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Be Very Careful Before You Ask God to be Fair

March 1, 2012

In the first reading from Mass today (Friday). God answers the question of his “fairness” in dealing with us:

You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!” Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair? When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But if the wicked, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. (Ezekiel 18:25-28)

It is a rather dangerous thing demand that God be fair. How easily we can declare of many circumstances. “That’s not fair!” But when it comes to the Lord, a little friendly advice is helpful: Be VERY careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair we’d all be in Hell right now. As it is, God is merciful and none of us have ever really gotten the punishment we deserved. Notice that God answers the accusation that it is unfair for him to punish the sinner in a twofold way:

1. Choice is Yours – If a person sins and does not repent of it he will die (i.e. descend to hell). But that is his choice to stay in sin and thus incur the consequence that he dies spiritually and cannot see eternal life. It is our choice that is determinative of this.

2. Choose Mercy! God also answers with a sort of plea that we call on his mercy instead. God is a God of the second chance. And, rather than give us the fairness we seek in a misguided way, we bids us call on his mercy, repent and he will hear and save us. For if a person repent he will live! Scripture says elsewhere: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?‘ (Ezekiel 33:11). Again, God our savior wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). And again, The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

If you want God to be “fair,” that is, to use strict justice, cannot you see that we are all in very serious trouble? In the end it is only his grace and mercy that will ever see us through. We ought to have enough humility to banish notions of fairness in our relations with God. Mercy is the only way we stand a chance. Kyrie Eleison!

Picture above from (right click on photo for URL)

Here’s a quick video that reminds us that the measure we measure to others will be measured back to us (Matt 7:2). So this is a good time to let the Lord’s grace cause us to show love and mercy, for if we do he will show us grace and mercy. But if we do not forgive neither will we be forgiven (Matt 6:15)

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  1. esiul says:

    Hello Msgr. Pope,
    I haven’t written in a long time mainly because others before me had the same thing to say as I would.
    And I’m still upset about the Vietnamese writer who was silenced. But today I will respond on God’s fairness.
    You are so right, God is very fair. I would never question His fairness. Another thing I would never do is
    bargain with Him. That surely is so wrong, but many do it. Read your comment re the humeral veil too.
    That was very interesting reading. I never knew that either but that’s because I accept these things and I
    don’t question them. All your writings are very inspiring. Thank you.

  2. CS says:


    You say that the default position is one where we all deserve Hell. Pardon me, but what the hell?! We didn’t even have a choice about being brought into existence! How is that fair?! I can’t think of a single thing I’ve ever seen anyone do that would merit an eternal punishment. Even the absolute worst of sins are finite and limited. How can an eternal sentence be justified against a finite, temporal, action? Perhaps murder since it collapses all of the conditions of possibility for life and experience, but even this would seem unreasonable. Maybe a time in Hell equal to as long as the life as the person would have lived? Hell is too big a stumbling block for my poor intellect. I can understand that Hell is not a sentence, so much as a choice, but then who would choose it, once having full and complete knowledge of it (or at least more than the limited groping we are permitted here)?

    • Sorry, but scripture over-rules your dismissal of the Charges:

      Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned… (Rom 5:9-12)

      or again,

      As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved (Eph 2:1-4)

      And frankly, we have all ratified Adam’s sin countless times over. Hence we did deserve hell and the only way out is grace and mercy.

      Further, your reduction of mortal sin merely to the category of murder in not in keeping with Scripture or the teachings for the Church. For example Jesus speaks of the sinful neglect of the poor as damnable in both the Parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and in the great judgement scene of Matt 25:31ff Of those who did not give food, water, shelter etc., Jesus says they will go off to eternal punishment (Matt25:46). Jesus also warns that if we do not forgive others we will not be forgiven (Matt 6:14). He also warns that those guilty of unrepentant unchastity will be cast into Gehenna (Hell) (eg Mat 5:27-30). St Paul also lists any number of sins which exclude us from inheriting the Kingdom of God (e.g. Eph 5; Galatians 5) sins such as murder, theft, fornication, adultery, sorcery hatred and the like.

      That hell is eternal is also clearly taught by Jesus on any number of occasions (eg Matt 25:41, 46; Mk 9:46-48)

      As for who would choose it? Any number of people. For the Kingdom of heaven is not merely what we make of it, it is what it is. It is the place where the kingdom values are fully lived and appreciated and in force. Kingdom values such as: love, mercy, forgiveness, chastity, love for the poor, justice, God at the center. Heaven is also very liturgical and there are hymns, incense, altar, the scroll of God’s words etc. Now I know any number of people who are simply not interested in a lot of things on the list and some who are downright hostile to them. How would they be happy in heaven? And why would God force them to stay there? So don’t be to quick to assume that everyone wants heaven. I suppose the greatest tragedy of the hell-bound is that they will not be happy anywhere.

