The statement, published on Facebook by a friend of mine, came from an atheist website. It was a poster, supposedly quoting God, which said, in essence, “I love you and if you don’t love me I’m going to send you to burn in Hell.”
Ouch. This shaft of ridicule sinks deep. Can you imagine a fervent young suitor saying to the woman of his dreams: “I love you with all my heart. Please marry me. If you don’t I’ll torture you”? We’d tell that woman to run, not walk away from the man. He’s one sick puppy.
Last week, I discussed with you the false distinction some people make between the so-called angry God of the Old Testament and the gentle Jesus of the New Testament. I argued that both of these are stereotypes usually made by people who don’t seriously study their Bibles. The truth is that Jesus and God are both complex Beings, each containing “hard” and “soft” aspects. Furthermore, they are in complete harmony with one another.
No doubt, however, this raised additional questions in some of your minds. This “hard” aspect of God, His willingness to express punishment and wrath, doesn’t easily harmonize with His deep heart of love and compassion. The atheist quote I mentioned captures this dissonance well. How do Christians live with this apparent incongruity? Let me note, first of all, that there are no easy, slam-dunk answers to some of the issues raised by God’s hardness in Scripture – issues like the Canaanite genocide or the severity of Hell. I myself, as a committed Christian, still wrestle, to some extent, with these quandaries, though I’ve chosen to accept them as part of a bigger picture. Others have written extensively on these subjects and have given better and deeper answers than I can offer here. What I want to limit myself to discussing, in this short piece, is how the “hard” and “soft” aspects of God can co-exist in Him without turning into the embarrassing and grotesque portrait painted by the atheist quote. Again, I list, but will not read, numerous references. These can be found on the transcript.
How can God simultaneously be both a God of wrath and a God of love?
1. God displays both wrath and love because He plays two roles in the universe
This is the crux of the matter. Imagine that your father is a police officer, charged with protecting the community. And suppose that he catches you in the act of breaking into a store to steal. Although he loves you dearly, if he’s a good police officer, he will arrest you. To let one’s friends and family by with crime, while arresting others, would make a mockery of justice and destroy a community. Similarly, God is not only the top police officer of the universe, He’s also the Judge, and, in fact, also the Supreme Court. He has a role to play. If He doesn’t play it, it’s a serious disservice to all the created universe. Which leads to our next observation.
2. God’s wrath, or tough side, is a protection against the predatory destruction of sin
In a perfect universe, God’s wrath would be unnecessary. We might still need a few rules, in order for the group to work in harmony, but we would be eager students and with no need for punishment as a motivator. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect universe. Our world is sin-soaked to the core. Sin is a corrosive, destructive force which tears apart everything it touches. Unchecked, it only grows worse. Some of you may think that I’m exaggerating here, that you, and others are basically decent and only require a bit of instruction. It’s not true. Not only are we all sinners, we’re all seriously tainted by sin; even those who outwardly appear to live civil, well-adjusted lives. Go live in some country where the rule of law and order has broken down and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a scary place to exist.
3. God’s wrath does not spring from sadism or personal malice
Although God delights in justice (Deut. 28:63), He takes no pleasure in the act of punishing people (Ez. 18:23,32). His default mode is love (Ex. 34:6). He punishes from sad necessity just as those in a healthy law enforcement system do. In fact, that leads to the next observation:
4. God has paid an enormous price to avoid punishing people
God could justifiably looked at our sinfulness and said, “I’ll just give them what they deserve” and no one could have blamed Him, any more than we might blame a family for pressing charges on the thief who broke into their house and stole their belongings. All of us are sinners (Rom. 3:23) and the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), but God did the most extraordinary, generous thing imaginable. He searched for a way not to punish us. This was an unbelievably difficult mission, since, according to His system of justice, sin could not just be overlooked – not even one sin. On the other hand, none of us has the resources to satisfy God’s justice demands. It would be like trying to pay a billion dollar fine with two cents.
It turns out that there was only one way out of our dilemma. God Himself, in the form of God the Son, came to earth, became the man Jesus, and died on the cross for our sins (Col. 1:20). Jesus suffered unimaginable physical and spiritual pain for us; more than any of us will ever feel. Why? Because, despite His hatred of our sin, God still loved us (John 3:16).
5. God wants to set aside His wrath and focus on being our loving Father
God’s ultimate goal, in your life and in mine, is to clean up the sin thing and move on to the loving Father role. That’s what we were created for. Even the Old Testament shows Him in this role and, in Heaven, when we are made perfect, it will be an eternal relationship of mutual love and delight (Zeph. 3:17). He will “wipe away every tear from your eyes”(Rev. 21:4)
“So, if He’s such a great guy, what’s holding Him back from being our loving Father right now?” The only obstacle is us. If we refuse to acknowledge God’s hard side, His holy justice, and ask His forgiveness, then He has no choice but to carry out His sentence of justice on us. He cannot accept unforgiven sin. And He will only forgive our sin with the help of His Son Jesus. It’s up to you, will you acknowledge that you’re a sinner, and cry out to God for forgiveness because of Jesus’ death on the cross? Many of us have. What a relief it is.
If, on the other hand, you refuse to, because you reject the “hard” side of God, considering it too hard, you do so to your own detriment. Wait long enough and you’ll have eternity to argue your case, but it won’t do any good since you’ll be arguing it in Hell. God’s wrath will have prevailed in your life over His love. That’s not what He wants for you. Why not trust His judgment over your own in these matters and take His hand of love today?