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Divine Justice: Gnostic Reflections on Some Often Terrifying Realities


Justice—that’s a big subject that we can never hope to fully understand, particularly Divine Justice; but we can, I believe, always understand what we need to understand to make the spiritual progress to which God calls us at any particular time.

Let’s begin with some observations about human reactions to Divine Justice. Certainly the thought of Divine Justice can lead to great hope, even exhilaration. Jesus tells us that, when “the Son of Man” shall “execute judgment” whereby “they that have done good [shall go] unto the resurrection life and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation”—on that day, “the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.” This is inclusive—it states that not only “they who have done good” shall rise to new life, which esoterically is a higher state of consciousness and, consequently, of happiness, but even those who are punished by “the resurrection of damnation.” He also says that “the dead [apparently all of them] shall hear the voice of Son of God and they that hear shall live” (John: 5:25—29). The esoteric meaning of these words, I believe, is that even the most terrible karmic retributions are executed out of love for those who must suffer them and are ultimately for their benefit. I believe that what is esoterically meant by the resurrection of the dead in this and similar passages is not that corpses will physically come out of graves, but rather that Divine Justice, even in its retributive, punitive aspects, leads us out of the “death” of imprisonment in our small selves to the fullness of understanding, wherein our true happiness consists. All of that is certainly positive.

And, of course, it is also true that karma , while it can be terrible in its exaction of retribution, can also be wonderful in the rewards it brings. We all have many problems, but we also enjoy many blessings—good relationships, talents, opportunities for service, etc., and these also are karmic, part of the operation of Divine Justice.

At the risk, however, of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, I’d like to concentrate, in this article, on some less pleasant aspects of Divine Justice, and, particularly, on the fear many people experience when they think of Divine Justice. This fear is real, and it is warranted by scripture. The Book of Revelation contains much terrifying imagery about plagues, wars, famines, tyrants, etc.—so much that one biblical scholar, Rolland Wolfe, who identified twelve religions in the bible, designated Revelation as “the religion of unspeakable terror”(388). Our Lord in the gospels speaks of sinners being thrown into Gehenna, cast into outer darkness with wailing and gnashing of teeth, consumed like Dives in flames and refused even a drop of water on the tongue. St. Paul’s words in his Epistle to the Galations are unsettling in a quieter way, but still unsettling. St. Paul counsels us that “every man shall bear his own burden” (6:4). If we reflect honestly we realize that we each have quite a burden to bear. A country song popular about twenty years ago contained these lines:

“I was born an original sinner; I was born in original sin!
If I had a dollar bill for every thing I’ve done
I’d have a mountain of money piled up to my chin!”

We all have done many unedifying things, and people who have had near-death experiences have sometimes testified that many things we consider small faults loom very large on the other side—unkind words said in arguments, for example: these things can assume proportions much larger than things religious people would be inclined to worry about, such as not believing this or that or failing to undertake some specifically religious obligation. We bear our own burden—we have no one standing in back of us to put the blame on for our misdeeds, and no excuses, such as the passage of time—the mere fact that something was done a long time ago does not make it less objectionable in the eyes of the Eternal Ancient of Days.

This fear can lead people into at least three unhealthy directions.

The first we might designate the temptation of atheism and philosophical materialism. Some people seem tenaciously to cling to denial of spiritual realities and to insist dogmatically in the face of all counter-arguments that there is no God, no afterlife, no justice, no purpose to life. These positions seem so incredible for a variety of reasons and so depressing that we might wonder about the motives of people who seem determined to adhere to those views. I suspect that fear of Divine Justice plays no small part. If we grew up with a certain kind of religious indoctrination, which greatly emphasized eternal damnation and vividly portrayed its horrors, a philosophy of materialism and atheism might be seen as very comforting by comparison. Better no God than the God of Jonathan Edwards; better no afterlife than one in a lake of fire. But while this type of philosophy might in some sense be comforting in the short run, its disadvantages are obvious. It reduces fear, but it offers in its stead only a dreary hopelessness. It is not conducive to spiritual evolution because it is fundamentally false. Those who are wrong about such matters are wrong about the most important things, and, consequently, their view of everything tends to be skewed.

