On the Justice and Mercy of God

On the Justice and Mercy of God

St Irenaeus of Lyons says God is both good and just, because Marcion and the Gnostics wanted to separate these attributes into different gods. Marcion believes the god of the Old Testament was a god of only wrath and justice, and the Christ of the New Testament was a different god of only goodness and love. Irenaeus says that separating the attributes like this makes neither of them God, because how could there be justice without goodness, or goodness without justice? Irenaeus says God “saves those whom He should save, and judges those worthy of judgment. Neither does He show Himself unmercifully just; for His goodness, no doubt, goes on before, taking precedency.”[1] He then references the Scripture that says how God brings the sun and the rain to both the just and the unjust: which it is noteworthy that sunshine and rain are both considered blessings for an agricultural world, and yet one can nonetheless perceive judgment in the sun’s drought and the rain’s flood.

Now, the justice of God is an extremely complicated subject because of how justice is perceived and defined. For one, earthly retributive justice cannot be seen as an uncreated energy like love. Love is eternal and has always existed within the Trinity, but human justice is often understood as punitive and having reactionary contingency upon sin (and sin is a temporal (non)reality). However, the main complication of this topic is that though God is just, He is also not bound to our definition of justice. We might see some Pharisee going around killing holy men for being Christians, and we want God to bring the “justice” of execution. But what does God do? He spares murderer, converts him to Christianity, and has him write the majority of the New Testament.[2] When the disciples want to see God bring down the fires of judgment, what does God say? “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.”[3] When a woman is caught in adultery, deserving the just penalty for sin, what justice does God bring? The words “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”[4] So even though we can say God is just, this does not then mean His manner of justice will be consistent in all points with ours, because we should remember how the Lord says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”[5] In other words, we can have the potential to interpret God’s merciful acts to unjust people, from our limited perspective, as God actually being unjust until that person gets what they deserve, which  is why the subject is so complicated. Therefore, perhaps God’s justice must be understood in a different and more transcendent manner worthy of God. Perhaps we should, as Origen said (concerning how to interpret the anger of God): “Think of God as He deserves to be thought of.”[6] This phenomenological dilemma concerning the justice of God is precisely what St Isaac the Syrian was referencing when he wrote:

How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice?—for while we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change.[7]

St Isaac summarizes his point when he says, “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you.”[8] In other words, St Isaac is saying Isaiah 55:8 should be ringing in our ears when we think about this topic. Therefore, we must ask ourselves what it really means when we say, “God is just,” because God does not seem to be just in His economic acts towards men—at least according to our earthly conceptions of justice. It seems a distinction is often unconsciously made between two distinct ages: the present age of mercy, and the eschatological age of justice. The way things are laid out in Scripture makes it appear to be so, but then again, Scripture also says, “Judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgement.”[9] One ought to ponder whether such an economic separation is worthy of God or not. Is it proper to think of God as being only merciful in this life, and only just in the next? Or is there perhaps divine justice to be found in this age simultaneously alongside mercy? These are questions we all must intentionally seek to answer.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The idea that God is literally angry with mankind because of how much He hates sin and must be appeased, is common thought amongst the atonement theology of many Protestants. The logical progression goes something like: P1) God is good, P2) Justice is good, C) God is just. Thus, justice is attributed to God on the basis of His goodness. Building upon this logic, it then becomes the idea that P3) God is just, P4) Justice must condemn sin, C) God must condemn sinners by His very nature. Therefore, many conclude that God hates and condemns sin because God is just. However, there are some questions to be asked of this logic. For example, does God hate sin because God is just, or is God perceived as being just simply because He hates sin? Additionally, does God hate sin because God is just, or is it because God is good? Does justice always have to do with the simple condemnation of sin, or can the word have additional restorative meanings?

