Centuries ago, the German theologian and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz used the term “theodicy”1 for the first time—“God’s justification”. By theodicy, Leibniz meant the ultimate reality of justification, once and for all, of God and all of His ways before the whole universe.

As a scientific term, theodicy nowadays points to all the attempts to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering in the world with the idea that God is holy, omnipotent, omniscient and eternally loving. If we were to reject just one of these essential traits of God, we would no longer need the term theodicy. Also, theodicy’s case would dramatically change if we do not not come close enough to understand the absolute nature of these traits, their transcendence and immanence. For these reasons, it’s vital to make sure, before anything, that we correctly understand God’s moral character and attributes.

In the context in which God’s love is much more explored than His holiness, an understanding of God’s holiness (which is often contrasted with His love) becomes essential. It is especially important to understand the relationship between the two and the implications of their simultaneous and non-contradictory existence in His nature.

Knowns and unknowns of God’s holiness

When sin invaded our world, God’s direct revelation in all His glory, as well as His direct communication with man, was denied to the one who, by the tarnishing of his purity, would have been judged, convicted and executed on the spot, in God’s presence. That is why, as Gerhard von Rad has said, separation of what is holy, of what is devoted to God or has any connection to Him, is required not just to protect the sacred from being tarnished by the profane, but, most of all, to protect the profane world from the threat of the sacred2.

In this context, it is obvious that any attempt to exhaust the absolute meaning of God’s holiness is doomed to failure. The researcher himself is limited by an ontological helplessness to completely and directly explore this attribute, which is partially hidden from him by the absence of a complete self-revelation of God3. Moses is the only one who dared to ask God to reveal His glory, but not even he could benefit from a complete, face-to-face revelation of God: “…you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”4

“We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of. God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire His wisdom, but His holiness he cannot even imagine.”– A.W.Tozer5

The terrible holiness invading us

Both beauty and amazement come from the fact that the same holiness that is life-threatening through its destructive force, invades the human world in order to incorporate it in its own sacred sphere. We now begin to intuit an incredible relation between God’s holiness and his love precisely because He is holy in all that enables His revelation, not just in His justice and wrath, but also in His goodness and grace. “I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you. I will not come against their cities.”6

This is “God’s majestic holiness”7 which L. Berkhof sees as the cause of a sense of absolute nothingness to arise in man, a consciousness and a sense of our stature as creatures, which leads to absolute humility.

However, when God chose Israel to share in His holiness8, this incorporation in the sphere of divine sanctity means both blessing, separation and danger. God’s people become a holy people, devoted to God9, and this is the greatest blessing of them all. But the protection of the “terrible divine holiness”10 is, at the same time, a threat for anyone leaving the coverage this protection provides by breaking the consecration covenant11 and its laws—laws meant to regulate the relationship of God’s chosen people with Him and with one another.12 By extension, all people get to experience the dynamics of this relationship with their Creator’s holiness, one that seeks to embrace them, but which, at the same time, draws fatal consequences when desecrated.

No matter how skilful one’s attempt might be to reconcile the biblical expression of God’s holy anger against sin with the portrait of an exclusively loving God, such an endeavour is doomed to failure. It is true that God’s grace is capable of tempering such actions caused by divine holiness, in light of the sacrifice of the Lamb, which makes the postponement of God’s holy and destructive justice to the Great Day of His Judgement possible. But His grace will never cancel His holiness and the necessity to administer justice. Sooner or later, yet always at the appointed time, the One who is just and cannot coexist with sin will make sin and anyone associated with it disappear.

God is just

God is just. This simple sentence has stirred many minds preoccupied with defining the absolute moral system of reference, and continues to do so. What is just and what is unjust? Who determines this? Are God’s choices, decisions and actions just because they belong to Him? Or does God make choices and decisions precisely because they in themselves are just? Those belonging to the current of nominalist thinking, believe that everything that God declares to be just is just, while realists believe that God Himself must abide by certain absolute standards of righteousness and justice.

