Does God Play Fair?

The short answer is “no!” and we should all thank God for NOT playing fair.

The long answer: There is an objection to the evangelical gospel that is posed by religious minds and by philosophers, which runs like this (in italics): It is not fair that because Adam and Eve sinned, that sinfulness should be imputed to the whole human race. Rather, it is more fair that human beings are equipped with a will that is free to choose what is good, so that virtue is rewarded and vice is punished (in this life or the next, depending on what the raiser of the objection believes about whether God exists and whether God has promised anything). Since this is more fair, it must be self-evident. Since it is self-evident, then doctrines that cut against this are false no matter where they come from, even if it is scripture. Therefore, what we can conclude about Jesus of Nazareth which agrees with what is self-evident and fair, is that he was one of a small group of heroic people whose lives are stirring examples of the virtues that make a better world: forgiveness, generosity, courage, self-sacrifice and non-violent protest.

This is an attractive philosophy on the surface. At some levels it is intuitive. But here are some reasons why I am glad that this idea of what is fair is not God’s idea of what saves the soul.

First: The rewards for virtue are not meted out fairly by the world, in the world, or for the sake of the world, within one’s lifetime. Often the wicked prosper in their wickedness, and the poor are oppressed even when they do their best to play by the rules. The headlines are all the evidence of this we need: Golden parachutes on the one hand, retirement accounts made worthless on the other. Weapons dealers live well among the elites, while average people become collateral damage to aerial bombing, artillery shelling, terrorism, or a sick person with an assault rifle.  Drug-addicted rock stars get the priority for the liver transplants, while those whose liver problems are not connected to lifestyle choices and are on Medicaid are put on the waiting list.

Many who believe in fairness have concluded that, in order for the principle of fairness to be vindicated, one must rely on something beyond what is self-evident. This moves us beyond atheist objections and into the realm of faith and religion. There are two general intuitions regarding the vindication of fairness: One intuition is “karma,”  that a soul has multiple, even countless, opportunities to live embodied in various forms through various lifetimes, either receiving rewards for past virtues, or atoning for past vices. The soul that has been tried in the flesh might hopefully, or eventually, move toward greater enlightenment and finally escape the cycle of reincarnation by melting back into the eternal, impersonal, peaceful essence of the Universal Mind. The second intuition is that the soul lives once and then faces God in judgment, and receives its rewards or punishments based on its virtues or vices. This second intuition appears to stand closer to the evangelical faith, but should not be confused with it.

Believers in these two intuitions raise the objection to evangelicals, “why does your all-powerful evangelical God allow bad things to happen to good people?” But this objection applies just as much to a God who plays fair. Obviously the world does NOT play fair. So just how powerful is your God of fairness to make fairness effective in the world? The evangelical hope is that God’s mercy will at last and for all eternity be vindicated as righteousness when, after the flesh dies, the soul meets God; the hope of the religious humanist is also that what is ultimately fair is what will be received by each person either when they meet God or when they are reincarnated.

The genius of karma and reincarnation is that the single, current lifetime does not count for much on the grand scale of lives lived and to be lived. Justice is already meted out; that is why in your next life you will come back as a mosquito and I will come back as a rich elitist. As a rich elitist, if I am interested in making the jump out of the lives-cycle, then I might voluntarily renounce all my riches and let you, the mosquito, suck away at my elbow without swatting you. More likely though I will enjoy my luxuries and crush you without a second thought. But as a rich elite, I need have no concern to reverse the conditions of the life of a poor person in a slum. After all, they are being punished for sins in past lives, and I am being rewarded for virtues from past lives. It’s only fair.

Here is the rub: What is fair to the person who has an intuition that there is one life to live is very different from what is fair to the person who has an intuition that karma is visited on those with countless lives to live among souls that have already lived countless times. Now fairness in the universe, if self-evident as a philosophical abstraction, is not at all self-evident in its function.

So on the one hand the faith of the evangelical is tested by trials and sufferings in the world, and on the other hand the virtue of the humanist is tested. The Apostle Paul will count all his worldly gains as loss for the sake of Christ, Aristotle will conclude that virtue is its own reward. All alike will speak of crosses to bear.

Now we come to the second reason why I am glad that human intuitions of Fairness are not God’s idea of what saves:

What makes for fair can lead to despair.

One of my favorite games is Monopoly. It teaches valuable lessons. It is also premised on a myth, which is, that we all start off with the same shot at life and success; everyone begins the game in the same space with the same amount of money. This is simply not true in real life. Children are brought into circumstances over which they had no control. Some are born into privilege, many are born into poverty.

More than that, children are assembled from the genetic material of their biological parents. The environment in the womb can be determinative of advantages or challenges to be faced in life, as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and “Crack Babies” attest. Nature and nurture are inextricably combined; now one child whose college-educated professional parents did everything right is attending a school that provides every kind of technological tool and learning enrichment, while the other attends a school that is perpetually under-performing against federal standards.

Yet we want to pretend to ourselves that life is fair. Or that if it is unfair elsewhere in the world, it is fair in the United States because we believe all people are “created equal.” There is indeed absolute equal dignity under the law — this is a principle that must not be abandoned — but we are closing our eyes if we tell ourselves that “created equal” has meant anything like “born into equal opportunities and privileges.”

But this is where a religious-humanist philosophy of “fairness” takes us, leading us to several common outcomes and conclusions that contribute to the despair of the soul.

1. The person of advantage who plays their hand and continues to secure advantage for oneself and one’s offspring, perpetuates the notion that life is “fair.” Somehow the trouble-makers in the bad neighborhood are getting their just desserts for their drug addictions, fornications, or whatever. To the person on the outs (especially after “three strikes”), “fairness” becomes a social barrier that saps the hope of the spirit.