It is common to hear that sinners will be justly punished for their sins against God, but it is often thought that every individual sin must be justly punished with hellfire. The thought is that either the punishment for your sins is taken out on Christ by the Father, or the punishment will be taken out on you in hell (depending on whether or not one accepts Christ). However, death is the “just punishment” for sin, it just also happens to be consequential in nature. This is why God says, “Ye shall surely die,”[10] and why Paul says, “The wages of sin is death.”[11] It is not that there is a divine tally for all individual sins: each having the appropriate torment in hell or on the cross. The full just torment for sin is death (external corruption/mortality and the internal motion of being into anti-being), not additional external acts of torture fit for a crime. Irenaeus says in the garden, physical death was a mercy of God that sin not remain forever in man due to his immortality, while at the same time it was a punishment that man should experience the corruption of mortality at all. Related to this, resurrection is the main reason why hell can be seen as a just punishment, because there is no mercy of mortality, nor life in Christ—there is only a continuing death, which is the consequential punishment for sin. Sinners are ‘justly punished’ by death because sin is justly punished by death (in other words, sinners get what sinners deserve), and this has been the case since Adam.[12] The level of sin is subsequently punished by an equal level of spiritual judgment. Because of God’s declaration in Genesis, the consequence of sin[13] is the just retribution. God’s justice is ultimately a providentially poetic justice that occurs simultaneously when He is being merciful. It is far more profound and paradoxical than offering different modes of torture in hell depending on whether you stole a candy bar or murdered Jews. That is a human way of thinking unfit for the divine ways. If anything, at the very least, the standard goes the other way: based not on the presence of evil deeds, but on the absence of good deeds.[14]

Scripture says, “the wages of sin is death,”[15] because death is that which is received. This is likely also the explanation as to why we all must physically die despite also remaining in Christ. As far as how we experience the phenomenon within time, there is a kind of delayed and overlapping transition period between the former head of humanity and the new King, which to us feels like a stasis. In this sense, we die under the law of death in Adam to rise with the law of faith fulfilled in Christ.[16] This is why St Paul says, “Know ye not… how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?”[17] So long as we live in Adam and ancestral sin, we live under the law—most appropriately, the law of death. Paul then relates this phenomenon to that of a woman being freed from the law of marriage upon her husband’s death.[18] Therefore, we die justly in Adam under the law of death (but this is also mercifully for the sake of our being removed from under it), and rise in forgiveness through the law of faith[19]—the way a seed dies in order to resurrect anew. Assuming, of course, one has sanctifying life in Christ: living in obedience according to theosis. Otherwise, resurrection for the faithless is punishment, because there is no longer the mercy of death.

Jesus willing assumed the punishment that rested upon mankind for their sins, despite being Himself without sin and undeserving of the punishment for sin, which is death.[20] He did this to both 1) overthrow death in its physical finality,[21] and 2) to restore man from spiritual death by offering sanctifying union with the source of life.[22] When one says, “Jesus was punished for our sins,” that typically is understood among Protestants to be God the Father pouring out his wrath upon the Son because He is angry at the sins we have done. However, appeasing an angry Father is not an appropriate image, as St Gregory the Theologian once articulated.[23] Jesus suffered the punishment ‘of’ sin—which is death—but I would be wary of saying he was being punished for our sins, since this has too many misleading connotations. Many Christians interpret Penal Substitutionary Atonement to mean that Jesus is actively punished both in body and spirit by the Father so He could essentially turn a blind eye to us. They say Jesus was punished so we do not have to be. However, we still suffer the retributive consequences of sin precisely because we continue to sin. The crucifixion and resurrection does not remove this fact. At the beginning, Christ died because we die, but now we die, in a theological sense, because Christ (the Last Adam) died to rescue His beguiled Eve from the Serpent. He followed His Eve into her death, that He might, by His death, release and restore her from death. However, we do not have to be punished for sin in an eschatological sense, because Christ revealed “the way.”[24] Physical death is proof that we still suffer the consequential punishment of being in Adam.[25] If the cross means we no longer have to experience punishment in the sense that these people say, then we simply would not die—and yet we do.

One might ask, “What about spiritual death or personal sins? Did Jesus not suffer these on the cross too?” Jesus could not suffer spiritual death on the cross, because the judgment of spiritual death is an internal consequential result of personal sin, not an external torture device that can be inflicted upon a holy man. Mortality was the result of inheriting the consequential punishment of Adam, which Christ willingly undertook to purify (by His divinity) our mortal nature from within. To say Christ suffered inner spiritual death would necessarily also imply that Christ sinned, which we know He did not.[26] His death on the cross is what conquers mortality and releases mankind from the law of death. Spiritual death is something altogether different, and being freed from it requires a life of sanctifying communion with Christ. Punishment for spiritual sin can only be experienced by sinners themselves, because it involves the darkening of the soul. This is impossible for Christ, who is, as the Nicene Creed declares, “Light of light, true God of true God.”

