The Judge on the Airplane and the Beauty of Justice
I sat down in my airplane seat with a restful sigh, looking forward to the time I had to myself. My plan was to read and work on my computer during my 4-hour flight. I had nodded politely to the man beside me, and we both sat quietly during the ascent.
Thirty minutes into the flight I pulled out my Bible, excited to dig into its treasures. I couldn’t help but notice that at exactly the same time, the man next to me pulled out his own book. Reading the title, I chuckled under my breath at the irony of his book when compared to mine: God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens.*
And before I could stop my impulsive social nature, I burst out with,
“Oh isn’t this funny! We are reading just about the most opposite books possible!!”
The man looked up with surprise, looked at my Bible and the smile on my face, and said,
“Yes, I guess you are right”.
He returned my smile, and I knew this was going to be an interesting flight.
There we were for the next couple of hours, having a friendly conversation about faith, God, and our own journeys. I had recently seen an interview of Christopher Hitchens (the author of his book) where he discussed his writing, which argues that organized religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant” and essentially poisons everything. His book is seen as a rallying cry for atheists to make science and reason more prominent in society.* Because I am fully convinced of the providential sovereignty of God, I believe there are no coincidences, and I was thanking God silently that I knew enough to be able to engage with this man about the book.
As it turns out the man was a courtroom judge, which made his greatest objection to the existence of God all the more interesting. The man told me his complaint about God was that he allowed people to be punished and to go to hell. He agreed that we all do bad things, but he couldn’t understand why a loving God wouldn’t simply, in his words, “Forgive everyone and allow them to go to heaven in the end”.
If we are honest, I think we can all relate to this man’s complaint. Thinking about justice, judgement, and hell make me squirm at times. At a surface level it can seem contradictory to believe in an all-loving God who also judges. But what if it’s actually the reality of these things-His justice and judgement- that makes God all the more loving and kind? Furthermore, the very nature of the man’s career proved that he, like us all, do not want to live in a universe in which there is no justice and no payment for wrongdoing. Every day that man walks into a man-made courtroom to determine what would be the just (equitable, fair) punishment for the crime presented to him.
We crave justice, in fact, we love it, just as God does: “For I, the LORD, love justice” (Isaiah 61:8). And C.S. Lewis explained so well why our love and our need for justice gives evidence for God:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
C.S. Lewis was essentially touching on Romans 2:15 which implies that even if someone claims that they don’t believe in God, “The work of the law is written on their hearts”. The answer to C.S. Lewis’ rhetorical question is that it is God Himself that gives us this idea of justice, He has metaphorically written it on our hearts. We don’t just come up with the ideas of justice and righteousness on our own.
But the best message in all of this, I told the man, is that while God is a God of justice, He took the penalty of what we all deserve for our wrongdoings and laid it on His Son on the cross. The cross was a perfect display of justice and mercy. God is a judge just as you are, I told him, enforcing the law and giving punishment. The beautiful difference, however, is that while we deserve an eternal death penalty, God- the heavenly judge- placed that punishment on His own son.
At the end of the flight, the man let me pray with him. To be honest, I don’t know that his life was dramatically changed, and perhaps we still have very different viewpoints. In a day and age in which people can’t seem to disagree without being vicious and angry, I thank God that there are still conversations happening that display opposing beliefs but are marked by respect and kindness.
I do know someone that was changed that day. Me. Anytime we are given the privilege of declaring the goodness of the gospel to someone, we are also preaching it to our own heart. Sometimes we think the message is for someone else when in reality, our heart needed it. And my heart needed to hear about the beauty of God’s justice that day, because justice highlights how incredible His mercy and forgiveness really are.
And perhaps one day, I’ll meet that man again.
*All information on Christopher Hitchens and his book was taken from Wikipedia. Sadly, Christopher Hitchens passed away on December 15, 2011 from pneumonia.