In the previous installment (Tidings, 2/2005) we began a discussion of the fairness of God by admitting straight up that God is not fair, nor is the world in which we live. If we accept the common understanding of fairness, a combination of equal treatment and deservedness (personal merit), we must conclude that we live in a manifestly unfair world. Unfair, however, does not mean unjust, and that is where we will start this month.
Civilizations come and go upon the face of the earth having no contact with the gospel. They didn’t “get a chance,” so to speak, so that is unfair in the absolute sense of the word. It is not, however, unjust. It would only be unjust if any persons within that civilization either (1) lived by a real faith in God and yet were excluded from the Kingdom, and/or (2) would have become faithful had the gospel come to them. These affairs are solely within the purview of God. We have no way to assess the eternal status of such individuals, and there is no basis to say that God has been unjust. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). We can say that it’s unfair per our definition of fairness, but we have no basis to ascribe unjustness. If we believe in God, such God is by definition just. The limitations of human vision and wisdom are the problem, not God’s performance.
Last month I showed that the outworking of history necessarily entails unequal gospel access. However, this does not mean that God may have overlooked someone or something, or that somehow our sloppiness in preaching destined someone to eternal oblivion who otherwise would have been saved. It does mean that God can work in many ways to secure the salvation of the faithful. The judge of all the earth will do right.
Believers scarce in the general population
Now let’s remind ourselves that most of Earth’s peoples, whether taken as individuals or as cultural groups, flatly ignore God. They might wave a hand at Him once a week or once or twice a year, but as a daily rule, God is not in their lives. There are those who are devout but entirely on the wrong track.1 There are those few who “know the truth,” and within that group is the subset of individuals who are the elect of God, known only to Him. We know well from history that at any point in time the likelihood of finding a person fit for salvation is remote.
For our best example, we will return to the days of Noah, when he alone found grace in the eyes of God (Gen. 6:8, 7:1).2Doubtless in the long years of the construction of the ark many locals saw the ark taking shape and were converted by Noah’s preaching, joining Noah’s family in the building. Following the model of the parable of the sower (Lk. 8:9-15), we can reasonably assume that some of these worked hard for a while, singing loud God’s praises while they hammered and sawed, and then, just as fast as they joined in, disappeared. Others stayed longer, but the uneventful years and toilsome labor took their toll, and they likewise departed. The enticements of the world took others away, and perhaps some found Noah a rigid and unbending leader who would not modify the blueprint God revealed to him. Maybe those workers decided to build their own ark!
In any event, an ample sample of the world’s population yielded only a handful of long-term faithful believers, i.e., Noah’s family, and into the ark they went. Those who ignored Noah or fell away after a period of belief gnashed their teeth in desperation as the floodwaters swept them away to their just doom. Whether or not the preaching reached 100% of the world is irrelevant. That could have been the case but probably wasn’t; no one listened, and only Noah’s family endured to the end.
Did God overlook anyone in the process? What about the millions who lived far from the ark and never heard the preaching of Noah? Odds aren’t high that an overlooked enclave of believers unjustly perished in the flood. Odds aren’t high that at any time, anyplace, God allows or causes some great evil that swallows up the just.3 God could probably today obliterate many cities in the world with populations in the several hundreds of thousands and upwards and find lacking in them even so much as one believer for whose sake He would have aborted the evil.
A time when God was fair
God did manifest Himself to an entire nation once, in an absolutely unmistakable barrage of power and revelation. We speak of the Exodus, of course. Without exception, every Israelite man, woman, and child passed miraculously through theRed Sea, ate the manna, heard the law, drank the spiritual water, and received protection from the pillar of cloud, and guidance from the pillar of fire, yet all this developed no faith in the individuals.
In this instance God was completely fair, providing equal gospel access, and much more, for everyone. No one in the community was at any disadvantage. Did this approach promote faith? Apparently only in Joshua and Caleb, two people out of millions. In the Exodus, God was both fair and just, but even giving 100% of the population a veritable overload of gospel evidence didn’t create a great community of believers within Israel.
As it was in the days of Noah, the key issue is not how many hear a preacher, but how those who do hear the gospel respond to its message. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably among those who have heard. And if you haven’t read this month’s editorial, read it now to round out this section.
A final point on the issue of gospel access
Gospel unavailability is not necessarily a broad demographic issue, as in “the millions of Chinese peasants who never…” Let’s look at the unequal access problem from a different perspective. Here, we will not talk about such-and-such civilization that never heard the gospel; rather, we will look at social inequalities within a civilization that create unfairness.
Let’s say that almost every home inNorth Americahas a Bible; anyone can pick it up and learn exactly what you or I know about the Bible. Does this suffice for fairness? No, because it’s not having a Bible that gives one an advantage, but understanding what’s in it. Then it’s up to each person how he or she responds to the message of truth. Some people will grow up in a home where scripture is revered, some where it is ignored, and some where it is reviled. Some will have great Sunday School teachers, some will have indifferent teachers, some none at all. Looking at just a few social factors tells us that even within a culture of almost universal gospel availability, true fairness hardly exists.
