In this week’s podcast episode of The Bible for Normal People, hosts Pete Enns and Jared Byas speak with Harvard professor Jonathan Walton about a number of different things, and at one point they get on the topic of the Exodus story. As we know, the Exodus story is largely a justice narrative where the underdogs (aka the Israelite slaves) are set free from their oppressive overlords (aka the Egyptians). It’s a story told through the lens of the Israelite people, and we are given a very “black or white” understanding of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
What Jonathan interestingly brings up is how we focus on the collective themes of who’s in power / who’s being oppressed… but we don’t necessarily think to understand what it must have been like at the individual level for the Egyptians. Specifically, think about all the plagues the Egyptians had to suffer. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time believing that 100% of the Egyptians were A-OK with slavery. There had to have been at least a few advocates on the Egyptian side who were against Israelite slavery.
Did those Egyptian advocates also experience the plagues in the same way? I assume yes since the narrative doesn’t state otherwise.
So is God bringing justice to the oppressors… by ironically oppressing them in return?
Truthfully, I don’t have a solid answer to that question surrounding the Exodus story, but that’s not the only example of questionable authority being taken upon by the Israelites in the name of “God” throughout the Old Testament. (For a particularly gut wrenching story, go read the story of Jephthah in the book of Judges.) My “cliff notes” idea to explain this is that earthly justice was an evolving thing, and the people at these times hadn’t yet reached to our level of earthly justice that we know today.
That totally merits its own post, but this all got me thinking about the concept of justice in general. Specifically, is it fair to equate our concept of earthly justice to the concept of divine justice? And yes, I’m talking here about hell.
First, let’s step back and understand what justice is. A quick Google search for “justice” first returns the girls clothing store for “tweens”… not exactly what I’m looking for! Scrolling down further I find this definition from Merriam-Webster:
“The maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments”
Okay! I actually really like this definition, except it’s not very “user friendly” if you catch my drift. Let me call out a few pieces.
First, “conflicting claims”. This is probably obvious to you, but I want to specifically call out that you can’t have conflicting claims if you have an unlimited amount of whatever. For example, we have laws against stealing other cars because there are a finite amount of cars. We don’t have laws about breathing air because, practically speaking, we have an infinite amount of air. This idea all revolves around finite resources.
And thus we have the “assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” So if I steal your car, a court would force me to give it back and probably dole out some punishment to discourage me from doing that again. You’re happy because you’ve been reconciled to your car, and you’re probably also okay with me going to jail for a bit.
Earthly justice is all about this balancing of the scales. Maybe you’ve come across an image the like one below attached to a courthouse.
In my own words, earthly justice is all about ensuring that the rights and property of every human being are essentially equal. So, I shouldn’t be given unfair treatment because of the color of my skin, and I shouldn’t be able to steal your cookies.
Okay… with that understanding, let’s talk about divine justice.
I think it’s fair to assume that God operates in infinities. In other words, he exists infinitely backward and infinitely forward in time, he is infinitely loving, and he could create an infinite number of cheeseburgers if he wanted.
(Random side note: I’m only using the pronoun “he” because it’s traditionally how we refer to God that way. I don’t necessarily believe God is a he or even a she.)
So… how does the idea of earthly justice translate to divine justice when earthly justice deals with finite resources / concepts and God is infinite…? If you think about it that way, then clearly, earthly justice and divine justice are incomparable. Trying to impose our finite understandings of justice aren’t fair to an infinite God.
You are smart folks, so you’re probably now thinking, “Couldn’t this have implications on hell then?” Yes, absolutely. It could mean that our traditional concept of hell is incorrect because it derives its justice from our earthly idea of justice.
Let me word that differently. We live about 80 years on this earth. We come into this earth knowing nothing, and we are largely influence by our social environment. For as much free will as we have to ultimately change our destinies, we’re very limited by this “box” we’ve been placed into with a particular social infrastructure at a very specific time in history.
So is it fair to think that I’m privileged over somebody else in India who grew up a Hindu their whole life? Do you really think you also wouldn’t be a Hindu if you weren’t born into that setting? Is it fair to state that my understanding of the divine is better than somebody else’s understanding of the divine? Is it fair to think that I’d get my spiritual life straightened out within these 80 earthly years while also trying to keep food on the table for my family?
Moving onto God, does he think it’s fair to cast a judgment based on all those simplistic factors above? And why does it behoove him to send his own creations into eternal punishment? Does God like to see other suffer? And if he does, does that really make him a loving God?
If your head is spinning, you’re not alone! These are questions many people have wrestled with throughout history, and I would definitely not propose an answer to any of them. Who knows, maybe the traditional understanding of hell is correct?
Honestly, friend… I just can’t buy that. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God or don’t find value in promoting a spiritual life through the Christian lens. And frankly, it shouldn’t matter. If your whole goal is to promote faith from a “turn or burn” concept… you’re missing the point. (I wrote another post about this already. You can find it here.)
Anyway, I hope I gave you something to think about. I personally find weird joy in thinking about these mind-boggling concepts, and when I started thinking about my faith differently through this lens… my spiritual life has simply felt more refreshing. They gray isn’t a bad place to live!
We’ll wrap it here. Catch you in the next post!