Is God Unjust?
The phrase must have looped over and over in Adam’s mind after he took his first bite of the forbidden fruit. “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). This was the day he ate of it, so this was the day he would surely die. I can’t imagine the terror Adam felt as he stitched together a few fig leaves for make-shift clothes. Adam was now on borrowed time before his inevitable punishment. Judgment day had come.
While God introduced earthly justice that day, He also restrained His judgment’s full weight and granted Adam and the now sinful world a delayed sentence. His merciful delay of final judgment set a gracious but sometimes frustrating pattern for our battle between sin and justice—not every earthly evil will see an earthly, just answer.
As God withheld immediate death when Adam swallowed that first bite of forbidden fruit, He showed them two more new ideas: grace and mercy. The opposite of justice is injustice, but the complement to justice is mercy. Both justice and mercy flow from God’s good character, and on the day creation needed mercy to survive, God promised a Savior (Gen. 3:15).
But how do we know God’s character? When skeptics point to the world and declare that things are not as they should be, believers can bellow a spirited “Amen!” But when the skeptic then points up and accuses God of injustice and wrongdoing, the skeptic and believer must part doctrinal ways.
Few skeptics affirm simultaneously (1) “God exists” and (2) “the god I genuinely believe in is unjust.” Accusations typically come from those who hope to expose a clash between the existence of God and unjust tragedies. But an essential difference exists between man’s responsibility under God’s law and God’s relationship to laws He creates and reveals. Created laws are divinely forged for particular, earthly, sometimes temporary circumstances. God does not find Himself answerable to some higher “law” separate from His nature. The skeptic who holds God accountable to laws He created fatally misunderstands the Creator-creature relationship.
What about the skeptic who observes injustices in the Bible? How does God’s perfect, just nature harmonize with all kinds of stories and events in Scripture where God’s people—and even God Himself—appear to approve of or command injustices?
The Old Testament unfolds act 1 of the battle for ultimate justice. As judgment day got postponed after Eden, injustice would often thrive. God cast down only temporary, earthly shadows of the pending, ultimate judgment. Compare the conquest narratives in Joshua with any chapter in Revelation. Joshua sounds tame compared to Revelation’s dragons, beasts, and fire. Though Revelation delivers its message in veiled symbols and fantastic imagery, the message is not just for show—the world will end violently. Before its end, God’s covenant people cry out for Him to end injustices involving betrayal, slavery, exile, and death. You cannot read the Psalms without echoing what Old Testament saints felt: “Will my cries ever be answered?”
Someone did answer. But once-for-all deliverance from injustice would unfold in a two-part story (John 12:31; Rev. 14:7). At the center, we find Christ on a hill; the second Adam, waiting in a different garden (Gethsemane) in anticipatory agony over the undeserved judgment that would inevitably come from His Father (Luke 22:44). Of all injustices, the greatest by an infinite degree took place in that mysterious exchange—judgment day poured out on Christ as He purchased ultimate glory for a new creation. Good Friday throws a wrench in every simplistic attempt to address God’s justice. That day, the wooden cross brought to a climax the fulfillment of God’s merciful promise to the first Adam (Gen. 3:15).
Three days later, Christ’s resurrection sentenced death and the devil to capital punishment. Paul called that inaugural resurrection the “firstfruits” for believers (1 Cor. 15:20–23). If Christ is the firstfruits, we are the “next fruits,” waiting to join the resurrection harvest at the end of this phase of history.
Christ never minimized the reality of death’s unjust sting (John 11:35–38), but knowing how His dramatic story ends gives comfort that endures temporal injustices. Our inevitable resurrection, and our new home in the new heavens and the new earth, will at last redeem that first, old injustice on this old earth. For now, injustice invades and permeates the earthly air we breathe. Suffering and tragedy must be taken seriously and handled with sensitivity and pastoral care. But we will not find ultimate solutions—nor our ultimate hope—on earth. Ultimate rest from injustice will be found in a new, eternal home. We repeat “How long, O Lord?” while knowing our just and merciful Savior builds our new home even now (John 14:3) for the final act on that last day.