      More on hell here:

      • CS says:

        Thanks for that thoughtful reply Father. I only referenced murder since its a horrible instance of a matter of life/death, which is the stuff that God appears to care quite a bit about in Scripture. This inquiry will lead us to unanswerable questions though. Why did God create us knowing our fall? Why did God create the rebellious angels, knowing they would fall, and plunge all of nature and supernature into warfare? The Christian answer presumably contains the response of producing a vehicle for God’s love and mercy. But why was this necessary? Why could we not have been created like the angels? Why can we not have a clearer knowledge of God? Why, if it’s so important, is he so hidden? The answer, presumably, is that he must be sought earnestly, and that is a beautiful notion, but why should it be true? Obvious truths are obvious to us, for something as essential as the way of life to be locked away and hidden under a lampstand is truly a great mystery to me. Why all the suffering? Why did he do that to Jesus/Himself? Why? Why? Why? Do you think God punishes those who are sincerely hung up on questions like these?

        The first would be the explanation of the inheritance of guilt. As far as I understand the Catholic Church fully endorses the position of St. Augustine that Adam’s guilt is actually inherited, and that’s how the default position gets switched to guilty. Poor unbaptized infants.

        The Orthodox, as I understand, have a different position that does not appropriate Adam’s guilt to us, but the ‘wound of sin’, concupiscence and so forth. This would seem to put our culpability in idle or neutral to use a crude metaphor.

        I thought this discrepancy might yield more philosophically, but you added the notion that ‘we have all ratified Adam’s sin countless times’, okay I’ll accept that. Let’s move those without the ability to reason off the table then.

        • James says:


          While the God’s reason for making an imperfect world is unknowable to us, I see no reason to doubt His goodness. He, Himself, came into this world, suffered horrific crimes, the weight of our sin, and death, which sunders human nature. By this terrifying evil, Christ gave a new meaning to suffering: death brings life. Moreover, the Apostles were martyred because they testified to Christ’s resurrection by which He gives us a new life. Having experienced the power of His grace changing my life, giving me authority over my sins, making me more patient, kind, compassionate, joyful, and wise, I cannot doubt any more the goodness of God’s wisdom is in making this fallen world. How could I doubt the goodness of the one who went to such great lengths to give me this goodness? I’m only left in praise and thanksgiving for the world to come. If you place the same trust in God and pray that He deliver you from the sins (great or small) that dominate your life, you are going to find a peace and joy beyond knowing.

          This trust is not against reason in any way. God has proven again and again and again that He is trustworthy. A married man doesn’t need to investigate what his wife does when he is not around. She has given him ample reason to trust her. This is good and healthy in a relationship and shows a perfection in persons, not a weakness. The same is true in our relationship with God. He has given us ample reason to trust Him, therefore, it is a perfection in us to put our faith in Him about topics our reason doesn’t understand. I may not know why God does what He does, but I know who God is, and I beg you to also learn to trust Him so that I may know and love you in eternity.

    • Bender says:

      Even the absolute worst of sins are finite and limited

      Such sin is finite and limited only in the sense that our worldly lives are finite and limited. The ability to sin thereafter has ended, but the effects of sins we have committed continue. So, if at the moment of death we are unrepentent of mortal sin, not being able to change our minds at that point, then that effect of such sin — morte, Latin for “death” — continues on into eternity.

      The absolute worst sin is refusing or otherwise failing to accept God’s mercy and forgiveness. If they refuse to accept it, then they can’t be forgiven. If they refuse or otherwise fail to accept the Spirit of Life Himself, then they can’t have life. Why would anyone refuse it? Well, we need only look around to find plenty of people who do that exact thing, at least during their lives here. But once that physical life comes to a close, the will is frozen in place, just as much as the body enters into rigor mortis, all rigid and stiff and cold.

      Might there be an instant immediately prior to worldly death, a moment where God stops time itself and speaks to the sinner and lays it all out, giving him full and complete knowledge of what lies ahead, and thereby giving him one last chance to choose life? I suppose if God wanted to, He could do so. But we shouldn’t rely upon that — He already provides countless chances to choose Him every day. But still people choose themselves instead. And it stands to reason that they would choose themselves again even if given one last chance an instant before death. As the poor man Lazarus told the rich man, they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, and they wouldn’t listen even if Someone were to rise from the dead.

      Or might God, in His infinite mercy, not wanting even unrepentent sinners to suffer, simply obliterate their existence? Just return them to the nihilo, the nothingness, from whence the universe was created? It is an attractive thought, but ultimately that fails too.

      God is eternal. And even if “the damned” were to be annihilated upon worldly death and final judgment, turned into nothingness so that they did not experience suffering consciously, still they would have existed prior to death. God, being Truth, cannot simply wipe the person out of history altogether, and pretend that the person never existed because that would be a lie. So they would still have existed prior to death. And that existence would have been, upon the moment of death, an existence in a state of mortal sin, an existence that sought to separate the sinner from God. Such “prior” existence would continue on after death in the sense that, God being eternal, the person would continue to exist in and through God for all eternity, albeit “separate” from Him, and therefore in a state of “Hell.”

