I’ve been wanting to do a Q & A podcast episode for a while, and my plan was to walk through a bunch of your questions all at once. But (of course), as I was working on it, this one particular question–about the seemingly problematic God of the Old Testament–kind of arrested my attention…and in the end, fully stole my attention, because it’s such a big question. So this episode is all about that. In a moment, I’ll read the question in full, but first I want to set it up a bit…
Because so much of the OT seems strange and harsh and hard to understand, we can end up in this mode of assuming that the God of the OT is a different being entirely from the One presented in the New Testament in the person of Jesus. Sometimes you’ll even hear the gospel explained in a way which sounds like, “Jesus, the loving Son of the New Testament is saving us from God, the wrathful Father of the Old Testament by dying in our place on the cross.” The nice God saving us from the mean one. Obviously, no one puts it that starkly, but sometimes you can see that underlying pattern in the way people talk about the cross in particular.
A couple of years ago, the famous Christian author and pastor of Northpoint Church, Andy Stanley, went so far as to argue that we need to go ahead and “unhitch” Christianity from the Old Testament. And, whatever he meant by that, it created quite a stir. People were offended. Ok, I was offended. But if you actually go and read a few chapters of the OT–just turn to almost any page–you can kind of see what he means. Many of us became Christians because of our captivation with the person of Jesus. We probably read the Gospel of John, and we were sold. But compared to the man in those stories, the religion of the OT–and yes, even the God of the OT–can seem unrecognizable, even sometimes directly at odds with the person of Christ.
But the problem with that is that almost everything Jesus says and does in the pages of the New Testament is rooted in the Old. And not in a subtle way. For example, almost every ethical command Jesus gives–even the super edgy ones like, “Love your enemies”–find their roots in the Old Testament. The Gospel of John, in particular, is so overwhelmed with the millions of Old Testament references and connections in a few short pages, that it’s been hard for modern scholars to believe that it could have even been written by one man. But the same is true of almost every book in the New Testament. If you take the Old Testament foundation away, there’s almost nothing left. This is not to say the New Testament doesn’t have anything new to say. That it does, is obviously an understatement. But what it says, it says in the context of a greater story that began long before, in Genesis 1.
This discomfort with the Old Testament brings up two problems for us modern Christians, which work in a kind of vicious cycle: the first is a lack of knowledge. The second is a lack of trust. I am more concerned about the second. Does it matter that the average Young Life leader has read very little of the Old Testament and knows almost nothing about it? Yes it matters. But you don’t have to be a Hebrew scholar or an expert on the Old Testament in order to really believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But if, already believing in Jesus, you open up the Old Testament and find a problematic religion you do not recognize, and a problematic God you cannot trust, that is a bigger problem. Because he is one and the same God. But inasmuch as we cannot recognize Yahweh in the person of Jesus (and vice versa), the vicious cycle of ignorance and mistrust will continue to erode our faith, so that, in the end, not even Jesus’s words and deeds will fully resonate. We’ll be tempted to pick and choose the parts of Jesus we like, just as we’ve already done that with the rest of the Bible. Maybe pick the parts that conveniently fit with our own narrative, and unhitch ourselves from the rest. And, of course, we’re already doing that. So we have to backtrack, to dive deeper into the well (as I always say), which requires some patience–and a bit of bewilderment. But in the end, I guarantee you it’s worth it.
One final remark: the anonymous question I’m about to read is pretty visceral. I think it does a really good job of revealing the tension that a lot of people–especially young people–feel when they try to read the Old Testament. And part of the reason it captivated me is because it’s not asking just one thing. In just a few lines, it covers the problem of hell, the problem of evil, of tragedy, of religious violence, of God’s wrath, and of God’s election. Which are themes that continue to be a problem in the New Testament. And my response deals with all these things, though not exactly in a scholarly way. Countless books have been written on these subjects that go much further into exegetical detail than I do here. My response is more personal. It reveals the way that I’ve wrestled with these problems–and some of the conclusions I’ve come to, but without trying to tie it all up with a bow. Anyway, I hope it will be helpful for some of you.
The question reads like this:
What do we make of those born before Jesus who weren’t members of “God’s chosen people?”
Were all those people in the Old Testament afforded eternal hell just for being born into the wrong family and too early (that is, pre-Jesus)? If God’s desire is to bless all of His children, why did He keep killing and destroying so many people groups? If God’s plan was to “be with us,” why didn’t he want to “be with all of his children” but rather killed those who were not descendents of Abraham?
