Unpunishable, Hell and Wrath

I did return from Ireland, dear readers. And for your sake, I am glad my disembodied thoughts did not take over the website in my absence. Ireland was beautiful, and then like Gandalf with that enormous fiery demon called Balrag, I descended into untold darkness only to come out the other side a changed man. A story for another time, perhaps.

Speaking of hell, I have been thinking about being unpunishable recently. Neither hell nor being unpunishable is something I dwell on myself regularly, but author and speaker (and former Bethel pastor in Redding, California) Danny Silk has come out with a new book titled Unpunishable: Ending our Love Affair with Punishment. I love Silk and the title of this book, though I have not read it yet. But I can assume it is about us coming to realize that as Christians, we are literally unpunishable before an amazingly good Heavenly Father.

What caught my attention, however, is Silk touching upon something that I, too, have discussed in the past. He shared recently that in his conversations with others, the most common objection he has heard to the idea that we are unpunishable is hell. People have said, “But what about hell?” The objection, it seems, is that a God who created hell could not be good enough to leave us unpunishable.

The question of hell and, by extension, God’s judgment and wrath is, in my opinion, the greatest threat to the modern church. Not because we believe in it but because we don’t — or at least don’t want to. And whether as a cause or as an effect, we seem to completely lack understanding as to what God’s wrath actually is.

I was happy to find Silk supporting the reality of hell and providing a good defense for it. Still, at the beginning of his discussion, he shares that the idea of a good God sending people to hell is “weird” and “once we get to know how good God is, we realize [his goodness and wrath] just don’t go together.” I could not tell if this was his thought or simply his attempt to identify with his audience, but either way it left me a bit dismayed. When leaders express their discomfort with foundational Biblical truths, it is no wonder we are where we are with this subject.

You might be thinking, “Who on earth wants to believe in God’s wrath? I don’t. I want to believe God is a good God.” But that is exactly the problem. There has been such an emphasis on God’s goodness in the past several decades with little or no effort to understand what God’s wrath is and where it fits in the overall narrative of Christianity.

No don’t get me wrong: Emphasizing God’s goodness has, for the most part, been a really good thing. But like all good things, if it is is emphasized in a vacuum and not tempered with truth, it begins to unhinge itself and develop into an extreme position. In our case, what has developed is a belief that God is so good He could not possibly be in the business of punishing us for our sins. And certainly if He is too good to do that, He is certainly too good to send people to hell.

As with all extreme positions, rather that providing greater peace and tranquility in the soul, it has actually had the opposite effect. It has alienated us from Scripture, cast doubt on its authority and reliability, and caused no small crisis as believers try to come to terms with a “good” God clearly responding to sin throughout the Old AND New Testament with violence. Some raised in the church have expressed concerns about God’s wrath that border on emotional torment.

The good news is that God’s wrath and goodness are perfectly reconcilable. The problem we face in understanding God’s wrath is not a problem with God or the Bible: It is a problem with us. It is not an eternal problem; it is a modern problem.

Now I have written about the dangers of building a theology purely on God’s goodness previously, so God forbid as a blog writer I begin to repeat myself 🙂 What I would like to do instead is help the person genuinely struggling with reconciling these two concepts.

So let me introduce to you Eva, a young Christian troubled over the idea of God’s wrath, and Philo, a sage of unknown origin who happens to meet her. Forgive me for abruptly dropping you into their conversation, and also its length. It is hard to cram an important discussion into a handful of words! 

And forgive me if you feel any offense over Eva not being the strong female lead who has all the answers and Philo the witless, inept male who cannot do much of anything; that too is a modern problem.


Philo: You are far too young to look so sad. What on earth is troubling you?

Eva: Excuse me? How would you know if I am troubled? Oh it’s no use. I AM troubled. But I am sure no one would not understand.

Philo: Well I could certainly try. I may not understand but maybe I could just be a listening ear. Would that help?

Eva: Fine. What could it hurt. So I guess you might call what I am going through a crisis of faith. 

Philo: A crisis of faith? Meaning faith in God? How so? Do you find it difficult to believe He exists?

Eva: No. I have always believed in God. It is just that I do not find God in the Bible to be who He really is, or at least who I have been told He is.

Philo: How so? 

Eva: Well it is quite simple really. I have been told God is a God of Love. But when I read my Bible, there are so many places where He is a God of wrath, a downright angry God. A God who sends plagues and executes revenge and causes death and destruction. Those two Gods cannot possibly be the same. At least, I cannot imagine how they could be.

Philo: Ah, I see.

Eva: You do? Are you a believer then?

Philo: Yes, if by believer you mean Christian, as a matter of fact, I am.

Eva: Then I AM talking to the right person! So How do you make sense of it all? I want to believe in a God of love, but the very book that tells me about this God shows me He is a God of wrath. I want to believe in a good God, but I am faced with an angry God. I do not know what to do. Certainly you have faced this question. At least, I hope you have.