A thoroughly equitable world, even given a Bible-based society, is impossible. We don’t have to go toChinaor deepestAfricato find inequality. It’s an impossible concept, analogous to the pursuit of the evil-free world we considered in earlier articles. Social factors preclude anything close to fairness, nevertheless all is just, because God will judge each person according to that person’s individual circumstances. If we keep in mind the distinction between fairness and justness we have no problems with the access to the gospel issue.
Those who lived before Christ
Another class, although usually not in our immediate social conscience, are those who lived prior to the Christian Era. This includes all the faithful of Hebrews 11, so we know that salvation was available to those generations. People as far back as Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:20) had a sufficient basis for faith.4
Certain general features of human existence could still bring to mind necessary aspects of faith: an awareness of human need for forgiveness and resurrection, belief in a God who could bring it about, and a life consistent with a belief in the hope of a better city. Whatever knowledge might have been expected of those who looked forward to the Messiah, we have perfect confidence that God knows how to assess faith when He sees it.
Specific instances of unfairness
We will now turn our attention to those aspects of unfairness that also belong in the realm of the problem of evil. Here we encounter those situations that are so hard to understand, where God seems to have suspended compassion, caring, and control. I speak of situations such as the death of children, or the death of anyone that seems completely untimely or tragic. For instance, I might start with the untimely passing many years ago of my wife’s father, Bro. William Boswell. He left behind his wife, the late Sis. Annette Boswell, and six children, aged 13 to one. Could not God have easily cured his cancer? By all accounts, a very fine servant of Christ is taken off the scene in the most unfortunate of circumstances, leaving a wife to raise six children as a single parent, as well as take over her husband’s business, for there was no money otherwise. How can God let things like this happen? How can life be so unfair?
Even worse, how do we explain the deaths of believers’ children? How can God give, and then take, denying what must certainly be the most plaintive prayers He hears, that is, the prayer of parents for their children’s welfare? How can parents, who undoubtedly prayed even before the birth that their child would grow to inherit the kingdom, accept the fact that God interrupted His own work? Are not children of believers blessed and looked after by the Father in heaven? I think this must be the most theologically vexing, as well as emotionally devastating, situation a person of faith could ever encounter, and somewhere in the processing thereof would be the issue of unfairness. The death of a child is as unfair as it is tragic.
The following explanation obviously has zero pastoral value and should never, ever, be offered as any consolation at a time of grief.5 Nonetheless, this is the way of the world; it’s a lesson we need to have deeply rooted in our belief system so that we won’t completely lose our faith if and when the axe falls on us. We will use what I call the “appearance of randomness” argument. This means that the world must look entirely random, as if there were no God who cared for anyone, and as if no particular person or group of people had any better fortune than anyone else. This set-up is a necessary correlate of justification by faith. To understand how this works, we will look at a hypothetical opposite situation, that is, a world in which God did indeed show favoritism, living up to our expectations regarding temporal care for His people and their families. What I write below might seem absurd or sacrilegious, but it’s necessary to illustrate a point we too often fail to realize.
In this hypothetical world we would not have tragedies such as the deaths of children, or of parents of young children. To ensure a tragedy-free life, one would get married and have children. That way, as long as you had young children God would not smite you dead. If you couldn’t beget children, or you chose to remain childless, it would be a good idea to borrow a child or two from someone in the ecclesia whenever you traveled, to ensure safe passage — especially by air, for God would never let a plane go down with believers’ children aboard.
People outside the community might wonder how it was that Christadelphians never had stillbirths and all their children were exempt from cancer and accident, at least until they were old enough to become baptized. This is the hypothetical world some people apparently demand of God in order not to tax their sensibilities regarding “fair.”
Also, you would have to lead an outwardly perfect life, to ensure that you never gave God just cause to harm you. This may seem to be a good idea, but it destroys justification by faith. If your sin is known to you only and your outward life is perfect and full of service, and evil haps upon you anyway, then the ecclesial world would be dismayed and their faith in a just God broken. I speak facetiously, of course, referring to Job. Yet, we still think this way much of the time. If all illness or accident were “deserved,” then it would be obvious to all that a person so smitten was a great sinner, and should be disciplined, not consoled. How many times have believers of today asked this same question, “What did I (or he or she or they) do?” Not as an expression of despair, but as a true question: just what was the wrongdoing that God is now punishing? Who sinned, the child or his parents, that he was born blind?
I needn’t carry this argument to every nook-and-cranny of logic, much of which was spelled out in previous theodicy articles where I exposed the impossible world demanded by the standard atheistic arguments. If God kept His people immune from every form of disaster and tragedy, we would lose our connection to justification by faith. We’d just be in it for temporal protection. Of necessity our world must appear random, yet we know that God holds absolute control.
