Roman Empire of the first century. It was very much, according to historians, involved with the law, the practice of law, jurisprudence, and punishment. The law meant everything to the Roman citizen, whereas in the East, the philosophical construct was that of the ousias, the issue of personhood.

    No wonder then that the Roman Church developed the horrendous views of the afterlife in which God, rather than being loving Father, is angry and vengeful Judge. That to me is an example of cultural influence dictating the Scriptures rather than the other way around.


    • Robert Fortuin says:


      I empathize with you. Hold fast to the promise. Christ incarnate, Emmanuel the God who is with us, in the flesh on the cross and resurrection is the first and last word to the struggles, doubts, fears, and concerns we have about God’s justice, mercy, vengeance, and love. Whatever else we may speculate, the to-God absolutely unnecessary sacrificial outpouring of love is the unequivocal Christian claim upon which our faith and hope stands firmly and unshaken. Only this, only Christ, can provide understanding and meaning to everything else we may say and think; as it was unexpectedly discovered on the way to Emmaus, Jesus himself is the interpretive key, the hermeneutic matrix, by which and through which everything, the scriptures, theology, and life itself can be rightly understood.

      Obscure and ancient writings can and are indeed cause for confusion and misunderstanding, all the more reason to understand the need for the gift of guidance and illumination from the Holy Spirit who always leads us to Father in the Son. We can appreciate the obscurity of it all as an invitation of revelation of himself and by himself.


  4. Grant says:

    When St Isaac tells us: ‘Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you’ and that mercy is part of righteousness but justice is of part of wickedness, what he reveals to us is something deep but one that should be, but isn’t, obvious to any Christian. God’s justice is very little like our notices and concept of justice, particularly as it relates in the negative, to where evil and harm is caused. We humans see justice here when someone is harmed, dishonoured, disrespected and had something taken, by seeking out someone to blame, and to hurt, dishonour, disrespect and take from them (usually though not always the one who took part in the former), whether this is by killing, torturing, abuse, imprisonment, fines, taking property and such like. We either personally or through an agency of a larger group (Crown, state, mob etc) have the harm in some way repeated on the other, and consider it justice. We forget, and St Isaac reminds us, just as Christ shows us, that our fallen conceptions of justice are just that, fallen, darkened and twisted are are just acts that repeat the harm and wickedness that has be perpetrated. And with God we right this large onto Him, believing this to be a true true statement of ultimate reality when it is just our very distorted view of this.

    With God is not that love and mercy is opposed to justice, but rather that justice is His Love and mercy in action. God’s mercy is His justice. His every salvation and restoring and reconciling of all things is nothing less than His justice and His judgement in action. We see this with Zacchaeus Our Lord seeks the tax-collector out, stays and feasts with him, and shows Him love, and in response to His love, Zaccheaus gives up half of possessions (can most of us even say this, I know I can’t) and will repay any he has cheated four times over, spontaneously in response to this love and restorative action. Here we see love, redemption, salivation and justice all together, and they are the same, not different, and not faces, now God’s like this, but when the Lord comes back He will go all medieval on people, as St Isaac reminds us, He doesn’t change, this is what God is like, He is love and mercy and He will be love and mercy, that as Christ is is what His judgement and justice will look like. This is why St Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us that love rejoices in justice, because he has this in mind, as again St Isaac reminds us, that God’s response to a fallen, broken and darkened world was to give His Son, and that while we were sinners, enemies of God Christ gave Himself for us, through the whole of the Incarnation, and that in it, and in the Cross He exhausted that which held us trapped and reconciled us to Himself. As Lord Jesus said in the Gospel according to St John looking to His Passion, that now is the judgement of the world, the Cross is God’s judgement and His justice, where Our Lord says, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do’. That is God’s very judgement, reconciling all things to Himself in Christ Jesus, then and continuing now, and in Christ, reconciling, restoring and healing all things to each other.

    We might respond what about the truly heinous actions (here insert your favourite, murder, rape, torture, genocide, Holocaust, being a member of a rival idealogical/political position 😉 ) how are such restored? If we as Christians are thinking this, then we haven’t understood the Cross and Resurrection and it’s implications fully at all, in it death and all things of harm have been defeated, overcome and will not only pass away, but in it are promised to be restored. That all things are being and secured to be healed, restored, renewed and freed, and in fact only by the reconciling of all things in Christ will all things be healed, only by saving love and mercy will all evils be freed, and through the defeat and destruction of death such all things be renewed, restored and reconciled. Yes, even Dr Mengele will be reconciled to those he horrifically experimented on and tortured, forgiveness and restoration will be given, and what happened as all death and evil in this creation will be overcome and healed. The promise of the Gospel is God’s total saving love, His infinite mercy that has already saved all and will save and reconcile all, that doesn’t act anything like our fallen justice, because our sense of justice isn’t justice at all. It is indeed as St Isaac notices, wickedness, it is twisted by death, just like the deeds and events it seeks to punish, to punish others is nothing less than committing further evil, Christians really should have nothing to do with it. Here I’m being a bit radical, but when I think early Christians wouldn’t take anyone to trial nor seek recompense through the courts I think most of us now have lost the sense of true justice as revealed in Christ significantly, or we have spiritualized and compartmentalized it into a nice, safe corner where it doesn’t have to trouble or inconvenience our current lives (it would be difficult to have your things stolen and damaged, or yourself assaulted and not seek the police or courts to bring ‘justice’ to those who wronged you, and it would be hard I’m not trying to sell that short, but I think we have lost sense of something very important, leading to the issues St Isaac is touching open). In truth, we might further state, just as God has nothing to do with justice (as the world understands it) and St Isaac tells us that mercy and justice are opposed in our souls, what do Christians have to do with justice, again the answer should be, nothing at all.