The second temptation I term the temptation of a false Gnosticism. Those of us who are Gnostics believe that all people are ultimately saved and that God always loves us, no matter what we do. These beliefs are true, but they can very easily be simplified and misunderstood. God is never angry with us in the way in which a vengeful human would reject us, but God’s love for us has a dark side and one which we should rightfully fear. God loves us not in a sentimental way which aims at our ease and pleasure but, rather in a way which aims at our highest good and with an intensity which no one, even the highest angels, can understand. God is absolutely determined, with an infinite determination, to rid us of all that does not reflect His Goodness. As one of our hymns puts it,

“But unto wrong what is His Name?
Our God is a consuming flame
To every wrong beneath the sun!”

And, because of that, God’s punishments are terrible, and it is wise to fear them.

The third mistake we can make I would designate the temptation of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists often assert that God hates and punishes sin but that Jesus took all the punishment for our sins on Good Friday two thousands years ago. So now we have nothing to worry about. This is a very dangerous misunderstanding of some deep esoteric truths about Jesus and our relationship to Jesus, dangerous because such beliefs lead to a false sense of security, and that is always dangerous. Jesus is a Divine Incarnation and an Avatar, the divinely designated Avatar for those of us on the Christian path. The expiatory sufferings of such an Avatar can destroy our bad karma—this is the esoteric meaning of such statements as our sins being washed away by Christ’s blood or St. Paul’s statement, “He canceled the bond that stood against us, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2: 14). Being saved by the sufferings of Jesus, however, is not as simple as many fundamentalists believe. It is not a matter of signing a card and mailing it to a certain post office box or walking up an aisle and making a statement at some religious gathering. What is required is a total merging of our consciousness with that of the Avatar—in this case, Jesus—so that we become “other Christs.” This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Many people who think they are “saved” are very far from the goal they think they have attained.

Well, we’ve looked at three wrong ways of responding to Divine Justice. Is there a right way? I think so.

First of all, in regard to present and future choices, the knowledge of Divine Justice, even Divine Vengeance, can be a great blessing. It is good to refrain from dishonesty, cruelty, greed, misuse of substances, destructive sexuality, etc., and reflection on the karmic consequences of such things can lead us to refrain from them.

In regard to things which we have already done, we can, I think, replace fear with a certain prudent and realistic hope. Our Lord counsels us to repair to the best of our abilities the injustices we have already done to others in order to avoid or at least greatly ameliorate the coming karmic consequences: “When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be deliverd from him lest [emphasis added] he hail thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison. I tell thee, thou shalt not depart thence till thou hast paid the very last mite” ( Luke: 12: 58—59).

Similarly, when informed about the fate of “the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingeled with their sacrifices,” Jesus counseled other Israelites that the things they had already done were just as bad as the sins of those who had suffered those terrible retributions, but that they could avoid those terrible fates by repenting: “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans because they suffered these things? I tell you, Nay: but, except you repent [emphasis added], you will all perish in the same manner. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent [emphasis added], ye shall all likewise perish”(Luke:13: 1—5).

A plethora of additional examples could be cited from the New Testament, but in this article I’m contenting myself with only a few. Jesus states that, if the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had repented in response to the teaching of prophets such as had been sent to the Hebrews, their cities “would have remained until this day”(Matthew:11:23)—in other words, the karmic retribution of destruction would not have descended upon them. And, when Jesus cured the paralytic who was let down through a hole in the roof in the synagogue at Capharnum, he coupled the physical healing with the words, “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee”(Mark:2:5), indicating that the physical healing coincided with a reduction of karmic indebtedness. After healing a man at the pool of Bethsaida, Jesus the next day clearly indicated that the man’s paralysis had been karmically induced with his words, “Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more lest a worse thing come unto thee”(John:5:14).

