Retributive justice and true universalism

Is God a bad judge? Liberals react to the classic doctrine of God’s judgment on the grounds that it makes God to be immature, or crude. Rather than retributive justice, they hold that God’s judgment is always corrective and rehabilitative. Universalists react on slightly different but similar grounds: the orthodox doctrine of final judgment contradicts the love of God. Like for the liberals, judgment is restorative in universalism.

1. God is the God of retributive justice

The Bible is clear that the true God is a God who ‘pays back’. He does not only exercise correctional discipline; he also serves out retribution and revenge.

Romans 12:19: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." (Cf. Deuteronomy 32:35 and Hebrews 10:30).

2Thessalonians 1:6-8:  since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, (7) and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels (8) in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

God’s nature demands that the moral order of the creation must be restored. It’s not just for practical purposes that retributive justice is needed. Re-balancing or rectifying evil with just retribution is necessary because God is a good God of order. His justice pays back what evil deserves, and in this sense, it reconciles evil to him.

2. God is the God revealed by Scripture

Our belief at this point will be affected by our view of Scripture. If we believe that the propositional revelation of the Bible is the authority in all matters, then no matter how hard we might find it to digest; we will believe that God is a God of retributive justice.

Similarly, our view of God will depend on our view of Scripture. If we believe that God is transcendent – that his ways are vastly higher than our ways and so unknowable by ourselves – then we will not put our confidence in reason or natural theology. Our dependence will be on special revelation. Also if we believe in the Bible’s view of human sin, we will completely distrust our thoughts and desires and emotions which will always distort the truth about God. And so the Bible must tell us both what we would otherwise not know about God and also what we would otherwise not believe about God.

3. Retributive justice is reasonable

Despite what we have said about human reason, there are nonetheless human reasons why retributive justice is both right and logical. Everyday humans cry out for justice, for retribution, for the righting of wrongs by rightful punishment on wrongdoers. We are justified to set up war courts and investigate human rights atrocities and be outraged when criminals escape just punishments. Morality is meaningless if there is not a final righting of wrongs.

4. God is the God who has reconciled all things in Christ (already)

The good news of the gospel is that by dying on the cross for the sins of the whole world, Christ has already restored the moral imbalance in the moral order of the universe.

Colossians 1:19-20: For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, (20) and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

God’s own love has already caused him to take upon himself the breakdown in creation caused by the proliferation of evil, so that now and forever sin and Satan and the world stand condemned, but God’s people are freed by his grace.

So love has already won. God’s love has already conquered his justice because the good God does graciously justify the wicked at immeasurable cost for the most undeserving (Romans 3:26).

Future and final judgment is yet to come as a fulfilment of the judgment now that has already taken place. At the cross, Christ has borne sins already for those who believe and condemned all those who reject him. So when he appears a second time, it will not be again to bear sins, but to bring salvation to those waiting and final judgment to whoever does not believe.

Romans 1:18: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

John 3:18: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

The last judgment has already been pronounced over the one who either believes or rejects Christ. This is because Jesus’ first coming and dying on the cross was, in a very real sense, the final judgment:

John 9:39: Jesus said, "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind."

John 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.

God has reconciled all things in Christ (already) because final judgment and salvation happened at the cross.

5. God is the God who will reconcile evil through eternal judgment

Judgment remains a future reality because, though at the cross Jesus permanently condemned sin, the world and Satan, he nonetheless presently waits to implement his final reign over them. God will effect a final unification of all things in Christ, including evil elements in creation.

Ephesians 1:9-10  making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ  (10)  as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Eternal hell, reserved for the devil and all those who follow him, is not evil in itself because of the simple fact that God’s retributive justice is both good and right. In this sense, everlasting punishment restores the moral order in creation because it balances wickedness with punishment, and so actually cancels evil because ‘good’ fully and finally triumphs.

We have said that just punishment of wrong reconciles it to God because his righteousness reigns over it; it restores evil to good; it disarms rebellion to peace. Consequently, eternal retribution is a permanent solution to the problem of evil.

But God’s judgment is actually a loving act and is consistent with the God who is both love and light. As C. S. Lewis argued, it is good for evil to be judged because for it to otherwise evade retributive justice would in fact excuse what is wrong, thus perpetuating evil. So God’s judgment of evil is an act of love towards his creation as well as to himself.

As a result, God’s judgment advances his glory because it brings a final reconciliation of the goodness of all things. In this sense, a full and true universal reconciliation of all things to God is fulfilled as much through God’s final and eternal judgment as it is through his everlasting mercy. 



These notes have borrowed significantly from the excellent lecture material prepared by Rob Smith, Sydney Missionary Bible College, Eschatology, 2010.

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