Questions From a Friend

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A friend (who comments here under the name w1re) sent me the following questions, and I haven't had the chance to respond. I have some thoughts on the matter, but I thought it would be nice to see what others have to say before I chime in.

1) It has been said that God's actions correspond to His moral excellence, or His "holiness", and that He does nothing that is out of His character. It is also said that His actions, for example the act of atonement on the cross, can embody seemingly contrary ideas such as mercy and justice. Would you say that His actions are ALWAYS manifestations of ALL His character?

2) A strange idea occured to me the other day as I thought about the role of hell at the End of Time. As you know, after Adam and Eve sinned, God drove them out of the Garden of Eden and sent an angel with sword of flames to guard the tree of life. He did not allow them to continue in His full presence, but neither did He condemn them to hell (yet). It can be said that that act was an act of both justice (because they sinned and the sin demanded justice be served) and grace/mercy (He clothed them and promised that the woman's Seed will one day crush Satan's head). Would you say that hell would one day serve as an act of "mercy" (if only by that one means that a sinner being fully exposed to the presence of God is more intolerable than being exposed to the total absence of God)? The reason is that, since these sinners have demonstrated that they are utterly depraved and incapable of eternal fellowship with God, and have resolved to be consciously hostile towards God, then it would be better not to expose them to eternal joy (because to them it would be intolerable).

9 Comments

My two cents:

1. I think I would say it this way: all of God's actions always are perfectly consistent with all of His attributes. When God judges, in accordance with His attributes of holiness and justice, He is not acting inconsistently with His attribute of mercy, but His act of judgment is not itself also an act of mercy.

2. This doesn't seem right to me. If this were correct, no one would be in heaven; we all are "utterly depraved and incapable of eternal fellowship with God." The only difference between those who experience eternal joy and those who experience eternal judgment is the cross.

Your friend seems to be concerned that if God judges, He is acting contrary to the attribute of mercy, unless the judgment is simultaneously an act of mercy. I don't think, though, that every act of God has to be a full manifestation of all His attributes at once. Rather, every act of God has to be fully consistent with all His attributes. God's judgment is consistent with His mercy because, in His mercy, He previously offered to everyone an opportunity to avoid judgment, through the cross.

Re (2): This sounds a little like something C.S. Lewis says in Pilgrim's Regress; he has a poem in there in which (if I remember correctly) the character speaking it talks of hell as an expression of mercy because it sets a limit both to evil and to its punishment. But I might be misremembering it; it's toward the end.

A tantalizing question where any answer has the same importance as the number of Angels found on the head of a pin and as relevant. The ease with which Scripture is used as a source that supports
an answer that questions the actions of God is found wanting. I'm assuming that no one here as a rule has the original texts of both Testaments
( complete and unrefined ), so the question that goes begging is: Just what are you working with?
Or is this simply an exercise of pedantry?
Understand that I believe in God, but I have no pretensions that I can define His actions.

It's a false dilemma to assume that because we don't have any one manuscript exactly like the originals that we don't have the original text among all the manuscripts, and even if parts are original scholars are fairly confident that we have some excellent reconstructions of what was there, particularly when it comes to any doctrine of consequence. How many angels can dance on a pin is not only a category mistake but a question of no importance. Whether hell is merciful or what the basic nature of God is can't be in the same category of that kind of question.

What Jeremy articulated in his last post pretty much sums up my question in a succinct way: Does God work in such a way that all His actions require Him to exhibit ALL His characteristics - if so, does hell count as an act of "mercy"? Dobderback has an interesting point in that His acts of mercy are HERE and NOW. If anyone does not choose to believe and follow Him, then only acts of judgment await him on the last day. I don't really have a problem with categorizing some of His actions as acts of mercy and some of His actions as acts of judgment. What I was merely wondering about is whether, through any one single act, His nature requires that He exhibits ALL His attributes at once.

I also want to clarify what I meant by hell as an act of mercy. Suppose, for instance, that a man dies having chosen consciously not to accept God and His claims. (This is different from his perhaps never having heard of him, or was curious about him but had questions, etc. In this case we shall consider a simpler scenario.) When he stands before God, he cannot spend eternity with God because he has already chosen not to accept Him. So for God to force the man to spend an eternity with Him when the man has chosen to reject God would constitute an act of cruelty, because the experience must be one of sheer horror for the man. So the only other alternative would be for the man to spend eternity in the absence of God. That, curiously, is pretty much the biblical definition of hell ("Depart from me, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels."), although curiously here we find that (if you allow for a literal reading) this verse considers the act of this final expulsion to be an act of curse, not mercy.

So, I still feel somewhat stuck, and wonder if this question is more a result of the inadequacy of the language I am using to express it, or if the question as John points out is really irrelevant.

