I am considering the claim that god is both all-merciful and just. I have many times heard it argued that god is all-merciful to forgive transgressions of his law, but that he is also just and thus must punish unbelievers in hell. I propose that these two designations for god are contradictory and this view of god is untenable. I am using the definitions that justice is bringing the correct and deserved consequences for actions (both good and evil) and mercy is offering respite or forgiveness from the negative consequences of a transgression.
Now consider the modern Christian theology of hell as a punishment for sins and Jesus as a sacrifice to forgive them. In this tradition, god is willing to forgive people and spare them from the supposedly deserved punishment of eternal torment, but people can refuse this forgiveness and be condemned. Thus, some people will be forgiven and some will not.
On its face, I could argue that this seems to contradict both the assertion that god is all-just AND that god is all-merciful, since only some people are served justice and only some are served mercy. But a Christian theologian might argue that god has offered mercy to all people and thus the fact that some do not receive it is a flaw of humanity and does not reflect on god or the nature of his mercy. So what do I make of this?
What god has offered us, the supposed guilty party, is a plea deal. If we accept the conditions of this plea deal (accepting god as our savior) then we will be forgiven. If we refuse these conditions, then our trial and conviction are carried out.
But there are some problems with this. A criminal has a right to refuse the plea deal and people have a right to refuse salvation. For this reason, a plea deal is, by definition, not mercy; it’s an alternative form of justice. If a criminal refuses a plea deal, it is generally not because they want a greater punishment for their crime. It is because they feel the terms of the plea deal are unreasonable or unacceptable. Offering someone an unacceptable plea deal is not merciful. Mercy would be forgiving a person without pursuing punishment or negotiation. An unacceptable plea deal to gain forgiveness is not merciful.
Furthermore, plea deals are generally negotiated by weighing the offered consequences of the deal against the possibility of attaining an acquittal in court. In this situation, the accused is allowed to choose if he/she should risk making their case to a jury or taking a lighter punishment in order to avoid the possibility of a worse one. But, in god’s case, the conviction has already been made. There is no option of pleading not-guilty and there is no one to advocate on our behalf should we wish to. We are given the choice of only two things: accept the deal, or suffer eternal punishment with no recourse. We don’t even have the option to contest the severity of the punishment (which I claim is clearly horrific and unjust, but that will have to wait for another post to discuss in detail). A decision made under these circumstances cannot possibly be considered voluntary and, as such, cannot be considered merciful or just.
Finally, we must consider the situation of a believer who has chosen to accept the terms of salvation. Although they supposedly chose to follow god’s salvation out of free will, the threat of eternal punishment renders such an agreement legally unenforceable. Because consent was given only under threat of torture, consent was not actually given. Thus, justice was not served as the believer did not suffer the consequences of their own actions, but mercy was also not granted as the believer merely accepted a plea deal under threat of torture.
This is just one of many reasons I reject the proposition that a god as described by the Christian tradition of hell and substitutionary atonement could be considered either just or merciful. As described, he is neither.