Does Divine Mercy Contradict Divine Justice?
The Problem at Hand
A few years ago, I went to a debate at San Diego State between the prominent atheist Dan Barker and a Christian scholar. The topic of the debate was, “God and Suffering: How Can a Good God Allow So Much Suffering?” I found it extremely interesting, especially one argument among the many Dan Barker made—an argument that I have never forgotten. He argued against the Christian idea that God is all merciful and all just at the same time, for he held that it is impossible for complete justice and mercy to coexist because the terms “justice” and “mercy” are inherently contradictory. I approached him after the debate and posed the question, “If humans can be just and merciful, why can’t God be?” He answered, “Humans can be merciful in a moment and just in another but not at the same time. Similarly, God can be merciful in a moment and just in another. But even God, if he did exist, could not be all just and all merciful at the same time. That is inherently impossible.” I was flummoxed. I went home and thought hard about this. I still think about this problem. The idea of God being all just and all merciful is a stumbling block for a lot of people, Christians and non-Christians alike. So how is it that God can be all just and all merciful at the same time?
Definitions of Justice and Mercy—Dictionary, Plato, and Aristotle
When discussing, debating, and using broad terms like “justice” and “mercy” it is important to know what these terms mean. Today, justice can be defined as doing what is right and mercy as doing what is kind. The Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines justice as, “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals,” and mercy as, “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly.”[i]
Justice has traditionally been defined in many different ways. In Plato’s Republic for example, Socrates explored multiple definitions of justice. Some of Plato’s philosophers think justice is paying one’s debts. One person thinks justice is giving everyone the same amount. Another thinks justice is helping one’s own, and so on. In every case, Socrates exposes these definitions as inadequate. What emerges through Socrates’ conversations is that justice is “just deserts,” that is, paying people according to their merits or giving people their due.[ii]
Aristotle puts the same point differently. “Justice is equality, but only for equals; and justice is inequality, but only for those who are unequal.”[iii] In other words, he is saying that people who are equal should be treated equally and people who are unequal should be treated unequally. It is like saying that people who play basketball well should be on the varsity team and people who do not should not be on the team.
Why Is Not God Only Just—Why Merciful?
If justice is giving what is due and mercy is overlooking what is due then it appears that justice and mercy really are contradictory. In addition, we have an even deeper problem. Not only does God not appear to be all just and all merciful at the same time, but one could also argue that he should be an all just God and not be merciful at all, let alone be all merciful. You could also say that some people are better people and kinder than others, while some are more wicked; so, it might seem natural that God should treat people according to their merits.
Indeed, in many religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, God is perceived to treat people according to their virtue and vice. In Hinduism, for example, the merits of one’s actions in this life determine in what form he or she is reincarnated in the next life. For example, those who are bad may be cockroaches, but those who are good may be a man or even a rich man. Nabeel Qureshi, an assistant to the apologist, Ravi Zacharias, visited Dartmouth in 2013 and gave a short talk. He used to be a Muslim and explained that in Islam, your good deeds have to outweigh your bad ones in order to go to Heaven. So if I were to do something very morally bad today, I would simply have to make sure that I do a few good things to outweigh that bad thing I did and then I will be okay.
The Christian understanding is different. God does not reward based on people’s virtue and vice but based on the genuineness of their repentance. It is clear in Christianity that great sinners can make it to Heaven if they repent genuinely. For example, even the Apostle Paul, who was a persecutor of Christians, was able through repentance to change and be completely forgiven. He became not merely a follower of Christ but a leader and excellent, though not perfect, moral exemplar. It seems strange for God to give mercy at all but he does because that is the nature of God. Moreover, God understands the moral fragility of humans, so, he is not surprised when humans sin. Still, it seems unfair for God to give an equal dealing, in other words, mercy, both to a man who lied and also to Hitler, for example. Just as it seems unfair for God to give out an equal dealing to two people where one is an exceptionally kind person while the other does nice things for others every once in a while. One might think the reward and punishment for these people should match the amount of good and evil they bring to the world, but this is not the Christian understanding.
