Picture this: a well-written movie with a strong plot, a hearty dose of conflict, a beloved protagonist, and a cruel villain; at the end of this movie and climax of all suspense, the good guy dies horribly and the villain escapes.
No, you said? The bad guy isn’t supposed to win, right? Instead, he’s supposed to get what’s coming to him. Unexpected endings often make or break a movie in our minds because although evil might reinvent and resurrect itself, good should always win the day. The bad guy must be whacked.
“I Am Not Like You”
We possess a moral urgency to see truth prevail and justice done to all wrongdoing, and it comes alive in us most days just from watching the evening news. That inner urge derives from the image of God in us. It is our inbred ethic and the assumption of God’s moral law alluded to in Romans 1.
God has granted authority to government to prosecute wrongdoing, and Paul refers to government and its officials as the servants of God for good (Rom. 13:1-8). To individuals, however, and believers specifically, Jesus and the New Testament draw clear lines between owning an urgency for truth and justice and personal retribution on others—evildoers, sinners, and neighbors alike. Focus closely on this insightful intro to Luke 13:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (vs. 1-5).
Jesus Makes His Case
Jesus raises four points. First, bad things that happen to people don’t imply their sinfulness or wrongdoing in any way. We have to be careful of this karmic notion and that we are not wishing evil upon others or rejoicing because “they got what was coming to them.”
Jesus lets us see that God is not hell-bent on retribution, like us. In fact, Psalm 103:10 explains, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve.” But humans are indeed vengeful; we are morally fallen and ethically confused.
Second, we should guard ourselves from the sin we assume in others and remain humble before God. Whether we are sinners or believers, sin’s effects are equally devastating. This was Jesus once again turning the tables to deliver an irrefutable point.
The third and fourth points come by implication. So, third, God is good to all, yet bad things happen to good people. A noted preacher spoke in one of my college chapel services not long after 9/11 and said, “The people who went to work that day didn’t hear God.” I sat there stunned by what I was hearing; my mind seized for the many points to be rebutted. In his mind people, especially Christians, could escape trouble if they were properly “tuned in” to God.
Instead, Jesus speaks of the Father and says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). We’re better off realizing that we are all held in the grace of God rather than to keep passing the buck of sin. Misfortune, however, isn’t reserved for the evil; it strikes the godly, too.
Finally, vengeance belongs to God (Rom. 12:19). There is a Day approaching when God’s full anger and justice on evil will be realized. I’m always gripped by how God pleads throughout scripture to those in danger of his judgment (Israel, Judah, sinners). He is not unlike David Banner warning, “You won’t like me when I’m angry.” And like the beast into which Banner’s anger metastasizes, God’s wrath is also an intolerable force, yet Hell must be endured eternally.
Stay in Love
Jesus’s point to us is the message of Jude 21—“Keep yourselves in the love of God.” This is God’s ultimate moral requirement for his people. We are not to be superheroes; Christianity is no Justice League. We bear no authority to mete out God’s judgments, nor should we be caught up in getting back at others or secretly wishing for their demise. The parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13) testifies to the recklessness that can only result from overstepping our authority.
Do not take this out of context. It doesn’t mean that self-defense and defending our families and property is wrong. It doesn’t imply that all war or capital punishment is wrong, or any other valid ethical argument we could insert here. It just means do not take liberty with justice or go overboard about your rights. Paul’s teaching about taking fellow believers to court, in 1 Cor. 6, is insightful and very relevant to this discussion.
Also, drawing from the subject of Jesus’s conversation, we must let go of useless queries about why 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the great tsunamis, and other disasters occurred. We do not live in a theocratic society like Israel was where the prophets spoke and predicted the counsel of God with singularity. We are too fractured a society and Church to accept this, even debating whether prophecy of that nature still exists.
What matters more is understanding that there is a real difference between desiring truth and justice, instituting and enforcing it, and vindicating ourselves, retaliatory behavior, and even defending God. Haven’t we learned as much from the Spanish Inquisition and Crusades? Retribution will always lure evil motives out of human hearts.