Ok, as I’ve said, there’s a lot here. So I’ll try to take it piece by piece.
Were all the people in the OT afforded eternal hell for being born outside the people of God and/or before Jesus?
I think the right place to start is to say: no one can say for sure what happens in the afterlife, mostly because it’s impossible to talk about something that we have not experienced and CANNOT comprehend. Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about it. The Bible obviously speaks of heaven and hell. But it uses different literary tools to deal with different issues, to make different kinds of truth as accessible as possible to us. So it’s important to pay attention to how the Bible speaks to different kinds of questions.
For instance: How was the world created? The precise answer is not: “In seven days.” The precise answer is, “We have no idea!” Such a deep mystery cannot be expressed in straightforward literal words. So instead we are given this beautiful poetic, anthropomorphic frame: God’s seven day work week, in which he spoke all of creation into being and breathed life into human beings. It’s just so good. In the context, it doesn’t seem exactly “literal,” but rather more than literal. It’s saying more than could be said in a literal way. A picture says a thousand words.
Now let’s take a very different example: When did the Messiah come to earth and what did he say and do? In this case, the Bible gives real historical details. Why? Because we can understand a man walking the earth, saying and doing the things Jesus said and did. He took on human form, used human language, etc. So the Gospels are a different genre than Genesis 1. They are, in the proper sense, historical. They record eye-witness accounts. Granted, there are all kinds of symbolic, poetic things going on those accounts. But the genre of those accounts is, at the very least, historical.
Now, to your question about hell: What does the Bible say about the afterlife? See, now we’re back in a world which we can’t understand. Again, that doesn’t mean the Bible doesn’t say anything about it. Far from it. Maybe some of the most important things in the Bible have to do with heaven and hell. But they aren’t exactly in the literal or historical frame. They couldn’t possibly be. Because we (humans, walking the earth) cannot precisely understand existence outside of this life anymore than we could precisely understand how God made the world. So instead we are given images. And those images are meant to give us perspective, to inform our existence in the here-and-now. In this sense, the Bible is very different than a modern science book. When I read a book to my kids about dinosaurs, it’s filled with facts. And those facts are super cool (cuz dinosaurs are super cool). But it isn’t obvious what those facts have to do with our lives now. The dinosaur book is (seemingly) full of facts for their own sake.
But the Bible isn’t like that. It’s not just giving you facts about things, like, “Hey Siri, tell me about the afterlife.” The truths of the Bible always have immediate implications in the here-and-now. In the world of the Bible, there are no neutral facts. Everything is dripping with meaning. Everything it’s telling you, it’s telling you for a deeper reason. So, the images of heaven and hell in Scripture are not primarily meant to invite our speculation about life after death. They’re meant to inform our lives, our loves, our worship, our wisdom, and our communities…right now.
Of course, whether you think all those people before Jesus are burning in hell right now can and does affect your view of God! It should. But, to be clear: the Bible has not told us that those people are burning in hell. That idea is the product of our speculation, not the Bible’s words. As C.S. Lewis points out in his Reflections on the Psalms, for much of the Old Testament, the people of God don’t speak much of an eternal afterlife at all. At one point, we even find the Psalmist saying, “Don’t let me die, because then I won’t be able to worship you!” But that’s another topic for another day…
More to the point, this question about the damnation of those before Jesus seems to assume we know the mechanism by which people go to heaven and hell. Like, if they clearly say they believe Jesus died for their sins, then they go to heaven. If not, they don’t. And, of course, no one could say that before the historic event took place. But I don’t think we should quite accept that logic. If that were the case, it would be much easier to parse “the wheat from the weeds.” But it isn’t. In fact, Jesus tells not to do that. Leave the wheat and weeds to grow together, he says. The parsing is reserved for the King, on the last day. Furthermore, Jesus says, “Not all who cry ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” This image seems to suggest that the gate is far narrower than we might think. But if we take other biblical images seriously, it seems far wider.
