Last time, I quoted several passages where God Himself declares, “I will punish”. Parenthetically, it should be said that everyone would agree that there is a “punishment” that occurs as a form of discipline that any loving parent could identify with. For example, when your 13 year old is abusing the internet, a loving parent may “punish” by taking away internet privileges for a period of time, but this is not a retributive action or something done merely for the purpose of inflicting pain – it is rather for the purpose of healing.
The question we are really asking in this series of articles is whether or not God in any way, shape or form, punishes retributively. Does sin itself need to be punished or does sin carry an inherent punishment? Next time I will review multiple Old Testament stories in which God dramatically intervened and we will ask the question of each story, “Is God doing this to punish sin?” What are the motives for God’s actions in stories like the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah?
For this article I would like to establish that on multiple occasions in the Bible God is described as actively doing, what He instead allows to take place. This point is very significant and helps us to explain many difficult issues in regards to God’s involvement in human history. For example, what do you think of these words? “The LORD was angry at Israel again, and he made David think it would be a good idea to count the people in Israel and Judah.” (2 Samuel 24:1) Is that true? Does God tempt to evil? It is fascinating to read another telling of the same story, written much later, in 1 Chronicles: “Satan wanted to bring trouble on the people of Israel, so he made David decide to take a census.” (1 Chronicles 21:1) Which of these descriptions is closer to the reality?
And, David described the possible ways that Saul might die with these words: “By the living LORD,’ David continued, ‘I know that the LORD himself will kill Saul, either when his time comes to die a natural death or when he dies in battle.’” (1 Samuel 26:10) As David considered the demise of Saul he concluded that God would kill him, either through natural death or at the hands of his enemies. That way of expressing things seems foreign to our ears, but yet as we read on about how Saul committed suicide the story concludes with the words, “So the LORD killed him…” (1 Chronicles 10:14)
The point to be made with regards to Saul is that since everyone agrees that God is all-powerful, it is not seen as inconsistent in the minds of the Bible writers to describe God as doing something that he merely allows to occur. For example, God could have preserved the life of Saul despite his stubborn refusal to listen. He could have made him successful in the battlefield, but God allowed Saul the freedom to go his own way, and so (in a sense) God did it. He allowed it. He did not use His power to protect Saul and thus, “God slew Saul.”
Surprisingly, however, God Himself speaks in this way at times. Even within the 10 commandments, where we might assume that there would be nothing that is even slightly misleading, God says this: “I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 20:5) Is this true? If you had something bad happen to you this week was it God punishing you for something your great grandfather did? Do we have on record a single example of God arbitrarily punishing someone, not for what they did, but because of the sins of their parents? No. The entire passage of Ezekiel chapter 18 tells us that God does not actively punish the children for the sins of the parents. Here is just one small portion of this:
“A son is not to suffer because of his father’s sins, nor a father because of the sins of his son. Good people will be rewarded for doing good, and evil people will suffer for the evil they do.” (Ezekiel 18:20)
The passage goes on to very clearly tell us who does the punishing for sin:
“Turn away from all the evil you are doing, and don’t let your sin destroy you.” (Ezekiel 18:30)
What we see then in the warning within the 10 commandments of God punishing to the 4th generation is describing a natural consequence, not an active punishment from God. We can now prove this scientifically. For example, there are natural devastating consequences down for many generations to the children of an alcoholic who comes home and beats his children every night.
Many times in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel God warned that He would actively burn down the city of Jerusalem. “I will kindle the fire myself.” There are many similar fierce and threatening words, but what actually happened? The Babylonians burned down the city, not God!
Why does God talk this way sometimes? A loving parent will shout and even threaten to get the attention of their child as they are about to step on a rattlesnake. Likewise, God was about to lose his children to captivity and so, out of His great love, He stooped to use hard words to reach His very hardened and rebellious children. But God clearly does not like to talk this way:
“The people of Israel are as stubborn as mules. How can I feed them like lambs in a meadow.” (Hosea 4:16)
Let’s list a few more examples of God being described as doing something that He instead allows to occur.
Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? The Bible describes it both ways, that God hardened it, and that Pharaoh hardened it. Which is true? Did Pharaoh have no choice in the matter? I think that the answer ties in perfectly with God allowing this to occur rather than actively hardening Pharaoh’s heart. I think that God would have been delighted if Pharaoh had repented and joined the children of Israel as they left Egypt (that would make for quite a different story wouldn’t it!)
