#472

May 01, 2016

God’s Love and Justice in Contradiction?

Dr. Craig,

Your ministry has radically changed my life. As a direct result of your arguments and debates, I went from a nihilist to a staunch Christian. However, I have encountered a problem with the ontological argument.

Is there a contradiction between perfect justice and perfect mercy in a maximally great being? The way I have seen this objection posed is that the Christian God is just and merciful. Mercy is defined as the suspension of justice. Thus there is a contradiction. I have also seen the argument being put as perfect justice is giving everyone what they're due, and perfect mercy is giving some people less than what they're due.

Is this objection as crushing as its proponents make it out to be?


United States

I’m glad for your question, Tom, since it gives me the opportunity to segue to my new research focus, now that my long study of God’s aseity has been completed, namely, the doctrine of the atonement.

Christ’s death on the cross is God’s means of reconciling a sinful and estranged humanity to Himself. The late New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall argued persuasively that the central theme or message of the New Testament is reconciliation with God.[1] Even such grand themes such as the inauguration of God’s Kingdom or the establishment of a new covenant are subservient to the overriding goal of man’s reconciliation with God. “Reconciliation” is just another word for atonement (“at-one-ment”). Christ’s death somehow serves to make us one with God, not in a metaphysical sense, but in a relational sense of being reconciled to God.

For a great many years I have been dissatisfied with the anemic and biblically inadequate theories of the atonement articulated and defended by Christian philosophers today. These theories are, in general, not grounded in serious exegesis but are based on human experiences of reconciliation, which may be fundamentally inadequate for the divine-human relationship. We need a theory of the atonement which is both philosophically coherent and biblically faithful.

Your question is really about the doctrine of the atonement, not about the ontological argument. How can God be perfectly just and yet perfectly loving? How can He extend mercy to sinful people without thereby compromising His justice? This is just one of the questions which the doctrine of the atonement seeks to address.

The more fundamental question here is the necessity of Christ’s atoning death. Did Christ have to die in order for sinful human beings to be reconciled to God, or could God have chosen simply to forgive everyone of his sins without the necessity of Christ’s dying? Those who hold to the latter view often point out that when someone forgives a person who has wronged him, we don’t think that he has thereby compromised his integrity in some way and become unjust himself (notice the appeal to human models of reconciliation!). God has, for whatever reason, freely elected to achieve reconciliation through Christ’s death, but had He so pleased, He could instead have forgiven people’s sins without Christ’s dying. Even given God’s will that all men be saved, such a view need not be universalistic in its doctrine of salvation. One could hold that God’s pardon would still need to be freely received by faith in order to be appropriated.

On this view, there is just no tension between God’s justice and mercy. God can be merciful toward sinners without compromising His justice. The problem simply evaporates (or perhaps shifts elsewhere!).

Those who have been schooled in Protestant theology might be surprised to learn that the vast majority of the Church Fathers in fact held to the view that Christ’s atoning death was unnecessary. In their view an omnipotent being like God has the power to forgive sins without the necessity of any means of atonement at all. It wasn’t until St. Anselm (the originator of the ontological argument!) in the eleventh century that the necessity of Christ’s death received strong articulation and defense. For Anselm it was God’s honor, besmirched by sinful man, that needed to be satisfied. A God who simply forgave sins without satisfaction for the offense would not preserve His honor in so doing, which is impossible. Anselm’s theory of the atonement connects powerfully with the honor/shame culture of the Ancient Near East and so would have resonated with first century Jews.

Protestant scholastics during the Reformation era went deeper than Anselm in seeing that it was not simply God’s honor, but His justice, that needed to be satisfied.[2] Theologians like François Turretin argued that God is fundamentally different than any human being in that He is the Moral Governor of the world. He is both the giver of the moral law and the Judge of its infractions. In His capacity as Judge, He cannot fail to enforce justice. Christ’s death is therefore necessary if God’s justice is to be satisfied but human beings spared by God’s mercy. The death of Christ exhibits both God’s love and God’s justice, and neither is compromised.

I’m convinced that Turretin has accurately captured an essential aspect of the New Testament teaching on the atonement. The emphasis on God’s wrath due to sin in the opening chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans demands that satisfaction for sin be made. So in chapter 3 Paul can say that God in overlooking sins committed in earlier generations has not compromised His justice but, because of Christ’s atoning death, now shows Himself to be “just and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3. 26). Christ’s death resolves the tension between God’s justice and mercy by showing God’s mercy while satisfying His justice.

In his classic book on the atonement George Smeaton reflects on why the Church Fathers failed to see the necessity of Christ’s atoning death in order that the demands of God’s justice be satisfied.[3] He suggests, plausibly I think, that the reason is because the ransom theory of the atonement so prevalent among the Church Fathers focused on dealing with the consequences of sin, principally death, rather than with sin itself. The emphasis was on God’s power to conquer the enemies of mankind, not on His justice. Because of this same focus, the incarnation rather than the death of Christ tended to take pride of place. By uniting with our nature in the incarnation Christ brought immortality and enabled us to share in the divine nature.

This emphasis on Christ’s incarnation rather than his death is obviously misplaced on any serious reading of the New Testament. In the New Testament it is the cross of Christ that predominates, not only in the Gospels but in the epistles. Of course, the incarnation and the life of Christ have a vital role to play, but it is the cross that is central in achieving atonement with God. Embroiled as they were in disputes over the person of Christ, the Church Fathers did not reflect deeply on the work of Christ but remained content with superficial ransom accounts.

Now I’m acutely aware that a theory of the atonement involving as an essential aspect the satisfaction of God’s justice faces stiff philosophical challenges, which I hope eventually to address. But I hope that enough has been said to show that given the doctrine of atonement the concept of God as perfectly just and perfectly loving is logically coherent.

Notes

[1] I. Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity (London: Paternoster, 2007), chap. 4.

[2] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols., trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992), topic 14, Question x.

[3] George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Atonement, as Taught by the Apostles (Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark, 1870); rep. ed.: The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1957), p. 508. Smeaton also observes that if Christ’s atoning death were not necessary, then it would be incorrect for the author of Hebrews to say, “it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats take away sin” (Hebrews 10.4). God could have so expiated sin had He chosen.