Philo: Yes, I have. So I think it will help by asking you an important question: What exactly do you mean by a good God?

Eva: Are you suggesting God is not good?

Philo: No, I am not suggesting that. But I am curious how “good God” is defined by you, or at least has been defined for you by others.

Eva: Well, I guess for starters a God who is loving and kind and gracious, who only wants to bless us. A God who is definitely too good to pour out wrath or cause suffering.

Philo: So when you say God is good, you mean God is by His very nature incapable of causing us to suffer. 

Eva: Well at least unwilling. My pastor often says, “If I treated my children the way some say God treats us, I would be arrested for child abuse.”

Philo: So God is good because he does not cause us to suffer, and if He did cause us to suffer, He would be evil. You are defining “good” as “not causing pain or suffering” and I suppose by logical deduction “only causing blessing, favor and prosperity.”

Eva: Yes, right. I have always been told God is responsible for only blessing us and bringing good things into our lives. That is what makes Him good. Doesn’t it? 

Philo: Does it? 

Eva: Well of course. How could God be responsible for the bad things in our lives and still be good?

Philo: Well whether that is true or not, the problem I see is not with the Bible: It is with life. After all, God does cause us to suffer.

Eva: What do you mean?

Philo: Well, we do suffer. Bad things do happen. We go through difficult situations all the time. And God — being God — could prevent it. Does that not mean He causes us to suffer?

Eva: No, that is the devil.

Philo: The devil no doubt is involved in our suffering. But do you believe the devil is more powerful than God?

Eva: Well, no, I guess I would not say that.

Philo: I would agree. And the Bible agrees with you. The devil is a created being, and he can only do what God allows. But if this is so, then God allows the devil to do all that he does.

Eva: But my youth leader says the devil only has power that we give him, that there are spiritual laws God has put in place that God will not violate. And the devil exploits those spiritual laws and uses them against us.

Philo: That may be true. But God still allows the devil to exploit His own spiritual laws in order to cause us to suffer; God therefore allows us to suffer, no matter what the reason. And if God allows us to suffer, it means God causes us to suffer.

Eva: What do you mean? Cannot God allow a thing but not cause it?

Philo: No, not really. I mean, there is little difference. A church leader recently said, for example, the idea of God not causing sickness and disease but allowing it is foolish. He was trying to say God is responsible for neither. But the only way that can be so is if God is not God, for it would mean something greater than Himself is causing it, and also preventing Him from doing anything about it. Besides, which is worse: For God to directly cause our suffering, or for God to stand by and allow us to suffer at the devil’s hands and do nothing?

Eva: They are both pretty bad.

Philo: I agree. Either way, God is ultimately the cause. We can say it is the devil, or we can say it is spiritual laws. But unless we are saying God is powerless over either one, it is ultimately God bringing suffering into our lives. For “God is in Heaven and does as He pleases.” No power in hell or on earth could ever prevent God from ending our suffering, or preventing it in the first place.

Eva: Well that just makes me feel worse!

Philo: Hang in there! Our problem is with our idea of God’s goodness. Fortunately the Bible has a much better definition for His goodness. Before we get into that, let’s explore the idea of Gods wrath.


Philo: So let me ask you another question: What do you mean by God being a God of wrath?

Eva: I don’t understand. You mean why do I think God is a wrathful God and not a loving God?

Philo: Actually, you have just answered my question. You are saying if God is a wrathful God, then He cannot be a loving God (and therefore, not good). It stands to reason, then, that you consider wrath to be the opposite of love.

Eva: Yes, of course. What else could it be?

Philo: Well it makes sense why you would be struggling with God’s wrath! Fortunately love and wrath are not opposites. Wrath is not the absence of love anymore than love is the absence of wrath. At least, not according to the Bible.

Eva: But how could that possibly be?

Philo: Let me give you an illustration. Growing up, did your parents ever punished you?

Eva: Yes of course.

Philo: And when you were punished, did you suffer “their wrath” so to speak?

Eva: Of course.

Philo: But when you suffered their wrath, did your parents stop loving you?

Eva: No, I suppose they did not.

Philo: This is because wrath and love are not the same thing. Now let me give you a better example. Suppose a criminal is found guilty and convicted. And the judge sentences the criminal to prison. Could we say the criminal suffering the wrath of that judge?

Eva: I suppose we could.

Philo: But does that necessarily mean the judge does not love that criminal? In other words, must the judge hate the criminal in order to sentence him?

Eva: No of course not. Otherwise the judge would be filled with hate all the time.

Philo: That is right. Because wrath is not the opposite of love.

Eva: But it seems to me the judge probably hates what the criminal has done. I mean if he did not think it was that big of a deal, he probably would not be a great judge.

Philo: I agree. And so it is with God. Wrath is not the opposite of love: It is the presence of justice. I mean: Wrath is the proper response to injustice. In God’s case, wrath is the perfect, divine response to evil and sin. 

