So About God’s Punishment and Wrath: A Mega-Post On Theology That Bothers Us

abbybethh asked a question:

Hello, do you have any posts/ thoughts on God’s punishment? It’s been a topic I’ve been really confused on. Thank you for all that you do & congratulations on your engagement!!

Hey dear friend, thank you so much for your kind words.  I want to kindly share with you three different angles on God’s punishment to consider.  As always, please feel free to skip around on this post.

1) God’s punishment is His burning anger and wrath set against our sin and it’s often correlated to each act of disobedience.

2) God’s punishment is actually His grieving heart for our active disconnection from Him, so He allows us to have what we want and for the consequences to unroll.

3) God’s punishment is an outdated term from the Bible that has been misinterpreted, and is simply language that describes the continuing effects of sin in our world.

So we could say God’s punishment is 1) God’s wrath, 2) our consequences, or 3) the effects of sin.

For the most part, Christians have put these views in a boxing ring to duke it out.  Augustinian and Calvinist theology would say it’s all God’s wrath.  Emergent or mystical theology would call it natural consequences.  The New Perspective on Paul might call it the effects of sin.  [You don’t have to know any of that stuff, by the way, to love Jesus.]  Westerners don’t like “wrath” and Easterners would say that of course God is vengeful.

I tend to think it’s a combination of all three views, but I also confess that I’m too limited in my imagination.  We’re each hamstrung by our own cultural ideas about God, and we need to admit our weakness before beginning to grasp Him.  We must occasionally dare to have God confront us and contradict us with the uncomfortable, especially with the stuff we don’t find pleasant about Him.

We need to be careful about our own preconceived biases.

The thing is, most Westerners hate the idea that God could punish anyone.  Even the idea of “guilt” is too much.  Most of us have been Pavlovian-conditioned by the Enlightenment to consider God as either a grandfather or a clockmaker, so we’re offended by things like the cross and we enjoy images of haloed sheep-holding Jesus.

But in the East, the idea of an anthropomorphic loving God is absolutely horrifying and insulting.  That God could “forgive” and be “personal” is to put God at the level of a pigeon.  And ideas like “wrath” and “vengeance” already make sense in an honor-and-shame culture.

So it depends on who you’re talking to. Simply distilling theological thoughts about God into tiny culturalized categories can hardly explain God to a tiny 3 lb. human brain.

The God of the Bible is constantly referred to as merciful, gracious, and compassionate.  He’s called a Shepherd, King, and Friend, with open arms and real emotions.  Yet there’s also the winepress of wrath and Jesus coming back on a war-horse with a sword in his mouth and his head on fire.  The real God is going to press against your own culture, which means no one has completely monopolized God with their own limited theology.  God will offend some part of your culture somewhere, no matter what.

So do I believe God can straight-up punish people?  As an Easterner, yes.  I grew up in a home where my father and the elders had absolute authority; they had free rein to raise me as they wished.  I can believe in a God who does whatever He wants without obligation to my will.

But growing up in a Western culture, I became open to believing that God, if He does punish us, does so because He loves us.  God is bound to His own love, and God, being the Perfect Father, sometimes must use what He hates to achieve what He loves. He does this with zero sin, unlike our earthly parents.  For me, this is so much harder to believe: but when I do, it’s liberating.  My fear of authority is changed to something utterly new and transformative.  Maybe for the Westerner, to believe that God actually punishes evil in this world will liberate us too.

Let’s dig deeper.  When we think of “punishment” we think of introducing something negative or taking away something positive.  Yet when God made the world, He made it absolutely good.  There was no sin, no imperfection, no lacking.  When Adam and Eve went against God, they completely disarrayed the universe, like kicking over dominoes, resulting in disconnection and death.

When we say “God’s Wrath,” I don’t see it as some kind of divine spanking.  In fact, it’s death and disease and lacking and tragedies which are the unnatural.  We were never meant to be disconnected from Him.  To have life and joy and unity is the natural. The act of body tissue healing itself is natural; the cut is unnatural.  God’s rescue and resurrection of His people is the natural; it’s sin and wrath and consequences that are the derivative.  This is why when Jesus does miracles, he’s only showing how things are meant to be: unlimited food, healed bodies, victory over evil spirits, no abrupt weather, flowing wine, and no death.

So then, God’s Wrath is 1) not supposed to be a natural part of our human experience, but 2) when God enacts wrath, it’s actually a sped-up continuance of what would happen when sin completely corrupts. It’s as if God allows the fruit to go rotten so that it would know it’s rotten. In the Old Testament especially, God often closes the loop between sin and consequences immediately.  He is releasing the sustaining of His power by allowing entropy to win, so we might wake up to life.  And each time, God takes absolutely no joy in doing this.  God takes no joy in wrath; He only hopes it will work when nothing else will.

In a sense, God allows the natural to unravel sometimes, because this is what we have chosen.  And instead of regretting your life forty years too late, God’s Wrath is making the regret happen now.  This is why Romans chapters 1-3 constantly talk about God’s Wrath as His mercy, that by allowing our vices to hurt, we might see how dumb they are and then find Him.  Even more, 1 Corinthians 5:5 says that as a last resort, we allow an unrepentant Christian to do what they want, so they might hit rock bottom and realize the world has nothing for them like God does.

I don’t believe that this is a one-to-one correlation.  In other words, if a bird poops on you during your morning jog, this is NOT God punishing you for skipping prayer yesterday.  It was just a pooping bird (with very good aim).  While we certainly regret our bad choices, God doesn’t connect this regret with random things.

In the end, the universal truth is that we live in a condition called sin that keeps us separated from God.  Some force has to remove this obstacle at the cosmic level so that we might be reconciled to our source of glory again.

Here’s the amazing thing.  God sent His very own Son to absorb all that we would ever face by being cut off from Him.  Jesus took on sin, wrath, consequences, justice, and tragedy; he who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).  Jesus stood in the way of the unnatural so we might have the natural once more.  He suffered in solidarity with us, he closed the loop of disobedience and consequences in himself.  It’s as if an architect built a prison for our crimes, and then said, “I will serve your sentence in the prison I built for your penalty.”  Jesus removed every cosmic obstacle between us and God at the cross and resurrection.

I hope we can re-think our categories of sin and wrath and punishment to realize that our human terms are much too thick for them.  Our theology is too dense for such nuanced heavenly things.  I can say with confidence though that all that God does is for our ultimate, eternal good, and that He never acts haphazardly.  The bottom line is that He loves us, and He proved it in the cross and rising up from death, that we might live with Him forever.

— J.S.

Purchase my book on taboo topics in the church here.

Purchase my book on love, sex, and dating here.

Purchase my e-book on quitting porn here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.