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Why Mercy and Justice contradict each other

By Paul So ~

It is often insisted by theists that while God is merciful he is also just. This insistence is usually a response to the common objection from atheists that eternal torment (or any forms of punishment) seem too cruel and despotic to be considered compatible with mercy. Many atheists respond in two ways: First, some divine punishments such as eternal damnation hardly qualifies as either merciful or just. Second, mercy and justice do not seem compatible with each other. I want to make arguments in favor of the latter assertion that mercy and justice are not compatible with each other, especially within the theological framework of atonement, since the very meaning or implication of both are contrary to one another. In order to do this I will provide definition of both of them in the form of deductive or syllogistic arguments in the following manner:

Justice Tempered by Mercy - Statue located in ...
Justice Tempered by Mercy - Statue located in the Courtyard of the Law School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  1. If someone violates God’s law, then the person is a sinner who deserves punishment from God.
  2. If that person is a sinner who deserves punishment from God, then God will punish the sinner
  3. Person X violated God’s law
  4. Therefore, God will punish the sinner Person X (conclusion)

  1. If any person X begs for forgiveness for violating God’s law, then God will forgive that person
  2. If God forgives that person, then God will not punish that person.
  3. Person X begs for forgiveness
  4. Therefore, God will not punish the sinner Person X (conclusion)

From these arguments I can summarize the definition of justice and mercy in the following manner:

Justice = Punishment (or reward) to anyone who deserves it

Mercy (or Grace) = Exempting someone from the punishment he or she deserves.

From both the arguments and definitions I want to point out why Justice and Mercy are contrary to one another in virtue of their meaning. First, note that the conclusions from both the syllogistic argument of Justice and Mercy contradict one another. The conclusion from Justice says “God will punish the sinner Person X” and conclusion from mercy says “God will not punish the sinner Person X” The former is an affirmative conclusion that God will punish the person, while the latter is a negative conclusion that says God will not punish the person. The affirmative and negative propositions cannot be compatible with one another, since the logical form of “X or not X” which can mean “Punishment or not punishment” clearly shows that they are not consistent. If it is the case that the conclusion from both Mercy and Justice are not compatible with each other then it follows that Justice and Mercy are not compatible with each other.

Second, just as the conclusions from the two arguments are not compatible with each other the definitions are not compatible with each other as well. Exemption from punishment and execution of punishment, which mercy and justice are defined respectively, are clearly not compatible with each other. Exemption in this context is to preclude the consequences of violating the laws, while punishment is executing the consequence of violating the law. In the light of seeing mercy and justice in such a manner, it is clear that they are contrary to one another.

Thus, to say that God is merciful and just amounts to saying “God punishes and does not punish” or “God exempts or executes” which is clearly self-contradictory. However, the theists can usually respond in the following manner: It is not contradictory for God to perform two contrary actions as long as those actions are directed against two different kinds of people. If you say “God punishes person X” and “God does not punish person Y” (or forgives person Y) then it is not a contradiction; it would be a contradiction if God both punishes and does not punish person X, but obviously God does not do this.

However this criticism simply does not work since I can agree that God’s actions are not self-contradictory but I can still maintain that God’s attributes (or nature) is incoherent since the attributes of Justice and Mercy are not consistent with each other. The criticism also does not work since I am not just talking about God’s actions but I am talking about the meaning or definition of the term “justice” and “mercy” that are not compatible with each other.

To say that God is merciful and just amounts to saying “God punishes and does not punish” or “God exempts or executes” which is clearly self-contradictory. The theist may concede that I might have a point, but disagree with me that the meaning are inconsistent with each other for the following reason: You are distorting the meaning of mercy and justice because mercy is more than just not punishing someone but it is also saving someone, you forgot to mention the affirmative meaning of the term “mercy” as redemption. You are also distorting the term “Justice” since that term is not only to punish someone but also to reward someone. Also, two meanings can be reconciled within a traditional framework of atonement: that justice is imposed on those who do not repent, while mercy is on those who do repent, and repentance largely depends on Christ who gives the opportunity to face justice or mercy. So, there is a logical relation between Justice and unrepentant, since punishment are on those who do not repent just as there is a logical relation between mercy and repentant. This would prevent them from contradicting each other since if mercy and justice have a relation to repentant, then it would mean God saves but does not save the repentant, which is self-contradictory.

However, this criticism would fail to extricate theism from my arguments for the following reasons. While it is true that I haven’t capture the full meaning of the term “mercy” since I forgot to mention that it is “salvation” it still does not change the fact that justice and mercy are still contradictory. Mercy can mean “salvation” but justice can also mean “damnation”, and two are contrary to one another. Mercy can also mean “an act to those who do not deserve it” and Justice can mean “ an act to those who do deserve it” and both will contradict each other. No matter what kind of meaning I capture for both mercy and justice, they still contradict one another. Also, even if I did not capture the full meaning, I still captured an adequate implication that both of them amount to which I demonstrated to be incompatible with each other. Also, the atonement framework does not really reconcile the meaning of justice and mercy at all. The proposition “Jesus dies for your sins so you will be exempted from it” does sound like a loophole that reconciles Justice and Mercy together, but I argue that this is not the case. As I mention above, exemption from punishment is not compatible with executing punishment, so far from being a loophole it only clarifies the contradiction even further. Also, Justice and Mercy remain contrary to one another even if they are logically related to two other different meanings of repentant and unrepentant.

Of course, the theist can always change the meaning of “justice” and “mercy” to make them compatible with each other to avoid contradiction. But doing this will lead to another problem as to whether changing the meaning of either actually reflect the true meaning of mercy and justice. Consistency, while desirable, is not the sufficient way to truth, you also need to be sure that the two meanings you employ are in fact true meaning rather than pseudo-meaning or heterodox meaning that does not reflect it. You can make justice and mercy compatible with each other by changing their meaning, but all that shows is that certain meanings of justice and mercy are compatible with each other while others are not, and this is problematic since you have to show why the meanings that are compatible with each other are also true meanings. Sometimes another problem with changing meaning for the sake of consistency is you begin to deviate from common sense understanding of those meanings in the first place. Such deviation may not necessarily mean that the meanings are false, but it does make them a huge suspect. Even if the theist succeeds in showing that they are compatible while having the true meaning, it still does not follow that God exists since Justice and Mercy can exist apart from God.

I conclude that the meaning of Justice and Mercy are logically incompatible with each other. A lot of believers may insist otherwise, but I think this is because they have not honestly thought about the meaning of the term “justice” and “mercy” but have often used inane analogies or examples to insist on their point, especially in sermons (this is what I remember from personal experience). Often times when their insistence becomes rhetorical such that when they say “God is merciful, but he is also just!” becomes a popular punch line that I personally find to be trifling since they haven’t elaborated on the meaning of justice and mercy but only assumed that they are compatible with each other. I also think that many atheists are acting on “gut-reaction” of the meaning of “justice” and “mercy” that tells them that the meanings are incompatible, which is fine since the “gut-reaction” is warranted, but the meaning has to be articulated before we jump to conclusion that our gut reaction is right.

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