Physical death is the punishment for sin in Adam (though it is also a mercy that sin won’t go on forever, like I mentioned before). Jesus did not die for personal sin in the way many Protestants think. He did not receive the ultimate punishment of personal sin, because, as I said, such punishment requires one to have personal sin. Jesus was able to receive Adam’s punishment of physical death because he was truly born a man as we are, but without actualized sin. Jesus adopted our transgression and “became sin” simply by becoming human and accepting death (the consequence of sin). He “lives” as a man without sin for the sake of synergistically rescuing man from personal sin, and He “died” as a man without sin for the sake of monergistically rescuing man from ancestral sin. Christ’s life is meant to usher us into the divine for inner healing, and Christ’s death and resurrection is meant to release us from bondage to the law of death that we may be resurrected into theanthropic life. When someone dies, it is within the simultaneous justice and mercy of God’s declaration to Adam that we “shall surely die” because of sin. It is in this sense that I say death is always justice being served, by nature. For example: Murderers die in body and soul: therefore, justice is served both for their personal sins (leading to the spiritual death of the soul), and for their being under the law of death in Adam (leading to bodily death). We are all sinners, therefore we all die physically as a consequential punishment for sin—being in Adam.

Jesus took on death, which is also the punishment of Adam. If Jesus did not willingly allow Himself to be killed, He would not have experienced the punishment of a mankind in Adam. Thus, Christ’s death was a receiving of punishment for our sin, because that is what “death” inherently is. The only difference is Jesus had to adopt the punishment in Adam because He had no sin for which to experience punishment in of Himself. The cross is about revealing the divine identity of Christ, and it exonerates the eschatological punishment of ancestral sin—for the faithful—through the punishment of physical death. Personal sin can only be forgiven by the grace of being in communion with Christ in His sinless life, “dying daily” to self,[27] with Him, in a personal martyrdom.

However, sin is not ultimately a legality. The legal metaphors in Scripture can only be stretched so far. Sin is not ultimately a judicial reality, it is an ontological reality that is sometimes described in legal terms. In other words, sins in the eyes of God are not the spiritual equivalent of crimes in the eyes of earthly authorities. Sin is anti-being: the deterioration of the human person. It is not something that can be “brought to justice” the way one imprisons a criminal. Because of this, justice is not about the proper condemnation of individual sins, it is about God allowing the fragmented state of the sinner to exist in a tormented mode equal to its own ontology. This is why Scripture speaks about God giving people over to uncleanness “through the lusts of their own hearts,”[28] and a “reprobate mind.”[29] Again it says, “I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own counsels.”[30] This is how we ought to define justice.

In this paradigm, Christ cannot be spiritually punished for the personal sins of others, because, as I said, experiencing the just punishment for personal sin first requires personal sin. For example, the punishment for alcoholism is a warped mind and a destroyed liver. This is how justice is exacted upon sin, because this is simultaneously how man gets what he deserves. Jesus would not receive such a punishment without Himself being an alcoholic. Jesus died in the place of a murderer, suffering the just penalty of a murderer, but Himself being without the personal sin/mental sickness of a murderer. However, one could say our personal sins are mystically attached to Christ’s death through the sacraments. Therefore we, in a sense, mysteriously impute our sins to the cross when we engage in baptism, the eucharist, confession, etc. Though, I would not say, as the Presbyterians do, that Christ “endured most grievous torments immediately in His soul,”[31] because I believe the torment of hell is ontological: experiencing such a judgment requires corruption of soul,[32] and we know from the Scriptures that Christ did not experience corruption.[33] There simply is no scenario where Christ ‘could’ experience gehenna and yet remain without sin. In other words, holy saints in heaven cannot be burned by hellfire even if they tried, because they already radiate with the fiery energies of God. How can fire burn fire? Therefore, experiencing hell and having personal sin are inherently connected, and is thus improper to describe the cross in this way.


It seems this train got derailed somewhere in history, and I suggest the crucial turning point is one of cosmology. It seems like the antagonist of the cosmological narrative shifted from the devil to humanity. Humanity is no longer seen by many Christians as primarily being the victim of the narrative that the hero must rescue (as expressed by St Irenaeus of Lyons[34]), but is instead humanity is typically seen as the main antagonist, with the devil doing some stuff in between. According to St Irenaeus, humanity, though corrupted, is primarily thought of as being the victim, not the perpetrator. Adam brought sin into the world,[35] but the antagonist of the Biblical narrative is not Adam, it is the Serpent—that is, the devil. Mankind suffered a spiritual snake bite, and the poisonous venom consumed everything. Irenaeus has what could be seen today as a surprisingly optimistic view of the fall, and paints a picture that makes us feel sympathetic for Adam and Eve. Irenaeus tells of a Creator doing all He can to salvage His creatures when he says the following:

