One of the toughest lessons I had to learn as a father was trying to find ways of making consequences “fit”. To feel corrected rather than abused, a child must sense proportionality.
Punishment is a loving thing for a father to concern himself with, because if a father does not correct a child early and often, the child will suffer greatly throughout his life, as his inability to say “no” to himself brings a cascade of disasters from the world around him and the rebel within him. Immediate response by their parents is especially helpful in the early years — children benefit from consistent results, arriving predictably and soon from their experiments with disobedience. Sam Stalos, of Denison University, has lectured effectively on the importance of consistent parental response to their children. Reb Bradley has a slightly too-terse but incisive view of this in “Child Training Tips.”
The trouble is, immediate response for a hothead like me is apt to be angry. It took me a number of years to learn to manage my own emotions to the point where I could teach my children lovingly without over-correcting. Of course, now I’m the master of that… right kids?!
The other potential extreme, lethargy or equanimity, is equally or even more dangerous. Children sometimes act up to get attention, and if a parent disengages out of fear of over-reacting, that hurts the child, too.
I mention these points as a backdrop to the concept of God’s wrath espoused by Calvinist evangelicals such as John Piper or John MacArthur, Jr. I consider these fellows my brothers in Christ, though I presume that attitude would not be reciprocated, in view of my multiple heresies.
I am still working on an answer to the first of 4 thesis statements Piper makes about God’s wrath — that it is eternal — that is, never ending.
Yesterday I argued that the scriptures balance the view by stating that God’s wrath is indeed momentary in the scope of cosmic time, and even in the scope of promised human experience. God stated that he did not create the earth in vain — to be burned up. Rather, he made it “to be inhabited”. As Jesus said, God is not the God of the dead, but the living. He intends to have a living creation, in fellowship with him, a family on earth as well as in heaven.
Today I will simply state that the punishment chosen by God must, by his own definition, fit the crime.
Property crimes are also fairly simple: make restitution, with an added penalty attached. And if you couldn’t pay, you became the indentured servant of the person you stole from for up to 7 years. Here’s an excellent summary of Old Testament and New Testament laws against stealing.
Reciprocity, or tailoring the punishment to the crime, was thus an important part of God’s law.
Augustine said, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.”
I agree with that, but the conventional Christian view of redemption doesn’t bring an adequate good out of the permission of evil. It doesn’t bring proportional good to most of the Jews, most of the East, most of the West.
Romans 1 and 2 are pivotal to an understanding of how God views human sin. A careful reading of these passages reveals proportionality, not the mainstream notion of infinite payback for finite sin. The ultimate penalty is cited clearly: death. Nothing about hell, nothing about torment. Just death. Those who commit sin are worthy of death.
And death would be eternal if God were not to interrupt it with a resurrection — so that’s where the “everlasting” or eternal idea comes from, Biblically.
Jesus said the same thing in his clear words about “eternal hell” — Gehenna — in Matthew 10. There he said,
Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.
Check out the word for “destroy” and you will find that it does not mean “preserve alive in torment.” It means obliterate, annihilate. Both the soul, the conscious existence, and the body, the form and structure, are terminated in the condition he calls “Gehenna.” It is permanent death, not eternal torment, which the Bible sets out as the consequence of sin.
It’s very important to me to understand why God would be happy. I don’t suppose most readers are all that familiar with the Calvinist teachings on this, but Calvin (and Augustine before him) claimed that God’s people would be sitting on the edge of heaven, looking down at hell where they could hear the cries of pain and agony of sinners for all eternity, and they would praise God for this. Their, and God’s happiness, would be magnified by the realization that bad people were getting what they deserved. But I agree heartily with atheists such as Chad Docterman who say infinite payback for finite sin is unfair.
So if God is a happy God, a happy Father, I’m looking for Biblical perspectives that maximize the number of sinners who repent, and minimize the number of sinners who ultimately fail to “get it.”
While death would be a reciprocal penalty for sin, God is not reciprocal with man. Where sin (and therefore death) abound, God’s grace abounds even more. We just haven’t seen it all yet.
I’ll have more on reciprocity tomorrow.