If you read the Bible enough or deal with people’s responses to it, you’ll inevitably come across the question of whether it’s “fair” for God to kill people. Why is it that God can wipe out an entire city—or even most of the world’s population (Noah’s flood)—and He’s still all good, loving, and just?
Well, let’s get the obvious cliche answer out of the way first. By the way, being cliche doesn’t mean it’s not true.
God is sovereign and creator of everything.
If God created the entire universe, including every single person in it, then who are we to tell Him what He can or cannot do? Technically, our lives are in His hands, even on a daily basis. The Bible tells us (e.g., Psalm 54:4) that God sustains our lives, gives us our every breath. Why then is He obligated to keep us alive if we have completely turned away and rebelled? What does God owe us? The answer is, of course, nothing.
This answer is really at the root of the issue, but it’s not enough for some people. So let’s take a practical look at how we can justify God’s killing of people (even though a perfect being should never have to justify His actions to us). Note that this next section is based on human reasoning (mine) so it’s prone to error, but it’s just one possible way to look at it.
God knows every person and is completely just, punishing and rewarding accordingly.
Here are a few verses to read and consider before we dive in:
Luke 12:47-48: “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Jeremiah 17:10 “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.”
Psalm 62:12: “and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done.”
What do these verses tell us in a nutshell? First, there are varying degrees of punishment and reward. In hell, whether you’re a traditionalist or annihilationist, it’s clear that people will be punished according to their deeds. This may mean longer suffering or a different measure of severity; we cannot know for sure. Second, God searches the heart and examines the mind. This means He knows our thought life and our actions—past, present, and future. Whether or not every one of our future actions is set in stone is not important. God knows where we’ve been and He knows the direction/path of our lives. He literally knows us better than we know ourselves.
Finally, God is loving. Sometimes, this seems to be at odds with His perfect justice, but it’s really not. They work together, but logically we can assume that God would want people to suffer the least amount of punishment while still achieving perfect justice. He will not overly punish anyone—there is no overkill with God.
So now let’s apply this to instances in the Bible. Picture the city of Sodom, where wickedness abounded. God was rightfully angry and wrathful when He wiped it out. But what gets lost in the skeptics’ minds is that God was also just and loving.
He was just because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), but He was also removing a source of corruption from the world. Is it any secret that moral decay spreads quickly when left unabated? If you think peer pressure (and culture) is something that only affects feeble-minded teenagers, think again. It affects everyone, though to differing degrees.
If the people of Sodom were allowed to live and increase in population and influence, can you imagine how much the rest of the world may have followed? Every time a wicked people was allowed to live in the Bible (usually in disobedience to God’s commands), they would cause the righteous around them to fall to sexual immorality and idolatry. The natural flow of the stream always goes from difficult –> easy, high to low.
For example, the Jews—God’s chosen people—were easily taken in with Baal worship and some even committed the reprehensible act of child sacrifices. These kinds of things wouldn’t have happened if the wicked around them were wiped off the earth. If you think the world is full of evil and suffering today, please know that it could have been much worse if drastic measures had not taken place in the past.
All it takes is one prominent figure—for instance, in the music industry—to push the limits of decency, and the world will swiftly follow. Things that used to shock us or seem abhorrent quickly become the norm. We need more and more extremeness to elicit any moral outrage from us as we grow increasingly callous and desensitized. God knows that this is how humans are. In His wisdom and foreknowledge, He cuts off the source of corruption like a cancerous tumor…and then people accuse Him of being “mean” and “petty.”
God was also loving in this scenario, even to the Sodomites. Think about it logically here: if God punishes people according to their deeds, then you would think that MORE bad deeds would incur MORE punishment in the long run. So if God knows that the Sodomites were a lost cause, unwilling to turn from their ways, then wiping them off from the face of the earth instantly is the most merciful solution. This way, they will enter into the afterlife with a shorter rap sheet. Simply put, God will have less to punish than if He had allowed them to live longer.
Remember that sin entails punishment since God is perfectly just, but God’s love wants to limit the severity of that punishment if at all possible. The only way to do this (without infringing upon free will) is to cut a person’s life short if they’re headed down the wrong path.
This principle also applies to “good” people as well. Consider King Josiah whose life was ended at 39 years of age. All throughout his life, He served God and brought his people back away from idolatry. So why didn’t God allow him to live longer? Well, we may never fully know the answer to that question. Part of the reason lies in the sins of Judah leading up to that point (2 Kings 23:26-27). Realistically, there are consequences for past generations’ mistakes as well as federal headship.
