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God's 'Punishments'

Traditionally, in Judeo-Christian and perhaps Islamic cultures, God is seen as someone who punishes us for doing wrong. Anti-Christian people accuse God of merely being vengeful. Christians (and perhaps Jews and Muslims, I cannot speak for them) say his punishments are correctives. Liberals just don't like it and say we've got to get away from these 'outdated' ideas, to a God of love who never punishes.

I think all this misunderstands.

Let us look at some examples of 'punishment' passages - those involving Adam and Eve, and the tower of Babel, and a few others. We will find that God's intention in punishing is much richer than either of these, and even aesthetic. God does 'punish' (if we want to call it that), but for a purpose, in fact for several purposes intertwined. We don't have to explain it away (after all, the idea that we can redefine God is ludicrous; God is who he is; in fact he is the only one whose nature and existence is not dependent on anything else).

Summary: God wants a creation filled with joy, in which humans lead all creatures in mutual blessing in God's Name, yet humans have turned away from that responsibility and privilege, bringing evil, harm and disaster into creation. God acts, because God loves all in the Creation. What seem 'punishments' can be for several purposes:

  • To bring us to our senses, so we realise there is something wrong;

  • To reveal and expose what is really going on, getting us to face up to it;

  • To stimulate us to repentance and turning back to God's Plan, and let God align our wills freely with God's will;

  • To redirect what humans do;

  • To bring God's Plan into effect despite us.

God often uses pain to achieve these. From a legalistic perspective, those look like punishment, and that is true, but these cannot be reduced to punishment.

But God does not want us just to do God's will; God wants us to want to do his will, inside themselves. He wants to effect a change of heart within us and make us like Himself. Punishment does not change the heart; that is why he does more than punish.

See Five R's: Theology of New View for more on this way of seeing things.

God as vengeful? No! God as hope-giver and upholder of justice.

God does say "I will avenge; I will repay" (Deuteronomy 32:19), and this has been taken as evidence that God ("the God of the Old Testament", some label him) is a harsh, bloodthirsty, unfeeling tyrant ("not like the God of love portrayed by Jesus" they sometimes add). But look at the context: it is firstly a poem, and secondly it is about people being oppressed by cruel enemies. The promise to avenge is a promise of hope for the oppressed. When we think of the cruelties of tyrants and governments today, and oppression of people, we get angry; why should God not do so?

But the Apostle Paul takes it even further. He says that because God is the one who will repay, therefore we should not try to take revenge ourselves. We might assume the emphasis is on the 'will', as if to say, "If you horrible creatures step out of line, be warned: I will avenge; I'm not joking; I will do it." But Paul understands it differently in Romans 12:19, as though the emphasis is on 'I': "I," says God, "am the one who is just; I am the one who has sufficient wisdom, knowledge and love to know what repayment is appropriate; I will repay, and make everything come out right in the end."

God as teacher? Partly, but not mainly.

We punish children to teach them a lesson (whether by a word or the withholding of some treat, or even a smack). We are God's children, we think. So he punishes us. He gives us pain, so that we will take notice and stop doing the thing for which he gave us pain. We see ourselves as like rats who are trained with electric shocks to behave in certain ways.

While God does indeed "chastise every son he loves" and does indeed use the trouble and persecution, this is not his main concern towards us. His main relationship with us is not one of teacher or corrector, striving with all his troublesome pupils to knock them into shape. His main relationship with us is one of intimate love and commitment. He died for us; what teacher, as teacher, would die for his pupils?

One problem with the teacher view of punishment is that it does not do away completely with the idea of God as vengeful. It merely adds one extra motivation to that of revenge. It does not answer it, merely diverts our attention from it, as it were.

The reason it cannot answer it is that there are other ways of teaching, and making people right. Why did God not choose to use just those? Why does he use punishment as a teaching method? Surely he, being all-knowing and all-loving, could find an effective method that does not use punishment? While it is true that God uses pain to teach us, it does not explain why God has chosen to use pain.

For years I just had to 'accept' this by faith - until I found another view that is far more satisfying.

God as Purposeful.

If we look again at God's punishments recorded in the Old Testament, and think about them, in the context of those times and especially in the context of God's purpose for humanity, then we begin to see some of his 'punishments' in a different light.

The Mixing up of Languages

Why did God 'punish' the builders of the tower of Babel by mixing up their languages? Look back at God's original intention for us, of spreading throughout the whole earth to be his shepherds / stewards, and so that his creation would be blessed. Now look at what the tower builders said: "Let us build this tower to make a name for ourselves so that we won't be scattered over the face of the earth." They were going directly against God's command to spread out and bless the earth. They were, instead, seeking to bless themselves and seeking to stay in one place.

Now, what was the effect of having their languages mixed up so that they could not understand one another? They departed from the construction project and started spreading out over the earth. In mixing up their languages, God did something to make them obey at least part of his command. In doing this, God was acting with humility and with a gentleness that they did not deserve. He could have destroyed their tower, and the whole group of them with lightning and earthquake - and he would have done so if he were merely vengeful. He could have decimated them by disease, especially as infection would have spread through the crowd easily - and he would have done so if he were merely intent on teaching them a lesson. But, instead, he did something that caused less destruction and pain and effectively got them out obeying at least part of his purpose for them. It is like the adage,

A boss fixes the blame;
A leader fixes the problem.

God was acting like a leader, fixing the problem, not like a boss. Even though he had the right to act like a boss.

(If you would like more on our role, see 'new view' of this.)

Effects of the Fall

Now look at his 'punishment' of Adam and Eve. They ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As someone has pointed out, this means they had decided not to trust God to be their source of ability to determine what was good and what, evil. Rather, they wanted to depend on themselves to determine what was good, and what, evil. The result of doing so, says God, will be that they (we) would misinterpret his creation, and would miss his purpose for both it and ourselves, and would miss by miles the fulfilling life in which we lived in harmony with his creation. We would, instead, try to work out our own ways of working, only to find ourselves going against the grain of creation.

A couple of examples.

Perhaps, if we accepted God's plans, relied on God as our way of determining what is Good, then things would go much more easily.

So we see that the 'punishment' was not so; it was merely a warning that if we go against God's ways then, the way he has designed his creation, we will find problems for ourselves.

(See also discussion of the weeds in Understanding the Fall.
See 'God's Way Works; Human Ways Do Not'.)


In one case we find that God's 'punishment' was a-purpose to get his work done. In the other, we find it is a warning. Perhaps God does use punishment to teach us, and perhaps he does take vengeance on behalf of the oppressed, but we can begin to see that his actions among us are loving and purposeful.

See also the 'New View in Theology and Practice', which incorporates some of this thinking.

See Discussion arising from this page.

This page, "", is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden at all dates below. But you may use this material subject to certain easy conditions.

Part of his pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 2001?. Last updated: 7 February 2001 emails. 19 November 2006 unet. 11 October 2010 shortened intro, added a couple of links. 13 February 2011 a few corrections, also links to NV, and .nav, .end. 19 June 2011 link to comments.recd. 19 April 2017 added ''. 16 December 2018 summary box; new .end, .nav. 15 March 2020 rid double .nav!