Can An All Just God Be All Merciful As Well?

There are many in the Christian religion that have a concept of God that says he is perfectly just yet also perfectly merciful. This poses an interesting problem which seems to make that completely incoherent.

Justice involves giving someone what they deserve based on their actions. A god then who is ALL just, would be just to all humans without exception. To make an exception would be to not be “all just”. Yet, Christians also speak of God being a merciful God. Mercy involves NOT giving someone what they in fact do deserve. So it would seem that if God is merciful at anytime at all, he is not being totally just at that time. How is it that mercy and justice can co-exist without one canceling out the other completely?

The Christian faith is chocked full of quandaries like this. Christians are usually completely content to simply say that God is perfect in all of these ways even though this really makes no sense at all. It seem to me that if a Christian is to take the stories that are found in the Bible to be true, that they have to admit that God is either not “all just” or that he is not “all merciful” because he cannot be both if language has any meaning.

Maybe this is one of those things where modern Christians are trying too hard to give a complete philosophical description of God yet have gone much to far in the language that they use. I am not sure if the Bible even requires the belief that God is ALL just or ALL merciful and if that is the case, then there is no problem.

I have often thought about this question but came across it again here today.


12 Responses to “Can An All Just God Be All Merciful As Well?”

  • Ryan:

    Would you say that it’s possible for infinite justice to be satisfied by an infinite sacrifice?

    If that’s the case, then could God be:
    -infinitely just
    -satisfied by an infinite sacrifice

    We must assume the doctrine of total depravity (e.g. that we’re all deserving of death) for this to work — it’s a common misconception amongst believers and unbelievers alike that some people are better than others with respect to what sort of punishment they should receive. It’s a similar misconception I think that the suffering in this world is “punishment” — it clearly is not. The wages of sin are spiritual death, not physical death.

    Infinite mercy is tougher; any answer to this question requires both a discussion of free will (and whether it is more or less merciful to allow people to do whatever they want to do) and a discussion of natural evil (suffering in the world, old age, etc.).

    So you’ve got to solve the problem of evil and the problem of free will, which are both toughies. Not sure I can do it in a post, but I’d be interested in hearing what you think about them :)

  • Jeff:

    Hey Ryan,
    I knew I could count on a good reply from you. ;-)

    You are correct in that this is totally a loaded conversation so it might be difficult to tackle it all in a blog post but here goes…

    “Would you say that it’s possible for infinite justice to be satisfied by an infinite sacrifice?”

    I am not sure that makes it any less confusing or difficult theologically for the Christian. Here are a few things that stick out to me immediately:

    - Christ is supposed to be both God and Man. What was “sacrificed”? Christ the man died on the cross not God. If Christ is God, and God cannot change nor die, then there was no infinite sacrifice. It was the human nature of Christ that was sacrificed. Of course you have the “kenosis” of Phil 2 that talks about Christ emptying himself but I don’t think anyone thinks he emptied his deity.

    - What would an infinite sacrifice be? Is being dead for 3 days an infinite sacrifice? Or is him taking on a human nature the infinite sacrifice? But it isn’t infinite since he “took on” the human nature only 2k yrs ago. Or is the infinite sacrifice that the “infinite” wrath of god was poured out on him at the cross? But is go infinitely wrathful?

    - Is it just for an innocent person to “take on the punishment” of a guilty person? Not in our court systems it is not. Who would think that me taking the place of Charles Manson and letting him go free was just in any way?

    Concerning death and sin,

    If the wages of sin is spiritual death and not physical death, do you think that there was physical death before the fall?

