Where is the God of Justice?
Where is the God of justice when a woman is being raped at gunpoint on a crowded bus in Rio? Where is the God of justice when children in the slums of Nairobi are left to survive on scraps while government leaders line their pockets with relief aid and corporate gifts? Where is the God of justice when countless willing and hardworking people never make it into the middle class in developing countries because of draconian laws designed to keep them impoverished? Where is the God of justice when nations use oil money to arm themselves to the teeth while their own citizens try to exist on less than two dollars a day?
Where is the God of justice? The question bombarded me as I read the international version of the New York Times on my flight home from Kenya. Truth is, most people have asked this question at some time or another. Even those of us of faith, who believe in the goodness of God and understand the Scriptures, sometimes get overwhelmed by situations in the fallen world around us.
We are not alone. From the "chosen" people of Israel in the first diaspora, to the early church facing heinous persecution at the hand of the Romans, to the Jews during the Holocaust, the lament of God's people has been, "How long, oh Lord, until you avenge us of our enemies?" Pick any epoch in history, and it will appear that injustice has reigned: slavery, rape, child abuse, class distinction, rogue governments, dictators, Ponzi schemes. Every culture has been affected; no one has been spared.
The skeptic often poses the question as a proof of God's non-existence. For example, atheist Sam Harris writes:
It is time we recognized the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. It is time we acknowledged how disgraceful it is for the survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Once you stop swaddling the reality of the world's suffering in religious fantasies, you will feel in your bones just how precious life is-—and indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all. (Letter to a Christian Nation)
While the skeptic's argument is easy to diffuse, it is the believer's inquiry I want to discuss here: Why would a true believer question the ability of God to intervene in some of the gross injustices that go on in our world?
I can see at least two reasons. First, while the Bible in both its Testaments reveals a God who is passionate about justice, events around us seem to belie that fact.
Perhaps a biblical definition would help here. Charles Colson writes, "The biblical view of humanity and justice...not only explains sin and alienation (which no secular view does) but also offers reconciliation and the restoration of shalom; that is, God's ordained order. True justice is but an expression of God's character and order, when people relate to one another according to his will for the purpose of his glory" (Justice That Restores).
The shalom that Colson writes about can be found in the civil code of Deuteronomy where God reveals to Moses how a society of God's people must function. Here we find remarkable, humane concern for widows, the poor, and fatherless. Later in Israel's history, Isaiah, denouncing the nation for the sins that would ultimately lead to exile and captivity in a foreign land, lamented "Your princes are rebellious, And companions of thieves; Everyone loves bribes, And follows after rewards. They do not defend the fatherless, Nor does the cause of the widow come before them" (Isaiah 1:23). Here again, we see God's concern for those whom today we would call the marginalized of society, those who have suffered extreme loss through no fault of their own.
The New Testament continues this theme. Luke, in particular shows a remarkable interest in the plight of widows: the Gospel of Luke mentions widows more than any other book in the Bible. Additionally, the Book of Acts records that the first church, while predominately focused on the preaching of the gospel, also had a social conscience, as evidenced by the concern that widows be taken care of (see Acts 6).
So if God is so good, and if he is a God of justice, then why do we see so much injustice in our world today? The newspaper I was reading, the Colson quote above, and the book of Malachi, written when Israel was on the verge of losing her identity among the nations, give us the answer: sinful humanity. As Malachi writes, the same people who demand, "Where is the God of justice?" justify their own sinful actions by turning God's law upside down, saying, "Everyone who does evil Is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them" (Mal. 2:17). If we don't follow God's ways to shalom, we shouldn't be surprised when we don't get it. As Pogo famously said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
The second reason for the question is that, again, as we look around our world today, it seems that perpetrators of atrocities get away with it: there simply don't seem to be any God-given repercussions for evil behavior. Indeed, in too many places of the world women are raped with impunity (the only reason the Rio rape made the news is because the Olympics are to be held there in a few years), vulnerable people are defrauded of their rights as human beings, much less as citizens (often by the very people entrusted with care for them: police and government officials), and children dig in dumps for a meager subsistence while bombs and palatial presidential palaces are in plentiful supply.
Where is the God of justice?
I believe this question was answered two thousand years ago in a synagogue in Nazareth, the day when Jesus read these verses from a scroll of Isaiah:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:16-21; see Isaiah 61:1-2)
Isaiah's prophecy revealed the type of ministry that Jesus would perform, both near and far.
Near: Jesus' earthly ministry would lead to the setting free of the oppressed. But in a strange twist, it would lead to the setting free of the oppressor as well. How? Because by declaring himself Messiah His objective was to set all captives free: oppressed and oppressor, widow and tax collector, leper and thief, you and me. All of us held prisoner by sin.
Tax collectors were no doubt preying upon poor widows, but what was their back story? Who had once preyed upon them? Likewise, the oppressed were not without sin. Visit any slum in the world and it will be obvious that the rich and powerful don't have a corner on bad behavior, deception, and a lack of moral character. This very well may have been the reason why, after Jesus read this text that day, his listeners were "filled with wrath" to the point of wanting to kill Him. Jesus was declaring the universality of humanity's sinfulness.
Far: over the next millennia, the Church, infused by the power of a risen Savior and the indwelling Holy Spirit, would see a continued transformation of sinners' hearts that would lead to the cessation of personal acts of wrong, to the chasing down of and punishment for injustice done by others, and to the abolition of many evils. Secularists often give credit for this transformation to the rise of modernity, to natural thought, to science, to you-name-it, but any person who takes an honest look at history can see the influence the true Church has had on injustice.
It must also be remembered that human government, though flawed and imperfect, is ordained by God (see Romans 13). Though probably not with the timing we prefer, the past 100 years alone have seen the judgment or death of evil people like Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Nicolae Ceausescu, Osama bin Laden, Idi Amin, and more.
But even if perpetrators of injustice slip through human hands, they will not escape God's. That day in the synagogue, Jesus stopped before He got to the even more far-reaching parts of Isaiah's prophecy, the parts about "the day of the Lord." Both the Old Testament and New point to the Messiah's coming to judge the world at history's end. Someday Jesus will return, not as a peasant rabbi, but as a conquering king, to set things right and bring true justice to this world.
Israel understood this hope, and so should we.
While the goal of every Christian should be to fight for justice through every means and by every measure, we need to remember that the greatest change comes when a heart is transformed by the love of a Savior. This world will never be a safe place until Jesus returns. Let us make it our goal to occupy until he comes, and to keep one eye in the heavens from whence our deliverance comes.
Until that day, God is working through the Church, through people who are willing to stand in the gap and pray and work that justice may reign and God's will be done, "on earth as it is in heaven."