Friday, April 11, 2014

Why we Feel Uncomfortable with the Hebrew Prophets and the Judgments of God

I think that there are many reasons for this. For one thing, even the Hebrew Prophets felt uncomfortable with the judgments of God. His denunciations of the Israelites seemed too extreme. The Prophet Jeremiah thought this way, but God would not allow his misapprehensions to remain. He therefore presented Jeremiah with several teachable moments:

  •  "Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city” (Jeremiah 5:1-2).

Jeremiah was convinced that God’s assessment of Israel was way off. He was convinced that there were many righteous people in Jerusalem:

  •  I thought, "These are only the poor; they are foolish, for they do not know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God. So I will go to the leaders and speak to them; surely they know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God" (Jeremiah 5:4-5).

However, God provided Jeremiah with some compelling object lessons. Jeremiah found that not only were the elites corrupt to the core, but even his own family had been plotting against him. As a result of these lessons, Jeremiah swung to the opposite extreme and prayed God’s judgment against them all. It’s interesting how our problems with God change as our perception of man changes.

We tend to think that our own kind are good and worthy people. However, God corrected the Prophet Samuel because his opinions were merely based upon superficial observation and our human prejudices. Perhaps we think too much of our own judgments to properly esteem God’s.

What if instead, the Bible has the right assessment of humanity, and that our “worthiness” is just a matter show, of filthy rags, and self-deception:

  • All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord. (Proverbs 16:2; 21:2)

Jesus reaffirmed this dismal assessment in many ways:

  •   “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light [truth] because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:19-20)

If this is so, perhaps there is justice in God’s judgments, even in His harsh judgments of the Canaanite nations.

We Christians also seem to be afflicted with a diminished understanding of morality and our culpability. This can take many forms. For one thing we tend to think that there is something illegitimate about judging and punishment. Often, we think of Jesus’ words, “Judge not that ye not be judged” (Mat. 7:1). However, if we read further, we find that this this isn’t an absolute prohibition against judging but rather judging hypocritically, when we do the same kinds of things without confessing them. In fact, there are many biblical commands to judge (James 5:19-20; Gal. 6:1; Mat. 18:15-19) and critiques of churches that have failed to judge (Rev. 2:14, 20).

Perhaps our problems with God reflect our narrow perspective. Just to illustrate, if we were to ask a cow about God’s judgment of the Canaanites, the cow would undoubtedly wholeheartedly agree with their destruction. This would also pertain to the young children the Canaanites sacrificed to their gods.

We have also been influenced to think that loving is a matter of indulging rather than punishing. Consequently, we think that if we are compassionate people, we will not judge. However, if we love, we will discipline. We will demand that our 3-year-old holds our hand when crossing the street. If she violates this rule, we wisely punish. Besides, the Bible repeatedly teaches that if God loves us, He will discipline us for our own good (Heb. 12:5-11).

Along with this, we fail to appreciate the fact that sin objectively requires punishment. This is often because few of us have had a family member or members who had been brutally murdered. We marvel that these families cannot move on until justice is done. Instead, we myopically tend to regard them as vengeful. However, while the Bible teaches a lot about forgiveness, this doesn’t take away the necessity for judgment.

Our concept of justice is easily perverted by our culture and experience. Consequently, we Westerners deem God as less than loving if He resorts to some form of eternal punishment. However, all of this changes once we become the victims.

We are understandably horrified by the magnitude of the destruction of the Canaanite peoples. This is because we not only fail to appreciate the profundity of their sin but also the fact that God is righteous and must act in accordance with His righteousness.

Of course, some will protest:

  • If God is truly all-powerful, He would find some way to forgive the Canaanites and even change them.

However, this challenge reflects a misunderstanding of God’s omnipotence. Although, He can do anything that He wants to do, it does not follow that He can do it in any way. For one thing, He must act in accordance with His just and holy nature. God’s graciousness should never be thought of as another entitlement program. Instead, by its very nature, grace is given freely and not by any requirement of justice. While justice must be indiscriminate, grace, by nature, discriminates according to God’s will. Why then wasn’t God gracious to the Canaanites? For one thing, they never repented of their sins! Could God have changed their heart so that He could be gracious to them? We don’t know, but we certainly can’t accuse God of injustice. Did not they get what they deserved?

How do we understand such a righteous and just Nature? Is understanding even possible on this level? While the Bible tells us a lot about God’s character, it doesn’t tell us anything about why He is this way or why these attributes are essential.

