A commonly repeated refrain when describing the nature of the God of Abraham is that He is a just God. This is such an ingrained facet of religious disquisition that we are often told the very nature of justice, and of our legal system, stems from the Bible (which is, after all, believed by many to be God’s word). Is this a premise based in evidence however? When these claims are eveluated skeptically and honestly they are actually quite difficult to defend. Just as with the concept of morality one can simply argue that if God created the universe then anything he says is just. This view rings hollow, however, when our notions of justice are not in accordance with conflicting assertions about God’s nature and about his special book.
A quick internet search reveals some interesting attempts to project justice onto the pages of the Bible, sometimes with creativity, sometimes with outright dishonesty and delusion. The Poverty and Justice Bible website states “Almost every page of the Bible speaks of God’s heart for the poor. His concern for the marginalised. His compassion for the oppressed. His call for justice.” But how can such a claim be honestly made for a book with literally hundreds of examples of genocide, rape, the killing of one’s own children as a sacrifice to God, slavery and misogyny? Do these things, all clearly sanctioned by the Bible (at least at one time), demonstrate concern and compassion for the oppressed and marginalized? It is one thing to attempt a theological exegesis showing a possible underlying message of justice and compassion for the oppressed in what seems otherwise indicated by the language, but claims like the one listed above seem somehow less than responsible, or even overtly dishonest.
Platitudes and wishful thinking aside, what does the Bible actually teach us about justice? And the word “teach” is used here rather than “tell” because it is important to get the entire message, not only select passages. There are positive examples that, when taken in isolation, are worthy of emulation. For example, Leviticus admonishes us “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” This is hard to argue with. At least until you consider the context within the same Bible which tells us that God killed a man simply for touching the Ark.
Who among us today sees touching something as worthy of capital punishment? It would be a hard sell to argue that the simple act of touching something is a capital offense. It is also instructive to consider the Levitical prescription above is to judge your neighbor fairly. One is justified in wondering if it is easier to be fair to one’s neighbors after successive genocides have ensured that one’s neighbors are all from your own tribe. Also consider the punishment deemed appropriate by God for the sin of taking a census. Apparently when the king does something that displeases God the just punishment is to send a plague to wipe out 70,000 innocent people who had nothing to do with the decision that angered God in the first place.
From the very beginning it seems we get mixed signals when looking for biblical justice. For eating fruit Adam and Eve (and every human being who ever comes after them) were made to suffer through all the excruciating maladies that accompany the human condition. Childbirth became a curse, man had to toil to earn a living, there was enmity put between man and woman, death itself and the associated loss, all these things are the punishment in perpetuity for all mankind simply for the act of eating fruit. Yet, Cain was simply sent away to live someplace else and to have bad luck with his crops for the act of committing humanity’s very first premeditated murder. Not only does the punishment seem far less severe for murder than for eating fruit and touching Arks, but when Cain complained that the punishment was too severe because he feared the others would harm him, God put a mark on him so the others would know to not harm Cain or else He (God) would punish them seven times over. This of course brings up troubling issues. First, who were all these other people out there who Cain feared? He was the son of the first man and woman ever created. Surely there could not have been that many people out there to fear. Second, it seems a strange lesson in justice that if you touch an Ark you get killed, if you eat fruit you and all your descendants are punished, but if you murder your own brother you are placed in a divine witness protection program.
In other places the Bible tells us that God just arbitrarily kills those he deems to be wicked, such as Er, Judah’s firstborn. No explanation is given for why Er was judged to be wicked, simply that he was and he was slain by the Lord. Would the story not be of greater utility if we had been advised of what it was that constitutes wickedness so that we might avoid similar behavior? It must surely have been something worse than the premeditated murder of one’s brother that caused Cain to relocate, under God’s protection no less.
And what of the 10 Commandments? Theists often claim this is the source of our justice system but only if you are breathtakingly ignorant of both the 10 Commandments and US history can you arrive at this conclusion. The first four commandments have nothing at all to do with the law and are only meaningful if you believe in the God of Abraham. Why would an Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist or anyone not of the Abrahamic tradition care about a prohibition against worshipping other gods or keeping a certain day of the week holy because Yahweh allegedly said to do it? Numbers five (honor your parents) and seven (don’t cheat on your spouse) are good advice and hard to argue against on moral grounds, but neither are illegal. Numbers six (stealing) and eight (killing) are illegal in most circumstances, and number nine (bearing false witness) is illegal in certain circumstances, but these seem to be common human ideas of what should be illegal and are not limited to Christian societies. Number ten, dealing with not coveting what your neighbor has, is simply bad advice. It is the very act of coveting what others have that motivates us to succeed in life. Now consider what is perhaps the most important and most often overlooked idea within these 10 Commandments, and that is the logical outcome if we are to actually enforce them. Not only is it not illegal to be disrespectful of your parents (Wrong? Yes. Illegal? No.), or to work on the Sabbath, but if we follow through with what the Bible tells us to do when these commandments are violated, and kill the violator, then we are actually breaking the law. So it seems that it is actually illegal to follow the 10 Commandments fully. Not a solid basis for a legal system.
There is a final point to consider vis-à-vis biblical justice, and this point is unique to Christianity. If the Christian world view is correct and the only way to achieve eternal salvation is through belief in Christ, consider what would happen if a giant meteor were to collide with the earth today extinguishing all human life. About five billion of us would suffer excruciating agony in Hell for all eternity. The punishment for thinking freely and weighing the evidence to arrive at the conclusion that the Bible is simply untrue is staggeringly out of proportion to the crime – Infinite punishment for finite offense. If you reject Christ your entire life, and you live to be 100 then you don’t go to Hell for 100 years, you go for longer than the universe itself has thus far existed. This particular belief comes to us with the arrival of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. Even Judaism and Islam reject this idea as unjust.
Fortunately an honest, skeptical, evaluation reveals no reason to turn to the Bible as a source of justice any more than for morality, family values, historical verisimilitude or treatment of women. Even believers have long taken a position of selective compliance with those portions of the Bible that are in keeping with our human moral intuitions while silently rejecting the blatant injustice found throughout. It seems there is good reason to conclude that biblical justice is a creation of men, imperfect as we evolved to be, in a very different time and place than where we today find ourselves.