The Necessity of Judgment: Violence in the Old Testament Part 5
In our last article I looked at the context of grace which surrounds stories of judgment such as the Conquest of Canaan. I ended the article with the following observation and questions: “Some will object and say that it is unreasonable for God to bring judgment on people who don’t want to follow Him. Why must they receive judgment? Why can’t God just ‘live and let live?'” To these questions I will add one other, “If the God of the Bible is so gracious why does He have to judge anyone?”
I want to explore three responses to this question. In this article we will look at two responses and follow up with a third response in the next article. The first two responses require that we look at what the Bible reveals about the nature of God and the nature of sin. Therefore we will examine these ideas first to lay the groundwork, and then move to the topic of God’s judgment.
God is Pro-Life
The Old Testament opens in Genesis 1 with the story of Creation. This story affirms that God is the Author of all life. Out of the darkness and void of Genesis 1:2, God brings everything into existence. According to Genesis 1, God doesn’t skimp on any of the details for His Creation. By the time He is finished Genesis 1:31 tells us “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” The word “God” is used 35 times in the Creation story, which extends from Genesis 1:1-2:3. He is the only subject of the Creation story. This means that Creation and the giving of life is God’s idea and is brought into existence by His power alone. The Creation story teaches that God is the source of all life. We could say without any exaggeration that the Creation story teaches that God is “pro-life.”
God’s personal name Yahweh is introduced in Genesis 2:4 (written as “the LORD” in English versions of the Bible). God’s personal name comes from the Hebrew word for “being.” When God reveals His name to Moses He defines Himself as, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exod. 3:14). Actually, the meaning of God’s name can be translated in several ways, but the important point is that God’s name points to His eternal nature. He is the self-existent One. He is Life and Being and in need of no one or nothing for His existence. Revelation 4:8 describes Him as the One “Who was and is and is to come!” The New Testament reveals the same truth about Jesus. John begins his gospel with the words, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it abundantly” (John 10:10). This sounds very similar to the declaration of Genesis 1:31. Notice, that it has always been God’s intention to give His Creation life and to give it abundantly. God is not stingy when it comes to the gift of life! Further on in the Gospel of John Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25). Again Jesus declares to His disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Clearly the Bible goes overboard to make this point: God is life. In His very essence He is life, He is the Giver of life, and His desire is to give life abundantly.
Recognition of this biblical truth is important for several reasons. First, if God is life and the Giver of life, then it follows that rejection of God is a choice that leads to death. A person cannot say “I want life, but I don’t want God.” It’s simply not an option. In rejecting God, a person is rejecting life itself and so, biblically speaking, it becomes an oxymoron to say “I want life, but I don’t want God.” Moses made this clear to the children of Israel long ago when he said, “…I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…” (Deut. 30:19-20). Not only does this passage state that choosing God is choosing life and blessing, it infers not to choose Him is death and cursing. Furthermore, notice that the exhortation is “choose life.” God’s desire is that we choose life. In my last article we noted the passage from Ezekiel where God says, “‘For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,’ says the Lord God. ‘Therefore turn and live!'” (Ezek. 18:32). The Bible could not be any clearer that God desires life for His Creation.
Sin’s Opposition to the Life-Giving Word
Genesis 3 teaches that sin is a disruptive force in God’s good Creation. To understand this more completely, we need to return to Genesis 1 and examine the part that God’s Word plays in Creation. Genesis 1 teaches that God brought everything into existence by His Word. “Then God said…” is always the start of God’s creative acts (e.g., Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, etc.). This is why the Psalmist (Ps. 33:6), the apostle John (John 1:1-2), and the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 11:3), all insist that the world was created by the Word of God. Therefore Genesis 1 teaches us that the Word gives life. The Word is the agent through which all life comes into being. What does this Word do? It takes the “formlessness and void” of Genesis 1:2 and begins to construct a world in which life can flourish. The Word does this by bringing order out of chaos. The Word takes formlessness and creates structure, and fills the empty void with life and life-giving substances.