  • John Hitchens:

    Justice is getting what you deserve (death) Mercy is getting what you don’t deserve (life). So justice is a penalty that has to be paid mercy is a penalty not given. Christ was given the penalty we are therefore not given it. How is that not justice and mercy. You seem to say if Manson was given freedom that would not be justice. Since Manson was killed in your eyes he paid the price right? So why can the price of justice, death not be paid for him? Were there never times in human history where the price was substituted. Even as recent as world war II in prisoner of war camps there were people saying take me instead of another and the offer was accepted. Through out history substitutes have been made. May be not in the recent history of our courts but it is not uncommon when you look at history. Besides you are assuming we the USA and our laws are perfect. Some would point to abortion (if you believe this is wrong) slavery, the death penalty and other laws where we may not exactly have it all right all the time.
    Their was one act that brought sin into all our lives can not one act relieve it? If of course you believe in the first transgression. Did not the one act bring in infinite sin could not one act bring in infinite mercy?

    As far as death before the fall? As you know the tree of life was in the garden so there was no death part of the curse and punishment was to be banned from the tree life. Death was not part of the original plan. So what is your point about death?

  • Jeff:

    Hi John,
    Thanks for the reply.

    If justice is getting what YOU deserve, how is it just for someone who is innocent to take the punishment of someone who is guilty? This has less to do with our specific laws or case history in the US than it does with the definition of justice. I don’t see how you wouldn’t think it was a travesty if a serial killer was released from prison and an innocent person was put in prison in his place leaving the killer free to kill again. And when he did kill again, I would think that you would be justifiably upset. Justice requires a payment be made BY THE ONE WHO COMMITTED THE CRIME. Not just by anyone. Often times the atonement of Christ is talked about like a financial debt that is owed and that makes it seem more fair. If my son owed a financial debt, i could pay it for him and he would be absolved. But sin as Christians describe it, is not like a financial debt. It is a moral crime that demands a restitution from the one who committed the crime.

    As far as one act bring in sin and one act absolving from the punishment of sin… I know that is Paul’s argument in Romans 5 but I am not sure that it makes real clear sense. In the first place, sin is not infinite it is finite. And the act that supposedly brought mercy is also not infinite. It was a temporal punishment which only lasted presumably 3 days. How does the death of one human that lasts for only 3 days atone for the sum total of all sins and crimes against God committed by all humans of all time? Assuming the truth of conservative christian theology that Christ is the infinite God, you would have to assume that God was put to death on the cross. But that is not what Christians believe. They believe that Jesus was God AND man and that the human nature of Christ was killed on the cross. The divine nature of Christ cannot be killed without ceasing to be God which would be an even bigger problem.

    About death and sin, I was responding to Ryan above. He mentioned that he thought the punishment of sin was spiritual death and so I was curious if he thought that there was physical death before the fall. That is a problematic position for Christians which is why I asked it. It kind of depends on your view of Gen 1 and 2 and of the age of the earth and the origin of species etc. In looking at the world as we know it, it seems that physical death is an essential part of the whole process.

  • John Hitchens:

    Justice is decided by either the laws and or the Judge. God who gave the laws and is the ultimate judge, says the debt of one sin even our little white lies is death. God says the debt has to be paid in order for us to be with Him in his presence. He in His mercy has allowed His son to pay our debt. Since he is the judge he gets to deicde what the cost is and how it is paid. Not me or you or human laws over rides his authority. You might call Him the supreme court of the universe. So even though you and I believe our thoughts and ways are very moral, high, and full of wisdom, God says His ways are not our ways and his ways are much higher than ours. He also tells not to lean on our own understanding. It is flawed! He also says mercy triumphs over justice. James 2: 13.
    When you talk about a killer you underestimate the power of God. When God grants mercy the individual who accepts his free gift, Christ is no longer the same person. he longer has to be a slave to sin. He becomes a child of God and has the power to reject sin. He has the power to not be a killer. Prior to receiving God’s mercy he doesn’t even know there is another way. Once Christ comes into his life as he will once the free gift is accepted he is a new creation. You are assuming mercy makes no sense because the individual will stay the same. You don’t understand what it is God offers. Look at the examples of True Christians in the Bible when Christ touched and healed them he did so physically and spiritually. no one was the same who was touched by him. The women at the well, the chained mad man, even Paul.

