Justice is a major theme and emphasis in the Bible. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as “justice” (mishpat, sedeqah, dikaiosune, krisis) are used more than 1000 times in the Bible. “Doing what is right and fair” and “treating all persons fairly” have always been important among the people of God. Biblical justice is more comprehensive than our Western concept of justice. It touches every part of life: the personal, the social, public and private, political and religious. Biblical justice includes both social and criminal justice.
Hebrew and Greek terms for biblical justice are translated into English as “righteousness,” a term that carries a connotation of “religious piety” or “personal moral purity,” thereby limiting its presumed impact to only “religious” persons and institutions. As a term for Biblical justice however, “righteousness” refers more broadly to “doing, being, declaring, or bringing about what is right”—in all of life, the religious and the secular.
The very foundations of justice for all persons, societies, and institutions can be found in the Bible. Theologians and Bible scholars believe that the sixty-six books that make up the Hebrew and Christian (Old and New Testament) Bible reveal the nature of God, God’s revelation and actions among people throughout history and through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
The Bible’s teaching on justice is significant for Christians, Jews, and all persons of faith; and has had an immense impact on cultural and political developments throughout history. People in every nation throughout the world cry for and demand justice. We all want to be treated fairly. We want all persons, authorities, institutions, and businesses to “do what is right.”
The work of Christopher Marshall has been invaluable in my understanding of biblical justice. [See The Little Book of Biblical Justice by Chris Marshall. Published in 2005 by Good Books, Intercourse, PA.]
Justice is an Attribute of God
Biblical writers wrote of justice as the very nature, personal attributes, and virtue of God. Justice is the very being of God.
“I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:3-4).
Emulate God’s Justice
Human beings, who are created in the image of God, are to emulate, live out, practice and reflect God’s justice.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
Biblical Hope is Rooted in God’s Justice and Faithfulness
“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God… who executes justice for the oppressed…” (Psalms 146:5-7).
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
A Commitment to Action
Just as God is the epitome of justice, so also God demands a commitment from all people to act and treat one another fairly and justly.
“You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes… Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20).
Justice is Relational
Justice is an attribute of God and all persons are to bear God’s image in how they treat one another, so it follows that justice is all about relationships. All persons are to act toward one another in the same way that God has acted toward them—with justice, mercy, and equity.
“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15).
“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18).
“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
Justice is Restorative
In contrast with the Western concept of administering justice, Biblical justice is not about punishment but about restoring the victim of injustice. Justice is satisfied by repentance, restoration, and renewal. Restitution and compensation to the victim are more important than punishing the perpetrator.
“But if (an offender) has caused pain, he has caused it…to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him…. I urge you to reaffirm your love for him…. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive” (2 Corinthians 2:5-10).
“Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thessalonians 3:13).
“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:1-3).
Biblical Justice is in many respects more complex and demanding for all persons than our Western concept of justice. It relates to all persons in every part of life. It is not limited to “justice professionals.” It is not singularly focused on a “criminal” or “perpetrator” but involves the community and the victim toward the goal of renewal and restoration.
Is Biblical justice an unachievable goal? Is it unrealistic and impossible to achieve? No. But it is difficult in a society that is individually-focused more than community-oriented. “Restorative Justice” is the newest form of response to criminal behavior; and has been an active component of judicial sentencing and offender change strategies in the past three decades—from North America to New Zealand. Restorative justice is a promising approach that can accomplish what our current retributive justice has not done in the two hundred years of harsh punishment and mass incarceration. Restorative justice promises to bring long-term change to the perpetrators of crime, the communities in which they live, and the victims who suffer the effects of crime.