In my view, we should take them all seriously, while remembering that they are images. And I don’t mean just images. In fact, there’s a sense in which we should take biblical images even more seriously than mere words, as they are more complete and contextualized. Images tend to give more information than mere words. But there’s a trade-off. Because images also tend to be less precise. So, if we take the biblical images seriously, we may find that we know very little about what precisely heaven and hell are like or who precisely goes there (of course, people will always speculate about these things, but they don’t know any more than you or I know.) But the point is, as we learn to take these images seriously, what we lose in precision, we gain in depth of insight. From the Bible’s images, we get a far deeper sense of what heaven and hell mean for our lives here and now.
For example, Jesus speaks quite a bit about hell, but not exactly in the way modern preachers do. For instance, he says, if your eye or your hand is causing you to sin, you should cut it off. Better to be lame in the kingdom than have your whole body thrown into hell. What does that mean? I mean, I know it’s true (because Jesus said it!), but it doesn’t seem to fit very well with our modern evangelical formulations about salvation and damnation after you die. He’s talking about doing something right now which has to do with your eternal destiny.
Which reminds me of another interesting fact: Jesus does not speak much of heaven (as in, the “afterlife” version we often imagine). He speaks very often of “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God,” which is not exactly the same idea. We speak of people dying and “going to heaven.” He mostly spoke of a kingdom invading the here and now. So whatever “heaven” is, it’s not just something that starts when you die. Rather, it is the mustard seed which grows into the largest tree in the garden. It is the eye of the needle, through which we are being called to enter now, in this life, leaving our earthly treasures behind for a new kind of unseen treasure on the other side…if we can bring ourselves to trust the one who is inviting us.
So again, any assumption about the eternal fate of all those souls who lived before Christ is…just that. An assumption. It has not been given for us to know these things. The images we have been given are not in order to help us speculate about the exact details of the afterlife. They’re to help us live lives worthy of the God of heaven right now. I hope that makes sense.
If God’s desire is to bless all of His children, why did He keep killing and destroying so many people groups? If God’s plan was to “be with us,” why didn’t he want to “be with all of his children” but rather killed those who were not descendents of Abraham?
This is a tough one. But I think you have to start like this: God is always good. Do not imagine him, even in the Old Testament, as evil. If he does something that you take to be evil, do not ignore it. But live in the tension. And trust him there. Remind yourself that God is good, and therefore, if a certain account in Scripture tempts you to think He is evil, you must not fully understand the account. Do not ignore what you take to be evil or pretend that such an evil must be good (as some people do when they talk of God seemingly arbitrarily predestining people to hell). Rather, ask him to help you understand. Admit to him that you do not know all the different facets of goodness yet. You are still young in your faith.
Imagine you walk past someone’s house and get a glimpse of a mother punishing her child. You would probably be tempted to think she’s a bad mother. But all you’ve actually seen is something that every good mother does. In fact, only bad mothers–and bad fathers–don’t punish their kids. Punishing your kids is no fun. It would be much easier not to. But it would be bad parenting. So it is with God in the Bible. You cannot pause the movie on a single frame and say you know exactly what is happening. You have to watch the whole thing play out. When you do, deeper truths come to light.
Next…it’s worth recognizing he didn’t kill off all the other tribes. Yes, Israel was called to wipe out certain tribes, but that was more the exception than the rule. Most of the history of Israel is a history of Israel coexisting with or even being ruled by other tribes (called “the nations”), which by the way, God promised Abraham he would bless! Which brings me to the next point…
Remember that “election” in the Bible doesn’t mean that God only loves or only wants to bless “the elect.” The Bible is the story of God electing one people in order to bless all people. Why elect one people if he loves them all? That’s a great question and a deep mystery. Think of it this way: You can only ever do something general if you start somewhere specific. Jesus’s birth into the world changed the course of human history, not to mention taking away the sins of the world! But how did he do it? He committed to a very narrow calling in an obscure place, born to an obscure family, of an obscure people group. And did he then become a famous revolutionary? No, he became a carpenter like his father and a rabbi of his own people’s religion. He ministered to his people. So much so that when the poor Canaanite woman comes and asks him to help her demon-possessed daughter, he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she comes and bows down to him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And do you know what Jesus says? “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” That just doesn’t sound good. It’s tempting to think that Jesus himself was mean–and racist–for even saying such a thing. But we’re pausing the movie, casting judgment from the sidelines of one particular scene (not unlike judging the mother for punishing her child). We might be appalled by Jesus’s response, but the woman in the story was much wiser than we. She doesn’t get offended. She’s desperate, and she knows Jesus is good. So she boldly responds: “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs under the master’s table.” And, of course, Jesus affirms her faith and saves her daughter. There is so much there.