One of the ways the Word accomplishes this is through the process of “dividing.” We are told that God “divides” the light from the darkness (Gen. 1:4), the waters above the heavens from the waters below (Gen. 1:6-7), and the day from the night in order to create seasons (Gen. 1:14, 18). We are also told that, by His Word, God gathers the waters together so that dry land can appear (Gen. 1:9-10). Another way in which God, through His Word, brings order out of chaos is by bringing forth trees, fruit, and animals “according to their kind” (an expression which occurs 10 times in Genesis 1). The point of all this is to declare that the Word brings life by creating order and structure from the chaos.
Sin’s Destructive Nature
We can all appreciate this. If we are looking for a house to live in we don’t want a pile of rubble. We need structure. We want walls, doors, ceilings and windows. We want plumbing and electricity to be in its proper place. Genesis 1 teaches us that the Word of God is good because it brings order and structure into being and creates life out of what was once an uninhabitable place. The reason sin is so dangerous, according to the Bible, is that it is a crossing-over, or destruction of the good boundaries that God’s Word has set in place. It is not accidental that when the serpent tempts Eve, he begins with, “Has God indeed said…” (Gen. 3:1). In other words, the serpent attempts to get Eve to mistrust God’s Word. If Eve oversteps the boundaries put in place by the Word, then she steps into a dangerous world. God had warned Adam concerning the forbidden fruit, “In the day you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). This statement is not a threat, “You better do what I tell you or else!,” it is a warning by the Lord of life. God knows that to step outside the protective boundaries He has set up, boundaries necessary to hold back the chaos (Gen. 1:2) and produce an abundant life (Gen. 1:31), is to step into a world of death. This is similar to walking into a beautiful home and one by one knocking out the support beams and walls because they seem too restrictive. Knock out enough supports, or a key support, and the whole house will fall in on our head. To enter the world of sin is to leave the safety and protection of the Lord of life behind and to enter a world where only death exists. This is so because anything apart from God (the source of all life), is death. Therefore to choose against God and against his Word is to choose death.
Live and Let Die
This is why it is impossible for God to take a “live and let live” attitude toward those who rebel against Him. The simple fact is, there is no life apart from God. The best that God can do for a person who constantly refuses Him is to have a “live and let die” attitude! Thank heaven that God cares too much to simply leave it at that without trying everything possible to turn His Creation back to Him.
Reasons for God’s Judgment
There are basically two reasons then for God’s judgment of the rebellious unbeliever. First, God desperately wants to give life to all of His Creation. Therefore He warns (and even sends) judgment in hopes that people will repent and come to life. We saw this principle in our last article as noted in Jeremiah 18:6-10 and the example of the Ninevites repentance in the book of Jonah. This is similar to the parent who warns a child of harm or punishment if they don’t stop doing such ‘n such. Is the parent cruel? Is the parent trying to spoil the child’s fun? We know better. We can easily see that the parent acts in the child’s best interest so that the child can have a happy productive life. The parent’s warning is motivated by love. Better to be threatened with punishment, or even experience punishment, than to experience the consequences of something worse. Why do atheists find it so difficult to grasp this principle of God’s character when they would respond similarly toward the child they love?
The second reason for God’s judgment is that there are some who will never accept God and His correction and, therefore, for the good of His Creation they must be dealt with. This is similar to having a dangerous individual in our society who refuses to change. Perhaps they are a thief, a murderer, or a child-abuser. How long should we tolerate the behavior of a person who refuses to change but is a danger to society? At some point judgment must occur. No one wants to live in a society where there is no justice. God is incredibly long-suffering (even more so than us!), but God will not let sin go unchecked forever. In God’s judgment, He not only hopes for the repentance of the sinner, He seeks to protect the rest of His Creation from a destructive person (or people) who refuses to change and thus endangers everyone else.
Some will object by saying that God’s judgment seems much harsher than a parent’s punishment. I will deal with this idea more in a future article, but here I will note that this response doesn’t understand the gravity of sin. As we have seen, sin leads to death because it turns its back on the One who gives life. As the apostle Paul wrote, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). If God does not judge sin, then sin runs rampant over His Creation and death is the ultimate victor. But, as we have seen, God’s desire is to give life to His Creation. Thus Paul’s statement in Romans 6:23 does not end with the bad news of death; it continues, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
In my next article I will examine a third response concerning the biblical teaching on judgment.