But also, the event that caused his undoing may hold some hints. Egypt was marching up to the Euphrates River to help Assyria against the Babylonians, and the Egyptian pharaoh had rightly warned Josiah not to interfere. Their quarrel was not with Judah, and God had warned against attacking the Egyptians at this juncture (2 Chronicles 35:20-22). But Josiah, overly confident and reckless, decided to try anyway. He was killed for failing to take heed of God’s warning. Pride had started to seep into him after all the blessings God had poured out onto Josiah’s kingdom.
So why did God kill Josiah so quickly after one act of disobedience? Maybe it was a necessary part of God’s timing regarding judgment on the kingdom of Judah. But also, maybe God knew that Josiah was on the same track as King Solomon who preceded him. Solomon had started out his reign in complete and humble submission to God. After he prayed for wisdom—which greatly pleased God (because most people would have asked for riches and power)—God blessed his kingdom mightily. Solomon’s kingdom became wealthy beyond imagination and the king’s wisdom was known through much of the world around him. But this eventually caused pride to seep in, and not only that, but Solomon was taken in with the desires of his flesh—namely, scores and scores of foreign women as his wives. Solomon’s empire began to crumble away, and the next generation would see the kingdom split into Israel and Judah.
Anyhow, sorry for that detail. It’s still fresh in my mind from my studies, but the point is that Josiah may have been on a similar track. By killing him at 39, God may have seen that Josiah’s later years (from 40-on) would be more bad than good. So God lovingly allowed Josiah to die then and enter into the afterlife with a relatively clean record. Eternal reward infinitely outweighs all temporary worldly prosperity, including a long life.
I hope this made some sense and that I didn’t ramble on too much. Again, this is just my take, and it’s therefore very limited. But you can see how we can make some sense of God’s actions if we’re not so quick to close our minds. Knowing the Bible in its entirety helps, too. You can’t look at one piece of scripture in isolation, but rather, you need to piece it together in light of the overall picture.
God knows what He’s doing, folks, and please take comfort in knowing that He’s a lot wiser and loving than you and I could ever be.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I feel like I was brought up believing in the wrong kind of Christianity. My bible study friends know that I can sometimes turn a little bitter about this. Why has it been so hard to find the true word of God in men, even those who have devoted their lives to teaching others about it?
The following is what I used to believe, having grown up in the church.
We once were doomed to eternity in hell because of our sin. Then, because of Jesus shedding his blood on the cross, all of our sins—past, present, and future—have been wiped clean forever. Because we are clean in God’s sight now, we are guaranteed passage to heaven when we die. Our sins ultimately don’t matter anymore.
While this is technically true (more or less) in the most basic sense, there is the danger of misunderstanding. The basic foundation of our salvation is on the line here, so we can’t afford to brush past it casually. We need to take off our blinders and earplugs and see what the Bible REALLY says. For me, I had to get rid of this instinctual habit—unknown to even me—of dumping certain truths out of my mind if they didn’t fit neatly into my own picture of God. Even if the Bible’s words were clear, my eyes and mind were selective. Instead of consuming it whole, I’d pick and choose only the parts I found to my liking.
(OK, blah blah blah, what are you getting at, Joe?)
Here’s my point. The Bible does NOT say that we are all saved simply with our mouths or intellectual assent. Sin is not just a matter of making God a little happy or very happy. Instead, the Bible tells us that we have to make a choice. We need to either choose the world and its sin, or decide to follow God. One path leads to destruction, the other leads to eternal life. Simple as that.
What people don’t seem to realize is that it’s an either-or choice. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’m not talking about a works-based salvation, I’m talking about two choices and we have to pick one. There is no third option that reads: “I choose God and also want to keep my sinful life, thx!”
Let’s use a few illustrations, which came up in discussions with my bible study friends.
The sinking ship
After the fall of man, we’ve been on a sinking ship ever since. We’re in the middle of the ocean and doom is certain, though we don’t know exactly when it will befall us.
But suddenly, Jesus comes from a distance in a small boat to rescue us. We hear about him, we see him, and rejoice! (This is the point at which most Christians mistakenly believe themselves to already be saved.) Then we happily grab all of our belongings and rush toward the boat. Before we can get in, however, he stops us.
“You have to leave all that luggage behind. There’s no way to fit that on the boat and still get to shore,” Jesus tells us.
“But Jesus,” we resist. “I can’t leave this behind, it’s too valuable to me!”
“What’s more valuable? Those material possessions or your life? Whichever choice you make, those bags are going to end up at the bottom of the ocean anyway.”
