The Unfairness of Heaven?

Michael Martin’s article “Is Christianity Absurd?” advances various arguments against Christianity. One in particular, his argument about the injustice of heaven, is addressed below. Of Martin’s various other arguments, the argument on the atonement was previously answered in the response to Martin’s article on the improbability of Jesus’ resurrection, found here.

Martin argues extensively for the injustice of heaven. Among Martin’s premises, assumed throughout the article, are that injustice is a valid complaint against God therefore justice and injustice are valid things to assess; that some people have done actual good and evil that ought to be addressed; and that God has a debt to his own character and perhaps also to us to ensure that justice is done. Based on these premises, the most obvious conclusion would be that God’s justice would be vindicated by a judgment in which the good were rewarded and the evil punished. However, Martin’s assessment is that no matter what God does on Judgment Day, he cannot be justified in doing it.

“Heaven seems unfair no matter how one views it.” – Michael Martin, “Is Christianity Absurd”, section 2b on “Moral difficulties” of heaven.

Martin seeks to cover every possible alternative – being judged by what we have done, being judged by what we have believed, being granted universal salvation – and to find them all morally wrong. All (in Martin’s argument) show moral defect in God, either by being unfair in the case where not everyone is given eternal life, or by rendering our worldly life and death a bit pointless in the case of universalism, besides being probably unfair in awarding the same consequences to those who do good and those who do evil. The unfairness and pointlessness of the alternative – letting everyone be obliterated by death – does not enter Martin’s assessments.

I’ll skip over answering Martin’s objections to universalism since very few Christians hold to a teaching of universal salvation, being difficult to reconcile with Jesus’ teachings. We’ll quickly walk through each of Martin’s other two main “God-can’t-win” scenarios. I’ll introduce them with Martin’s own comment against the unfairness of universalism:

“Is it fair that everyone will be saved when some people have lived incredibly evil lives while others have lived wonderfully good lives?” – Michael Martin, “Is Christianity Absurd”, footnote #16

Martin acknowledges (though in a footnote) that God’s not judging us would be unfair. Even though Martin – along with all of humanity – cries out for justice to be done, he continues to insist that God judging us would also be unfair, regardless of the criteria used.

Martin’s objections to judging us by what we do

According to Martin, if God judges people according to what they have done, then God is unfair on the grounds that maybe everybody didn’t know what God expected. Contrast this with Jesus’ own portrayal of the Last Judgment in “the sheep and the goats” (Matthew 25:31-46). The point here is, “Whatever you have done to the least of these brothers of mine, you have done to me.” In Jesus’ most famous teaching on the subject, at judgment day Jesus looks to see how we have treated other people: for example, whether we have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the needy, cared for the sick, and visited prisoners. At the Last Day, those who have been merciful are shown mercy. It’s very much in line with Jesus’ other famous teachings, such as “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”; “With the measure you use it will be measured back to you”; and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Jesus’ picture of the Last Judgment shows Jesus returning mercy to the merciful, and hardness to the hard-hearted. But notice one thing: whether or not a person had ever heard of Jesus’ teachings or held a Bible in his hands, it is nonsense to claim unfairness as he deals with people in the same way they have dealt with others. If the person had been merciful to others, God is merciful to them. If the person had been unmerciful to others, God is unmerciful to them. Turnabout is fair play whether or not the person had ever heard Jesus’ moral teachings. In Jesus’ famous picture of the Last Judgment, there is no argument against how God judges us that cannot be answered “it is what you did to others”, and therefore becomes simple justice.

Martin’s objections to judging us by what we believe

According to Martin, if God judges people according to their faith in Christ to save them, that is also unfair on the grounds first of the innocents who may not have heard of Christ, and then on the grounds that there may be atheists like him who know of Christ but reject the evidence or somehow find Jesus morally flawed.

On ignorance

First, the Bible states again and again that God is forgiving of sins committed in ignorance (though ignorance is hardly a guarantee of God’s favor!). From the ancient law insisting that sins of ignorance be handled much differently than sins of defiance (Numbers 15:22-30), to Jesus’ plea that those who executed him be forgiven on account of their ignorance (Luke 23:34), to Paul’s gladness that God forgave Paul’s former blasphemy because he acted in ignorance and unbelief (1 Timothy 1:13), there is a long-standing and ancient teaching that mere ignorance does not condemn anyone.

