The Difficult Doctrine of God’s Judgment

One of the issues that modern sceptics have with Christianity is God’s judgment. Many of the stories in the Bible – especially stories involving God’s ‎judgment – seem overly brutal and atrocious to modern people, and so the Bible is sometimes ‎written off as primitive and outdated. Some of these objections are based on a close engagement ‎with the Bible, however, others stem from caricatures and misreadings of the Bible, and so they’re not always engaging with what the Bible actually says.‎

For example, if you assume (even if it’s only for the sake of argument) what the Bible says ‎about God’s judgment while simultaneously rejecting what the Bible says about sin, then of ‎course you’re going to have significant issues with a god who, in your estimation, punishes people ‎for no good reason. But this is very much a straw-god argument. Instead of engaging with the ‎God of the Bible who judges sin, it’s engaging with a god of our imagination who judges for no ‎reason. It’s like showing someone the terrible conditions of a prison, while they’re under the ‎impression that there’s no such thing as crime.

Moreover, the Bible has lots of examples of sin, which are not examples to be followed but ‎narratives that are designed to shock us and wake us up to the human capacity for evil. For ‎example, our horror and disgust at the example of Lot offering his two daughters to be raped by ‎the men of Sodom so that they might spare his visitors (Genesis 19:6-8), is a perfect description ‎of the Bible’s view of wickedness (Genesis 18:20-33). This is not an example to follow, but an ‎example of sin (Deuteronomy 22:25-26).‎

Another significant issue for modern readers of the Bible is the commands for Israel to wage ‎war against the Canaanites. Some people see this as Israel’s attempt to justify war, but according ‎to the Old Testament narrative: Israel wasn’t using God to justify war; God was using Israel as ‎his instrument to judge the nations. From the beginning it was pronounced as a judgment on the ‎nations in Canaan, and Israel wasn’t allowed to go up into Canaan until the sin of the nations ‎had “reached its full measure” (Genesis 15:16).‎

The Canaanites were brutal and corrupt (Leviticus 18), even sacrificing children to their idols ‎‎(Deuteronomy 12:29-31), and the conquest of Canaan was God’s judgment upon them ‎‎(Deuteronomy 9:4). Israel was forbidden from benefiting from the destruction of the Canaanites ‎‎(Deuteronomy 7:25), and when Israel later became like the Canaanites in their wickedness and ‎brutality, God raised up other nations against them as well (2 Kings 17:17-20).‎

However, even if this point is granted, the commands to “destroy them totally” (Deuteronomy ‎‎7:2) feels very much like God commanding a genocide. But rather than describing genocide, ‎these passages are littered with hyperbole, as all conquest accounts of the time were (Lawson-‎Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, 227-228, 245).‎

After the command to “destroy them totally” the Israelites are commanded: “Do not intermarry ‎with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for ‎they will turn your children away” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). However, you can’t marry someone ‎you’ve destroyed. The reason for the prohibition on marrying them was that after the military ‎campaign and transition of power, the civilians would be left to entice Israel to detestable ‎practices like child sacrifice.‎

At first glance it looks like Israel left no survivors in the cities of Hebron and Debir (Joshua ‎‎10:36-39), but then later in the narrative these towns were still populated by Canaanites. (Joshua ‎‎15:13-15). Recognising this use of hyperbole is part of understanding the genre of Joshua. As ‎Old Testament scholar Iain Provan notes:‎

‎“The transmission code shared by biblical and ancient Near Eastern historiography involves an ‎intermingling of the texts’ figurative and ideological aspects. Failure to recognise this ‎intermingling can give rise to flat, literalistic misreadings of biblical texts, with the result that ‎textual straw men are created and then found wanting in the light of non-textual (e.g. ‎archaeological) evidence. If, for instance, one were to overlook the hyperbolic character of the ‎summary of Joshua’s southern campaign found in Joshua 10:40 – Joshua “left no one ‎remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed” – other biblical texts (including other parts of ‎Joshua!), that many Canaanites survived would appear to constitute a contradiction. The ‎problem, however, would lie not with the text but with the inappropriate construal of the text. It ‎is hard to envisage any serious student of the Bible making this kind of blunder, but on a lesser ‎scale such mistakes are often made” (Provan, A Biblical History of Israel, 149).‎

