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Let's Talk About Judgment
A Logical Dialog on Punishment

(Reprinted from the Christian Voyager Compass, Jan 2006)

*Note: Although such a weighty concept as judgment could well fill an entire library(!), the intent here is not so much to be comprehensive as to provide an engaging introduction to the whole idea in the form of a dialog. All Scripture in this article is quoted from the KJV.

The Bible is clear about the fact that God will punish sin. He has the right and the duty to act against sin in what is called, “judgment.” For millennia this concept was by and large accepted, but has in the last 150 years been repeatedly called into question. A vengeful, punishing God is viewed as a disgusting medieval notion that is best discarded.

Nowadays, there is an argument out there that goes something like this: If God is so good, why does He punish people for their sin instead of just forgiving them? Sounds reasonable enough to our modern ears, but hidden in this argument are some critical assumptions that form the premise therein. Let’s take a look at that premise and at each of the possible assumptions that lies behind it.

Premise: Punishment is bad

Of course, if punishment is bad, then the Biblical God must be bad too, since He punishes. But why would punishment be bad? Let’s see if we can find the modern assumptions here.

Assumption 1
Punishment does not cause people to reform and reforming people is the goal.

Really? Is that true? Well, actually, no. Punishment has historically proven to cause a number of people to reform their ways to some degree. It has also proven to be a deterrent to wrong doing.

(Though fear of torment is not enough to cause a person to value God and His ways, it may indeed awaken that person to the realization that His own way leads to death. Thus it is an aide in the process of one’s turning from sin to God. Ultimately, each person must come to the realization of his own genuine guilt before God in order to see how desperate is his need for Christ.)

But what about the second phrase: reforming people is the goal. Is reforming the goal of punishment, or a simply a helpful by-product? In fact, reforming people is NOT the goal of punishment but rather it is the goal of Truth. The goal of punishment is something else—Justice.

Assumption 2
Punishment only causes more needless pain, but accomplishes no good.

True? Not at all. Punishment causes more but NOT needless pain. And punishment causes necessary good in that it meets pain with pain and answers the otherwise unending effect of evil.

Assumption 3
Punishment involves pain and all pain is essentially evil.

Not true. All pain is NOT evil. Justice is pain returned upon the evildoer to turn the evil ramifications of his wrong deed onto himself. Pain inflicted upon the evildoer according to his crime is necessary, thus good; pain inflicted upon the innocent in order to oppress him is evil.

Assumption 4
Punishment assumes people are bad, but people are not bad and should not be punished for just being human.

People are NOT punished for being human, but for sinning, that is, transgressing God’s commands, something humanity was not created to do. And people are bad in a general sense. People everywhere have a problem with sin because it is in their nature since the Fall as is evidenced everywhere in the world.

Assumption 5
God’s standards are too strict; people should be allowed to do what they think is best.

Interestingly, those who believe that God should let people do as they please are the same ones who blame Him for the unjust actions of others! If He forbids people from doing their evil desires He is deemed unfair; yet if He does not stop people from doing wrong to others He is also judged to be at fault. Either way, God gets blamed!

The truth of the matter is that God’s standards are reality. To transgress God’s commands is not just to make a preference but to hurt ourselves, others and God Himself. Sin attacks the Godly nature of reality.

In creating the world God reflected His own Good Nature. When selfishness entered the world because of higher creatures’ ability to choose, that purity of creation was attacked and even corrupted. So to attack God’s good creation by transgressing His laws upon which that good creation rests is to attack the very nature and purposes of God Himself. God will act to protect both.

Assumption 6
Forgiveness is better than judgment; therefore, punishment can be eliminated.

Although forgiveness is good and “mercy rejoiceth over judgment,” yet these do not satisfy Justice. God’s creation works on the principle of sowing and reaping. Good actions produce good fruit; sinful actions produce evil fruit. In fact, sinful actions bring forth death! (James 1:15) This is why we cannot undo our bad actions. They always produce their fruit.

When a person commits transgression, he experiences something called guilt. What that sensation reveals is that there has occurred a debt of wrong which must ultimately be paid back (Justice). In fact, the effect of sin is like a black hole that continues to injure until it is stopped, a spiritual debt that sabotages creation until it is paid. Punishment is the payback for that debt which stops the breach that the wrong had caused. This is why forgiveness of the wrongdoer by the victim, though helpful for the healing of the victim, can NOT pay back the debt owed, nor does it stop the continued spiritual sabotage of the good creation. The wrongdoer must still pay back the debt. The transgressing of God’s laws is like taking a sword and ripping through His delicate reality with it. There is damage that remains until the fruit from such action comes back to rest on the one who sowed it. This is why the Old Testament civil Law taught “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” type of payback regarding crime (Exo 21:24-25; Lev 24:20).

We can see this clearly in the account of wicked king Saul’s massacre of many of the Gibeonites (with whom the Israelites had made a protective covenant). The spiritual breach that this caused wreaked havoc upon Israel’s harvests. There was an extended famine upon the land of Israel until David’s reign, when it was finally discovered that the judgment was come on account of this unsatisfied debt of sin. The terrible price was that seven descendents of Saul were put to death as a public reckoning of Justice. Only then was the land healed of its drought! (See 2 Sam 21:1-14)

Thus, while we know that the Bible teaches that God is forgiving, we must also see that He does not compromise justice! He can forgive us and clear our dept NOT simply because He is merciful, but only because His mercy has moved Him to PAY our debts in His Son! (More on that in a moment.)

Assumption 7
But if God is really God, can’t He just make the effects of the sin go away so that there would be no need to punish?

