Justice, Mercy, and the Drama of Redemption

A world of automatic salvation would not be worth creating or worthy of God

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“God, who is justice and truth, does not judge by appearances.”

— Antiphon #3, Daytime Prayer, Wednesday, Week III, Roman Breviary.

“But you, God of mercy and compassion, / slow to anger, O Lord, / abounding in love and truth, / turn and take pity on me.”
— Psalm 86.

“Clemency, though she is invoked by those who deserve punishment, is respected by innocent people as well. Next, she can exist in the person of the innocent, because sometimes misfortune takes the place of crime; indeed, clemency not only succors the innocent, but often the virtuous, since in the course of time it happens that men are punished for acts that deserve pardon. Besides this, there is a large part of mankind which might return to virtue, if the hope of pardon were not denied them.”
— Seneca, “On Clemency,” I, 2.


The philosopher Plato was worried about whether or not the world was created in justice, since it did not seem to be. For in it, the innocent were often punished but many of the guilty went away untouched. While tyrants died in their beds, heroes languished in prison. Pope Benedict XVI held that the best chance of our seeing the good and necessity of the resurrection was through the logic of the virtue of justice. The actual persons who committed the crimes or who did the virtuous act had to be judged and properly punished or rewarded. Otherwise, no real and ultimate justice could take place. Without the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, the world is created in injustice.

Aquinas too asked whether the world was created in justice. He said that it was created in mercy, not justice. Machiavelli, however, held that if we were merely just, we would be destroyed by the unjust. Thus, it was necessary also to be wicked at times, lest we perish. In C. S. Lewis’ novel, Till We Have Face, the Greek philosopher is asked, “Then the world is not created in justice?” He replies, “Thank God that it is not.” Finally, one of the first and most celebrated remarks of Pope Francis was: “The truth is that I am a sinner whom the mercy of God has loved in a special way.” If there are sinners in the world, they have no hope without there also being mercy, not merely justice.

Christianity professes to be a revelation of God’s love, the full dimensions of which are incomprehensible to us because of the limited nature of our being. We are finite beings who are created good but are not gods. However, Christianity affirms that things can be figured out by human reason since we depend on them and acknowledge them as true. We can know what is true. We know it when we affirm in our minds what is actually there in reality. Through our minds, we have a real connection with what is. The truths about the inner life of God and our relation to it are beyond the power of our reason, though not contradictory to it. We can think on them when we come to know them. In thinking of them, we learn to think better than when we only think of natural and human things.

Christianity purports to be grounded in the truth, the whole truth, not just that part of truth naturally open to human reason. It acknowledges that all truth fits together in a consistent order. It conceives that the purpose of the mind is to know this order. But can a society without justice or mercy be a society of truth? Mercy and justice, the truth and the good, must belong together. Likewise, can injustices be forgiven even while we admit the truth that unjust things do happen? Does not mercy imply the denial of justice? Mercy without justice seems to undermine reality because it takes nothing as ultimately serious. Can we be merciful but unjust at the same time? Can mercy itself be a form of injustice? And the virtue of clemency, is this not the overlooking of real guilt? Does it not prevent justice from taking place?

Here, I want to say something about the relation of justice and mercy in the light of love, compassion, and truth. Not to speak accurately of these virtues can cause serious errors. Generally speaking, if we do not think rightly, we will not live rightly. This fact does not deny the experiential truth that many people, who live substantially good lives, cannot accurately explain what these virtues are. They do the right things without quite knowing why, just as other people do wrong things without knowing why. We must always keep in mind that the ability to define justice is not the same thing as being just. But still, if we do not know what justice is, it is not likely that we will consistently put it in practice with the full attention of our minds.


Let me begin with the word “clemency.” Governors of states are given the power of clemency. That is, even though a legally guilty person is fairly convicted and taken to punishment, the executive is given the authority, if he judges some truth or good is at stake, to pardon the guilty. This pardon does not mean that the guilty person was not guilty of the crime he committed. Nor does it mean that the assigned punishment was unjust. Even less does it give the authority blanket power to pardon everything no matter what as if justice were irrelevant. With clemency, both the guilt and the punishment are left in place. Still, the world is a complex, particular place. No law can cover everything presumably falling under it. For reasons that have to do with public or family order, or for concerns about the clarity of the trial or the character of the criminal, it may be prudent on the part of the one assigned to carry out the sentence to reduce his punishment or set him free altogether.

What is the difference between clemency and mercy? Clemency is a legalized version of mercy. It defines who, in specific cases, is to exercise mercy and in what conditions. When we look at mercy, however, we must begin by considering justice. God is said to be just even when He is also said to be merciful. Justice is to render what is due. Injustice is knowingly to take or receive what does not belong to us. Justice implies an order. Some actions are rightly done; others are not. We should want what is ours to be ours. What is not ours should belong to him to whom it is due. We do not want others to covet our goods, nor we theirs.

