Friday, June 27, 2003

The Unexpected Hanging

What follows is my adaptation of a tale that I read from Martin Gardner's book The Unexpected Hanging (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1969) p. 11-23.

The point of the following story is logic, language, and their limitations. You could, of course, bring in all kinds of extraneous information into the story, to escape the logic part, but that is cheating. The story is a fabrication to highlight  a problem, so the rules are that you have to take the story elements as they are and deal with the contradiction.

The Sentence

There was a man who had committed a serious murder. He was convicted, in spite of a high priced lawyer, and came before the judge for sentencing. Now the judge was known to be a man of his word. And when the convict came before him, the judge decided that he not only needed to pay the final cost, but that he should sweat over it.

"You are hereby sentenced to death by hanging. You will be hung on one of the next seven days and on a day that you do not expect."

The sentence was given on a Saturday and the possible days for the execution were, therefore, Sunday through the following Saturday.

The man returned to his cell in dismay. But his lawyer followed him with a big smile on his face.

"What are you smiling about?", asked the convict.

"Relax, kid.", said the lawyer, "The judge cannot possibly hang you."

"Why not?"

"Because, ", the lawyer continued, "If you are alive Friday afternoon, you know the hanging has to be on Saturday. You would be expecting the hangman the next day, which violates the conditions of the sentence that it be on a day that you do not expect. You cannot be hung on Saturday."


"So let's say that you are alive on Thursday afternoon. The judge cannot send the executioner to you on Saturday, so he has to send him on Friday. It is again, an expected event."

"Come on!"

"So Saturday is ruled out, and Friday is ruled out. Let's say that you are alive on Wednesday."

"I see! The judge would have to hand me on Thursday, because Saturday and Friday are not legal days according to the sentence. So Thursday is ruled out."

"Yes, and so are Wednesday, Tuesday, Monday, ..."

"And tomorrow. Thanks counselor. I am not a condemned man after all"

Of course, the story becomes more than an academic exercise from the fact that the following Saturday, the hangman arrived, and the convict, expecting to be a free man, did not expect him to come. The judge was true to his word.


For those of you who are offended at using capital punishment as the basis of a story, I point you to this earlier post and suggest that you get over it for the sake of civilization--and the post is not a defense of capital punishment.

Logic and language failed the criminal. The very day that was easiest to refute as a possible day for a hanging became the very unexpected day, as could any of them. In the original telling, in Martin Gardner's book, the man was executed on Wednesday. But it occurred, some time later, that the logic exercise, in fact, made Saturday a possible day. Proving that Saturday was an "expected" day made it  an "unexpected day."

It is helpful to remember how easily logic and language can fail. Centuries ago, Zeno proved that motion did not exist. He, of course, did not do this to really show that motion did not exist: after all he was moved his pen while writing that it could not be moved.

The universe has a double-edged reality to it that has caused Christians a great deal of mental pain. On the one side of the reality is God's real sovereignty, as plainly stated in these verses:

What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth." So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. (Romans 9:14-18, NASB)

Read Romans 9 through 11 and note the number of times Paul refers to God's choice. The above segment, from this broader section in Romans, is one that Paul knows will trigger screams of protest in his readers. Consequently, he immediately addresses that reaction:

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? (Romans 9:19-20)

Note the full paradox in these words of Paul, "Who are you who answers back to God?" In these words Paul moves the reader away from pre-determinism to free moral choice!! He says, in effect, "Here is a truth, how are you going to respond to it?" Even now, as I write this, you should recognize implicitly the double-edged truth here, because you are in the throes of making such a moral choice.

Let me say it another way, Paul writes, "He hardens whom He desires." That truth can initiate a hardening of the reader's heart, "Why does He still find fault?" and Paul then commands, "So don't harden your heart."

Logic and language fail. God's sovereignty and man's choice are both true and find their resolution in eternity. Each truth has its place in our lives. The world needs to hear the gospel and people need to choose and accept Jesus as their savior. Once they have done so, they have been chosen from before the foundation of the world. On the other hand, when life is crashing down around our ears and life is not making sense, the only comfort that is possible is that God is in control of the situation. That is the lesson, in part, of the book of Job. God takes credit for destroying the good things in Job's life and watches as Job, with His help, moves to choose and accept God's sovereignty.

These are truths to live by. They are truths to hang us up.


There will be no posts Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week. For those of you are regular, I would suggest visiting some past topics. Here are some recommendations:

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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