The host of this week's Christian Carnival suggested this post by Rebecca Writes in relation to these questions. It summarizes the classical doctrine of divine simplicity, which is the background behind w1re's questions. I guess the questions could therefore be reworded.

1. Is this doctrine true of God and supported biblically or even philosophically?
2. Does it require that God's intention in sending people to hell must be merciful as well as just?

I guess the potential for people to comment further on this has gotten small enough that I should comment before it leaves the screen altogether. I don't know what I think about all these issues, but I have some thoughts that I think are worth considering.

First is to distinguish between two theses. One is that God always acts according to his character and never violates his character. The second is divine simplicity, i.e. that all of God's attributes are really just manifestations of one attribute -- Godness. The first question above seems to involve an ambiguity between these two claims. I think the first is clear in scripture. The second is a philosophical view from Thomas Aquinas that I'm not convinced is true.

Do I want to say that in being merciful God acts in a way contradictory with his justice? No. Does that mean that a merciful act is also motivated by God's justice? Or is it more that different attributes may motivate different acts as long as the same act won't violate the other attributes? If it's the second, then hell better not violate God's mercy, but it isn't necessarily motivated by mercy.

This is true even according to divine simplicity. In one sense, mercy and justice are both elements of God's Godness. In that sense, mercy and justice are aspects of the same thing. Still, we can distinguish between the two of them in our experience, since justice in practical human ways isn't always together with mercy. Does this answer the question? Not neecessarily, but it gives more resources to be clear about what your answer might be.

As for the hell thing, I want to say that some Christians have defended a view something like what you've said without calling it mercy. The more accurate description, I think they'd say, is to think of it as God's choice to continue the logical implication of people's lives and preferences. Those who have fostered an attitude toward ungodliness, including not relying on God and not wanting to surrender one's life to God, will have an eternity of doing the same. Given their lack of transformation in the direction of God, they've been proceeding at full pace away from God. To throw them into a situation without the Spirit-transformed desires to serve and worship God will thus be in consistent with their whole preference structure. Those who have had a work of the Spirit to transform what they delight in do not have this problem. Is this mercy? I don't know. Is it like the situation you describe that you said was motivation by mercy? Very much so.

Is this mercy? I don't know.

The problem is, scripture never calls hell God's mercy, but always calls it an outpouring of God's wrath. The term mercy is always used (scripturally), to mean a response (benevolent) to someone's neediness or misery. Aristotle defines it as a feeling of pain in response to destructive or painful evil, and if you define it this way, then it might be something similar to God not delighting in the death of the wicked--he feels pain for them even as they are receiving the just consequences of their actions. He does not act out of that pain he feels for them, though, but rather goes on to destroy them.

The action most often associated with God's mercy, though, is regeneration (Ephesians 2, Titus 3, 1 Peter 1, etc.), as I think you may have been touching on.

Thinking over how the terms are used scripturally, I'm thinking they (justice and mercy) are mostly contrasted--vessels of mercy vs. vessels of wrath (Romans 9), for instance. Some receive mercy in the end, and because of that mercy they go to glory; and some receive wrath, and because of that wrath they go to destruction.

I suspect that every act of mercy by God toward a human being is not an act of justice, because it is not giving them what is due from him, but better than what is due from him; although that merciful act must be done in a just way--on the basis of Christ's death. The same thing is probably true of His justice. A just act is not merciful, because it is giving exactly what is due (and in the case of God and human beings, that's all bad), rather than less than is due (which, for a holy God and sinful human beings, is what mercy is); although that just act must be done in a way that is conditioned by God's mercy. So God doesn't delight in the death of the wicked--although He still goes on to destroy them (He acts out of his justice). And they have always had a merciful way to avoid God's justice, as well.

As to A and E's the expulsion from the G of E: it was partly a just consequence of the sinful action, but it was not all of what was deserved (which would have been immediate destruction); and it's where it is not full justice that it is merciful. But that merciful withholding of full justice is only temporary, and in the end that full justice is received, and that's what the final destruction of the wicked is all about--it's bringing to fruition the justice that has been mercifully withheld since the fall. It is the end of God's longsuffering (which is mercy) in the completion of His justice.

And just a little sidenote:

The second is a philosophical view from Thomas Aquinas that I'm not convinced is true.

Many theologians would back away from Thomas Aquinas's view of simplicity (All one big attribute), while still holding to it in some way (All attributes condition every act of God). The debate among theologians is not really so much "Is God simple?", but "How is God simple?" or "What exactly does it mean that God is simple?".

Mercy isn't always the absence of justice, and it isn't even always the degree to which justice is withheld. When it's God and one person or one group of people, that may be so. Sometimes there are multiple human parties, and that's when mercy and justice can go hand-in-hand. For example, God administers justice to evil nations and in so doing shows mercy to those oppressed by them, as happened with Hezekiah in the face of Assyria's attack in 701 BC (Isaiah 36-37 and II Kings 18ff.).

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