During the conquest of Canaan, God’s grace was extended to Rahab (Joshua 2) and other ‎Canaanites who were willing to humble themselves before God (Joshua 9). As Christopher ‎Wright notes: “The key military centres – the small fortified cities of the petty Canaanite ‎kingdoms – were wiped out. But clearly not all the people, or anything like all the people, had in ‎actual fact been destroyed by Joshua” (Wright, The God I Don’t Understand, 88). This ‎was not a genocide, but a military campaign.‎

But even as a military campaign, it was very unique moment in Israel’s history. God generally ‎commanded Israel to pursue peace with other nations (Deuteronomy 20), but this was a ‎unique, short, and strategic moment in history where God used Israel as his instrument to judge ‎the nations, just as God would later use the nations as his instrument to judge Israel (Habakkuk ‎‎1:1-11).‎

In the face of evil and injustice, the Old Testament hope is for a conquering King to overcome ‎all the evil and injustice in the world. According to the authors of the New Testament, this hope ‎is finally fulfilled in the person and work of Christ. However, much to the surprise of the ‎Jews, Jesus doesn’t set out to destroy evil in whatever nation it lies; he sets out to destroy evil in ‎whatever heart it lies, and he does so with his own death on the cross. When Jesus’ disciples ‎drew their swords to defend him against their enemies, Jesus tells them to put their swords ‎away, that’s not what he’s about (Luke 22:49-51). Instead, Jesus dies praying for his enemies ‎‎(Luke 23:34), taking the punishment that we deserve so that he could end evil without ending ‎us.‎

And yet, for many people, the New Testament’s idea of God’s final judgment day brings up what ‎they consider to be the biggest problem of them all: hell. How could a God of love possibly send ‎people to hell for an eternity of suffering? In Romans chapter 1, Paul says that “The wrath of ‎God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people” ‎‎(Romans 1:18), and that the way that God is doing this is by giving people over to their sin ‎‎(Romans 1:24, 26, 28). Ultimately, the worst thing that God will do is to hand us over ‬to our sin, ‎and release the handbrake on our wickedness. This is precisely what hell is, God finally and ‎ultimately handing us over to our rebellion against him.‎

This means that life is essentially a choice: you can live with God or without God, and ‎whichever you choose, God will give you for eternity. God doesn’t send people to hell for not ‎believing in him, but rather “God will repay each person according to what they have done” ‎‎(Psalm 62:12; Proverbs 24:12; Romans 2:6). This should satisfy our thirst for justice, how could ‎God be more just than to repay each person according to what they have done? However, ‎according to the very next chapter of Romans, standing on our own record will not turn out well ‎for us at all, it will be the ultimate tragedy (Romans 3:9-20).‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‎

According to the Bible, those who insist on standing on their own record will do so, but those ‎who are willing to humble themselves and ask for mercy will stand on Jesus’ record. On God’s ‎final judgment day, “God will repay each person according to what they have done” (Psalm ‎‎62:12; Proverbs 24:12; Romans 2:6), and yet “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will ‎be saved” (Joel 2:32; Romans 10:13). God’s justice is an immovable rock, but God’s love is an ‎unstoppable force, and the cross of Christ is what happens when the two collide.‎

Jesus’ teaching on God’s judgment is amongst the most challenging teaching in the Bible – Jesus ‎himself talks about hell more than any other person in the Bible. And yet, Jesus’ teaching about ‎love and forgiveness is amongst the most influential teaching in world history. Jesus never ‎softens the immovable rock of God’s justice, nor does he slow the unstoppable force of God’s ‎love. And it’s on the cross of Christ, where the immovable rock of God’s justice meets the ‎unstoppable force of God’s love. On the cross, God’s perfect justice is poured out on sin, and ‎God’s radical love is poured out on sinners. It is the most definitive example of God’s judgment in ‎world history, and the most powerful demonstration of God’s love for sinners like you and me.‎

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