“Here is another enigma that occurs on earth:
Sometimes there are righteous people who get what the wicked deserve,
and sometimes there are wicked people who get what the righteous deserve.
I said, “This also is an enigma.” Ecclesiastes 8:14 [NET]
Who can’t relate to this? Who hasn’t encountered this in their own life? The wicked are not “them,” and the righteous are not “us.” In fact, there is only “us,” and “we” are both the righteous and the wicked. To believe otherwise is to fail of humility, a virtue the scriptures see as crucial to the godly life.
Yet, make no mistake. There is a great enigma here at the heart of human experience in this world. The enigma is not that human life in this world is unexplainable but rather that it is unpredictable in ways that seem unjust.
When God completed creation, he saw that everything he had made was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The Preacher, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes (Eccl. 1:1), correctly understands that, in a “very good” world, righteous acts would always bring about blessing and prosperity, and wicked acts would always bring about suffering and hardship. The way the Preacher frames this verse makes clear that he understands that there should be a correspondence between righteous acts and positive outcomes and between wicked acts and negative outcomes, what I will call a “correspondence of deserving.”
And yet, the great enigma is that the world is not like that. The correspondence between actions and deservings has broken down. Deservings now no longer predictably follow their appropriate actions as they should in a “very good” world.
But, of course, this is no longer the “very good” world that God surveyed at the close of the sixth day. A catastrophe has taken place. The ground is now cursed (Gen. 3:17). The fabric of reality is now bent, twisted, distorted. The correspondence of deservings no long runs a predictable course. The formerly good ground now sprouts with thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:18).
The fundamental justice of God was woven into the fabric of reality. Before the Fall, the correspondence of deservings was presumably reliably and predictably in place. With the catastrophic fall of the universe, that weave has unraveled. It is no longer reliable or predictable.
The fallen world of today retains elements of God’s goodness intermixed with the corruptions of the Fall. The result is an unpredictable sort of apparent randomness, so that in any given, specific circumstance, the outcome is hard to foresee.
In such a state of affairs, the just person must choose to act justly not for the sake of the outcomes (rewards) but simply for the sake of act itself. Self-interest is not a reliable guide to actions, because outcomes can now not be depended upon to correspond to the justice and goodness of the act. Peter recognizes this in his first letter, when he says, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if God wills it, than for doing evil” 1 Peter 3:17 NET) We will suffer in this bend and fallen world. Peter has no doubts about that. The follower of Jesus, Peter insists, must simply apply him or herself to the doing good, following in the steps of Christ, and leave the consequences to sort themselves out.