      So, there is no getting around it — we exist and we are always and forever going to exist in some manner or fashion. The only way it would appear to get around it is if we had never been created in the first place, if we had never existed in the first place. But, there again, that would not be “better” or “good” because the concepts of better and good apply and make sense only if something exists. Moreover, “the person” who never existed because God never created Him would still be in the exact same situation as one who ended up in Hell — both are separate from God.

      Thus, let’s review —
      1. Person who dies in mortal (death-causing) sin = has chosen eternal separation from God (Hell)
      2. Person who dies in mortal sin, but God forces him to go to heaven against his will = the person does not want to be with God and still refuses Him (effectively in Hell)
      3. Obliterated after death to avoid suffering of Hell = worldly self prior to death still exists given God’s eternal nature, but effectively separate from God (in “Hell”)
      4. Non-existent person = effectively separate from God (in “Hell”)

      The ONLY way that Hell can be avoided, the only way to avoid separation from God, the only way to avoid “not-being with God” is to “be with God.” And it is not that arduous to be with Him. He’s not putting up huge mountains for us to climb. He is standing right there, with open arms. All you have to do is go over and embrace Him. And if you can’t do even that, then just say “yes” and He’ll come over and pick you up. Say “yes,” say yes to life. Then you won’t “suffer” Hell.

      • Bender says:

        About “mortal sin” —

        Has anyone ever seen the classic film noir movie D.O.A.?

        DOA, short for “dead on arrival.” It’s about a man, Edmond O’Brien, who walks into a police station to report his own murder. He has been fatally poisoned with a “luminous toxin” for which there is no antidote, and he has only a couple of days to live. He is a “dead man walking.”

        Well, that is mortal sin. Those in mortal sin are already dead, even though they are still walking around. They are, in a sense, already in Hell. But, luckily, while these dead are still walking around there is an antidote (forgiveness by Christ) — though they were dead, yet can they be resurrected to new life. But if they don’t seek and take the antidote, then nothing can be done — they are already dead. Nothing more can be done except to toss the dirt on top of them.

      • CS says:

        This is such an attractive view. It makes every instant so supercharged with meaning and permanence. It also responds nicely to my objection. Thanks.

        I guess one thing that makes me puzzled about this then is the banality of a lot of existence. Eating, excreting, studying logic. If every instant as important as this absolute-cosmic-world-history notion suggests, then why does so much seem so arbitrary and trivial? I’ve always enjoyed the neoplatonic notion of God drawing everything up into Himself, can he draw a little harder and make things more obvious?

        • Rob says:

          He wrote Scripture and sent His only Son down to show us the way. How much more obvious do you want God to be?

  3. Marie says:

    What you say seems clear until I consider that God decides when we die, right? So, one person is in the middle of a mortal sin and he is murdered, the murdered person will go to hell but the murderer could live 50 more years in prison, repent and turn to God within that time. What I’m asking is how is this fair when some people get a longer chance to repent? Thanks.

    • Bender says:

      And in the meantime, the convicted murderer can repent of that particular sin, but then go and commit 50 years more worth of mortal sins. More time to repent is also more time to sin.

      It is fair because Jesus has told us quite explicitly — death could come at any moment. It could come as I am typing this or you are reading it. The entire world could end this instant. So be prepared. Repent NOW.

      Do not rely on the false belief that, “oh, I’m young, I have many more years to live, I can sin now and enjoy it for a while and then repent later.” Do not define “fairness” as having the ability to do wrong and then expecting God to wait until you decide to repent later. Later may never come. What is fair is that He is giving you the chance to repent right this very moment, He is giving you the chance to not commit that mortal sin in the first place so that, if you die in the middle of whatever it is that you are doing, you die in a state of grace, not in a state of separation from Him. That is more than fair.

      So be a wise virgin. Keep your lamps lit and full of oil, “be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Lk 12:40

  4. Vince says:

    Msgr Pope, what is the differentiation between righteousness, justice, and fairness? It is clear in both scripture and tradition that we are to pray for and strive for the first two, but the last doesn’t seem to ever be mentioned. Yet, I think in most people’s minds, “justice” and “fairness” are interchangeable. I suspect something is missing in the common understanding of these terms…

  5. ali says:

    the results of post vatican ii are operative. the council’s results have been a total break from
    the traditions, canons and anathemas of the past centuries. the confusion caused have resulted
    in the unfortunate fracture of the catholic church.
    short term thinking with-out considering the long term consequences appear to reflect the
    behavior of the hierarchy of the novus-ordo. have a good year. (ali)

  6. ali says:

    there is no moderation in the face of truth.