    In Christ we see that indeed God’s justice looks nothing like our justice at all, and so St Isaac tells us to confront us with this reality that God is mercy, not justice, and that indeed the two are opposed, and the last is of the way of death, while the former is of the way of Life. In this we Christians to often become like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, on many grounds. We forget that all we have comes from the Father, just like the younger brother and God can give freely just as He gives us all things freely, but worse, we not only act nothing like Our Father (we show little or no mercy, we condemn and judge, but equally fail to judge because mercy and forgiveness is true judgement) but along with that, we equally do not enjoy anything the Father gives us. The Elder brother is as far away as his younger brother ever was, and never enjoyed all His Father freely gives him (all the Father had is his, he could have feasted whenever he wished) and now still won’t come to enjoy feasting and love, and enjoy his younger brother back. In his blindness the elder brother is in an ever worse state than his brother was, but God’s grace overcomes all, even our hardness of hearts, and will bring us all sight, we have all been there, and will be in the elder brother position many times yet, before being illuminated to see ourselves as worse then our younger brothers. After-all, the parable ends with the father with the elder brother, just as he never abandoned His younger son, neither will he abandon the elder one either, and will wait and stay there reaching for him in love until he to is restored. The reconciliation, restoration and feast will not be complete until all the family comes to the table.

    In response to thereluctantheretic17, I would say that yes the documents that form the Bible, particularly the Old Testament are the products of cultures, transmissions, reductions and development of thought and reason through centuries and that it isn’t God’s direct dictation to some prophets. This is perfectly true, and on a surface reading you will find many contriadtiory pictures in relation to God, but God is not not a being like us, He is Being Itself, and worked through and in all these things without controlling any actions. It is all the work and the developing tradition of the Israelites, but it all of it was pointing towards and about something they didn’t fully understand, and that lack of understanding is in the works the wrote (St Paul tells such that the Jews who did not believe read it with a veil and Hebrews that they didn’t understand and that it is for us). It is only in Christ, and as about Him and the Gospel that we truly read the Old Testament truly, it transfigures those texts, just as Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets) are there in the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, only in, through and about Him do we read them and can read them correctly. Here is, with St Paul, and even Our Lord, typological, allegorical and spiritual readings come in, and as in Beatitudes when Christ says, ‘you have heard it said, but I tell you…’ He is revealing what God is really and fully like, correcting the shadowy and distorted understanding that went before. He doesn’t cast out the apprehensions that went before, but instead transfigures it, and through Him and in Him, by the Holy Spirit we can truly read the Scriptures as Scripture, having Him illuminate them for us. As St John tells us, Moses brought the law, but Christ brought grace and truth, including the truth concerning the law, and how to understand and read it, and remove the veil for our eyes to hear what the Spirit is saying through it, to understand the oracles of God. We see through a glass darkly, but we do now see, as before we saw nothing but shadows, and we we lose sight of Christ, we once again see only shadows and can torment and frighten us, and sometimes lead us to think God is a monster, or make an idol of fear and terror we call God, this is not true.
    And the Church and all Christians have equally had many misapprehensions through time, the truth is three in the fullness but often in many different places and times it has not been comprehended in it’s fullness (an example just easily would be early Christians absolute opposition to the death penalty with later many centuries of most Christians, Latin West, Protestant West, Greek East, and so on supporting sometimes quite enthusiastically, or supporting slavery, with St Gregory of Nyssa and his sister St Macrina being a rare notable exception, yet it’s right there at the heart of the Gospel). God doesn’t dictate to His children and His Church like that, He guaranteed the Holy Spirit would guide us in all truth and He does, but not dictating to us, through the actions, including even our many fallen and evil ones He has kept us even divided still able to participate in the Life of Christ, such things as the Nicene Creed, Eucharist and such, as well as the Church both holy and sinful at one at the same time, untied and in Christ. And even in our distorted and sometimes very twisted understanding in many things, has still worked through us to keep and confirm in us, and our experience of life in Christ inadequate but still true understandings about God and the Gospel, and not just in stated Dogmas, but also in lived Dogmas, so that in-spite of us, and when we are the elder brother far to often, the world is still being healed and saved through the Church which is Christ’s Body and His Bride.

    So I would say to you, don’t despair nor fear, the Lord is with you, and the Messiah is Risen, so put your fears away and look only to Jesus our certain hope and secure rock. He is and will restore all things in Himself, and He is mercy everlasting for all and everything, and as Julian of Norwich said (she should really be a saint, as far as I’m concerned she is) ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’, and there will be no more tears, and no more crying, for the old things have pasted away, behold, He makes all things new. Take care of yourself, and if nothing else, know that God is love and fix yourself on that, and on Christ, to have that is to have the Gospel, all else is just commentary 🙂 .


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