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:
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.
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."
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.
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.)
A couple of examples.
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'.)
See also the 'New View in Theology and Practice', which incorporates some of this thinking.
See Discussion arising from this page.
This page, "http://www.abxn.org/punishment.html", 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 www.abxn.org 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!