This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig,
I sometimes hear people say things like "God doesn't owe us anything" and "God didn't have to send Jesus; He could have sent us all to hell and still been just." This kind of sentiment has always struck me as wrong. While I realize we don't deserve God's grace, the sentiment seems like someone saying "I don't owe my kids anything. They've disobeyed me, therefore I don't have to take care of them." It just seems wrong to suggest that because of sin, God doesn't have to love us anymore. At this point someone might say that it is just, but it isn't merciful or compassionate. I suppose that could be true, but would God call a compassionless person a "just" person? Am I wrong? Do I have a self-entitled attitude for feeling this way?
Dr. William Lane Craig's Response
It seems to me, Daniel, that you are conflating God’s justice with His love.
If you agree, as the New Testament teaches, that we are undeserving sinners and that salvation is therefore by God’s grace alone (Ephesians 2.8-9), then you have to agree that if God gave everyone his just desert, God would be perfectly just. God’s justice does not require Him to forgive our sins; on the contrary it requires Him to punish those sins. So, yes, “He could have sent us all to hell (i.e., given us our just desert) and still been just.”
But God is just as loving as He is just. “God is love” (I John 4.8). So it is very “wrong to suggest that because of sin, God doesn't have to love us anymore.” God’s very nature is love, and so, necessarily, He loves us. (This, by the way, is the world of difference between the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an. In Islam Allah’s omnipotence trumps everything, even His own nature, so that He can act in any way He wills, even choosing at the last minute to send all faithful Muslims to hell!)
You respond to this distinction by saying, “I suppose that could be true, but would God call a compassionless person a "just" person?” If we are speaking of pure retributive justice, then the answer is, yes. In legal philosophy this problem is known as the dilemma of the merciful judge. A judge is tasked to administer justice regardless of his personal feelings toward the accused. The law may allow him some leeway in sentencing, but if he flouts the law out of feelings of mercy, then he acts unjustly. This dilemma has important implications for atonement theory and the satisfaction of divine justice (see my The Atonement, Cambridge University Press, 2018).
On the other hand, it needs to be said that in the Bible God’s justice or righteousness (Hebrew: sedek; Greek: dikaiosynē) comprises a lot more than retributive justice. It encompasses the whole moral character of God, so that God’s righteousness is also saving as well as condemnatory. In that broad sense a compassionless person is definitely not just, i.e., righteous.
Realizing that we deserve nothing from God but condemnation helps to foster a profound sense of gratitude to God for His amazing grace and love that reaches even me.
This Q&A and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website.