This has an important implication: Since God (like the judge) can be both just and loving at the same time, so He can be capable of wrath and love at the same time. In fact if you look closely at Scripture, this is exactly what you see: A God with unfathomable compassion but also exacting justice that demands punishment for sin. You see that throughout Biblical history.


Eva: But wrath seems like such an ugly word. So is anger! How can a good God be angry and wrathful?

Philo: The same way all of us can be angry at injustice. Besides, anger and wrath are simply the closest words we have in our language to express God’s perfectly just response to evil. You have to understand that we are describing God here, and the best we can do is describe Him by something we are familiar with, that is, in human terms. When we talk of God’s anger and wrath, we mean God’s response to evil is similar to anger and wrath. But it is also not exactly the same. When we get angry, we are often out of control or acting out of hate. But God is is never out of control and is always acting from a place of perfect justice.

Eva: So what you are saying is when I read passages about God’s love and kindness and then I read passages about God’s wrath, I am not seeing a God who is in one moment perfectly good and in the next totally out control. I am actually seeing in both cases a God who is perfectly good and perfectly just; I am seeing two sides of God’s perfectly divinity.

Philo: Exactly. And I would go one step further: Both sides of God’s divinity are perfectly good. For even in God’s wrath, He is demonstrating His perfect justice, just as we would think of a just judge sentencing a criminal to prison good. The only time we do not consider wrath “good” is when we are on the receiving end of it! But to the victim of injustice, God’s justice is always good. Imagine a judge allowing the murderer of a small child to go free. Would we say that judge is a good judge?

Eva: Not at all.


Eva: I get the idea that God is just and would punish sin. But why is it that His wrath is so violent? It just does not seem to fit with the idea of a good God.

Philo: Well that is a different question I suppose.

Eva: Different? How?

Philo: Well, it is one thing to say, “God, your punishment of sin does not agree with my idea of you being good.” It is another to say, “You have a right to punish sin, but you go too far.” Tell me: How far should God go?

Eva: I don’t know. It just seems God’s punishment of sin makes God out to be a horrible person.

Philo: In whose eyes?

Eva: Well, in everyone’s I would imagine. Right?

Philo: Well, historically — and certainly Biblically — God’s response to sin was always seen as how horrible we were, not how horrible God was. In other words, we saw the violent way God judged sin to be a measure of just how evil sin was, and how hostile it was to God’s perfect holiness. But something in our way of thinking changed. Do you know what that was?

Eva: What?

Philo: In the past few centuries, as humanity’s knowledge grew, we began to think we knew everything. We began to think WE were the ultimate standard of all knowledge. WE were the ultimate standard of truth, even truth about right and wrong and truth about God. It was no longer God who judged us; we judged God. It has caused us to look upon God’s actions and say, “Well, I would not do that. I do not think that is right. So God must be wrong.”

Eva: Yes, I heard recently that atheist Richard Dawkins said, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistist, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Philo: That is a perfect example of humanity, in the person of Dawkins, judging God. And implicitly feeling we are in a place to do so. What is ironic is that Dawkins demonstrates the same moral outrage that God demonstrates against sin. What I mean to say is, Dawkins is saying, “According to what I feel is right, God’s actions are intolerable. I am pronouncing judgment on God.” If God were not fictitious in His mind, no doubt Dawkins would demand God be punished in a way just as unforgiving and exacting and petty as he accuses God. So both Dawkins and God agree wrongdoing is condemnable. The question is: Who is in a better position to decide what is right and what is wrong? Is Dawkins?

Eva: But does what Dawkins say have any merit?

Philo: Do you mean do any of Dawkins’ accusations stick? Have we truly found evil and injustice in God? In my mind, no. Dawkins is like the criminal raging against the judge. And all that besides, misinformed. He does not understand God’s jealousy and mistakes it for human jealousy. His understanding of pride seems to not understand that what makes pride evil is when it is found in human beings, who think they ARE God (which is the very thing Dawkins demonstrates). His accusations of God being unjust stem purely from Dawkins’ personal ideas of justice. He seems completely unaware that forgiveness is a Christian concept (there is no reason why God should forgive us of sin). And all his other accusations levied at God come from his conspicuously modern ideas of right and wrong. Never once does it occur to him that when it comes to right and wrong, he is not the ultimate judge: That if there is such a thing as right and wrong, God alone reserves the right to decide what that is.

But I am afraid people like Dawkins have had greater affect on us than we realize. We have been so intimidated by the accusation that God is not good, we have escaped into the idea that He is “only” good. Our attempts to paint God in only glowing terms, like loving and kind and gentle and compassionate, are as conspicuous as Dawkin’s attempts to demonize God.

Eva: Do you think that is what has happened to me?

Philo: Perhaps. I would say to the degree we think God’s wrath makes God out to be the problem, and not us, we have all been affected. Let me ask you: If God never sent His Son to the Cross to die for our sins, would He still be good?

