The Difficult Doctrine of God’s Judgment
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.