The issue is simple: does God judge fairly, and can He? It's a little hard to explain what that means or how we would explore it, but as one delves deeper issue by issue, the question becomes clearer.
For example, if we are saved by no other name under heaven than Jesus' (Acts 4:12), what about Pacific Islanders in 50 AD? Are they automatically damned on what amounts to basically a technicality? Why was the tree of knowledge placed in the Garden of Eden if God didn't want Adam and Eve eating from it? Why does a condemned man get an indefinite punishment (Hell) for finite, usually forgettable sins?
If these questions keep you up at night, I will try to be the worm that burrows through the watermelon of issues for you! If not, then I offer you the watermelon full of worm holes.
I. Nature of Fairness
This section is more of a background and does not start addressing the main issue(s). It may seem trivial, but it's very needed because without having some solid idea of what constitutes "fair" vs "unfair" at least in a broad but defined sense, we can get distracted.
What is fairness?
The simple definition of culpability (or lack thereof) would be similar to most things we're familiar with in law: unobstructed intent. This would mean that rather than circumstances, it is the person's intent that gets them accused or absolved. Nothing external (other objects) or internal (temptations beyond one's ability, mental problems, etc) should be factored in if they obscure the original intent of the individual.
Since unlike human courts, God has all the evidence and is not, according to most theology at least, malicious, we don't need to worry about whether the angels got back to Heaven with all the evidence on time or not!
Fairness and its application to God's judgment
Many of God's commands - don't steal, don't murder - are self-evident in preserving not just justice, but human rights. Some, however, are more symbolic such as the various commands to abstain from certain foods for the Jews. Others are entirely constructed by God such as the prohibition against blasphemy, idolatry, fornication, etc (the Sabbath - Rom. 14:5a).
Arguably this last category has to do with God's respect. But when one considers the punishment, the question of fairness comes up a little more. But to understand why these injunctions exist is related to why the symbolic commands such as to not make clothes from mixed materials (Lev. 19:19) did. For those, God wanted his nation to stand out physically as well as spiritually from the surrounding unbelievers. Circumcision is the most well-known of these, because it's the most obvious and reminded the individual daily who he was or at least was supposed to be.
When Paul says that the true circumcision is in the heart, he wasn't saying anything new. Simply after the Messiah's arrival, the spiritual commands are left, which just like their physical counterpart were meant to cultivate and create self-control. Sin he measures by self-serving actions (Rom. 2:8).
But self-control against what? To what evil does cursing out with God's name lead, when no one could apparently even know it (Judges 13:5)? It's clear here that we have the intent of an individual who, if he were to know it, would profane it. And this test of self-control applies to what this individual would do if he were given more power and freedom: to what end would his disrespect continue? These tests might seem peripheral to this question, but ultimately just as we have two arms instead of three, God made them in a way with respect to us that He knows would test us accurately. It's exactly because of this that Jesus says, "he who can be trusted with little, can be trusted with much" (Luke 16:10) - if you can be trusted with such little leeway to correct behavior (temptations, restrictions), then you definitely won't have a problem when it's easier (e.g. the elect angels who were never tempted). This is why the tree of knowledge was placed in Eden while telling Adam and Eve not to eat from it, without it being entrapment - in the face of this they didn't listen. As Paul tells us, the Law is a mirror for us to see our unrighteousness (Rom. 7:13a).
Can we question God's judgments?
When Job tried it, God reminded him who the creator of the world was (Job 38; 41). What might at first seem like an authoritarian "might makes right" counter-argument is actually a subtle hint that God's knowledge, demonstrated by his power to the simple Job, far exceeds his and Job could not possibly understand God's reasons any more than a child can understand quantum physics (Job 38:2-3). After all, how can Job know his own self and what choices he would make better than God to demand what he considered justice? Didn't Jonah think it was fair for the Ninevites to be wiped out rather than forgiven?
Abraham also tried a more conciliatory approach, pleading for the fate of Sodom where his relative Lot was (Gen. 18:23-33). Of course, God conceded that if there were even 50 righteous men, he wouldn't destroy the city. Eventually Abraham, the ancient Amorite lawyer, gets it down to 10, to which God agrees in what is borderline sympathetic patronization. Of course, many prophets frequently changed God's attitude: David with the plague for example (2 Sam. 24).
But the main question remains: can we legitimately ask if God is justified in his action in some/any situation? After all, can we ask if gravity or electricity are "justified" in doing what they do? They might do something unfair, or dare I say, shocking, but it happens both to gullible and down to Earth people. I'm not saying that God can't be unfriendly - this is perfectly valid. What I want to ask is can I object to perceived injustice? Paul posits the same question by saying, can a pot ask the potter, "Why did you make me like this?" (Rom. 9:18-23). Maybe to me it seems unfair, but can I really know true justice, and can I really object to anything even if I could? If God commands it, it can't be wrong - Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac and had to do it.
But the Bible has many places where justice is presumed to be quite understandable by humans and completely relatable (Luke 18:1-8; Matt. 18:21-35). In fact, it's a little hard to understand how repentance could be distinguishable from evil (Matt. 5:14-16), if there wasn't some sort of inalienable logic that humans, and probably most animals (Num. 22:30), could inherently grasp. The fact that Genesis 1:26 states man was made in God's image should extend to understanding basic concepts like this in my opinion. As far as Paul's statement, it had everything to do with the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation (vv.24-26) versus only Jews due to Abraham's promise (Gen. 12, 15), not that God's decisions are by definition sacrosanct. The authoritative aspect is similar to God's answer in Job: a person cannot know why he was tested resulting in his sin, whereas another isn't tempted at all, because no one is allowed to be tempted beyond what they can endure (1 Cor. 10:13).
Paul's argument for God's indiscriminate mercy is one of Earthly situations, not spiritual destinations (Jonah 1:14 - "you, Lord, have done as you pleased" with the storm). This is supported because the part from Exodus Paul cites itself says Pharaoh hardened his heart by his own choices, but the situation was clearly brought about by God (Exodus 9:34). The same idea occurs elsewhere (Jonah 1:7-15). When Abimelech took Sarah as a wife, not knowing she was Abraham's. God reveals the truth and Abimelech defends himself, saying:
Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.” (Gen. 20:5-7)
God doesn't just arbitrarily make some sin or not and then condemn them. The Pharaoh was raised up for the Exodus (v.17). It was through Jacob that Israel came, not Esau (v.13), who would later prove his unworthiness by selling out his birthright for a meal (Heb. 12:16-17). From the Mari Tablets we know a word was a legally binding contract at the time - just like Isaac couldn't take back his blessing on Jacob, despite the deception - and Esau would've known this, so he had no excuse. Paul himself says it was God's grace that he was saved (1 Cor. 15:10), but that he received mercy because his obstacle was only the technicality of knowledge (1 Tim. 1:13). His attribution to God is the physical salvation and forgiveness, not his own repentance.
Perhaps Paul is talking about the temptations God causes people to be put under. So he raised people like the Pharaoh to sin in order that His glory might be revealed. Then the question, "why are we condemned? who can resist God?" makes more sense. Paul's answer echoes Job 38 where God's knowledge and power are supreme over man's. But there's a logical jump to mean this makes His decisions of who He tempts arbitrary. Knowing that He's not tempting beyond what they are able to bear (1 Cor. 10:13), He puts them in an irresistible position not from Himself, but from their own choices.
The spiritual quality of people is known beforehand by God (v.11), and therefore it's not works that impress: can you feed a hungry man if you have no money? None of the Pharaohs before Moses had to deal with God and the Exodus - is it fair on the one who did? That's Paul's argument - you can't tell God that it is or isn't as if you know better. Like in John 9:1-3, God's power and glory displayed in verses 22-23 are physical because in verse 22 these are already "objects of wrath" - i.e. people who did not repent. So is God making them unrepent twice if He's damning them and they aren't themselves? Or is He meting out physical punishment to show His mercy on Earth to the righteous (Prov. 15:6)? So the question in verse 19 misunderstands this very idea, that God knows who we are better than our own actions in this world/reality.
II. Problem of Evil
I don't discuss the Problem of Evil here, but it's obviously related. As was mentioned, some people draw the short straw, some don't, and God orchestrates it all. It doesn't make one or the other worse sinners (Luke 13:2). But if our true crimes are hidden by circumstances (e.g. would I be a tyrant if I were king, and how bad a tyrant?), then it's the moments of peace that we get which are technically "unfair" but given by God's mercy (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:17).
