In fictional TV programs too we frequently find this theme. A storyline might begin, for example, with a person performing an evil act, perhaps murdering someone. The police then track down that criminal and bring them to justice. The audience is encouraged to sympathise and side with the police in their quest, and at the end, when the wrongdoer is punished, there is a feeling of satisfaction that justice has been done. The program is designed to elicit these feelings in us, and they are ones that we all relate to.
As well as the goodness of justice, however, something else that is deeply ingrained within us all is a sense that mercy is a good thing. We feel that there are times when it is good that punishment is withheld from a wrongdoer. In such a case, the just punishment is still deserved, but this is overruled, so to speak, by mercy.
It is true that there are people who deny the goodness of either justice or mercy. However, I would suggest that those who make such a claim are not being honest with themselves. It should be recognised as a fact of human experience that we relate deeply to both these things.
According to the Bible, the story of God’s dealings with humanity has involved him administering a lot of justice by punishing and also showing a lot of mercy. Given how we relate to the goodness of both justice and mercy, it is not surprising that a good God would act in this way.
The Bible teaches too that God will properly settle the issue of his justice and mercy towards us after we die. Importantly, it teaches that the ‘default position’ of people after death is to receive just punishment from God rather than mercy.
That people can more naturally expect punishment from him instead of mercy is something else that should not cause any eyebrows to be raised. We have all done many things in our lives that are morally wrong, so no one can claim that they do not deserve punishment. And, as I noted above, being merciful towards someone involves special measures, an overruling of the just punishment that person deserves to experience, whereas just punishment follows automatically upon wrongdoing. Mercy is exceptional in a way that justice is not.
Given that mercy, and not justice, is exceptional, we might expect that God would have a preference for enacting just punishment over showing mercy. In actual fact, according to the Bible, the opposite is the case. The Bible teaches that his great love for people means that he actually prefers showing mercy to punishing.
In John 3:17 we find Jesus stating, ‘God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.’ Similarly, in John 12:47 he says, ‘I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.’
These verses shouldn’t be taken literally as meaning that Jesus will not judge the world at all. That would conflict with other parts of John’s Gospel. They do mean, however, that showing mercy is at the heart of God’s plan for people in a way that punishing is not.
There are numerous other verses that also point in this direction. For example, in Ezekiel 33:11, we find this statement: ‘‘As I live’, declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of an evil person, but rather that the evil person turn from his way and live.’’
In a similar vein, 1 Timothy 2:4 asserts that God ‘wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’. And as 2 Peter 3:9 tells us, ‘the Lord . . . is patient with you, not wishing that any perish, but that all come to repentance’.
Never in the Bible do we find God saying that he would rather punish than show mercy. Instead God is portrayed as having regrets when he punishes, but he is never portrayed with regrets when showing mercy.
I think it would be appropriate to say that whenever God punishes someone and sends them to hell, he is acting out his plan B for humanity. He gains satisfaction in punishing, and rightly so, but he would have preferred to show mercy. When God welcomes people into heaven, by contrast, I think we can say that he is acting out his plan A for humanity, and he has no regrets.
We all have a choice as to whether we are part of God’s plan A or plan B. Although mercy is God’s plan A, the Bible nevertheless makes it clear that only a minority of people actually choose to take this path. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus can be found urging people to take the rarely-travelled, narrow road that leads to life instead of the well-populated, broad road that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).
God will either be merciful to you for all eternity – his preferred option – or he will enact his just punishment on you for all eternity. For your own sake and for his, choose plan A.
This is done by accepting in faith Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour and Lord. Taking this step will result in a relationship with him and in a changed life as you live out Christian discipleship.
Paradoxically God’s mercy towards those who will receive it for eternity is actually based on an act of justice, which took place when Jesus was crucified. In some mysterious way, he suffered the just punishment we deserve so that we might experience the freedom from punishment that he deserved.