The great thing about God is He’s chalk full of admirable traits; He’s kind, loving, just, merciful, Republican, and He hates all the same things we hate. He’s also perfect — perfectly good, perfectly just, and perfectly merciful. Or is He?
Dan Barker (former preacher turned atheist) often points out that a perfectly just and perfectly merciful God cannot exist, because any extension of mercy necessitates a suspension of justice.
For example, if God allows someone into heaven who truly “deserved” to go to hell, then He is being merciful, but not just. But if He sends them to hell, then He is just, but not merciful.
And yet, the Bible seems to insist that God is both just and merciful…
And therefore will Jehovah wait… that he may have mercy upon you: for Jehovah is a God of justice.
~ Isaiah 30:18
His work is perfect; For all his ways are justice.
~ Deuteronomy 32:4
With everlasting lovingkindness will I have mercy on thee, saith Jehovah thy Redeemer.
~ Isaiah 54:8
I will have mercy on whom I have mercy…
~ Romans 9:15
A tale of two judges
To put it another way, imagine there are two judges at either end of this extreme. The perfectly merciful judge absolves everyone of all their crimes. The perfectly just judge, on the other hand, consistently passes down appropriate sentences.
Now imagine that these two judges are one in the same person. How can a judge simultaneously dismiss and demand punishment? If God operates on absolutes, He must do either one or the other.
Can Jesus save us from this contradiction?
Maybe we can get out of this contradiction by assuming that God isn’t actually being merciful, because someone else is paying the price for our transgressions — Jesus! But how exactly this exchange takes place is a bit of a mystery.
It’s definitely not a quid pro quo or eye-for-an-eye exchange, as Jesus is not taking our place in hell. If he’s sitting at the right hand of God, then he can’t possibly be taking on the full extent of our punishment.
If God is not demanding that someone pay the price for our sins, then perhaps God is just forgiving us because we had faith in Jesus. The problem is, if no one is being punished for our sins, then God is back to showing mercy again, and is no longer administering perfect justice. And even if God did punish Jesus for our sins, then we can’t say He’s perfectly just, because He allows the guilty to be rewarded while an innocent scapegoat is punished.
Mercy for some, but justice for all?
The problem with the above objections is that they don’t take into account who defines what is justice. If it is God, then it could be argued, and I think reasonably so, that God’s definition of justice may include an escape clause for those who sincerely repent.
If such is the case, then God could be both perfectly merciful and perfectly just. His justice is perfectly applied to everyone, and His mercy is perfectly applied to those who have repented under that system of justice. Ergo, mercy is no longer a suspension of justice, because extending mercy is a part of justice.
Our earthly systems of justice operate in much the same way, as we often extend mercy to those who have shown remorse for their crimes.
And this explanation also seems to sync with the Bible, since God is said to be perfectly just in all His ways (Deut 32:4) but (as far as I know) it never promises perfect mercy to all people.
Do I have problems with this system of justice? Possibly, because unless God makes it perfectly clear that He exists and that the Bible is His truth, then we may end up in hell over a simple misunderstanding, which doesn’t seem very just. Unless… of course… God says it’s just, in which case we’re all just screwed.
But I’m a reasonable man, and I have no problem confessing my shortcomings to a creator god whose existence is clear and undeniable. But if it’s not made clear, then I must also repent to Zeus, Ra, Baal, Mithras, Vishnu, Ahura Mazda and a thousand other imagined gods… because it’s all just the same.
So I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to say that God could be both perfectly merciful and perfectly just, so as long as perfect justice allows for mercy. If such is the case, then God would be unjust if He didn’t allow for mercy.
[And for the record, yes, I did just defend a Christian viewpoint against an atheist objection. Hopefully this demonstrates my willingness to side with sound reasoning over any personal bias.]
UPDATE: God is Love
Just when I thought I had it all figured out, someone points out that God’s defining characteristic isn’t justice or mercy, it’s love! And God’s not just loving, He is love (1 John 4:8). That being the case, God would almost certainly have to place mercy above justice, and the contradiction remains.