A series exploring the theme of justice in the biblical narrative and its implications for the church.
It’s Who He Is
God is a God of justice. It’s not optional to the divine identity, it’s integral to who He is.
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne…” (Psalm 89:14; 97:2).
“He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, A God of truth and without injustice; Righteous and upright is He.” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
This is why God’s heart aches when people become victims of oppression:
when the helpless are exploited,
when basic human rights are violated.
It’s not that God merely ‘feels sorry’ for them, but as Walter Brueggemann styled it, God experiences an “emotional upheaval in His guts.” Injustice, the distortion of human relations, is against His essence and contrary to His government.
This is the God that the Old Testament presents. There’s a difference between knowing about this God and actually knowing Him. And it’s not possible to truly know Him without getting to know His passion for justice.
“The Lord is known by his acts of justice” (Psalm 9:16, NIV).
In Jeremiah 22, God speaks about the responsibility that His people have to “deliver the plundered out of the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong and do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (v. 3). If they refuse to take this responsibility seriously, the Lord guarantees that they will “become a desolation” (v. 5).
After drawing attention to the faithful who “do justice and righteousness” and stand for the “poor and needy,” God asks this profound question: “Isn’t that what it means to know me? declares the Lord” (v. 16 CEB).
A person’s knowledge of God is not measured only by their frequent prayers, or their attendance at religious gatherings. But also by the degree to which they share God’s passion for justice. How we relate to those around us is the barometer that determines whether or not we’ve genuinely encountered and experienced God.
That’s the message of the Old Testament: our love for God is measured by our love for people.
And no, that’s not a New Testament innovation. It’s not something Jesus later introduced to ‘clean up’ or ‘improve’ the ugly stuff in the Old Testament. No, we’re talking about ideals from the Old Testament; from that part of the Bible that gets all the flack.
In the Image of the God of Justice
If justice is embedded in the very nature and character of God, that has direct implications for each of our lives. When God created humankind, He left His fingerprints on the entire race.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness… So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Genesis 1:26-27
The Genesis record presents a clear distinction between the creation of animals and the creation of man. On every other day during creation week, God simply spoke things into existence. But when creating humanity, mere words would not suffice. God sends a message by stooping down and forming man with His own hands. The result is a new race bearing the “image” and “likeness” of God. There’s a solemnity there that is not displayed in any other part of creation.
What’s so significant about the entire race being created in the image and likeness of God?
As one scholar points out1, this picture in Genesis is significantly different from other comparable ancient creation accounts where human beings are depicted as slaves of the gods, “created to build their temples, observe their rituals, and carry out their commands.” In some creation accounts, an earthly king is created separate from the rest of the race to be the earthly representative of the gods.
When it comes to justice, you can’t know Him without knowing it and you can’t know it without knowing Him.
This privilege and role conferred only to kings in other creation accounts is actually there in the Genesis record. But in Genesis it extends to all human beings: all humans are made in the image and likeness of God and are given dominion over the earth.
According to Genesis, human beings have intrinsic value and moral worth. Later in Genesis 9:6, the principle that all humans are created in the image and likeness of God is seen as the foundation for the prohibition against murder. Human blood may not be shed because of the image of God. The life we have is not our own. It is a gift of God and supremely valuable. To take another’s life is to take something that is sacred and does not belong to me. It belongs to God. That is the Genesis perspective.
Since God created us in His own “image” and “likeness” (Genesis 1.26), then part of our own purpose for existence would be to reflect God’s passion for justice, or “rightness.” We have a responsibility to “create and sustain healthy, constant, and life-giving relationships between persons.”2
An Unavoidable Contradiction
Everyone I know, whether religious or not, believes in the necessity of social justice and the protection of equal rights. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most people in our society would concur at least at the basic level.
But the fascinating thing is that the concept of social justice and equal rights is only meaningful on the basis of this idea in Genesis 1:26—that we are all equally created in God’s “image” and “likeness.”