God pronounced no curse against Adam personally, but against the ground, in reference to his works. As a certain person among the ancients has observed: ‘God did indeed transfer the curse to the earth, that it might not remain in man.’ But man received, as the punishment for his transgression, the toilsome task of tilling the earth and to eat bread in the sweat of his face, and to return to the dust from where he was taken… the curse in all its fullness fell upon the serpent which had beguiled them.[36]

Irenaeus also takes not of how, contrary to Cain’s response, Adam showed humility in his conduct. Adam hid himself immediately when he sinned, seized with terror, and feeling unworthy to appear before God. Contrast this with Cain’s irreverent speech with the Creator. Irenaeus also says that they could have used leaves that were less irritating on the body than fig leaves, but he instead dressed himself in a manner fitting for his disobedience. He also mentions how God interrogates Adam and Eve simply for the sake of getting to the Serpent, because God does not ask the serpent a single question. Irenaeus continues:

God detested him who had led man astray. But by degrees, and little by little, He showed compassion to him who had been beguiled.[37]

Then, with regards to Adam’s banishment from Paradise, Irenaeus says God pitied him:

[God] did not desire that he should continue a sinner forever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil unceasing and without remedy. But He set a boundary to his sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.[38]

Irenaeus helps us remember that God is being beyond being, and yet feels with and for His creatures, as Hebrews states.[39] In other words, God is not a justice machine programmed to keep tally and condemn every individual sin. He is rational, understanding of situation and context, and impartial.

Why bring up cosmology? My reason is because “justice” is not something we should see as God merely enacting upon human individuals, it is a notion which is applied on a cosmological scale with regards to the narrative of God’s ultimate defeat of the devil. This is why Christ says, fulfilling the words of the prophet Jeremiah:[40] “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.”[41] God is just, but not because he sends Billy the insignificant sinner to hell (such a notion is incredibly short-sighted from a Biblical perspective, especially in light of a first century Enochic cosmology), but because He, like His archetype David,[42] crushed the head of the Serpent (the devil and his angels) and rescued mankind from death.[43] Christ bound the Strong Man,[44] and plundered his house of us stolen clay vessels: for as Scripture says, “We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”[45] Scripture has a narrative, and we ought to pay attention to the roles of its characters. God is the hero, the Serpent is the villain, and we are ultimately the victims (who often get Stockholm Syndrome[46] and try to play the villain). Justice is something given to the afflicted and needy: it is their deliverance.[47] Therefore, it seems we must broaden our perspective of justice to include not just a mercifully redemptive element, but also the celestial bodies which war over our souls. Both the hero and the villain are fighting over us. We might, by choice, align ourselves with the devil and his angels (and are thus under the justice of God by consequence of will),[48] but God shows nothing but love, affection, and mercy to us until our last breath.

The Incarnation

However, lest one think cosmology was my central point, I must conclude my thoughts by adding one crucial twist: the cosmological battle between God and the Serpent; between light and darkness; between virtue and sin, and the final reconciliation between mercy and justice; God and man—is fulfilled in the incarnation. It is the kenotic incarnation that represents the interpretive lens for the whole story. Prior to the incarnation, man and God were separate. Human nature suffered the venomous spread of sin, and the transcendence of the apophatic divinity felt too distant. It is in the incarnation where God mercifully meets man. It is in His assumption of human nature (both body and soul) where the divine brings justice to and for man. He brings justice to man by purging him of sin and mortality, and He brings justice for man by purging the devil of any power over the will. Though, the devil does not realize his own hands have been bound until he eventually tempts Christ in the wilderness.[49] The devil also does not realize his house has been plundered until he sees how death cannot contain God (and consequentially, man). Christ does all of this simultaneously in His very nature: bringing justice while also showing merciful love to all men. Therefore, even though most people have a split perception of mercy and justice being separated by age, it seems possible that the justice and mercy of God work themselves out simultaneously even in this present age. In other words, instead of there being a conception of 100% mercy/0% justice for the wicked in this age, and 100% justice/0% mercy for the wicked in the age to come, it is possible that both mercy and justice are at 100% in both ages for both the wicked and the righteous, and the only reason the justice in the age to come will look different, is because of changes in creation and ontology.