In this scenario, would any of us really say “no thanks” to Jesus and cling onto our worldly belongings instead? Of course not. But why is it that we’re so unable to let go of this world to take Jesus into our lives? Is it because deep within us, we secretly doubt that Jesus would be able to save us anyway? That perhaps he’s a mirage? You either believe or you don’t, and many people still need to resolve their doubts (and do it ASAP).
If our doubt is strong enough, we might be unwilling to let go of this world and instead try to eke out a short time of pleasure before our time is up. Many people hedge, just in case, and don’t even realize they’re doing it. In reality, we could have had eternity ahead of us. Not only that, but Jesus promises to reward us richly once we get to “shore” anyway. Yet we still refuse.
Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
1 Kings 18:21: “Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’ But the people said nothing.”
Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Proverbs 11:19: “The truly righteous man attains life, but he who pursues evil goes to his death.”
The Bible tells us clearly that it’s an either-or situation. Sin, in the colloquial sense, is thought of as a “bad” or evil act. But in reality, it is choosing anything apart from God’s way. Of course, even true believers who have chosen to follow Jesus will falter time to time. Their eyes will wander and their minds will get distracted. What we’re talking about here is a lifestyle of sanctification, walking the narrow path.
Keep in mind that the narrow path and the wide path are not right next to each other. You can’t hop around from one to the other on a moment’s notice. They are far apart and going in opposite directions; one to heaven, one to hell. Pick one and stick with it; the choice is yours.
My wife and I have watched this show on TV called “Hoarders,” and you can’t help but be puzzled and disgusted by what you see.
The people on the show have this illness where they grow emotionally attached to everything they own, to the point where they can’t get rid of anything. It doesn’t even matter what it is; it could be an empty plastic bottle or an empty bag of chips. Eventually, over time, their entire house gets filled up by this junk and their lives start to completely fall apart.
Social services threatens to take away the children from these hazardous environments. Marriages are strained, and family members become resentful and embarrassed. In some episodes, it literally comes down to a choice between a loved one and the junk, and the hoarder has difficulty choosing. Often, they promise to get rid of everything for the loved one’s sake, but waver halfway through. It’s unbelievable.
My wife saw the lesson for our lives.
Are we really so different? Is it any less stupid to live for this world when it is literally less than a speck compared to the eternity in heaven that could await us? Again, I think the problem is that people don’t realize it’s an either-or situation. You have to be willing to give up your wealth, comfort, safety…even family. Only when you make God the Lord of your life can you really be saved.
Matthew 6:19, 20: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal;”
While we should be fully willing to do whatever God asks, know that He may not ask his followers to become poor. I hesitate sometimes to tell people this because they might cling to this hope of relative comfort.
In Proverbs, there is the suggestion that neither wealth nor poverty are desirable. Great wealth might keep you from seeking dependence on God fully, whereas poverty could lead to other kinds of sin.
Proverbs 30:8-10: “Keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.”
The idea is to depend on Him and to choose the way to eternal life rather than the fleeting pleasures of this world.
So how can we stop sinning anyway?
Isn’t it impossible to stop sinning? Why even bother?
Well yes, it is impossible by our own human effort. Even if we consciously try to live without sin, we will fail. Our flesh is too weak. If we succeed at it for a while, we will grow prideful; we will look down at ourselves and see that we have become Mr. Hyde with our self-satisfaction, as Tim Keller illustrates in his book.
But a true born-again believer has the Holy Spirit living inside of them. The Holy Spirit cannot sin, he cannot fail, so the trick is to allow him total control over our lives. There is always an element of sin that wants to wrest back control of the wheel, but the more we overcome, the more sanctified we become. The Holy Spirit grows louder and more powerful in our lives to the point where it’s harder to ignore him. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s a process. Our lives are in a continual process where we become more Christ-like, and if the general trajectory doesn’t seem that way for you, it’s time to check yourself against the Bible.
Make sure the following verse doesn’t apply to you:
Romans 1:32: “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”
The inexperienced quarterback
Developing a lifestyle of sanctification is like a young quarterback being coached. As my friend put it, inexperienced quarterbacks (QBs) start out with a lot of bad habits. In controlled practice environments, he might throw passes with pinpoint accuracy, but the true test comes in a game against a real-life opponent.
When an opposing defensive player gets through the line and charges toward the quarterback, the QB instinctively backpedals and wants to throw the ball immediately. Now, any fan of football will know that you can’t backpedal and get enough forward velocity to throw an accurate pass. But with inexperience, instincts trump the QB’s learning and he chucks it up for grabs. What will often happen then is that the pass will fall short and a player from the other team will get an interception. He may even run it back for a touchdown, resulting in a costly swing and momentum shift.