Here’s the problem. Secularists, many of whom openly reject the Bible, do not have the necessary grounds to even believe that human beings have equal value and equal rights.3
Left to a naturalistic view of the world, they’re confronted with an unavoidable contradiction: why should all humans be naturally equal in value and possess equal rights in light of the clear inequality of human merit (talents, skills, character, personality, various abilities) among them?
Joel Feinberg, arguably the leading political and social philosopher of the 1960s, observed that equal human rights presupposes equal human worth. But on what basis do we arrive at equality of worth? We’ll need a base that (1) we all have equally in common and (2) is of supreme moral worth. Don’t even think of finding anything like that in Darwinian evolution! It’s simply not there.
Feinberg says that all attempts to establish this base have failed because they assume a “pricelessness” for which we have no explanation or because they are grounded on a degreed human merit (possessed to a greater or lesser degree) and therefore cannot do the job of establishing equal worth for all.
The bottom line is that all efforts to explain equal human worth assume it without offering any understanding of where that equality comes from.
Other secular thinkers have admitted that a Darwinian approach to the origin of human beings contradicts any belief that humans have intrinsic dignity and worth above that of animals. Here’s how James Rachels put it in Created from Animals:
“The traditional supports for the idea of human dignity are gone. They have not survived the colossal shift of perspective brought by Darwin’s theory. It might be thought that this result need not be devastating for the idea of human dignity, because even if the traditional supports are gone, the idea might still be defended on some other grounds. Once again, though, an evolutionary perspective is bound to make one skeptical. The doctrine of human dignity says that humans merit a level of moral concern wholly different from that accorded to mere animals; for this to be true, there would have to be some big, morally significant difference between them. Therefore, any adequate defense of human dignity would require some conception of human beings as radically different from other animals. But that is precisely what evolutionary theory calls into question. It makes us suspicious of any doctrine that sees large gaps of any sort between humans and all other creatures. This being so, a Darwinian may conclude that a successful defense of human dignity is most unlikely” (Created from Animals, pp. 171-172).
In the end, equal worth and equal rights for humans is groundless and unjustifiable from a Darwinian perspective. It’s survival of the fittest, and only the strong survive. And in that case, there is no basis for social justice and equal rights.
But, of course, no secularist actually lives out this philosophy in real life (Yes, I just called Darwinism a philosophy). Even when rejecting the Old Testament, people live as though they believed it. The inconsistency is blatant. People live as if there was meaning, value and purpose when their worldview contradicts those very notions. They have to borrow those ideals from another worldview—the biblical worldview. It’s like shopping on a borrowed credit card. We all need to live as if life had intrinsic value; as if we weren’t mere animals.
But just try communicating that to a secularist! I’ve tried. They hold the concept of equality to be so fundamental that they can’t even process this contradiction.
But the answer to this contradiction is right there in Genesis 1:26. All humans are created in the ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ of God. That’s the necessary ingredient to even warrant equal worth and rights among people. That is the base we all have in common that confers supreme moral worth on all of us.
So the message of the Old Testament is a provocative one. It’s a double-edged sword: You can’t know God without knowing justice and you can’t even warrant justice without acknowledging God.
Or put it this way: When it comes to justice, you can’t know Him without knowing it and you can’t know it without knowing Him.
As it turns out, the Old Testament is surprisingly relevant. Those words in Genesis are so simple and familiar that it’s easy to take them for granted and miss the massive implications. I’m realizing more and more their relevance in this modern, secular world. To brush them off in disregard is like “cutting off the very branch you’re sitting on,”4 and it’s a long fall down.
Am I saying that life isn’t meaningful without the ideals in the Old Testament?
That’s exactly what I’m saying.
Read Part 1 of the God of Justice series.
- Richard J. Clifford, Professor of Old Testament, Boston College. Published in Jesuit Education 21: Conference Proceeding on the Future of Jesuit Higher Education. (See link: http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/offices/mission/pdf1/ju9.pdf)
- The Little Book of Biblical Justice, p. 36
- Shout out to Professor J.P. Moreland at Biola University for this.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 52