Judgement + Mercy = Justice

Many decades ago a young man, now probably a grandfather, was arrested for stealing at a local grocery store. He would go through the checkout line & legally purchase some items, thus he had a grocery receipt to produce if questioned. Then he would sneak back into the store rather than exiting & put more items into his shopping bags. The legal punishment of law called for the possibility of 5 years in prison, $20,000 in fines & restitution, or both in addition to the fact that a person would have a permanent felony record to contend with for the rest of his/her life. In this local case the judge rendered a suspended 1 year sentence if he stayed out of trouble during that time. In other words his conviction & arrest would be dismissed as if they had never happened. The young man did & walked away a free man with no prior record. Was justice served? Many would say that it was not.

When the young man was arrested in the store, the arresting officer noted that he was stealing food items & necessities; juice, milk, fruit, vegetables, meats, dairy items, diapers, baby food, formula & etc. This is unusual because most shoplifters do not steal such items. The 20-something young man also had no prior criminal or arrest record. Again unusual in that criminality usually starts in the teens with indications well before that. In court a very frustrated young man revealed that he was a divorced father of 3 girls all under age 5. His wife had abandoned her family & he was trying to raise his children alone, but had lost his job due to being unable to find adequate daycare for his children while he worked. For the same reason he was unable to find another job, much less able to find a job that could pay for childcare & give the family enough money to pay utilities, housing & other necessities. Upon hearing this, the judge ordered that child, social & employment services assist the young man with the appropriate programs that were readily available but unknown to him. I repeat my question: Was justice served? Most would now say that it was.

However, I have related this story many times over the years since I first heard of it & I am continually surprised at the number of negative answers I get even when all of the details are told. Many think that justice is defined when the committal of crime A results in punishment X, crime B in punishment Y, C in Z & so on; mitigating circumstances are irrelevant. This type of justice is not justice at all; rather it is summary judgement at best, or vengeance (more properly rather, revenge) at worst. Under this type of system a judge becomes totally unnecessary in the judicial process.

This harsh, legalistic & autonomic attitude is frequently found in religious beliefs. The Christian must come up to & perform at some acceptable standard of moral behavior before God in order to curry His favor or to avoid His wrath. In order to determine just what this divine moral code is Christianity is frequently reduced to the “essentials of faith”; i.e. what must I do in order to guarantee that I will get into heaven & not go to hell? God’s love & grace are earned as the proper things are done & the improper not as dictated by some “divine moral code”. The problem with this individualistic & legalistic “system” is that in reality such a “divine moral code” renders impossible the God of love & instead substitutes the God of vengeance/judgement. But such a substitution is only a vain attempt because as shown above such a “judge”—i.e. God—becomes unnecessary. Also negated is the possibility rendering love for both man & God as well as the free-will of both. Such acts in essence become nothing more than “laws” upon man with resulting “demands” upon God. If an individual does A, then God must accordingly render Z.

I believe that for this reason many today have gone to the extreme of “spiritualizing” even the “essentials” away, not to mention faith as well as God Himself. It is no wonder that secular humanism & atheism are so predominant in our modern culture. Many decry & fault the supposed atheism, humanism & political correctness taught in our schools & universities, but this would have been impossible if religion had not first rendered God unnecessary through systematic & legalistic theology.

I am of the opinion that few today truly understand the concepts of judgement, justice, vengeance, mercy & love as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, explained by the Church Fathers & experienced by the Orthodox Church. Much reading into the Holy Scriptures of our modern understanding & secular culture occurs, greatly convoluting their interpretation. Just as there is no dichotomy between science & Christian faith, so too there is no dichotomy between God’s judgement, justice, & vengeance in relation to God’s mercy & love. Yes, God renders judgement (Psalms 75:7), God renders justice (Deuteronomy 32:4), God renders vengeance (Deuteronomy 32:25), God renders mercy (Psalms 67:1) & God renders love (Romans 5:5). My title for this blog, Judgement + Mercy = Justice, therefore is very much “tongue in cheek.” God is not subject to such mathematical contrivance in any form, nor should God ever be conceived in such a fashion. Instead of strict separated characterizations regards the attributes of God (judgement, vengeance, justice, mercy, love), I am trying to encourage the idea that these attributes are all indicative & necessary of the one Holy Trinity.

“Inasmuch, then, as in both Testaments there is the same righteousness of God [displayed] when God takes vengeance, in the one case indeed typically, temporarily, & more moderately; but in the other, really, enduringly, & more rigidly: for the fire is eternal, & the wrath of God which shall be revealed from heaven from the face of our Lord, entails a heavier punishment on those who incur it,—the elders pointed out that those men are devoid of sense, who, [arguing] from what happened to those who formerly did not obey God, do endeavor to bring in another Father, setting over against [these punishments] what great things the Lord had done at His coming to save those who received Him, taking compassion upon them; while they keep silence with regard to His judgment, & all those things which shall come upon such as have heard His words, but done them not…” [Irenaeus (120-202 AD); Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 28, excerpted]