Perhaps the only way that we can precede any further with the question of God’s holiness and righteousness is to examine how these traits operate on a human level. We find that even the New Testament saints demand justice and punishment:

  • They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer. (Rev. 6:10-11)

Perhaps there is something pure and righteousness about deserved punishment. There is something deeply satisfying when justice is done, even when we see it accomplished in a movie. Conversely, there is something deeply unsatisfying when the evil-doer gets away with murder.

When Israel observed God’s justice exercised upon the Egyptian chariots in the midst of the Red Sea, they celebrated:

  • Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? You stretch out your right hand, and the earth swallows your enemies. (Exod. 15:11-12)

Israel was in a more favorable place to appreciate the judgment of God. They had been enslaved for hundreds of years by the Egyptians. Why don’t we appreciate what they had appreciated? Perhaps our experience is too limited. Perhaps we have been unduly influenced by Western culture so that we have little taste for righteousness and punishment.

Nevertheless, most secularists recognize the need for social control and justice, if only pragmatically, because these things are necessary for society. However, if God never punishes, and if He represents the ultimate example of justice, then we should model our lives after Him and never punish. However, since God is punitive, we have a rationale for punishing. Prisons and even capital punishment then are not only necessary for the well-being of the majority or the powerful, they are also just and deserved. Without this worldview, punishment is no more than the tyranny of the majority or the powerful – breeding grounds for cynicism and resentment.

Nevertheless, the destruction of the Canaanites remains barbaric in the eyes of many. Perhaps this is because we no longer have much of a taste for objective, immutable moral absolutes or laws. Perhaps we are unable to fathom that certain people deserve death. We have no qualms about the law of gravity plunging someone to his death, after having foolishly jumped from a building. However, we cannot conceive of a moral law exercising that type of sovereignty. Perhaps this just reflects our cultural myopia.  

While capital punishment is now often regarded as unconstitutional, former generations had no problem with it. Why not? Perhaps our problem with the Canaanite destruction is something culturally conditioned rather than a product of logic or of a higher sense of justice.

Indeed, we have become morally relativistic, denying any form of intrinsic moral law. In a world where there are no absolute moral laws or truths, there will necessarily be a diminished appreciation of justice and punishment. If no one is breaking an absolute moral law, then no one truly deserves punishment. Justice and righteousness become no more than pragmatic tools to maintain the kind of society that suites the majority or the powerful.

Interestingly, if morality is simply something that we humans made up and is therefore relative to our culture, then we have no objective basis to take issue with any form of injustice. We might not like it, but injustice doesn’t violate any law or objective truth if none exists.

How then can we claim that God is barbaric because He had ordered the Canaanite destruction? If it didn’t violate any law, then it can’t be wrong.

Along with this change in worldview, there is also the question of whether others really know right from wrong. If people really don’t know moral truth, then it would seem that ignorance is a perfect excuse. Even the Bible affirms that ignorance is an excuse:

  • Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (John 9:41; 15:22, 24)

However, the Bible is even more affirmative that we aren’t ignorant, and that we are wired for God’s truths (Rom. 1:18-32; 2:14-15). Therefore, we can’t plead ignorance and our guilt remains.

But what if we don’t have freewill, as many allege? Some claim that we are merely pre-programmed bio-chemical machines that act the way we do because of bio-chemical reactions. In other words, we cannot do other than what we have done. And so if we cannot act otherwise, how then how can we be morally culpable?

One atheist friend admitted that he denies freewill because his guilt was simply too difficult to endure without this denial. Of course, he also acknowledged that we do not have a right to punish anyone. According to him, we still need to have police, but they are no more than a necessary evil.

However, if the Canaanites could not have acted otherwise, then God is unjust for punishing them. However, the Bible uniformly holds us accountable for our sins. Nowhere do we find a verse suggesting that we are not responsible (James 1:13-15; Rom. 2:2). Consequently, God has every right to judge us when we sin.

If I doubt my very evident perceptions/intuitions that I make freewill choices and that I bear guilt for them, I must also doubt everything that I think and feel. (We can easily distinguish between our freewill actions and those, like breathing, that overrule freewill choices.) However, if I do this, then I can no longer live coherently and sanely. Consequently, those who deny freewill cannot live in a consistent manner. The denial of freewill is contradicted by almost every word that pours forth from our mouths.

Rereading this paper, I fear that I have accomplished little towards justifying either the Hebrew Prophets or their God. It is not because their pronunciations violate reason but rather our own deeply enculturated sentiments.

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