Why does the QB do this? Doesn’t he know just as well as us couch-potato spectators that throwing a pass while backpedaling is ill-advised? Of course he does. But he needs to develop the tendency of making the right decision. He needs to break his bad habits and replace them with good ones. How does he do this?
First, he needs good coaching. The QB needs a coach to yell in his ear every time he makes this kind of stupid decision, even if it seems to succeed momentarily against the odds. That way, he can be conditioned to do the right thing even when a high-pressure game is on the line.
Second, he needs to continually practice. No one is born with good football mechanics, so the QB needs to diligently make sure that his body and mind learn to perform correctly naturally, almost without thinking. If the mechanics haven’t become natural for him, by the time intense pressure comes, you can bet everything is going to break down and go wrong.
Third, he needs to build up a record of right decisions. That is, he needs to perform correctly over and over again. He needs to learn to take the sack or even get outside the pocket and throw the ball away. He needs to carry out the smart choice enough times until it develops into a good habit. On the flip side, every time he falters and goes back to his flawed instincts—what he naturally wants to do so badly—he makes it that much harder to do the right thing the next time the situation arises. He cements the “sin” so that it becomes more difficult to break.
Obviously, these principles apply to us in our Christian walks. We need to listen intently to the voice of the Holy Spirit. We need good teachers and accountability partners in our lives. We need to deeply immerse ourselves in God’s word and memorize scripture to equip ourselves for battle. Then, when temptation comes—as it inevitably will—we need to show God that we can overcome, that we choose Him instead of the fleeting pleasure of this world. We need to prove to ourselves that the shackles of sin have been broken. The next time temptation comes around, we’ll be ready and battle-tested. We’ll say, “I’ve seen this one before, and I remember how I got through it the last time. And I remember being glad I made the right choice.”
Sometimes, we need to see for ourselves how good it is to be victorious. For some people, simply hearing about it won’t do. Once we’ve seen first-hand that holiness is the way to go, we’ll be that much more convinced to keep up the good fight.
***For an excellent video sermon on this subject, check out Francis Chan’s “When Sin Looks More Enjoyable Than God”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iszVTWUGQQM.
Sometimes, I’m a bit surprised that people don’t see the difference between early Christian martyrs and, say, Muslim martyrs. It’s really quite clear once you think about it.
A typical conversation might go something like this:
Christian: “The disciples’ willingness to die proves that Christianity is true!”
Skeptic: “Well, other religions have had plenty of martyrs throughout their history. According to you, their religion is false, so it seems people are willing to die for things that aren’t true.”
Here’s the simple but important difference: martyrs of other religions are willing to die for their beliefs. Early Christian apostles and martyrs died for something they knew to be true—something they had seen with their own eyes.
I’m willing to give Islam the benefit of the doubt and say that Muhammad probably wasn’t intentionally deceiving people. He doubted the veracity of his own dreams and visions, even wondering if they were demonic (possibly). But his wife convinced him that he was hearing the word of God.
Now, many people throughout history have mistakenly believed to have heard or felt God, instructing them to do something or leading them in a direction. If they are wrong but delude themselves, then yes, they may be willing to die for that belief. Unless someone has actually had God speak to them for real, they probably wouldn’t know the difference between a true vision and one conjured up by their own imaginations (or demonic deception). Relying on a second-hand analysis, such as by one’s spouse, is even more unreliable. In the past, our understanding of dreams was also very poor, so this kind of misinformed conviction is to be expected.
But with Jesus’ disciples, this kind of delusion is not really a possibility. If they were making up the story of the gospel, or if they had stolen the body of Jesus, they would have ridden the wave of Christianity for as long as it benefited them…then given it up once their lives were on the line. Instead, we see all of the disciples except one (John, who miraculously survived and died years later) courageously and willingly going to their deaths.
They didn’t die for a belief or convictions from a vision. They died after having seen the risen Christ in person with their own eyes—together in groups, no less. This wasn’t a story they made up or something they heard from others. They died for first-hand knowledge of the most tangible kind.
That’s the difference.
Last night, I listened to a debate between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and Muslim apologist Shabir Ally concerning whether Jesus rose from the dead. Mr. Ally is a noted Muslim debater who has gone up against a multitude of other Christians and atheists.
Here is a link to the debate: http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/2008/07/william-lane-craig-vs-shabir-ally-did.html.