This one sounds pretty convincing. Can’t God do anything He wills to do? Yes, He can. But remember what He wills to do is ALWAYS in line with who He is. He will NEVER deny (go against) Himself! (2 Tim 2:13; Heb 6:18a)

The creation is a reflection of His character and in fact is held up by that character (Ps 89:4 "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you." See also Ps 97:2 and Acts 17:28). God cannot simply make sin’s effects go away because He will never lie against Himself. To alter His good creation would mean He would have to change the reality of His own person upon whom that creation rests. Children think the world is like their imagination; they can’t fathom the why of so many restraints to their wishes. So it is with adults who reason that God should take His very real creation and make it into an imaginary playhouse so that they may fulfill their fantasies.

But the world is not imaginary. What is done by people while in the body cannot be undone as with a computer undo command! Reality is fragile, not fool proof. What is done in it cannot ever be undone—ever. Whatsoever a person does in this life will stand for all time, whether good or evil. And the damage from that evil does not go away, but is now a part of reality until that spiritual debt is satisfied. Time will NOT take it away; only Christ’s sacrifice can take it away, as we will see shortly.

But lest we think of judgment like the Eastern concept of Karma (for in Eastern religions the idea of reincarnation provides the person with infinite opportunities to receive payback for their evil deeds and work on reforming themselves until they are made pure), we need to understand that the goal of judgment is NOT to cleanse from sin, but to repudiate its source. Thus, the goal of judgment (i.e., punishment) is to condemn sin! (Rom 3:25-26; Rom 8:3-4).

Assumption 8
If punishment condemns sin by simply inflicting the evildoer with the same suffering he inflicted, then couldn’t everyone pay for his own sin?

We must here explain that from God’s standpoint there is more to the debt than what the Old Testament civil law requires. If a man is a thief, the Law requires that he pay back what he stole at up to four times the value (Exo 22:1-4). He may indeed be forced to do this, and so be absolved by the civil Law. Yet he is not yet absolved by God Himself. Why not? Because he has only paid the debt physically, not spiritually; he still stands condemned as a lawbreaker morally. (See Lev 6:4 where the repentant thief must also offer blood sacrifices before God’s priest in order to atone for his guilt.) For once a person has chosen to rebel against God and His works, he makes himself God’s enemy. You see, anyone who breaks God’s laws has become a “transgressor,” showing disdain for God’s person and earning for himself God’s wrath. That is why paying the debt physically without satisfying it spiritually still results in a person’s moral condemnation by God Himself.

Such a one has shown himself unworthy of God’s eternal life because he has hated God and His ways. And God’s payback for that person’s flagrant attack against Him is death: both bodily (so the person can’t work any more destruction!) and spiritually, where he will remain forever in torment outside God’s love. For the Bible continually shows us that our life on earth is a test to see if we will value God or if we will value rebellion against God. If we value God, we will honor His truth, His character and His works. But the one who steals, or murders (or cheats, or lusts, or lies, etc.) has failed.

Jesus said, “if a man love me, he will keep my words...”(John 14:23a). He taught that it is by our actions towards and responses to God and others that we will either deem ourselves “worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead...” (Luk 20:35), or judge ourselves “unworthy of everlasting life...” (Acts 13:46). (See also Rom 2:5-9 where God will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath....)

Assumption 9
But God’s requirements are unfair; no one can be that worthy!

If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we are NOT worthy of God because we have done wickedly towards God and our fellow human beings. Though our sins may be secret to others, they are not so to Him who sees all things. How then can anyone be considered worthy of eternal life?

We see in Scripture that the worthy are NOT those who have never sinned, since Rom 3:23 states that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Instead, the worthy are those who turn from their sin to God in faith and truth. Peter states that “in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him” (Acts 10:35). It is not our ability to perfectly perform on which such worthiness rests, but rather on the inner motives of the choices we make. “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Thus, the worthy are those who desire to love God and reject sin and so their choices come to reflect this.

But we must ask, how can God deem these worthy, if in fact they have transgressed His laws? Well, remember that in God’s Old Covenant economy, an innocent lamb paid sin’s penalty so that a repentant sinner might live. For God had given man the mercy of offering up the life of the animal in place of his own life, that moral justice might in some sense be accomplished (Lev 17:11). Yet this system was by nature imperfect and temporary, for “the blood of bulls and goats” could never fully pay the price of man’s moral guilt (Heb 9:12-14).

Jesus, God's Son

All of this is precisely why Jesus came to earth. He Himself, the second person of the Godhead, came as one without sin, the Lamb of God, who, as a man, would willingly take upon Himself the awful wrath against sin which we ourselves deserved. God condemned sin by punishing Christ with the full intensity it took to satisfy justice, both physically and spiritually. It was not only physical pain He suffered on the cross but the infinite hatred of God against sin. When it was over Christ exclaimed, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) since He had satisfied to the full the debt toward God on behalf of all mankind (1 John 2:2). And because of this payment, now anyone who chooses to turn from sin and come to Christ in faith can receive both forgiveness and eternal life from the Father. What a remarkably gracious provision for us without which we would surely all be lost! Those who accept God’s provision show themselves worthy of life because they choose to turn from their sins and believe God (John 1:12).

But those who reject Him demonstrate that they are His enemies, desiring neither His Truth nor His provision (Phil 3:18). Having spurned God’s merciful offer of escape from their sin into His loving favor, their future damnation is tragically assured (Mark 16:16; John 3:18).

 

*Copyright © 2006 by Diana Rosdail. All rights reserved.