III. Hell for (Finite) Sins?
Is it fair that a compulsive thief who stole little things like pencils, gum, socks from stores goes to Hell where Hitler, Stalin, and The DaVinci Code are? Obviously there are different levels of the severity of crimes. All sins lead to death, but with respect to humans, the Bible considers some to obviously be worse than others (2 Kings 24:3-4; 1 Cor. 5:1). Works don't save but they certainly condemn, some more than others; though all damned go to the same Hell, because of what God knows their works would be if given more ability to do evil. Other than that, they merely serve to reflect a person's repentance or lack thereof, which is what's explored here.
But when it comes to an ultimate decision, think of how a friend put it in perspective for me once. If you offend a friend, how do you make up? You apologize, maybe you get him something you know he wanted. Perhaps he forgives you. If you offend a coworker? Maybe you'll get suspended, maybe terminated. That's the only way to deal with the mistake. What could you do to make up the smallest insult to God (1 Sam. 2:25)?
This doesn't answer three questions however:
In reality, the first question is two separate objections: why infinite punishment, and is it fair that people who did not know their crime and its sentence get it anyway. The other two questions are answered when these are because if it's fair, then it isn't favoritism and there's no reason to forgive them.
- Why is a finite man who has no understanding punished as if he were Satan?
- Isn't it favoritism to be this punishable just because one offends God?
- Why doesn't God just forgive?
If we think about all the possibilities a person could be put in, we will quickly understand that the lives we lead are by no means the epitome of either our good or evil. What I mean by this is that if you or I were a king, we would be either much better or worse people (in terms of works), depending what choices we make, but the important difference here being that we have more opportunity to do good or evil. Given this analogy, imagine that each of us had unlimited power - what would we do? Obviously, being sinners, we would do some evil as well as some good occasionally. But the unrepentant man would incline towards evil, whereas the believer logically toward good. Given this view, the man who simply stole pencils and gum on occasion may not necessarily be as innocent as he seems, fundamentally speaking. What if he had the urge to steal bigger things? Or worse crimes. Would he be able to resist them? God only would know these questions, but we can be sure that He wouldn't condemn someone based solely on the crimes of a 9 year old. Or would He? Perhaps that's the meaning behind Paul's "He will have mercy on whom He has mercy," so we should all beware.
Of course, when we ask the question, how could that person have the same punishment as someone like a murderer, we have to remember that it's not the gum thief who's given the punishment of the murderer; it's the murderer who is mercifully given the punishment of the gum thief. I base this on the fact that there are no degrees or levels in Heaven for the same exact reason (The Parable of the Workers - MT 20:1-16, especially vv.13-15): God has the right to give the same Heaven to the man with fewer works as the one with many; contrary to what the human reaction where Papias c.120 AD reports that there are three levels of Heaven: those with few works get the city (New Jerusalem), those with an average amount (according to their ability) get Paradise, or New Earth, and those with many go to Heaven. Certainly freedom exists for how many good or bad things a man can do. But ultimately, if God is forgiving sins that would cast one away from His presence entirely, obviously he can forgive the absence of extra works that would keep someone lower on the celestial ladder.
Is Hell fair with no Warning
But is it fair that this man, say an ancient Egyptian murderer, neither knew Hell existed and was his punishment, nor knew that God watched his every move and what he was doing was a class-A sin? What if he was extremely jealous, like Cain? What if he had a moment of rage? It doesn't have to be a cold-blooded murderer. The problem with the defense of "I didn't know," is that it ultimately comes in cases like these from, "I don't care." A drunk driver who causes an accident doesn't intend it, but he knowingly took the risk by drinking and driving. He pays the penalty as if he intentionally caused the accident. It doesn't matter whether he knew the penalty, or exactly how serious it was - he knew he wasn't supposed to drink and drive. And in the case of sins, this lack of knowledge is a trivial technicality because God knows what this person would do in any given circumstance. God has merely chosen one scenario in which to expose it (Rom. 7:22-23). It's a little like how Alexander rejected the idea of a night attack at Gaugamela saying, "I didn't come so darkness would steal my glory" - he wanted to beat the Persians at their best. And this is why sins in one's thoughts are as real as if they were performed: genuine desire is usually stopped only by lack of physical opportunity. This is not "thought control" any more than a therapist is one.
Same Hell for a murderer and a liar?
How can the sweet old lady from across the street who simply never accepted Jesus go to the same Hell as Hitler? This question ignores two things: the magnitude of sin, and the true nature of the sinner.
If we assume this old lady would have never done anything worse than simply not say "Hello" to Jesus as he passed her by on the street, if she lived in 30 AD Israel, then we do have a problem. But God does not set up tests to fail people for arbitrary reasons. Hitler was a specific man in a specific time - he had the opportunity and ability to enact his stupidity, whereas many others with equally malicious intentions didn't. Sometimes, a person doesn't even know what intentions he would have later on, or under different circumstances. So to assume that an old lady going to Hell because of mere disbelief is an error.
This can be further illustrated by exactly how sin looks. Imagine you insult a friend. How do you repair the relationship? You apologize, take your friend out somewhere if he agrees, and maybe he'll trust you again. Now imagine you do this to a coworker at your job - the penalty might be a little more severe: suspension, termination, etc. Keep escalating the risk (while the offense stays at the same level!) - what could you do to fix the smallest offense against God?
This may seem like favoritism - where God is given favoritism simply for being God. But taking the circumstances from above, we see that either a man escapes justice or doesn't. And God can unhypocritically judge him for it.
Origin of Choice: Good and Evil without Temptation
Where does a choice come from? If I accept that indiscriminate physical forces are not responsible for my personal choices for which I'm either guilty or justified, then how do I make the choice to make a choice? A metaphysical origin would just move the problem to impersonal forces outside the universe.
This isn't a question of "where does choice come from" (see here). But, how does the decision "I choose to do good" vs "I choose to do evil" arise if there are no motivations (=influences/temptations)? If I say "out of nothing," then it's either a random impersonal force - which implies determinism - or there must be some mediator which only brings the question up again.
But one does not need motivation to do good or bad. I'm not just talking about the classic psychotic, although I guess it could be boiled down to that. Basically, if we took the volition of any being, human or angel, and gave it unlimited power (even with unlimited knowledge), we'd have either a malevolent or good deity. It doesn't even have to be true omnipotence: think of any dictator. The legendary Lincoln quote, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power," is exactly what's happening here. God would know whether this being would abuse its power, and it wouldn't need any motivation but its own pure, uninfluenced desire to be just or not. This is what the Bible says as well (John 3:19-21; 1 Cor. 10:13).
I can have a craving for candy or unhealthy junkfood. Or I can say to myself, "I'd like to try this addicting thing everyone seems to like" (second order desire). If we suppose a being had unlimited power, this being would make a reality suited to his tastes. What these tastes are, or more accurately would be, is how God judges, and is probably how Satan and the demons got kicked out of Heaven.
As shown below, "Nature of Intent," intent is defined by one's reaction to temptation. For example, "Do I choose my own comfort over others' needs?" is a question/test that needs variables other than choice and result. It's a misjudgment to presume that temptations always cloud the issue of "pure" choice, since they actually explain it. The idea of a perfect vacuum where a being either does good or bad for its own sake while rational is not denied, because if I'm unwilling to get up and go to work because I'm lazy while my children starve is exactly the same, merely comprehensible.
This explains why/how the Devil sinned and was thrown out of Heaven "like lightning", being the personification of evil, while probably not having done all that much if anything, and making the seemingly incomprehensible and ludicrous choice of rebelling against God (like the other demons).
Nature of intent
There's a similar in logic anecdote with Themistocles, the hero of the Battle of Salamis (480 BC) against Xerxes' invasion of Greece. After his triumph, he was constantly Athens' representative to Sparta. Some old Athenian man, because of jealousy or whatever reason, constantly heckled him wherever he saw him, saying, "The only reason the Spartans even want to see you is because of your victory, otherwise you would be a nobody." Themistocles would ignore him, but after several occasions he responded to the old man saying, "Well, if you had won at Salamis, you'd still be a nobody." This was a clear insult where Themistocles acknowledges that he is in fact so popular "only" because of his naval victory, but that this is irrelevant to the present situation, because why shouldn't he be; while the old man would still be a nobody (not a fact, just a slight), like he is right now. This doesn't contradict the ideas above, since Themistocles' victory is with respect to man's accomplishments (military victory) not timeless values (truth, justice), and for that reason why shouldn't he be celebrated, even if he did get lucky, which can't be assumed? And who's to say he couldn't have done something else that was great, but why does he have to? With respect to his situation, he was a hero for saving the Greeks, luck or not (and he had foresight). But what's interesting to me is the logic that both the jealous old man and Themistocles understood: if the Persians hadn't attacked you, you'd be a nobody. Yet he doesn't "owe" the Persians anything because if they were more powerful, they wouldn't have given him any victory, of course.
