Earlier this morning I finished up Richard J. Evans’ The Third Reich at War , a very long, very thorough, very interesting tracing of the rise and fall of German military might from 1939 to 1945. More than just another account of the Second World War, this book looks to battles, but also to atrocities and to the German home front. It provides an overall perspective on the German experience of war, from the men on the front lines, to the Jews in concentration camps, to the men and women who lived in the cities and worked in the factories. It goes so far as to look at German art and music during the war. It is, in a word, thorough.
Whenever I read about Germany in the Second World War, I am amazed that so many normal people, people not unlike you and me, were involved in acts of astounding evil. While many Germans disagreed with the wholesale extermination of Jews and Gypsies and people with mental disabilities, few had the will or courage to voice their disagreements. Many were complicit in these crimes, many others were actively involved, even if they did not fully support the ideology behind them. We read of otherwise ordinary men who murdered hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of helpless people. We read of monsters who found joy in torture and mutilation. We read of doctors, sworn to protect human life, who instead took the opportunity to carry out barbarous experiments on young children, torturing them and killing them with no apparent attack of conscience. Surely Satan had a field day in Germany in those days.
As I read about these crimes, these atrocities, my heart cries out for justice. This is a natural cry, I think, and a good one. Yet so often it seems that these people got away with their crimes. Hitler, the mastermind of it all, died in 1945, but did so at his own hand. A bullet to the head hardly seems to satisfy the demands of justice based on the lives of 6 million Jews and countless millions of other lives destroyed in the war he began. It almost seems that he got away with it. Or Josef Mengele who carried out ruthless medical experiments at Auschwitz and, who after the war, escaped to South America where he lived in relative peace until he died of a stroke in 1979. Where is the justice in this? Did he get away with it?
When we read in the Bible that the law of God is written on our hearts, surely this is some of what we mean—that we have a sense of justice and that we want this sense of justice to be served, to be satisfied. We also know from Scripture that justice will be served. Indeed, it must be served. And we want it to be served. Justice is “the quality of being just or fair;” it is “judgment involved in the determination of rights and the assignment of rewards and punishments.” But it is more. A Christian definition of justice goes further. Justice is the due reward or punishment for an act. God must punish evil. We know this. We tremble at this thought. Or we ought to.
God must punish evil. When we come to know Jesus Christ, we are shocked at the reality that He willingly paid the penalty for the sins of all who would believe in Him, even those who have committed unimaginable sins. When I believed in Him I saw that He suffered for me. I deserve to be punished for all those things I’ve done to forsake Him. But Jesus, through His great mercy, accepted this punishment on my behalf. Justice has been served.
But those who do not turn to Him must be punished for their own sin. And it is here that we see how justice will be served. The sin of even a man as blatantly evil as Adolph Eichmann, who relentlessly hunted down Jews throughout the Reich, differs from mine only in degree. He and I are both sinners through and through. We are both sinners in thought, word and deed. But God has seen fit to extend grace to restrain me from doing all of the evil I’d otherwise so love to do. And He has accepted Jesus’ work on the cross on my behalf. Justice has already been served on my behalf. But for those who do not turn to Christ, justice is still in the future. Justice hovers just over the horizon.
We do not look forward to the punishment of another person with a sick glee. We do not rejoice in what they must suffer. But we do look forward to the fact that justice will finally be served. God will not and cannot allow sin to be unpunished. And while we are humbled by the grace that is ours through Christ, we still thank God that there will be justice. We do not have unlimited license to sin knowing that death allows us to escape just punishment. Instead we see that death is just the beginning, just the entrance, to the courtroom where justice will be served. Death is no escape.