In the Bible, justice is something like fair trade plus social welfare – and the Old Testament prophets had much to say about the lack of such justice in Israel. These days we call call such justice in economic justice and social justice. Also in the Bible – in the New Testament as well as the Old – God threatens to punish in angry tones and carries out “lethal” punishments both directly and indirectly. In my pacifist view, whilst this may be a just administration of Moses Law, it is essentially Divine discipline – not Divine justice and certainly not retribution as we think of it today. We ought not think of “Divine lethal discipline” as God “killing” but as God calling us home sooner than we were expecting. God has decreed that all should die and why He should have done so is a really important question. But as we come to the question of justice we ought not assume that God kills in revenge as though He were a violated and enraged human being.
“Justice” in human societies is about the punishment handed down by the society’s sanctioned crime reduction processes. The punishment of an offender is a balm for the outrage caused to an offender’s victims – to encourage families of victims to resist the desire to take revenge into their own hands. The State exacts vengeance (in relative moderation) so that the direct victims do not.
Along with that amenability to victims’ demand for ‘blood’ or revenge, the State places a strong prohibition on, and threat of legal consequences if, victims and offenders so much seek each other out during the court process. This dampening down on the potential for cycles of increasing, reciprocal & spreading violence is the greatest achievement of all crime reduction systems. However, in my view, criminal justice is a misnomer and it is unchristian to consider punishments of breaches of law true “justice”. In my view, it is actually state-moderated retribution on behalf of all victims. (And everyone in society is a victims of crime one way and another and most struggle to forgive those who have violated and otherwise hurt them).
But if “criminal justice” is a misnomer, it is a misnomer with a purpose. State-mediated retribution for law-breaking carries an important educative function: all should mind the Law. Part of this education is to convince everyone not just to avoid doing wrong but also that, if we one day choose to do wrong (and are caught), then it is “right” for us to be – and to submit to being – punished. People who believe they are wrong and deserving of punishment are more accepting, less angry and less intent of further wrecking havoc following a period of imprisonment. This is why our societies want us to internalise a belief in “justice” as being all about law and legal sanctions.
In regard to God, Christians are directed in the Bible to “leave vengeance to God” instead of seeking the usual direct vengeance that human beings typically seek if they can. As is obvious from the context of Rom 12:19, this is analogous to being told to forgive those who sin against us. Both forgiving and leaving vengeance to God are about never being violent or unloving even towards those who have traumatised us. If this seems un-realistic perhaps see here. It can be very difficult to access God’s strength/grace whereby a person is able to forgive their persecutors. In the meantime, those people can at least hope that ‘God’s vengeance’ will provide them, as hurting victims, with satisfaction one day. Actually the word for ‘vengeance’ in the Greek is better translated ‘recompense’ and such recompense can be a reward not just a punishment. Basically means there will be a fitting response from God for everything.
God’s ‘vengeance’, in my view, includes God disciplining in love those who hurt us by allowing natural consequences. For example, people who are careless or vicious to others will likely ‘reap what they sow’ in one form or another. However, ultimately I believe, God’s ‘revenge’, ‘recompense’ or ‘retribution’ (which words have very hateful & violent meanings in human societies) will turn out to be His justification of us – see below. Given God’s abilities, Divine Justice can make state crime reduction systems seem petty, arbitrary and unfair, coddling some victims at the expense of the weaker scapegoats. (Most, if not all, violent criminals were violated and traumatised much as little children before they began, as hurt people do, to hurt other people).
In contrast to human justice which tries to resolve victim traumatisation and grief by afflicting the offender in like manner (as though two wrongs could make a right), Divine transformative justice is about healing, restoring and putting things properly to rights. Ultimately Divine justice is about His just-ification of all of us – which is to say His transformation of us, by which every victim (all of us) and every offender (all of us again) are transformed to have both “the power of an indestructible life” (no more a victim) and the ability to love selflessly (no more an offender).
An important quality of God’s punishments are that He institutes them not for His own comfort (as though He had somehow been victimized or traumatised by His own contingent creation!) but for the good of the human beings involved – both the hurting ones and the ones hurting. If it seems to unreasonable for Him to present warnings in Scripture in angry and graphic terms, consider the section about God’s wrath here.
Another important quality of God’s punishments is their death-transcending benefits. Murder can never logically be considered a discipline in human society – because society has no more dealings with the dead. But given that death is not the end of our existence, God’s dealings with us transcend our deaths. As mentioned above, our loving Heavenly Father can discipline us lethally! e.g. death coming when it did to Moses was we are told God’s discipline on Moses for a particular instance of disobedience. So we must not assume that lethal punishments by God are retributive.