The cosmology itself is merely a reflection and microcosm of the theanthropic person of Christ. Even the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is a microcosm of who He is in His person: the events themselves unraveling within time that which ultimately occurred in the womb. The events of Christ’s life can be understood as a continuing exposition of what took place the very moment God became man. The unraveling of His work, the inevitability of resurrection, the checkmate with the devil, and the revelation of His divinity to man were all finalized at His death. The cosmological story, then, in all its magnitude, begins within the theanthropic person of Jesus Christ, and it flows from Him to us for our communion and contemplation. As the Lamb who was slain for us says,[50] “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you,”[51] and again He says, “Abide in Me, and I in you.”[52] In this way, as we meditate on the law of the Lord day and night,[53] we might then set our affections on the holy things above, not on things of the earth, that we may ascend with purity of heart to gain entrance into experiencing these divine truths.[54]

In the wake of Christ’s victory in the womb, there was one man who truly understood the magnitude of what took place, and congratulated the arrival of the conquering King for His cosmological victory. It was St John the Forerunner—the first to leap for joy.[55] The justice and mercy of God is, in its truest sense, the mending of the disunited. The incarnation itself reconciles God and man together: His death satisfying the demands of the “law of death,”[56] and His life and resurrection justifies humanity in Himself, eternally advocating on behalf of all by nature.


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.25.
[2] Acts 9.
[3] Luke 9:55.
[4] John 8:11.
[5] Isaiah 55:8.
[6] Origen, On First Principles, 2.4.4.
[7] Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies, 51.
[8] Ibid.
[9] John 7:24.
[10] Genesis 2:17.
[11] Romans 6:23.
[12] Being that mankind in Adam has always been under the Athanasian “law of death.”
[13] Physical and spiritual death.
[14] Matthew 25:43.
[15] Romans 6:23.
[16] Cf. Romans 3:21-22, 27; Galatians 2:16; Philippians 3:9.
[17] Romans 7:1.
[18] Romans 7:2-4.
[19] Cf. Romans 3:27.
[20] Romans 6:23.
[21] Prior to Christ there was no inevitable sprouting from the ground once physical death has occurred.
[22] Or more appropriately, the Tree of Life.
[23] Gregory Nazianzen, In Sanctum Pascha: “To whom was that blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and glorious blood of God, the blood of the High Priest and of the Sacrifice. We were in bondage to the devil and sold under sin, having become corrupt through our lust. Now, since a ransom is paid to him who holds us in his power, I ask to whom such a price was offered and why?… If the price is offered to the Father, I ask first of all, how? For it was not the Father who held us captive. Why then should be blood of His only begotten Son please the Father, who would not even receive Isaac when he was offered as a whole burnt offering by Abraham, but replaced the human sacrifice with a ram?”
[24] Cf. John 14:6.
[25] Mortality.
[26] 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15.
[27] Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:31.
[28] Romans 1:24.
[29] Romans 1:28.
[30] Psalm 81:12.
[31] Westminster Confession, 8.4.
[32] Cf. Romans 1:28; Ephesians 4:19.
[33] Acts 13:37. One might mention how the context refers to the corruption of the body specifically, but the objection is quickly rendered pointless in the face of its own implications.
[34] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.23.
[35] Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:21.
[36] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.23.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Hebrews 4:15.
[40] Jeremiah 23:5.
[41] John 12:31.
[42] 1 Samuel 17:46-51. Despite the obvious allusions to Genesis 3:15, the most overlooked prophetic detail in David’s battle with Goliath is the fact that “there was no sword in the hand of David” (v. 50). David used his enemy’s own weapon to kill him, and this is perhaps the most crucial detail, because it explicitly reveals how Christ will conquer His enemy. The devil should have seen it coming: The One to come who would conquer Death (personified as the devil) by “death” (the devil’s sword which was used to enslave mankind).
[43] Genesis 3:15.
[44] Matthew 12:29; Mark 3:27.
[45] Isaiah 64:8.
[46] Stockholm Syndrome is the psychological condition where feelings of trust and/or affection are felt by a victim toward a captor in cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking.
[47] Psalm 82:2-3.
[48] Matthew 25:41.
[49] Matthew 4:1-11.
[50] Cf. Revelation 5:9.
[51] John 6:53.
[52] John 15:4.
[53] Psalm 1:2.
[54] Cf. Colossians 3:2.
[55] Luke 1:44.
[56] The “Law of Death” is one of the foundational pillars of legal theology that is explicitly articulated in Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation. It is the idea that mankind must necessarily die because God said “ye shall surely die/dying ye shall die.” In the logic of Athanasius, this means that every human being must experience physical death, or else God is a liar.

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