It's irrelevant that he wouldn't have been famous without their attack because of their intentions, and ultimately his and their intentions would have to be examined under scrutiny without influence (e.g. Persia wanting to conquer Greece). Themistocles would still be a patriot with or without Persia. Though obviously without a physical reality or world, one could only ask how one defines this, even if it's a certainty: does he do what God or another ethereal world's rules are or not? This obviously needs a world, which defeats the purpose of asking "true, uninfluenced" intent, which is why it's irrelevant, ultimately, as we see with the old heckler and why God's justice only cares about "what would this person do with respect to another person: good or bad", irrespective of how this is expressed (e.g. murder with a sword vs feeding a hungry man with a sandwich) but what the intention with respect to love is, which without a world would be defined by the simple knowledge by God or otherwise whether this person would create a situation (irrelevant how, or what physics his world uses) of what translates to pain or not. This does raise the question of "how can intent exist without an expression?" In other words, how can you define bad without pain and how can you define that without a real world feeling like pain? But I think that intent can exist without description, the same way I can have a plan to injure someone without knowing specifically how I plan to do it.
The very concept of intent may seem to require a "real" existence of something in which it's contained, as well as real existence of things by which it can intend as well as express. For instance, if an angel "intended" bad, how do we define bad without an action/concept in reality that we've deemed an expression? This becomes a little like the chicken or the egg. Like saying one has to have a Sun before one can have the idea of a Sun. True, the elements for what a Sun is must exist beforehand to visualize it; in this sense, this strikes as very similar to Anselm of Canterbury's proof of God. And if intent needs a starting point in reality (whichever way expressed) without which it can't have meaning (i.e. "what are you intending and what is the 'what' that you intend?"), then this argument of mine would be destroyed. Or if concepts like love are such real-world entities or depend on them. In that sense, intent itself becomes an example instead of a logic, which might be the case.
But I think I can prove this isn't the case. If I burned all red sweaters in the universe, the color red (on sweaters) wouldn't become extinct, because it's a certain wavelength of light. Prior to the universe's existence light and therefore the color "red" didn't exist, nor a "prototype logic of it" in any real sense, but it exists now. So while inexpressible without real examples (what philosophers call "accidents"), intent is separate from its expressions, but exists and can be known. Perhaps this relationship has something to do with the absence of causality and space-time the way it's absent in ethics where only intent matters. Maybe like information, which depends on objects and doesn't itself exist, it's irrelevant whether intent can exist without an expression or not, or perhaps like a vacuous truth (and free will's origin), it both exists and doesn't.
There's another way I want to try to prove the purity of intent. The jealous old man found an enemy in Themistocles. Would he have been jealous on his own? What I mean is, does intent beget intent or is it simply from within a person? Obviously, in many situations one is influenced, but there is always a choice. And so also intent to do good or bad has no origin other than what a person desires - without influence like the angels, as their free will is identical with them and their choice (Free Will article "Created but Uncreated" paragraph 2).
If I could summarize this section, I'd say that intent is identical with the choice from free will. This choice is identical with the actions performed. This is why works are necessary for a living faith (James 2:14-17; Romans 2:6), but those works do not save (Romans 3:20; James 2:18b). If the action perfectly captures the intent, this only proves that the ends don't justify the means (as they would be one and the same). If it's objected that this means it's an impersonal force because otherwise we would have Choice->Action, then the same question remains unanswerable about what precedes any action of an impersonal force: if time is finite, at some point, the answer is nothing. It's like asking "What created the circle"? Or like saying North cannot exist simply because there's nothing north of the North Pole. This makes intent real, but without requiring it to be defined by objects or actions (i.e. without parts: simplicity) from an arbitrary reality (e.g. the universe).
This is because a person's choice is uncaused, like reality. Therefore, it's illogical to try and define the difference between a good and bad man based on "some" reality: the intent/choice/action simply exists or doesn't. The issue goes away if Person A decides to create Reality X vs Reality Y, so his choice isn't based on anything but his own power (which, like reality, exists with respect to itself due to having power). This is then defined as good or bad by God based on the same principle (that A=A; a power is its own existence, as existence like logic is not a predicate but a reflection of objects): i.e. the solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma. And God is free to express it any way He wishes, such as the present world and our actions. The influences only serve to uncover our true selves, since a person doesn't sin until he sins (innocent until he commits a crime), these influences can only be negative - temptations, but never unfair and beyond our power to have been able to stop them (1 Cor. 10:13), again showing that God works with counterfactuals, knowing which influences would result in failed tests and which expose the sinner.
Something like this exists in math where a parabola could have only one solution instead of the usual two (or none): a "double" zero. Of course, since +/-0 is the same number, unlike +/-1 or any other integer, this is only one number/solution. But it illustrates the "potential" of more than one solution that could exist. Maybe a better example is the formula for cubic equations: for some solutions (all three of them), it necessarily takes the square root of negative numbers only to later square them again and give a real solution. This is why only a few decades after the cubic formula was discovered in the 16th century, imaginary numbers were invented. Although this delves into questions of logic, it can show how something "unreal" can validly relate. Possibly the fact that geometric shapes can be drawn by math and do not need space/space-time to exist (e.g. Marden's theorem which relates to ellipses and their epicenters, tangents, etc derived from the cubic formula). Similarly perhaps the formula for a circle for example ((x-a)2+(y-b)2=r2). Maybe inversion as well (used in proving Ptolemy's Theorem). Formulas are how objects can be represented in more than 3 (spatial) dimensions mathematically.
One objection could be that numbers may not actually exist: only objects do. But then we can respond by the fact that they can represent length. Space is continuous since the Pythagorean Theorem wouldn't work in practice otherwise (only in math) - and there's no way to avoid the fact that it can only work with continuous space (Weyl Tile Argument). Any distance between two points can be therefore divided by pi length so that whatever this distance is, it necessarily contains 1/pi its distance.
The next objection would be that space isn't actually a thing - why it can expand faster than light. And this is valid, even if the objection might not be. But all that has to be done is to take the length of any object and find an object 4 times longer than it, for example, and you necessarily have the first object's length multiplied by pi contained within the length of the second. Since the object occupies continuous space, at some point it occupies an irrational length's space, while being a thing. And so we show that irrational numbers with their random patterns can come into existence by logical means.
Another way to prove that intent can exist outside of physical reality is by looking at validity or math. I don't need to draw a triangle to know that the Pythagorean Theorem is true. Where does the Pythagorean Theorem exist? It's certainly not dependent upon the existence of triangles - if anything the opposite!
This is a very important point for the origin of intent, as well as the question of "Why did God make the hellbound?"
Works are Real
It's not that actions of charity or evil in this world are irrelevant - they are simply a small glimpse from a larger whole, which God chooses to represent by the present world and its circumstances in a way that he knows would be true, because He's not a legalist. This is judged by the intent of a person, so the actual result is, as noted, irrelevant. This intent, like the works, is real but varies depending on the circumstances, since the individual doesn't have full knowledge, but ultimately is not influenced enough for the person to not display his true wishes (1 Cor. 10:13), and is genuinely his and representative of him. So just like works, to a degree it matters, to a degree it doesn't; but ultimately like works, it reflects what truly matters: who the person is, although in that case, the ultimate intent, like his free will, is the person.
Just like a man in 1000 BC would give a cold man a blanket, today he would give him a heater. Like how 3/6=2/4=1/2 and all equal one half, even though different numbers represent it. These works are as real as all the hypothetical "would've beens" - obviously God would not make something unrelated and confusing in this world. But it's because of this that one cannot do evil to achieve good: one cannot really know the ultimate ends, which isn't the point anyway, but to follow God's will who created the circumstances as a fair test. This is why an agent acting under God's command can do things that on his own would be wrong (e.g. the Israelite command to destroy the Canaanites).
But just as works only reflect faith and have no value in and of themselves, so also these do nothing but to reflect the kind of person someone truly is in the grand scheme of things. Of course, this would make a very intricate and complicated interconnection between billions of humans (to make one man a lawyer, and another his client, etc), which doubtlessly God can handle (Ephesians 4:11), but what if it's contradictory? I believe if it had been, then these people would have been made something like angels if repentant or demons if not (Mark 12:25b), so if the world had been somehow impossible because people wouldn't choose certain things according to influence so that God exposes their good or bad, He would've made us all angels and demons, or something celestial like that.
To a degree this is legalism blocking legalism: just like how the human body is technically made of non-living material (atoms), but is itself alive. So I cannot pretend murder isn't real by saying that the atoms of my knife are merely moving into the atoms of a person's body: there's clear intent based upon my knowledge (if I am sane and know what I'm doing). In the same way works and "partial" intent aren't truly representative of everything a person is, so I can't reason that the "sweet old lady around the corner who simply didn't believe in Jesus" is unfairly sent to Hell. And this is why works do not save, yet faith can be called a work (1 Thess. 1:3). So faith is credited to someone as righteousness (Rom. 4:5), meaning God knows what this person would truly do in alternate scenarios. But works also have to be real just like justice ultimately needs to be enforced by power (e.g. God's omnipotence) to be relevant: otherwise one is just a dreamer.
