From beginning to end the Bible portrays God as both just and loving. In the Old Testament it is said that he will reward the righteous, but although the wicked deserve his wrath, in his mercy he often refrains from punishing them, in the hope that they will turn back onto the path of righteousness. In the New Testament, Jesus lovingly forgives sinners and encourages people to repent of their sins, as the prodigal son did, but he promises that one day he will return to judge people justly, to punish the wicked and establish a New Jerusalem of peace and love for those who honour him. In the letters of St Paul and others, while Christians are encouraged to love God and one another, the fear of hell and hope of heaven are repeatedly offered as a motive for submission to Jesus. Finally, the book of Revelation depicts the ultimate triumph of justice in the destruction of evil and the creation of a New Jerusalem for the faithful.
What evidence is there of God’s justice in human history? The Psalms repeatedly lament the way in which the wicked prosper while the faithful suffer, and call upon God to bring about justice. When the Israelites, the Chosen People, suffer, for example their destruction by the Assyrians and Babylonians, it is always possible to interpret this as just punishment for their sins. But how are God’s faithful prophets and people rewarded? Daniel was protected, but Elijah and Job had a tough time.
Historical evidence of God’s justice in the Old Testament is at best ambivalent.
In the New Testament things get worse. The perfect Son of God suffers the most dreadful injustice, out of love for sinners. The apostles suffer difficult lives and often horrible deaths. God’s justice is postponed to the second coming, which Jesus and the early church believed was only a few years away. But it has not yet come.
The problem with the Second Coming, in which all the wicked will be punished, is that it is inconsistent with Jesus’ love and forgiveness of those who hate God. One might punish a wicked person in the hope of reforming them and deterring others, but justice requires retributive punishment, in proportion to the crime. And crimes against God, it is said, deserve death, which is promised to wicked people when Jesus comes again in power. Jesus cannot both loving forgive and justly execute people at the same time. To forgive is to absorb the other’s offence and offer love in return. It is not to desire the death of sinners.
The belief that God is just in handing out extraordinary rewards and punishments is both implausible, because the evidence is that this is false, and it is inconsistent with the passionate assertion that God loves sinners and forgives them their sins. These are two compelling reasons why Christians should deny that God is just in the material sense just outlined.
Are there any ways in which God could be said to reward people when they are faithful and punish them when they depart from His ways? There are indeed, and they are familiar to the saints. St Paul summarized a lot of them in Galations 5. The Faithful enjoy the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity and self-control. When people are wicked, they suffer from impurity, quarrels, rage, ambitions, jealousy, and the like. St Paul also writes about enjoying the wisdom of Jesus’ mind, and power in doing his will, and unexpected events that support one along the way. In short, although a Christian life is not rewarded in obvious material or social ways, it is a good life, directed, encouraged and warmed by the love of Jesus. Despite its hardships, St Paul would not have it any other way.
The other reward that Christians enjoy is a consequence of their love of Jesus. By His Spirit they are moved to love others, and often they are loved in return. When others love us, they share our lives, affirm our value, and offer us their support in a most encouraging way.
What about punishment? St Paul contrasted a Christian life with a rather dissolute one, which suffers from uncontrolled passions. It could also be contrasted with a rational life, in which people set their own goals and pursue them with their own wisdom and strength. If their goals are selfish, they will probably exploit and even harm others, so that the community suffers even if they do not. If their goals are good, contributing to the welfare of others, then such lives are admirable. Indeed, if such a life is full of love for others, then according to St John, it is indeed a Godly life (1 John 4: 7-8).
These personal and social rewards and punishments are regularly provided by God to the faithful and the wicked, as we are all aware. It is right to fear evil, for it can destroy one. It is right to yearn for good, because it is rewarded with a life of peace and value. There is no need to posit a Second Coming to motivate people to lead a Christian life.
An idea of the Kingdom of Heaven has been an inspiration to faithful Jews and Christians down the ages. The picture of a New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, of a community of saints enlightened and warmed by Jesus, is of an ideal that we believe God wants us to enjoy. However, to portray it as the outcome of Jesus’ Second Coming, in which wickedness is defeated by mighty power, is to remove it from human responsibility. When Jesus taught his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 ff.), he envisaged it as a kingdom of his disciples on earth, bound in their allegiance to him and His Spirit of self-sacrificial love. This is an image of heaven on earth, not heaven hereafter. And it is a heaven created by humans in cooperation with Jesus through love, not by Jesus alone through force. It is a misleading distraction to imagine the New Jerusalem as a consequence of the Second Coming.
So God is both just and loving. His justice is not to be found in material or heavenly rewards for the faithful, nor in the earthly or final destruction of the wicked. Rather it lies in the personal and social blessings enjoyed by his disciples, and in the fear and destructiveness of life without him. Jesus came into this world, not with a sword to enforce justice but with self-sacrificial love to create a new community of love, centring on himself.