This healing ministry of Jesus has been continued through the ages in Catholic Churches with the Sacrament of Anointing, which is discussed in the Epistle of St. James. St. James clearly indicates that the physical and emotional healing properties of this sacrament are tied to the forgiveness of sins and consequent ameliorative effects on the karma which such sins have generated: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church: and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he have committed sins they shall be forgiven him” [emphasis added](James:5:14—15). The same epistle directly states that “mercy rejoiceth against judgment”(2:13), implying that karmic indebtedness can be forgiven. The Apostle later states, in his Epistle, that enlightening another can turn the other back from the road toward severe punishment and in the process lighten the karmic indebtedness of the one who gives the warnings about such matters: “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins”(5:19-20).

Similarly, the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence indicates the the authors of the Old Testament implicitly and unquestioningly assumed that the “Ten Lost Tribes” would have been spared their fates at the hands of the Assyrians had they listened to Isaiah and the other prophets who had been sent to them and that the First Temple would not have been destroyed if the people of Judah had listened to Jeremiah. Likewise, the people of Nineveh escaped the bad karma toward which they were heading when they heeded the words of Jonah and repented: “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil ways, and repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them: and he did it not”[emphasis added](Jonah:3:10).

At this point a problem arises, for a fundamental esoteric principle is that all wrongs are ultimately righted, which means necessarily that all karmic debts must be paid. Thomistic philosophy holds that God is His Justice, just as He is His Mercy, Love, Wisdom, etc. because God’s attributes, including His Justice, are infinite. If God’s Justice lacked anything God has, it would not be infinite; therefore, the argument runs, Divine Justice is God in God’s totality. But, since the same is true of God’s Mercy, Divine Mercy and Divine Justice are, in the end, identical. Therefore, there can be no conflict between the two, and Divine Mercy can in no sense cancel Divine Justice. How then can deserved retributive karmaphala (fruits of action) be avoided?

It is important to note, first of all, that the purpose of karmic retribution is not the infliction of suffering per se, but rather the realignment of one’s consciousness with the Divine Will. Analogously, sin is a smudge on the windshield of a car—it obstructs our vision of God and thus militates against union with God. Removing the unbalanced state is what is most important; how it is to be removed is less important. Much karmic indebtedness can be paid by repentance and service, and, to the extent that such payments are made, the sufferings caused by such things as car accidents, serious illnesses, dire poverty, and other such tragedies become less necessary. Often the suffering entailed by repentance is sufficient in itself to offset suffering that would otherwise arrive in the future in the form of deleterious consequences. For example, many people suffer greatly in the process of giving up noxious habits such as abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, controlling overactive tempers, or enduring the temporal consequences of their admissions—perhaps public admissions—of wrongs they have done. Obviously, for one example, it is better to suffer greatly in the process of giving up excessive smoking than to avoid that suffering and later experience the medical consequences of such excessive indulgence.

The debts we have incurred by harming other people or other sentient beings such as animals can often be paid by service. Here we must distinguish between wrongs we have done in this life, which we know about, and unknown wrongs, which we have committed in previous incarnations. An injustice which we know about, because it has been perpetrated in the present incarnate experience, can often be atoned for without any residual karmic carry-over, or at least the karmic indebtedness can be greatly reduced. This is a large part of what Jesus means in Luke 12:58—59, when he advises us to settle with our opponents on the way to the magistrate, rather than refuse to do so and be cast into the “prison” of retributive karma. There is, in my opinion, a huge difference between such a settlement and a steadfast refusal to “settle” throughout the entire lifetime. After death the distortions caused by such acts go much deeper into the psyche—far into the unconscious-- before the next birth process begins, so much more suffering is required to expiate such sins. This is one reason why some people, when they are terminally ill, attempt reconciliation with family members, even though they have been at odds with them for many years. This is also, I think, why the Roman Catholic Church has often suggested that the “unforgivable sin” is “final impenitence” or “to persevere in mortal sin till death.” We know esoterically that such sins are not ultimately unforgivable, but their expiation is, I submit, immeasurably more difficult when there is no repentance prior to death.