Eva: I don’t know. I mean, I never thought about it before.

Philo: Because if we think He would not be good, or even less good, it means we believe we deserved the Cross. It means God owed it to us.  It would mean our sins did not deserve death; they deserved God’s favor. 

Eva: But certainly the Cross says something about God’s goodness.

Philo: Yes. But there is a difference between believing God demonstrated a love we deserved, and a love we did not deserve. Both say something about God’s goodness, but they are very different. The truth is, God is perfectly just in holding us accountable for our sin and pouring out His wrath against sin. If we don’t get this point right, then I am afraid we have completely misunderstood the Gospel.


Eva: That makes sense. So what you are saying is according to the Bible, we are condemnable before God. But somehow we have made God condemnable before us! And God’s response to sin throughout the Bible reflects just how condemnable we are. So how on earth then did we come to believe in a God that is only loving? Certainly that was not because of Dawkins.

Philo: No, certainly not! All the ideas we have about God’s goodness comes from the Bible, especially the Cross.

Eva: What do you mean?

Philo: We mentioned earlier that God has shown Himself to be a God of compassion and love throughout Scripture. But His supreme act of love was demonstrated at the Cross. There, God willingly chose to take upon Himself the condemnation and wrath we deserved.

But something else happened at the Cross. God ushered us into a relationship of pure acceptance before Him: Despite our sin, we are considered perfectly blameless in His sight. We call this state grace, or unmerited favor. More than anything, it is this state of grace where our ideas of God being “only a loving God” come from.

Eva: But my assistant pastors say, “The more you get to know God, the more you realize that the idea of God being a God of wrath is incompatible with who He really is”.

Philo: Your pastor is right! But let me explain. First, we have to be clear what we mean by “get to know God.” If we mean get to know him through Scripture, then Scripture clearly shows God to be capable of wrath and love. So that would not give us the impression God is not a God capable of wrath.

But your assistant pastor probably has something else in mind. He means as we get to know him by experience, intimately, through the communion with the Holy Spirit — which incidentally is also a result of the Cross. So let me ask you a question: If God has taken away from us the wrath our sins deserved at the Cross and has now brought us into relationship with Him, how would we ever experience His wrath?

Eva: I suppose we wouldn’t.

Philo: Correct. Because of the Cross, it is literally impossible for us to “get to know” God as a God of wrath. But that is not because His nature but by chose: He chose to take upon Himself the wrath we deserved.

Eva: So are you saying we do not really know God the way He truly is?

Philo: I am saying we know God the way He always desired that we know Him: As blameless children in His sight. We are hidden in Christ, and that means hidden and protected from His wrath, eternally hidden in His love.


Eva: But why is it I have been told that God only is responsible for the good things that happen, and the devil the bad things? People say all the time, “The devil has come to steal, kill and destroy. But God only wants to bring life.” 

Philo: Well, that is both true and not true. But let’s look at that verse more carefully to see exactly what it says: “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I [Jesus] have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” Now let me ask you a question: Is this why Jesus came?

Eva: Well, yeah, I suppose it must be. He said it was.

Philo: So tell me then: Is this a statement about His nature, or His mission?

Eva: I am not sure I understand.

Philo: Well, if I came to your house and said, “I have come to fix your refrigerator,” you would probably conclude that my statement was related to why I was there, not who I was. You would think, “He has come to fix the refigerator.” You would not think, “He is only capable of fixing refrigerators.”

In the same way, when Jesus says, “I have come that you might have abundant life,” this is absolutely true — but he is not making an all-inclusive statement about the nature of God. He is not saying, “God is the supernatural force in the universe that is responsible for all good things that happen to you, and the devil is the supernatural force in the universe that is responsible for all the bad things that happen to you” — as though God and the devil are equal. On the contrary, Jesus was saying, “I have come into the world for this purpose of giving you abundant life.” And how do you think He accomplish this?

Eva: The Cross.

Philo: Yes. So because of the Cross, God has provided a way for us to experience eternal life, abundant life, abundant blessings and grace to flow into our lives. But this is because God no longer holds our sins against us. This is why when the paralytic was lowered down to Jesus from a rooftop to be healed, He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” He did not say, “Well, God is only capable of blessing, so here you go.” 

Eva: But wait: Are you saying God is responsible for things like poverty, sickness and disease? Are you saying it is God and not the devil?

Philo: Yes and no. One could say from the beginning, God and the devil have both been responsible for suffering, but in different ways.

Eva: What do you mean?

Philo: Well, imagine an evil man who lures a younger man into a life of crime, which results in his eventual arrest and conviction by a judge. Is the judge responsible for the young man’s suffering?

Eva: Yes, I suppose so.

