Is God just? Archpriest Alexei Uminsky, rector of the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity in Khokhly (Moscow), reflects on this difficult question.
The question of Divine justice is, of course, quite complex. It is probably difficult to call God just – perhaps even impossible – because we do not observe Divine justice in the world. And, indeed, we do not seek any kind of justice from God. Rather, we seek mercy and love from Him.
Where there is mercy and love, there cannot be justice. Justice is something that there should be at court, where there is judgment and deliberation, where everyone receives according to his deeds, where everyone gets what he deserves. But to ask justice of God is simply impossible. Even King David says to God in his Psalm: Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to mine innocence within me (7:9). Not “according to Thy righteousness,” for no one can withstand God’s righteousness. Therefore we do not appeal to Divine justice, but to His limitless mercy and love.
To think that God sends us sorrows and misfortunes to repay His justice, as it were, is profoundly mistaken. God does not send sorrows, evil, sickness, and misfortune. How can one even think that God could send misfortune to someone? That would be contrary to His divine nature. God does not take pleasure even in the suffering of sinners; the suffering of even the very greatest sinners does not please God.
What happens to people on earth, in terms of our sorrows and suffering, is not something that God sends us. I would say that these things are encountered in our lives, but that God does not send them. We encounter them as the consequence of the human evil and sin that have distorted the world. The world lies in wickedness. Therefore the world, too, has nothing to do with justice. One might even say that justice is a category almost beyond our reach. It is a human category worked out in our terms.
What is just? An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? This is just, but only from the point of view of a code of morality. It is when you cannot demand something more. If they knocked out one of your teeth then, in terms of justice, you cannot knock out more than one of theirs. If they put out one of your eyes, then in terms of justice you cannot claim to put out two eyes from them.
Is this the kind of justice for which mankind is seeking and striving? No. Everywhere and at all times, people seek mercy, compassion, and understanding. Justice is absent from this. Brutal injustice exists, which we see all around us, which exists in the government, in the courts – in those organs of power that should be monitoring justice, but which themselves are sources of injustice.
We have our inner criteria, about which I would say that here people make greater efforts to behave with everyone in good conscience. Then conscience can, in a certain sense, raise humanity to the concepts of justice and righteousness.
Consider Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan. A crowd of sinners approaches: Pharisees, soldiers… A crowd of people who have sinned in various ways, who require cleansing in various ways. And the innocent Christ approaches to be baptized.
The others rush here to confess their sins, that is, to reveal their illnesses, their injustice, their falsehood, their unrighteousness. In order to be washed in the Jordan, to receive forgiveness, to prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah.
Here Christ appears, Who seems to have nothing in common with them. Suddenly He says to John the Baptist, who refuses to baptize Him: Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness [Matthew 3:15]. What is this righteousness? What is God’s righteousness in relation to these people?
A debtor in terms of righteousness must repay his debts; a thief who steals must do time, and so on – everyone must somehow satisfy righteousness. But did Christ come into the world with this kind of righteousness? In fact, He takes all the unrighteousness of the world upon Himself. He takes upon Himself all the sin of the world at the very moment that He says He must fulfil all righteousness.
Can He be blamed for sending us suffering, misfortune, and sorrows? Can we say that He accomplishes His love through this? To my mind, this is the greatest heresy that can possibly be uttered. It is a different story when we encounter sorrow, pain, suffering, and misfortune in our lives, and Christ is found to be at our side. If we allow Him the opportunity to be present with us in sorrows and sicknesses, then He will immediately be with us and will share with us all the horror that is in the world, in this world of injustice, in this world that lies in wickedness.
We met our misfortune in the world distorted by evil and sin, and the loving Christ was present with us. In this is His mercy – and, perhaps, His justice.
Misfortune and sorrow do not occur in our lives because someone deserves them. If this were so, then God could indeed be called a God of justice. Then wicked people should die from horrible diseases and the good should be happy, rich, perfectly healthy, and never die.
But this cannot be, because if there were Divine justice in this world, then no one could be saved. Because, in terms of justice, in terms of Divine righteousness, we are all very sinful people. Properly speaking, our good deeds, our good natures, are not our own achievements, but often simply His gifts and mercy towards us.
Therefore, the world is unjust in both the best sense of this word and in the worst sense: in the best, because it lies in wickedness and is ruled by evil, wrong, and injustice. In a fallen world there are the laws of a fallen world. On the other hand, this is good because God is merciful, and therefore His love covers all truth and all justice – because His love is loftier and so much better!
Translated from the Russian