Dan Popp
October 31, 2013
Judging God
By Dan Popp

Just are the ways of God, And justifiable to men. – John Milton

I saw an atheist's cartoon in which God is saying, "Now I will torture you forever for breaking some rules I made up – because I love you." As wrong as he is about Christian doctrine, I have to applaud the cartoonist for getting one thing right: He's holding God (or our beliefs about God) to account. Christians should do the same. When one of the pagan Gnostics invented a "good" god to replace the cranky, judgmental Hebrew deity, Christians pointed out that a god who's not just isn't truly good, because justice is good, even when we don't like it being applied to ourselves.

The problem for the atheist in judging God is that he has no place to stand. He can't have a transcendent standard of justice without a transcendent God to provide it. He's arbitrarily condemning God for being arbitrary. Still, this particular atheist is doing better than the one who tweeted, "Why blood? Can't God simply forgive?" She thinks it's unfair that she can't grab the high-voltage line without being electrocuted; whoever made up that rule is just being mean and vindictive. It never crossed her mind that justice might be a real, objective thing; that sinning may cause death as touching the power line causes death – not because someone chose that particular outcome, but because of the natures of the things involved.

I'd like to think about this question: Is justice independent of God? Is He bound by the same rules of morality that bind human beings?

Some people say that whatever "wrong" God does is automatically right because right is defined as whatever God does. This is Jehovah-Nixon: It's not illegal if the deity does it. The Greeks and Romans had gods who committed crimes, but when Poseidon raped Medusa, for example, it was shocking because rape is wrong for gods as well as mortals. If justice bends and twists to accommodate God's (otherwise) bad actions, then the biblical writers were penning gibberish when they revealed that "God is just." They might as well have said, "God is whatever God is – thought you'd like to know." "God is just" is a rational statement only if justice can be thought of as distinct from God.

If moral "absolutes" are in fact variable, then up can be down, justice is arbitrariness, and God's promises are garbage. This view reminds me of the Muslim conception of Allah. He's supposed to be capricious and unknowable, but hey, he can do whatever he wants – he's god.

This doesn't resemble the God of the Bible at all. The patriarchs believed ferociously that God can be held to the same moral standards that we use to judge human behavior. Abraham protested, "Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Genesis 18:25)

Job staked his eternal fate on the proposition that God is not above the moral Law. "Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert what is right?" (8:3) "There the upright would reason with Him; And I would be delivered forever from my Judge." (23:7) "Let Him weigh me with accurate scales, And let God know my integrity." (31:6) God finally rebuked Job – not for requiring divine righteousness, but for convicting Him on insufficient evidence. "Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" (38:2, emphasis mine)

But what about the verse, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion?" (Romans 9:15 quoting Exodus 33:19) Does this indict God as arbitrary? No, not unless giving a gift is unjust. Like the vineyard owner in Jesus' parable who gave some men a day's wages for a day's work, and others a day's wages for less than a day's work, God will never shortchange anyone. His grace does not impair His justice.

A Christian – no doubt trying to impress readers with the magnitude of God's love – wrote that God unjustly killed His Son so that the Father could unjustly save us. But the Bible says nothing remotely like that. It tells us that the Cross is the ultimate expression of both the justice and the mercy of God, not to mention His wisdom.
    But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
If Jesus hadn't voluntarily taken our punishment, then yes, the Father would have been unjust to punish an innocent Man. But the gift satisfies the law.

In our little corner of existence, laws are broken and no one is punished. We think that's how the universe works, too. But that condition is only temporary – it's God's forbearance. He suspends reality for a moment to allow an exchange. We've grabbed the high-voltage line, there is only one possible outcome, but He has stopped time to ask us if He may take our place. It's no good saying that the universe must change to accommodate my sin – it cannot. Justice is not arbitrary. And it's not optional.

To judge God we need to find the real, absolute standard of justice. We need to accept the fact that our reasoning ability is flawed, and thus less than totally reliable. And we need to examine all the evidence. Then, assuming that God is acquitted of wrongdoing, we'll have to be ready to answer some questions ourselves.

I hope to write more on this topic soon.

© Dan Popp

 

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