A Question of Justice
Hello Dr. Craig,
My question is about divine justice. You describe God as being essentially kind, fair, and compassionate, but I do not see how his justice can be exemplified with scenarios like this:
Suppose a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer enjoys a lifestyle torturing, killing and cannibalizing people for fun. He eventually gets caught and goes to prison. In prison he becomes a born-again Christian and all this sins are absolved from him. He then gets killed and goes to heaven since the mere act of conversion into Christianity cleanses him of all previous wrong doings. Some of this victims however were not Christian when they were murdered and so they go to hell when they die. So not only are the murder victims tortured and murdered in this world, they get sent to hell to be tortured even worse, but now it is forever, while their murderer enjoys everlasting peace in heaven.
I have never had a Christian explain to me how this scenario above, is not only the work of a "perfect" and "all-loving" deity, but that this is an example of perfect justice that could not possibly be improved upon by any generation of humans, past, present of future. In other words, if the God of the Bible is inherently perfect, compassionate and just, why would he allow a serial killer into heaven but his victims suffer in hell eternally, when the only thing separating them (aside from the fact the victims never tortured and killed people) is the killer's conversion to Christianity in prison just before he died?
The objection I have is that this is not an act of perfect justice, and that the Christian God is merely being defined as perfect/kind/fair/compassionate etc which to me is just wordplay since his record shows otherwise. The only answer I have yet to hear, is that we all are deserving hell, and only those who submit to God are given mercy, even if they are serial killers. So I have to ask you, with all due respect, if you truly agree with this notion of justice, that would allow a sadistic serial killer off scott-free of divine punishment, when his victims, who pleaded for their lives and were killed without mercy, are now being tortured even worse, all while their cries for mercy will go unanswered for all eternity?
Thank you for your time.
Your question is one that arouses deep emotions, Mike. Since you have stated it dispassionately, for which I commend you, I ask you to consider my response dispassionately as well.
I think your question is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the Christian faith. Many, if not most, people think that Christianity teaches that salvation from sin and from eternal separation from God is the result of something we do--for example, loving one’s neighbor as oneself or doing to others as we would have them do to us or believing in Jesus--as a result of which God rewards us with forgiveness and eternal life. This is a terrible mistake. What biblical Christianity teaches, as the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther came to see, after years of vainly struggling to earn God’s approval, is that salvation is wholly by God’s grace. That means God’s unmerited favor. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness and merit eternal life. The Bible says that all our righteous acts are like filthy rags compared to God’s awesome holiness. No one could stand before God and justifiably say, “I deserve your favor, I’ve earned your forgiveness, and I’ve merited eternal life!” What that implies is that if God were perfectly just and that were the end of the story, every human being would be lost. Standing before a holy God of absolute and uncompromising justice, every one of us would be undone.
That’s why your question gets off on the wrong foot right from the start: you frame the question as a matter of justice. But justice pure and simple would entail the condemnation of every morally responsible human being. If God chose to save any at all, that would be mercy on His part. Those who were condemned could not complain that they were unjustly punished, for they got what they deserved.
There’s a riveting scene in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in which the Count saves from execution one of two condemned prisoners. The other prisoner, seeing his fellow prisoner set free, suddenly begins to scream and struggle, saying that he, too, should be set free, that the other prisoner is no less guilty than himself, that it is unfair for other to be freed and him to die. He is dragged to the block and executed. The Count remarks on how odd it is that so long as his fellow man was being condemned along with him, he was content to be executed, recognizing that he deserved his sentence. But as soon as the other was shown mercy, suddenly he began to cry of injustice, as though he no longer deserved to die.
We do deserve to die. That is perfect justice. If God saves any, that is a manifestation of mercy.
So the problem is not really a problem of justice. Rather it’s a problem of love. The Bible says that God is as loving as He is holy. As His justice flows from His holiness, so His mercy flows from His love. Since He is loving, He wants to save as many persons as He can. The Bible says, “God desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2.4). In particular, it says that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked but wants the wicked to turn to Him and live (Ezekiel 8.23).
So how can God be both perfectly just and perfectly loving? How can He show mercy without compromising His justice? How can He show justice without compromising His love? Both are essential to His nature. Neither can be compromised. His holiness demands justice, punishment for sin rightly deserved. His love demands mercy, forgiveness and pardon for the offender. What is God to do in this dilemma?
The answer is Jesus Christ. He is the fulfillment of God’s mercy and justice. They meet at the cross: the holiness and the love of God. At the cross we see the justice of God, as Christ bears the punishment for sin that we deserved. But we also see God’s love, as He in the second person of the Trinity voluntarily lays down His life for us. Christ is the embodiment of God’s justice and mercy.