So I think this also answers the question of "I didn't ask to be made or to be thrown here with such high stakes (Heaven or Hell)" - well no criminal asks that justice be served either.
The Potter and the Pots
This actually brings up an interesting question. In some places, the Bible teaches that God being Creator makes us answerable to Him. But why? Obviously He can force us by his power. But is there any logical justification? It may seem unnecessary to prove this, but parents can't force their children to do what they want even if it's sensible. They can't exact revenge physically for it.
We can't answer that so-and-so would've done such-and-such crime under different circumstances, because the entire issue revolves around the legitimacy of punishing these crimes. In nature, weakness gets eliminated, but often in cruel ways, so we can't assume God's power of creation gives him this right. Essentially, if the pot had feelings, can the potter still do as he likes? Pets are owned by people but they still can't be abused, legally and humanely speaking.
The intuition that God can judge and punish evil-doers, however, comes not from his power only, but from what this power entails. Since others are wronged by sins, it remains that the party most capable in rectifying the injury should do so. The saying, "all evil needs to succeed is for good men to do nothing," expresses this sentiment. My rationale for supposing that God has the right to create beings that logically didn't ask to be created, and throw them in this all-or-nothing struggle of rules they are often ignorant of is that He is weeding out those who unfairly and selfishly would harm others.
So the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:21-35) has a wealthy man forgive a large debt of one of his slaves. This slave in turn does not forgive a tiny but significant for his lendee debt. The wealthy man is outraged and punishes the unforgiving slave. Why is he outraged and what business is it of his what the slave forgives and that he should punish? Well the necessary assumption (because this concerns the damned) is that this was indeed a brutal and unfair act, and that it's only fair the slave should get the same fate. In that sense, one seeks justice and one doesn't need to rely on luck because God is all-powerful and just. To object to this would be similar to not wanting justice for one's self: yes it's true that the lesser slave borrowed the money, but the parallel only explores the needlessness of putting him under the circumstances of misery (maybe he had no choice but to borrow it, and would repay it but with a lot of headaches). It may be true that an injured person would want justice, but is vengeance an answer? Does it undo anything? In this case, the lesser slave is spared a financial burden, but in many cases the crime can't be interrupted or reversed. But it's exactly because of this that God punishes evil-doers because if you can't prevent their crimes, what else can you do? Hence God says, "vengeance is mine," don't pay back evil for evil because you don't really know who is what and how much and even if that's a terrible person, the best way to spite evil is with good (Rom. 12:19).
Why doesn't God simply not create the unrepentant to spare them from Hell?
One can suppose that, perhaps God should ignore these people. Why doesn't God simply not make them? Even if they would have done something bad, they aren't and won't - if He doesn't make them. Looking at it from this angle, God is burning people in Hell for things they could've never done since God didn't and would've never let them - a conundrum on the opposite side of the Problem of Evil!
Yet to suppose that these crimes "don't exist" simply because there isn't a physical space and time like ours to portray them is probably not entirely accurate. If a bike thief doesn't find any bikes to steal, he's only excused on a technicality; even if someone removed all the bikes in the world, he'd still be a thief. The universe isn't more powerful than God's law. Similarly, the Knowability Paradox proves that all (knowable) truths must always be known. Therefore, created or not, God would constantly know of these are evildoers. And this also means that counterfactuals can be known otherwise one is assuming that the will is predicated upon the universe's laws or another power (i.e. determinism/compatibilism).
Paul has a similar observation in Romans 7:7-12 (esp. vv.9-10). But he notes that just because sin was announced through the Law, that doesn't make the Law bad because it only exposes evil (Romans 7:13, 10:2-3).
Seeing above, "Nature of Intent", we show that evil intentions exist whether or not they are actuated by a physical representation.
God is punishing people for something they will never do. Why not ignore them?
If we had a time machine and went back to 1932 before Hitler had power, I don't think many would call it unjust to imprison him for the rest of his life - even though he technically wouldn't have done anything "yet". On the other hand, if we imagine that all of his actions up to and including WWII were a virtual reality simulation, but his intentions were real, we'd be a little less eager to do anything but ignore and laugh at him. This just shows how easily human bias is swayed by emotion: fact vs fiction makes a big difference even if the intent, which as we noted is all that ethics looks at, is the same.
For example, in 492 BC the Athenian tragedian, Phrynichus, wrote a play about the recent sacking of Miletus by the Persians - The Capture of Miletus. It stirred up so much emotion amongst the Athenians that according to Herodotus he was fined 1000 drachmas and the play banned. No wonder of the 32 ancient Greek tragedies we have, 31 were based on myth rather than history. My point is that what doesn't happen in our world, doesn't particularly upset us, as seen with the time travel vs virtual reality example above. This way, we can't intuitively recognize that just because someone doesn't exist, doesn't mean that his unrepentant crimes that God knows he would 100% do are any less heinous. Like math, which exists whether there are mathbooks or not, these actions are as valid as the fact that 2+2=4 with or without an abbacus. If it were possible to overlook these, God would have the way he seems to do with respect to dangerous animals, some of whom frequently killed humans, especially children (Isaiah 11:8).
I want to show that God is not cruel or unfair in creating the hellbound. Just because their evil could've been avoided by not making them, or putting them under different circumstances (e.g. if Hitler was admitted into art school), doesn't make their potential but inevitable counterfactually sins any less repugnant. Imagine someone attempts to murder a child but completely fails to the point that neither the child nor his parents realize whatever it was he tried. I don't think many would spare such a person at least some kind of punishment. No one was harmed in any way. Even if no one saw him, the idea of him being punished isn't considered repugnant or unfair. Intuitively, the same would go for someone who cusses out a deaf person behind their back. Technically we can show that this isn't bias because culpability should be based on intent, not circumstances independent of one's control. So, I'm not to be genuinely rewarded or punished for accidents outside my ability. If I lie on a resume and get a job where I do something by sheer luck that others could by their skills, I'll still expect to get fired if they find out I'm not qualified. And no one blames a baby for waking up his parents in the middle of the night.
Similarly, if the only reason I don't have evil intent is because the circumstances that would evoke it out of me aren't present, then my intent is technically obstructed, or more accurately, unobservable. It's the converse of telling a man to fly by pushing him off a cliff and then concluding it's his fault he failed. What I want to say is that the absence of factors that would otherwise beget my true intention does not make it technically excusable if it would be evil. Basically by claiming that God could not only spare people from Hell, but spare their victims pain, is like saying God can magically make them repentant by removing their free will and calling them righteous, and on a technical basis, that's invalid.
Two interesting questions come up on the other hand. (1) Would angels be sinless no matter the (resistible) temptation?; (2) Would sinners, if given an infinite amount of time, at some point be sinless forever, or could there be "excusable" offenses; and if so, what's the difference or "cut-off" between that and someone who commits one inexcusable offense every billion years?
I think the first question can be easily answered by dealing with the second. If we define an "excusable" offense like someone taking "malicious" (?) pleasure in knocking the ice cream out of people's hands, this being as wrong for his conscience as spitting in his face, can we really condemn this man to Hell? Clearly, his own conscience condemns him. Otherwise, if he merely took the "innocent" pleasure of seeing tears over dropped ice cream, then an "excusable" sin is simply a misnomer, or oxymoron: either it's inexcusable (in his conscience), or it's no sin. This would mean that both the repentant and angels would never sin after a certain point (never in the case of angels), which also explains how one may have assurance he won't have a second fall after going to Heaven. As far as the "1 grievous sin per billion years," this once again highlights that time (and space) is inconsequential for ethics. Without time, this unregenerate simply becomes identified with his "grievous sin", whereas the repentant with penitence, hence how God can "wipe away his sin."
It's puzzling, however, how a penitent person with unobstructed free will, outside space and time can exist as an entity. It means someone can be two contradictory things at once: a sinner and sinless (once he decides to reject all temptations). But logical consequences don't require time, yet are still different from each other. In other words, like the Nature of Intent subsection above, the essence of a thing can exist whether it is portrayed or not, and irrelevant as to how it's portrayed, as long as it's accurate (e.g. if I sin with brown or black shoes, it's still my sin). This paradox is perfectly portrayed by many everyday situations. For example, when I first learn a fact, the moment at which I do is necessarily preceded by the last moment when I didn't know it. Since time and space are continuous (Weyl Tile Argument; also the Pythagorean Theorem would otherwise not work; also singularities in black holes could not exist and be 0-dimensional points in space-time), then necessarily the moment I learn a new fact is identical to the last moment I didn't know it. The same is true of a ball that's never been kicked and the moment someone first kicks it becomes the moment it's both kicked and unkicked. This is perhaps similar to Schrödinger's Cat. If anything, this confirms Nature of Intent above, since the direction from unknown->known happens within a 0-dimensional point in space-time, yet it has direction. So the difference between an unrepentant sinner and a penitent one remains real.