Philo: But not in the same way the evil man is. So it is with God and the devil. From the very beginning, the devil has been responsible for luring mankind into disobedience and rebellion, but it is God who has pronounced judgment. So one could say God has been responsible for human suffering in the sense He has justly pronounced judgment upon humanity, but he is not responsible in that it was never His desire to cause suffering anymore than it was the judge’s desire to convict and sentence the criminal.  

Eva: But what about my pastor saying if he treated his children the way some say God treats them — by bringing upon them sickness and disease — he would be arrested for child abuse?

Philo: He would be. He would also be arrested for murder if he put one of his children to death. But what if he were a judge and sentenced a criminal to death? Would he be arrested for murder then?

Eva: No, of course not.

Philo: The problem with using analogies is knowing their limits. Your pastor’s mistake is assuming the only relationship God has to mankind is as a Father. But that is not so. If it were, it would mean He could never judge the world. God’s relationship to mankind is both Father AND Judge. And to be honest, God is only truly our Father through the Cross. It is because of the Cross we have been adopted and become His children. Prior to the Cross, the Bible describes us as objects of God’s wrath. 

Eva: But because of the Cross, we are no longer under God’s judgment, right?

Philo: Correct. So if your pastor is speaking to fellow believers — that is, children of God — then what He is saying makes a lot of sense. Through the Cross, God has literally become our Father. Further, God no longer holds us accountable for our sins. We are literally blameless in His sight. We are unpunishable. And since sickness and disease and poverty throughout scripture are shown to be a result of sin, it makes little sense to believe that a good Father would desire for those things to remain in our lives — that He is “responsible” for them.

Eva: But if He is not responsible for them, who is?

Philo: I thought you wanted to believe God was not responsible!

Eva: I do! But I am just wondering why bad things happen to us!

Philo: It is a fair question. I will answer simply for now, and that is to say all that we experience and receive from God Our Father now is by faith. And one of the main obstacles to faith is the belief that God is not as good as He is, or that God has not done all that He says He has done for us. If we still feel our sins are being held against us, for example, we will believe we are worthy of punishment, even though we no longer are. That unbelief can keep us from experience God’s extravagant goodness.

Eva: So it is important to believe, then, that God wants to bring good things into our lives? 

Philo: It is! And equally important: That it is all because of the Cross. 


Eva: What we have discussed so far makes a lot of sense, but I have a few questions. The first is, I have heard people say the only reason sin demands punishment is because of the Old Covenant, not God.

Philo: I am not sure I follow. Do you mean God only punishes sin  because the covenant he made with the children of Israel simply demanded it?

Eva: Yes.

Philo: So, let me get this straight: God has no problem with sin nor does He think it deserves punishment, but the old covenant simply required it, so He had to go along with it?

Eva: Yes, I guess so. When you put it that way, it seems kind of stupid.

Philo: It does seem like an odd idea. After all, why on earth would a God who does not believe sin deserves punishment create a covenant with His own people that demanded it?

Eva: I have no idea.

Philo: Neither do I. In fact, this would cast a shadow on God’s character. It would suggest God arbitrarily brought suffering and pain upon His own people not because of justice or His holiness but for no particular reason: He just felt like it. I have to think such a idea is someone’s futile attempt to explain away God’s wrathful nature.

Eva: Okay second question: You mention Jesus going to the Cross to satisfy God’s wrath. But a visiting minister at our church said the Cross was not God’s “wrath sponge.”

Philo: He actually used those words?

Eva: Yes. He said that nowhere in the Bible does it say Jesus actually suffered the wrath we deserved, that Jesus was simply the perfect sacrifice. What would you say to that?

Philo: Well I would say just because the Bible does not explicitly say Jesus suffered the wrath we deserved does not mean it is not true. The Bible also does not explicitly say anything about the Trinity, either. But no one in their right mind would suggest the Trinity is not true. But let me ask you: Why then did Jesus have to suffer such a horrific death? 

Eva: The visiting minister did not say. He just said Jesus was the perfect sacrifice.

Philo: Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. But if a sacrifice was all that was needed, He could have simply died a quick and relatively painless death. He could have taken poison and been done with it. Why when Jesus asked, “Take this cup from me,” did God just not take Him there, in the Garden? What is the reason apart from satisfying the punishment we deserve? Did God the Father simply want His Son to suffer needlessly?

There is a difference between explaining the truth and coming up with an explanation for the lie we have bought into. This sounds like another explanation to try to remove God’s wrath from the equation, because we have bought into the lie God is too good to punish sin.

Eva: Okay that makes sense. Third question: I have heard people say the reason Jesus went to the Cross was to restore our spiritual authority we lost in the Garden. In other words, it wasn’t about judgment.

Philo: No doubt we regained power and authority at the Cross, specifically the power over sin and the devil. But this is very different from saying why Jesus went to the Cross. 

Eva: What do you mean?

Philo: Well, let’s say you are a police officer. And a rumor starts and you are falsely accused of engaging in criminal misconduct. As a result, you lose your badge and gun and are kicked off the police force. Years later, an investigator looks into the affair and discovers the truth, and you are exonerated. Now what did the investigator do?