Second, we know of people who never heard the name “Jesus” or held a Bible who will be in heaven (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob spring to mind, see for example Matthew 8:11). They trusted God’s promise that God would provide whatever atonement was necessary, even without knowing the details (Genesis 22:14). Jesus fulfilled their faith in God, even though they lived at a time when he was to this world still a hope, a promise not yet seen. The type of faith portrayed in Scripture as “saving faith” is one that counts God as trustworthy and trusts him to keep his word (see Romans 4:21-22, Matthew 8:8-10, Hebrews 11:11). Is God really supposed to judge those who trust him in the same way as those who dream up scenarios so that, whatever God does, he cannot possibly win in their eyes? Would it be unfair if God judges them in the same way they have judged him?

For the time being, we leave a lot of ground uncovered by ways of other religions; due to length considerations I’ve removed my (lengthy!) comments and I’ll defer those until another time, making only some brief comments here below.

On what our reactions say about us

Having set aside those who are genuinely ignorant – which is never portrayed as a free ticket, incidentally – more remains to be said on whether someone rejects Jesus. Leaving aside ignorance and focusing squarely on people who do know of Jesus, we will consider whether justice could be served by judging someone for rejecting him.

There are times when our reactions to things reveal something about those other things – for example, my reaction to a movie may tell you something about that movie. But often our reactions tell more about ourselves. Consider receiving a gift which is a small good; the appropriate reaction is some appreciation. Consider a greater good; the appropriate reaction is more appreciation. As the things to which we react become better and better, our appreciation should become greater, our acceptance should become more wholehearted. But most people have at some point in their lives met a crank, someone who simply cannot be made happy. It would not matter what this person had received, fault would be found. If someone looks at increasingly better things and says they are no better or even worse, that person may imagine that he has really proved himself the cleverer and wiser, but he may more truly have proved himself small-minded and petty.

In the case of a person who is good, it does not follow that all people would automatically acknowledge his goodness. In the case of someone who is truly good, the one who refuses to acknowledge that goodness mostly testifies how little love for goodness is inside himself. Neither is this an exclusively Christian concept. A look through the Analects finds Confucius and one of his disciples discussing the same thing:

Tzu-kung asked, “‘All in the village like him’ – what do you think of that?”
The Master said, “That is not enough.”
“‘All in the village dislike him’ – what do you think of that?”
The Master said, “That is not enough either. ‘Those in his village who are good like him, and those in his village who are bad dislike him.’ That would be better.” (Analects 13:24)

Confucius envisioned the truly good person as someone who divided the community – and the peoples’ reactions would judge the people themselves. Such is the case with Christ.

In the case of various great teachers throughout the ages, this happens in some measure. Anyone who calls Confucius unwise has judged against his own wisdom; the critic has told more about himself than about Confucius. Anyone who calls Lao-Tzu unspiritual has judged against his own spirituality, not Lao-Tzu’s. Similar assessments could be made of a number of people who have shown great worth, and of their opponents who make petty criticisms of them. There have been many who are counted wise, or spiritual, or leaders – and it would be small-minded to dismiss the worth of anyone who showed real virtue and wisdom. But how often in our society do we see the admiration of other religious leaders used as a cloak for dismissing the worth of Jesus Christ? How often are the various great teachers brought up, not out of appreciation for them, but as a mere protest against Jesus’ uniqueness? So here, before we discuss whether judging people according to their reactions of Jesus is right, we should first discuss one question: is Jesus unique?

Is Jesus Unique?

