Tract #67: Can God Be Both Merciful and Just?

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Can God Be Both Merciful and Just?

The Christian God is sometimes described as both infinitely merciful and infinitely just. But is it logically possible for one being to have both of these qualities?

Mercy means having pity or compassion for somebody in one’s power. It is typified by the judge who gives a man a lower sentence because the man’s crime was motivated by need instead of by greed. What, then, would infinite mercy be?

One could argue that infinite mercy would mean moving as far as possible in the direction of mercy — that is, always forgiving crimes. One could also argue that infinite mercy means having infinite compassion for the wrongdoer and acting accordingly. If the wrongdoer is truly unrepentant and had no excuse for committing a crime, an infinitely merciful being might still think punishment was in order.

But this runs into a problem when the infinitely merciful being is God. Because God has complete understanding of human frailties, it may be that there is no such thing as a sinful human who has no excuse for committing a crime. If we are all more or less flawed by nature, God’s infinite mercy might lead Him to forgive all sins.

But would this be just?

Justice is the administering of punishment that is appropriate for a crime. An infinitely just being would always assign appropriate punishment — no more, no less.

In the context of this discussion, justice gets us in trouble because there is no good, objective way to assign it. Is it just to let a murderer avoid jail because his violence is motivated by insanity? It might be. Is it just to punish someone eternally for disobeying the command of an infinite being? Perhaps.

Then again, perhaps not. There is no yard stick by which we can measure such things.

Christians sometimes argue that humanity is so sinful that everyone falls short of deserving to go to Heaven. Allowing humans an ultimate reward when they are “soiled” by sin would not be just, so God cannot allow it.

But because God is infinitely merciful, He sent a portion of Himself to Earth as a human to be killed, and this killing of an innocent divine being in human form became a sacrifice of such significance that it serves to justly offset the sins of anyone who accepts it. This allows both justice and mercy to be served.

Or so they say.

Is justice served if a father willingly goes to jail for the crimes of his child? Would a merciful judge allow such a sentence to be carried out? Can justice ever be served by the execution of an innocent? Is it just that those who believe in Jesus are not punished for their sins while those who have not heard of Jesus are eternally tormented? And why would an infinitely wise and loving God create a universe where something so bizarre had to be done to maintain balance?

As a moral atheist, I can appreciate the Christian desire to keep their philosophy consistent and find a solution the mercy vs. justice conflict. But, to me, it all sounds too contrived to make any sense.

Posted on February 1, 2010 at 9:51 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Defining god, Tract

4 Responses

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  1. Written by Anonymous
    on November 18, 2011 at 9:28 am
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    I’m wondering if “mercy” might be usefully defined or described as “not vengeful” – i.e., an act of mercy would imply that a person is dealt with fairly, without undue harshness, with no more severity than necessary. (But I don’t know who gets to decide what’s necessary).

    This dovetails better with the idea of justice. I once read someone who said that justice is what’s in place before the crime; retribution is what happens after it. Justice, then, might be described as consistent equality before the law – the same things are decided in the same way for everyone. Fairness would be a near-synonym.

    Then, saying merciful and just are two sides of one coin — everyone is equally subject to the same laws in the same way, and goes through the same examination in cases of apparent infraction. And, once the exact nature of the infraction is known, retribution is perfectly suited to the exact crime, no more, no less.

    This is, to my mind, a very similar notion to the Eastern idea of karma — it is, literally, your doing. The consequence is intrinsic to the action, it is not imposed from the outside.

    Those who would like to see God embedded in the universe like an egg is embedded in a cake would see the same thing as one who understands karma as I just described it. Those who prefer to conceive of God as being outside the universe and reaching in to operate it like a puppet master would see the hand of God in every such transaction.

    All of this, of course, presupposes that we all understand and agree on exactly what we mean by an event, or an action. But the world does not come neatly carved up into actions and events — it is continuous, and each of us decides what part of this complete continuity to separate out from the rest to call an event or an action. It’s a wonder (not a miracle) that we ever end up agreeing on anything!

