Mercy and justice, oil and water (Part 2)

Scales of Justice

In the first post on this topic, I looked at the definitions of mercy and justice to pave the way for an analysis concerning their compatibility. I concluded that if you choose your definitions carefully, you can be merciful and just simultaneously.

The question thus becomes: Does God operate according to these carefully chosen, mutually compatible definitions?

The Bible is not a dictionary, so no explicit definition of mercy and justice can easily be found. Instead, we have to look at teachings, and at events and actions described by the biblical authors as just and merciful.

Perhaps the most well known example of God’s mercy is his decision not to send all of us sinners to hell, even though we deserve it (as the Bible would have us believe). Of course, there are caveats. The Bible does claim, in several places, that certain sins will cause the sinner to be thrown into hell*.

But let’s look at the lucky ones who will receive God’s mercy. Instead of getting the infinite torture their finite deeds allegedly deserve, they will be sent to heaven. This is surely an example of mercy. But is justice met?

Yes, sort of. God knows that someone has to be punished for our sins – justice requires it. His solution is to punish someone else instead: Jesus. The same Jesus who was completely innocent of any sin whatsoever. So, I have to concede that if this view of justice is coherent, then it seems possible (at least in this example) for God to be both just and merciful.

We should keep in mind, though, that God’s conception of justice in this example is very different from our own. God appears to be indicating that it is just for an innocent person to be punished for someone else’s wrong doing, a practice no modern justice system would allow. God also condones this approach when he cruelly punishes and kills David’s innocent child for his (David’s) sins (see 2 Samuel 12).

And yet, other passages in the Bible seem to disagree with this very thing. Consider the following proverb:

“Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent — the Lord detests them both.” (Proverbs 17:15)

In Genesis 18, Moses balks at God’s imminent attack on Sodom, objecting to the possible loss of innocent lives. God responds by saying that even if ten innocents are to be found in Sodom, he will spare the entire city on their behalf. Here, then, he seems to think that it is unjust to punish innocent people for the sins of the wicked.

Then, in Matthew 18, Jesus gives us the parable of the merciless servant who, although his own debt was canceled by his superior, refused to do the same for someone else. In this parable, the merciless servant’s debt was well and truly forgiven. It was not transferred to someone else. Yet this is a very different picture to the story of our salvation through Jesus’ death, which treats sin like a debt that cannot be canceled but must be paid in full, even if this means extracting it from  someone who owes nothing.

So where does God really stand? If God “detests” acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent, then he is opposing his own system of justice by punishing Jesus for our sins. If, on the other hand, he believes that it is permissible for innocents to bear the punishment of the wicked, then why did he promise Moses that he’d spare Sodom if innocents were found there? And why did he inspire the proverb writer to make a statement that so clearly contradicts his views?

It becomes clear from investigating this issue that the problem is not so much an incompatibility between justice and mercy, but serious inconsistencies in God’s application of justice.  In other words, we cannot even make the initial assumptions that gave rise to the potential conflict: God is apparently not perfectly just to begin with, so the issue of whether God’s perfect justice and mercy are compatible is moot.

As I usually conclude in situations like these, the reason theology runs into problems of incoherence is because the Bible is not an inspired document. There is no single mind that guided its production over the centuries. It really was just written by ordinary men. It’s no surprise, then, that their narrative, cobbled together over such a long time, has glaring plot holes in it.

So, maybe perfect justice and mercy are compatible, depending on which definitions you choose. But it doesn’t seem as if the Christian God qualifies.


* “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:44-46)

“He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (Thessalonians 1:8-9)

“In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” (Jude 1:7)
“If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:9-11)


4 Responses to Mercy and justice, oil and water (Part 2)

  1. RG says:


    This is a topic that we all tend to approach from a very Western perspective. Given the Greek context of Jesus’ time, that is partly justified. But only partly. Before Jesus, there was a long history in a non-Western, Middle Eastern context. You might find it interesting to look at some thoughts on justice in the context of a multi-cultural hermeneutic via this link:

    The author is not a native speaker of English, and the editor must have been asleep or non-existent. Other than that, it’s an excellent piece of work. (Just the title alone should get your blood going – “We compromise the Gospel when we settle for truth: How right interpretations lead to wrong contextualization.” IOW, partial truth is the enemy of whole truth. Or, the seeming inconsistencies of the Bible may not be indicators of a lack of inspiration, but indicators that its cultural horizon is a bit wider than our own…)


  2. Keith says:

    Thanks Ruedi. I actually have a growing interest in learning more about the cultural backdrop of Jesus’ life and also that of Paul, since he was so instrumental in the spread of Christianity.

    This is partly because I’ve been learning about ancient Greek philosophy and how it influenced the Romans around Jesus’ time. It would be really interesting to see how these ancient traditions and the new idea of Christianity interacted.

    So, if you (or anyone who is reading this) have any more suggestions, especially books, that are not necessarily from a Christian perspective, but from a more general historical perspective, and that cover events in the first century Middle East and Mediterranean, I’d appreciate it!

    • RG says:


      One book that comes to mind immediately is
      David A. deSilva, 2000, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. The author is a christian, but the book is an excellent work on the tension of Graeco-Roman vs Judaistic cultures before and during Jesus’ time. I highly recommend that one.

      Another excellent book that you could read online is Kenneth Bailey’s Poet & Peasant. That one is more focused on the rural context of Jesus life. It’s at
      Probably just about anything by Kenneth Bailey is worth reading.

      Another set of texts you could read would be the inter-testamental apocrypha. Some of them tell the story of the struggle of Judaism against Hellenism. I haven’t investigated to what extent they are considered historical vs legendary, though.

      A third approach could be to review the NT gospels from the viewpoint of the Hellenist-Judaist conflict. How do they portray Jesus navigating that minefield between the Jewish elite and the Hellenist religious elite? (One puzzling item is his over-the-top Jewish answer to the Hellenists’ contention that there is no resurrection: “The Scriptures say God is the God of Abraham, and since he is a God of the living not the dead, Abraham must be alive, and therefore there is a resurrection.” For the Greek logician, a joke, but for a Jew, perfectly reasonable.)

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