2. But then there are the inspiriting stories of the over-comers who pull themselves up by their boot-straps to escape the cycles of poverty as a “self-made person.” Such a person might go on to write a book about how, if that one could do it, so can anyone. But no, bootstrap self-made success is not a true of just “anyone.” The self-made person has been networked along into success — as is true of all successful people without exception — and the “gumption” that is so highly-touted in the moral universe of fairness is as much a product of chemical reactions in the brain as it is of conscious moral choices (that is, of free will). Gumption is vital to joyful living — evangelicals appreciate gumption too — but if applied wrongly to life’s lessons, the message of gumption can provoke despair in those who do not have the same chemicals, the same networks, and the same luck.

3. Many humanists recognize the unfairness of society, and try to correct it by means of education and other programs. Generosity is a virtue after all. The advantaged person pays taxes and gets involved with different philanthropies on the adage “teach people to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” But in a universe of fairness, compassion fatigue sets in. Efforts at redemptive compassion in society are supposed to effect social change. When the change is slow or invisible, the philanthropist can become puzzled: “What is wrong with those people? Why aren’t they changing? There are all these resources at their fingertips to help them help themselves!” If fairness is the rule of the universe, those who fail at life despite being given all kinds of help, have no other hope.

4. The person with all the advantages who wastes them and slides into vice and sloth is the most hopeless of all in a universe where God is Absolutely Fair, since they are without any of the excuses that karma or a God of fairness might take into account.

The third reason I am glad that fairness does not define what saves the soul, is that humanist ideas of fairness would have God conform to human conventions of justice and moralism. God spoke to the prophet Isaiah saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.” To the prophet Ezekiel God said, “You say that my ways are unjust, but is it not your ways that are unjust?” King David, in Psalm 51, declares the promise, “A broken and contrite heart God will not despise.”

But when we want all things to be fair, we demand retribution, consequences, and just desserts of each other, and we expect these things from God. By most measures I am a conventional middle-class professional holding, in public anyway, to certain churchly standards of morality. But in private I struggle with many things, including a sweet tooth, and including a peevish impatience with trifles that often has me quietly muttering bad words, among other things. If God were fair about my sins I would have been dead a long time ago. And so would you.

I could excuse myself and say, “I’m not that bad. I haven’t killed anybody.” In the “fairness” philosophy we justify ourselves by putting vices on a hierarchy. Maybe I haven’t killed anybody, but has an unkind word I spoke, even long ago in my youth, scarred someone and held them back from being all they could be? I haven’t killed anybody, but I am typing this on a computer, and in the failed states of sub-Saharan Africa children are being pressed into militias to fight and kill each over control of mudlands which contain cobalt, one of the raw materials used for computer hardware. Throughout the world slave labor is harvesting cocoa and coffee beans — and chocolate and coffee are two of my favorite indulgences of my sweet tooth.

May God never be fair to me! Even when I strive to live morally according to the middle-class conventions of my American culture, I am stuck in the spiritual cesspool of my world, mostly unconscious of all the ways I contribute to injustice and suffering simply because I fill my car with gasoline and drive to the grocery store.

Where then is hope to be found? In a God who is merciful, whose rewards are given freely in grace.  Because the world is more often merciless, the mercy of God is not self-evident, it had to be revealed to the world. This revelation took place in the life of Jesus Christ, the cross on which he died, and the tomb which he left behind in his resurrection. This revelation has been deposited in the Christian New Testament, a compilation of ancient writers who faithfully recorded the testimony of eye-witnesses to Jesus and these events.

Because God’s mercy and grace are not self-evident but revealed, God’s mercy and grace can only be known and received by faith, that is, trust in God and in God’s revelation. This faith is as a door in my heart. Repentance unlocks the door, swings it open, and allows the Spirit of Jesus Christ to enter into me, all for the sake of his mercy.  Mercy and grace are not self-evident to the world, so believers do indeed suffer in this life, as unbelievers also suffer. Often believers suffer because of what we believe, including ridicule from those who think they would rather God be fair than God be merciful. There is another proverb of worldly wisdom that applies: Be careful what you wish for! In faith, not in wishes, the evangelical trusts that God’s mercy and grace will finally be sorted out when the soul (that lives but once) dies and encounters God.

God’s mercy and grace reaches deeper than the middle-class morality of “God is Fair” humanism can ever touch. God’s grace removes all distinctions of class and karma and vice, for “God has consigned all things to sin, that God might have mercy on everyone.” God has revealed that the rich and the poor are alike sinners, that the moralist and the depraved are alike in need of mercy. In evangelical faith, what separates the moralist from the depraved is a combination of factors beyond the reach of any soul to control. When the moralist is stripped of the achievements and benefits that accrued to their privilege, gumption, and luck, their depravity becomes more obvious. But the evangelical faith notes that moralism has its own depraved tendencies — towards hubris, gossip, factions, anger, and envy.  These sins might not be as lurid as drunkenness, carousing and fornications, but they are just as alienating of God’s presence and holiness. Sin is sin indeed, and everyone is sinful.

Praise God, who does not play fair on the sinner! Rather, God is patient, drawing us toward faith through the ways in which we are blessed as well as through the ways in which we suffer, for God is no stranger to our suffering, having in Jesus Christ suffered in the body of flesh as we do. There was nothing fair about that; it was pure mercy.

The evangelical gospel is that God in Christ dwells in one’s heart, God begins to transform the priorities of one’s life towards the priorities of God. So compassion and philanthropy and  justice are part of the witness and concern of the believing evangelical, but these ethical actions are performed as one who is trusting God’s promises, and not as one who assumes they must or can “earn” their reward.

There is nothing fair about the resurrection and eternal life. It is all grace.