Timothy Crosby, in his book Is Your God Real?13 writes that, without admitting to the existence of a transcendent principle of justice by which God Himself must abide, (according to the idea that “just” is something which God says is just) we come to the conclusion that God could just as well be the opposite of what He is and still get the glory and worship of the entire Universe. If this were the case, the process of the final judgement itself, happening before the eyes of all the Universe’s inhabitants, would become meaningless. Since the only possible goal of such a process is proving God’s justice and rectitude before the entire universe, we must admit the necessity of the realist point of view because, if justice means whatever the Judge decides, such a “transparent” process is futile.

On the other hand, pure realism is not acceptable, because, as Tozer14 points out, if one postulates the existence of a justice principle outside of God, a principle which would oblige Him to act in a certain way, then that principle would be superior to God, for only a superior power can impose obedience. And this (illustrated by the way in which we often say: “Justice requires God to do X”) represents a serious error in judgement and expression, because there has never been—not now, nor in the past or will there be in the future—something outside of God’s nature which can make Him act one way or the other.

All the motives for God’s actions come from inside His uncreated Being. Since time everlasting, nothing has penetrated God’s Being, nothing has been removed, nothing  has changed. “There is no abstract principle of justice which God must obey. His character and will are moral by themselves and His actions unequivocally express His moral nature”15.

This is the biblical position in defining absolute justice. It is situated between the two aforementioned views. In an apophatic expression, justice is not something arbitrary, which might depend on the inconsistencies of a whimsical God, nor is it a norm superior to God’s nature which He Himself must obey. In a cataphatic expression, justice depends completely on God, because the absolute justice standard by which God abides is His own nature. Justice is a name which we use to express who God is. When God acts justly He reveals Himself; He is His own revelation.

God’s justice implies and is reflected in the justice of His Law: “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.”16

God’s justice implies and is reflected in the justice of His actions: “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.”16

God’s eschatological justice

An important dilemma regarding God’s justice is its apparent absence in general, and its apparently exaggerated enforcement, in some cases. The voices of the “oppressed”, poor and suffering, of the ones who are heavily grieved and for whom no one is willing to do justice, suggest that God’s retributive justice is not dominant.

If it were, then the just should always be well-off and the unjust should receive their punishment. The book of Job reveals that this view was shared by Job’s friends17. Similarly, the psalmists’ lamentations prove the popularity of the conviction that God must administer absolute justice, so that it should be reflected in the prosperity and wellbeing of the righteous or, on the contrary, in the suffering or even death of the unrighteous. Therewith, we must observe that the Torah, prophets and even the book of Job fight against this popular belief. The fact the Yahweh favours the weak and poor invoking His presence unravels the fact that, although He is a just judge, He is not a simple mechanism which fulfills the principle of retributive justice in line with our demands.

In some cases, in which reason (sometimes only fully known by God) has required it, God’s retributive punishment was manifested and continues to be manifested throughout history (unfortunately, in many cases God has been accused of cruelty, when His only task is to forgive). However, most of the time, God’s justice is not a principle with an automatic effect. This observation is verified both for individuals and for peoples. This is why we are forced to reach the conclusion that we cannot infer what God’s justice is or how it is made, starting only from what we know at a certain point about a situation or a person/a group of people. God’s justice will shine unblemished, eschatologically.

Divine love and justice: an integrative perspective

Probably nowhere in the Old Testament does one come across a more striking, impressive correlation of love and justice as in Isaiah 61:8: “For I, the Lord, love justice…”. “Nor the teaching of the Old Testament, nor the one of the New Testament contain the modern and unorthodox priority of love over justice, because that undermines the words of Isaiah and turns the quote into ‘my justice is love’, subordinating justice”18 comments theologian Carl Henry. God’s just righteousness must not be subordinated by God’s love as the impulse of a secondary nature which must be contained and brought into the balance necessary for the divine Being.

