The Marriage of Justice and Mercy

Christianity has seeming contradictions like a dog has fleas. This one consistently arises: how can a God of justice be, at the same time, a God of mercy? George MacDonald brings this contradiction to a point: “Those who say justice means the punishing of sin, and mercy the not punishing of sin, and attribute both to God, would make a schism in the very idea of God.”1  Perhaps the conflict derives from our use of secular definitions of justice and mercy for two characteristics of the Christian God, divine justice and divine mercy.

Let us begin with the easier term to define: mercy is undeserved clemency. This definition covers both the secular and divine meanings. These two meanings only part when we ask the question, clemency from what? A police officer that lets a speeding driver off without a ticket shows secular mercy, clemency from state punishment. As a society, we have set punishments for certain actions, and to excuse someone who merits that punishment would be merciful. On the other hand, divine mercy is undeserved clemency that delivers us from slavery to sin and from separation from God. If not for sin, humans would deserve Heaven and could Jesus’ blood and sacrifice to pay for what they cannot afford. This is divine mercy – forgiveness from sins and the reward of Heaven, which humans do not merit. This does not, how­ever, mean that we have been pardoned from our punish­ment. We must ask then, what is the point of punishment? If one is forgiven, what need is there to punish, unless the pur­pose of punishment is something more than to fulfill secular justice?

Let us first address our definition of justice. Justice is fair distribution of reward and punishment. Divine justice, however, is justice with its blindfold removed. “God does pay the price to enter it. But because of sin, humans need nothing of which any just man, the things set fairly and fully before him so that he  understood, would not say, ‘That is fair.’”2 The key word here is fully. As MacDonald explains, all secular judgments regarding justice are partial and therefore not fully just. Let us take the oft-argued example of the salva­tion and judgment of those who have never even heard of the Gospel. Lewis reconciles this problem in his book The Great Divorce by his speculation that “There is no spirit in [hell] to whom He did not preach.”3 God meets his every child after death to ensure that each hears His word. Everyone, then, is given a fair choice one way or another. The accuracy of Lewis’ depiction of how God makes all things just when seen fully cannot be proved nor refuted. But the point is all the same – divine justice is fair when everyone is given an equal chance at salvation.

Now that we have defined divine mercy as unde­served clemency from slavery to sin and separation from God and divine justice as fair distribution of atonement when all things are seen in their fullness, we can address the purpose of punishment. Let us begin with MacDonald’s statement, “One thing must surely be plain – that the punishment of the wrong-doer makes no atonement for the wrong done.”4 For instance, if somebody murders a brother of mine, his or her incarceration or death does not right the wrong done unto me. The brother is still dead, and worse, this murderer is suf­fering in prison or has lost his or her life. As McDonald puts it, “What better is the world, what better is the sinner, what better is God, what better is the truth, that the sinner should suffer – continue suffering to all eternity?”5 In no way is God a being who receives satisfaction from suffering and punishment of sinners. This vengeful God is what has been popularized by the image of his vengeful Hell, full of fire and devils and suffering. In contrast, the Hell that Lewis depicts in The Great Divorce is a place where you get everything you want by just imagining it. This seems more like Heaven; but since the souls are still deprived of their reunion with God, since they still have sinful and harmful desires, they live in a state of perpetual misery that they inflict upon others in Hell and upon themselves. In fact, as their harmful desires are no longer bridled by earthly limitations such as money and power, they inflict even more pain upon each other. This is self-inflicted, rather than God-inflicted, punishment. So then where does God’s punishment come in?

Ironically, Lewis’ depiction of punishment occurs in Heaven rather than in Hell. A ghost who carries around his lust, personified by the red lizard on his shoulder, finally asks a spirit in Heaven to kill his lust so that he may be free from it. This process inflicts excruciating pain on the ghost, enough to cause him “a scream of agony such as… never heard on Earth.”6 Then, the red lizard of lust becomes a beautiful white stallion of spiritual energy and desire. Lewis, then, portrays punishment as rectification rather than retribution. It hurts to pay for sin and thus get rid of it, but getting rid of all sin is the only way to reunification with God. Likewise, MacDonald contends that “primarily, God is not bound to punish sin; he is bound to destroy sin.”7 Punishment is a means of God’s primary effort to destroy our sins.

