***DISCLAIMER***The following is far from an exhaustive post. Instead, it makes a best effort to answer the question.
Recently, someone asked me how he/she would respond to the notion that God is unjust because people like Jeffrey Dahmer or Joseph Stalin could repent from their sins and receive Christ despite all the atrocities they committed. What follows is the person’s question followed by my response. The lone commentary I offer in the “question” section is bolded in parenthesis.
How do I respond to the notion that God is unjust in that a Jeffrey Dahmer or even Joseph Stalin could have turned from sin and accepted Christ following all they’d done? In fact, allegedly one of them did (I was not able to confirm this; all I know is that both are deceased).
One would respond to the aforementioned notion with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Furthermore, one must understand that repentance and faith represent the key ingredients in a born-again believer (Matthew 3:1-4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:1-9; Romans 10:1-21). Finally, this repentance is a free gift that is received (2 Timothy 2:25; see also Romans 6:23).
This Good News is not unjust as much as it is merciful. Matthew 20:1-16 has perhaps the best Scriptural rebuttal for the notion of God’s allegedly being unjust. Moreover, it refutes the sin of self-righteousness:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’9 When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius.10 When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ 13 But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last.”
In this passage, Jesus is speaking. He is giving the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. This parable only occurs in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus explains how the “kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (v. 1). The landowner agrees with the laborers for a denarius (the usual daily wage) for the day (v. 2). After going out about the third, sixth and ninth hours, the landowner goes out at about the eleventh hour and finds some people standing around (vv. 3-6). After finding out why they’re standing idle, the landowner sends those standing idle into the vineyard (vv. 6-7). At evening-time, the landowner pays both the latecomers and the early-comers the same wage (vv. 8-10). Those who came early, thinking they would receive more than the latecomers, grumbled at the landowner upon receiving their wages (vv. 10-12). The landowner responded to the grumbling laborers, explaining he was doing no wrong as he was doing what he wished with what was his own (vv. 13-16).
Salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone (Acts 4:12; Isaiah 43:11; Hosea 13:4). Moreover, Jesus does not wish for any to perish; He wants all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Even the thief on the cross, just before his dying breath, repented and he was told he would be with Jesus in paradise (Luke 23:33-49). One could say that he would be a good example of one of the laborers that did not start his work as early as those who started early. As the latecomers received the same wage as those who showed up early, so those who repent of their sins and believe by faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation will receive the same eternal life as those who repented long before the latecomers did.
One should understand that if one really wanted what was fair from God, that person would receive hell for eternity. After all, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). God, a holy and just God, must punish sin (Exodus 34:7; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8). Thankfully, God, in His mercy, sent His Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross and rise from the dead to pay the penalty for our sins and purchase a place in heaven for us (John 1:1, 14; Isaiah 53:6; 1 Timothy 1:15; John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Romans 5:8; Acts 4:12). When a sinner (be it a Joseph Stalin, a Jeffrey Dahmer, or whomever) repents, it is good news. God is certainly not unjust because of His forgiving sinners. Instead, He is merciful. We need His mercy. Without Jesus’ shed blood, there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:27).