can the God of judgment and punishment, as often portrayed
in the Old Testament, be reconciled with the concept of
a God of love?
is a stereotype of the Old Testament God of fire and brimstone,
which usually goes hand in hand with the stereotype of the New
Testament God, who is Jesus' benevolent and compassionate father
or Abba. A careful reading of scripture will yield a different
and more ambiguous picture.
God of mercy and loving kindness will show up in the Old Testament,
and the God capable of wrath and judgment will appear in the
pages of the New Testament. It is true that there are far more
Hebrew scriptures in the bible, that the Old Testament is larger
and represents a much longer period of time than the New Testament,
which was written in Greek over a relatively short period of
time. There is also a way in which the trajectory of scripture
reveals an evolving sense of who God is, how God works, what
God hopes for us, and how God responds to our shortcomings.
is always some truth in a stereotype. The sense of God conveyed
in the New Testament is more approachable, in general, whereas
the God conveyed in the Old Testament is more awesome, in general.
The shift in language and imagery is attributable to Jesus' own
sense of God as his Abba, his loving father. Jesus' lively sense
of his Abba comes through the Gospels, alongside other passages
depicting God the judge and warning of apocalyptic punishment. With
such apparent contradictions on the same page, it helps to think
of scripture as the receptacle of human pondering about God. Even
though inspired, as all our wonder about God is, its view remains
incomplete and evolving. God is always emergent in our experience
and in history, and so is our reflection and our writing about
the mystery of the holy over time.
the individual books of scripture, arguments about God are happening,
different aspects of God are being proposed, different views
of God are being tried. For example, in the prophets, the God
of wrath may be invoked to recall the people to repentance in
a time of impending calamity. Later, in the same book, the God
of compassion may be evoked, to comfort the people, suffering
from their own folly and its consequences. In the Gospels, parables
which portray God's mercy and loving kindness (e.g. the prodigal
son) appear alongside parables of judgment and punishment (e.g.
the unjust steward). The internal contradictions of scripture
compel us to decide for ourselves and among ourselves about the
meaning of their juxtaposition.
of scripture as a progressive conversation among seekers
after God through centuries and across cultures. Then
all the differing points of view can be appreciated, and
all the various views of God can be tested against each other
and against our experience in a new place and time. Christians
are folk who hold themselves accountable to scripture and
who hold scripture accountable to the tests of faith they
themselves experience. Today's faithful are those who are
putting God's promises to the test every day, by trusting
them and reflecting upon the results together as life unfolds.
It's these faithful today who are having a conversation with
yesterday's faithful through their last will and testaments.
We will leave ours behind also, becoming part of the stream
of scripture and tradition as they did before us.
scripture and tradition are continually tried and tested in this
way, a lively faith results. Assuming that scripture and tradition
are resources and navigational aids for our journey in faith,
we are not only free to ask questions, but actually held responsible
for asking them. How can a particularly provocative passage be
true without violating our best sense of God's nature and purpose?
Exercising our concept of God in this way produces exciting possibilities,
which convince by their paradoxical attraction. It's a little
like the fascination of riddles. How
can God be just and merciful at once? How does that work?
if a God of judgment were a good thing? Let's just assume that
judgment might be a gift from God, and see where it gets us.
For one thing, we'd also have to assume God loved us enough to
give us a gift. Then, if we are able to suspend our own judgment
long enough to imagine something new and different, we could
experiment with welcoming and trusting judgment, learning and
growing from it.
says it this way: repent, turn and live. What if the mechanism
of judgment is the compelling figure of Jesus of Nazareth, the
perfect picture of a holy and blameless life? What if the dynamic
of judgment arises from our attraction to him, our comparison
of ourselves to him, and our growing desire to become more like
him? In that sense, he is our judgment, our condemnation and
our absolution, confronting and forgiving us at once, the measure
of our homework assignment.
when entertained as a gift from a loving God becomes the inescapability
of living with the consequences of our behavior, our choices,
our ways of understanding God, ourselves, others, and the world.
We shall know by the fruits which are the most life-giving and
healing and worthwhile. A violent god, a vindictive god, an arbitrary
god of wrath produces cringing devotees intent on blaming each
other and appeasing the most high. A
loving God who holds us accountable to the consequences of our
choices encourages us to grow up and inspires our cooperation as
we do so, while providing the grace to confirm our efforts.
way to look at this is through the cross. On the one hand, it
would seem we were all let off the hook with, "Father, forgive
them, for they know not what they do." On the other hand,
what a brilliant way to hook us all, when we behold the fullness
of our human potential revealed in that generous and undeserved
advocacy. By that prayer to his Abba, Jesus displays our meanness
and our blindness to it, while simultaneously opening our eyes
and ministering to our spirits, giving us a vision of cooperation
with God and one another for good. By forgiving our adversaries,
we call them into a new kind of relationship, a community relying
upon God's grace to make us one.
we reject the gift and view it as a curse instead, we live
in an inhospitable universe, and our punishment is to continue
to live in a world bereft of grace. When
we accept our "punishment" as a gift from God,
our work is cut out for us, and we take up our task, which
is to grow into a world defined by the gift itself. Forgiving
and asking forgiveness, absolving one another and making
amends for the wrong we have done, creates a different kind
of person, a different kind of world, a world which Jesus
envisioned for us even as we did him in. His parting gift
created the resurrection, the newness that grew out of the
cross, as God has assisted with grace those who embraced
their judgment and punishment as good news and set about
Rev. Dr. Katherine M. Lehman
religion has its reference point as to how the benevolence of
the Creator enters and has entered the material world of time
and space. For Christianity this reference point is Jesus Christ.
Since Jesus was a Jew, the Christian tradition includes the Jewish
Bible as its Old Testament, and the New Testament—the Christian
Bible—is combined with the Old to make the document we
know as the Bible. The Old Testament was written from a point
of view about Creation and God that comes from a far distant
past. These people experienced life as more hardship than pleasure;
they did not have the conveniences that we take for granted:
running water, indoor plumbing, grocery stores, etc. From their
point of view they experienced God as the Creator of this life,
and God was therefore a Creator who had a harsh side.
if you carefully examine the pattern of God's involvement with
the people of the Old Testament, you will find that God rescued,
restored and never abandoned those people. From their point of
view, God did disappear, but that point of view was severely
limited by the way they experienced life. In short, for Christians
the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses is the same God that
revealed the Divine nature through Jesus. The
God of the Old Testament didn't change, humanity's understanding
of God evolved over centuries of experience.
believe that God's revelation of God's self has been consistent
throughout the Bible and that revelation unveils a God who is
benevolent, not capricious or harsh. Life may be harsh and capricious,
but that does not mean God is. We all create the lives we live
for ourselves, and our behaviors have an effect on others. That
goes for individuals, groups, churches, religions and nations.
Let's not lay our foul-ups on God; let's take responsibility
for them and seek God's aid to re-find the appropriate relational
context for all humans. As we do that intentionally, we will
find the Creator enabling us in ways that defy human explanation.
Rev. C. Douglas Simmons