On the contrary, the Bible talks about the justice of God we cannot understand, except in the context of an interdependent relationship with His mercy. Paul writes in Romans: “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God…” (11:22). This is the mystery of the coexistence of the two attributes in God. God is absolute holiness and perfect love. Not in different instances, but simultaneously. We find nothing of the contradictory or paradoxical character here, which this combination generates in our minds. This is why where we talk about judgement and justice, God always exposes our exclusive and binary way of thinking. Even if punctual logic, in certain situations in which God has intervened, seems to point to the fact that God is not either loving, or just, precisely there we can be sure that God keeps the bond between His attributes indestructible.

When it comes to the big picture, our logic finds it easier to understand the absurdity and  the impossibility of the existence of a God who is either unjust or unloving. As such, we can reason, on the one hand, that without God’s love manifested at the Cross we could have had a high concept of morality, which would have unfortunately coincided with admitting our just condemnation to eternal death. Only God’s love gives us the possibility of salvation, in an amazing way, worthy of God’s infinite wisdom. Without God’s justice, on the other hand, the universe would have fallen to pieces by a self-contradicting God, because His mere existence would have been questioned, seeing that it implies constancy and fundamental morality.

The aforementioned scenarios are pure speculations, because, in the final analysis, we reach the conclusion that it is impossible to transpose any of the mentioned possibilities into reality. God’s love and justice are coextensive and, exactly with the help of the aspects imagined above (as an exercise of reduction to absurdity), we acquire yet another proof that God, expressed apophatically, could never be imagined and is nothing other than a fully loving and fully just God, without these two attributes ever creating a tension inside God’s nature.

It’s possible that the formulation of an alleged conflict inside God’s nature, between His love and His justice, might be the result of separately examining the divine attributes. Our desire to understand and to express the absolute of each of them has led to the mutual logical exclusion of the two, against the background of our rational predisposition to define the absolute as the lack of any other element which is different in nature or any representation which might dilute the purity of the former.

“The witness of Scripture”, however, concludes Carl Henry, “is that divine love and divine righteousness, already united in the simplicity of God, find their historical meeting ground in the reality of justification by faith. The Psalmist says anticipatively of messianic substitution on the cross: ‘Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other’ (Psalm 85:10). If there is in God no divine perfection of justice distinguishable from sheer benevolence then there need be no justification—indeed, there can be no justification. As an act of the sovereign there may be pardon that restores an offender to favor by remitting penalty, but no declaration is possible that can satisfy the demands of justice. The warp of the biblical doctrine of justification is love, its woof is righteousness or justice.”19

There is thus tension between the two attributes only if someone wants God to forgive sin without any required payment (the punishing God is condemned) or if someone wants God not to save, refusing to observe the possibility of redeeming grace which resides in the very condemnation brought about by God’s justice (the forgiving God is condemned). But each of these two possibilities would imply yet another faulty interpretation of what God really is and what He has revealed to us about Himself.

Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.

G. W. Leibniz, Theodicy: Essays on the goodness of God, the freedom of man, and the origin of evil. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1952.
G. Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 2, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, London, 1965, p. 204.
See Deuteronomy 29:29; 1 Corinthians 13:12.
Exodus 33:20.
A. W. Tozer, The knowledge of the holy: The attributes of God: their meaning in the Christian life. Harrisburg, Pa: Christian Publications, 1961.
Hosea 11:9.
See Exodus 15:11; 1 Samuel 2:2; Isaiah 57:15.
See Leviticus 19:2.
See Deuteronomy 7:6; 26:16; Exodus 19:6.
W. Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Mi, 1991, p. 398.
Exodus 15:11; compare with Isaiah 10:16.
See Leviticus 17 – 26.
T. Crosby, Is Your God Real? Review and Herald Publishing Association, Washington, DC, 1988, p. 38-49.
A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, p. 102.
W. Dyrness, Themes in Old Testament Theology, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Il, 1977, p. 53.
Psalms 19:7-9.
See Job 4:7-8; 5:6; 8:5-7 etc.
C. Henry, God, revelation, and authority, vol. 6, Cartea Creştină Publishing, Oradea, 2000, p. 397.
Ibidem, p. 401.