Eva: Well, He exonerated me. He proved I was blameless.

Philo: Correct. Now, because of this, you are reinstated and resume your normal duties as a police officer. Now how was your authority as a police officer restored?

Eva: Because I was found not guilty. I see. So you are saying our authority being restored was one of the effects of the Cross, but that is not really why Jesus went to the Cross. He went to make us blameless.

Philo: Correct.

Eva: Okay, that makes sense. Okay one last question, I promise!

Philo: Go for it.

Eva: I know we have talked about God’s wrath. But why do you think God’s wrath is so, well, wrathful? I mean, why is sin so offensive to Him? Clearly His response to sin in the Old Testament shows sin to be horrible, even though it does not always seem horrible to us.

Philo: That is a great question. Before I give you my answer, do you know where we find the most violent act of God’s wrath in the Bible?

Eva: I don’t know. Somewhere in the Old Testament?

Philo: No, right in the center of Christianity: The Cross. At the Cross, God unleashed the full weight of His wrath against the sin of mankind upon one man: His own Son. So if we want to understand how offensive sin is to God, we need to look no further than the Cross. 

Now we have touched upon this, but let me ask again: Do you think God would allowed His own Son to suffer the way He did if it weren’t absolutely necessary?

Eva: No, not at all. That just wouldn’t make sense.

Philo: I agree. God only allows suffering to the extent that it is necessary. His reasons may be hidden from us at times, but God would never allow needless suffering. It would not only be a violation of His love, but also a violation of His justice. What this means is that the Cross is necessary, and if necessary, then His wrath is equally necessary. And if so, then sin is horrific to God and to the Kingdom in a way that we hardly can grasp.

The problem when it comes to sin is we do not believe it is that bad: Like Dawkins, we often have our own standard for right and wrong. And to a great degree, that is based on our limited view of the world. But our ideas of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil: They all come from God. And if from God, then He alone is in a place to know how right a thing is, and how wrong a thing is.

One of the problems Dawkins makes is to assume, without any basis, that he is in a perfect position to judge right and wrong. But why is this? I mean, what basis does he have for knowing that in all the Cosmos, he is in a perfect position to see how right a thing is, or how wrong a thing is? Is it science? No, science cannot tell us a thing about right and wrong. So what is it then? Is it simply because he “feels” a thing is right? That can hardly be a good basis. Because we have just said for a thing to be right or wrong, not just a thing we like or do not like, God alone can be the one to judge: We therefore only know of right and wrong by what God has revealed to us.

So what is Dawkins’ basis then for his confidence to know when he says a thing is right and wrong that he is seeing things perfectly? I mean, if his mental and moral capacity were impaired or limited in any way so as not to be in the position to see as the Divine sees, how would he know? He wouldn’t.

This question is important because the Bible says one of the problems because of the Fall is that our minds are darkened: We literally do not see things as they truly are, and it is because of our sinfulness.

So to answer your question, Eva, the reason God’s response to sin is so violent and the nature of sin, by necessity, must be so horrific and yet we do not think it is, is because our hearts are darkened. And it is only God who can reveal the true horrific nature of sin, just as it is only God who can reveal the true nature of our own hearts. Does that make sense?

Eva: Yes! And I just realized something! 

Philo: What?

Eva: Well, as you were talking, I was just thinking we know of the horrible nature of sin the same way we know the amazing nature of God’s love: Both are revealed to us. And that got me thinking about the fact that sin must be absolutely horrible to God and horrible to Heaven — horrible in fact to all of creation, even though I could not see it. And then I thought of the sacrifice Jesus made at the Cross, and that is when it occurred to me: Knowing what I now know about how horrible sin is, the fact that God was willing to take upon Himself the wrath He demanded, and I myself deserved, makes God far, far more good than a God incapable of wrath ever could be.

Philo: Indeed it does. Indeed it does.

Selah

The Christian Mind: Feminism

A little over a year ago, self-described feminist Samantha Johnson penned an editorial for the Huffington Post titled When I Became A Mother, Feminism Let Me Down. In it, she writes:

We are teaching our young people that there is no value in motherhood and that homemaking is an outdated, misogynistic concept. We do this through the promotion of professional progression as a marker of success, while completely devaluing the contribution of parents in the home. 

As we turn to discuss how Christianity fits with the modern idea of feminism — arguably a topic that covers a lot of territory — I wish to zero in on those three words I have bolded above for emphasis, for the purpose of this essay. Continue reading “The Christian Mind: Feminism”

The Christian Mind: Marriage

On February 15, 2017 a remarkable thing happened. Pastor of St Mary’s Church, Maidenhead, UK Sam Allberry addressed the Church of England General Synod in London. The General Synod is the governing body of the Church of England, and the topic of same-sex relationships was on the agenda.

