I have a colleague at work who professes to believe in Christ and yet
lives a lifestyle which does not reflect this. During discussions on the
issues in the Bible I am repeatedly confronted by the accusation that God
cannot be just and still punish people for different crimes in the same
way (I am not a murderer, why should I go to hell!!?? etc.). I am slowly
coming to the conclusion that this may well be an excuse for not accepting
the Bible as opposed to any serious intellectual stumbling block for this
person; it would however be nice to be able to give this person an
argument other than God does not conform to our notions of justice, and
the repeated statements of Christ atoning for all of our sins if we will
just accept him.


My intuition, based on a fair amount of experience, is that you are very
likely correct about your friend?that he most likely is using this issue
as a smoke screen to cover for the fact that he is not willing to change
his life, to humble himself before God and to do what is right. This
reminds me of the “woman at the well” in John 4:1-42. In this situation,
the woman got into a spiritual conversation with Jesus. However, when
Jesus turned the conversation toward her personal sin, she tried to steer
the discussion toward a controversial theological issue which had nothing
to do with the sin Jesus had just pointed out. This may well be what is
happening with your friend.

Having said that, let us consider Jesus? response to the woman at the
well. What he did is he patiently dealt with the issue she raised, then
he returned to the important issues. I believe this is a good model for
us. Most likely, your friend is throwing up a smoke screen, yet his
question deserves a careful answer. Therefore, even if your friend is
“making an excuse for not accepting the Bible” I believe it is still your
job to provide a reasonable answer. I believe there is a limit to this.
In cases where people are using arguments about God or the Bible as an
excuse to heap scorn on God and Christianity, I believe this may be a time
to shake the dust off your shoes, but with your friend this does not seem
to be the case.

Bottom line, the fact is that the Bible appears to teach that different
levels of evil actions by different people receive equal punishment. At
the same time, it appears that those who are tireless servants of God for
years receive equal treatment with those who just barely squeak into
heaven. On the face of it, this does not appear to be just. Your friend
has a point, it would appear. The parable of the workers in the field in
Matthew 20:1-16 certainly appears to teach equal reward for the one who
worked all day and the one who worked only for one hour. In this parable,
the ones who were claiming injustice were those who had worked all day.
God?s (the landowner?s in the parable) response is to ask the workers why
they are complaining about his grace. He gave them what he told them as a
wage, and it is his business if he seems to give more grace to those who
worked less. God does not seem to feel the need to justify his grace to
his servants. Similarly, consider the parable of the lost son in Luke
15:11-32. Here the father pours out his favor on the son who had spit in
his face and walked away. This made the older, more “faithful” son jealous
and angry. Again, God?s (the father?s) response is to ask why he would
not rejoice at his brother?s restoration to grace. I would acknowledge to
your friend that from a human perspective, it is true that how God applies
grace does not appear to be completely just.

Ezekiel 18:1-32 deals with this question in some detail. God seems to
anticipate your friend?s question. In verse 25 we read, “But you say:
?The Lord?s way is not just.? Now listen, house of Israel: Is it my way
that is unfair?…” Again, God does not seem to feel the need to justify
his grace or his punishment. Those who do good, but later turn to evil
are punished. Those who do evil, but later turn and do good receive
grace. Of course, this simplistic description is fleshed out more fully
in the New Testament, but the principle remains. For myself, I hold out
the possibility, based on some hints in the New Testament, that there may
actually be levels of reward in heaven and perhaps even levels of
punishment in hell. I will leave it to you to do some thinking and
reading on your own to see if you agree with me on that. However, on
balance, God seems not to want us to dwell on such possible differences.
Romans 9:6-33 to summarizes God?s response to our criticisms of his
justice. Romans 9:14 says, “What should we say then? Is there injustice
with God? Absolutely not! For he tells Moses: ?I will show mercy to whom I
show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.?” Paul
continues by asking whether the pot has a right to challenge the potter
who formed it. The answer is no it does not, and neither do we have a
right to challenge God on his justice (although he will be patient with us
when we ask about it).

In summary, you may well be right about your friend, but if he is willing
to listen, you probably should try to give a reasoned answer. You should
acknowledge that on the face of it, God?s standard of justice and mercy
may not meet human expectations, but that God has made it clear, and he
will not change. God?s mercy and grace are amazing, and your friend would
do well to respond to that offer of grace. It is not a wise thing to take
on God in an argument over justice.

John Oakes

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