  2. Written by Courtr
    on November 18, 2011 at 9:29 am
    Reply · Permalink

    (Sorry – I did not mean to be ‘anonymous’ — I just neglected to fill out the boxes)

  3. Written by Gabriel Alexander
    on January 22, 2013 at 8:19 am
    Reply · Permalink

    God is most definitely INFINITELY MERCIFUL and INFINITELY JUST because “GOD IS LOVE” (1 John 4:8) All of God’s “punishments” are remedial and instructive in nature, not vindictive and sadistic. ALL will be reconciled with God, yes, even Atheists – who now do not believe in God, but who will when God gives them the faith – and Christians – who think that atheists will spend an eternity in hell. God, through the death of His Son, will “reconcile ALL to Him (making peace through the blood of His cross), through Him, whether those on the earth or those in the heavens.” (Colossians 1:19-20) “For God locks up ALL together in stubbornness, that He should be merciful to ALL.” (Romans 11:32) Yes, God is INFINITELY MERCIFUL! So where is God’s JUSTICE, you ask? Here it is: “Yet now, apart from law, a righteousness of God is manifest.” (Romans 3:21) In case you did not know, “righteousness” means “justice.” We are ALL “justified gratuitously in His grace, through the deliverance which is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24) Yes, my Atheist and Christian friends, we are ALL JUSTIFIED GRATUITOUSLY. And that, my dear friends, is definite proof that GOD IS INFINITELY JUST!

  4. Written by Clayton
    on January 26, 2013 at 12:07 am
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    I spent a lot of time looking into what is meant by justice in Christianity. Few Christians can explain what justice is. If you probe them, it turns out the mean something like this: “every offence, no matter how seemingly small, needs to be punished.” To me that is not justice, and the proof is this: would you punish a child for every little offence? Of course not. That is not justice at all, that is abuse. That we have to overlook many offences is clearly part of justice. That we cannot overlook all offences is also part of justice.

    This is a deep topic. If you think about it, you realize that most Christians, as far as they have thought about it, get it wrong. The idea that an innocent man had to be punished for the sins of the guilty makes no sense. To say that Jesus sacrificed himself to save us from our sins is fine, but to say that Jesus received our punishment in order to satisfy the requirements of justice is not fine. That cannot be what justice means or how justice works. Punishing the innocent simply is not justice. You can rationalize why the innocent must be punished, but it is only ever a rationalization, a big lie. Justice requires that only the guilty be punished. And even for the guilty, punishment is not always appropriate. If God wanted the guilty to get away without punishment, he could simply let them. In many instances, that is what he does. There is no super-God above God that forces God to stick to some cruel, ultra-punitive, and legalistic theory of justice. If God is a loving father, then there can be no requirement in the universe that every infraction be punished.

    Theology is a big subject, and there are many theories. What you are referring to in your blog post is penal substitution. In my opinion, penal substitution is a terrible, horrible, inhuman idea–and not in any way present in the Bible. The Bible does not actually present a theory about how the atonement works, and all such theories have to be read into the Bible. All we know from the Bible is that Jesus sacrificed himself according to his Father’s will to save people from their sins. We do not know why the sacrifice happened or how it works. Most Christians assume that we are saved not from our sins themselves but only from the consequences (including the punishment) of our sins. This also makes no sense to me. Are we going to continue lying, cheating, and harming each other for all eternity, but with God always waving away the consequences? Is that justice? Or is God simply going to magically make us good without any effort on our part? That would be to override our freedom and force a personality onto us that we did not choose. Is that justice? What most Christians think, and indeed what most theologians think about justice does not make sense, and so if you are curious to find a coherent Christian argument about justice, you have to look at what the very best Christians have said and thought about justice.

    A few years ago I spent many months reading the Old Testament with this very question in mind. I also read John Calvin’s magnum opus The Institutes of the Christian Religion and Augustine’s The City of God, and whatever I could find on the internet, including the sermons of John Wesley. The only answer I ever found that even began to satisfy me was in George MacDonald’s sermon (available online) “Justice” from his book Unspoken Sermons (3rd series). That sermon presents a truly humane understanding of justice and mercy and how they are completely interdependent. It does not go to any of the extremes it is possible to go to. (I think Gabriel goes to one of these extremes when he says that all punishments are remedial and instructive. That is too simple. That doesn’t do justice to what human beings have always meant by justice. God is definitely trying to instruct us, but in some cases instruction is inappropriate–you don’t try to improve and enlighten a serial killer, you try to stop him and restrain him.) George MacDonald talks about the nature of justice in a deeply intelligible way. I honestly believe that no Christian has ever addressed the topic of justice with as much clarity and penetration.

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