“Does God Punish?” Brad Jersak

Q: Brad, I have been told that you do not believe that God punishes. I have not listened to your sermons that contain such views. Would you please respond to this criticism?

A: Thanks for asking. Of course to say either that God does or does not punish would be a very unnuanced claim for God—and runs into the problem of the slippery English word “punish.” For that reason, I gave significant space in my book, A More Christlike God, to the nuances of what the Bible calls “wrath” and how we might speak of God’s wrath in light of God’s nature. The following are some brief and still rather unnuanced highlights of my findings.

We begin with the nature of God. God’s nature or essence is simple, boiled down for us in the fourth chapter of John’s epistle: “God is love…” God is not love plus anything. Love is the essence of the Triune nature and every attribute of God is a facet of that one Diamond or flows from that one infinite Spring. Anything we say about God’s holiness, justice or wrath can only be said with reference to God’s love. The “holiness” or “justice” or “wrath” that is not love is not God’s. Indeed, they were employed by the religious establishment to crucify our Savior.

“God is love… There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.” (from 1 John 4:16-19). Note that love of God and fear of punishment are set in opposition.

But is there in God a “parental punishment” that refracts the light of God’s love? Of course! Hebrews 12:5-6 says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” The author goes on to describe God’s “discipline” or “chastisement” entirely in terms of the loving correction and wise training of God’s children. The discipline of the Father “brings about a harvest of righteousness and peace in his children” (11). That is, God’s “punishments” are restorative rather than retributive, constructive rather than destructive. The difference is that God’s “punishments” are never to harm, but to restore and refine. Thus, “punishment” as it is used in English (increasingly for retribution) is too broad a term for the restorative justice of our loving Father.

What then of the “wrath of God”? Again, the English word is problematic in that it connotes violent anger. That is, wrath has come to mean both reactive rage, and also the violent acts that flow from it. In the West, it came to be one of the seven deadly sins. Are we to say that wrath is both a deadly sin and a divine attribute? If not, why does the Bible seem to do so?

I’ve given a large portion of A More Christlike God to thoroughly exploring this question. For this article, I will refer readers there, to the church fathers and to secondary articles I’ve posted.

  1. The church fathers recognized the biblical use of “wrath” to describe the experiential judgments intrinsic to and inflicted by sin itself. In the Bible, if God warned his people away from sin and its consequences, but they ignored his warnings and suffered the self-destructive outcomes, Scripture sometimes describes the “wages of sin” as if they were the wrath or punishment of God. But the prophet Isaiah and apostle Paul would go on to explain that God’s actual role in such wrath was only indirect. “Wrath” was a metaphor for God’s respect for human choices and so “gave them over” to their own defiance. The prodigal son is Christ’s definitive theology of wrath. God did not punish the son with famine, poverty and pigpen! But he respected the son’s freedom to turn away and gave him over to the suffering that would follow. The fathers understood this as saw “wrath” as a anthropomorphism—human traits projected onto God.
  2. St Anthony the Great, St John Cassian, St John of Damascus and St Isaac the Syrian warned that to literalize wrath—violent anger—in God was idolatrous and even blasphemous. To read them in their own words, I’ve compiled key and decisive excerpts under the title: God’s “Wrath” as Anthropomorphism Discussed in the Church Fathers.
  3. When one begins to read the Scriptures on God’s wrath / punishment through the apostolic lens of God as love and patristic understanding of wrath as metaphor, what are the implications? For more reading on this, see my exploration in these articles:

Finally, a word about God’s “judgment” (Greek: krisis). Has God judged in the past? Does God judge today? Will God render final judgement in the end? While the topic is far too involved for this brief article, I might offer suggestions for further study:

Much of what the Bible refers to as the historical “judgments” of God are covered by the anthropomorphisms and metaphors mentioned in the fathers’ works above and explained in depth in A More Christlike God. The intrinsic judgments native to human rebellion apply today as they did then. Does God actively smash cities with hurricanes and tsunamis today in his wrath against the scapegoat de jour? John Cassian would answer, “Blasphemy!” Or as Archbishop Lazar Puhalo says, “All the plagues of the Apocalypse are brought about by the avarice of man.” Lanza del Vasto put it this way: “If you throw rocks in the air, do not blame God for casting stones on your head” (cited in Fr. Michael Gillis, “The Wrath of God”).

In this light, we ought to hear the words of Christ in John 3:17-19:

“For God sent the Son into the cosmos not that he might pass judgment on the cosmos, but that the cosmos might be saved through him. Whoever has faith in him is not judged; whoever has not had faith has already been judged because he has not had faith in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the cosmos, and men loved darkness rather than light; for their deeds were wicked.” (The New Testament: a translation, David Bentley Hart).

In other words, God did not send Christ into the world to judge, condemn or destroy it, but rather, to save it from the corruption of death through which the world was already perishing. Christ needn’t threaten the world with a great coming darkness. No, Christ is the Light that shone in the darkness that had already shrouded the world. He came not to judge, but to seek and save all that was lost languishing in the trough of its own wickedness.

As for future judgment, I would recommend reading St Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and the Resurrection. There St Macrina teaches her brother that all will pass through the fire of the glory of God’s all-consuming love. The judgments of love will purge us of ungodly attachments, toxic coping mechanisms and the masks or false selves we’ve put on. Whatever torment we incur, St Gregory writes, relates to how tightly we cling, white-knuckled, to our attachments.

Another way to see this, according to Abp. Lazar Puhalo, in the tradition of St Isaac the Syrian: “The ultimate punishment would be the radiance and glory of the love of Christ if somehow you found yourself having to live eternity without it.” In such a scenario, the “worm that does not die” is the conscience, tormenting us for rejecting perfect love. Will this unthinkable “if” finally have the last word over love? St Isaac adds, “Love could not bear it.” I don’t have the authority to teach universalism, but I do bank my hope on the mercy of Christ, believing that the fire of his love is not only unquenchable, but also, in the end, effective and transformative. On this, see my paper “Permit Me to Hope.” 

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