For example, if a thief steals $2.00 we expect a different punishment than if he steals $20,000.00. If someone accidentally drops a gun and it shoots a person, that is different than if he deliberately shot the person from ambush.
But how can justice be served in any of these cases? To have a thief pay back the money is not justice because there is no punishment. But how much punishment is appropriate? The Old Testament standard a required 20% penalty in addition to the restitution. To cut off the hand of a thief (as is done in some cultures) seems overly severe. The Old Testament "eye for an eye" standard set a LIMIT on punishment so that the punishment would fit the crime.
Most people would agree that the punishment SHOULD fit the crime, but how can we agree on what that means in any given circumstance? The requirements of the law might satisfy a majority of the people, but there will be some who think the punishment is too harsh and some who think the punishment is too lenient.
Beyond that, the application of "justice" is not necessarily even. One murdering rapist gets off on a technicality while another gets the death penalty. There is plenty of evidence that the skin color or the educational attainment or the socioeconomic standing of the person will affect the outcome of the trial and the punishment imposed by the court.
What of limits on "cruel and unusual" punishment? If someone kidnaps, abuses, tortures and kills a child, how could society begin to mete out real justice? If he was sentenced to death in the USA he would still have 30 years or so to live in prison before his appeals ran out. Then, if he is put to death, it must be painless. Is this justice? Some would say he should be tortured to death, but then how are we not stooping to the same level of brutal barbarism as the criminal?
How can there be real justice? It is a cinch that real justice - absolute justice - cannot be achieved in our societies. Only some criminals are caught. Of these only some are convicted. Of these different ones will get different sentences. In every case the court imposed punishment will be imperfect and limited.
But there is God and He is just!
While our understanding and power are limited, God is infinite, all powerful and eternal. We can only catch some - but God will catch all. Our courts are flawed, but God's judgment is perfect. We can only deal with people in this life, but God can deal with them for eternity.
But consider the rest of the story. While we are concerned with justice for crimes against other people, God is also concerned with justice for crimes against Himself. Our crimes against humans are one aspect of that, but the deeper issue is our responsibility to recognize, submit to and obey the one who created humans. Since God is infinitely good, our rebellion against Him is even more offensive than the most heinous crime of humans against other humans.
(Revelation 20:12–15) And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.
13 The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works.
14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
15 And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
God's justice is perfect, and we all deserve the ultimate sentence. But praise God that He provided a way of answering the demands of justice against our sin while granting mercy and grace to those who call on Him in faith.
(2 Corinthians 5:21) For He made [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
(1 Peter 2:24) who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.
In the work of Jesus Christ we have both justice and mercy. He paid the just punishment for the sins of everyone who will call on Him for salvation.