What is Justice?
To say the least, this past year has been far from tranquil. From state-imposed lockdowns and police shootings to protests and riots, nearly everyone seems to be decrying the present unjust state of the world. Perhaps this goes without saying, but these calls for justice—no matter what faction they arise from—seem to presuppose that justice is something both attainable and worthy of attainment. Otherwise, why bother?
Most conceptions of justice throughout history share one basic idea in common. It is the ancient Latin motto of suum cuique, which translates into “to each his own.” At its core, justice is giving everyone what they deserve or what is rightfully theirs. From this root concept, societies throughout recorded history have instituted laws to punish criminals, restore property to their rightful owners, and reward good deeds.
However, issues arise in defining the precise nature of justice, how it is achieved, and who its proper recipients are. For instance, some will tell you that justice is a matter of material distribution, while others will tell you it is a matter of ethical treatment. Some will say justice is achieved by punishing wrongdoers, while others say that it is achieved by compensating those who were wronged. Some maintain justice is an individual concern, while others hold that it is a collective concern.
Different worldviews will of course have different answers to these fundamental questions of justice. The remainder of this piece will outline how the Christian worldview answers these questions through the lens of the Bible, the self-authenticating inspired and inerrant Word of God. Not everything that could be touched on will be, for whole books are dedicated to that. Rather, this piece will focus on the highlights of justice according to the Bible by highlighting its essential attributes.
Justice as Good, Moral, Lawful, and Right
A worldview’s conceptions of justice are necessarily connected with and flow from its views on goodness, morality, law, and rights. Most people, Christian or not, are aware of the famous opening words of Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” There is a lot to learn from this verse alone. First, one sees that before there was anything else, there was God. Then, in an act that began time and space, He created all that there is. Specifically, one sees later in verse 27 that this includes the direct creation of mankind: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Verse 31 shows God reflect on the status of His creation: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and behold, it was very good…”
From these verses describing the creation of the world, one can see that the goodness of all matter and Man in particular originated from God, who stands apart from His creation. Consequently, morality—how God’s creatures ought to behave toward God and towards each other—is rooted in God’s good, created order. God alone in his role as Sovereign Creator has the right to determine what is good and right for His creation to do. Indeed, God created all things to glorify and bring pleasure to Himself. As it says in Revelation 4:11, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”
From this follows the force of the law, specifically the moral law as revealed naturally on the hearts of men (as said in Romans 2 and Hebrews 10) and positively in the 10 Commandments outlined in Exodus 20. For example, in accordance with the 6th Commandment, men are not to kill each other without unprovoked aggression because to do so would be contrary to the natural end of Man to glorify God by reflecting His goodness through being made in His image. On the flipside, the force of rights also follows from the demands of the moral law. Men have natural rights to life, liberty, and property because to transgress these rights would be equivalent to violating the moral law—specifically the 6th and 8th Commandments against murder and theft—and thereby disrupt God’s design for mankind.
It is with these conceptions of goodness, morals, laws, and rights that the biblical conception of justice can be understood. Biblical justice is rendering to God and Man what is their due in accordance with the moral law and natural rights inherent in God’s good, created order. It is consequently unjust to violate God’s moral law—whether it be idolatry or blasphemy against God or murder or theft against Man—because to do so is contrary to the good end of creation to reflect the goodness of God. With that general foundation and framework set forth, this piece will now turn to outlining some more particular aspects of justice as revealed in the Bible, particularly in the Books of the Law in the Old Testament.
Justice as True, Impartial, Direct, and Proportional
There is much to discern about the nature of justice from the giving of the law to the Israelites through Moses by God in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. With the moral law of the 10 Commandments outlined in Exodus 20 as a sort of Constitution, the civil laws serve as statutes for the chosen nation of Israel to conduct itself in justice and equity. Among these civil laws, there are four common elements on how justice is to be served: Justice is to be based on truth, impartial in its application, directly applied to definite circumstances and individuals, and proportional to the nature of the infraction.
First, justice must be truthful. This is derived not only from the definition of justice itself but also from the Bible’s emphasis on establishing the facts of cases through the means of credible witnesses. It says in Deuteronomy 19:15, “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth; at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.” This prohibition against convictions based upon a single witness serves the function of ensuring that the charges against someone are credible and likelier to be true. Moreover, in addition to the prohibition on lying in the 8th Commandment, there is a prohibition on the false testimony of witnesses in Exodus 23:1. It says, “Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness.” Clearly then, biblical justice is founded on true circumstances.
Second, justice must be impartial. It must not be prejudiced, biased, or predisposed to rule in favor of any particular person or class of persons. Like its personification—Lady Justice—it must be blind. Many verses expound upon this principle of impartiality. One such verse is Leviticus 19:15, which says, “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor.” Furthermore, Exodus 23:2-3 condemns showing partiality both to the masses and to the poor when applying justice in cases. It says, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment: Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause.” Biblical justice therefore shows no bias towards anyone but remains impartial.
Third, justice must be applied to direct circumstances and concern the direct actors involved in those circumstances. In other words, it cannot concern itself with punishing actors who did not directly commit the crime. Guilt by association is not valid. This principle is explicitly set forth in Deuteronomy 24:16, which says, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” To punish someone who did not directly engage in any crime merely for their hereditary association with the criminal would be unjust. So, biblical justice is directly given to the actors and circumstances of the unjust action.
Fourth, justice must be proportional to the action. This principle of proportionality is fundamental to the very notion of justice. For most people, the notion of executing someone for insulting someone seems to violate basic intuitions of morality and justice. In such an instance, the punishment would not fit the crime. This principle is articulated in Deuteronomy 19:21, which says, “And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” The application of this principle can be seen in Exodus 21 and 22. In Exodus 22:1, it says, “If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” One can see here an element of restorative justice in addition to retributive justice. The cattle thief must not only restore what he stole but give more value to the victim as just compensation for having troubled him. However, in Exodus 21:16, it says, “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” The thief has a harsher retributive punishment in Exodus 21:16 because the value of the object stolen—a person made in the image of God—is greater in value than mere livestock in Exodus 22:1. So, biblical justice is proportional to the crime committed.
While conflicting worldviews tend to share the same general idea of justice, they differ markedly in articulating its particulars. However, the Christian worldview through scripture presents a coherent conception in justice in all its particular attributes. In conformity with the doctrine of God as the primary source of all things, justice according to the Bible flows from adhering to God’s moral law, respecting the natural rights of His creatures, and conforming to the good design of creation. Moreover, as seen in the Books of the Law, biblical justice is true, impartial, direct, and proportional. In response to the chaos and confusion over justice in the modern world, all people—Christians in particular—would do well to return to the truths revealed in scripture to rightly order society toward achieving justice.
This was a very interesting and well-researched article. I’d be interested in seeing a second article on the same topic but how it relates to states. For example, was it just or moral for German citizens to be forced to pay war reparations to France after the first world war? Once again, outstanding article. I hope we can read more from you soon!