So “What will you do with Christ?” becomes life’s greatest question. In him you find God’s grace and undeserved pardon. All we can do is gratefully receive the gift of God’s grace. If you reject him, you fall back on God’s justice, and He must give you what you deserve.
So let’s apply these principles to the Jeffrey Dahmer case. Perfect justice would have condemned that man to eternal perdition. But God loves him and wants to save him. Christ has died for his sins. In the scenario you describe this man comes to see the evil of his ways and turns to God in sincere repentance for all he has done. Now what kind of God would it be who refuses his sincere cry for forgiveness? Such a God would not be loving and merciful! Clearly, a loving God would rejoice that someone so lost would see the error of his ways and turn to Him for forgiveness.
So we can lay the Dahmer case to rest. We all agree that a truly loving God would pardon and save him. Bringing Dahmer into the story is an extraneous element that has no effect upon God’s treatment of someone else.
Now turn to the case of his victims. Precisely the same principles apply. They do not merit God’s forgiveness. If God gave them perfect justice, they would all be lost. But God loves them and wants to save as many as He can, short of violating their free will. Those who accept His grace will be saved; those who reject it will, tragically, be lost. The horrible tragedy of unbelief, I think, is that some people, having had a terrible lot in life, compound their misery by rejecting the God who loves them and who is their only hope of happiness. The case of unbelievers is tragic, horribly tragic! But it is a tragedy that they bring upon themselves by rejecting the grace and love of God.
Now, of course, it’s tempting to augment your story by adding elements, e.g., “What if some hadn’t heard the Gospel?” “What if some had heard only a perversion of the Gospel?” “What if some were children or mentally incompetent?” But then those would be the questions to ask, questions about the providence of God, which I’ve tried to answer elsewhere from a middle knowledge perspective. Those are separate questions in their own right. But your question doesn’t raise any particular problem, at least intellectually speaking. Its force is purely emotional, borne out of the admittedly tragic situation you describe.
Now maybe your difficulty, Mike, is not God’s alleged differential treatment of the persons involved (I hope to have explained that they are not treated differentially), but rather that the whole wretched scenario ought not to have been actualized by God. God should have chosen some other world feasible for Him which didn’t include this scenario. But this is just the old problem of evil. What you’d have to show is that there is some other world of free agents feasible for God in which as much good, including people’s salvation, is achieved as in this world but without scenarios such as the one you envision. That’s pure conjecture. I think you can see why I say that this is an emotional problem, not an intellectual problem.
So let me respond more specifically to your questions:
How can the scenario above be, not only the work of a "perfect" and "all-loving" deity, but an example of perfect justice that could not possibly be improved upon by any generation of humans, past, present, or future? God in this scenario is both perfectly just and perfectly loving, for no sin goes unpunished and His grace is freely offered to all who would accept it. You seem to think that the scenario you describe is unilaterally brought about by God. I disagree. There are several free agents involved, whose choices must be respected, and the scenario is a complex intersection of the free choices of these agents. God will save as many of these people as He can without violating their free will. No one says that this is an example of perfect justice unimprovable by any generation of human beings. It would be easy to improve on this situation by all the persons’ freely turning to God for salvation. But God does all He can to save as many as is feasible, given their free choices.
Why would God allow a serial killer into heaven but his victims to suffer in hell eternally, when the only thing separating them is the killer's conversion to Christianity in prison just before he died? An all-loving God would not refuse to forgive a serial killer who sincerely repents and turns to God for forgiveness. Similarly, God will save any of the victims who repent of their sins and trust Him for salvation. Every person’s salvation lies in his own hands.
Do I truly agree with a notion of justice that would allow a sadistic serial killer off scott-free of divine punishment, when his victims, who pleaded for their lives and were killed without mercy, are now being tortured even worse, while all their cries for mercy go unanswered for all eternity? This question is pejoratively put. Of course, I think that God would readily and joyously forgive a serial killer who repents and turns to Him for forgiveness! Absolutely! But it is not as though there is no divine punishment of his sins. There is divine punishment for the serial killer’s sins, but it was borne by Christ. As for those of the killer’s victims who rejected the grace of God in their lives, they have freely chosen to resist God’s every effort to save them and so, contrary to His will, have separated themselves from Him forever. I see no reason at all to think, as you imagine, that the damned in hell cry to God for mercy. On the contrary, my reading of Scripture suggests that the damned become even more hardened and more implacable in their hatred of God for His punishment of them (Revelation 16.11, 21).
Mike, I couldn’t help but notice that you don’t refute the Christians who have told you that we all deserve hell but that God’s grace is available to all who will freely accept it. You just repudiate their answer. But then the problem is emotional, not intellectual.