Cliff's Edge

Who Wants Justice?

Clifford Goldstein
Who Wants Justice?

Believe it or not, yours truly had once been in the charismatics. Bearing shards of theological knowledge (which were mostly wrong, anyway) I had in 1979, in Gainesville, Florida, my own Damascus Road experience. For the next few months I bounced back and forth between a few Adventists in a health food store, and a large charismatic ministry, Maranatha, across the street from the University of Florida. And though I got great teaching from the Adventists, Maranatha was filled with vibrant and on-fire young people who gave me the Christian fellowship that I needed. (Plus, they ate like me.)  Before long, they had me speaking in “tongues,” too. And though harboring doubts about whether these sounds—which turned out to be me simply jabbering with my own mouth what they had been jabbering in my ears—were really (as I was assured) “the language of angels,” it was only when I challenged them on the tongues did they throw me out. (Less than two months in Christianity and already booted from my first church.)

But I digress (something that I warn my writing students not to do). Within, literally, 24 hours of my new birth, and still clueless, I was sitting in the front row of my first-ever church service, at Maranatha, where I was to give my testimony. The pastor must have been talking about justification by faith and, in that context, asked, “Who wants justice?”

Though I was a fairly cynical guy, what 23-year-old, especially one raised in the haunting shadow of the Holocaust, doesn’t want justice—and so my arm rocketed up. Knowing who I was, and how new, the pastor glanced at me, smiled kindly, and said something like, “Well, here’s one who does” while the guy next to me yanked my arm down. 

What was I getting into?

I now know, of course, what he meant. Please, if I got what I deserved, if I faced the justice that God’s divine law demanded, I’d have been obliterated decades ago. 

From the day that I had raised my arm, however, I have wrestled with the question of God’s justice.  Having come to terms with this issue long ago, I have done so, but only on a precipice of faith more precipitous than what I need for most of my other Adventist beliefs, which are so heavy-laden with Scripture, logic, and empiricism that faith is almost incidental. 

But this justice thing . . . ?

Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, was the man known to make the trains run on time, the trains stuffed with Jews on the way to the gas chambers and ovens. Documents showed him, for instance, arranging for a train with 3,000 Jewish children to get to Auschwitz. For days these children—no toilet, no food, no water, no heat (if winter), and shorn of their parents—sat in the cars on the track until arriving at the death camp, where the Germans shoved them into gas chambers and, afterward, burned their little bodies. Three thousand. 

Much of this (and much more) was Adolph Eichmann’s doing, which was why, when captured, and then tried in Israel, he had been sentenced to death. Meanwhile, a Canadian preacher who lived in Israel named William Hull tried to minister to Eichmann, to lead him to Jesus. “I’m not interested in his body,” Hull has said, believing that Eichmann deserved his sentence. “But I am interested in his soul. He should be given a chance to save it. As Christians, we are obliged to offer him that much.” Eichmann, Hull later admitted, never accepted Jesus.

But suppose Eichmann had? You might think, That would have been great! But if God is, as Scripture proclaims, a God of justice, then how just would that have been? With the noose around his neck, Adolph Eichmann accepts Jesus, and is instantly covered in Christ’s robe of perfect righteousness, “the righteousness of God” Himself (Romans 3:21), as well as forgiven his part in the murder of many people, children included, most never having, as Eichmann had, a personal emissary to teach them the Gospel? That might be grace, yes; that might be the Gospel, yes; but—is that justice?

 But, you insist, what about the thief on the cross? What about Him? Ellen White wrote that, though convicted of Jesus, he had been turned away by the leaders and, “seeking to stifle conviction, he had plunged deeper and deeper into sin” (DA 74)—sin deemed bad enough that the Romans, who didn’t want to crucify Jesus, crucified this guy. His crimes must have been bad, for he admitted that he belonged on the cross (Luke 23:40, 41). He had been cursing Jesus, too, (Matthew 27:44). Ok, so the thief on the cross was no angel. But he was no Adolph Eichmann, either. 

Pick your favorite biblical reprobate, saved by grace. David, after his adultery, his lying, his murder (2 Samuel 11); Manasseh, who led Judah into great evil (2 Chronicles 33:9); or Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) when he persecuted the church (Acts 9:1, 2). 

Are we really going to compare the apostle Paul to Adolph Eichmann?

Centuries ago Immanuel Kant argued that with one simple premise, that God is just, we know that there must be some kind of afterlife because, obviously, little justice is found in this life. He’s right. Who can call what happens here justice? And so there must be final judgment, the long-delayed, or so it seems to us, retributive punishment so sorely lacking now. (Actually, for the lost, the moment that they close their eyes in death, the next thing they are going to experience, at their resurrection, is the punishment that they got coming.)  And it will come. “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:13-15; see also Proverbs 24:29; John 5:28-29; Hebrews 10:30; Galatians 6:7, 8; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10). 

I flat-out want to see this retributive punishment. I want to see justice done. “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ ” (Revelation 6:10). Without the promise (and, yes, I see it as a promise) of final retributive punishment, I’d have a real hard time with faith, with God, and with the idea of God as a God of justice. I’m not talking eternal torment (the opposite of justice).  But if even I—corrupted from the DNA on out—cringe at the unpunished evil and legal inequities that seem axiomatic to our natural world, then surely the God of perfect justice will supernaturally (How else?) make things right, or as right as can be given the risks inherent in human free will.

Universalism, the teaching that God saves everyone, is repulsive morally, and can be held only at the expense of spiritualizing away the texts that teach the opposite. Otherwise, what? People happily pillaging, raping, murdering, and plundering only one day to glory in their eternal reward with those whom they pillaged, raped, murdered, and plundered? There will be cases like that, I’m sure, amazing testimonies to God’s redemptive grace. That’s fine, and I expect to be eating from the “tree of life” (Revelation 22:14) with some people whom I’d not give a cup of cold water to now. But as an eternal principle, everyone saved?  It’s sickening mockery of even the weakest intimation of “justice.” I don’t anticipate singing Kumbaya with Hitler and Eichmann in the new earth. 

Ultimately, it boils down to the Millennium, when, being raised to eternal life, in “the first resurrection,” (Revelation 20: 5, 6), the redeemed will live with Christ “for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4), during which time they “shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years” (Revelation 20:6).  Though we now see through a “glass darkly,” this is when we shall know even as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:11), because God “will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts” (1 Corinthians 4:5). Paul writes, too: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? . . . Do you not know that we shall judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6: 2, 3).  

How fascinating that not until this work of judgment, which the redeemed partake of, is completed does final, retributive punishment come. We will not only see for ourselves the justness and fairness of God’s judgment upon the lost, but we will also be directly involved in it. “In union with Christ they judge the wicked, comparing their acts with the statute book, the Bible, and deciding every case according to the deeds done in the body. Then the portion which the wicked must suffer is meted out, according to their works; and it is recorded against their names in the book of death” (The Great Controversy, 660).

That God’s justice, amid the overarching reality of His grace, will prevail is a promise that I take on faith. How else? But the One who created and sustains the cosmos, estimated now at 92-billion light years in diameter, can certainly sort out things on this one little planet, can’t He? Until then, we must trust that, along with the astonishing gift of salvation for sinners, who don’t deserve what they get in Christ, justice will, still, be served—served for those who accept Christ’s grace, and for those who don’t. 

How it will work out for each individual, I don’t know. But, in Eichmann’s case at least, I happily don’t have to worry about it, do I?

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide.

Clifford Goldstein