One of the most common complaints conservative people in general have against progressives in general is our "bleeding heart." We fixate on peace and love, fail to comprehend the depth of human hatreds and depravity, and try to domesticate the wrathful God of the ancients into a Santa Claus. In extreme cases, they accuse us of hiding our own deep hatreds and enmities behind a cloak of sanctimonious moral superiority.
Naturally, these criticisms are simplistic (I might add that my characterization of them is simplistic too. Touche!). There are fundamental issues at stake here, even if people on either side don't always articulate them clearly. I would like to introduce some clarity by taking another look at the question of what God's justice/judgment is. There are other paths to the fundamental issues, but I think this one gets us there faster.
To start, let's consider the question, "What rights over us does God have by virtue of having created us?" An orthodox Christian person might want to frame the question more pointedly: "What rights does an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, infinite and perfect being have over something he has made?" (Note: use of the masculine pronoun for God is a compromise with Christian tradition. Female readers feel free to be suitably outraged.) A typical starting place is the apostle Paul's paraphrase of Isaiah 29:16, "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" (Romans 9:20). The context of Paul's paraphrase explains why this is a good place to start. Paul is in the middle of explaining how God's election of some and rejection of others is part of his plan for salvation. He imagines someone objecting that it is not fair for God to condemn us if he is involved in "hardening" those he rejects. Paul's answer is that God has the right to decide whom to save and whom to condemn. In Paul's mind the justice of God's election is unimpeachable, because all are worthy of condemnation due to sin. We can't complain if God only chooses to save some because our own attitudes and actions show that we are haters of God and the human race. "What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath -- prepared for destruction?" (9:22).
Paul assumes there is only one right answer: So what? What's your problem? As sinners vs. a holy God, we have no grounds for complaint. But behind this lies another, more fundamental distinction that many orthodox believers discern in this text: As creatures vs. our creator, we have no grounds for complaint. The potter analogy lends itself to this extended application. And, in fact, I intend to take it that way for now (even though I think in Paul's argument human sinfulness is the issue, not creatureliness), because I think a thorough examination of it will impact the way we think of our standing as sinners before God as well.
So, are we going to cross this line in the sand? Do we dare to actually try to answer the question, or shall we do what is expected of us, swallow our scruples/objections and bow the knee to divine/apostolic authority? Who are we, indeed! Of course, we have an acute interest in this question, being the objects of God's supposed sovereign choices to save or condemn. We're a bit different from a pot, after all. We're sentient. We think. We have feelings. We suffer. We love and hate. We bear God's image. Ane we're totally at God's mercy. Do those facts change God's rights and obligations towards us at all?
Yep, and we all know it. Here are a few things to admit: First, a creator's superiority in power, wisdom, knowledge or perfection relative to his creatures has nothing to do with whether he is justified in doing A or B with them. Second, for a creator to make a sentient being, inflict pain on that being without just cause, and not recompense that being for its sufferings is evil. Third, an absolutely unlimited creator never has sufficient cause to inflict pain on one of his creations, for he can always accomplish his purpose adequately some other way.
Now, since the Bible is full of God inflicting pain on human beings, we can only conclude that God, as presented by the Biblical authors, is limited or limits himself in his dealings with us.