In some ways life contains paradoxes. Sometimes, two things that might at first seem to contradict each other are in fact both true.
One such paradox concerns justice and mercy. At first sight these things might seem to be contradictory, yet deep down we feel that they are both good and we relate strongly to each of them.
A deep sense that justice is a good thing
First, deeply ingrained within us is a sense that justice is a good thing. We feel it is right that an action that is morally wrong deserves to be followed by punishment, i.e., suffering of some sort, as a consequence of that action.
For example, often when we hear that someone has been convicted of a crime and has begun a prison sentence, we feel that the punishment is a fitting thing. We are pleased that the wrongdoer is being punished.
In fictional stories too we frequently find this theme. A storyline might begin, for example, with a person performing an evil act, perhaps murdering someone. Then the police track down that criminal and bring them to justice. The audience of the story is encouraged to sympathise and side with the police in their quest. And at the end, when the wrongdoer is punished, there is a feeling of satisfaction that justice has been done. The story is designed to elicit these feelings in us, and they are ones that we relate to.
A deep sense that mercy is a good thing
Although we relate positively to the concept of justice, something else that is deeply ingrained within us is a sense that mercy is a good thing. We feel that there are times when it is good that punishment is withheld from a wrongdoer. In such cases, the just punishment is still deserved, but this is overruled, so to speak, by mercy.
For example, we will sometimes hear about someone who is deeply remorseful for something they have done wrong, and who then has mercy shown to them. When we hear about a situation like this, we often find ourselves feeling that it was good for mercy to be shown. We feel compassion for the remorseful wrongdoer, and although we still condemn what they did, we are glad that they have received mercy.
Those who deny the goodness of justice or mercy
It is true that some people deny the goodness of either justice or mercy. However, I would suggest that those who do this are not being honest with themselves. Or a few of them may have some sort of psychological problem that prevents them from feeling what people should feel in this area.
Despite occasional objections, it should be recognised as a fact of normal human experience that we relate deeply to both justice and mercy.
God administering justice and showing mercy
According to the Bible, the history of God’s dealings with human beings has involved him administering a lot of justice by punishing and also showing a lot of mercy. Given how we relate to the goodness of justice and mercy, it shouldn’t be surprising that a good God would act in this way.
The Bible teaches too that God will properly settle the matter of his justice and mercy towards us after we die. Importantly, it teaches that the ‘default position’ of people after death is to receive just punishment from God rather than mercy.
That people can more naturally expect punishment from God instead of mercy after death shouldn’t cause any eyebrows to be raised:
Firstly, we have all done many things in our lives that are morally wrong, so no one can claim that they don’t deserve punishment.
And secondly, mercy is exceptional in a way that justice is not. As I have already noted, being merciful to someone involves an overruling of the just punishment that they deserve. But just punishment, by contrast, is something that naturally follows wrongdoing.
God’s preference for mercy
Given that mercy, and not justice, is exceptional, we might expect that God would have a preference for enacting just punishment over showing mercy. In fact, according to the Bible the opposite is the case. The Bible teaches that his great love for people means that he actually prefers showing mercy to punishing.
In John 3:17, for example, Jesus states:
‘God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.’
Similarly, in John he says:
‘I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.’
These verses shouldn’t be taken literally as meaning that Jesus will not judge the world at all. That would conflict with other parts of John’s Gospel. They do mean, however, that saving the world, i.e., showing mercy to people, is at the heart of God’s plan for human beings in a way that punishing is not.
There are numerous other Bible passages that point in the same direction.
For example, in Ezekiel 33:11, we find this statement:
‘“As I live”, declares the Lord GOD, “I take no pleasure in the death of an evil person, but rather that the evil person turn from his way and live.”’
In a similar vein, 1 Timothy 2:3-4 says:
‘. . . God . . . wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’
And 2 Peter 3:9 tells us:
‘The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wishing that any perish, but that all come to repentance.’
The Bible, then, portrays God as having a preference for showing mercy over enacting just punishment.
We have a choice
According to the Christian faith, people all have a choice as to whether they experience God’s mercy or justice.
Importantly, although God prefers to show mercy, the Bible nevertheless makes it clear that only a minority of people actually choose to receive his mercy.
For example, in Matthew -14 Jesus warns:
‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. But narrow is the gate and constricted is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’
This passage is clear that the number of people who will experience destruction, i.e., hell, is significantly greater than the number of those who will experience life in heaven.
There is a need, then, for people to take action to ensure that they are among the minority who will gain eternal salvation. God will either be merciful to us for all eternity – his preferred option – or he will enact his just punishment on us for all eternity. For our own sake and for his, we should each choose to receive his mercy.
This is done by accepting in faith Jesus Christ as our personal Saviour and Lord. When Christ died on the cross, he paid the price for all our wrongdoing, and then he confirmed that he had succeeded in this by rising from the dead. When someone believes this and accepts Christ as Saviour and Lord, it results in a relationship with him and a whole new life.