During past ministry adventures, I encountered people who seriously disliked the very idea of God, but usually 99% of them hardly knew anything about Him.
In effect, they hated what they didn’t know. But today it is common to meet people who know more of Him, and what they have gotten to know, they don’t like. This particularly includes the violent judgments of God in Scripture—the flood of Noah; the conquest of Canaan, involving the slaughter of indigenous tribes and the razing of their cities; the cataclysmic judgment at Armageddon, and the most un-PC issue of all, hell itself.
When Christians hear objections to these things, they frequently go into damage control. We fancy that God needs help with His PR image, and so we set to work spinning a better version of Him than what exists in the Bible. These efforts, to put it mildly, are misguided. Our explanations to ill-affected friends can begin sounding as though there are two competing deities—the savage skull crushing God of the Old Testament, and the nice librarian God of the New, who wants to hold your hand. The problem, naturally, is there is only one God. The Yahweh of the Old Testament became a man named Jesus Christ in the New (John 1:1, 14).
Another popular way of dealing with the judgment conundrum is for us to suggest that sometime during the intertestamental period, God took a “Twix” break, where He concluded that plagues and body slams weren’t working, and that maybe He should just come down here and try to get along with us. But this will not do, because judgment becomes more clarified and focused in the New Testament. It is even worse than in the Old Testament, being no longer only physical, or temporal, but eternal, affecting the body, soul, and spirit. And Jesus speaks of hell more than all the other people in the Bible combined.
So the question is, “How can I love a God so apparently unpleasant?” My answer to this is, “Be careful you don’t judge something you don’t understand.”
My book is Isaiah and my chapter is 55.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (vv. 8-9).
God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, reminding the people that their ideas and concepts and assumptions are not the equivalent of His. This, in itself, is startling, because the natural human assumption is that if there is a God, He will be like me. He will have the same political leanings as I do, the same opinion on the death penalty, and sexual ethics, the same attitudes on social concerns of every stripe, and the same ideas as I about parental and educational philosophy.
In essence, if there is a God, He would be a 21st century westerner possessing a panoply of “correct” views. Armed with this expectation, some folks read the Bible for the first time and find the experience jarring. Their assumptions collide with reality.
The second mistake follows in short order. For, we judge the God we read about as being sub-par, not worth worshiping or following. I’ve seen Oprah Winfrey’s personal testimony several times, as she described her pivotal moment sitting in a Baptist church meeting. The sermon was about God being a jealous God (which is true). Yet she somehow managed to hear that God was jealous of her.
As though He wished He could have a television talk show, and His own magazine.
In that moment, based on the barest understanding—a misunderstanding at that—Winfrey decided she would not follow such a capricious, small God.
It doesn’t strike us as strange that we judge a Being larger than time itself, using standards we’ve we’ve learned from our current fifteen minutes on the planet. At the end of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Nietsche wrote that God was dead. Then Nietsche died and God kept on living, right into the twentieth century. Christianity saw the rise of the global south—South America, Africa, India, China—where there was such an explosion of the gospel, that it is now likely that more Christians live in these places than in all the previous history of the world. The God of that movement is not dead. As Nietsche sat at his desk, in a bubble of nineteenth century philosophical, scientific, Europeanism, God did seem dead. But it was only an illusion.
Indeed, our severely limited perspective is a problem we’re always assisting people to overcome. At the risk of facetiousness, it often looks like we’re showing them this:
Before anybody ever earned a degree in postmodern studies, God had already warned us His ways and thoughts were on a different level than ours. His are higher, and ours lower, that is, limited by our subjective filters and opinions of the current moment.
This is why it is so difficult to understand something like divine judgment. We don’t even understand the basic thing—sin—that underlies it. To the typical person sin is not a big deal as long as you don’t hurt somebody else. Otherwise, in the strictly personal dimension, it’s really just an invisible rule that you broke, a little naughtiness, but nothing more.
Yet sin really is a cosmic problem. We are born into it (Romans 5), and every day from that moment on, we make choices to develop it, and reinforce ourselves in it. Even as this is happening, we live with others through an interconnected series of relationships, affecting them according to the secret sin dynamic taking place inside of us. The sum total of acting upon others and others upon us, is a world too often dark and painful. Not to mention, the Bible reveals this world as being under a canopy of negative spiritual forces, that use the sins we commit to further their dark agenda.
In a situation so hierarchical, how does God assess fault, or determine guilt? I’ve heard people throw up their hands and ask why God doesn’t just forgive everybody. But who wants to live in a universe void of justice, where tyrants line up for a free pass, while their victims are left crying, “Foul!” And more confusing, the victims themselves have also acted out untold evils.
How, in this complicated situation, can God determine specific judgments, differentiating them from the bad things that indiscriminately happen everyday to everyone living in a fallen world? Judgement truly is high above our pay grade, another good reason why the Bible tells us not to indulge in it, because we’ll get it wrong.
Regardless, we tend to think of biblical judgments as being overboard, the way a criminal thinks of prisons as being unfair, and the person who gets a speeding ticket thinks it is too much, and a child who receives discipline believes it unloving.
A number of years ago our ministry ran a Bible study on the Case Western Reserve campus, in Cleveland, Ohio. Since it was in the student union, new students felt comfortable to join us. During one of the sessions, the theme of Jesus as the Lamb of God emerged. It so happened there was an animal rights activist in attendance who didn’t much like the theme of “the lamb that was slain” (Rev. 5:12). As soon as he had the opportunity, he let us know how barbaric was the whole idea of Old Testament animal sacrifice.
I understood where he was coming from. Needless animal cruelty, especially to gratify a perverted sense of entertainment, is flat wrong. But I could also see the student judging another time and another people with a cultural arrogance that was quite invisible to him. Not to mention he fully expected God to be on the same page as vegan philosophy. Rather than view sacrificial scriptures according to his thought and his way, he could have asked, “What is a sin?” “What is the holiness of God, and why is it so important?” “Why blood to solve those issues?” It would have become for him a more productive conversation, even if he ended up still not agreeing. Unfortunately, he stopped attending.
Meanwhile in that same study, two rows up, another fellow had his own objection. He raised his hand and said, “How dare God treat human beings like pieces on a chessboard!” Of course there were many personal assumptions in that statement, and no little hostility in it as well. But he returned to the study, repeatedly. Over time his hostility abated as he allowed himself to see things from the perspective of Scripture.
Eventually one night the Bible study leader got a phone call. On the other end, that same young man said in an almost humiliated voice, “Hey, I’m one of you, now.” The leader asked, what do you mean? He said, “I’m a Christian. I’ve believed in Jesus.” He had learned to trust that God was entitled to ways and thoughts beyond human opinions.
And here is the greatest reason why we don’t need to “fix” God’s judgement: because it is not only necessary to deal with sin, but it is necessary for salvation. The greatest example of judgment in all the Scriptures was when God judged sin in Christ on the cross. He became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13), and was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). When we believe in the Son of God, we identify with Him through faith. The judgment He underwent for sins on the cross becomes ours—not only sins in general, but our sins specifically. When God looks at us, He does not pretend we never sinned. Instead, He says, “I have judged your sins in my Son.”
Then why does there continue to be a hell? Because some people will decide to bear the judgment for sin themselves. Hell is where a person goes when he or she rejects Christ, and by default, the payment He has made for them. Terrible judgment is there, but thank God, terrible judgment was also at the cross, mitigated by Jesus, and the loving offer of its peace is available to all who want it.
No matter how much sinners complain about it, God will always judge sin. Either it will be destructively in the lake of fire, or redemptively through the cross of Christ.