But what of that karma which lies in store for us from sins we have committed in past incarnations? Even here the aforesaid teaching of Jesus is often applicable. Classical Hinduism often distinguishes between sanchita karma and prarabdha karma, or, to use common English words, between unripe karma and ripe karma. The Sanskrit word sanchita is related to a word which means a container for arrows, which is worn on an archer’s shoulder. Just as arrows in such a pouch are not yet flying through the air, so sanchita karma is presently in abeyance, not yet ready to manifest on the physical plane. Such unripe karma can often be expiated, I believe, if the indebtedness is requited through service. Consider a medical analogy: A woman has been a heavy smoker for many years. One day she notices an unusual sore in her mouth, so she makes an appointment with a dentist, who tells her that she has pre-cancerous cells in her mouth. The dentist says that the condition can be treated so that the cells will return to normal, but that the smoking must stop immediately and permanently. The woman wisely takes the advice of her dentist, undergoes the necessary treatment, and, consequently, never develops oral cancer. Now let’s get back to the specifics of injustices committed in the past lying in wait to attack us karmically in the future.

Suppose two physicians live in the same period of history and in roughly the same place. They both run what were then called insane asylums and make money confining innocent and healthy people who for some reason are problems to or in conflict with their wealthy families. Furthermore, they frequently starve, torture, and sexually abuse many of their helpless victims, as well as do them immeasurable psychological damage by constantly calling them “crazy,” among other things. Both of them experience pleasant subsequent incarnations because the terrible karma of these “psychiatric” incarnations has not become ripe for manifestation. In each of these incarnations one of these physicians—we’ll call him Dr. Jones—does not change any of his attitudes, even though an inner voice—often termed “grace”-- often suggests to him that he ought to help people who find themselves the subjects of unethical medical experiments or are imprisoned unjustly or are confined in asylums under false commitment. After several of these incarnations the full weight of the hitherto unripe karma descends upon him full force, and he finds himself able to do virtually nothing to restore his rights, regain his freedom, or protect him from violent, often unconscionable physical and psychological abuse, as well as dire poverty. These terribly painful experiences might then proceed for several more incarnations and even lead him, in desperation, to more unwise choices such as drug addiction or suicide, which, in turn, will be productive of their own terrible karma. The other man, however—we’ll call him Dr. Smith-- while the karma from his life as a psychiatrist is still in abeyance, permits himself to be open to the Law of Growth, and, as a result, his consciousness is raised, and he hears and obeys a call to help people in ways that counteract his former wrong choices. He becomes a lawyer and defends those in asylums and those unjustly accused of crimes. He later, in another incarnation, becomes a doctor and strives to end medical—particularly psychiatric—abuses. The Lords of Karma take note of this service and delay the bad karmaphala further, recognizing that, without those limitations to encumber him, he is able to do much good. He becomes, in another incarnation, a philanthropist and perhaps is able to greatly help many of the same people he previously abused. As he continues on this wholesome path, his karmic indebtedness from the bad incarnation as a psychiatrist is steadily paid off in service, and, finally, there is no balance which must be remitted through terrible suffering.

We are, accordingly, wise to heed always those inner voices which seem to emanate from our “good angels,” those intuitions that we ought to do good to particular people in particular ways. If we are unexpectedly given the opportunity to help someone, or if we seem inconvenienced by the need to take care of some afflicted relative, how do we know that we have not injured this being in the past and that this opportunity to help someone else is really an opportunity to help ourselves by mitigating a heavy karmic indebtedness?

But what of ripe karma, which in Sanskrit is called prarabdha karma, that karma which is already manifesting in the physical plane or which is so close to manifestation that it is impossible to prevent its advent? Students of esoteric matters have traditionally divided such karma into two categories: constant karma and variable karma. The former is unchangeable in the course of a particular incarnation—for example, being of a certain race or not having an optic nerve or suffering from an incurable congenital disease; the latter type might not last throughout an entire incarnation—it might be a limited amount of karmaphala, for example, which will dissipate naturally before the conclusion of the incarnation, or it might be something, such as ill health or poverty, which the individual can ameliorate by changing the underlying attitudes which brought the unpleasant situation into manifestation, by attacking the problem directly by some means such as hard work or undergoing medical treatment, or by serving others in some way which would reduce the relevant karmic debt load.

