Does Jesus Teach that God Is Unjust?
Copyright 2003 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino
people argue from the Bible that God condemns people who reject his revelation
even knowing that, had he revealed more to them, they would have repented.
Some say this proves the Bible has errors in
it or that the God of the Bible is unjust.
Some say this proves God's sovereignty outweighs anything else in his
character or actions - yes, God condemns those who would have repented had they
known more (but that doesn't make him unjust, they would argue).
Matthew 10:15 says, "I tell you the
truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment
than for that town" [that rejects the kingdom of God preaching of Christ's
Matthew 11:20-24 (cf. Luke 10:12-15)
says, "Then Jesus began to denounce the cites in which most of his miracles had
been performed, because they did not repent.
'Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you Beth-saida! If the miracles that were
performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented
long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I
tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment
than for you. And for you, Capernaum,
will you be lifted up to the skies? No,
you will go down to the depths. If the
mriacles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have
remained to this day. But I tell you
that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.'"
The argument goes like this: Christ himself said that those wicked cities that were
destroyed in the Old Testament times would have repented (and been spared God's
destructive wrath) if the miracles of Christ and the preaching of his disciples
had come to them (implying that the revelation they received from God was
inadequate). If this is the case, then
their failure to repent and believe is not their own fault, but God's fault -
they would have believed if he had sent them the caliber of revelation brought
by Jesus Christ and his disciples.
common misunderstanding of these passages rests on two interpretive
problems. First, Jesus is using an ad
hominem argument - he is assuming something his opponents believe and then
using it against them. Second, Jesus is
using a common rabbinical argument, arguing from the lesser to the greater.
(This is one of the arguments listed by the great rabbi Hillel, whose
rabbinical school was one of the leading schools of first century
Jerusalem. Hillel's grandson, Gamaliel,
was the apostle Paul's teacher.)
The purpose of Jesus's argument is to warn the Jews of his day that because they
were rejecting him and his message, they would justly receive judgment and
condemnation from God. First, Jesus
assumes (for the purpose of his argument) what was the common Jewish opinion -
the inhabitants of Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, and Sidon were as completely wicked
as they could be and deserved every bit of the destruction God brought against
them. They were the quintessential
rejecters of God. If anyone deserved
judgment, they did. There is nothing
God could have done that would have provoked those cities to repent! Second,
Jesus argued from the lesser to the greater.
His argument can be paraphrased this way: "If Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, and
Sidon were justly condemned by God for rejecting the prophets how much more
just is God's coming condemnation against those who reject the very one
the prophets prophesied about." In
other words, "If you Jews who reject Jesus as the Messiah agree that God was
just in condemning those who merely rejected his messengers, you cannot argue
that God is unjust in condemning you for rejecting God manifest in the
flesh." The only way the unbelieving
Jews of Jesus's day could overturn his argument would be to argue that, in fact,
maybe Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, and Sidon didn't deserve God's judgment -
something no Jew of his day would be willing to argue!
That this is the meaning of Jesus's statements is clear not only from first century
Jewish history and literature, but also from the gospel of Matthew itself.
In Matthew 12 Jesus uses the Old Testament
and the rabbinic argument from the lesser to the greater in a similar context:
"The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and
condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater
than Jonah is here. The Queen of
the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for
she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now
one greater than Solomon is here" (41-42).
In other words, "If the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba had enough
revelation to repent and escape God's judgment, how much more will you
unbelieving Jews be condemned for failing to repent at God's (greater) final
and full revelation in Jesus Christ." A
similar argument is posed by Jeremiah (3:6-13), where the prophet warns Judah
(the southern kingdom) that it will be judged more harshly than Israel (the
northern kingdom, disdained by the southern kingdom), because Judah not only
had the warning of God, but also had the example of God executing his judgment
against Israel first, and yet Judah would not repent.
In fact, God is so just that Jesus elsewhere argues hypothetically that one who is
truly ignorant can't be justly judged.
In John 15:22 Jesus says, "If I had not come and spoken to them, they
would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their
sin." In John 9:41 Jesus says, "If you
were [spiritually] blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you
claim you can see, your guilt remains."
some ways the main message of the Bible is so simple and so constant from
Genesis through Revelation that even a small child can understand the basics of
salvation. In other ways the Bible is so rich in history, language, philosophy,
literature, and rhetoric that one can never fully plumb its depths.
When we carefully study and come to
understand problematic passages such as these, we appreciate anew God's perfect
revelation of his perfect character, his justice, and his love, on our behalf.