The direction of convergence matters: if I progress from not knowing a fact to knowing it, there is a point at which I both know and don't know it, but in the "end" I know it. But although this point also exists if I went from knowing to not knowing it (forgetting), the result is the opposite. So irrational numbers like pi or the square root of 2 don't converge to anything, but they come from rational numbers; similarly two irrational numbers multiplied can become a rational (square root of 2 times the square root of 2). So a person who within an infinite amount of time would always have, say, 1 sin out of 1,000,000 actions, could never converge to 0, and we can't excuse such an individual who will once again do some horrible evil (despite genuine, lengthy repentance inbetween, as we saw above with the child-murder attempt example, this is irrelevant; the absence of evil cannot make up or excuse evil). But someone who by definition has a final sin and wouldn't sin again, would. This doesn't erase his sin from reality, that's where God's forgiveness removes legalism.
Infinite sins for both believers and the damned
So let's explore the idea that other circumstances would result in men being either saints or tyrants. Ultimately, what if an unrepentant person would have repented if he lived another 5 years? 10? Of course, if we say, "Well, if he lived for an infinite amount, he'd have an infinite number of sins," then we run into two conundrums: how can God know what's at the end of infinity and wouldn't the saved also have an infinite number of sins (no one is perfect)?
The first question is simple if we understand that time (and space) are not needed to know someone's heart in any given situation for any amount of time, because all one needs is knowledge of his timeless free-willed intentions. It's like knowing that x-x equals 0 for any number x from negative infinity to infinity. And this doesn't equate a person to a deterministic formula, because he has made these choices already, they simply haven't been expressed in physical reality yet. For example, if I intend to do fly somewhere for vacation, I would sit in whichever seat the airline assigns me: I've already made the choice to sit - it doesn't matter that reality hasn't expressed which seat to me or in its results. This is why Satan (and the other fallen angels) were kicked out instantaneously from Heaven (Luke 10:18): God doesn't need to see him sin to know it, and to know he would never stop.
If you're not a fan of math, I apologize because the first question depends just a little bit on understanding one branch of it: set theory. In the 19th century, Georg Cantor found a solution to Zeno's paradoxes by supposing that there are different levels of infinity. Imagine a lamp that gets turned on and off to infinity (Thomson's Lamp). At the end is it on or off? Of course, we can't answer nor do we need to (for all we know it could be both or neither, such as a vacuous truth). The fact that there could be an answer is shown by the fact that irrational numbers have endless numbers after the decimal point with no pattern, yet they exist (pi, square root of 2, etc). In fact, even without a random pattern, one can't really answer what the "last" number is. For example, 0.999...=1 exactly (simple proof: 1/3=0.333...; multiply each side by 3, 1=0.999...), so while 0.999... should have a 9 at the "end", 1.000... has a 0. This is because dots have literally 0 dimensions, so the dot "next" to any other dot doesn't actually exist, yet it does. This so perplexed Einstein that he refused to believe the singularity of a black hole, with 0 dimensions, could actually exist. And numbers like this necessarily exist in reality (Zeno's paradoxes). So if reality, which came was created either by God or out of nothing can have such properties, then certainly God could know what's at the "end" of infinity.
Having said this, we can now differentiate between the repentant and the unbelievers. Yes, Would both have an infinite number of sins over an infinite amount of time? Because of the differences of intent, the believer would not permanently have any sins without temptations just like the elect angels, whereas the unrepentant like Satan and the demons would. Hence Luke 16:10 - "Whoever is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and whoever is unrighteous in very little is also unrighteous in much" - meaning God can trust the repentant in Heaven where there's no temptation to be unrepentant unlike Earth, where they triumphed so how much more in Heaven. Whereas the unregenerate are like someone who would steal $1, so how would you trust him with $100. This logic may seem contradictory - after all, what if some of the damned would've never sinned in Heaven with no temptation? But that just means the test is perfectly fair and balanced: the righteous can be trusted under pressure, the unrighteous can't be trusted without supervision. Imagine an unguarded safe with $1 million: a good person who doesn't steal it can be trusted with $10 million. Someone who does wouldn't be trusted even with a penny.
It's tempting to try and invoke Cantor's Set Theory to try and differentiate the infinite sins of the penitent and the damned. But this is false for two reasons. First, sins are countable. If one tries to escape this by saying that a sin is committed within space and time and its beginning and/or end might happen on an irrational fraction of an interval in space and time, then this would mean that both the repentant and the unrighteous have an uncountably infinite number of sins. Second, even if we somehow got the cardinality of infinite sins of the damned to be higher, the fact is that both have an infinite number of sins that would need to be punished. And this isn't legalism, because if someone continues to mess up once in a while and technically live in sin during those mess ups, why would God forgive them and how are they in any real sense repentant?
So we have to posit that the penitent have a finite number of sins. This however runs into another problem. Let's remove space and time, which if free will exists should have no bearing on intent and responsibility (otherwise being at the wrong place at the wrong time would be your fault even if you couldn't have prevented it - essentially determinism). If we have the pure choices of the person's free will outside/before space-time, then it's difficult to see what role change could have. What I mean is, without time, something either is or isn't. And if someone has/would commit a sin, if he can't change this choice, then there could be no repentance. But this is not an issue that time creates or else God Himself would be incapable of creating anything "after" His own existence. Simply put, it's the difference between a program that would always do a certain action in a given situation and one that would only do it once, or twice, or X number of times.
This proposes that at some point the saved would never sin again, not because it's impossible, but simply because they won't (and solves an occasionally encountered conundrum of "what if I sin after I go to Heaven?"). Paul hints at something similar in Acts 24:16, which one might object to on the realistic logic of Ecclesiastes 7:20, but the Acts passage hints at more than a "on average" situation for Paul abstaining from sin. Certainly it's possible to have a sinless day or week/month. Anyway, just like man has no excuse for his sins and could abstain from them, but reality is different (Rom. 3:23; Luke 17:1). Conversely, the damned would've never stopped, hence why no salvation for demon (Hebrews 2:14-16, 2 Peter 2:4, Matt. 25:41), and why the elect angels will never sin (not because of no free will). Alternatively, perhaps some or all of the elect had been made like the elect angels from the beginning, they would've sinned but been contrite - unlike the demons currently. Either way, the solution works, because God isn't a legalist.
Another hint that at some point, under any (necessarily) circumstances where the influence/temptation is bearable (1 Cor. 10:18) the repentant would stop sinning forever is the fact that otherwise, if there was an actual difference between the infinite number of sins of the penitent and the damned, why not simply erase (or save!) the damned, after a finite punishment? After all, God's doing it for the penitent. The reasoning above that the damned cannot be finitely punished is perhaps further support for the idea that the penitent would stop sinning forever at some point in every possible world with non-overwhelming temptation (of any kind).
An interesting result from this and the Euthyphro Dilemma is that God, in arbitrarily deciding what's just or not (via his power), can allow something "unfair" but beneficial to happen. For example, in Matt. 9:13, Jesus notes how God can forgive - "I desire mercy, not sacrifice". Similarly, why sinners who won't repent don't have to instantly be sent to Hell like Satan was cast out from Heaven. Or why Jesus' sacrifice can pay for the crimes of others. Legalism belongs to deficient bureaucratic systems, not perfect, all-powerful justice. This is the converse of the fact that God is free to allow evil (Problem of Evil), or why the punishment of Hell befalls the unrepentant as discussed so far. But not because of legalism, but the logic from His will: if he wishes to punish wickedness, then He would choose to show mercy to any degree He wants: to both wicked and righteous. And this is "fair" because He defines fairness, but not as a legalistic procedure (which would make it arbitrary), but with respect to things like pain and His purpose, which He frequently chooses to portray as a symbol in order to shame wickedness - since He's powerful enough to punish it already anyway.
An example of this is objects that have finite volume but infinite surface area (Gabriel's Horn). Probably related to Zeno's Paradoxes (and their solution), it shows that Cantor's Set Theory as a solution to Zeno's Paradoxes is probably true, and also that this math justifies, in my opinion, the above conclusions. I suppose Zeno's paradoxes themselves show this since all finite distances have an infinite number of points: this property of dots (such as 0.999...=1) is used in proving the Banach-Tarski Paradox.
