God isn’t nearly as active in punishing in the New Testament as in the Old Testament. One explanation is that OT writers believed, thus wrote, it was sacrilegious to not express God(s) as all powerful and controlling. A God of freedom doesn’t control our cognitions. NT writers seemed influenced by Jesus’ example. Is God waiting to zap you if making a wrong move, or do our actions have their own destructive consequences? Selfish people often don’t have many friends!
Old Testament views of God’s wrath.
The OT is a bit schizophrenic when describing God and punishment. Ancient literature predating Genesis wrote about local floods in their lands. It is not fabrication if biblical writers used a local flood to illustrate global human problems. This was a common literary practice in Ancient Near East times. But there is no denying God is described as actively destroying than letting evil run its course in the Flood story. God in the OT is said to actively punish the Israelites and their enemies.
The Book of Job can be interpreted to paint a different picture. The moral of the story is that good and evil people suffer in this world. God doesn’t control who is punished and who isn’t punished for their deeds. Job is described as blameless and righteous (1:1) and doesn’t escape suffering. God isn’t portrayed as the bringer of pain, controlling when evil or good folks such as Job suffer.
In the New Testament God seems to respond differently to rebellion.
The New Testament says the wages of sin is death (Rm. 6:23). This seems to say sin has its own punishment which eventually leads to death, not that God is going around killing people or choosing when people die. How do we explain passages such as Romans 1:24: “Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts ….” Our sins often lead to negative consequences when abandoning God’s ways. Jesus was sacrificed on the Cross and God didn’t punish the guilty. The reward for many believing in Jesus was martyrdom.
A punitive God suggests God is arbitrary.
No one thinks a loving God plays favorites. Those who suggest God actively punishes reveal an arbitrary God. If God does actively punish and carry out wrath, God is letting a whole lot of evil in the world slide. An arbitrary, punitive God suggests God’s grace is not universal. Christians would admonish one another in Christ if mercy or discipline was exercised in such a fashion. God doesn’t love those spared more than those supposedly punished.
What is God like?
The only way to understand God’s love is to compare to human love. We all sense what perfect parental love is, even if we did not always experience it. God surely treats rebellion how we think loving, perfect friends or parents of older children ought to respond to wrongdoing. We hate what sin is doing but we don’t seek to pile on. We warn and don’t interfere with consequences, yet we don’t arbitrarily destroy. We hope for change before it is too late. God’s love, mercy, and encouragement, not God’s need for punishment, leads to becoming the person we desire to be.
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