Picture the world of our experience as a series of concentric circles, much like a bullseye, with one small central circle surrounded by other circles moving out toward the margin. For almost every day of Jesus’s life, Israel and the people of Israel were in the center of his bullseye. He is unapologetic about this. And yet, does he care for the far out margins too? Of course he does! He becomes the margin. He embraces prostitutes and tax collectors, touches and heals lepers, declares peace to the poor and lame, and literally dies on the margin of the city of God in order to save outcast sinners like the one hanging next to him on the cross. And by doing all this, he fulfills the promise to Abraham, blessing not just Israel but all nations to the ends of the earth. But the pint is: he does it one small step at a time.
Jesus understood his Father’s ways. Begin small, and grow. This is the whole pattern of the Old Testament, of the election of Abraham, the promise of his descendants, which reaches its climax in Jesus, and finally bears the fruit of Gentile inclusion–that is, the salvation of all people–in the Book of Acts and beyond. In order to do anything general, you have to start somewhere specific. And it’s the same with us now. Jesus’s command to us was not “Love everyone.” It was, “Love your neighbor.” This is the problem we’re running into with ethics in the flattened world of the internet. We begun to believe that “Love everyone” is a more profound command than “Love your neighbor.” But it isn’t. Loving everyone is impossible and unsustainable. It’s something we can only do with words and signals, not with our actual lives. It’s a way of pretending to prioritize those “out there” whom we do not know, while increasingly ignoring or even hating the real people we see everyday.
But the secret of Jesus’s commandment is: if you learn to love your neighbor first, you will find that such a love stretches out to the margins. Like the Canaanite woman. It’s counterintuitive, but if you cannot love your own parents and brothers and sisters and roommates and coworkers and friends, you cannot love “the poor and the marginalized.” It’s simply not sustainable, because you will have no foundation. But if you love your neighbor, you will find two things: (1) that the poor and marginalized are already living in your midst, in your home, at your work, and everywhere in between; and (2) that the fruit of a healthy family or community is the ability to reach beyond itself, out into the true margin, and do so sustainably.
And once we understand this specific calling toward “neighbor” instead of a general call to “everyone,” it sheds light on how God’s election works in Scripture. It starts small with specific and obscure individuals and people groups, who are given very specific and obscure instructions. Over time, it unfolds into the blessing of the nations. Rather than zapping everyone with his love in a moment, God has chosen to do great things by means of very small things that grow over time. Again, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, which grows into the largest tree in the garden.
Finally, what do we make of all the (seemingly-God-ordained) violence in the Old Testament?
This is a tough one. Let’s begin (again) with the assumption that God is good. Yes, even when he seemingly demands the punitive “wiping out” of a people group….God is good. But how could that be? I want to try and address it in three parts.
- What is the context of this violence?
- Is it really just God punishing?
- What if God’s judgment is restorative?
1. What is the context?
The wiping out of the Canaanites was not just a land grab. Nor did it have to do with the particular ethnicity or race of the people living in the land of Canaan. From what we can tell, the Canaanites had developed a sustained culture of systematic rape and child sacrifice, thanks to the continual worship of demonic spirits. That is what we find in the texts. Moreover, the worship of gods like Molek, who demanded the roasting–and possibly eating–of your own children, would continue to be a temptation for many Israelites. How do you coexist with a culture like that? The answer is: you can’t. You don’t. It can’t even coexist with itself. It is already doomed for destruction.
Which brings me to the second point…
2. Is it just God doing the punishing?
What do I mean when I say the actions of the Canaanites were “doomed for destruction?” Well, I mean more than one thing at the same time…
In Scripture, there are two kinds of righteous judgment of evil: Let’s call them personal and impersonal. Personal judgment has to do with divine punishment. It’s when a person–usually God, but sometimes a judge or king–personally condemns or punishes a certain crime. Impersonal judgment, on the other hand, has to do with the more natural, “built-in” consequences of an action. In this case, it’s not God, but, you might even say, reality itself that is doling out the consequences for an evil or unwise action. Now, as we’ll see, oftentimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, but the distinction is still important. Let’s explore some examples of each.
