Can God Balance Mercy and Justice?

By Al Serrato


In a recent post, I addressed the issue of whether Christ’s death constituted a sacrifice. For many skeptics, Christ’s death, resurrection, and atonement for our sins constitute a major stumbling block. In response to that post, one challenger commented that he could not understand

“why the death of Jesus was that big a deal. He had 6 hours of agony. A terrible way to go, but how many people have similar experiences? And the atheist supposedly bound for hell will experience this kind of agony continually.”

God Balance Mercy Justice

To understand why this challenge lacks substance, one must take a moment to unpack the assumptions embedded within it. The challenger assumes that the process of physical death – more specifically, the manner, length and painfulness of that process – is what “caused” salvation. Noting, correctly, that many human beings have experienced far greater suffering, the skeptic concludes that this sacrifice is not, as he put it, a “big deal.” His conclusion flows from his premise, lending the challenge an appearance of legitimacy, but his premise is in need of more careful examination. Perhaps he has not taken the time to consider actual Christian beliefs, or perhaps he is simply engaging in the straw man fallacy, in which a person intentionally misstates his opponent’s position in order to more easily “defeat” it. Either way, to a careful thinker, the challenge falls flat.

This conclusion should not really come as a surprise. Countless intellectuals have considered the claims of Christianity and have embraced them as true. Many, such as the writer CS Lewis, became believers after many years of committed atheism. That none of these thinkers would find merit in this rather obvious challenge speaks to the fact that he is simply missing the point. None of these believers – nor for that matter the very first followers of Christ – concluded that Jesus won some kind of perverted contest for the “greatest suffering before being murdered,” somehow entitling him to the prize of being “the Savior.”

No, something much different is at play, something that challenges the limits of our philosophy, and of our intellects, to fully grasp. Jesus took the form of man and, during his life on Earth, he emptied himself of key aspects of his divinity. In that form, he experienced temptation – the kind of temptation that demonstrates the existence of free will; the kind of free will that makes expressions of love real and not the product of coercion or control. He did not need to suffer death at all, certainly not death on a cross. He had the means to escape the trap that was being laid for him. But, as he said, no one took his life; he lay it down for his people. By so doing, he stood before the Father to accept that wrath that justice demanded, for the intentional rebellion in which man was engaged. He had no price to pay for himself; his slate was clean before the Father. And because he too was God, he could absorb that wrath not just for one other man, or for a group of men, but for all who ever lived, or would live – infinite power absorbing for all time the infinite wrath of a perfect being.

The challenger to my post concluded:

No—I disagree that God has balanced perfect justice and perfect mercy. Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is getting LESS than what you deserve. Take your pick. And you imagine that God has an infinite wrath? Wow—the dude needs some therapy!”

But this actually proves my point. The challenger is correct: in human terms, it appears contradictory for one to be perfectly just while being perfectly merciful; indeed, how can God give those in rebellion what they deserve while also giving them what they don’t deserve? (Ironically, this challenge actually speaks to the divine origin of these early Christian beliefs: who could have – who would have – come up with a system like this if it weren’t true when adhering to it only promised persecution?) To answer this challenge, one must move from abstract considerations to more specific, factual ones.

  • What do humans “deserve?” They deserve punishment for their rebellion;
  • What is a just punishment for rebellion? Separation from God;
  • How long should that separation endure? For the life of the beings in question (i.e. an eternity in that place of separation, i.e. hell);
  • How can humans beings be given something less than they deserve? By having someone else pay the price for their rebellion;
  • Who can pay that price? Only a man who himself does not owe the same price.

Yes, Christ pays the price. We don’t deserve what he does for us; it is an act of mercy. Justice is satisfied because punishment has been meted out – directly to those who refuse Christ’s gift and remain in their rebellion; indirectly – through Jesus – for those who accept his gift. Jesus has the power and the willingness to absorb God’s just wrath, and having lived as a man, he also has the standing before God to enter the transaction. We need only accept his gift, at which point he will begin the process of refining us – perfecting us – so that we can rejoin with Him and with the Father.

This solution to man’s predicament, available freely for all, elegantly gives us the means to attain what we do not deserve – mercy – while not sacrificing God’s perfect justice.

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4 replies
  1. Andy Ryan says:

    “Yes, Christ pays the price”
    If you don’t mean the few hours of suffering on the cross, what sacrifice are you saying Jesus made? I mean, what did he actually lose?

  2. Susan says:

    I don’t think the atheist noting that others suffered more than Christ did on the cross is correct.