Like Dr. Craig, I was surprised to hear that in Muslim apologist circles, a “modern theory that is gaining ground” is that Jesus seemed to be crucified on the cross, but that he in fact did not die. Jesus was supposedly taken down before death, thereby being consistent with Islamic beliefs that Jesus was never (fully) crucified.
The reason for surprise (and frankly, disappointment in the robustness in Muslim apologetics) is that this theory has been dead for over 150 years. It’s a theory that used to be largely supported by atheists, but there were so many holes that it was abandoned from all serious discussion.
Basically, Mr. Ally’s version goes like this: Jesus was sentenced to die on the cross, but Pilate was sympathetic. Rather than let Jesus die on the cross, Pilate and perhaps another guard decided to take him down early and pretend like he had died. And while Jesus was on the cross, the drink offered to him had myrrh in it, which is an anesthetic. Another point I may offer for Mr. Ally is that Jesus “died” in only six hours, whereas most people would survive for about three days.
First of all, Roman guards were professionals at this. There’s no way Jesus could have fooled the other guards into thinking he was dead. One of them even stuck a spear in Jesus’ side, and out came blood and water (I’ll get back to this in a bit). This was to confirm that Jesus was dead. It’s also important to note a gross misunderstanding by Mr. Ally here in the debate. Dr. Craig had proposed that there was no way for Jesus to fake his death because this would entail him hanging lifelessly for long enough to convince the guards. The problem is, we know that in order to breathe on the cross, one had to push up with his legs and try to stand as erect as possible to gasp a little bit of air, then slump back down…only to repeat this process over and over again. Asphyxiation was the most common cause of death on the cross, and sometimes the guards would break the criminals’ legs so that they could no longer push up to breathe.
In order for Jesus to convince everyone he was dead, not only would he have to breathe in such a way that no nearby guard could see (e.g., his exposed rib cage moving, stomach expanding), but he would have to push up with his legs without anyone noticing. If Jesus were to hold his breath or something, he would die in a mere two minutes or so. Mr. Ally misinterpreted this point when he seemed amused at the supposed assertion that people died on the cross in two minutes instead of three days. But that was NOT the point being made.
Pilate, if you remember the story, did feel guilty about condemning Jesus to death, but he had washed his hands of it after the crowd kept pushing for the crucifixion. He let the crowd get their wish because he was afraid for his own political position. There’s no reason to believe he would stick out his neck for a stranger and put his entire career (or even his life) on the line.
The point about anesthetic is irrelevant. That doesn’t prolong your life, nor could it assist someone in faking their death.
Plus, after the theoretical faked death, this is where Muslim apologetics (or perhaps just Mr. Ally) comes up obviously short. Mr. Ally contends that when Jesus was taken to the tomb, he was still alive and then God took him up to heaven. So therefore, Jesus never died and was never technically “crucified” since, by his definition, this necessitates a death to go along with it.
Sure it’s possible that God could do that, but why would God (or Allah) deceive everyone to believe that Jesus had died and been resurrected? Why make all the evidence point toward that conclusion? That would be a very odd way for God to work…with trickery, Jesus holding his breath, etc. Plus, are we to believe that Pilate arranged to have Jesus taken down early to avoid death (the spear thrust is ignored here), only to have Jesus placed in the tomb with the huge stone sealing the exit? Without immediate and drastic medical attention, Jesus would have died anyway in that tomb. Why would Pilate “save” Jesus, then basically consign him to death from his wounds in the tomb anyway?
Finally, we come back to the spear wound that I alluded to earlier. Mr. Ally tries to write off this detail by saying that John’s gospel came later and it must have been made up, but there is no reason to believe this other than to desperately cling to Muslim beliefs. John probably did come later, but that’s to be expected since he was the youngest apostle and probably didn’t get around to writing things down until he was nearing the end of his life. The other gospels had faithfully recorded pretty much everything anyway.
Even John and other witnesses couldn’t have realized the full significant of the spear wound and the blood and water that came out from Jesus’ body. Not only did it confirm Jesus’ death, but it also revealed WHY he died. Remember that the soldiers were surprised that Jesus had passed away in six hours instead of the usual three days (if you know the details leading up to the crucifixion or even just watch The Passion of the Christ, it shouldn’t be that surprising…Jesus was brutalized beforehand). It took about 1,800 years, but we now know that the blood and water pouring out indicated that Jesus had died in “only” six hours due to a ruptured heart muscle. This was a recent medical observation that couldn’t have been anticipated in ancient times. Perhaps the torture, mocking, and crucifixion was too much to bear. I tend to believe that Jesus had literally died of a broken heart when shouldering the burdens of sin for the entire world.