The law of justice is a foundational belief of all the great spiritual traditions of the world. In Eastern religions and philosophies it is known as “karma.” In the Hebrew scriptures, God promised that those who follow God’s commandments will experience blessings, and that judgments will befall those who do wrong (Deut. 30:15-20, Ps. 1:1-6, Prov. 3:33). Sinful actions were to be repaid in direct proportion to the violation of moral law (Ex. 21:23-25, Lev. 24:17-20). Jesus offered a similar illustration of the proportionality and balance of the scales of justice, warning that those who take up the sword will die by the sword (Mat. 26:52). On the other side of the coin, he promised great benefits for those who devote their lives to God’s calling (Mat. 19:29).
Obviously, people do not always get what they deserve — either good or bad — in this life. Therefore, spiritual traditions teach that the life of individual human beings continues after death in some form, and that in the life to come, justice will be more fully manifested (Gal. 6:7-9).
Proportionality also ensures that any judgments must be temporary and limited, since the sin that caused those judgments to ensue was also limited. The word used in the original New Testament to express this limited judgment is aionios, which means lasting for a distinct age or period of time with a beginning and an end. It is the Greek word from which we derive the English word eon, and it was used in the time of Jesus to refer to a period lasting anywhere from the length of a man’s life to a thousand years. There is no such thing as “eternal hell,” despite what many Christians have been led to believe based on mistranslations of the Bible.
Another thing the Bible makes clear is that the purpose of divine judgment is reformative not vindictive, to help people to learn from their mistakes and grow closer to perfection. The word used in the original Greek New Testament is kolasis, which means a beneficial chastening such as a gardener prunes a vine to remove dead vegetation and make it grow more fruitfully.
While we believe in the reality of cause and effect, in the law of justice, we believe that if that were the only dynamic involved in life, that would not be particularly good news, and the Christian faith would not mean very much. Instead, we believe that ultimately we will all receive forgiveness (from God, from others and from ourselves), and that will short-circuit karma and overcome the law of justice. That truth is expressed in Psalms 130:3-4, as follows: “If you, O lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.”
Forgiveness can truly be a radical thing, such as when Jesus told the person crucified next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). When Jesus walked among us, he routinely declared that people were forgiven, even before they repented. People at that time objected to such an extravagant outpouring of love and grace, and many still do. But that is God’s way. Jesus spoke of radical love and forgiveness. Consistent with that, Jesus prayed for those who crucified him, saying; “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The good news is that, “as far as the east is from the west, so far [God] removes our transgressions from us” (Psalms 103:12).
So we believe that the experience of divine judgment is the natural consequence of our behavior. But that is not the whole story; it is not the final word. Without forgiveness, grace, mercy and love, suffering continues, but with those life-changing forces, we and others are “being transformed into [God’s] image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18), and heaven ensues. That is truly good news!