Although treating these people the same might appear unfair because to us there seems to be a vast gap between the merits of the lying man and the merits of Hitler, perhaps as large as the gap between the person and the occasional giver, the gap is actually quite small. Both of these people, and all of us, fall so far short of the standard set. For us to see this we have to think about the nature of God and Heaven. God is perfect, as is Heaven. Heaven is not a nice place where nice people can go. It is perfect, and in Heaven people are completely surrounded by God in their presence, so, in order to go there, a person cannot merely be nice but must be pure, unstained, and absent of all sin, which is only possible through God’s mercy and, ultimately, God’s grace. A sin is any offense against God, and a sinner is anyone who has ever sinned. Thus both the lying man and Hitler are similar in that they are sinners. And nothing they or we do could ever be enough to outweigh, undo, or take back any sin. Scripture explains it like this: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”[iv] God knows this and this is why as imperfect, sinful humans we need Jesus if we have any hope of getting to Heaven.
God As All Merciful and All Just
Let us return to our original question: “How can God be all merciful and all just at the same time?” Remember, first, that mercy is the prerogative of the injured party. The injured party gets to decide whether and to what degree he will overlook the offense. Since our offense of sin is against God, he therefore gets to decide the penalty of that sin. It is within his right to decide to accept a lower penalty. The party in debt cannot pay less than what he owes if the other party does not agree, and similarly, the person who is wronged cannot extract more from the party in debt but can extract less, since that is his prerogative.
Moreover, Christianity teaches that God did not merely choose to accept a lesser punishment or to exact no punishment at all, but rather than ignoring our sin, he exacted the penalty in an unexpected way. Christians hold that, rather than punish us for our sins, God allowed Jesus to die for our sins. In other words, God paid the penalty for himself. He did not allow the payment to disappear as if sin never happened. Jesus came down to Earth to repay it with his own flesh and blood. So, how can Jesus in his death “pay” for somebody else? How can substitutionary atonement be allowed? On one level, the answer to this question is a mystery at the heart of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, we do have some tools to understand it. Perhaps because sin is such an offense against God, it requires a God-sized atonement and there is no other atonement that will work. For clearly our repentance without Jesus could never be enough. Yes, in theory we could stop committing a sin but we cannot take back what we have already done. There is no way to reverse the act. So, to say, as we said above, that God rewards people based on the genuineness of our repentance, should sound strange, because it is not actually the whole story. We need a God-sized remedy. It is like paying off the national debt. The debt is so huge that we need something drastically bigger than what we might initially imagine to pay it off (although I have no solutions for that one right now). The difference with sin, however, is that the debt that we owe to God is so much bigger than the national debt that all the good works in the world could not be enough to right our former wrongs. We needed Jesus to do this for us. This makes sense because Jesus did not deserve to die at all. Unlike us, Jesus never sinned, and so his death serves a greater purpose. As Isaiah 53:5 says, “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.”[v] As fifth century theologian Athanasius says:
Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. [vi]
In this way God remains just and merciful at the same time. Human sin requires punishment. Yet, Jesus in his death relieves us of that punishment, extending us forgiveness, or mercy. Not only that, but Jesus in his resurrection not only forgives us but invites us to be transformed. God does not merely allow Jesus to relieve us of the punishment for our sins while we go on sinning, hurting others, and ourselves, living miserable lives. Rather, God invites us to let Him change us so that instead of sinning we might be able to love Him, others, and ourselves as He has loved us. As II Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[vii]
What Do We Do Now?
Since God is being all merciful and all just by providing a God-sized remedy for sin that we are not able to provide, we must do only what we can do—accept His payment on our behalf and be grateful and rejoice not only in being forgiven but in being given the chance to be transformed. Salvation is a gift, and the one thing God asks of us in response to that gift is to allow Jesus to be our Lord.
i. “Justice,” Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, 2 March 2014 <www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/justice>; “Mercy,” Merriam-Webster.
ii. Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indiana: Hackett, 1992).
iii. “Plato and Aristotle on Equality,” Conceptions of Equality, 2 March 2014 <pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~stanlick/equality1.html>.
iv. Romans 3:23 (ESV).
v. Isaiah 53:5 (ESV).
vi. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. Sister Penelope Lawson, 6 March 2014 < www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/ath-inc.htm#ch_4>, 20.
vii. II Corinthians 5:21 (ESV).
Danielle D’Souza ’17 is from San Diego, CA. She is a prospective double major in Classical Studies and History.apologetics, Aristotle, Athanasius, atheism, Dan Barker, Islam, justice, love, mercy, Nabeel Qureshi, philosophy, Plato, Ravi Zacharias, religion, Socrates, theology