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I have been discussing God’s unfairness in the uneven distribution of evidence a lot recently. First, grace was offered as something that God gives out unfairly – it is baked into the idea, apparently. And then Luke Breuer said the same of mercy, in reply to my question, “Why cannot mercy be doled out to all who deserve mercy?”

Luke replied:

This appears to be a contradiction in terms. Mercy is a release from negative deserved consequences. There is a question of whether God ever really wanted to operate based on ‘deserve’ being an organizing principle of society. If you look through the history of humanity’s attempts to delineate who ‘deserves’ what, you might need to ask the witch of Endor to ring Karl Marx. It is possible that Torah was set up to demonstrate the poverty of ‘deserve’, and that Jesus is referring to this when he said:

How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:44–47)

Here’s the thing. I cannot make any sense at all of a god who would randomly assign mercy (or grace or whatever). What on earth would this look like and what on earth would this be teaching humanity? This is completely set against any kind of moral exemplar theory that you might see in some versions of atonement.

Let’s exemplify this. Imagine someone – Jessica – is an absolute angel all their life. A real paragon of Christian moral virtue. They make a misstep at the end of their life and God punishes them for their misstep. You could argue that they deserve mercy. But God does not give them mercy. Now take someone else: Hitler. Imagine this man is evil all their life and does nothing to repent and certainly nothing to deserve mercy. However, since, as people like Luke claim, God doles out mercy to those undeserving of it, we have a scenario whereby God gives this Hitler chap mercy and forgives him (perhaps grants him a space in heaven), but Jessica gets nothing and ends up going to hell.

The genuine reality for such apologists is that mercy is undeserved. As such, Jessica deserves mercy but doesn’t get it and Hitler doesn’t deserve it but gets it. Firstly, what is the point? If we don’t know -vas humans – who actually gets and who doesn’t get mercy, then what is a point of mercy anyway? It looks like something that just serves a weird random purpose for God. And I mean random in the truest of senses since he is apportioning mercy randomly. There is nothing we can learn from this, there is nothing to better ourselves. There is just a blind assertion that God doles out mercy to those who do not deserve it, and sometimes to those who do; it is random.

If, somehow, humanity can and does decipher that Hitler garners mercy and Jessica doesn’t, what is this teaching us? We are taking a moral example, moral teaching, from a god who assigns mercy or forgiveness on a random basis. If it is truly undeserving, then there is no apparent justification for the apportioning of mercy.

Is this how God wants us to be? Are we to learn that people should not get what they deserve? That hard work “deserves” nothing? That being lazy can “deserve” everything? That there is no such thing as just deserts in the context of an existent god?

This whole approach is utterly bizarre. I honestly can’t think that someone as clever as Luke or any other apologist really, truly believes this. The corollary of such a belief (that random apportioning of a moral concept is a good and proper way to go about things) is just, well, chaos! Randomised punishment, randomised mercy, randomised grace…

The only way to possibly make sense of this is to look at different orders of desert. In the same way that you can have different orders of volition, so that I can want to eat this cheesecake even though I also want to be more healthy and eat healthily by dieting, we can have different orders of desert (do you see what I did there? Cheesecake…desert…dessert…oh well). In other words, we have a scenario of a consequentialist theodicy. The randomisation of grace or mercy, or whatever you think God apportions without any prima facie moral reasoning, itself serves a greater purpose, is instrumental for a greater good. Perhaps there is an overarching fairness that we just don’t have access to or cannot understand to some strange reason, and this depends on God doling out things randomly, or to the underserving above the deserving.

This is classic skeptical theism. We cannot know the mind of God but there might be a reason why God is random. Okay, I can accept that a damned sight more than I can accept that God is truly random and apportions grace or mercy randomly.

Imploring that God has glory from the biblical quote above: What is glorious about God in a random apportioning of mercy? What is glorious about a truly luck-based moral lottery?

Let us imagine Bill Gates is so upset with his upcoming divorce that he decides to give away $1 billion. We congratulate him for his kindness. However, he insists that this is going to be done randomly. He sets up his random human name selection generator to select the person who receives the $1 billion.

Click, click, click, click, click… ping. And the lucky winner of Bill Gates’s $1 billion of generosity is… Jeff Bezos.

And we are truly expected to look at this and say how glorious Bill Gates is? How wonderful his generosity is?

No. Bill Gates is stupid (in this thought experiment) and his methodology is stupid as is the conclusion to his methodology. What would have been far better is for Bill Gates to have analysed humanity and doled that $1 billion out to those who deserve it more. And from this, other people could learn valuable lessons – both about what to do to deserve that billion dollars (or some of it) and change our behaviour accordingly, and what to do if we were in the same position as Bill Gates in working out how to make the world a better place and apportion our money accordingly.

I have absolutely no compunction in saying that this sort of Christian apologetic thinking is utterly ridiculous. (I know Luke won’t get offended by me saying this!)

For lots of other ruminations about the god of classical theism, please grab a copy of my very reasonably priced book The Problem with “God”: Classical Theism under the Spotlight. [UK]


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...