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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7 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?

    • James Smith says:

      Christ didn’t just suffer physically. The psychological and spiritual suffering was beyond anything we can know . On the cross the wrath of God was poured out on Christ. God couldn’t remain righteous and not punish sin. He couldn’t be loving and merciful if he didn’t offer a justifying payment himself. Therefore sinless Christ had the punishment for all the sin of all mankind poured out on him on the cross. There is mystery here beyond knowing. He experienced what none has ever yet experienced. He felt a wrath sufficient to atone for every sin that will ever be committed. When anyone puts their faith in Christ as their sin bearer, their deserved punishment in God’s reckoning will be accounted to Christ and his perfection and sinlessness will be accounted to them.

    • Penny says:

      Hmm, define sacrifice. Firstly, regarding time: people will sacrifice something for a short time to gain something better at a later time (e.g. my after dinner coffee is sacrificed for the greater good of getting to the PTA meeting on time). Occasionally we sacrifice something for a long time for a benefit we deem really worthwhile (e.g. migrants who leave good jobs in dodgy countries to give their kids a better chance in another country). So, time is not the key ingredient in a sacrifice – the time factor depends on how long it takes to obtain the goal. Secondly, regarding magnitude. If the goal is huge, does the sacrifice need to be huge? Well, maybe, maybe not. Maybe a series of rather small sacrifices and self-disciplines add up to achieve the goal. Or maybe there are a series of sacrifices to achieve the goal, some big, some small (e.g. Wilberforce overturning slavery in Britain. According to the Amazing Grace movie – the deal breaker was a tiny little law change passed while the opposition were put at the races or some such entertainment).
      So to say that six hours wasn’t long enough to get the job done, or quality of the suffering (whipping, humiliation, suffocation, impalement, dehydration) was less worthy than other types of death possibly misses the point.
      The worthiness of a sacrifice must depend on the point of view of the one with the goods. The goods in this case (forgive my flippancy) are relationship of a soul with its maker. Soul, mind, whatever…you know, that bit that isn’t quite your physical body, that place where your conscience and awe and intrinsic respect for life reside, the radio waves to your body’s antennae and speaker and transistors. Why would a perfectly good, all-knowing, all-powerful maker put up with my sneaky, deceitful, opinionated, self-absorbed soul? Why would he? In fact, how could he? It couldn’t be done, no grubbiness in the perfect. Well, that is a problem (for me, and us, and dare I say it, for you). Hence the switch. Perfect sinless Christ, God by another name, out of glory temporarily for 33 or so years), using the mechanisms available to us, in bodies like ours, on no occasion doing his own thing, or feathering his own nest, or tooting his own horn, just stating facts about his divinity, and then, OH MY GOD, being separated from God on the cross. Didn’t he say ‘Oh my God, my God, why have you forsaken me!!??’ Talk about a child ripped from the womb, a limb wrenched from a man, an artwork torn out of its frame, a sea creature lifted into the air on a hook, a nation divided, any tragedy. God the son himself, separated for the first time in eternity separated from God his father.

      That is the sacrifice, and it is the only sufficient sacrifice by any system of logic. We don’t get to go to heaven, through our own choices we are way less than perfect. Why would we demand our maker to accept us on our terms. Like, ‘Hey God, can I do a bunch of deliberate things that are opposed to your perfect character, and still receive a warm welcome when my physical body runs out of your gift of life?’

      It hardly matters how prolonged or how painful the sacrifice was, nothing could beat the perfect pain of a perfect body and perfect soul separated for the first time in all eternity from the perfect relationship, let alone that it was done for a bunch of wilfully self-aggrandising, often deliberately nasty critters*
      (*critters – creatures – created – us – does matter create itself?)

      It reminds me of the mighty naval vessel radioing out of the fog repeatedly to the other radio operator, commanding the other to give way. Give way, I am a great ship. The eventual response ‘I understand you are a great ship. I am a lighthouse. Your call’.
      Not well told, but you get the idea, yes? No?

      God set down the rules very early – it’s a life for a life. It was the furry animals in Eden that died to cover up Adam and Eve when they did their ‘hey God, you might say x, y and z, but we are going to test it out for ourselves because we think you are hiding goodies from us’. Adam and Eve got sent away from close relationship with God. It was the life blood of Abel calling out from the ground that got Cain removed from relationship and sent away. It was a ram that was sacrificed in the place of the ‘only son’ Isaac, when Abram thought ‘Hey God, I don’t know how you are going to fulfil your promise through this son of mine, but you have proven yourself to be capable so far’ It was the sacrifice of animals laid down in the tabernacle and temple years – efficacious for relationship with God when they came from humble people, and a ‘stench’ when they came from the proud (p.s. they were farm animals anyway, destined for the table).

  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.

  4. Susan says:

    God”s mercy is over all of Jis works. People are His works.

    I am skeptical of today’s evangelical unified theology.

    I am evangelical. The great commission is the work given to every Christian by Christ though not everyone performs it but why did we tie delivering the Gospel to eternal torment?

    God is for everyone. He always has been but Christianity has evolved into a bureaucracy determined to unify along the wrong theological lines.

    Fire is not literal in many places in the Bible so why did someone long ago enforce a literal view onto people?

    There are many people writing on the error of eternal torment theology today.

    It would be better if more people read them.

    if it is the will of God to save everyone then who is going to stop God?

    Seriously, He is omnipotent and controls all time.

    Read Creation’s Jubilee, read the book the Restoration of All Things by Dr.Stephen E. Jones.

    Unified theology? How many are there any way?
    Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, etc.

    There are so many brands of unified theology which means you need to think for yourself on this. Many people have made theological mistakes and continue to do so today.

    Thanks for reading.


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