God’s Justice versus God’s Mercy

Is this six minute clip from Bishop Barron, he speaks to why the cross of Jesus was necessary.  I will summarize and expand on some of his points in this post, but I will not do justice to what he says, so if you have a few minutes it’s well worth the time.


Bishop Barron speaks to the work of the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar to illuminate our understanding of why the cross of Jesus was necessary.  He references the fact that God could have simply forgiven us by divine pronouncement.  But what would that have really changed about our human condition?  So the Son comes into our human condition and into the very depths of where sin has taken us.

Is death a place where God is not?  No, because Jesus joined us in death.  Is shame a place where God is not?  No, Christ experienced the worst of human shame in the nature of his death.  Is suffering a place where God is not?  No, Christ joined us in our suffering.  Is sin a place where God is not?  No, Christ experienced the consequences of human sin and “became sin” for us on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21).  In all of these aspects of our human condition we have been “God forsaken.”  Not because God moved away from us, but rather because we moved away from our unchangeable God (immutable1, immutable2, immutable3).  So God sends the Son to come to find us in those places and bring us back.  It’s a journey of divine light into our worst darkness.  And by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

Bishop Barron is asked a question in that discourse if this view is less about “divine justice” and his reply is we should stay with the language of justice because justice means “right order.”  This highlights an interesting problem, and it is one of an ever-changing language.

When we read Sacred Scripture, we have to deal with two different things which can be problematic.  The first is translation.  Unless we can read Greek or Hebrew, we are always reading a translation.  The adage “it got lost in the translation” is a real thing.  Languages are not a one-for-one, word-for-word comparison one to another.  It is much more nuanced than that.  We can see this in the multitude of English translations of Sacred Scripture we have to choose from and how that variance can often make a real difference in how a certain passage might be rendered and then interpreted.

The second issue is that language changes over time.  Have you ever tried to read something in “old English”?  It is very difficult for us to read and understand today after just a few hundred years.  Along with that, individual words can change in meaning.  New usages can be added, and sometimes there are words whose entire meaning is altered or changed.  For fun sometime, google “words that mean the opposite of what they used to mean.”  My favorite example is the word “awful.”  It originally meant “full of awe.”  The dictionary today still renders one of its definitions as “inspiring awe.”  But is that what you think of when you hear the word “awful”?  Or just the opposite?  Today it’s an example of an auto-antonym, or a word that has multiple meanings, some of which are the opposite of the others.  For this reason, even if your native language is Greek, that doesn’t mean you can read the New Testament as written and understand its meaning.  You have to deal with how the language has changed over 2000 years.

If you look at the etymology of the word “justice” we see that it’s English from the late 14th century whose initial definition is just as Bishop Barron said “right order.”  But we also see in English from the period of 1400 to 1700 it sometimes can pick up a vindictive sense – “infliction of punishment, legal vengeance.”


So when we translate Sacred Scripture from original Hebrew or Greek and land on references to God’s “justice” – what do we mean exactly?

This is one of the reasons Catholics embrace the understanding of Sacred Tradition.  I will explore this concept in depth in later posts, but for now, I’ll just provide one of my favorite definitions that comes from Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid.  Sacred Tradition is “the church’s lived understanding of the deposit of faith, handed on faithfully and completely from one generation of Christians to the next.”  It is the continuity of understanding what Sacred Scripture means from the Church that has received and preserved the sacred writings down through the centuries despite issues with translations and language and cultural changes.

We often hear discussed how can God’s mercy and His justice be reconciled?  However, when we view what God’s justice means from the heart of the Church – “right order” – there is nothing left to be reconciled.  It is God’s mercy that works to bring justice to His creation and to restore right order.  His mercy brings Him to fix the broken, to heal the wounded, and to restore the original harmony that existed between humanity, the rest of creation and our God.  God’s great order was interrupted by sin and death, and in Christ He sets forth to repair that damage.  His mercy and His justice correctly understood can never be in conflict with one another or require a decision about which one trumps the other.  And of this we can be certain – it has nothing to do with any need that God has.

Bishop Barron notes that while as Catholics we have to believe that the cross and resurrection of Jesus save us, we’re not committed to a specific theology of how that happens.  We seek to express in insufficient language that God took decisive action to repair a broken world.  This includes an understanding of Christ as victor, Christ as sacrifice, and Christ as our substitute.  Although in Fleming Rutledge’s book “The Crucifixion” she offers many views that would not be compatible with Catholicism, I think this quote of hers adds perspective to the discussion.  “There was some kind of victory that took place, some kind of power shift in the universe, some kind of ransom paid, some kid of healing initiated, some ultimate kind of love displayed, some kind of dramatic rescue effected.”

In my next post I will begin to reflect upon what happens to the understanding of Christ’s atoning work when Protestantism begins to unfold in the sixteenth century.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s