    Paul doesn’t make sense to you does that make it nonsense? Where did you get that sin is finite. Does it say that somewhere. Sin has effects we don’t even know about. No where does it say sin is limited in it’s reach. In fact the first sin of Adam is still affecting lives and continues to until Christ is accepted in their lives. Again here you make up your own definitions. God says the exact opposite he says the gift is even more powerful then the one act of sin because of who offered it. Some would say I am arguing from a book and using it as truth. I am because I believe it is. I will take God’s definition and words over some one else’s. You say sin is finite prove it.
    How did one sin from one man affect us all? Well for one God said it did. He says if we all came from the same guy then we inherited his nature, sin nature. The gift is as powerful as the curse so if the first nature is obtained from our ancestor can not the gift come from another and provide us with a new nature. Christians have two natures until we die. I am sure you are aware of flesh and spirit. The spirit when we listen and rely on him to act leads to life. When we act on the flesh nature which individuals who are not Christians have only then it leads to death. As your freind said spiritual death. Life eternally with out Christ.

    Sorry but I got lost on your last point. I understand the arguments about the age of the earth and what others have said the age of the bible says earth is, carbon dating, a day is like a thousand, etc etc etc, wasn’t sure what you meant by physical death is an essential part of the whole process.

    By the way I believe our minds are finite So when you talk about problems they are not problems for the infinite God. I may never understand all God has given me to read. Yet I believe every one can understand enough to know Christ which is the whole purpose of the book as John’s states in revelations. We see as in a mirror but God promises it will jot always be that way. No one can answer every mystery of the Bible and there are many. But the world his words and everything around you is suppose to point you to Him. His infinite love. For you and everyone. You can get tied up in all the minutia of the Bible and loose the purpose. It is a real simple concept. When we fall short of the glory of God and he says every one does. And I’m betting you will have to admit you have done wrong in your life (missed the mark) then we are sinners. Period. Since God makes the rules he says you got to pay a price for that. Death. You can either choose to accept his mercy that triumphs over justice or you can say this is stupid and makes no sense.
    Doesn’t change His love for you or the facts. But as surely as the gensius of man now knows the earth to ne round when at one tome the smartest men in the world said it was flat. He is not a liar and his words will come true.

  • John Hitchens:

    Sorry I am working on my iPad in Helsinki and tried to review my writing and it submitted it. Please forgive the misspellings etc. I hope it doesn’t distract or confuse you about what I was trying to say.

  • John Hitchens:

    I have spent some time on your site it is very informative. Love the debates. Listening to both sides discuss their arguments. Much smarter and well studied then I will ever be. You see winners from your point of view. But I am amazed at how neither side can really win. It comes down for me to personal experience. Each side has points where I say yea that makes sense then the other side makes their point and I have to agree they are good. But my personal experience with God fills all the holes and tips the scale for me. It really comes down to what you choose to believe. A choice. As Joshua said choose this day who you will serve. We all serve something! Serving to prove He doesn’t exist, kids’ money, pleasure, something. I choose him.

  • Jeff:

    Hi John, Thanks again for the continued comments.

    You have said a lot there so i will take it one step at a time.

    Are you saying that it is just to punish an innocent person for the crimes of a guilty person? Is this something that we should follow and change our legal system to better reflect what god would do?

    Are you saying that we should release a serial killer from prison if they become a Christian? Since now that they are a Christian they can no longer be a danger so society?

    Sin is finite not infinite. even if you believe the bible and look at Adam’s sin effecting the whole human race it is still finite. If it were infinite it would have had no beginning and no end. This is clearly not the case.

    My point was to say that I don’t see how one human being can take the place of the whole human race (potentially) in redemption. You might say that Jesus is the son of god and that is how. But Jesus presumably has two natures, one human and one divine. It is the human nature that was crucified not the divine. At least according to conservative Christian theology. If that is true, then how is it just for one human to be killed for 3 days and this supposedly takes the place of the sum total of all humanity’s punishment of hell for eternity? Really?? You might say, well that is just how god does it and he says it is ok. Fine. But if we are trying to model our justice system after how god works we have some serious changes to make. Would it makes sense to imprison one person for 3 days and then let all prisoners in all jails out forever?

