Justice in Scripture

Justice is another element of living in God’s kingdom on earth. As such, justice has several meanings and expressions.

We perceive justice as appropriate punishment for wrongdoing. Yet proper justice is seasoned with mercy and has a concern for rehabilitation and restoration of wrongdoers.

In a broader sense justice seeks fairness in sharing the fruits of society. We call this social justice which seeks to remove inequities and has particular concern for the poor and others with special needs.

Justice has a long history in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the scriptures we find a variety of perspectives on justice.

Punishment and Restoration

On the matter of punishing wrongdoers God’s approach unfolds in the course of the Hebrew Scriptures. It starts with eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden because they ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge (Genesis 3:1-24). God sent Cain into exile because he killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:3-16). Yet in both cases they are allowed to resettle and begin a new life though in a less favorable setting.

In Abraham’s day the Lord rained down burning asphalt from the skies and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of injustice and sinfulness, saving only Lot and his family (Genesis 18:20-19:28). Thereafter prophets used the case of Sodom and Gomorrah as a warning to the Israelites to turn away from wicked ways.

Centuries later the Lord considered destroying Nineveh because its great evil had come to his attention. The Lord sent Jonah to investigate. But before Jonah arrived, the people of Nineveh got word of his mission, repented, and ceased their evil behavior. So God didn’t destroy the city, thus tempering strict justice with mercy (Jonah 1:1-4:11).

God’s own people, the Israelites, didn’t escape God’s scrutiny. Prophets condemned their idolatry and other transgressions. The most frequent condemnation was neglect and exploitation of orphans, widows, aliens, and other powerless persons. For instance, Ezekiel declared that the important people of the land have “oppressed the poor and mistreated the immigrant” (Ezekiel 22:29).

Nevertheless, God never gave up. Speaking through the prophet Hosea, the Lord acknowledged their infidelity but displayed his compassion for them. “I won’t act on the heat of my anger,” God said. “I won’t return to destroy Ephraim [the Northern Kingdom]; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment” (Hosea 11:8-9).

Jesus also criticized those who neglect the needy. In his allegory of the Last Judgment those who refuse to meet the needs of the hungry, thirsty, naked, the sick, prisoners, and strangers “will go away into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:41-46).

But Jesus also believed in restoration, illustrated by the father who celebrated the return of his prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). He taught forgiveness as we discuss on another page. He spoke of the joy in heaven when a sinner changes his heart and life, like the shepherd who finds a lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7).

Codes of Conduct

Regarding human conduct, the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) offer numerous directives. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), obtained by Moses on Mt. Sinai, provide the foundation. Leviticus and Deuteronomy have laws dealing with religious practices, dietary standards, sexual behavior, and other matters of personal conduct. Penalties could be severe. They include stoning to death or otherwise executing persons for a variety of offenses.

Within Judaism the Pharisees were particularly interested in strictly observing these laws and oral traditions. The Apostle Paul, who was “a Pharisee and a descendant of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6), had a strong interest in the law. His letters contain many passages telling his readers how to behave. In his first letter to the Corinthians he wrote:

Don’t you know that people who are unjust won’t inherit God’s kingdom? Those who are sexually immoral, those who worship false gods, adulterers, both participants in same-sex intercourse, thieves, the greedy, drunks, abusive people, and swindlers won’t inherit God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

On the other hand Jesus continuously quarreled with Pharisees over their insistence on observing all the details of the law but forsaking love for neighbor. In the Sermon on the Mount he updated ancient laws and offered higher standards. As we consider on another page, he offered acceptance to a wide variety of persons who were rejected by “polite” society.

Biblical Interpretation

Studying these codes of conduct and other biblical passages raises the issue of how we interpret the Bible. This comes up, for instance, in contemporary discussion about homosexuality. Some argue for literal interpretation of the Bible as the infallible word of God. Others understand the Bible to be a book of books, inspired by God, written by men at different times over many centuries, in different cultures and different locations, and combined into a single volume. From this perspective the Bible reveals deepening understanding of God’s nature and broadening of the meaning of love for neighbor until it encompasses love for enemy.

If we are honest about it, in practice very few Christians take everything in the Bible literally. Just look around at a church potluck dinner and notice items prohibited by the dietary restrictions of Leviticus. Not many observe all Sabbath restrictions.

Furthermore, there is no demand these days for the executions specified in the Hebrew scriptures for such crimes as blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), witchcraft (Leviticus 20:27), incest (Leviticus 20:11-12), sex with an animal (Leviticus 20:15-16), men having sexual intercourse with one another (Leviticus 20:13), adultery between married men and women (Deuteronomy (22:22), rebellious children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), a bride who is not a virgin before marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). The Jewish people themselves have in practice nullified these demands by elaborate judicial requirements that in effect prevent capital punishment.

Although some biblical passages provide justification for slavery and restricted roles for women (for instance, Leviticus 25:44-46 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35), slavery is widely opposed and full equal rights for women are broadly accepted. And so in common practice we make judgments on the validity for our time of biblical texts written centuries earlier.


Some Christians oppose homosexual practices and cite such biblical texts as Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and Timothy 1:10 in support of their opposition. These passages reflect the knowledge and culture of their day. But now there is a scientific understanding that sexual orientation is innate and not a matter of choice. Same sex couples in a loving relationship were apparently not known to biblical writers, but they are now present in many communities. Although the Gospels contain no reference to Jesus’ views on this matter, Jesus’ widespread acceptance of everyone suggests that he would accept persons of all sexual orientations and would recognize their sacred worth.