God Isn’t fair?
How could God be fair
The Truth About God
Angelo, a dirty, smelly street bum, trudges down the street. A kitten gets in his way. He almost boots the creature, then thinks better of it and roughly shoves it out of the way with his foot.
In another corner of the world, a man on fire for God teaches the Word of God, witnesses, and visits the sick without let up. He loves the Lord fervently, and genuinely cares for people. Obviously, his ministry delights the Lord more than Angelo’s decision not to kick the cat, right? Wrong. As much as God approved of this man’s godly life, the Lord was even more moved by Angelo’s action.
The man doing so much good had been born into a wonderful, godly family, grew up in a thriving church, and studied at one of the best Bible colleges. He had been entrusted with a hundred portions of the capacity to love but was using only seventy-five. Angelo, on the other hand, had been born deaf. He was abused and kept in a dark, cold attic until found by authorities when he was eight years old. Then he was shunted from one institution to another where the abuse continued. Finally he was turned out on to the streets. Angelo had been given just three portions of the ability to love and such was the rage within him that he had to use every speck of those three portions to refrain from hurting that kitten.
Angelo proved so faithful with the little that God had given him, that the Lord gave him three more portions of the ability to love. He used every bit of that to stop stealing. He almost starved. He collected bottles to buy the little food he could get. Though still unable to hear, he learned to read and the Lord sent him a gospel tract and he welcomed Jesus into his life. Again the Lord doubled the love given to Angelo and again Angelo used it all, spending over half of the little money he had to buy gospel tracts to hand out to people. Every church rejected him. In the eyes of everyone on earth, he achieved almost nothing. In his entire life he won only one person to the Lord. Finally he died, frozen to death trying to keep a drunk warm.
Now flash to the hereafter. See Angelo among heaven’s elite, ruling from a magnificent throne, hosts of angels waiting to respond to his command. See him honored above millions of Christians and rewarded far beyond multitudes of famous Christian leaders.
If this story reflects spiritual reality, then it might be that in eternity there are equalizers that perfectly compensate for earthly inequalities. But is the thought behind this story mere fantasy? The story has come to us by a controversial means. A Christian author claims he learned the above story through a powerful series of divine visions (source). Whether you dismiss this author as a crackpot or revere him as a man of God is of no consequence to a discussion about whether God is fair. What matters is whether or not such a story is consistent with how God treats people. Is every Christian’s heavenly reward the same? Or could an illiterate outrank a godly theologian in the next life? Could a retarded person be exalted above a spiritually gifted person? Are there eternal compensations so extravagant as to somehow make the most severe earthly suffering worthwhile? Could it be that in the assigning of heavenly rewards, our earthly disadvantages and hardships are so lovingly considered and with such precision that the final result is so exquisitely fair as to leave everyone awestruck?
We will grapple with such issues by first considering whether the story of Angelo lines up with the Word of God. Then we will tackle other matters that make us question God’s fairness.
Biblical Reality Versus Fantasy
Jesus kept emphasizing that the person who is faithful in little will be given much. He also stressed that the assigning of heavenly rewards will differ so markedly from the present distribution of comfort and honor that many will be flabbergasted.
Biblical revelation is clear that eternal rewards and compensations for earthly trials will differ immensely from Christian to Christian. For instance, Paul taught that as we build upon the foundation of Christ, we can use ‘wood, hay or straw,’ or we can choose precious, fire-resistant materials. The fire of Judgment Day will reveal the true nature of what each person has built. ‘If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames’ (1 Corinthians 3:14-15).
In one of Jesus’ parables, all were entrusted with the same amount of money but one ended up with eleven times more plus control over ten cities, another had only five times more than he started with and control over five cities, and one ended up with nothing but his life, while the master’s enemies lost even their lives (Luke 19:12-27).
