I have suggested that we ought to differentiate between divine justice, which I propose is always restorative in nature, seeking the reconciliation of enemies into friends; and satanic justice, which is retributive or punitive in nature, demanding the imposition of a penalty.
This fits with the claim of Jesus – the one in whom God is perfectly revealed to us, showing us what God is like – that he has come that we might have life in the fullest sense; whereas the thief comes to kill and steal and destroy.
One of the great questions that has been pushed back at me is, how does the account of God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah fit with my claim?
First, we ought to remember that this is a story. By that, I am not dismissing the historicity of events, but pointing out, for example, that the account is not a full transcript of the conversation. (We know this, though we sometimes forget. In shaping their narrative, the Gospel writers, for example, spend as much time recounting one week of Jesus’ life as they do the previous three years.)
Second, we ought to remind ourselves of the principle characters in the story. ‘The Lord’ has come to visit his friend, Abraham. It is three people who come, and it is not clear exactly who these characters are. At least two are angelic visitors, and while traditional Jewish interpretation has all three to be angels, an alternative interpretation suggests that the plainest sense of the narrative is God accompanied by two angels. Christian tradition interprets the three as a ‘type’ for the Trinity – just as Moses is seen as a ‘type’ for Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel – or even as the Trinity. But if the two ‘men’ who go on to Sodom, while the Lord continues conversing with Abraham, are ‘angels,’ this opens up another alternative: that, having been brought a report against the city, the Lord sends an angel to compile the case for the defence and an angel to compile the case for the prosecution, evidence the Lord will weigh as judge before passing verdict.
Third, to help us understand this story we might draw on another story in the Bible, set in a similar world but of an even older time, the account of Job. Here we learn that among the court of heaven, there is one known as the satan – the accuser – who has been wandering the earth, with the intention, it would seem, of bringing unfavourable reports before God. God turns their conversation to Job, a man God believes lives a righteous life. Satan insists that this is motivated by self-interest and indeed fear, not offered freely. God then allows satan to exercise his own freedom against Job, but sets clear limits on how far satan can go.
Let us, then, return to the story at hand. As Abraham’s three guests prepare to go on their way, it would appear that they have been discussing the nearby Cities of the Plain, though we are not party to their conversation. The Lord decides to share his intention with his friend, Abraham. The intention that he reveals is that, having heard an outcry against the cities – a charge, a complaint brought to him – he intends to go and see for himself. There is no mention of what he will do, how he will rule on the matter.
Abraham’s response suggests that a proposal has been presented – by whom? – that the cities be destroyed; but is eloquent in its rejection of a punitive justice that is unworthy of God, that would not reflect God’s intention. Abraham himself is able to imagine a scenario where punitive justice is not pursued, pushing his own limits from a scenario where fifty righteous people can be found right down to where five righteous people can be found.
At this point, Abraham steps back from pushing his imagination any further – to conceiving a point where no righteous people can be found, and yet restorative justice might be pursued – at least attempted – between people all of whom were in some way guilty of living in impaired relationship. And the Lord, who has chosen to involve his friend in determining how he himself will rule in this situation, accepts the limits of Abraham’s imagination.
(This raises another question, regarding the omnipotence of the Creator and the free will of the creature. If God knows a totally fixed future, he already knows that Abraham has not gone far enough. If God knows all possible futures, and how to respond within each possibility to bring out the best outcome, perhaps God hopes that five righteous people might be found.)
The people of Sodom demonstrate that the outcry against them is legitimate, by seeking to exercise dominance over the angelic visitors through gang rape – a tactic still used today. By taking people’s dignity, we enslave them in a debt to us they cannot repay. Abraham’s nephew Lot demonstrates his own complicity within this sin/debt system by trying to broker sexual violence against his daughters in exchange for sexual violence against his guests. In the city, five righteous people cannot be found. But it is Abraham who has sealed the fate of the city – not the Lord, who demonstrates his own will for sinners by attempting to have Lot’s family rescued.
In such a reading, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah does not return the world closer to God’s will, but is, rather, a defeat for God, a set-back in his purposes. Not something that will permanently frustrate his will, but something that genuinely frustrates it nonetheless.
Of course, this raises the question, why would a God who is both truly good and truly powerful (powerful enough to create worlds) allow god-self to bow before the will of creatures who are neither as good nor as powerful?
And this, too, brings us back to God’s being wholly committed to the restorative justice of reconciliation between agents who act in free will – the freedom each has, constraining the freedom of every other agent. To an utter commitment to our coming together, by degrees; facing up to the consequences of our actions – the costly consequence of righteous Abraham’s decisions, as well as the decisions of the unrighteous citizens of Sodom – and to forgiving one another and asking for forgiveness from one another. To the cancellation of debt; the setting-free from sin.