Chapter 15 of Scot McKnight’s book The Jesus Creed is called, “Jesus Creed-ers Love Justice”.
Are you a Jesus Creed-er? Do you love justice? It all sounds positive. In all the recent controversy over the nature of hell the mantra we all heard most often was “God is love yes, but we mustn’t forget that God is also a God of justice.” That was the argument intended to singlehandedly settle the qualms anyone had regarding an eternal hell. It was the go-to defense in just about every conversation I held with anyone who believed in the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment. “Justice” in that context did not mean something that had a redemptive or hopeful outcome but rather represented a reality of unimaginable pain and infinite despair. But in McKnight’s chapter, it is put forth as something to LOVE, to pursue, to embody. What do we make of this? How can a word mean something so good as to illicit our love for it while in a different context carry the most terrifying and hopeless implications to ever be considered by the human heart and mind?
Let’s unpack what McKnight has to say about “justice” and work from there. He first asks, “What is justice?” Is it criminals getting their due? Is it a Robin Hood mentality redistributing money and power? McKnight explains:
“Because the term justice is used like this so often, it has acquired the sense of being negative and nasty. It seems to be little more than recrimination, retribution, and punishment. But in Jesus’ kingdom, justice is deeper than retribution. Any look at the Bible will reveal to you that kingdom justice concerns restoring humans to both God and others.” (144)
He takes us to the source of all justice, God and to His word:
“In the Bible, justice (Hebrew, tsedeqa or mishpat) describes ‘making something right,’ and for something to be ‘right,’ there has to be a standard. For the Jewish world the standard is God’s will, the Torah, and so justice for Israel was to ‘make things right’ according to Scripture.” (145)
He goes on to compare our own Constitutional “court of law” justice with the very different Jewish paradigm of justice:
“The standard of justice for Jesus is the Jesus Creed. What is right is determined by the twin exhortation to love God (by following Jesus) and to love others. For Jesus, justice is about restoring people and society to the love of God and love of others.”
“This vision of justice clobbers, with a padded stick of love, any retributive sense of punishment.” (146)
McKnight points out that justice is something that is central to Jesus’ thinking beginning with His inaugural statement during His first public sermon. Jesus rises and reads from Isaiah 61:
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.
Even as He preaches the Sermon on the Mount there is still that appeal to a justice of “restoring humans so that things are just plain right” (147).
In the midst of McKnight’s gracious delineation of what true justice looks like, that it is seeking “to restore humans to God and to one another” he appropriately inserts the parable of the sheep and the goats but interprets it as a story of NO restoration for those who are “goats.” But if God has called us to “do justice” instead of “getting justice” then we need to be consistent and apply this vision to the whole of God’s created order and His ultimate plan for it. This would be the proper contextual thing to do.
Matthew 25 still remains the primary passage that supporters of Eternal Conscious Torment uphold as a clincher passage for their position. But to use a parable for the basis of the doctrine of eternal hell in light of clearly literal passages that speak completely to the contrary (Rom 5; Phil 2; Col 1&2; Eph 1; 2 Cor 5, 15) is irresponsible exegesis. Further, the interpretation of the word “eternal” is extremely controversial. And finally to apply Matthew 25 as an absolute explanation of final things would require the same application of the other details in the story: that we are finally “saved by works” and all the “least of these” (the world’s poor) are automatically Christ’s brothers on account of being poor/sick/in prison.
McKnight then brings us 180 degrees back to where we started as being “people of justice” ending with the story of David Doerfler and his restorative justice that seeks to restore the victim but ideally he seeks to reconcile victim to offender through his Victim-Offender Mediation program. The criminal has the opportunity to ask forgiveness and be restored to humanity and to God. We intuitively know that true justice includes restitution, restoration and forgiveness.
All in all McKnight’s chapter on loving justice is powerful if you can understand his brief wander into his conundrum along the way. But he ends with a story of redemption and restoration about a man on death row who had been forgiven by the victim’s mother and died on death row in peace as he quoted 1 Corinthians 13; his last meal the sacrament.
“Only good where evil was is evil dead. That alone is the slaying of evil.” George MacDonald
Testimony of student of Professor Scot McKnight interacting on the subject of Biblical Justice where McKnight admits his own “deconstruction” of the paradigm of a final eternal hell: http://www.evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=440 (Note regarding the Evangelical Universalist Forum: It is a forum and so all thoughts are freely expressed. Not all ideas found on this forum reflect our Statement of Faith.)