Just as we all have life, and yet have very different lives, so all true Christians will have eternal life, but very different eternities. Paul urged us to run the race of life, motivated by the knowledge that in a race there is only one winner (1 Corinthians 9:24). In other words, many miss the prize. To win heaven’s higher rewards is rare and takes extreme diligence. Eternal life is God’s gift to every competitor who merely lasts the distance. Beyond that, our heavenly prize hinges upon our earthly faithfulness.
Scriptures Throwing Doubt on the Story of Angelo
Screaming in the minds of many readers are some serious objections and questions to the above and if I were to proceed those screams would grow even louder. Rather than tease you by waiting until later to ease these concerns, I’ll stop mid-stream to face these matters head on.
Although we could keep citing Scriptures about Christians receiving differing heavenly rewards, there are other Scriptures that seem to say that we each receive identical rewards and even that there is no such thing as a reward for earthly faithfulness because, given our sinfulness, every good thing is a gift from God, not something we could ever earn or deserve.
It is important to note that this clash of biblical truths is not, for example, the apostle Paul seeming to contradict Jesus, but Jesus seeming to contradict himself, and Paul seeming to contradict himself. Both of them emphasize both truths. Obviously, in the mind of Jesus, and also in the minds of other biblical writers, there was no contradiction. The problem must not be with them, but with our difficulty in understanding precisely what they are referring to.
Let’s start with Jesus’ parable of workers who were employed for different lengths of time and yet received the same payment (Matthew 20:1-16).
First, we should remind ourselves that although powerfully inspired, parables are simple stories. As such, they are usually intended not to detail every conceivable complexity but to illuminate a single point. Other complications are likely to be taken up elsewhere in Scripture, but no matter how divinely inspired parables are, it would be ludicrous to expect each tiny story to cover every possible scenario.
This parable looks at those who were not given the opportunity to work until the latter part of the day. No mention is made of people who deliberately kept refusing work until the last moment, hoping to grab full payment for little effort. Nor were there people who commenced work and then spent most of their time in the field goofing off. How these two latter groups would be treated, is an issue not addressed in this parable. To consider it here would be to ruin the memorable simplicity of the story. Many other parables suggest that such people would lose some of their reward. Nevertheless, this parable is not about such people. It is about those who until the last moment seemed to be getting a raw deal. Even though they wanted to work, it seemed until almost the last hour that they would miss out entirely, and then that they would get little, despite their need being as great as anyone else’s. In the end, however, this apparent unfairness was fully corrected.
Every true Christian knows that we are born into God’s family as a completely undeserved gift from God. We realize that this priceless gift is received simply by trusting that Jesus died in our place to remove all the spiritually devastating consequences of our sins, thus making us as holy as the One whom we can now be on intimate terms with. Despite this understanding, however, we are still tempted to fall into the trap of thinking that after spiritual birth the rules suddenly change – that spiritual growth ceases to be an unearned gift from God but comes through God rewarding us for our devout attempts to please him. These who feel at home with spiritual jargon would put it this way: it is a most dangerous error to suppose that although we commence our spiritual lives by grace through faith, we proceed to maturity by works. We attain holiness, answered prayer, victorious living, spiritual blessings, and God’s special favor and approval, the same way we receive salvation – by grace through faith. Such blessings are never earned. They are gifts from God, not rewards for our efforts. They come to us by the sheer generosity of the Almighty, who gives to all who simply believe that the specific blessing we want is freely available through what Jesus achieved by sacrificing his life for our inadequacies. God’s blessings are gifts, and yet they are not surprises, except perhaps for their timing. They come to those who know enough about God to expect them.
God never gives us what we deserve. If he did, we would each be thrown into hell the moment of our first sin; in fact, the moment of our birth, if you consider the full ramifications of original sin. So any moment any human spends outside of hell is solely the grace of God. Since we deserve not reward but eternal punishment, God has not the slightest obligation to positively reward anyone for anything. As Jesus implied, the best that the greatest of us could achieve is to be ‘unworthy servants’ (Luke 17:10). There is no way the Almighty needs our labors. We can give him nothing that is not his already. Anything we try to do for God would have been done better and quicker and cause him less embarrassment if he had done it himself. Nevertheless, in his extravagant love, God chooses to reward his servants according to their faithfulness.
