Q. Is God fair?
That’s the simple answer. Now that I’ve got your attention, on to the details!
Relation to the problem of evil
First, a few words about this topic relative to our previous one, the problem of evil. Questions about God’s fairness clearly lie adjacent to, and have some overlap with, questions concerning evil.1 We will therefore continue with the same general format, raising a variety of investigative points that address various aspects of the problem. All along, we will be answering different manifestations of essentially the same question “Why does God allow unfairness?”
Although we have an overall continuum from the problem of evil, evaluated thoroughly in the previous five articles, three differences require us to change how we frame our answers. Namely, we will shift our primary focus from atheists to theists. The problem of fairness is largely an “inside” issue. These three differences are:
(1) The emotional intensity of problem-of-evil questions, seeing that evil is generally worse than unfairness. Because fairness issues tend to be less emotionally intense and more theologically oriented than problem-of-evil issues, they generally don’t engender the atheistic postures so commonly seen in print and personal conversation.
(2) The fairness issue squarely addresses matters of salvation. Inside the fairness box we find questions such as, “If God loves everyone, why do so many people live without ever knowing about Jesus or the Bible?” or “What about all the good, decent people who never hear the gospel?” These are, again, primarily issues within the theistic context, not excuses for people to leave the faith.
(3) The Bible directly addresses unfairness. Although the problem of evil receives much more attention in print, fairness is a Bible issue. But isn’t the book of Job about evil? Not really; Job is more properly about unfairness. Neither Job nor his friends had a problem with the existence of violent storms and marauders; they did have a problem with evil touching an innocent person. Later on in this series, we will look at Psalms 37 and 73, which also directly address the unfairness issue.
Therefore we’ll approach unfairness within the realm of belief in God, omitting phrases such as “God, if such a being exists…” We will treat this issue as primarily an internal Christadelphian matter, and utilize biblical references much more often than in the articles on the problem of evil, though we will also invoke historical and philosophical resources.
What Does Fairness Entail?
Our next step is to analyze and define exactly what we mean by “fair.” Fairness, as conventionally used, entails two related components: deservedness and equality. That is, in order for an occasion to be considered “fair,” it must meet two tests: the test of deservedness and the test of equality. These two factors will complement each other so that any given situation can be considered fair to the extent that one or both of these two components applies. Let’s give some examples that will hang a little flesh on this abstract skeleton.
Some examples of perceived unfairness
- You’re eating at a restaurant with your two young children. When the server brings dessert, one child notes that the other’s pie is bigger; hence, the call, “That’s not fair!”
- Several workers are hanging around the marketplace, sipping their morning brew. You send your field boss to hire some tomato pickers, and he contracts them for the rest of the day. Atnoonyou realize that you need more hands, pronto, so you send your field boss back to hire additional workers, offering the same flat rate for a day’s work. At the end of the day, the initial crew complained that this wasn’t fair, for they had worked longer and therefore deserved more money for their labor.
- Teachers in Flamstead School District strike because their total compensation package falls about 20% below the state average. While it is unusual for teachers to picket like factory workers, there on the evening news you see the “UNFAIR” signs in the background while the strike leaders sound-bite their position.
- Through an odd series of missed communications and mistaken identities, an ICU nurse found herself named in a malpractice suit, along with the hospital and others. So upset at this, she lost her focus and soon found herself suspended. Her misfortunes continued to snowball, affecting her own health and relationships. Though she herself was completely innocent regarding the accusations, her life had been torn apart and she became embittered at the unfairness of life.
Consider the above, or any circumstance where fairness is an issue, and you will find at the core some combination of the desire for deservedness and equality. When people want ‘fair,’ they want to be treated equally with everyone else. If a situation demands a deviation from equality, it must come on the basis of some merit; therefore, the concept of deservedness also inheres.
Deservedness itself requires some further analysis, for we need to ask upon what basis we assign merit. Different cultures and peoples have different ideas here. In our pluralistic and humanistic society, we eschew concepts such as class, caste, and nobility, even if these have sufficed in the past or still suffice elsewhere. We tend toward personal accomplishment, and, to a lesser degree, to personal moral status. That is, a drunk who drives off the road and kills himself deserves it, but the popular young teacher felled by an unscathed drunk driver leaves us gasping at the unfairness of life. Think of a time when you felt you have been treated unfairly and see if this analysis works.
Fairness and Moral Development
We will continue our introduction to fairness by asking some questions about the developmental aspect of fairness. When, in terms of age, does a person become sensitive to inequalities in life? At what age do we begin to discriminate size differences between two pieces of pie, and further, to establish “unfairness” if the larger is not upon our plate? How old are we when we begin to sense that something we did entitles us to a fair reward or fair treatment?
I don’t know the exact answers (although I’m sure developmental psychologists must have investigated this issue), but we are able to size up a situation as “not fair” while yet in our childhood. In fact, “not fair” is almost emblematic of childhood. It is the call of children on the playground, kiddies around the table, and crybabies sent to their room. To sense that we have been treated unfairly does not indicate any great step of moral development or maturation; if anything, it’s a pretty primitive state. It says little for the moral development of people who live their poor, victimized lives as a series of attempts to correct unfairnesses, yet this seems to be a norm in today’s society. There’s never a lack of groups or individuals who will fume and fuss and litigate until their juvenile concept of fair is vindicated.