A good example of personal judgment–that is, of God personally punishing–occurs in Jeremiah 9:
The Lord said, “…they have not obeyed me or followed my law. Instead, they have followed the stubbornness of their hearts; they have followed the Baals, as their ancestors taught them.” Therefore this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “See, I will make this people eat bitter food and drink poisoned water. I will scatter them among nations that neither they nor their ancestors have known, and I will pursue them with the sword until I have made an end of them.”
This whole passage is about exile. Because the people of God have been disobedient and worshipped idols, they will be driven from the land God gave them. This will entail all kinds of consequences. They will eat bitter food and drink poisoned water in a land that is not their own. They will be scattered. They will be pursued with the sword and wiped out. Who is doing all of this? In an earthly sense, probably the Assyrians or the Babylonians. But that’s not what the Lord says. He says, “I will scatter them. I will pursue them. I will make an end to them.” The Lord wants everyone to know that HE is the one punishing his people, not Babylon or Assyria. This is a personal judgment. He might use natural means–bitter food, poison water, or an enemy army–but God himself is pronouncing the judgment.
Now, in other places in Scripture, the pattern is reversed. This is what you might call impersonal judgement (or natural consequences).
For example, in Leviticus 18, the people of God are told, “If you defile the land [by means of sexual immorality], it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” The agent, in this case–the punisher–is not God but “the land,” which vomits the people out, as a direct consequence of their sin. Okay, you might say, but when the passage says, “The land will vomit you out,” isn’t that just a metaphor for, “God will drive you out?” Sure, in a way, it is. But it’s saying more than that. It’s saying that the people’s sexual sin is not just against God’s decrees, it’s against reality itself–against the nature of things. And nature will judge them.
Perhaps an even clearer example is in Genesis 4, after Cain kills Abel: The Lord says to Cain, “’What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you.”
Again, in this passage, it’s not exactly God who is doing the judging. Some other force, some other voice–in this case, the earth and the very blood of Abel–are crying out to God in judgment. This is not just a metaphor. After Cain murders his brother, God’s personal response is actually merciful. He gives Cain a special mark of protection, which can be recognized wherever he goes. But this act of mercy highlights a deeper problem: that when you introduce murder into the world, as Cain did, that will have its own natural and inevitable consequences. God has not chosen to smite Cain. Its Cain’s own actions which will continue to haunt him.
But Cain’s response to God is interesting. What God pronounces as the curse of the ground (impersonal judgment), Cain receives as a kind of personal punishment. Recalling the same resentment toward God that caused him to murder his brother in the first place, Cain responds, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
Cain seems to be reframing the situation so that he can blame God for the natural consequences of his own actions. Why is he afraid that he might be killed? Is it because God is punishing him? Or is it because he killed someone else. He invented murder. And now he’s exposed to it. It’s Frankenstein’s Monster. This is why he and his ancestors become the builders of cities and makers of weapons–desperately trying to cover themselves, in a world in which murder now exists.
Now, in a sense, Cain was still right. He was under the judgment of God, even if that judgment mainly played itself out as natural consequences.
And this is a common theme in Scripture. Natural and divine judgment become intertwined. Or, you might say, God’s own judgments reveal themselves to be consistent with the natural order of creation (which makes sense, because he created that order!). This is one thing that makes the stories of Yahweh in Scripture so different from the capricious gods of the Greek Pantheon, who bless or punish on a whim. Yahweh’s judgments are never arbitrary or capricious. Even if we can’t understand them fully, there is a trustworthy pattern. If we believed that God just arbitrarily punishes people (as some people seem to suggest when they speak of genocide in the Old Testament), it would be almost impossible for us to trust a God like that. And the point is: we’re not being asked to trust a God like that.
As an example, why was Adam banished from the garden? A reason is given in the text: “lest he reach out his hand and eat of the tree of life and live forever.” Now, there are two ways to interpret this verse. You could see it as God’s somewhat arbitrary punishment: “Adam has disobeyed. He doesn’t deserve eternal life, so I won’t give it to him.” Or you could see it as a natural explanation: “Now that Adam has ruptured the trust-relationship between God and man, we cannot let him eat and live forever, or else he will live forever in the hell of his own autonomy.” Of course, both of these things can be true at the same time. But when you see both together, it highlights God’s goodness and wisdom (even his mercy).
The co-mixture of divine punishment and natural consequences is even more clear in Paul’s discussion about sexual immorality and “the wrath of God” in Romans 1. Verse 27: “Men committed shameful acts with other men,” Paul says, “and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” The phrase “in themselves” denotes a natural, built-in consequence for this kind of sexual immorality. But at the same time, we’re told that this consequence is a “penalty.” So, which is it, a natural consequence or a divine punishment? Paul’s answer here seems to be: yes.