The simple answer is that there are no "individual sins" but everything is a process, with an ultimate culmination that is either "Repentance" or "Depravity". What I mean is, the timespan along which a person lives where he steals a candy at age 9, helps a friend at age 20, steals a candy at....age 29, etc, are not individual "good" or "sins" (even though they're different actions and can be treated as such), but are all part of the ultimate "Will X have a state of mind at the end where he does some of these things or not?" question. Like a math equation, this infinite end can be known, whether it converges or not (perhaps also proof by the Knowability Paradox).
What is sin?
This question might seem strange, but if I think it's important to establish exactly what sin is. If it's an object what are its properties, and if it's a concept, what does it entail and is it consistent?
But I don't think one needs to delve too deeply into a potentially fruitless linguistic quagmire. Clearly sin is a concept both in its technical nature (God ordains it) and how it's committed by individuals (Rom. 14:5, 23). It represents the relationship between the actions of a responsible being and God's will and power. Like crime in law, it's not something that needs to be examined any further than that, and more questions of "why X is a sin or not" simply become the Euthyphro Dilemma. I feel you don't need to present the technical details of sin in these issues here any more than you need to explain time in order to know it's 5 o'clock (somewhere). Of course "5 o'clock" is a man-made measurement system, but just replace that with any elapsed amount of time. Time is treated objectively as a dimension in, e.g., Einstein's relativity equations, so I will presume it's not a subjective reality.
God does not tempt, but tests
All of this in my opinion explains the difference between God testing someone versus the Devil tempting them. In Job it's almost as if the two of them are in collusion over the poor man. The difference is obviously intent: the Devil just delights in evil and screwing others over (Rom. 1:32), while God tries to expose and correct. But correct what? If a man is elect, then he'll be saved, so why reprove him? If not, then what could change his mind? But just as Paul says in Romans 9:18-23, God reserves the right to instruct because of sins, so it's mercy that one is being reproved so little for sins as a righteous person (Heb. 12:7-11), even if it's true that some of the elect angels would have sinned if they were tempted like us (curious if any would or not), yet God never will let them experience pain or discomfort. This is why man shouldn't test God in matters of morality (Matt. 4:7, citing Deut. 6:16; 1 Cor. 10:9-10), but personal knowledge (Judges 6:39). Even a genuine inquiry like Job's could be reproved, while commands from God to even kill one's own son should be followed without considering it wrong (Gen. 22:2).
Those who never heard the gospel, children, the mentally challenged
This brings us to the last group of situations regarding fairness based on technicality: 1. What about those who never heard the Gospel. 2. What about children, mentally challenged.
The fate of men who never technically heard of Jesus cannot be assumed to automatically equate with damnation. As we saw with Abimelech in Genesis 20, God is no legalist. That many righteous who never heard of Jesus could've been saved is fully proven by how Paul himself was converted. He was simply zealous without the proper knowledge, but otherwise on the right path (1 Tim. 1:13). A story, possibly legendary and modeled on Acts 17, has a pre-Columbian Texcoco king, Nezahualcoyotl, build a personal altar devoid of images and sacrifices, dedicated to the "unknown God". Even if apocryphal, this shows that the idea of a righteous pagan was never unthinkable.
Overall, the conscience is the guide by which a man is judged (Rom. 2:10-16; possibly also Rom. 10:18). This isn't a static block of stone like the Ten Commandments, but the personal beliefs of what a man thinks is right or wrong down to the most detailed point of decency. While one man's conscience differs from another's (Rom. 14:5), this is not relative morality any more than different languages' word for "rose" makes the plant non-absolute. Or if one objects that it's still the same "static" thing, then the fact that some countries like Japan and Britain drive on the left side doesn't make their traffic laws any less valid, because there are inevitable points of agreement (e.g. traffic lights), so the differences in men's consciences are in the details (what is respect), not the basics (that respect is good), because it's logical (the Golden Rule). So this is why Paul says he wouldn't have known covetousness was a sin apart from the Law (Rom. 7:7-12), but now this culture produced in him a mentality where he might disobey against his conscience (Rom. 7:14ff.).
This might seem to make animals, at least mammals and birds, accountable for their actions, because they can also feel guilt and know between what their owner for example doesn't want them to do. But because they don't have free will in the same way as us, they are excused. Perhaps their knowledge is insufficient, or maybe they have more limited abilities, not a true free will but like robots. Or maybe they are just influenced beyond what they can be accountable for. But even the dangerous animals are brought back on the New Earth (Isaiah 11:6-8), showing God's mercy.
In the case of children, these are obviously in this case too young to understand many things and obviously God forgives them, knowing they'd probably grow up to be righteous (Matt. 18:3-6). The same would be true of anyone with mental challenges, depending on the degree. The body is a vessel; a phone with a poor connection doesn't mean the caller is unclear, and God can know the intent of everyone.
Innocence and Sin
In many places the Bible describes how man's nature is fundamentally corrupt and deviant. This is in contrast to some of the Greek philosophies such as the Stoics who considered man to be ultimately good, but contaminated by various experiences and shortcomings in life. For example, Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations VII.5 writes, "Dig deep within. Within is the fountain of good. And it will ever bubble up, if you will ever dig." (Classics Club).
Paul says something similar in Romans 7:22-23, but obviously there speaks of believers like him. Essentially most of Romans 7 deals with the relationship between will, temptation, sin, and God. A person is born and like the Parable of the Mustard Seed goes one way or another for whatever reason. With respect to original sin, Hauer and Young suggest that perhaps St. Augustine misinterpreted Romans 5:18,
it was the interpretation of this passage...that led to the Christian doctrine of "original sin," the view that all humans after Adam and Eve inherit their sin. Scholars dispute whether that is possible, not to mention necessary, interpretation of the Greek of these verses. In the view of many, it is more likely that Paul was stipulating that all humans are prone to sin, not that Adam's sin is passed through inheritance, like a genetic flaw. [Introduction to the Bible: A Journey into Three Worlds (7th ed.), p.322]
Romans 7:25 seem to say so as well. In Rom. 5:9,17-19 the antithesis between Adam's sin and Jesus' salvation also seems to suggest this: or is righteousness also hereditary? That Paul neither outright states it nor defends it against outcries of injustice is also perhaps an indication that he merely meant that sin and temptation entered the world in a place (Eden) where like the home of the angels, it previously didn't exist. Adam and Eve sinned at a command (Rom. 7:14), not a naturally arising inclination (James 1:14-15). However, being born guilty is not unjustified for the same reason that anyone, aside from Christ, was born as a human and not an angel and all are sinners. A common justification used sometimes is how Hebrews 7:9-10 says in a sense Levi tithed Melchizedek because Abraham did so and Levi came from him. But I think this is a metaphor, not a direct chain of cause and effect.
How can sin be Forgiven?
This question has two parts: (1) If sin is like a stain, how can it ever be forgiven or forgotten? Can you undo time/reality? Can you unstain a blank sheet of paper? Can you unscramble eggs? (2) How can God actually call it fair to have mercy and use (kill!) Jesus, whereas someone can't go to jail for someone else's crimes
This first question I find more serious and difficult."Yet I was once your emperor" - the last words of the Roman emperor Vitellius. No one could take that away from him, not even his executioners. But if a car misses an exit on the freeway, yet ultimately reaches its destination and time weren't a factor, then it becomes irrelevant how many detours it had to take.
The question then becomes, "Is it dishonoring God that a being that actually sinned is allowed in His presence?" and the answer becomes similar to Muslim objections to Jesus being God ("shameful human body, etc"). It's a little bit like looking at a fraction, 1/2 for example, and arguing that 0.5 must be an integer because both 1 and 2 are - it simply ignores the process that "1" and "2" represent, in my opinion. God could have chosen to forgive or not forgive our sins despite how penitent we would be, and been perfectly just and non-malicious either way: a sobering fact to remember.
A minor issue can arise here: if we remove time, which earlier we argued has no place in culpability, how can someone be a sinner and sinless at the same time (having sinned and penitent become "actively sin and repent" at the same time due to no past/time)? This is actually not as difficult an objection as it might seem. Just like the validity of a motivation (be it "sin in Heart" or the "Origin of Choice/Nature of Intent"), one does not need to divorce circumstance from intent after removing time. What I mean is that a blind person may not have a favorite color, but that doesn't mean it's invalid to suppose he could and would should he see - and that favorite colors would be an impossible reality but not impossible concept without the existence of light. In a sense this prefers Aristotle's essentialism over Abelard's nominalism. There are two good examples I can give that defend this.