As I asked before, if one is forgiven, what need is there to punish? Lewis and MacDonald both imply that it is to destroy our sins. So now I will ask the converse: if one is punished and suffers for his or her sins, what need is there to forgive? One might answer that a sin against an infinitely benevolent God is too large a debt to be paid for even by eternal suffering. But that is beside the point because we have already established that God does not find pleasure in seeing the wicked suffer. Lewis points out this human misunderstanding of suffering: “Of sinful pleasure they say, ‘Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences.’”8 One cannot pay for the consequences of a sin by suffering for it later. If suffering and punishment do not atone for sin, then what does? The atonement for sin comes from Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, which paid for all sins and thus gave all the ability to embark on the path of atonement. As MacDonald puts it, “Repentance, restitution, confession, prayer for forgiveness, righteous dealing thereafter, is the sole possible, the only true make-up for sin. For nothing less than this did Christ die.”9

But why does the destruction of sin have to be painful? Why couldn’t God have made it so that destroying sin does not have to occur through the punishment of sin? We cannot be reborn into the redemption of Christ without first experiencing pain and suffering. The wages of sin is death, suffering and eternal separation from the Father. We cannot be redeemed from these wages, and receive the gift of God, which is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, until we realize what we truly deserve. The punishment and pain that comes with the destruction of our sins reveals to us what we truly merit in a way that we could not know otherwise. It is one thing to merely state that we deserve nothing less than eternal suffering and separation from God, and another to actually taste, through pain, from what Christ has saved us. I cannot word this better than my friend who said, “This phenomenon is beautifully captured by the sequence of the red lizard, its removal and its subsequent transformation into a magnificent white stallion. How much greater is God’s glory when he chooses to work his redemption precisely in the unlikeliest, most sinful places? How greater the glory in that?”

By now it seems we have lost track of both justice and mercy, but in fact we can finally explain our ablution in terms of both. We see that mercy, secular or divine, is non­transactional (you cannot deserve it) whereas the secular def­inition of justice is transactional (you pay what you owe; you reap what you sow). Going back to our example of the police officer, he cannot continue to show mercy from MacDonald and Lewis’s theological perspective. If he did, he would no longer be a police officer because he would not be an enforcer of state justice. Likewise, God cannot show divine mercy and still be a divine judge under the transactional definition of justice. Therefore, MacDonald and Lewis both create a non- transactional definition of justice in which atonement for sin is impossible for humans unaided by God. Humans cannot pay for their own atonement; it comes through their will to repent but ultimately it is God who acts to atone. The lustful ghost could not get rid of the lizard himself; he could only ask the spirit to do it for him. Only by divine mercy, which paid for atonement, divine justice is upheld.

Resolving these inconsistencies is like raking leaves in autumn: you can toil to make sense of one and yet another will always fall. I hope, as C.S. Lewis does, that “Heaven will solve our problems, but not by showing us subtle reconcilia­tions between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked out from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem.”

Writer’s Note

I had an interesting conversation with the writing center worker who helped me through this paper. Though he was a stern atheist who called MacDonald and Lewis hucksters and liars, and though I am a Christian who agrees theologi­cally with these two authors, we had a respectful conversa­tion about this topic. More than that, we came to the same conclusion in the end! We literally finished each other’s sen­tences in coming to the implications of these two authors’ views on justice and mercy. We said that those in Lewis’s Hell are inflicting suffering unto themselves, thus fulfilling transactional justice, which is only possible if individuality is retained (since transactions are necessarily made between individuals). In contrast, Lewis’s Heaven is governed by a non-transactional justice whereby a human can only go as far as to ask God to remove sins but cannot perform this atone­ment himself/herself. Thus humans must give themselves fully to God in order for divine justice to be served, for this atonement to happen. This comes at the loss of individuality.

He saw this as atrocious, and of course he has a right to his own views. But I thought it was beautiful – that we would lose ourselves and become one with God. It’s like MacDonald says as he quotes the Gospel of John, “He brings and is bring­ing God and man, and man and man, into perfect unity: ‘I in them and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.’”10

1George MacDonald, “Justice,” Christian Classics, Ethereal Library, Web, 2.
2MacDonald, 2.
3C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, New York: Macmillan, 1946, 140.
4MacDonald, 1.
5MacDonald, 4.
6Lewis, 110.
7MacDonald, 3.
8Lewis, 69.
9MacDonald, 5.
10MacDonald, 5; John 17:23, KJV.

Andrew Kim is a junior concentrating in Neuroscience and Human Biology.

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