    For one thing we don’t know what the weight of the sins of the world weighs on a person.

    Another thing is that Christ was a sinless being coming into contact with all the sins of the world and the negative impact him of that is incalcuable.

    Christ won a great spiritual battle on the cross. He wasn’t just fighting a carnal battle. So why does everybody want to dwell on the carnal details.

    This ugly old world three the very worst at Him but he overcame anyways, conquered death and got out of the grave.

    Nobody else has done that under their own steam.

    That is one of the reasons why he is worshiped and glorified.

    It takes a real unobservant naysayer to turn a great spiritual battle and victory into a carnal one.

    Christ did something totally unique. No one else has done what he did. So when you compare what Christ experienced to other people you are engaging in a category error comparing apples to oranges.

    What Christ did on the cross was categorically different from every other person in this world has done.

    As a Christian you have to be careful talking to non-Christians because they get these things wrong and the world likes to drag got down to their level. There seems to be a lot of confused people in this world that want to devalue God’s work by drawing false analogies and comparisons.

    But they only hurt themselves by making those false comparisons.

    The cross is a unique event with eternal implications so of course it requires it’s own category.

    The holy and the carnal are separate. It’s up to people to keep their thinking straight so they can maintain the proper categories in their own thought lives.

    • toby says:

      For one thing we don’t know what the weight of the sins of the world weighs on a person. Another thing is that Christ was a sinless being coming into contact with all the sins of the world and the negative impact him of that is incalcuable.
      Of course you can calculate it. Nothing anyone can do could increase or decrease god’s greatness. So nothing done to him can possibly have caused harm. You can say that he was a human at the time, but as they say he was fully human, as well as fully divine. He can never be less that what he his or he’s not god. Therefore you really can’t say that if he appeared as a human that he was anything less than he normally is. You can further extrapolate that he knew that he couldn’t really die, so those fears about that were nullified. Whatever pain he might feel is nothing in the vastness of infinite time, diluted away to nothing. William Lane Craig likes to say that life without the possibility of living eternally is meaningless, so you could say that sacrifice without the possibility of it lasting eternally is also meaningless.

  3. jcb says:

    My question is: why did Jesus have to die in order for god to offer/give us forgiveness, in order for us to get eternal life? It seems that he didn’t. God could have required much less (or much more), and still given us eternal life. That is, Jesus’ death didn’t “cause” salvation: God could have given us salvation even without it.
    If Jesus was willingly let himself be killed, it doesn’t follow that our sins are thereby nullified. But sure, if god was planning on punishing unloving people, he could randomly decide to not punish unloving people if his son is killed. Nothing about that makes sense of course. If god were simply trying to do the most loving thing possible, he would forgive everyone, and not kill his son in the process. If you say that some cost is required, it doesn’t follow that this particular cost, Jesus’ life, is required. Feel free to prove otherwise.
    The author says wrongdoing demands the “wrath” of justice. Yes, we desire to punish wrongdoers/unloving people, and we call that “desert”.
    That god is god does nothing to show that Jesus dying “absorbs the wrath”/satisfies justice/negates the wrongs of unloving people.
    Yes, “in human terms, it appears contradictory for one to be perfectly just while being perfectly merciful; indeed, how can God give those in rebellion what they deserve while also giving them what they don’t deserve?” (I’m not sure what “in human terms” adds).
    Unloving humans “deserve” punishment: that is, many of us want them to be punished for being so mean and unloving.
    What is a fair/loving response to murder? Keeping that murderer from murdering others.
    What is a fair/just/loving response to not believing that god exists? Not eternal punishment, nor a denial of eternal life. Yes, the modern theist will say that all god is “doing” is nothing: the atheist chooses to separate herself from god, and the result of that is separation from god. Perhaps, but usually the atheist doesn’t think god exists, so there is no choice to separate from god. Additionally, often the atheist would choose eternal life, and not believing in god is not to choose to give up eternal life. The theist might then say, yes it is! God has a crazy rule that says, if you don’t believe in him, then you don’t get eternal life. That is not what an all loving being would do.
    It is nice to hear though that the theist (here) thinks that 1. Hell is not eternal torment and suffering, and 2. Humans in Hell can at any time get out of Hell by choosing to do so.
    If god gives us less than we deserve, that’s mercy, but not justice.
    Jesus is kind in wanting to make it so that some punishment that we were about to receive is not received by us. That’s merciful and kind. But it is not just. Just because some punishment “has been meted out” doesn’t show that this is the right amount of punishment.


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