Ethics,  Theology

Feinberg on Grace and Justice

This semester, I have assigned and read out loud the following passage from John Feinberg’s book, Where is God? The book is about Dr. Feinberg’s experiences of suffering. His wife was diagnosed with Huntingdon’s, an incurable and horrible disease. The question he deals with in the passage below is not limited to those who suffer. It is a question for any Christian. What precisely is the relationship between justice and grace?

“…something was still wrong. There seemed to be a basic unfairness about our situation. Put simply, why was this happening to us, and not also to other people? Wasn’t it unjust of God to ask us to bear this burden, especially when others have trials that are so much less catastrophic? I believe this is a sticking point for many people that makes it very difficult for them to live with God.

Please do not misunderstand this. I wouldn’t wish our pain on anyone, but is seems only fair that if others escape from this fate, we should too. If God could keep others from this fate, what couldn’t he keep us from it? Of course, he owes nothing to any of us per se, but justice seems to demand that we get at least as good a shake as the next family.

I suspect that most people who experience significant tragedy in their lives have thought this way at some point. I surely had those thoughts, but I came to see that they contain an error. When philosophers discuss the concept of justice, they distinguish between what is called distributive justice and egalitarian justice. With distributive justice, each person gets exactly what is deserved. If you do good, in strict justice you are owed good. If you do evil, in strict justice you deserve punishment. Egalitarian justice, however, gives everyone the same thing, regardless of merit or desert.

Now I saw the source of the problem. It isn’t just that sufferers think distributive justice mandates a better fate for them (since they think they have done good). The complaint is that God should operate with egalitarian justice in his handling of the world. We expect him to treat everyone the same, and that means we should escape a specific affliction if others do! Otherwise, it seems that God has been unfair.

Once I remembered the distinction between these two types of justice, I immediately asked why God is obligated to dole out suffering and blessing on the basis of egalitarian justice. Given the demands of distributive justice, all sinners deserve nothing but punishment. Why, then, is God obligated to respond to us in egalitarian terms? I couldn’t answer that. If God really did handle us according to egalitarian justice, we would all either experience the same torture or be equally blessed. But those ideas don’t match the God described in Scripture. It was a tremendous help to realize that part of my anger stemmed from thinking that God is obligated to handle us with egalitarian justice, even though he isn’t. Once I realized that he has no such obligation, I understood that much of my anger rested on a misunderstanding of what God should be expected to do.

Now this didn’t completely solve the problem. Even if God isn’t obligated to give any of us more than we deserve, and even if we deserve punishment for our sin, still God has chosen to be gracious to some. If you are suffering from some affliction, you may feel that God should extend the same grace to you as he has to those who never confront your affliction. God must be unjust, then, for not extending as much grace to you as to the next person.

This objection is very understandable, and I believe it was at the heart of what was then bothering me. Nonetheless, it is still wrong. The objection now has escalated from a demand that God treat us with egalitarian justice to a demand that God treat us with egalitarian grace.

In two respects this demand is wrong. In the first place, God is no more obligated to give the same grace to everyone than he is to give egalitarian justice to all. He is only obligated to distribute what we deserve. The other point is that since we are talking about granting grace, the charge that God has been unjust because he gave someone else more grace (and his is really what the sufferer is complaining about) is totally misguided.

Grace is unmerited favor, meaning that you get something good that you don’t deserve and didn’t earn. If neither my neighbor nor I merit grace at all (if we did deserve it, it wouldn’t be grace, but justice) it can’t be unjust that my neighbor gets more grace than I. It can only be unjust if God is obligated to treat us with egalitarian grace, and he surely isn’t. In fact, he isn’t obligated to treat us with any kind of grace. Grace precludes obligation! That’s why it’s grace and not justice. Hence, it can’t be unjust if someone gets more grace than another. If God graciously chooses to give some of us a better (by our evaluation) lot than others, he has done nothing wrong. We have no right to place requirements on how and when God distributes grace; if we did, that would turn it into justice.

The distinction between grace and justice is crucial. Many people think that grace is the opposite of injustice. Hence, when God doesn’t give them grace, they conclude that God has treated them unfairly. But the opposite of injustice is justice; grace is an entirely different thing! Thus, grace is neither fair nor unfair, because fairness and unfairness invoke the concept of justice. Grace has nothing to do with justice; it’s a different commodity altogether.”

From John Feinberg, Where is God? p. 73-76.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.