In order to ask this, let me set a stage. This is just a scenario that will be recast in a second.

As Christians we believe that God is good. We trumpet his justice, rightness, holiness, and so on and so forth. We say that he is the true standard of what goodness and justice are. When we make judgement calls we claim to use his character as the standard of right and wrong.

And yet ... we ascribe to him something so wicked that it should make us shiver to think of it! If an earthly judge --charged by the state to uphold the laws of the state in a fair manner and himself known to be a good and upright judge-- were to knowingly acquit a guilty party we would rage against him. If a criminal proven to have committed every crime in the book from common theft to rape and murder of children, not just once but over and over and over every day of their lives, were to stand before a bench and say "your honor, guilty as charged" -- and the judge were to say "Why thank you, since you know you're guilty you are free to go and here is some money for dinner," how would we react?

Say that your child was one of those that were abused and killed by this criminal. Would you not cry out and scream about the injustice of it all and then write to the papers and get interviewed and do everything in your power to have the evil judge himself brought to justice?

Do you get the picture? We somehow inherently know that what was done was un-just. We also say that our standard of justice is God himself. And yet as Christians, instead of protesting this scenario when the scenario is cast with God as the judge, we celebrate it!

Let us recast the story.

According to our own doctrines we claim that all men are indeed guilty (Romans 3:10). We also claim to that God is a perfectly just judge. When we go on to say that he has indeed acquitted some wicked men (us) we don't even blink, as if there was no problem with this scenario. Yet according to our own inherent sense of justice, this should make him an evil judge worse than the criminals he acquits.

So here is the question: How is it that God can be truly just and yet justify wicked men?

God is in the dock. Is he defensible?

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    The trivial answer: The price has been paid.
    – Richard
    Sep 7, 2011 at 15:15
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    So the criminal walks free and the judge stays on the bench because a bond or bribe was paid?
    – Caleb
    Sep 7, 2011 at 15:52
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    But that is not the question you ask. You ask how do you defend god for accepting evil as good. And that is not a real case.
    – Chad
    Sep 7, 2011 at 20:10
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    "You ask how do you defend god for accepting evil as good" No, the question was "How can God be just and allow evil to go unpunished?" (to paraphrase) The idea that evil is unpunished is from the fact that a sinner can be forgiven of his sin simply by asking. It seems like cheap forgiveness.
    – Richard
    Sep 7, 2011 at 20:22
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    @Chad I'm starting to gather (after much brain twisting) that you think that God has never forgiven a guilty man and that each forgiveness that God has granted has been due to the guilty party's penance. Am I getting somewhat close?
    – Richard
    Sep 7, 2011 at 21:14

5 Answers 5


Alright, here's the non-trivial answer.

The idea is that we are all guilty. It's pretty hard to deny this one:

Romans 3:23 (NIV)

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

Furthermore, while we are all guilty of sin, the punishment for this sin is death:

Romans 6:23a (NIV)

For the wages of sin is death

If we go on in Romans 3, we see that the Jesus was the atonement for our sin.

Romans 3:25 (NIV)

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished

Definition of atonement

satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.

So, we can see from Romans 3:25 above that Christ was the sacrifice of atonement for our sins.

In essence, we are guilty of the sins that we commit (Romans 3:23 at top). Because of those sins, a price has to be paid (Romans 6:23a). Since the price had to be paid, Jesus was presented as the atonement sacrifice. (Romans 3:25). We can receive this atonement by faith (Romans 3:25 again).

Furthermore, this debt had to be paid to show that he is just. God is both just and righteous--being the one who deals the justice as well as the one who justifies (through the atonement for the sin).

Romans 3:26 (NIV)

he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.


God is a just God; He requires a penalty be paid for the sins we commit; and Jesus is that atonement for those sins.

Tying this in to my trivial answer, our sins create a debt that must be paid (just as our breaking the law creates a debt to society). However, this debt has been paid already if we have faith to accept the grace given to us.

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    I'm not satisfied by this answer. I imagine a victim remaining upset that the true aggressor remains unpunished. I imagine the victim being even more upset that an innocent was punished instead of the aggressor.
    – djeikyb
    Sep 7, 2011 at 17:45
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    @djeikyb: In this case, the judge is the victim. Sep 7, 2011 at 17:50
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    Additionally, it's worth taking into consideration what justice does (in a criminal context). Justice is designed to restore the victim to whatever extent is feasible, and is designed to protect the larger community from recidivism. God (the victim) has accepted His own sacrifice as the price, and recidivism is accounted for by His redeeming our fallen, sinful nature with His own. Sep 7, 2011 at 17:55
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    @djeikyb, it feels unsatisfying for good reason. The only one who has the right to forgive is the offended party. This is what holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal concluded when asked forgiveness from a dying Nazi--he did not have the right to forgive on behalf of those who were killed. He was almost right, too. As the skeptic asked, "who can forgive sins, but God alone?" The point is, God is always the most offended party.
    – Ray
    Sep 7, 2011 at 20:20
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    That may or may not be the case, based on which doctrine you adhere. I would like to encourage you to post a complete answer based on your doctrine/theology/belief system.
    – Richard
    Sep 7, 2011 at 20:33

The key consideration is the definition of justice. Does justice necessitate punishment or restoration? If I steal $100 from someone, I don't need to be physically beaten. If I repay the amount--or even 7 times the amount--the offended party is restored. If another person pays that amount on my behalf, the offended party is still restored and would have no right to demand further punishment of the one who stole.

