I recently argued that we err when we claim that God owes us. He is God; He owes His creation nothing. Of course, that didn't go over well. If God punishes with eternal torment some poor fellow that only committed 3 sins, that would be unjust of God. He owes us better than that. Clearly, then, I need to examine the concept of God's justice.
Terms and Usage
First, we need to understand the words we're using. The question is justice. Just what is justice?
The Bible says multiple times, "The just shall live by faith." (Hab 2:4; Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11) Of course, if you read these in a modern translation, the phrase is different. Now it's "The righteous shall live by faith." That's because "just" and "righteous" are synonyms in biblical terms. To be "just" is to be "right", morally and otherwise. When Abraham asked God, "Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?", he was asking, "Will not the Judge of the all the earth be just?"
Another common use of the word is "fairness" or "equitableness". Thinking in terms of a business transaction, if you buy $5 of product from me, you owe me $5. That's "fairness". Justice is a balancing of the books, so to speak. Take, for instance, human justice. We all understand that the fair evaluation of a crime does not depend on the time it takes. It is determined by its magnitude. Thus, jaywalking is not going to be treated the same as murder. Even in terms of murder, killing someone who is attempting to kill you is not the same as killing someone who is not. Or killing a homeless person is not viewed as evil as assassinating a president. Sure, both are murder and both are wrong, but not to the same degree. We often use Hitler as our epitome of evil, as an example. He killed millions. A guy that kills two isn't as bad as Hitler. It is the magnitude of the crime that determines the fair, equitable, just response.
One more thing. I've touched on what justice is. I need to point what it is not. It is not mercy. Neither is grace justice. In the negative, justice gives you the consequences coming to you; mercy withholds them. In the positive, justice gives you only the benefits you have earned; grace gives you favor you have not earned. So we'll have to be careful not to use grace and mercy to rule out justice.
I don't think I've offered anything controversial ... yet. But now we have to determine just what is equitable. This isn't as easy as it seems. Some, for instance, think that capital punishment for murder is fair; others think it's barbaric. And that's just one example. People will debate almost any point of justice here. Justice demands equality, but in every human version of this, some are more equal than others. So what is justice?
There are two ways to approach this. One is from the character of God; the other is from reasoning from biblical explanations. The first is simple. As Dan T. rightly pointed out, Scripture is full of the claim that God is just. God is certainly right, righteous ... He does what is right. Taking it from that angle, what does Scripture says He does? Because if we agree that He is just, then what He does is just -- is right. Thus, looking at God as just and seeing what God does, we can determine what is just. So Scripture says that He punishes the wicked (Isa 13:11). Scripture says that all have sinned (Rom 3:23). Scripture says that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Scripture says that the punishment is eternal (Matt 25:46). All these things and more. Going from "God is just" to this, therefore, says that this must be just because God says He does it. If you say, "No, He doesn't," you're going to have to explain why your version differs from the biblical accounts because Scripture agrees with itself repeatedly on this.
The other approach is from biblical explanations through human reasoning. We understand that justice means equity, equality, doing what is right, balancing the books. And we remember that justice is not mercy, grace, or forgiveness. So we cannot simply substitute mercy, for instance, for justice and still hold that God is just. Saying that He simply forgives is friendly, but it nullifies the claim of Him being just, right, or equitable. Think of the judge who gave the rapist a 6 month suspended sentence. The nation was outraged. Why? Because there was no justice, just mercy. So, what does the Bible tell us that helps us understand that eternal torment for sins committed might be considered just?
We understand, first, that sin isn't small. Scripture says, "The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies." (Psa 58:3) Sin starts at birth. We read further, "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." (Rom 3:10-12) You can see that "none is righteous" and "no one does good" flies in the face of popular thinking, but if these accusations are accurate, sin isn't "a little white lie" or "a few transgressions." It is a way of life, an ongoing, minute-by-minute violation of God. Now, clearly this requires a realignment of our understanding of both "good" and "evil", but that is what the Bible is doing -- explaining that our perceptions of good and evil are too meager. When we are told, for instance, that "all have sinned", the very next phrase expands on the point: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Rom 3:23) You see, "being bad" isn't in view here. Violating God is. Sin is a violation of God's Government, so to speak. He speaks, He commands, and we say, "Nope! Not gonna do it." We shake our fists in His face and say, "I will be like the Most High."
Now, remember, we've already seen that the magnitude of the crime determines the penalty. Jaywalking may be a small fine. Murder may require doing some time. What about treason? That's a capital crime as well. That's pretty big. So what about Cosmic Treason -- attempting to overthrow the God of the Universe? If a crime is against the Eternal God, it seem reasonable (equitable, fair, just) that the penalty would be eternal. It's not the time it takes to do the crime or the form it takes -- a lie or a murder or a Hitler. It's the One against whom it is done. The claim is that God would be unjust to eternally punish a "small time" sinner. This is simply a failure to grasp the magnitude of sin.
God is, by definition, just. That doesn't mean He conforms to some external standard laid on Him by ... oh, I don't know ... His creation. It means that He defines what is right. We could ask, "What is just?" and rightly answer, "Whatever God does." God says that He judges the wicked and we would assume that a just God would be just in doing so. Beyond that, it isn't irrational to consider an attempt to overthrow the God of the Universe a crime of the highest sort, deserving the highest sort of penalty. That is a balancing of the books. Interestingly, considering justice from this perspective only makes forgiveness, grace, and mercy that much bigger. It makes what Christ did at the cross -- fulfilling justice -- that much more phenomenal. Some people will surely complain that it's not fair that God would condemn a person who committed a single sin. Note, first, that no such sinner exists. Note, also, that any sin is a violation of the Eternal God, deserving eternal punishment. And we do them ... a lot. So any grace and mercy is bigger than we can imagine in view of the magnitude of the penalty we have incurred. God punishing sinners for an eternity is not unjust. It is right. God forgiving sinners is unjust, for which we can thank Christ who met the demands of justice on our behalf.