    Ryan had commented above that the result of the fall was spiritual death and not physical death. I had responded to that just asking if he thought there was death before the fall. 100% of the physical evidence tells us that there has been death on this planet for far longer than 6000 to 10,000 years. This is obviously a totally different subject and I didn’t want to get into that here. I was just curious what Ryan thought on that point.

    Final Paragraph:
    I see you are also starting with the presumption that the bible is perfect and is god’s word and that it cannot be questioned. I would encourage you to take a step back and take a look at why it is you think that. The bible is a collection of letters written by men which have all the signs of being written by men (errors, historical inaccuracies, theological contradictions, numerical mistakes, etc). It is only when you start off with the presumption that all 66 books of the protestant bible MUST agree that you look for agreement in them. If you don’t start off with that assumption (which is never stated in the bible itself btw) you look at it like you would any other ancient book.

    Yes we can all choose which way we will go. But should we just make an arbitrary choice and randomly pick something? If so, why not Islam? Why no Buddhism? Why not Atheism? We have to do our best to look at the evidence. Our personal experiences are often wrong. Lots of people have crazy experiences that they interpret as being from god but humans are notorious for getting those kinds of things wrong. If we can so easily make mistakes when it comes to interpreting our subjective experiences, then it seems best that we set those experiences aside and see what experiences are in line with the evidence. If the evidence points in a different direction then we have no other choice then to follow the evidence. At least that is what I think. :)

  • John:

    Jeff, thanks for reading and responding:

    Something I copied from a site follows:
    The first sin of disobedience resulted in death to the spiritual nature of humankind. The Church teaches that humans are a union of body and soul. Hence, the original sin attributed to our first parents wounded the nature of our first parents and their progeny. As a consequence, all children born into the world lack spiritual life (also called grace) in their soul. The lack of grace prevents a person from inheriting everlasting spiritual life after bodily death.

    My reply:

    Justice: I did not say it is just to punish an innocent person for crimes of a guilty person. God said he will accept a sinless volunteer to die for all of us and all our sins. Different then what you are saying. It is His design and way not mine. If we did change our legal system how many volunteers do you think there would be for say…. Charles Manson? One for each of his victims? Any? How many of them would be sinless? So we could change the legal system but not sure it would change anything because no one would meet the criteria to be the substitute. Volunteer and sinless.

    Killer: I did not say release a serial killer here on earth because he becomes a Christian. God’s mercy and gift applies to everlasting life in heaven not here on earth. It is a gift we receive once our mortal bodies die and our spirit goes on to live with God forever. Where we will be perfect as he is and unable to sin. Here on earth I still have the capability to sin and do every day even though I am a Christian.

    Paul: One definition of infinite: Unable to measure, impossible to calculate, and endless. I suppose some one could calculate this I just can’t. If the world was to never end the amount of lives with out a spirit nature would have no end. It has the potential to go forever, as does the amount of people who accept the gift of Christ.

    Jeff, your point is well taken but it really doesn’t matter what you or I think the acceptable penalty or cost is; a day, 20 years, 50,000 lives for one. We don’t make the decisions. (in fact another discussion is who sets the bar, standard, laws? Where do we get the plum line of what is right and wrong). You also don’t appreciate the sacrifice. You are comparing God’s son to us. His blood and sacrifice was acceptable because of the preciousness of the blood. We can not put that in place in our legal system because we are not at his level. We have modeled our legal system after Christian principles but like every system we put in place it is as flawed as we are. Yet it is the best system there is here on earth. When Christ died and when you and I die our spirit lives on. Christ had two natures for sure, He was both God and man. You can not separate them. He died, for sure according to that book, any way. But his spirit never died and neither will yours and mine. Some will go on to suffer forever and others to live with Christ. But what was amazing is he took on all the sin of the world every one of them. That is how he compares to us. God put Him on the scales with the sin of the world, compared them and found the Son was worthy. Precious beyond measure. I guess that means infinite!