It is important to note, in this connection, that we can very easily misjudge the category into which a particular pattern falls. Situations we think are examples of constant karma might be variable. A particular individual might, for example, think that his poverty is unalterable, when, in fact, a more hopeful attitude and greater effort on his part might improve the situation greatly. And the line between the two types can change because of evolutionary occurrences extrinsic to our private situations—for example, presently incurable diseases might be curable in the future due to advances in genetic engineering, and seemingly hopeless economic situations can change due to unexpected changes in the political landscape. Of course, the converse is also true: patterns of constant “bad luck,” for example, might have such karmic force behind them that our efforts to change them in the course of a particular life might be predestined to come to naught. It is wise, however—in my opinion—to assume that we can improve limiting situations unless the evidence to the contrary is overwhelmingly preponderant. Edgar Cayce, when consulted by individuals, almost never advocated an attitude of complete resignation to such situations. And if, of course, the karma is truly constant, positive attitudes can often make it less unpleasant and even hasten its remission so that it is less likely to carry over into subsequent incarnations.

I have opined that all karma can be canceled through the total merging of the consciousness of one’s small self, one’s limited ego, into the consciousness of a Divine Avatar such as Jesus. This is the predominant teaching in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christian Gnosticism. A problem, however, arises. If we have done serious wrong to a person or a group of persons and then achieve sudden total enlightenment—what Buddhists often call satori—does this mean that the debt goes unpaid? Does not the Divine right all wrongs and restore all unbalances?

In my opinion such debts are paid in full and more than in full, but not under the Law of Karma, but rather under the Law of Grace, which transcends karma. A human being who attained enlightenment would certainly pay such debts not because he had to but because he would want to. The indebtedness would then be remitted voluntarily, but not through suffering, most likely, but through service to those whom he had injured. It would be impossible to become enlightened and let go of one’s sinful ego without repentance, and repentance necessarily includes a determination to make amends for wrongs. Consider the following wise words of the late Pope John Paul the Second:

[the] requirement of forgiveness does not cancel out the objective requirements of justice. …In no passage of the gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence toward evil, toward scandals, toward injury or insult. In any case, reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, andsatisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness.(Dives in Misericordia 4).

So, in conclusion, what should be our attitudes toward the often terrifying realities of Divine Justice?

First of all, we should prudently consider and rightly fear retribution for wrongs we are committing or are considering. Some spiritual people have suggested that there is no bad karma because our mistakes and their consequences are necessary components of our paths to Nirvana. I submit, however, that those mistakes which result in severe karmic retribution are unnecessary detours on our road to enlightenment. Such sufferings are good for us, but only as corrections for distortions in our consciousnesses which we should never have allowed to take place. A strong antibiotic might be good for you if you have a serious infection, but it would have been better to have avoided the necessity for the antibiotic by avoiding the infection.

Secondly, such fear should lead us to make amends through service and other means for wrongs which we are aware of. Because of the possibility that severe retributive sanchita karma—unripe karma—may be in store for us, we ought to seize every opportunity to free ourselves from our recognizable vices and to be of service to others in any ways we can.

Then, when we are doing the best we can in these regards, our fear should steadily be replaced by hope, as we address to ourselves the words of the King of Nineveh, who repented in response to the preaching of Jona: “Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish” (Confraternity: Jona 3:9).


Dives in Misericordia: Papal Encyclical of Pope John Paul the Second

Swami Bhaskarananda. The Essentials of Hinduism. Seattle: Viveka Press, 1994.

Swami Satprakashananda. Hinduism and Christianity. St. Louis: Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 1975.

Wolfe, Rolland. The Twelve Religions of the Bible. New York and Toronto: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1982.