When we consider the other person
On the other hand, our sensitivity to treating others fairly most certainly does not arise in childhood. Making sure that we treat others fairly arises in psychologically mature individuals, and, alas, only sparingly at that.
In general, we operate at a level of moral development where our sense of fairness is staked to childish selfishness. We tarnish fairness with selfishness, so that fairness only means that I get my needs met. Sure, everyone is equal, but I’m more equal than you are, and if there’s a shortage, it might as well be you who goes wanting — because that’s only fair.
However, we’ll ignore for now the selfishness overlay and flatter ourselves that we can, ahem, fairly apply our concept of fairness: everyone should have the same treatment unless some personal accomplishment or moral stigma dictates otherwise. Whether or not this definition will support satisfying answers for the questions stated above remains our question to answer.
Specific Questions We Will Investigate
- If God loves everyone, why do so few have a chance for salvation?
- How can our particular form of worship and belief, until very recently mostly confined to small parts of the English-speaking world, possibly represent universal truth?
- What about all the good people who never heard the Gospel? Isn’t it awfully unfair to dismiss them for something they had no control over?
- How can God allow children to die, especially children of believers?
- Doesn’t the enormous disparity in standards-of-living tell us something? How can God be so unfair as to let some people and cultures live in absolute misery, poverty, famine, disease, and continual strife while others have great wealth and live in complete comfort and security?
- How do we account for the modern-day Jobs who suffer for no apparent reason, while their unbelieving friends, coworkers, and neighbors lead lives of ease? Doesn’t God look after His children?
These questions form three groups:
- Salvation of persons throughout the world.
- Tragedies happening to those who seem to be the least deserving of such events.
- The unfairness of daily life where good people get nowhere and scoundrels succeed.
These three areas invoke different aspects of unfairness, so naturally the answers to these questions will require a variety of approaches, even though some overall principles do obtain, notably the justice of God.
Access to the Gospel
An historical approach
The first issue I want to tackle has to do with a perceived unfairness that affects others, not ourselves. Many people wonder mightily why only a tiny fraction of the world’s teeming billions seem to have a clue of what’s going on theologically, and why so many don’t even have a chance to find out. Why does God veil His teaching? What about people who’ve never had the chance to see a Bible? How can such a small denomination, until recently mostly limited to the Anglo world, possibly represent the only believers recognized by the God of the entire universe, this by a God who has stated He desires all to be saved?
Concern for the Aborigines and Huns and all those who have never heard the gospel message can often sound the “unfair” alarm. Some even find this unfairness a reason to dismiss themselves from a path of discipleship and find license to live as though they themselves had never heard the gospel.2
Let’s get to the specifics, but only those relevant to the “fairness” part of the issue. We’ll bypass for the time being any discussion of comparative religion, and focus on the distribution of the gospel.3 Our first crack at it will involve an historical approach. We will phrase the problem thus: “The knowledge of God can’t be limited to just English-speaking countries that happen to have the Bible. This is unfair to the vast majority of the world.”
Indeed, the Christadelphian venture has been largely the domain of the English-speaking world of the last century and a half. That should be no surprise in view of the fact that the denomination arose from the work of a peripatetic Englishman who lived in theUnited Statesat the time of his motivating discoveries. Naturally, the first recipients of his message were in theU.S.,Canada, andGreat Britain.Australia,New Zealand, and other Commonwealth lands became the next likely venues for major preaching and thus the spread of the gospel. Other areas followed later, and recent inroads intoAsiaand Central andEastern Europehave taken the Christadelphian message even further away from Anglo domination. Today, the Truth is a cosmopolitan affair that resists a cultural-bias label.
A very brief historical overview
Scripture is not native to the English world, neither is it a peculiar holding of Christadelphians. The Bible is not even an Occidental (Western) phenomenon; it is indigenous to the East, to the Orient, to the land of the Hebrews. To miss this obvious, but critical, point is to entirely miss even the basis of the argument. One cannot aver, “Christianity (or Christadelphianism) is just a Western cultural phenomenon, dominated by Anglos.” This is pure codswallop. The Bible is Oriental; we have it only by the grace of God, as worked out on Earth in the blood of martyrs and the bent of history.
As native speakers of English we are the outsiders, the beneficiaries of the reformers and translators of the late middle ages and early modern periods who initiated the great traditions of Bible translation. We are the borrowers, not the creators; it is we Anglos who must learn to adapt our modes of thinking to the world of its origin. We owe a great debt to the many translators and teachers who kept the Bible alive and brought it far from itsMediterraneanhome.
Several historical currents came together
The King James version translators worked not only from Greek and Hebrew texts, but also from a number of earlier English versions, notably that of William Tyndale (1494-1536), which was written with the blood of martyrdom. It was zeal for scripture in one’s native tongue that gave birth to the KJV.