An even more famous example of this paradox occurs in the story of Pharaoh and the plagues in Exodus: Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart or did Pharaoh harden his own heart first? The answer, again, seems to be: yes.
If you read the account, it is clear that God punished Pharaoh by “hardening his heart,” because Pharaoh had already hardened his own heart repeatedly. In fact, that’s one of the main themes of the story. As you’re reading it, you’re thinking, “How many chances is Yahweh going to give this guy?” It is clearly Pharaoh’s hardness, not God’s, which invites the plagues. And yet God–to use Paul’s language in Romans 1–“gave him up to” that hardness. So in the Exodus story, both kinds of judgment–natural consequences and divine punishment–are intertwined.
This paradox is even more stark in the story of David’s sinful census-taking in 1 Chronicles 21 and 2 Samuel 24. This is the weirdest example I know. The same exact event is recorded in both books, yet the two accounts give wildly different causes behind David’s hard-hearted decision to take the census. The story in 1 Chronicles says, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census.” But, in 2 Samuel we’re told, “the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census…’” This is crazy. How could the same event be incited by both God and Satan? Either, one of the accounts is gravely mistaken, OR this is the clearest example yet of the thing we are talking about. Of the same judgment having two distinct but intertwined causes. Can God and Satan want the same thing? The answer seems to be: yes. Satan wants to incite chaos. Sometimes, we find, God wants to incite chaos too, though for different reasons. And since God is the true Lord of spirits, Satan becomes an unknowing puppet in God’s purposes. And this is not a new idea. Think about what Joseph declares to his betraying brothers in Genesis 50: “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” Or, just think of the most famous example of all time…the cross. At the very moment when Satan thought the victory was won, that was the moment in which he had lost completely.
This foreshadows our final point (which I’ll come to in a moment), which is that, in the Bible, judgment is not just a means of condemnation but of salvation. In fact, sometimes–as in the cross–the moment of condemnation is the beginning of salvation. This is how God tricks Satan, and reconciles the world to himself. It’s not just a simple act of forgiveness. It’s rather a judgment, which saves. But we’re not quite there yet…
First, I want to make sure I’m being totally clear that God’s judgments are never arbitrary but are always in alignment with creation itself, that is, with reality. Again, this doesn’t mean we can always make sense of his judgments. But it does mean they’re never arbitrary. God is always good, in all of his interactions, even the ones that don’t seem to make sense to us. Oftentimes, wisdom means the ability to see where God’s judgment is intertwined with natural consequences.
For instance, have you ever seen a person living their life with no regard for anyone else–wantonly, recklessly, selfishly–and thought, “That person has it coming to them.” I know I have. But what do we mean when we say that? Do we mean they will have to face the literal judgment of God in the end? Or do we mean something much closer to home: that a person can only live that way for so long before “life” starts pushing back? You know, trust breaks down, reputation breaks down, relationships break down, and what follows is some form of personal disaster, economic disaster, psychological disaster. We’ve all seen something like this play out with a family member, a coworker, or a friend. Let’s call it: the natural consequences of a reckless lifestyle. Or…is it the judgment of God? Once again, the answer seems to be: a little of both.
How about a historical examples:
Near the end of WWII, when Hitler committed suicide, was that the judgment of God for his atrocities? Or was it just the inevitable consequence of the most devastating nihilistic, hubristic, genocidal rampage that Europe has ever seen?
When the slave-holding American South was (very violently) defeated in the Civil War, was that the judgment of God or was it just the inevitable consequence of a cruel, oppressive, and ultimately unsustainable economy?
In all these cases, it’s worth considering how both divine punishment and natural consequences can be viewed as separate facets of the same reality. Both seem to be true.
Now, you have to be careful when you start talking this way about contemporary events. For instance, was Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans in 2005, some kind of divine punishment for the city’s famously-sexually-immoral Mardi Gras culture? Some said it was. But that is by no means obvious. Nor is it obvious that anyone can judge rightly how God is punishing someone else. In the Bible, the prophets are usually speaking God’s judgment over their own people, not someone else. As was the case in the passage I already quoted from Jeremiah, the message is usually, “God is punishing us,” not, “God is punishing them.” The point is: it’s usually dangerous to think you can tell exactly how God is judging someone else’s life, much less someone else’s community. Remember how wrong Job’s friends were in assuming that he deserved all the suffering he was experiencing. Also remember how wrong the disciples were in John 9, when they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned–this man or his parents–that he was born blind?”