As we stand before God, it is God who is the offended party. God's holiness is restored through the infinite, matchless, all-encompassing payment of Jesus on the Cross. The death of Jesus was more than 7 times the payment in retribution to the offended party. Though this payment is made on our behalf, the offended party is restored, and God lays no further claim on our sin.

So, God is, indeed, just in His requirement of a payment. The debt is fully paid and then some. He would be unjust if He still laid any claim of sin on those for whom the payment has been made and received.

The holiness and justice of God is so infinite that the smallest infraction demands restitution. However, the death of Christ on the Cross is such an infinite payment that it can completely cover all the offenses of the worst sinner.

  • I think the point of the question is that according to the OP there are crimes that are much harder to repay than that, if not impossible. You should address those cases, instead of the "smallest infractions".
    – Sklivvz
    Sep 11, 2011 at 8:03
  • The whole point was restoring the offended party, despite the degree of offense.
    – Narnian
    Sep 12, 2011 at 11:52

If an earthly judge --charged by the state to uphold the laws of the state in a fair manner and himself known to be a good and upright judge-- were to knowingly acquit a guilty party we would rage against him.

The key here is that God is not only the judicial branch, but also the executive and legislative. When a judge presides over a criminal trial, he is hearing evidence of crimes not against individuals, but the state. Murder is horrible to the individual and family of the victim, but the perpetrator goes before a judge because the state also outlawed it and decided to take it personally.

The state, in the person of the executive, has a similar power of pardon that is sometimes used. Now, if God were to go pardoning everyone willy nilly that would be one thing, but thankfully it does not happen this way. We have an intercessor in the person of Jesus Christ. He gives evidence on our behalf, that we have repented and that price for our sins have been paid.


First off, we must remember that we and any other human judge can only observe a person's deeds, and we can end up not seeing some of those, either because we didn't notice or weren't around, or because someone actively worked to hide them from us. But God sees everything that people do, and he can know the thoughts of their heart, which gives him a much better perspective and makes him the only one qualified to render a truly objective judgment. What does not appear fair to us from our limited perspective may indeed be something we would agree was fair if we truly had all the information.

Second, God's forgiveness isn't some instant and painless thing. It requires repentance. There are two different terms in the Bible translated as "repent," which is kind of unfortunate because they're very different words. In the Old Testament, the original word refers to sorrow, and is often applied to God himself, who of course has no sins to repent of. But the New Testament word, used in the context of the Gospel, refers to change: A change of heart, a change of one's ways, and when possible finding some way to make up for the damage that was done.

This is why murder, harm to innocent children and certain sexual sins are considered particularly grievous: once done, they cannot be undone! If I steal from my neighbor, I can give back what I stole, but if I kill him, that's final, and so very difficult to repent of and find forgiveness for.

Once a person has sincerely repented of their sins, then it is possible for them to be forgiven, through faith in Jesus Christ and the power of his Atonement. Jesus took our sins upon himself and suffered the just punishment of the laws of God, so that those who would believe in him and repent could find forgiveness and reconciliation with God, as explained in Romans chapter 3. So the basic answer to the question, "how can God forgive a sinner without being unjust" is that the sin has already been paid for and the law of justice satisfied, thus making it possible for Christ to show mercy on those who have faith in him and repent of their sins.

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    -1 You didn't show why God is still just after justifying wicked people. Even the smallest sin, repented for or not will never go unpunished under a righteous judge. Our sins have not gone unpunished. Sep 7, 2011 at 17:06
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    Mason, I'm not sure you got the point of the question, could you re-read and see if you see it any differently?
    – wax eagle
    Sep 7, 2011 at 17:22
  • @Joanthon: My answer came from a literal reading of the question, and especially since the asker was someone with a strong Christian background, I didn't mention the Atonement because it's fundamental enough that he ought to already be quite familiar with the principles involved. I've edited my answer for the sake of completeness.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Sep 7, 2011 at 18:26

The trivial answer is the correct one according to the Christian view. Under the correct circumstances, the price has been paid.

I think the premise of your question is a bit off though. When someone or something has to judge something, they also have to judge it for a particular purpose. When a criminal court judge decides whether someone committed murder, it is for a particular purpose and to a particular standard adapted to that purpose. If you had to judge whether a person committed murder for some reason (maybe to decide whether or not to trust them with your life), you are judging for a different purpose and there is no reason you need to use the same standard. You don't have to swear in witnesses, follow written rules of evidence, and so on.

So I don't think it's sensible to just compare the kind of judging that goes on in a court with the kind of judging Christians hold that God does without taking into account the vastly different natures of the judges and purposes of the judgment.

  • Romans 2 seems to talk a lot about how we judge will be how God judges us. If we are fair, honest and respectful (ie just) with our judging, then he will be just. I think this applies to all types of judgements that we decide--whether in life or in the court room.
    – Richard
    Sep 7, 2011 at 16:54
  • I agree. Fair judging means judging that is appropriate to the context and purpose of the judgment. As our judging is appropriate to the context, so is God's. If you were judging whether someone was a good friend or not, you wouldn't swear in witnesses or follow written rules of evidence. And surely God doesn't do these things when he judges because they're not appropriate to His context. Sep 7, 2011 at 16:58
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    For the purpose of this question, use the standards of righteousness and holiness that God has defined for himself, and apply them to him. How exactly does he meet his own criteria?
    – Caleb
    Sep 7, 2011 at 18:47
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    I believe I answered that in my first paragraph. The price has been paid. Certainly there has to be some limit to the amount of judgment rendered. A finite crime cannot demand an infinite sentence. Sep 7, 2011 at 18:52

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