Why do we have such difficulty believing God could love those we perceive as good and those we perceive as bad with the same unfailing love? Because we relentlessly insist on trying to humanize God. We tend to love people according to how they act, and we keep trying to re-create God in our image.
-- Beth Moore
First I must confess that it may be too soon for me to post on such a subject because I myself am in the process (for about 2 1/2 years now) of rediscovering the character and nature of God. I had some misconceptions about God that He thankfully revealed to me to be false, and I have since repented (Repenting in the original sense of the word; μετάνοια or metanoia - to change ones mind). Second, I would like to warn you that continuing further might be akin to something like taking the 'red pill' and could bring to the surface some issues you may have never considered before, and it could be at times disorienting. Because of this, I will probably use quite a few quotes for no other reason than to show that my view on the subject is not 'new' or 'unique'. If you are satisfied with your beliefs about God and punishment; if there is no 'splinter in your mind', then you may want to go read something else. Here I am simply sharing with my friend what I've come to believe regarding the idea of a 'punishing God'.
I believe that, over the centuries, Christianity has picked up some baggage along the way that we need get rid of. To demonstrate this let me quote two Theologians. The first is Jonathan Edwards, an 18th century theologian who is considered to be one of America's the most influential theologians. His beliefs and legacy have greatly shaped beliefs and practices of churches in America.
The bow of God's wrath is bent, and His arrows made ready upon the string. Justice points the arrow at your heart and strings the bow. It is nothing but the mere pleasure of God (and that of an angry God without any promise or obligation at all) that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.
Compare this to the 4th century theologian Athanasius of Alexandria, who was much closer to Christ and apostles than Edwards.
It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.
Do you notice the difference in tone, and the difference in how each perceives God's attitude towards creation? In Jonathan Edwards' words we see a god who is ready and willing to punish us for our sins, and in Athanasius' words we see the Trinitarian God of Scripture who rescues us from our sins. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:1-2 "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."(emphasis mine) I believe this as well as anything demonstrates that there was a marked shift in our understanding of God's nature, the meaning of the terms judge and justice, and our understanding of the Cross.
Think about this for a moment, if Jesus suffers God's 'punishment' for our sins, where does forgiveness fit in? As Baxter Kruger says:
There is no forgiveness in that model. God doesn't forgive you, Jesus suffers your punishment. That's not forgiveness is it? It's justice; there's not any forgiveness there. Now, I know that rocks your world; I hope it does.
-- Baxter Kruger, Perichoresis 101 (audio)
And if Jesus suffers God's 'punishment' for our sins, who does that change or who does that 'fix'? It would change God wouldn't it? God's 'need' for 'justice' (in the western legal since of the word) would be 'satisfied', but we would be unchanged.
Why did God need the cross to save us? How does it make anything better? These were the questions I asked myself.
For many with a hurtful understanding of Christianity this is vitally important. For them the cross is something terrible. It shows them a cruel God who accuses and condemns us for something we cannot help and then murders his own son to appease this bloodlust. They do not see love in the cross; they see something cruel, they see a God who frightens them. How can they open their hearts to the one who is Life, who is Love, with this hurtful and false image of God blocking them? Understanding how the cross shows us the radical love of God is crucial here because it affects how we can trust and open our lives to God's love.
-- Derek Flood, Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor
Since Adam’s fall we have come to picture God not as a loving Father inviting us to trust him, but an exacting sovereign who must be appeased. When we start from that vantage point we miss God’s purpose on the cross. For his plan was not to satisfy some need in himself at his Son’s expense, but rather to satisfy a need in us at his own expense.
-- Wayne Jacobsen, He Loves Me!, p. 104
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! --Revelation 1:5b-6(emphasis mine)
When we begin to peel off the religious lenses that we've inherited we begin to see that God's purpose is all about restoration and healing. When we start to understand this, we can begin to truly believe John 3:16 -- "For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (emphasis mine)
Today when we think about a Judge and justice, our minds immediately think about the black-robed cold and detached man whose job is to hand out punishments to wrongdoers. But the Hebrews thought of something different, they thought about the old testament Judges. "When the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge and delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them."(Judges 2:18) Hebrew Judges were delivers, their active goal was to deliver Israel from suffering at the hands of it's enemies. So God as Judge, means that he is our deliverer, and when he brings justice he will finally once and for all restore right relations, or as N.T. Wright says, he will 'put the world to rights'.
I know I said that I would address my friends concern it two posts, but this one is turning quite lengthy. I still need to address the idea that god excludes people from the offer of salvation among other things. I'll get to that next.
For more a in depth treatment of the Cross as cure, you can listen to the free 'Transition' audios by Wayne Jacobsen.
Also check out the podcast: Can we make God too nice?