Reflections on God’s Mercy


“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

So says Shakespeare, in the Merchant of Venice. His point? That mercy cannot be forced, and that for human beings anyway, it benefits both the one who gives mercy and the one who receives it. This accords with a common definition of mercy: “compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence.” We recognize these as good things, as enlightened behavior. So if mercy is good, then unlimited – infinite – mercy must be even better. Right?

Maybe not. Atheists often contend that God’s requirement of a “blood sacrifice” shows that he is not infinitely merciful. Infinite mercy, it is claimed, would be mercy not requiring such a sacrifice. An non-believer advanced the argument like this: 

“Since I can forgive without the shedding of blood, I put it to you that I am more merciful than YHWH, therefore YHWH is not infinitely merciful since there are those more merciful than he. The idea that YHWH is still forced to punish people means YHWH is not infinitely merciful since the amount of mercy could be increased. That doesn’t address the question which is; how can YWHW be infinitely merciful if mere people are demonstrably more merciful? Indeed, under the Law everything is purified with the shedding of blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Heb 9:22″

While it may appear on first glance that the skeptic is on to something, this challenge works only if the meaning of the term “mercy” is not closely examined. Mercy is not a thing like, say, health, for which it may be argued that more of “it” is always better. No, mercy is a freely given gift, from the one in power toward the other, for reasons of compassion or pity. But mercy must also be balanced against other virtues, such as justice. Consider: it was merciful for the Allies to help rebuild their former Nazi foes. But would it have been similarly “merciful” if they had assisted the Nazis before they were defeated? While they still occupied most of Europe? After all, the later mercy came at the price of millions more dead than would have been the case had peace been declared in 1942. But allowing the Nazi war machine to dominate would not have been good, because assisting such a regime would defeat justice. Any desire to treat mercifully with the Nazis would have to be balanced against the desire for justice, and the greater evil that derives from justice denied.

The skeptic’s challenge refuses to recognize this basic distinction. Instead, we are to believe that if some of thing “x” is good, then an infinite amount of thing “x” is always best. But that depends on what “x” is, and against what “x” is balanced. Take for example the quality of patience. Patience is a virtue. Plugging “patience” in for “x,” we would have to conclude that infinite patience is better than finite patience. But infinite patience would result in never taking action. Loyalty is another virtue. Is infinite loyalty to be exalted, even if the person to whom the loyalty is attached has committed offenses which demand punishment?

No, the flaw in the skeptic’s challenge is that he refuses to recognize that these qualities exist in a balance; God’s perfection applies to how these attributes find perfect harmony together, perfect expression. It is not a simple child’s game of counting up the score. To conclude otherwise would be to hold that God’s infinite perfection is in fact a limitation – if he exercises perfect patience, he is trapped into eternal inaction.

But what of the specific challenge: that the skeptic does not require the shedding of blood, which means he is more merciful than God, who does. Has God just been outdone in the area of mercy? The first flaw in the challenger’s argument is that he assumes that he has the power to exercise mercy – he says that he does not require any sacrifice to do so. But since the skeptic did not create mankind, and has not been offended by mankind’s rebellion, by what right, and through what power, is he to accomplish this forgiveness? Can he also forgive a rapist for the crime committed against some other person? In so stating, the skeptic betrays a profound misunderstanding of what mercy and forgiveness actually involve. Moreover, the challenge fails to consider why a “blood sacrifice” – Christ, to be more specific – was required. When is blood shed? Usually, this refers to when something is killed. Christianity teaches that the wages of sin is death. When man rebelled, it brought death into the world. Death is the consequence of the rebellion, a consequence which God’s perfect justice demands. But God also provided a solution, which also came through death. Consider: if we never died, we would be eternally separated from God, in bodies that decay with time. Hardly a pleasant prospect. When Christ came into the world, and died after living the perfect life, he offered his life and death as a sacrifice to atone for the guilt of the rest of us. His blood – his sacrifice – is God’s solution to the problem that man’s rebellion created. And His gift is free to all of us – no work is required on our part.

It’s hard to see that as anything other than infinite mercy: He came to set us free and suffered and died in our place. If our free will is keeping us from accepting this unmerited gift, it is hardly God’s lack of “mercy” that is to blame.

Posted by Al Serrato

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