Justice and Eternal Life

Habitually, I call justice the most
terrible of the virtues. It is a virtue; we are to render to another what is due. But by itself, even though rendering justice is an honorable act, it is cold and impersonal. This is why Aristotle always held that friendship was more important than justice. Friendship went beyond but it did not deny justice. Christianity saw that sacrificial love — charity — was also necessary if justice were to be achieved in the actual order in which we live. Justice looks only to the relation between people, not to the person to whom we are being just. Justice is an invitation to love, perhaps, but it is not love. As it is often said, we do not have to like those to whom we have to be just. We are even to be just to our enemies. However, the presumption of justice makes possible our many exchanges and relations with myriad people whom we can never know or know well.
The vast network that we call the market is but a way to make justice in exchange freely possible. In our relations of justice we are potentially related to anyone in the world. We want others to be just to us; we want to be just to them. The baseball cap I wore this morning was made in China. This is possible because of the global market and the political decisions that allow it to happen. Once trust in its fairness or justice is undermined, exchange ceases. Since not everyone is in fact just, we need and have mechanisms to deal with violations. One hopes the violators of justice are relatively few and the observers many.
But here I want to talk about a remark of Pope Benedict XVI on justice in his encyclical Spe Salvi. This is a remarkably brilliant encyclical whose scope I do not think is well understood. It is literally a re-presentation of what we call the four last things — death, heaven, hell, and purgatory — over against the way that modern economic and political ideology has sought to replace them by a this-worldly view of man’s purpose, a purpose that rejects God and any criterion of man’s good arising from outside his own definitions and powers, even if that criterion is superior to the human ones.
The passage is presented as a rather paradoxical opinion of the pope about the significance of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. This is the sentence:
I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life (43).
First of all, we must note that Benedict is speaking of precisely “argument.” A case is to be made that “eternal life” — that is, the life of each individual human being, body and soul, after death — itself requires that injustices performed in this world be judged and punished.
Plato understood much of this, of course. He knew that unless violations of justice in this life are properly judged and punished, the world, in effect, is ill-made. At the very depth of things there would be no order or fairness. The immortality of the soul was a Socratic teaching that arose from politics — its inability to resolve the matter of actual justice in actual cities. Great and little crimes and injustices go on in every time and place, in every nation under the sun. Likewise, many great acts of heroism and virtue go unrewarded. This observation is simply a fact of abiding human experience. The only possible way for this situation to be requited such that we could say that the gods were just would be to propose after death a judgment whereby the crimes that were unpunished or unacknowledged would be reckoned with.
The pope knows his Plato. He also knows Scripture, which implies the same thing — namely, as the Creed says, that Christ “will judge the living and the dead.” But lest we think that this reflection is just so much pious myth, we notice that Benedict, a man well aware of modern philosophy, sees that the present argument for eternal life is itself the result of the modern ideologies that tried to replace it with a this-worldly theory of progress or justice that would, somewhere down the this-worldly ages, produce something perfect, a people and an age in which no injustices would exist, something caused by purely human reason and artifice.
The trouble with this thesis is that it sacrifices one generation, one class, one person to another. Once anyone dies, it is impossible to punish him or reward him for what was not done in this life. This failure would mean that most of the evil done among actual men is gotten away with. The central human problem is thus not solved by the ideologies that have tried to replace Christianity as an explanation of human purpose and destiny.
The pope cites two famous Marxist philosophers who, each in his own way, see the logic that requires a resurrection of the body or a requiting of justice. The pope is not arguing here from Christian premises. He is citing logic, philosophy that has thought through the implications of justice in terms of the whole order of the universe. This order includes both the possibility that all disorders will be punished and that all rewards will be given. The driving force of modernity has been justice. Almost all the inner-worldly solutions, however, have ended up producing something worse, since they deny a transcendent order in which judgment and justice occur and are upheld.
Thus, when Benedict states that the best argument for eternal life, for the resurrection of the body and a final judgment, comes from justice, he is not addressing modern man in primarily Christian terms: He is addressing him in his own terms. Basically, Benedict says that the resurrection of the body and a final judgment of our deeds and words that took place among men are required if justice to actual, individual persons, no matter in what time or place, is to be done. This has to take place in the flesh, as the deeds were done in the flesh.
The denial of this logic has its own consequences — namely, that the world is ill made and that protests against violations of justice are in vain. Injustice rules. Do not pretend the world makes sense in terms of justice. The case for Christianity can thus also be made from justice, thanks to the direction of modern ideology. Justice will be done, hence final judgment and the resurrection of the body in which every person as such will be present.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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