“God is Just.” We see that phrase often in theistic debates. I used it myself for more years than I care to remember. Yet for all that time, I never thought about the actual implications of such a statement. This is potentially more embarrassing for me, as I work within a system we call “justice” and I should have known better.
“Justice” is not that complicated of a word. It means conforming to or consonant with what is legal or lawful; legally right; lawful. It is equally easy to apply—read the law, review the situation, and determine a yes/no answer—does it conform to the law?
A city may enact an ordinance that states all business signs must be 1.5 meters by 1 meter or smaller, and any person that sets up a sign larger than that is guilty of a misdemeanor. In this simple example, justice is easy to determine. The owner that erects a 1.5 x 1 Meter sign is not guilty. The owner that erects a 1.51 x 1 Meter sign is. Even if it is only 1 millimeter more, in conformance with the law, the owner has violated the ordinance.
Justice is harsh. It does not forgive mistakes or ignorance or consider “extenuating circumstances.” It is always a yes/no proposition. (You may wonder why the legal system can get so complicated then. While we know the law, applying facts to that law can get tricky. What action is “pre-meditated”? What is “reasonable”? Many laws, aware of the stringent requirements of justice, deliberately leave flexibility within the law itself to allow for varying circumstances. Hence high-priced attorneys.)
If Peoria requires $5 for a dog license, and East Peoria, one block over, requires $500 for a dog license, “justice” does not address the issue of disparity. Justice requires that your neighbor, across the street, pay 100 times more for owning a dog. While enacting the laws, we hope the legislatures consider all circumstances, but once enacted, Justice has nothing to do with being fair. It doesn’t care. All it states is, “Here is my law. Conform or pay the consequences.”
If there is no law, there is no need to discuss justice. If our city had never enacted an ordinance regarding signs, the owner could install a 1.5 x 1 Meter sign, or a 12 x 12 Meter sign. There is no such thing as a sign “in conformance” or “not in conformance” with the law as there is no law. We would not even use the word “Justice” in that situation because it has no meaning.
Ahh. The problem. If God is just, that means he is acting in conformance with a law. What law? Where can I look to see that “O.K., this is the law; let’s see how God does”? There is no golden cornerstone in the universe in which we can peer through a telescope and review the base law by which God is bound.
In fact, the word “just” implies, by definition, actions that are unjust. Not in conformance with the law. I ask theists, “What action of God would violate this law to which He is conforming?” Not knowing the law, there is no possible way to answer. You see, we need to have the law FIRST, before we can even start discussing whether an action of God is just or not.
One of the first replies is that God is bound by His nature. So His “nature” is the law by which he is just. Upon inspection, this renders the word “just” as meaningless. God can change His nature at whim and fancy, and, by this defense, be just. In fact, it is impossible for God to EVER be unjust, as whatever He regards to do, at that moment, can conform to His nature, and be, “Just.”
If our town enacts a law that a person can put up a sign of any size, it is impossible for anyone to NOT conform to that law. The law is meaningless. 12 x 12 Meter sign is just. No sign is just. A 1 Kilometer by 1 Kilometer sign is just. Is this what the theist intends to say—that all actions of God, whether murder or resurrection are “just.”? If so—who cares? It is not to God’s credit, as we become merely playthings to His whim.
Again, we cannot inspect His “nature” to even see if God is conforming to that! It is a complete unknown. At this point, I am informed that He is bound by Truth. (Which is fascinating, as there is no external parameter in which to confirm or deny this claim.) And I ask, “Can God lie?”
On occasion, in divorce matters, a husband will tell me, “Ask her if she is having an affair.” I explain to the husband if he has any facts to support this claim. “No.” Then I don’t ask the question, as it doesn’t gain us any facts! (And often hurts our position.) See, I will ask the question, “Are you having an affair?” If she isn’t—she will say, “No.” If she is—she will say “No.” Same question, same answer—two completely different truths. But in either case, I haven’t learned anything new.
“God, can you lie?” If He is bound by a truthful nature, he must answer “No.” If he is NOT bound by truth, then he is free to answer anything. Including, “No.” I asked the same question, got the same answer, and still don’t know whether God is bound by a truthful or not. And if He is not bound by truth, then anything else said about His nature, and being bound to it, and whether it is a law, and whether he is being just, is pure speculation.
This brushes on the Euthyphro dilemma. Is it a law because God does it, or does God do it because it is a law? In other words, is there a higher law or concept or ideal that God is bound by, and cannot violate, or is God free to do what He chooses, and whatever he does becomes a law? In the former we can discuss “justice” in the latter, it is a meaningless word. But in the former, we must admit we have no clue, and no way of ascertaining what that law is.
Another common response is that God’s justice is not like our justice. If we are going to discuss theism, and its implications, we must use common language to understand these concepts, or it becomes absurd babble. I read a great synopsis of this problem:
Theist: God is square.
Skeptic: So God has four sides and four right angles?
Theist: No. God’s squareness is not like our squareness.
Skeptic: Then what meaning is there in calling God “square”?
If it is claimed that God’s justice is different somehow, then we can equally claim that His truthfulness is different, His mercy is different, His concept of moral/immoral is different. Shoot, he is so different; we may as well toss every word in Language, as it does not apply to God. We can’t even say He “exists” because his “existence” doesn’t mean what we think it means—that He is real.
So why do theists say, “God is just”? Because when faced with a difficult question, in which they have no real answer either, it sounds very important, and full of wisdom to nod one’s head and stroke one’s chin and say, “Ahhhh. But God is Just.” This provides all sorts of justification (pun intended) for all sorts of sticky situations.
“Why did God order genocide of the Canaanites?” (Deut. 7:2)
“Because He is just.”
“Why did God order the killing of baby boys?” (Numbers 31)
“Because it was justice to do so.”
“Why did God kill innocent Egyptian Children?” (Exodus 11)
“Because His Justice requires it.”
“Why did God commute David’s sin, but then kill David’s baby?” (2 Sam. 12:13-14)
“Because His Justice allows it.”
“How can God send People to the Lake of Fire who have never heard of Jesus?”
“Because His Justice Demands it.”
See how neat that is? No one can tell me what law God seems to be following, or what he could do to not follow that law, but by creating a “God is Just” box, the theist can toss aside these difficult dilemmas with a dignified statement that doesn’t answer the question, but provides an answer the theist can live with in their own rationalization.
When faced with this statement, ask: “What is this law God is conforming to, where can I find it, how can I independently verify He is conforming, and if God is unjust, how would we know?” Even more importantly, if God was unjust, what could we do about it? There is no higher authority to which we can appeal, saying, “Ah. Ah. Ah. God didn’t follow the law.”