Some may say that Christians have historically been blind to the virtues of non-Christians. I can think of some instances where this is the case, but it’s nothing like the general rule. Paul noted the earnest piety of the idol-worshippers in Ephesus, though he spoke plainly about the idolatry being based on ignorance of God’s true nature (Acts 17). It is easy enough to find the ancient church fathers praising the “preparation for the Gospel” amongst the ancient pagans, to find some of the great pre-Christians honored alongside the Christians. Short excursions through writings as varied as those of C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther also show earnest appreciation of non-Christians. These are hardly minor figures in Christian culture. If more people would do well to follow their lead, well enough; but let’s not lose sight of the question: does the fact that other people may be genuinely praiseworthy mean that they are on the same level as someone who raised the dead? Is it unreasonable to judge people by their reactions to Jesus Christ? Christianity’s detractors see this as mere partisanship. Whether individual Christians – or non-Christians – show partisanship is a separate question from whether Jesus is in fact unique.

Of all the founders of the world religions, only one healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, opened the ears of the deaf, and raised the dead. (Discussion of some of the usual objections shortly, but we start first with the early records of Jesus’ life.) Only one of these founders taught that the highest good among all things good was to love God and neighbor. Only one showed the utter justice of the Last Day. Only one rose from the dead. To try to make equivalence amongst all religions has on the surface an appearance of fairness, but it is only a seeming fairness based on obscuring the differences.

In the case of Jesus, people find themselves arguing against the holiness of someone who healed the sick and raised the dead, arguing against the goodness of someone who taught love of God and neighbor as the highest good in the world, arguing against the justice of someone who taught that justice was doing to others as you would have them do unto you, arguing against the fairness of God showing mercy to the merciful and hardness to the hard-hearted. Jesus is the only religious founder in the history of the planet to have been raised from the dead himself, raised others from the dead, and made the cripples walk. There is none greater. Confucius may have been wise, but it is no discredit to him to mention that one greater than Confucius is here. Lao-Tzu may have been spiritual, but it is no discredit to him to mention that one greater than Lao-Tzu is here. Christ has showed his uniqueness again and again.

It is a commonplace for opponents of Christianity to argue that Jesus did none of these things, that it was merely typical for such myths to accrue around religious figures. But was it really? One searches all the major religions of the world together – excepting Christianity – without finding any record of the religion’s central historical figure being raised from the dead. Mohammad? The Buddha? Lao-Tzu? Confucius? All dead and buried, no followers proclaiming a resurrection from the dead.

It is a commonplace for opponents of Christianity to argue that, if the early records of Christianity should be considered seriously, then so should the early records of these other religions. Actually, I couldn’t agree more. Whatever is credibly supported by early sources – the closer the witnesses, the earlier the attestation, the more sources the better – then by all means take it seriously. There is much to appreciate and much to learn by such a study. Yet the more you research these founders of the different religions, the more clear it becomes that Jesus is unique among them.

Conclusion – on being judged by our beliefs

People may have doctrinal questions – there is a wide variety of these amongst the followers of Christ – but to argue against Christ completely speaks more against the arguer than against Christ. To judge people by their faith in Christ – or indifference towards him, or hostility towards him – is just. We’ve already addressed ignorance separately – but this rejection of Christ of which I’m speaking now is not simple ignorance, this is disdain for what is good and holy. In despising Jesus, people condemn themselves and are justly condemned by it.

By Our Actions, or By Our Hearts?

So which is it? Does God judge us by our actions or by our hearts? The in-house discussions amongst Christians go on, but I’m hardly the first to mention that our actions are caused by what is inside us. Generally, a person’s actions on the outside show the person’s character on the inside. There is often an obvious match between what we believe and what we do. There are some exceptions, for example cowardice may result in someone appearing less good on the outside than he wishes to be. Moments of weakness may mar the image of someone who is generally of good character. From the other side, hypocrisy may result in someone appearing better on the outside than he actually is on the inside. Other situations could be imagined where a person is not fully true to himself in how he acts. And I think this is why there is such justified hesitation about us, on a human level, trying to guess into someone’s eternal destiny. Our human guesses into someone’s destiny may, in some case, lead us wrong. When the Last Day comes, God will judge rightly. Mr. Martin’s complaint, “Is it fair that everyone will be saved when some people have lived incredibly evil lives while others have lived wonderfully good lives?” will be answered. The justice of heaven – and the justice of our being judged – is sure.


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