Several years ago I witnessed a dispute between two men that rapidly escalated in just a few minutes into a very heated exchange. The issue centered around what was fair and just in a particular situation they were both involved with. Both, however, had a different view of what was just. Each man simply took it as fact that his view was the correct one and the other person’s view was badly off. I must confess that I am still confused about who was right, even to this day. Perhaps both views were a bit off the mark for all I know.
Over the course of my life, I have observed that we have an internal sense of justice that forms the basis by which we judge the justice of other people and societies. The unconscious premise underlying this sense of justice can be described as something I call the "Justice Assumption."
The Justice Assumption: If I find myself in disagreement with another person over what is fair and just, my sense of justice is the correct one and the other person has a flawed sense of justice.
To most peoples’ credit, even though we often unconsciously make the above "Justice Assumption", if we are called on it we realize that it is highly unlikely our own sense of justice is perfect, even though we may have no idea where the flaws may be.
Bottom Line: We tend to assess the justice of other people on the basis of our own flawed understanding of justice.
What happens when we encounter the justice of a perfect being?
It follows from this that if God is perfectly just (i.e., that degree of justice beyond which it is logically impossible to be even more just), then he will seem unjust to us given the "Justice Assumption". The situation can be summarized as follows:
- Our sense of justice is not perfect; it is flawed, even if we assume it is not.
- God’s justice is perfect.
- Given (1) and (2), we will disagree with God’s justice.
- If we disagree with another person’s sense of justice, they will appear to be unjust to us.
- Therefore, given (3) and (4), God will seem unjust to us.
Example from our culture:
Some principles of justice may rest on deeper, foundational assumptions we have that might actually be wrong. For example, our culture contains a variety of beliefs about the existence of God and life after death, but most people operate in their day-to-day lives as if this life is all we have to maximize personal happiness and fulfilment. an additional assumption our society makes is that we have the right to maximize our personal happiness in this life, provided we do not harm others in the process. These two fundamental assumptions form the basis for a number of points of justice greatly valued by our culture.
But it is possible that these two fundamental societal assumptions might be wrong from God's perspective. Perhaps God does desire to maximize our happiness and fulfilment, but on the scale of eternity, rather than within this very brief mortal life. And that eternal maximization may be intended for an inconceivably more amazing state of being than the one we find ourselves innow. Perhaps some of the rights we invent for ourselves to maximize happiness in this mortal life actually conflict with the vastly superior maximization of happiness and fulfilment in eternity.
If this is the case, then we can predict that there will be some very significant differences of opinion concerning what is right and wrong between our culture and a perfectly just God. It follows from the "Justice Assumption", therefore, that God might appear to be substantially unjust to our culture.
Upon reflection, it seems we have at least three possible responses to this state of affairs:
Conclude that if God exists, he is less just than we are (i.e., our sense of justice is superior to God’s)
Conclude that God cannot possibly be that badly out of sync with our own cultural concepts of justice, and that we therefore need to re-make God in the image of our culture.
Accept that we may fall substantially short of perfection when it comes to our own ideas of justice and put our faith in the true God, trusting that he actually is perfectly just.
All three of these responses are commonly found in today’s culture. As to which one to choose, C.S. Lewis wrote:
If human life is in fact ordered by a beneficent being whose knowledge of our real needs and of the way in which they can be satisfied infinitely exceeds our own, we must expect a priori that His operations will often appear to us far from beneficent and far from wise, and that it will be our highest prudence to give Him our confidence in spite of this.1
- C.S. Lewis, "On obstinacy in belief", The World’s Last Night.