If Jesus and God are the essence of love, why does the Bible threaten us with hell and damnation?

We have a relationship with Jesus, and we can trust him to correct the errors we will certainly make and help us to grow into him.

Does God punish us for our sins?

The short answer is no. Let me attempt to explain that answer.

First, we need to understand that God cannot be defined, only experienced. Each person's experience of God varies, and people have a tendency to make their experience into a definition; that is simply poor theology.

Second, we need to find a theological expression of God that befits the experience of many of the world's greatest religious leaders, among whom we Christians number Jesus. There are many theological expressions floating around in religious circles. Most of them place God outside of space and time, and see God as intervening in response to human prayer and needs. This view is called supernatural theology. I tend to call it "God as a vending machine" theology. It doesn't work because some people's prayers seem to be ignored and some good people seem to experience terrible deprivations of all kinds.

The great religions of the world—Judaism, Islam and Christianity—have the overall view of the Creator as a benevolent, redeeming and reconciling power beyond logical explanation. A theological view that fits into this is panentheism, which states that all Creation is the product of God's action, that it is a continuously unfolding process, and that all Creation is within the Creator. The Creation is not the sum of God's essential nature, yet in Creation we can find glimpses of God's essential nature. And we need to remember that humans are a part of this Creation.

Christians hold that Jesus is God's revelation to all humanity about what it means to be a human and what God's intentions are for humans. In Jesus we see a God who is caring, healing, redemptive and reconciling. We do not see a God who punishes, but rather a God that seeks to restore us to our full humanity. We see a God who is more interested in blessing than punishing, more inclined to raise up than strike down. Our human propensity to misuse power distorts our humanity, sometimes to the point where it is unrecognizable. The result of this separation from our full humanity—the humanity God created us to have—is that we suffer, and then we tend to call that suffering God's punishment rather than taking responsibility for it ourselves. It is not God who punishes us, it is we ourselves. As the cartoon character Pogo once put it, "We have met the enemy and they is us."

—The Rev. C. Douglas Simmons

My first reaction to questions like this is "I don't know! Neither does anyone else."

But it's fun to speculate. And that's what this response is—a bit of speculation.

I don't imagine God as a cosmic Santa "making a list and checking it twice." I believe in God as the loving intelligent energy within and greater than all that is. I believe God is using infinite divine creativity and love to draw us into fullness of life.

Within the wisdom of God, it seems to me that there are profound consequences that are wrapped into our acts. I believe that we pay a price for our wrongdoing, and I believe virtue has its rewards. That's a matter of faith for me. Often I find it impossible to see justice in the observable consequences of our acts. I trust that God will use every good deed and thought to bring about God's intended healing of the universe. I believe God is absorbing and transforming every sinful and evil act, suffering with us, and ultimately accomplishing resurrection.

—The Rev. Lowell Grisham