But that is not to say divine punishment isn’t something we still experience in the modern era. Divine punishment is a huge theme in the Old Testament, but it also carries over into the New Testament. And again, most of the time, it is God’s own people who are being punished. This is an important point. The Bible does have moments in which God wipes out Israel’s enemies. But it is far more common to see Israel–his own people–as the main target of God’s judgment. And this is because: he disciplines those he loves. Which leads me to the final point…
3. What if God’s judgment is restorative?
It might seem weird–and somewhat disturbing–to think of God inflicting punishments now like he did in, say, Sodom and Gomorrah, but that’s probably because we can’t imagine how divine punishment could ever be a good or loving or restorative thing. We modern believers are happy to ask God to do good things for us, but we can’t imagine how judgment and punishment could ever be good. But remember, every good parent punishes her children. It’s only the bad ones who don’t. God doesn’t judge and punish simply because he’s angry or capricious. He judges because He loves.
This was a huge theme in Martin Luther King’s work, for example. When any evil practice is allowed to continue without judgment, injustice reigns over the whole community–not just the oppressed but the oppressors too. But when judgment comes, though it may be harsh, that judgment is a mercy not only to the oppressed but also (counter-intuitively!) to the oppressor. In other words, the thing that is so amazing about divine judgment against evildoing, is that it has the ability to save everyone, even the evildoers, if they will accept it. This is part of what Jesus means in John 3 when he says to Nicodemus:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed… And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.
There’s a lot going on in this passage. Usually, when we think of “the light coming into the world,” we think of salvation (as we should). But here Jesus says, “This is it the judgment: the light has come into the world.” So the light is an image of judgment. And yet, the whole passage is not about judgment; it’s about salvation. Or maybe it’s about both at the same time, for the same purpose. Listen to what he says: God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t condemnation. Those who do evil are condemned ALREADY, Jesus says, because they refuse to come to the light. But what is the light? It is God’s judgment and his salvation, at the same time. It’s easy to miss what Jesus is saying here, because it’s so counterintuitive. But here it is: Come into the light. In the light, you will be judged, and therefore saved. In Christ, God’s personal judgment actually saves us from the impersonal, eternal consequences of hiding in the darkness with all our sin. In the light, our sins will be condemned and destroyed, and we will be saved, thanks to the cross of Christ, which allows us to be separated from our sin. God’s judgment is also his mercy, because the same light which exposes us, also sets us free from the darkness and gives light to our eyes.
This is precisely how Christians believe in the salvation of evil-doers. Paul was a murderer of Christians before he converted to Christ. But where is the justice in that? Shouldn’t the families of those murdered Christians (like Stephen) have demanded judgment? Yes, of course. Again, this is what the cross means. Salvation is not the absence of judgment and justice. It is its fulfillment, not just in Christ on the cross, but in you as you pick up your cross and share with him in his death and resurrection. This may sound strange, but the Bible is clear: you will not escape judgment. Rather, thanks be to God, the light that judges is also that light that saves.
So how do we deal with St. Paul overseeing the murder of St. Stephen? One of the key themes of the Bible is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. What this means, among other things, is that the world does not divide easily into victims and oppressors. Rather, all are victims and all are oppressors (to varying degrees, of course). This is not to make light of those who have been much more severely victimized. But, as the saying goes, the line between good and evil runs straight through the human heart. So, if everyone is a victim and everyone is an oppressor, salvation has to involve judgment, and judgment has to involve salvation. Otherwise every crime will go without justice and every sin without mercy. But what Jesus says to Nicodemus is this: The judgment has come. The light has come into the world. His name is Jesus. He is the light that judges and saves, if you would but only come into the light. Otherwise you are condemned already. But if you come, both judgment and salvation will be yours.
This has implications for how we preach the gospel. Because it means that it is a misunderstanding that Jesus came simply to save us from the punishment of sin. That would not be salvation. In fact, it would be the worst kind of damnation. If that were true, we would still be stuck in our sin, yet without any indication that our sin is sin–and therefore with no hope of escape and no incentive to escape. But this is not what the Bible teaches. We have overestimated the problem of punishment and underestimated the problem of sin. The truth is that sin is the real hell. And Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He came to save us not just from the punishment of sin, but from sin itself.