For example, the Monty Hall math problem where a contestant picks one of three doors, only one of which has a prize, shows how circumstance and causality can exist without time. In the end, when one of the losing doors is revealed, the contestant chooses one of two doors, which anyone would tell you is 50/50, but this is not the case here because of previous circumstances and it's actually 33%/66% chance. Of course, you can't have that situation without time, which is exactly the point: imagine watching only the end result of 100 contestants and seeing that 2/3 of those who switched doors won as opposed to 1/3 for those who didn't: you'd be thoroughly confused and think statistics has gone out the window. That's exactly what we have here: someone sinning and not sinning at the same time while being absolved and penitent. Another example would be Schrödinger's Cat, which has the cat be both dead and alive at the same time, objections over which resulted in Stephen Hawking's retort that, "one cannot test reality with a litmus" - in other words, you can't tell reality what it can be, especially since you can only test it by...reality.
The second question also seems to have two or three parts: how can mercy be reconciled with justice/fairness? How can God do this to Jesus? How is it justice even if Jesus' intentions were merciful and good?
The first question is simple: justice is presumed if the person is penitent; mercy is simply the willingness to abide by the logic in the previous question: "Why/how can sin be forgiven/forgotten?" - imagine a person who gets mad at you and goes too far and breaks something valuable of yours - he then apologizes, fixes it perfectly, yet you still get him in trouble. The reaction we'd have is, "Understandable, but that kind of sucks." That's why in many circumstances a victim of a minor abuse (e.g. got slapped by an angry friend) can choose to not press charges.
This relates to the other two questions: it was Jesus' own willingness, if we assume He's in communion with God, to show mankind how repugnant sin is by dying the way he did. And it was never only Jesus' death that saves, as if a murderer can be absolved by someone else going to jail, but the person's own repentance - that's why Paul calls repentance dying and being raised anew. It's true that no matter how penitent a person is in our justice system, this cannot happen, but that's a weakness in our system which is necessitated by the fact that we don't know the future (will the murderer decide to murder again?) - not a problem for God at all, who knows everything. In fact, the switch in the last century or so from a retribution-based system of justice, to a reformative one - where a criminal isn't punished for vengeance's sake, but to reform him, knowing that killing one man won't bring another from the dead, would indicate the above as well as how it's just and possible for God to forgive sins. It's true that the Bible calls God's justice "vengeance," and that's exactly what it is and always should be upon the unrepentant only.
How does God measure Punishment?
What temperature do Hell's fires need to be to evenly punish a thief? A murderer? This question is complicated by the fact that frequently the abuser only has a general idea about the harm he does, and sometimes only knows that he's just doing something incorrect.
Since we can't assume that every unrepentant person would, under some circumstances, become a Hitler - that is, there are varying degrees of real choice, we can't say that it's irrelevant as all would be ultimately given enough opportunity "infinitely" evil.
But although this is a very valid question, it's easy to forget that for every ounce of knowledge given a certain action, if this knowledge can be gauged, however vaguely, it still must, by definition be describable, or else there can be no intent. For example, if I steal a bike, I must know it's doing some degree of discomfort. This vagueness may be unquantifiable by me, but that doesn't mean it's unquantifiable at all. Furthermore, just as a drunk driver never intends to crash but is still culpable for whatever accident he causes, so also it may as well be irrelevant what exactly I know about the pain that my wrongful actions create - and that I can be judged by this pain, rather than my knowledge. Because culpability is gauged entirely by intent, which needs knowledge. But the question here has nothing to do with that - the culpability is presumed - but with the extent of the necessary punishment.
Therefore, just as pain can be measured by neuron activity, so also can the flames be accurately adjusted. And if we don't assume something like Dante's levels of Hell, seeing from above, "Same Hell for a murderer and a liar?", it is not the case that the liar is punished extra and goes to the same Hell as the murderer, but the murderer is shown mercy and is taken to the "lower" Hell of the liar. This is the converse of the Parable of the Workers, where someone who did a lot more works than someone else both go to the same Heaven because God is merciful to the second, and not ungrateful to the first (also cf. the angels' complaint, personified by the older son in The Prodigal Son - Luke 15:28-32).
IV. Jesus' Sacrifice: Legitimate Payment?
This section concerns two main issues: Was Jesus' sacrifice legal according to the Jewish system and is it acceptable that he pay for our sins when we were the sinners?
The two questions are closely connected even though their subjects are completely different. The first deals with the Jewish sacrificial system - a specific form of cultic ritual. The second considers the judicial point of view of fairness and justice.
However, when it becomes understood that there was never any legalism involved in Jesus' sacrifice, the connection appears and both issues disappear. Hebrews 10:1-12 points out that the blood of animals was just a ritual which couldn't take away sins, yet in 9:13-14 notes that it did remove sins. Clearly, then, Jesus' sacrifice, while necessary in Jewish eyes (Heb. 9:15, 22; 10:12) and to a degree worldly ones for proof in a world made the way it is, was intended like Jesus' baptism as a message of what sin does and how much God cares about us and righteousness. That's why Adam's sin affected all and why Jesus' sacrifice was for all: one technicality removed by another (Rom. 5:19). In Hebrews 9:16-17 the example of a will is used, where it's noted that it has no force until the person dies. Obviously God doesn't need to follow yet another kind of technicality like the law, and Jesus' spirit was never dead, only his body. Jesus' death was a symbol that was never meant to be taken as an attempt to be pedantic within the guidelines of Jewish law: Jesus is merely the lamb that saves, like the one that represents the salvation in Egypt. There are many key evidences of this such as the fact that Israel's sins were exculpated on Yom Kippur in the fall, rather than on Passover in the spring. But this is a legalism that while technically closer to Jesus' function, destroys the metaphor of life with the symbol of the Passover which equated to the same thing. It's simply irrelevant that Passover didn't forgive sins, just as that many of the other rules aren't followed by Jesus' sacrifice, starting with the fact that he's not an actual lamb but a human!
As for fairness, it can be asked how it makes sense that someone pays for another's crimes. If I get convicted of a capital crime, I can't get someone else to go to jail for me, no matter how much they might be willing to do it! The problem is that, once again, we slap legalism on God who merely tried explaining the connection between Himself, man, and repentance in a way the Jews of the time could understand. It can be wondered why God needs sacrifice when all He wants is obedience (1 Sam. 15:22) if Jesus' death was legalistically necessary for God to forgive. Muslims criticized Christianity on this point and pointed to their theology's superiority where God was powerful enough to "simply forgive". Simply put, the Jews could not understand forgiveness without sacrifice (1 Cor. 15:17), and the symbol of an innocent man dying for those who don't deserve it displays God's boundless love and mercy (Rom. 5:6-11) is a powerful metaphor and connection between God and man through Jesus, emphasized everywhere in the New Testament. God is not some distant force like in Islam and even to a degree Judaism and pretty much every other religion: He sent His Son to die for us, and is with the believers at every turn (Matt. 18:19-20; Acts 1:8; John 14:26)! Jesus' life also helped serve as a model (Heb. 2:18, 4:15; John 14:31).
God condones human sacrifice?
Occasionally the meaningful act of compassion (willingly!) done by Jesus is overlooked and, like the legalistic objections above, the question of God condoning human sacrifice can be brought up. This has two parts: didn't he ban this in the Old Testament as detestable, and well, isn't it detestable?
The Old Testament commands were against the practices of the Canaanites, who performed child sacrifices. This was also out of their own corrupt stupidity, not from God. Abraham and Jephthah are praised for following through God's commands. As far as it being detestable in and of itself in Jesus' case, his death in that way is metaphorically described as a sacrifice, which technically functioned as one, but the actual action was his death: we all die. How God interprets and presents this death is His choice. There is a correlation between Canaanite child sacrifice and Jesus' death. The Carthaginians, whose culture originates from Tyre (in Canaan) also practiced child sacrifice. They offered their firstborn children for victory or to avert disaster - clearly a genuine token of an offering exactly the way Jesus is presented (John 3:16, Luke 2:7).
But the self-serving nature becomes a little evident. For example, when the Carthaginians lost to Agathocles, they thought their child sacrifices weren't good enough because they didn't sacrifice noble ones. They decided to sacrifice 200 children of the nobility and in their enthusiasm sacrificed 300. Alternatively, in addition to the 200 noble ones, they sacrificed 300 common ones, which may be pointless or may be going "that extra mile". I think the three Punic Wars with Rome shows that perhaps these children were better help as Carthaginian soldiers than firewood.
V. Opposing Verses from Scripture
These verses say:
The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (HCSB)
It seems that both were culpable, just in varying degrees. It's not possible for anyone to not know God's will due to the conscience that they have (Rom. 2:10-16), which arises from a person's mental recognition of the Golden Rule (i.e. "don't steal your neighbor's things, you would hate it if done to you"). The fact that the less culpable disobedient slave is beaten with fewer stripes shows God's mercy there as well as the fact that all go to the same, apparently least punitive Hell.