Yet, if we look at it carefully, a just world, however good, is a very cold world. In such a world, what we do for others is “owed” to them. What they do to us is “owed” to us. In being just, we are not being generous. We give to others what is theirs. While it is honorable for us to do so, still we are doing it because it is right, not because of any abundance or generosity of our own. What is not ours is not ours. A just world is one in which no one owes anything to anyone but what is due. No one can give anything to anyone. A just world is a “giftless” world.

Thus, justice is not a gift, though the world in which just things are possible may itself be a gift. A gift is the bequeathing or reception of something that is not owed to us. It is always a surprise. Aquinas says that the world is not created in justice because God does not “owe” it to anyone to create it. God is perfectly God even if He does not create. Already here we sense that something more than justice is needed if there is to be a world at all. If justice is returning what is due, can we imagine something that is real but not exactly due to us? Indeed, is our own very existence “due” to us, or is it something else, something real but not exactly owed to us?

What this something more is can only be love. God did not first create the world and then decide to love it. He did not create the world as a repayment for something that was due to someone else. His love is itself the cause of its creation. It comes out of the abundance of His being. The philosophers used to say that bonum est diffusum sui—good seeks to diffuse itself—but not of necessity. God can put into existence something that is not Himself, but that nonetheless exists and is good. But before God or anyone else could do this, He would have to choose to do it since He has no need of anything but Himself and His inner life.

We are not quite yet at mercy. Mercy implies a love in which something could go wrong. The only world in which something could knowingly go wrong would be a world in which a free creature who was not God existed. Could God in fact love a creature who sinned? What is the truth here? Luke tells us that there is more rejoicing in heaven over the one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine who have no need of repentance (Luke, 15, 7). At first sight, this story goes against justice. Are we supposed to sin so that we can repent? Is it not more just not to sin in the first place? But the point here is whether there can be anything about the lost. The lost must be returned to the fold. We do not want a world in which it is impossible for anyone to be lost.


To make this point more clearly, let me cite another incident recollected by Pope Francis from his episcopal experience, recounted in Andrea Tornielli’s book, Jorge Mario Bergoglio: Francis: Pope of a New World (Ignatius Press, 2013). It seems that the Pilgrim Statue of Our Lady of Fatima was once in Buenos Aires. Bishop Bergoglio was at Mass there during which an elderly lady went to confession to him. Evidently, the lady told him that everyone has sins but the Lord “forgives all things.” The bishop asked her “How do you know that, Madam?” She replied, as he recalled, “If the Lord did not forgive everything, the world would not exist.” This passage—If the Lord did not forgive everything, the world would not exist—is simply remarkable. What does it imply?

Initially, it implies that, if justice were virtue to be considered, God could not have created a world in which free and rational beings existed, with their own autonomy. Justice would require punishment with no clemency. But mercy and forgiveness imply that God can permit evil to take place without immediately withdrawing the sinner from existence. Why would He do this? So that the free being could repent and, once repentant, forgiven. He could then return to the fold with great rejoicing. What does this mean? It means that, beyond justice, which still prevails, there is room for a free response to the love in which the free being is initially created. To be sure, no assurance is implied that the free being will acknowledge his sins. That is why justice remains.

But the fact that sins can be repented—this after all was the principal purpose of the Incarnation—means that God can, without contradicting Himself, create a good world in which evil is possible, but not definitive. It is thus a world in which freedom and drama and risk, even for God, is really possible. What is not possible, however, is that God saves a free creature by denying him his freedom. A world of automatic salvation would not be worth creating or worthy of God. This again is why redemption is also a drama, why each human life, at bottom, is the story of his response to an offer of mercy in a world of justice. This offer is not some abstract thing, but something spelled out in the life of Christ who preached a doctrine of justice, but also of mercy and forgiveness. So the elderly Argentine woman was quite right. The world itself, as we know it, could not exist unless it was formed in mercy, just as Aquinas said.

One final point needs to be emphasized. Pope Benedict pondered these things also. With Plato, he understood that the world must, at a minimum, be created in justice. But since it was clear that in the existing world of Plato’s experience, justice was not evident, the only way to save God would be for the soul to be immortal so that some judgment of justice could be rendered after death to those who caused evil. The books of the Old and New Testaments concur in this view. But there is still a problem. It is not just the soul that commits sins; it is the whole person, body and soul. In this sense, the world would not be really just unless, in addition to an immortal soul, each person is judged in his wholeness.

Essentially, as Benedict says, this reasoning is at least one basic reason why we also have the resurrection of the body, why the doctrines of Purgatory and Hell, as well as death and Heaven, make logical sense. Such is Benedict’s teaching in Spe Salvi. Thus we have reconciled justice and mercy, truth and forgiveness, freedom and punishment, reason and revelation. The world does exist and forgiveness does exist in it. This is the truth of creation from before the foundations of the world when we each of us were first known in the divine being. The world is created in mercy, not justice—but not without justice. As a lady in Argentina rightly said, “If the Lord did not forgive everything, the world would not exist.”

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).