Without incentives and consequences, life would lose much of its meaning. No matter how many superficial pleasures it contained, a life in which nothing we do matters would be hellish. A society in which no one is ever called to account would be chaos. Could it be that as we continue to explore this subject we might discover that God’s rewards are the great equalizers that correct life’s current inequalities? Could it be partly as a result of the way the Lord will assign eternal rewards that everyone complaining against God will finally be lost in awe at the perfection of his ways?
As you read further, other objections are likely to come to your mind. I hope to address each one of them, but of course we can deal only with one matter at a time, so please keep reading until your mind is fully satisfied.
God’s Staggeringly Different Perspective
People are putting money in the offering. You see varying amounts go in. A well-dressed man pulls out a huge wad of notes. Your eyes nearly pop. There must be thousands of dollars in his fist as he drops them in. Then it’s the turn of a withered, shabbily dressed woman. In her time-ravished hand are two five cent coins – a miserable total of ten cents. Why does she even bother? you ask yourself, What good . . . ? Suddenly you notice that Jesus’ eyes have lit up. Excitedly, he gathers his disciples around him and proudly declares, ‘This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on’ (Mark 12:43-44). It was the one who seemed to be giving the least, whom he exalted as giving the most.
Jesus makes visible the very heart of God. What matters to God is not how much we give but how deep we had to dig to give it; not the actual value of our contribution to the kingdom, but how much of what we have that we give. This divine principle applies to every aspect of life. If, for instance, we have almost no faith but we give God 90 percent of the little we have, the all-knowing Lord sees this as being more commendable than those who display much greater faith but are actually using only 80 percent of all the faith that they could muster. A person filled with doubts and fears and suppressed anger at God, but still doing the little he or she can to hold on to God, could easily be seen by the Lord as having more faith than someone used to raise the dead.
All our abilities and opportunities are gifts from God. We can’t impress him with his own gifts. Just as a good parent is as proud of a helpless new born baby as he is of its toddler brother and teenaged sister, the Omnipotent Lord thinks no higher of someone with many gifts or responsibilities. The one thing that moves the Almighty is the extent to which we seek to maximize however much or little he has entrusted to us.
If our eternal reward hinged on earthly advantages we might have reason to question God’s fairness, but the Judge is not like that. None of us knows our true potential. God alone knows how we have fared relative to that potential, and it is on this basis that Christians are rewarded.
God is Judge and everyone knows that a judge must be impartial. ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ asked Abraham (Genesis 18:25), with as much confidence as if he had asked, ‘Will not the sun rise tomorrow?’ Our conviction that a judge must be fair comes from God himself (Scriptures). Of course, there is such a thing as a corrupt judge, but wherever you go in the Bible it shouts that God is righteous.
Life is full of injustices, and the ultimate injustice was when the Son of God – in the absolute sense, humanity’s only Innocent – was crucified. He bore in his entire being the full consequences of every injustice this planet has ever seen. He did this to make it legal for him to reverse – by force if necessary – every injustice. That is what the Second Coming is all about. His delay is none other than his mercy in giving us opportunity to repent before crunch time. Those who respond before it is too late will spend eternity marveling at God’s justice. The rest will spend eternity suffering God’s justice.
We might often misuse it, but the brain we think with was made by God. He’s a bit smarter than us. Likewise our ability to understand morality doesn’t come from an accident in a primeval swamp. It comes from God. The Almighty’s understanding of justice is as superior to our own as everything else about him is superior. We, not God, are the ones who see and know imperfectly. We are the ones who have biases. When all is revealed, we will see that God alone judges perfectly.
Does God have favorites? For the answer see the remainder of this webseries.