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Questions on God's Justice, Inclusivism, and Mental Illness

July 05, 2021


Are God's justice and mercy mutually exclusive? Dr. Craig also addresses Inclusivism, and the salvation of those with mental illnesses.

KEVIN HARRIS: A quick question from Mark here,

Hi, Dr. Craig. I love you and your work and have learned so much through watching your debates and lectures. I cannot thank you enough. But my question is about God’s justice and mercy and are they compatible? The atheist Matt Dillahunty says that mercy is a suppression of justice. So to say that God is perfectly just and merciful causes a contradiction, for if God is perfectly just then he has to punish sin, but if God is perfectly merciful then he can suppress justice, and therefore forgive you. I don’t really know how to answer this and am really hoping that you can help me.

DR. CRAIG: Well, I want to commend to Mark my book on the atonement – Atonement and the Death of Christ – because it deals precisely with this issue. In the book I take the view that Matt is correct that mercy and justice do cancel each other out – that these are antithetical. But then the question is: Is there a way for God to be perfectly just and perfectly merciful? And I argue that the doctrine of the atonement provides a way for God to be just that. Because God is perfectly just, he must punish every sin that is committed. Because he is perfectly merciful, he must offer forgiveness to every sinner. By coming into the world in the person of Christ and bearing in our place the punishment for sin that we deserved, Christ satisfies the perfect demands of God's justice thereby freeing up God's mercy to offer us an unconditional pardon of our sins for anyone who will freely accept it. And so I think that the genius of the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement is it enables us to see exactly how God can be perfectly just and perfectly merciful.

KEVIN HARRIS: Amazing. This next question is from a young man that we did a podcast[1] about a while back – Nahoa Life. He asked,

Hello, Dr. Craig. I would like to ask you about your belief that one can be saved through Christ without a conscious knowledge of Christ – a view called inclusivism. I find compelling the arguments that you've given in support of this idea in your Defenders series on YouTube. But how would you respond to this Bible verse which seems to clearly teach exclusivism – John 3:18, “Whoever believes in him [the Son of God] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” This appears to me to be the only verse in the Bible that says you must believe in Jesus to avoid condemnation. All the other alleged passages only say that we are saved through Christ alone but not necessarily through a conscious knowledge of him. So John 3:18 is in my opinion the strongest scriptural objection to inclusivism. What do you make of all this?

DR. CRAIG: Well, let me say first to Nahoa what a pleasure it is to receive this question from him! I think about him often and pray that he's doing well. I agree with him that taken out of context John 3:18 would be incompatible with inclusivism. But I think that if you take it in its literary and historical context it shouldn't be interpreted as teaching exclusivism. In John chapter 3 Jesus is talking to Nicodemus and he says to Nicodemus, “If you do not believe when I tell you earthly things, how will you believe heavenly things?” What Jesus is clearly talking about is someone who is aware of Jesus and his teachings and does not believe. He doesn't mean just somebody who's ignorant of them because he's never heard of Jesus. Earlier in the same passage Jesus refers to Moses and he says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” You’ll remember in the case of Moses anyone who looked to the serpent that was lifted on the pole would be cured – would be saved. And, similarly, Jesus is saying, “Look to me – the Son of Man – when I am lifted up on the cross and you will be saved.” Now, certainly Jesus did not think that Moses was condemned because he did not believe in Jesus, of whom he'd never heard, nor did Jesus think that Abraham was condemned even though Abraham had never heard of Jesus or even of any messianic prophecies. So I think when you put John 3:18 in its historical and literary context, what it is talking about is people who have been confronted with Jesus and his teachings and who refuse to believe. So we could say that it means whoever disbelieves is condemned already because he has disbelieved in the name of the only Son of God.

KEVIN HARRIS: Very good. Thank you, Nahoa Life! Keep making that music. Keep reading. Next question.

Hello, Dr. Craig. Over the years your work has been a massive help to me and especially recently since I've been studying philosophy. My question to you is this. If God is omnipotent, why is he unable to lie? It appears to me that lying would be good in certain scenarios. This seems to be logically incoherent. I've seen atheists use this as a proof that God doesn't exist. Thank you for your response. Hayden in the United States.

DR. CRAIG: I would say that the reason that God cannot lie is because lying is normally taken to be a sin, and God cannot do evil, and therefore he cannot lie. But if Hayden is correct that lying is actually good in certain scenarios, well then there's no reason to think that God could not lie. God in that case could lie if it's good. The only reason that God would not be able to lie would be if it would be wrong to lie, and so there's no logical incoherence involved here at all.

