Saturday, July 02, 2016

God's Justice and Mercy: Are They Contradictories?

Gino's East Pizza in Chicago, from the 31st floor window of our hotel room.
At the HSRM conference last week someone asked me the question, “Aren’t God’s justice and mercy logically incompatible?” Because if justice is seeing that people get what they deserve, and mercy is giving people what they don’t deserve (viz., justice), then how can God be simultaneously just and merciful?

When I was asked this I didn’t give an immediate answer. I told the questioner that something does not seem correct about this. Upon reflection I think I know why.

Justice and mercy are not contradictories, in the same way that love and hate are not contradictories. A perfectly loving being will hate things that are not loving. You can love someone else while hating, for example, what they do or what they stand for.

The contradictory of “black” is “not-black.” Like the contradictory of p is not-p. The contradictory of “love” is “not-love.”

It is false that “not-love” is the same as hatred. For example, a loving parent may simultaneously hate what heroin is doing to their child. In a similar way a judge could be just (in this case “just” equals “fair”) and choose to extend mercy without contradicting his being just.
The contradictory of “justice” is “not-justice.” “Not-justice” is not logically equivalent to “mercy.” Indeed, it may be the case that God’s perfect justice includes choosing to be merciful. For example, when someone forgives another person for wronging them we don't think they have compromised their integrity and become unjust.

In the Christian theistic narrative it is precisely the demands of justice that are met in the merciful act of God becoming a person and dying on the cross. In the atonement mercy fulfills the requirements of justice.

My original response to the question was that something was not correct about it. The incorrectness was that justice and mercy are not logical contradictories.

See William Lane Craig, "God's Love and Justice in Contradiction?"

My new book is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.