Life is not fair. It is not merely that the innocent suffer (so, too, do the good) and that the evil flourish. Everyone may be born equal in their moral dignity, but we are born very unequal in our physiological endowments, our social background, the energy our parents invest in us, our intellectual talents, and our capacity for hard work. It does not seem fair that one young man is the best quarterback in the league and another young man no good at sports at all. It is not fair that some young people can go abroad to the finest schools and that others must go to schools that are little more than places of temporary custody. It is not fair that some have high IQs and get high scores in tests while others have to work hard just to pass. It is not fair that some go to Harvard and others to junior colleges. It is not fair that some are beautiful and others plain. It is not fair that some live long and others die young. Or that some live relatively free from illness while others are plagued by chronic pain and disease.
So there is unfairness in the world-unfairness of opportunity, unfairness of outcome, unfairness in the reward of virtue and the punishment of evil, unfairness in the obligation to die. At first we are angry, outraged, dismayed. We may eventually resign ourselves to the unfairness of life and learn to live with it, but we are still baffled as to why God would permit such injustice in the world.
Yet there are times when we glimpse the possibility that justice will be done. Sometimes the evil get caught and are punished. Occasionally virtue is recognized and rewarded. We know that such judgments are not permanent (both the evil and the virtuous will die) or universal (many of the evil go unpunished); but still we recognize that in our own hunger for justice and our own outrage over its absence we are stubbornly clinging to "oughtness"; people "ought" to be good, those who ignore the imperatives of ethical responsibility "ought" to be punished. Most of us perceive a demand for judgment and justice to be in the very nature of things, and hence we feel that whoever or whatever is "out there" must also be a judge.
The Hebrews saw that the evil prospered and the good suffered. Doubtless the evil persons would die for their sins, but then so, too, would the good die despite their virtue. Where was the justice in that?
The classic description of the problem is found in the Book of Job. That good but confused man has done everything a man could possibly do, and he still finds himself punished. His friends taunt him with the observation that he must be a sinner since only the evil are punished, but Job knows he is being treated unfairly and complains to Yahweh. Much to Job's dismay, Yahweh himself appears on the scene and gives him an answer:
Who is this obscuring my designs with his empty-headed words? Brace yourself like a fighter; now it is my turn to ask questions and yours to inform me. Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Tell me, since you are so well-informed! Who decided the dimensions of it, do you know? Or who stretched the measuring line across it? What supports its pillars at their bases? Who laid its cornerstone when all the stars of the morning were singing with joy, and the Sons of God in chorus were chanting praise? ...It is a shattering answer. "This is my universe, Job, not yours. I made it, I know how to run it. I created the ethical imperative from which comes your hunger for fairness, and I damn well know how to enforce it. Don't try to tell me how to run my world."
Have you ever in your life given orders to the morning or sent the dawn to its post, telling it to grasp the earth by its edges and shake the wicked out of it, when it changes the earth to sealing clay and dyes it as a man dyes clothes; stealing the light from wicked men and breaking the arm raised to strike? --Job 38:2-15
It is a very tough answer, and at one level it is the only answer we are ever going to get. That God has a plan we are prepared to believe, but the designs of the plan are beyond our comprehension.
However, Yahweh gave another response to the question, and the name of that response was Jesus.
The followers of Jesus discovered justice in the Christ event. In the resurrection of Jesus, God proved himself a just and fair God. He had validated the claims made in his name by the good man who was his son. He did not permit the tomb to have domination over Jesus. Unfairness was put to rout, and the right balance of things was restored. The Christ event was an ethical experience, an experience of justice being rendered, of righteousness being exercised, of goodness being vindicated. The early Christian writers were filled with this sense of justification and vindication, and wrote with an exultation about God's judgment, which we who have been raised in the "day of wrath" tradition of the judging God cannot understand. We are afraid of God's fiery, judging wrath. Our predecessors seemed to rejoice in it. We are not sure that we are with the sheep instead of the goats. They seemed to have little doubt in the matter.
But they were closer to the Christ event and understood this aspect of it far better than we do. They experienced the judging God as a God of grace who revealed himself in Jesus. In the resurrection of Jesus the forces of evil were put to flight, and by God's grace we were united with Jesus. The judging God was the one who leaned over backward to forgive even before forgiveness was asked. Mercy and judgment were not in conflict; mercy had been extended to humankind, the forces of evil were being dispersed. Unfairness was driven from the earth, and with the coming of grace we were awarded fairness in superabundance. We were no longer in the position of Job who could complain about what was taken away from him; God had given us something so beyond our wildest fantasies that we had no complaints at all. We had already won everything.