Allberry’s remarks on that day were brief but compelling as he challenged the assembly to uphold Christianity’s traditional teaching on marriage. What is even more astounding, however, is that Allberry, by his own admission, has been same-sex attracted his entire life.

The remarkable thing here is not simply that Allberry stood up for traditional marriage at a time when it is unpopular to do so. More importantly, Allberry gave voice to those within the church who are same-sex attracted at a time when it is also unpopular to do so. No matter what your views on marriage, such courage is admirable.

Today what I would like to do is to approach the arguably delicate topic of Christianity’s position on homosexuality and marriage in light of Allberry’s story. We set out in this series to tackle some of the hardest questions that face Christianity, and this topic certainly qualifies. Increasingly, same-sex marriage has become a stumbling block for many both inside and outside the church, as they wrestle with the question how a faith that allegedly condemns and excludes a whole group of people can possibly be called good. So it is vital we address this topic.

It is also vital for those who are same-sex attracted. For without a clear understanding of how the Christian faith fits into the issue of homosexuality, the church will by default fail to address the needs of these individuals.

Does Christianity Exclude?

If there is an elephant in the living room, I generally prefer to point it out up front. The elephant in this discussion is the fact that those who support same-sex marriage and those who hold to orthodox Christian beliefs will ultimately disagree when it comes to human sexuality.

But as Allberry demonstrates, there is a big difference between saying Christianity and same-sex marriage advocates disagree and Christianity excludes. In truth, the supporter of same-sex marriage will exclude Christianity just as much as Christianity will exclude the supporter of same-sex marriage. They will condemn one another — or at least have opportunity to — equally. And unfortunately we see this happening today.

The reason this is happening at all, however, is a failure on both sides to embrace differences in a tolerant, pluralistic society. We spent time last essay discussing the Christian roots of our modern-day concept of tolerance. The basis of tolerance is the belief in the worth and dignity of every individual, despite their beliefs or practices. The same holds true with those who support and practice same-sex marriage.

Does Christianity Condemn?

Someone might say at this point, “But Christianity’s belief on homosexuality is more than just a difference of belief. It actually condemns homosexuals.” This is categorically not true. Scripture does not condemn people; it condemns practice. Which is the same as saying it affirms the sacredness of marriage and Christianity’s doctrine concerning  human sexuality.

At some point in the debate over homosexuality, however, practice became identity (we shall discuss this below). On this basis alone can the claim be made that Christianity condemns people. But the idea that we are what we practice is a concept wholly foreign to Christian thought.

The truth is, before God we are all condemnable based on our moral condition. This is why Jesus came to die on a Cross, so that we might be forgiven and no longer be held accountable for our sin. And in Christ (that is, by receiving Jesus) we are all forgiven.

Is Christianity against Same-Sex Marriage?

Not necessarily. We mentioned that Christianity is the foundation for our modern-day idea of tolerance. Thus, from a Christian perspective, tolerance toward those who practice same-sex marriage is not excluded. This is no different from Christianity allowing Muslims or Hindus to practice their own beliefs in society. Christianity does not agree with the claims and practices of these religions, but it does not seek to prohibit.

Granted, we rarely saw this side of Christianity in the recent debate over same-sex marriage. The reason, however, is because — intentionally or unintentionally — same-sex marriage advocates, in their effort to extended the same status to same-sex couples, sought to redefine marriage itself — an institution with deep theological implications for many people. Most supporters seemed more interested in condemning Christian belief than actually making a distinction between the theological and legal definition of marriage.

Is Same-Sex Marriage Sacred?

This may seem like a strange question, but this is why I ask: Imagine a practicing Muslim baker being forced to bake a cake that says “Allah was not a prophet of God.” Most would agree this would understandably be a violation of conscience for them to do so, and very few would argue the Muslim must be compelled to do it anyway. In other words, we typically hold sacred the right of every individual to practice their religious beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.

But if a right-wing extremist seeks to endanger lives according to the dictates of their own ideology, we do not. The reason is that the protection of life is sacred — more sacred than the right to religious freedom.

This is why I ask whether we believe same-sex marriage is sacred. For this, as far as I see, is the only justification for not only violating but also condemning the beliefs of all religious faiths holding to a traditional view of marriage. It is the only basis by which a judge can rule in favor of a same-sex couple to sue a Christian baker for not making a cake for their wedding.

For if the issue was simply about the sacred right of same-sex couples to marry, it would be no different than granting people the right not to believe in Allah. They would have that right, but it would not extend to violate the religious rights of others.

Clearly, then, we think same-sex marriage is not just a right but a sacred institution: For anyone who violates that right — does not believe it is and wishes to voice or practice such belief —is condemnable. And in a way, this is the real allegation leveled against Christianity.

And now we must ask the most important question of this essay: Why do we feel same-sex marriage sacred?