Only an imbalanced theological system can force such a dichotomy where one does not exist. At one extreme there are those that tunnel vision on the God of judgement, wrath & vengeance reducing salvation to a judicial & legalistic relationship. In this extreme there is no room for the love of God. At the other extreme the tunnel vision is on the God of love & mercy to the exclusion of all else. Salvation is reduced to a relationship more akin to that of God Santa Claus who only threatens to bring bad children coal but never actually does. Everyone, no matter how righteous or unrighteous, gets presents because God Santa Claus loves us unconditionally. In this extreme there is no room for the God of justice because there are no consequences for actions, much less eternal consequences for temporal actions. Tertullian states this well in “I still want to examine the justice, the solemnity, the majesty, & the dignity of this reputed judgment of God, & see whether human judgment has not too elevated a throne in it—exaggerated in both directions, in its office both of punishments & rewards, too severe in dealing out its vengeance, & too lavish in bestowing its favor.” [Tertullian (145-220 AD); A Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 33]

But how do all of these terms interrelate ultimately into the God of love? In order to understand this we must first start with a proper Scriptural understanding of these terms. As we understand them today is different than how they were understood 2,000 years ago as the New Testament was being written & even earlier in the Old Testament. I will delve into the terms vengeance & judgement as they seem to be most misunderstood in our modern culture.

Vengeance is defined in our modern dictionaries as 1) infliction of injury, harm, humiliation, or the like, on a person by another who has been harmed by that person; violent revenge: But have you the right to vengeance?; 2) an act or opportunity of inflicting such trouble: to take one’s vengeance; the desire for revenge: a man full of vengeance; 3) Obsolete hurt; injury; & 4) Obsolete curse; imprecation. Basically today vengeance means revenge or retribution. In the Holy Scriptures, vengeance has a different meaning. It would be more proper to say that those who wrote the Holy Scriptures or about them understood vengeance differently than we do today. Several Greek words are translated vengeance in the Septuagint, but the three virtually synonymous terms ἐκδικέω, ἐκδίκησις, ἔκδικος are most frequently used. New Testament Greek texts use ἐκδίκησις solely. They are defined as such: ἐκδικέω: to procure justice for someone, grant justice; to inflict appropriate penalty for wrong done, punish, take vengeance for; to carry out one’s obligations in a worthy manner, do justice to. ἐκδίκησις: meting out of justice, giving of justice; retaliation for harm done, vengeance; penalty inflicted on wrongdoers, punishment. ἔκδικος: pertaining to justice being done so as to rectify wrong done to another, punishing, substantively one who punishes. Obviously our modern concept of vengeance is drastically different from that of the early Church in which vengeance was essentially divine justice for doing evil to another. Theologically God’s vengeance stems from God’s justice rather than a penchant for divine blood-lust. In the words of St. Justin Martyr: “And that God is not appeased by the libations & incense of evil-doers, but awards vengeance in righteousness to each one…” [Justin Martyr (100-165 AD); The Sole Government of God]

Judgement is another word that has become misunderstood today in relation to its concept in antiquity, even in the mindset of most of Christianity. In actuality the term has become restricted in meaning over the millennia rather than morphed in meaning, such as in the case of vengeance above. Judgement is defined as 1) an act or instance of judging; 2) the ability to judge, make a decision, or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively, & wisely, especially in matters affecting action; good sense; discretion: a man of sound judgment; 3) the demonstration or exercise of such ability or capacity: The major was decorated for the judgment he showed under fire; 4) the forming of an opinion, estimate, notion, or conclusion, as from circumstances presented to the mind: Our judgment as to the cause of his failure must rest on the evidence…; 5) the opinion formed: He regretted his hasty judgment…; 6) Law: a) a judicial decision given by a judge or court, b) the obligation, especially a debt, arising from a judicial decision, c) the certificate embodying such a decision & issued against the obligor, especially a debtor; 7) a misfortune regarded as inflicted by divine sentence, as for sin; & 8) (usually initial capital letter) the final trial of all people, both the living & dead, at the end of the world, Also called Last Judgment, Final Judgment. Today most think of a black robed judge rendering a legal opinion from the judicial bench when judgement is mentioned. Within Western religious thought, this legalistic & judicial mindset holds predominance in regards to our salvation through Christ as judgement generally, & the God of judgment specifically, have taken on negative & punitive connotations almost exclusively. These negative connotations are so predominant that many today would be hard pressed to differentiate between God’s judgement & God’s vengeance.

The Holy Scriptures reveal that judgement does not necessarily have to be punitive, but instead may entail reward as both the righteous & unrighteous are to be judged by God. This is evident even in the Old Testament in Ecclesiastes 3:17, Job 34:11, Psalms 62:12, Proverbs 24:12, & Jeremiah 17:10. In the New Testament Christ Himself taught this in Matthew 25:31-46 as well as St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:10 & St. John the Theologian in Revelation 20:12, 13. This was the perspective held by the early Church & is very evident in the writings of the early Church Fathers.

In my story the young father came under judgement when he was judged guilty of a crime. He therefore merited the stiff penalties of our legal code. Fortunately for him the judge was merciful & wise, desiring justice rather than retribution (vengeance) for him & his family. In a similar manner God also desires justice for us. In order to render justice to us & for us God must also render judgement, vengeance, love & mercy. Because God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) judgement, justice, vengeance & mercy all flow from God & form the framework of our eternal communion with God the Father through God the Son in the Holy Spirit, i.e. our salvation.


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