3. Biblical Examples of Justice
One of the early examples of justice through punishment in the Bible is the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. According to the Bible, this event occurred at about 2000BC, during the life of the man Abraham. Abraham's nephew, Lot, chose to live near the city of Sodom, and at that time, the men of Sodom were described as being wicked.
Genesis 13:12.: Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain and pitched his tent even as far as Sodom. 13. But the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the LORD NKJV
In Genesis 18, God started taking action against the people of Sodom. Given the statement in Genesis 13, it appears that the wickedness of Sodom had been a long-running state. In chapter 18, some angels came to Abraham, and God gave a message to him. He chose to reveal to Abraham His plans to enact justice on the cities.
Genesis 18:20.: And the LORD said, "Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, 21. "I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know." 22. Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. NKJV
This event provoked a reaction from Abraham. It is clear that Abraham was concerned about the fate of his nephew Lot, and any other righteous people in the city. It seems that Abraham is not sure about the principles that God used in dispensing justice.
Genesis 18:23.: And Abraham came near and said, "Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? 24. "Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? NKJV
Abraham obviously saw that the cities were likely to be destroyed because of their wickedness, but he was concerned that some people might not be deserving of the punishment. This is a concern that people commonly have about examples of God's punishments. Throughout the Old Testament, there are examples of punishment like this where many people are killed. The flood at the time of Noah is one example, but there was also death through war and famine. The dialogue in Genesis 18 gives some insight into the principles God used in dispensing this justice.
Abraham first started by asking whether the presence of fifty righteous people would prevent its destruction. Out of the whole city, that was a small number and significantly less than the majority, that democratic systems look for. Abraham went on to justify his question, and in doing so seemed to be trying to teach righteousness to God,
Genesis 18:25.: "Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" 26. So the LORD said, "If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes." NKJV
Abraham's view of right and wrong held that the righteous should be preserved from the destruction of the wicked. Given that Abraham is said to be faithful to God, one would expect that Abraham's view had come from his belief in God in the first place. It is a little odd then, that he wasn't sure that God had the same view. Most likely Abraham saw here a conflict between two moral principles. On one hand he knew of God's strong sense of justice, and that wickedness had to be destroyed, but on the other hand he expected that the righteous would also be caught up in the city. In particular, he had a personal connection, with the presence of his nephew Lot.
God told Abraham what he wanted to hear, in that the city would be spared for the sake of fifty righteous people. This, however, was not enough to put Abraham's mind at rest. He knew that Sodom was a wicked place, and that there may have been less than fifty righteous there. So he then started asking what would happen if there were just a few less than fifty,
Genesis 18:27.: Then Abraham answered and said, "Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: 28. "Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five?" So He said, "If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it." NKJV
After each confirmation, Abraham then kept asking one stage smaller, until he was asking about only 10 righteous among the whole city.
Genesis 18:32.: Then he said, "Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak but once more: Suppose ten should be found there?" And He said, "I will not destroy it for the sake of ten." NKJV
This episode shows that God is unwilling to punish the innocent along with the guilty. Instead the wicked are more likely to have greater freedom than they are worthy of enjoying. This is consistent with the human thought that innocence should be presumed. The danger here is that God may be perceived as more accepting, and weaker than he is.
In the case of Sodom, however not even 10 righteous people were found, and the judgement ensued. The record goes on to show, however, that the righteous were given an escape, and were even helped in leaving. Peter referred to the event, and the deliverence of Lot.
2 Peter 2:6.: and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly; 7. and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked 8. (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds) -- 9. then the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment, NKJV
The wickedness of Sodom had been obvious at the time, but Ezekiel looked at the motivating emotions that led to the wicked state. This shows that the situation of wickedness can easily be recreated when there is a loss of the principles of God,
Ezekiel 16:48.: "As I live," says the Lord GOD, "neither your sister Sodom nor her daughters have done as you and your daughters have done. 49. "Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. 50. "And they were haughty and committed abomination before Me; therefore I took them away as I saw fit. NKJV
Luke shows how the sudden destruction of Sodom would be paralleled at the return of Jesus
Luke 17:28.: "Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; 29. "but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. 30. "Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed. 31. "In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away. And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back. 32. "Remember Lot's wife. NKJV
The discipline aspect of Judgement is portrayed in 1 Cor 11.
1 Cor 11:31.: But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. 32. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. NASB
So in this case, judgment was applied for discipline, to prevent a final condemnation. In a similar manner, the believers of Jesus are judged to be disciplined. In Ecclesiastes, it is claimed that a lack of punishment leads people into evil,
Eccl 8:10.: Then I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of holiness, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done. This also is vanity. 11. Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. NKJV
The discipline concept is reinforced in Hebrews, where the punishments of God are dealt with in detail in the twelfth chapter. In this passage, the writer associates chastisement with the sonship of God.
Hebrews 12:5.: and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, my son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the lord, nor faint when you are reproved by him; 6. for those whom the lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives. NASB
The writer to the Hebrews then goes further to say that if we don't receive chastisement, there is something wrong.
Hebrews 12:7.: It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8. But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. NASB
Ananias and Sapphira
A dramatic example of justice being performed in the new testament occurred in the incident of Ananias and Sapphira. This was recorded in Acts 5. At that time, people were pooling their possessions within the community of believers. These people, however, were deceptive in their involvement with this scheme,
Acts 5:1.: But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. 2. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles' feet. 3. But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? NKJV
They had sold the land, but didn't give the full story of what they had done.
Acts 5:4.: "While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." 5. Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. NKJV
In this case, there was no opportunity for reform, or rehabilitation. Instead, it was immediate destruction, and somewhat out of step with current western thinking on justice. Does this mean that God is to harsh in His punishment? Many have thought so. If that is the case though, one must ask under what principles it is too harsh. Certainly, it can't be too harsh under the principles of God, because these are the very principles in question. Instead, this view must be under principles derived from another source, which will most likely be the likes of a particular society.
Note though, that the use of this type of punishment by God does not specifically condone its use at the hands of other people. The Bible shows God as reserving His own position as special, and above that of humanity. He is not obliged to live by his own laws to humanity, simply because He is not humanity.