1 Corinthians 8:9-13
These verses seem awfully critical of someone just because how it might affect others. One man's choices can't be blamed on another, so why is the man with a "strong" conscience, as Paul puts it, guilty of helping the sin of the weak one?
There's an implicit degree of, "in case you knew better" because in 1 Cor. 10:14-33 a man who is either at a pagan feast or a non-Christian friend's house would obviously know that his presence and eating sacrificed food would be ascribed to participation in idolatry. So in Romans 14, Paul gives advice to both sides: don't judge the one who eats (v.13), and don't eat if (as far as you know) it distresses your brother or sister (v.15).
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
It seems that someone could be guilty of disrespecting God by the way the eat?! The reason is hunger (v.34), not intentional disrespect. But just like a negligent sin such as drunk driving, it could have been obvious enough to be purposeful: we don't have enough information. The punishment of sickness and death (v.30) recalls the warning God gave Abimelech (Gen. 20). Abimelech and his household fall ill, despite the fact that he did nothing wrong, which God acknowledges (vv.4-6). The reason for the sickness is so that Abimelech takes the warning in verse 7 seriously or else he could suppose it was just a stupid dream. So the members of the church who fell ill must've been under a warning, while those who passed away must've really crossed the line. Paul himself admits that there's quite a few wolves in sheeps' clothing (vv.18-19; 1 Cor. 5:1-2).
VI. Unjust Episodes
Unlike the previous section, this section doesn't deal with contrary logic to this article's main thesis, but instead focuses on parts of the Bible where God's actions seem unfair based on the logic, implicit or stated, given in the text. So questions like, "Was the Flood fair?" which was due to wickedness are avoided in favor of questions like "Why didn't the Philistines die when they looked into the Ark, but the Israelites did?"
Achan and Collective Punishment
Collective punishment is frequently found in the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Logic dictates that each man is responsible for his own actions, although these may influence those of another (Gal. 6:1-5). In Joshua 7 the Israelites suffer a defeat at Ai and it's revealed that someone disobeyed God's command to hand over all loot after Jericho's fault. Ancient cleromancy is used to discover the guilty party, and it is Achan.
The problem here isn't that Achan was stoned for what every soldier in the history of the world has done: loot the defeated. No one would really find this particularly objectionable, but God's command, placed there so that Israel would listen to Him in the face of the extremely tempting religious practices of the land, made it punishable by death. This is part of the Problem of Evil, a situation where like the extermination of the Canaanites God has a more direct role, and isn't the point of discussion.
Instead, it's the fact that Achan and his whole family, including his children, are killed, like what every usurper did to the royal house from ancient, medieval, to modern times (Romanovs) to not allow rebellion. That this is a symbol is obvious from the fact that his loot and livestock are also destroyed. But what did the children do? Again, the issue isn't why the brutality against them, but why are they being punished for what Achan did? Even if we suppose that they most certainly knew about what their father did and possibly even helped him dig the hole from camp to camp, didn't tell anyone - it's clear that Achan is the head of the household and they didn't have much authority.
In reality it would be naive to think that Achan was the only soldier who did this, helped by his household or not. And when one remembers that many of God's commands weren't kept for centuries, including the main one of circumcision by Joshua's wilderness generation, it makes the Achan situation that much more curious. It's obvious that he was meant to be an example at a time when God wanted to establish his power so the Israelites don't deviate. Like George Washington who dealt with a mutiny in his army by rounding up the 8 ringleaders and only executing the main one to set an example but have mercy at the same time. In that sense, the issue is not one of fairness in terms of justice, but only God's mercy/love - i.e. the Problem of Evil.
This is true of the other cases of collective punishment. The plague in 2 Samuel 24 is because of David, who pleads to God on those grounds (v.17). It's clear that these are messages which God chooses to do in a way that is brutal to reflect all men's sins. Otherwise He could have easily created the Israelites miraculously with minds that wouldn't be so easily deviated by the foreign religions.
The Man of God and the lion (1 Kings 13)
Here we have a very interesting situation. An unrighteous king (Jeroboam I of Israel) is reproved by a prophet. The prophet is then killed by a lion on his way back?!? It's not so much the strangeness of this reversal where you would think the prophet of God wouldn't have such an end, but how and why it happens. He's expressly told by God to not eat or drink in Israel and not go back to Judah the same way. An older, northern Israelite prophet who seems to have been impressed invites him to dine with him. The prophet refuses for the reason above, but the Israelite insists, telling him that an angel had said it was ok that he deviate. Having been told he was also a prophet, he accepts. The old prophet rebukes him with a death sentence and on his way back he's killed by a lion...because of what the older prophet did...who then rebuked him for it...
If you ask me it should've been the other guy who gets it not just because he's the main and only reason for it, but because he had the nerve to invite him, disrespect him at the meal, condemn him, all while having lied to him! At least he had the decency to go back and retrieve the body and bury it in a tomb. The statement, "your body will not be buried in the tomb of your ancestors," actually carries a threat that goes beyond physical demise. The ancient Near Eastern purview had the afterlife where a man's sons buried him in his household tomb so that he could be carried to the netherworld in peace. Abraham had similar concerns (Gen. 15:3), and Jacob wanted to be buried in Canaan in the family tomb (Gen. 49:29-32). In effect, as far as the Judahite prophet knew, he was denied paradise. We know that this isn't the case, so this objection to fairness can be removed - only the peace of mind of the man for that day, adding to his stress.
But we can't know what reasons God had for allowing this (Matt. 7:21-23). Perhaps it's as simple as needing a continuously stubborn refusal (2 Ki 5:16). Certainly he seems to have been swayed a little easily just because the other man claimed he was a prophet and that an angel said it was ok. Balaam angers God for reasons we're not told, despite seemingly following the instructions given him (Num. 22:20ff.). David's census angers God (2 Sam. 24:1), whereas He personally orders not one but two in Moses' day (Num. 1:2; 26:2), and prescribed instructions for taking one (Exodus 30:12). So we simply aren't given all the details (compare the afternote in Jonah 1:10b).
Uzzah (2 Samuel 6)
Uzzah is killed on the spot for helping prop the Ark from falling off the ox on its hilly journey. Probably a reflex, he's killed for not wanting the big, important, antequated even by David's day object fall to the ground and possibly split into a million pieces, while helping David carry it to an important position on the top where Solomon would one day build the Temple. Real nice.
Once again, although the immediate reason might seem unjust, we cannot know why God ultimately made the Jerusalem hill as steep, made the ox as small, made the Ark tilt, made Uzzah be near it. The immediate cause for Judas' death was his regret that he betrayed Jesus, whom he considered a good man (Matt. 27:4-5), but probably betrayed because he envision the Messiah to liberate Israel from the Romans, like the rest of the Jews (John 6:15, 60-66). but we know that his betrayal was calculated over enough time to not be a spur of the moment, and that he was a thief (John 12:6).
Ark slaughter (1 Samuel 5-6)
Again, the issue isn't why the Israelites die from the Ark (that's the Problem of Evil and collective punishment discussed above). Why do the Philistines mainly only get sick while the Israelites immediately die from looking into the Ark? The Philistines even put the Ark in their pagan temple, and listen to their diviners as to how to end the plague (esp. see 1 Sam. 6:5 - "...perhaps He will stop oppressing you, your gods, and your land" !). The suggestion that the Philistines used captured Israelite Levites has some merit, but it still strikes one as if God is soft on the Philistines, because the first thing when the Ark returns is...to kill 70 Israelites for looking inside (1 Sam. 6:19); way to ruin the parade!
This isn't unfairness, but mercy shown upon pagans. God accepts their genuine repentance in light of what they knew, disregarding their pagan ideas (Acts 14:16; 17:22ff.). This is why Elisha accepts Naaman's request that he be allowed to help his master bow in the temple of Rimmon by him leaning on Naaman's hand (2 Ki 5:18-19).
Various Legal Prescriptions
[Leviticus 20:14] - A man marries a woman and then her mother. All three are burned. Presumably the first wife is innocent, so why she's also thrown in becomes a question. But the intent is that she probably agreed with it, and these crimes were judged on a case by case basis.
Fairness is hard to understand, let alone prove when one is the object of the sentence (Heb. 12:7-11; Prov. 13:24). When trying to see the true nature of works, of which this world is only a shadow and reflection (1 Cor. 13:3, 8-13; Rom. 7:13b), it's easy to see why Job was simply referred to God's personal resume of past accomplishments (Job 41). Let's heed the warnings to do what's good instead of trying to outsmart the game or rewrite the rules, "for our God is a consuming fire."