And what about these sad words of Jesus at the very end of His ministry, which were a quotation from the book of Isaiah: “God has blinded their eyes and closed their minds, so that their eyes would not see, and their minds would not understand, and they would not turn to me, says God, for me to heal them.” (John 12:40) Was Jesus’ earthly ministry less successful because the Father closed ears and blinded eyes? This interpretation would make no sense. God came in human form to open eyes and ears, not to close them. God does not manipulate His children in this way. We are the ones who have closed our hearts and minds – the fault never lies with God.
As yet another example, in the book of Job we know from reading the entire book that it was Satan who killed Job’s family and inflicted him with pain. But yet it was assumed that God did it as his servant interpreted the events to Job using these words, “The fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” (Job 1:16 – NIV) Did God really send the fire? No! It was Satan who brought destruction on Job, but yet we know from reading Job chapter 1 that God allowed Satan this opportunity.
As a final test case of this principle, consider the very rebellious story in the book of Numbers where the people once again left God’s side and desired to return to Egypt. What did God do? Here is the description:
“Then the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many Israelites were bitten and died.” (Numbers 21:5)
How are we to interpret God’s involvement in sending the snakes? Based on the examples listed above where God is described as doing that which he allowed to occur, and primarily based upon what was revealed about God through the life and death of God in human form, I believe that it is most reasonable to conclude that the serious rebellion of the children of Israel cut themselves off from God’s protecting hand. God had miraculously protected and provided for them in their journey through the desert. Their shoes did not wear out and they were miraculously provided with food, water and protection from the dangerous environment. But when they chose to separate themselves from God, He respected their freewill choice to leave His side. To give them the freedom they desired and to suffer the natural consequences was the only loving thing for God to do. God’s only other choice was to become a puppet master. I love this interpretation!
“Every day of their travels they had been kept by a miracle of divine mercy. In all the way of God’s leading they had found water to refresh the thirsty, bread from heaven to satisfy their hunger, and peace and safety under the shadowy cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Angels had ministered to them as they climbed the rocky heights or threaded the rugged paths of the wilderness. Notwithstanding the hardships they had endured, there was not a feeble one in all their ranks. Their feet had not swollen in their long journeys, neither had their clothes grown old. God had subdued before them the fierce beasts of prey and the venomous reptiles of the forest and the desert. If with all these tokens of His love the people still continued to complain, the Lord would withdraw His protection until they should be led to appreciate His merciful care, and return to Him with repentance and humiliation.
Because they had been shielded by divine power they had not realized the countless dangers by which they were continually surrounded. In their ingratitude and unbelief they had anticipated death, and now the Lord permitted death to come upon them. The poisonous serpents that infested the wilderness were called fiery serpents, on account of the terrible effects produced by their sting, it causing violent inflammation and speedy death. As the protecting hand of God was removed from Israel, great numbers of the people were attacked by these venomous creatures.” (Patriarchs and Prophets, 428,429)
Does not all of this trigger thoughts within us about stories such as the last plagues described in Revelation? On the surface, it could appear that God actively sends them out upon the earth. But are we now prepared to understand this by using the totality of scripture?
“I was shown that the judgments of God would not come directly out from the Lord upon them, but in this way: They place themselves beyond His protection. He warns, corrects, reproves, and points out the only path of safety; then if those who have been the objects of His special care will follow their own course independent of the Spirit of God, after repeated warnings, if they choose their own way, then He does not commission His angels to prevent Satan’s decided attacks upon them. It is Satan’s power that is at work at sea and on land, bringing calamity and distress, and sweeping off multitudes to make sure of his prey. And storm and tempest both by sea and land will be, for Satan has come down in great wrath. He is at work. He knows his time is short and, if he is not restrained, we shall see more terrible manifestations of his power than we have ever dreamed of.” (14MR 3.1)
While insurance policies may still choose to use the wording that they will cover everything except “acts of God”, we as God’s people need to stop blaming God for the devastation and disaster in the world! It would appear that we have much rethinking to do about who God is. Now is the time in human history for all of God’s friends to become 100% solidified on the belief that God is love personified, and that the devastation that we have witnessed throughout earth’s sad history has been a result of our own rebellious disconnection from God and because there is a powerful and subtle enemy at work. God is the only One who is not to blame!