    Death: would love to hear Ryan and your thoughts.

    Final paragraph: The Bible can and should be questioned! It is a collection of players and thoughts from many periods of time. It is to be chewed on; read and reread. Contemplated, talked about, and debated, constantly. That is when the Holy spirit can and will lead you to understanding. We don’t know everything but we know enough. As it says, All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
    Many would disagree with you on those errors and I have read and heard the debates on many of them. We could speak on each of those for years. It amazing the passion and intelligence displayed on both sides. But it may come down to 1 Corinthians 18 thru 25. (you probably have read it.) God relied on some of the least educated people with many faults and failures to start and spread his church and yet through those people his church has lasted quite a few years; amazing considering how many people have tried and would love to see it go away.

    Personal experiences I am talking about are not often wrong. If it has happened to you, you know it. There is nothing like it. There are no words to detail it. He touches you in a way you have never experienced. Read some of the ancient saints St John of the cross and Theresa Avila. He fills your heart with a love that can not be contained. A love…… I don’t even no what to say but Jeff; weigh the evidence all day. Pick Atheist Islam etc. but there is nothing that will fill your heart and give you peace as He does. Nothing. It is not what I think, I KNOW IT! :)

  • John Hitchens:

    Reread your original post about the conflict justice vs mercy! Short answer the cross!

  • The above site covers a lot. But it tells me everything you write about and have on your site is a debate that is far from proven on either side. It comes down to brilliant people on both sides disagree on what is truth and what is not. What can be measured and what can not be accurately measured. Who says it’s accurate and who says it is not. I guess my point is, if brilliant people disagree, how do we average Joes know? How do we choose? You choose the side you do because you say it can be measured and proven but everything I read from the experts on the other side say it takes more faith to believe in your so called accurate measurements then it would the Bible version. You talk about errors in the bible; this website’s experts say there are none. They have a section on their website called creation vs. evolution (very interesting). They also have a section on how you can know the bible is true (which refutes your error theories). Their comments are direct attacks on what you say from your experts is the truth. I could go on and list each of their dismissals about each of your topics listed as why you don’t believe and how it proves Christianity is false. But if all this brain power can not agree, what is truth? What are the facts? Who is right?
    You dismiss experience so you say I can not claim God exist from that either; yet I think it is more accurate than your science god after reading both arguments. It really comes down again to a choice. You are choosing to have faith in one side. You are choosing to believe what other experts say is doubtful. Why? How is your choosing better than someone else’s? Each can claim brilliance that others side scuff at. You are Choosing what you believe is the REAL TRUTH. Yet, until science can prove how life began from nothing which it can not, even the great atheist agrees they can not; (Dawkins) you are taking a leap of faith. No different then I am doing with the bible’s explanation; God did it. At the present time your facts (which are really not facts) are no different than other ideas. You still have to choose not facts but theories. To say anything else is making more of your theories than are true (according to experts against your side). However, taking in both sides I will still go with the guy who claims to be the way, the truth, and the light! I hope others reading this will too, including you. I just find Him to be a more credible expert than the so called experts on either side of this debate. In the end, it comes down to we still don’t know! Faith in something must take place. To decide visit to see the other side of the great (experts) debate. Then choose who you will follow and serve (the god’s of this age or the eternal God) but as for me and my house we will choose to serve the Lord.

  • Tommy:

    Hey Jeff – The Lord gives us clear instructions on how to receive his mercy/forgiveness & that is only through repenting through the blood shed by Christ on the cross. It is available to everyone who asks for it. God is very just, but many people would rather reason against His clear commands and laws set before us.

    Also, being that The Lord sees every heart and knows every plan and thought, it makes it impossible for any hiprocrites to “repent” solely based on a “get outta jail for free” card. That doesn’t mean that Christians, being imperfect humans won’t sin, but that is where God’s just manner comes into play.

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