Most people support same-sex marriage out of compassion. They think (or, rather, have been told to think) having different beliefs about marriage is hateful toward same-sex couples. Compassion is arguably sacred. That is, it is a virtue that most recognize is universal. But compassion is somewhat misplaced in this discussion. We are not asking whether we should be compassionate to all people: We are asking what we believe marriage fundamentally is.

Others support same-sex marriage because they feel two consenting adults should have a right to do what they want. This is the principle of tolerance, which we have already discussed and is regarded as sacred in our society, also. But tolerance is equally misplaced in this discussion. The question again is not whether two consenting adults should be able to do what they want, but what we believe marriage fundamentally is.

I am driving home this point because if we are to properly address the allegation that Christianity is evil for its definition of marriage, we must know what the correct definition of marriage is. To determine this, we must have a basis for such knowledge beyond mere emotion and irrationality. Hopefully this is not asking too much.

Enter Allberry

Allberry’s answer to the question of how we define marriage is quite simple. To his colleagues at the Synod, he said: “I was bullied as a child for having same-sex attraction. But now I feel I am being bullied in the Synod for being faithful to the teachings of Jesus on marriage.” By this statement, he draws out an extremely important point in our discussion: Our definition of marriage will always be defined by what we hold sacred.

Most supporters of same-sex marriage, if pressed, will point to the fact that same-sex attraction is not a choice as their reason for supporting same-sex marriage. Allberry rejects this for a remarkably simple reason: What we feel and what we are attracted to are not necessarily reliable indicators for what is ultimately virtuous and good.

Allberry elaborates:

The Bible says that as sinners all our desires are disordered, so it’s actually the case that all of us are fallen and broken in our sexuality. For most, that fallenness will be manifest in an opposite-sex direction; for me (and not a few other believers), it is seen in same-sex attraction.

What Allberry is doing here is not only fundamentally Scriptural but also sheds light on an implicit argument same-sex advocates are making: That our natural impulses and desires equal the good. That is, human virtue — whether related to sexuality or any other area of life —  is defined by what comes naturally to us. In other words, what we both feel and desire is sacred.

But from a rational standpoint, there are a few things problematic with such an idea. The first is that this idea does not seem to apply to other areas of our life. For example, if you find yourself sexually attracted to someone’s wife, does that make it good?

The second thing is that it fundamentally confuses what is with what should be. We have spent a good deal of time discussing moral values in this series. The conclusion we have drawn is that morality requires a Moral Authority outside ourselves dictating what is right and wrong; it is the very opposite of what we may desire.

Lastly, attaching moral virtue to our natural desires has the effect of making virtue itself non-transcendent. That is, morality and virtue simply become a byproduct of how we feel and what we want, not a thing to which we strive or are destined to become.

This last idea is wholly foreign to Christian thought. As Allberry points out, the foundation of Christianity is that by God’s mercy and great love, we are being restored to the standard of moral perfection. In fact, the only prerequisite is to admit our brokenness. To assert instead that what we feel and what we desire as sacred is to essentially reject God’s gift of redemption.

Conclusion

In summary, Christianity does not exclude or condemn. It simply holds to a standard of human sexuality that current modern thought rejects. What we are witnessing in our day is not the sudden realization that Christianity is not good. Rather, we are witnessing a move in modern society to redefine what good is, and in the process condemn those who disagree. And this New Morality is — at best — on a shaky footing.

Granted, the moment we reject the idea of tolerance and mutual respect for differences of belief in a pluralistic society and seek instead to make the human condition the mandated standard for human virtue, a transcendent morality like Christianity is bound to fall into disrepute. But such virtue hardly has moral force; taken to its logical conclusion, it is no different from lawlessness.

Lastly, I should point out my defense of Christianity here should not be construed necessarily as a defense of the modern Christian church as it pertains to the the homosexual community or those with same-sex attraction. As Allberry alludes to, we have much progress to be made to make those with same-sex attraction feel as God feels toward them and see themselves in our congregation as God sees them: Infinitely loved, deeply valued, no different from the rest of us except in particulars, and vital to the overall health and well-being of the body of Christ. In short, they are not only welcome but irreplaceable.


Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

The Christian Mind: Tolerance

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (Declaration of Independence)

We’ve spent time exploring the concept of moral values. What I would like to do now is discuss Christian moral values specifically. In particular I would like to ask whether Christianity  — traditionally understood — is intolerant. Continue reading “The Christian Mind: Tolerance”

The Christian Mind: Narrative

We’ve spent time in our past few essays laying a proper foundation to discuss Christian morality. Bottom line, any moral claim is an appeal to an authority beyond ourselves. By saying something is either right or wrong, we are claiming there is an ultimate standard by which human conduct is judged — what we called in our last post a Moral Authority.

In other words, you can say you do not like or prefer someone or something. But the moment you declare someone or something wrong or evil or unjust, you are imagining a standard beyond yourself. Continue reading “The Christian Mind: Narrative”