At the time of the KJV translation, with the colonial period still in its infancy, English was not at all a major worldwide language, having only a few million native speakers, almost all in the British Isles.4 Neither was English the first language ofEurope to enjoy major translational projects; German would probably be the leader there, with many vernacular versions of the Bible before the end of the sixteenth century.
However, the future lay in the growingBritish Empire. To at least some extent, the protestant-driven (or driven out, as was the case of the Puritans) expansion of the British mercantile empire directly resulted in the spread of both the English language with its Bible, and a religious structure to ensure its availability and popularity.
It is no accident of history that John Thomas happened to be English; the likelihood of a person successfully fulfilling his particular role in theological history would have been extremely low in the religious and political milieu of just about any other European situation, and even less likely in other parts of the world.
English writers, translators, protestors, explorers, colonists, and so many others who wove the fabric of history, all contributed to creating a context for the mid-nineteenth century revival and spread of the gospel. True, God could work in other ways had history developed otherwise, but we have what we have, and any outcome of history would have the same patterns, regardless of the particulars.
Back to the origin
In this all-too-brief historical account, we will now take one huge step back, to the origin of Christianity and the crux of the argument, to use an apt play on words. The human condition required salvation by means of the resurrection of a perfect man who died for the sins of the world. This in turn necessitated an historical origin of true religion, one based in the reality of human experience, the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, we have a location and time from which the good news (gospel) of this event would emanate.
Given a single event, an empty tomb in Judeanearly two millennia ago, we can readily account for the variegated demographics of gospel availability.5 The testimony of witnesses wrought belief in some, disbelief in others, and animosity in still others (e.g., Acts 14:1-5). The believers went afield, often because of persecution, and as they fled, they preached (Acts 8:4).
The gospel spread
Within a few years, what at first appeared to be only a local concern within a small sector of Jewry forced the attention of the Roman emperors. Although the theological position of the early Christian movement suffered fatal encroachment from Judaisers and pagan and Greek philosophical influences, the Christians continued to spread some version of the teachings of Christ throughout the known world.
At any point during this time we would find that Christianity had reached some places but not others; any map of the spread of Christianity would show that some places were in and others still out. That’s an inevitable result when starting from Jerusalem, then to Judea, Samaria, and eventually the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The gospel of Jesus’ resurrection is meant for all, but access to it depends on the natural activity of those who would preach, and those who would accept.
It might be unfair in the sense of unequal, but it’s the necessary outworking of the necessary remedy for the human condition. History is what it is because people have free will and God gives them the choice to accept or not accept. Those who rejected or altered the gospel destroyed not only their own lives, but also those of their neighbors and children.
Whole cultures rejected the gospel
What shall we say of the 17th century Japanese? Catholic missionaries had some success there, but then they were persecuted, driven out, and massacred like plague-bearing rats. It doesn’t really matter much if these were Catholics; the result left Japan without any connection to Christianity for some two hundred years.6
The way of history can leave hundreds of years and millions of people in the category of “no chance to learn about Jesus.” However, this is the result of human activity. Like much of the evil we discussed in previous articles, it does not imply a problem with God’s plan and purpose, only a recognition that God allows human free will to operate. It might look unfair (well, it is unfair), but unfair does not equate with unjust, and it is to the ideal of justice that we must ultimately turn.
Our great blessing
A word of exhortation to conclude this month’s installment: Those who have experienced the greatest blessings of the gospel must see the world as a stilted, random affair, rife with unfairness, inequality, and widely disparate modes of life, with no apparent pattern of distribution of God’s favor. The good don’t necessarily prosper, the evil often do, some never get a chance at anything, others get it all, despite deserving nothing. How does one feel to be among the blessed, knowing that so many others have neither spiritual nor natural abundance? This should truly give us pause for reflection.
David Levin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Next: Justice, revelation, and a hypothetical fair world.
1.The overlap between God’s fairness and evil will become apparent when we look at instances of specific evils that apparently God could have prevented, instances that also raise the question of fairness. These would include death or devastating injury to children and others deemed innocent or righteous, children of believers, and people actively involved in good works.
2. I don’t think this issue has power in itself to dismantle an otherwise healthy faith. Given self-interested human nature, and the fact that those who demur from the faith never do so because they seek a higher level of morality, but only a higher level of self-expression, their “What about the . . .” questions are largely a façade to hide personal ambition and spiritual weakness. Those who have genuine concern for the benighted peoples of our planet hop on the next missionary ship, not the next bus out of town.
3. I use a number of terms roughly equivalent to “The Gospel”: The Truth, Christadelphianism, access to the Bible, knowledge of salvation, and perhaps one or two others. These all imply that there is a body of knowledge (in today’s world) that describes the necessities of salvation, which, apart from some form of unique divine revelation, would be the only way a person could know about God and hence begin a life of true faith. This is not to say that salvation is dependent on knowledge, it is dependent on faith. Also, the principle “to whom much is given much is expected” (Lk.12:48) works in both directions.
4. David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 92. Crystal gives an estimate of 5-7 million English speakers in 1588, at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I.
5. We will discuss later the affairs of individuals who lived prior to the origin of Christianity.
6. Brad S. Gregory, The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era. (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Co. www.teach12.com, 2001) lecture 25.