Over the Easter season, we are often reminded of the great beauty of the fact that God chose to have mercy on us. As St. Paul says, “The wages of sin is death.” If God had given us what we really merited, we would all have deserved Hell. “But,” St. Paul continues, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:23). Elsewhere, he points out just how merciful God is when he says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
It seems, however, that the fact that God is merciful brings about a problem. If God is perfect and has all perfections, then it follows that He must be perfectly just. Mercy, on the other hand, seems to be a particular case of injustice. If we are all owed death, but God gives us life, it appears that God is here being unjust—though admittedly, this is an injustice that no one would complain about.
Humans, too, are capable of this kind of specialized injustice. I have myself experienced it many times, and I assume this is the case for most others. God, however, could not possibly be capable of doing the same. If God is eternal, He must be unchangeable. This is not merely a Christian notion—long before Christians existed, Aristotle too argued that this is the case. If God is unchangeable and He is perfectly just, He cannot be a little less just every now and then. He must always be perfectly just.
God, therefore, must be just and merciful at the same time. In fact, I’d argue that the only way to be merciful, ultimately, is to also be just at the same time, even in our case. Let us consider what justice really is.
A popular definition for justice is “giving each [person] what is due [to him or her].” This definition works well for the inter-personal scenarios we reason through every day, but it does not seem that it is the best definition overall. Plato, for example, does not ultimately think of justice as transactional, but as harmonious. Injustice strikes a discordant note in the harmony of the universe. The work of justice, therefore, is to bring back the harmony. Our injustice toward God and each other very clearly throws the world into disharmony in the Bible. After Adam and Eve fall, the whole material world falls with them. God’s creation is marred, its beauty and goodness wounded.
When the Son comes into the world, however, He declares that this situation can no longer stand. He proclaims to His Apostles, “Take courage, I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). Appearing in a vision to John, He proclaims, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). In going to the Cross willingly for us, Jesus cancels out the disharmony—not only all the disharmony up to that point in time, but all of it, for all time. Justice has been restored. He can be merciful, therefore, not because He unjustly cancels our debt, but because having taken on Himself its full payment, He can forgive whomever He wills.
If this is correct, however, another problem follows. Why is not everyone saved? The answer, I believe, is this same as the above: God must be both perfectly just and merciful. None of our sins are too big for Him. If we sincerely ask for forgiveness, He will grant it freely. He will not, however, forgive us without our cooperation. He is ready to give mercy, but He will not give it if we do not ask. As He puts it, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20).
If told to go away, however, He will. As C.S. Lewis puts in in The Great Divorce, there are ultimately two groups of people: those who say to God “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” The former are in Heaven, and the latter are in Hell, the only place where their wish to be away from God can be fulfilled.
As we experience the joy of the Paschal season, therefore, let us always remember God’s love and mercy for us and that always—no matter what—if we desire His mercy, we have but to ask.