Friday, April 11, 2014

Why we shouldn’t Reject a Judgmental and Punitive God

Many people reject the Bible because they find the idea of a judgmental, punitive, and holy God highly distasteful. Here are many of their arguments and possible responses:

“Most people are good and don’t deserve punishment!”

The Prophet Jeremiah thought this way, but God would not allow his mis-assessments to go unchallenged. 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 even 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.

Meanwhile, the Bible’s assessment of humanity is consistently negative (Rom. 1:18-32; 3:10-18). Jesus put it this way:

  • “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.

“God will not judge the people he has created. Therefore, we shouldn’t.”

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).

Not only must we judge, but God also has judged and will judge. Peter argued that if God judged in the past, He will also judge in the future:

  •  For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell,[a] putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless… if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. (2 Peter 2:4-9)

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. Perhaps, we are just too anthropocentric.

“If we are compassionate people, we will love and 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).

Besides, if we love the church and society, we will try to restrain evil. A teacher who does not discipline her class is a teacher who does not love.

“We don’t really warrant punishment because sin is not real. It’s just something humanity invented to maintain order.”

This is a view that is popular in the secular West, where life has been relatively comfortable and safe. 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, in our heart, we know that there are some things that violate objective moral law. We know that it is wrong to torture babies and sex-traffic girls. However, the Western university has co-opted our thinking to believe that morals are human inventions, just relative to culture and human impulses.

However, the Bible is unequivocal that moral law is universal and immutable and that punishment for violating them is just. We find that even the New Testament saints justly demanded 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)

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 God didn’t violate any law, then it can’t be wrong.

“Even if a higher moral law does exist, we still don’t deserve punishment because we are ignorant of it.”

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.

“We are merely sophisticated bio-chemical machines and therefore lack freewill. Because we are totally governed by bio-chemical reactions and lack freewill, we could not have done otherwise. Consequently, we are not deserving of punishment.”

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.

Surely, 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.

“If God is omnipotent, he certainly could have changed us or made us more obedient so that we wouldn’t be deserving of judgment.”

This statement reflects a misunderstanding of omnipotence. While God can do anything He wants to do, it doesn’t mean He can do it in any manner. He is constrained by several factors. He cannot sin, violate His nature, His plan, or perhaps even logic. While the Bible asserts that the Canaanites got what they fully deserved, and that God had been fully just, we do not know if any further divine forbearance would have violated other divine considerations.

“A loving and omnipotent God could have made a better world, one where severe punishment would have been unnecessary.”

To make such magisterial judgments about the universe requires supreme wisdom. Job had made such a judgment about God’s justice. However, God eventually showed him that he lacked the wisdom to even begin to make such judgments. Job reacted appropriately and repented in dust and ashes (Job 40, 42).

We cannot answer every question comprehensively. Does this mean that we should abandon the biblical revelation? Certainly not! Science cannot answer any one question comprehensively. It cannot even comprehensively define the basics like, “What is light? Matter? Time? Space? Do we then reject science? No! Instead, we value the limited wisdom that science has given us. I would suggest that we approach the character of God in the same manner.

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