This means, again, that there is no salvation without judgment. Evildoers can never be saved unless their evil deeds are judged and put to an end. If the deeds of evil-doers are allowed to continue, not only will their victims be caught in a perpetual hell of oppression, but the criminals themselves will also be caught in a perpetual hell of their own making. As Jesus said, if you stay in the dark, you are condemned already. Better to come into the light. Now, that light might seem very harsh–even deadly–to those who would rather remain in the dark. But there is no other way to be saved.
We can see analogies of this principle in the modern world. For example, the bloody defeat of Hitler’s Germany not only saved millions of people (especially Jews) throughout Europe. It also saved Germany, by casting a light on evil deeds done in the darkness. Likewise, the Civil War was the bloodiest war in American history, and yet it helped to shed light on (and to end) the broken system of slavery throughout the South. (Perhaps there could have been a better way. I’m not saying that war and violence are always justified.) But the point remains: the defeat of slavery in America, which happened in part because of a bloody war, not only restored freedom to American slaves. It also restored America–especially the American South–to the promise of its own founding principles.
So, where does this leave us, with regard to our discussion of the “wiping out” of the Canaanites? Was it God alone who wanted to punish the Canaanites? OR…was violence against the Canaanites simply the inevitable consequence of an utterly depraved culture? The answer, again, seems to be that it was both. From one perspective, it is clear that the Canaanites’ way of life invited “the judgment of God.” But it is also clear that systematic rape and child-sacrifice are unsustainable practices that lead inevitably to annihilation. Divine intervention or no, that kind of evil is unsustainable. It will destroy you as surely as it destroys everything else in its wake. Call it punishment. Call it consequences. Either way, the end is the same.
In fact, one interesting thing that we haven’t mentioned yet is that the Israelites continually failed to obey God’s command to wipe out the Canaanites. That’s part of the story the Scriptures tell. But where are the Canaanites now? They are no more. Their entire godless project was a judgment against itself. It could not stand the test of time.
In the end, it’s still very easy for us to look in the pages of the Bible and judge God’s violent deeds out of context. We weren’t there. We can’t imagine what it was like. In fact, we can hardly imagine the atrocities of Auschwitz, even though it was only a generation ago. How much more disconnected might we be with the atrocities of Canaan? When we only interpret the violence of the Old Testament as God’s personal judgment, and ignore the earthly context, of course it will seem arbitrary and unnecessary. Especially if we already distrust the God of the Old Testament. We might even fool ourselves into thinking that we are more merciful than He. But that is never true. God is good, all the time.
To be clear, I am not trying to absolve God of his punitive acts. (He certainly doesn’t need my absolution.) And I admit, there’s still a lot of mystery here. The violence he seems to demand of his people in certain parts of the Old Testament is very hard to swallow. And that’s not even to mention the story of Noah. But think again of the mother punishing her child. There’s more going on than meets the eye. What I’m saying is: sometimes goodness looks bad in a particular moment, because you can’t see the whole picture. As I’ve said a hundred times already, you have to keep watching the movie.
It’s tempting to look at the violence of the Bible (and, for that matter, the tragedies of everyday life) and say, “How could God allow such terrible things to happen? Either God is not good or he is not all-powerful.” As though the only legitimate way to use his power would be to zap sin and death and suffering out of the world immediately. But what if the world he’s created is more complex and tragic and beautiful than that? What if he made us in such a way that no zap would suffice to save? If so, then the casualties might just be inevitable. But that doesn’t mean they’re irredeemable. Think of all the great stories. Not one is without casualties. Yet they find a way to make it all seem worth it in the end–maybe even (in the very best stories) to make all the bad things come untrue. I’m not making light of the fallen Canaanites. I believe God loved every one of them. But love does not (usually) zap. Love is patient. Our story–and, I believe, even the Canaanites’ story–is still playing out. Only one Person has the ability to redeem ALL things, even the Canaanites. And I believe he is doing it. Of course, if you pause at particular moments of the movie, it might be hard to believe how that could be true. But that’s why the Bible says over and over to trust and keep trusting. Keep watching the movie. And that’s why the cross is the center of it all. Because, in this movie, not even death has the final say.