I know that it will be very difficult for those personally affected by such matters to read this section. Yet, we must address these issues if we are to live faithfully in this present evil world. Unfair tragedies don’t occur just in the abstract, they must occur in the real world of our existence. It’s very, very hard to juxtapose what we know must be theoretically true upon a tragedy when it does happen, and thus we don’t use these arguments as a source of comfort. God cannot always protect our little ones and those whose lives we think deserve a greater degree of protection. There must be those unfair situations that take from us the least “deserving.”6
The unfairness of life in general
As stated in the previous article, the subject of unfairness is a Bible subject, with several passages addressing this. It is a problem for believers because we expect that our loving God knows His children and will see to their welfare. However, God favors character over comfort, so there goes any notion that we’re entitled to a life of ease. Add to this the necessary outworking of human free-will and the above-discussed necessity of the appearance of randomness, and we have a world just as we would expect: rampant with unfairness and rife with the success of the wicked and ambitious in their pursuits, cheats, liars, and scoundrels cashing in at the expense of the meek, even within the household of faith.
Psalms 37 and 73 address this problem. To get to the quick, the answer to the problem is simply: wait. Just wait. Perhaps even wait a lifetime. But with God, a lifetime is indifferent. To us it’s the whole of our existence, but to God, and to those made immortal by the burnishing process of maintaining their trust that all is well despite appearances to the contrary, a lifetime becomes only a moment. It’s not an easy lesson to accept, and a harder one to endure in real life.
At the end of the day, when all is said and done, when the dust clears and sun sets, when rivers run dry and writers run out of clichés, then the unfairnesses of life will be set right. Only the final scene counts; it doesn’t make any difference what happens along the way. So what if someone looks sleek (Psa.73:4), lives well (v. 5), believes he has the world by the tail (v. 6), scoffs at anyone who tries to correct his ways (vs. 7-9), and holds the envy of the people (v. 10)?
What we said in a previous article about the temporariness of suffering holds equally for the vanity of life. When it’s over, it’s over, and it’s as though it never had been. All the ambition, pride, coercion, manipulation, oppression, and every form of human evil that leads to the unfairness of life will be gone, along with those who thought they had benefited thereby. It’s all a vain show, but we, in our temporally limited minds, don’t see it until we enter into the divine thinking (v. 17) and “perceive their end.” It’s only the end that counts, and the end of the unfaithful is that they have an end (Psa. 37:36). On the other hand, the faithful — those who see past the ambitions, distractions, and pleasantries of this life—have no end, but inherit the earth forever (37:29).
Jesus’ words in Luke 13:15 also bear on this point. Someone mentioned a current event, some locals slain in the midst of their worship, as an instance of the unfairness of life. To this Jesus added another example, citing a structure collapse in Siloam in which eighteen persons perished. The two examples include both human-caused evil and (presumably) accidental evil, but the lesson is the same: it had nothing to do with any specific sin or guilt of those who perished. Jesus taught that such occurrences were a necessary part of life, but that we should take heed and repent while we have the opportunity. It doesn’t matter what befalls us in life, what does matter is that our attitude is right before God.
The prime example of enduring unfairness is, of course, the Lord Jesus himself. Peter details this for us in I Peter 3:20-23, which needs no comment, but only for us to take heed and never again complain about the unfairness of life:
But if when you do right and suffer for it patiently, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return, when he suffered, he did not threaten, but he trusted to him who judges justly.
The flipside of unfairness
If fairness means getting what we deserve, then it works in both directions, for we can receive good that we don’t deserve, and that is also unfair. Life gives us abundant blessings daily, distributed freely to the just and the unjust alike (Mt.5:45). Suffering from mote-and-beam myopia, we howl and scream at any perceived unfairness that leaves us in arrears, but fail to appreciate the flipside of unfairness: that which gives us life itself, forgiveness, beauty, love, comfort, joy, and purpose, all without any merit or deservedness of our own. Thus, God treats us unfairly, for we receive infinitely more than He owes us, or that we deserve, or that we earn in some way. Can we measure the value of a day’s blessings and then say that we deserved that?
God over blesses us that we might rise from our baseness and acquit ourselves as spiritual beings, living in awe of His love. We are the only species capable of appreciating God’s magnanimity, yet we routinely return complaint instead of prayers of thanksgiving.
Aren’t you glad that God is unfair?
David Levin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Next: Opening Arguments in the Existence of God Controversy.
1.The subject of those who are sincere believers, especially sincere, dedicated, and moral Christians (as understood conventionally) will receive due attention in a future installment.
2. Perhaps also Noah’s family; this is unclear. The number was minimal in any event.
3. Even if the just do perish in what appears to be an act of judgment or random catastrophe, their eternal fate is unaffected.
4. The full phrase in II Timothy 3:15 KJV is “wise unto salvation through faith.” Salvation is always a matter of faith, not knowledge. We needn’t wonder if anyone before Christ could “know enough” of God’s purpose to be saved.
5. Flagrantly inappropriate remarks made to the bereaved are unfortunately common. Even sound theology is of little or no value in times of crises. The theological pap and explanatory drivel often served up by would-be comforters are caustic, not comforting. You don’t need to say anything, and nothing you say will make any situation any better. Learn appropriate support, and keep your tongue dormant.
6. Believers’ children being resurrected to mortality in the kingdom is a comfort to those who endured unspeakable grief. Many of the miracles of Scripture involving such resurrection were of children. The world cannot always be fair, but God is just.