KEVIN HARRIS: Yeah, and the verse I think is basically saying God is not a liar.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, that’s right. It’s saying God is not a deceiver. He's not going to tell you things that would lead you astray as it were. That's clearly the intention, I think – that God is good and faithful and can be relied upon.

KEVIN HARRIS: Sure. Two more questions.

Dr. Craig, I'm an avid follower of yours, but your answer to Question #732 in the Q&A archive[2] set me back a bit. As a former social services director I have witnessed many people who have developed serious mental disease, both psychologically and organic. Some have been lifelong devout Christians who in their diseased state have seemingly turned against Christ and become in some cases vile obscene persons. This has caused great distress to family and friends who believe that this person has abandoned Christ. I often have reassured them that what they're hearing and witnessing is not the person. It is the disease. My question is: How do you reconcile your answer to situations like this that occur every day all over the world? Daniel in the United States.

DR. CRAIG: To review, my Question #732 was in response to a fellow who wanted assurances – 100% assurances – that he would never fall away from the faith. And I told him I don't think that such a thing is possible in this life. Indeed, to think that you are going to persevere to the end with that sort of 100% assurance is presumptuous. It's like Peter who said to Jesus, “If they all desert you, I will never fall away.” And then look what happened to him. By contrast, Paul said, “I do not claim that I've already attained this or made it my own. But one thing I do, I press on to take hold of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” I think that should be our attitude. Now, obviously, Daniel, I'm not talking about people who are mentally ill. I, too, have heard stories about people who have sustained head injuries and undergone a complete personality transformation. And what I would say in that case is that what we're hearing and witnessing is not the person, it's the disease. I think that Daniel is absolutely right. Therefore, God is not going to hold them morally responsible for the things that they say and do in such a diseased condition.

KEVIN HARRIS: Final question today.

Dear Dr. Craig, In reading the Old Testament I have seen how God preserves those he has ordained to serve a special purpose. For instance, he preserved Moses’ life when it was necessary against all odds. He did similar things against all odds with different judges in battle. It feels to me like we're entering a time in the world where similar fighting will certainly occur. My question is about God's preserving hand. Is there anything I can know for certain about God's intention to preserve me through the upcoming conflict? Can I know that I will be saved from brutal torture, starvation, or similar suffering? I spent a lot of time worrying about these things and though I've always turned to God first for help in nearly every difficult situation, I worry that my relationship with him would suffer if I had to deal with heavier trials. Is there anything I can know for certain about God's nature and desire to give his people good health or prosperity? He has blessed me in special ways already in my life, but I find myself doubting whether he will continue. What are the certainties we can know about his special grace for his people? Thank you. John in the United States.

I want to say real quick that there's a lot of anxiety in this question. That's just an observation, and certainly some things you can answer.

DR. CRAIG: I agree with you, Kevin, and that makes me very reluctant to answer this question because it could be that John is one of these people who is really suffering psychologically from some sort of anxiety disorder or something of that sort, and so it would be difficult for him to hear the truth. But I want to say to John that we follow a crucified Savior and that Jesus made no promise to us that our lives would be a bowl of cherries. On the contrary, he said, “Anyone who would come after me must take up his cross daily and follow me.” And we know what happened to many of the early Christians who followed Jesus and the history of martyrdoms in the church. This idea that God is going to guarantee to you health and prosperity and save you from torture and starvation and similar suffering is a pseudo-gospel that won't fly even in the world today. It won't fly in Syria. It won't fly in Iran. It won't fly in North Korea where Christians are suffering terribly. So what God has promised to do is he has promised to sustain us through our trials and bring us home to him, and he has encouraged us not to be anxious about this. I would encourage John not to think about this – not to worry. Jesus said “When they deliver you up before synagogues and governors, take no thought about what you're going to say because the Holy Spirit will give you what to say in that hour.” So I hope that can relieve John of some of this anxiety that if God were to call upon him to go through suffering for the sake of Christ God has promised to give him the words in that hour that are necessary and to help to preserve him through that. The important thing for John now is not to worry about the future and not to fret about these sorts of things but to just be faithful – to just every day take up his cross and follow Jesus and pursue the way of discipleship.[3]


[3] Total Running Time: 15:04 (Copyright © 2021 William Lane Craig)