This is one of those questions that tends to come up a lot in conversations with people in the community around me, even amongst professing Christians. When it is raised, it is not typically meant as an exegetical argument that challenges the Christian doctrine of justice, but it is a question that comes from a more emotional level. The reasoning looks something like this. “I don’t think that I could condemn anyone to Hell and God is more merciful than I am, thus he must not send people to hell.”
In my late teens and early twenties, I went through a number of years of rebellion against the church and the things that the church taught. During those years I never became an atheist per say, but I became a universalist based on the above idea. I used to say, “God is love and he is the perfection of love; hence, he must love even those whom I cannot find it in myself to love and surely love would not condemn someone to hell.” I used to tell people that I did believe that a hell existed, but I considered it vacant.
There error in this line of thinking is two-fold. First, it demands that God define norms and actions on the basis of my preferences and standards. Because I could not condemn someone to eternal fire, then God must also not be able to do so. Secondly, it ignores the idea of justice, magnifying one attribute of God over and above all other attributes. In theological terms, God is “Simple,” meaning that not one aspect or attribute of God can be understood outside of the context of all the others — he is indivisible and perfectly consistent in himself.
The thing with justice is that it demands that punishment be given that is suitable to the crime that was committed. In addition, wherever possible, justice also demands that restitution is made. The example that I often give is that if I were to steal something from you, it is not good enough that I be punished for the theft, but you also want your things back (or appropriate compensation so you can repurchase that which was taken). And Biblically, were we to follow God’s established laws for Israel, restitution ought to be greater than the actual value of what was taken, depending on how important that thing happened to be. This greater restitution is designed both as a deterrent for those considering said theft and it is meant as a way of ameliorating the hardships caused by the theft.
And this has to do with theft. What of a more heinous crime like rape or murder? Certainly the punishment must be suitable to the crime. And, while no amount of money could ever atone for a crime like this, it would not be unreasonable to demand a certain degree of restitution from the criminal to compensate the family for medical bills, funeral expenses, etc… Further, a judge that decided to be merciful to a rapist or a murderer out of his or her love for the criminal, would be considered unjust and corrupt. He would be, in fact, promoting that which he should be punishing.
And now, we multiply. You see, all sin that is committed, is not only committed against others, but it is committed against God himself. And, as God is infinitely greater than man, the sin is infinitely more severe. Further, not only must sin be punished to see that justice is satisfied, but restitution must be made for justice to be fully done. Yet, how can man make restitution to God? Indeed, a perfect sacrifice had to be made in addition to the wrath of God being poured out in proper judgment over sin. And since you and I cannot make either the sacrifice nor endure the wrath of God, that is why Hell is our only proper and just punishment.
Does that mean that God is not merciful? That, of course, is the question that the Heidelberg Catechism poses on Day 4 (Question 11). The answer, of course, is to assure us that God’s mercy does not contradict his justice, that both are intertwined in and inseparable from the person of the God we serve. And so justice is served but mercy is shown through the suffering and death of his Son, who was sinless and could thus make a perfect sacrifice (restitution) and could suffer the weight of God’s wrath for all of God’s elect. Mercy, then, is seen in the giving of Christ for all who confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). Justice melted out on the Son on behalf of those God has chosen since before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) means that mercy can be given to that same body of people.
And, what of those for whom Christ did not die? Justice must still be served and Hell awaits all who are outside of the body of Christ. Interestingly enough, even in this context, God gives a degree of mercy even to those who are reprobate and headed for punishment in Hell. How so? They have a life here on earth marked by many good things — friends, the joy of holding a child in your arms, the love of family, the simple joys of good music and good food. It is a small consolation, indeed, for eternity in Hell; nevertheless, even to those outside of God’s saving grace, God’s mercies can be seen (or at least ought to be seen).
These two ideas are not normally thought of as going together very well. Justice demands that the full measure of punishment of the law be meted out in punishment for a crime committed. But justice is not simply limited to satisfying the law. Justice includes the need for restitution to be measured out to the one offended by the crime and justice needs to be exercised in such a way that it is a preventative measure in the larger society — that others, who might be considering said crimes of their own, would be turned back to walk on the straight and narrow path.
On the other hand, mercy is usually thought of as one being pardoned from either part or all of the demands of the law. The dictionary ordinarily defines mercy in terms of leniency, forgiveness, and clemency. If we are the accused, we usually think of mercy in terms of a reduced or forgiven judgment.
The funny thing has to do with the balance between them. A good and honorable judge is one that sees that the law is satisfied and obeyed. Yet, if he always punishes crime to the fullest extent of the law, without showing any mercy, he is considered ruthless and domineering. On the other hand, if a judge is always showing mercy, we consider him lax and maybe even corrupt and call for his resignation.
A middle ground can be reached in the American society because the law permits for a range in the sentencing. That way a first offender can be charged differently than a repeat offender and so that the judge may take into account the sincerity of an offender’s repentance. And so, the balance is struck and judges are held accountable by the voters in many cases.
The problem, though, when you take this idea and extend it from human experience to eternal things is that God, as judge, is not dealing with first-time offenders. We have been sinning since the day we were born — indeed, even since the day we were conceived! Further, God is not dealing with those who are likely not to sin again. We are repeat sinners and habitual sinners who will struggle with sin all of the days of our earthly life. And, God is not dealing with those who only pose a slight threat to society — our sin offends others and tempts others into sin themselves. And, even further than that, God is also dealing with those who have inherited the guilt of their first-parents’ sin. The only righteous punishment is infinite and eternal damnation in the fires of Hell. There is no range in sentencing possible.
So here, it would seem that with respect to the children of Adam, that God (as Judge) has his hands tied. Mercy cannot be accomplished simply as a matter of appealing to a range of sentencing possible within the law. Mercy becomes incompatible with justice.
Yet, is God not a merciful God? Indeed, scripture tells us that he chooses to have mercy on some (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15). Yet, how does God maintain his justice? The just punishment of the law must get meted out on a suitable representative for those to whom God has chosen to show mercy. Indeed, he pours it out on his Son, Jesus Christ. Question 11 of the Heidelberg catechism forms the bridge between the woeful state of our fallen souls and the redeeming work accomplished by Christ — the way that God fulfills both the demands of the Law and his choice to show mercy to some — more specifically to those whom he has elected in Christ from the foundations of the World (Ephesians 1:4-5).