Is God's Punishment of Sinners Just?
The idea that God is just and that he will punish sin, is a concept that is difficult for many people to fathom, even some professing Christians. Part of that is due to the fact that Western culture has moved from a Biblical sense of justice to a more sentimental view. It is not wrong to be compassionate and forgiving. Those are good virtues, but it is important to remember that justice demands people be punished for their crimes. I once heard of a jury member who, though she was thoroughly convinced of the defendant’s guilt, found it almost impossible to render a guilty verdict, because she knew it meant he would likely spend a significant portion of his life in prison. It can be a very sobering thing to be the one who is responsible for executing justice. Nevertheless, to fail to do so is not virtuous. It is naïve, and, in the end, makes us responsible for perverting justice. God is neither naïve nor will he fail to execute justice. The Bible unequivocally teaches God’s just punishment of sinners.
Consider just a sampling of passages that make this point abundantly clear.
- Exodus 34.6-7—“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”” (Notice God is merciful but will by no means clear the guilty. His mercy and goodness is not incompatible with his just judgment.)
- Psalm 7.11-13—“God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day. If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.”
- Psalm 5.4-6—“For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.”
- Matthew 10.28 (Yes, Jesus talked about Hell)—“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
- Ephesians 5.3-7—“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them;”
- Hebrews 9.27—“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…”
The Scriptural evidence is overwhelming. It may not sit well with our modern sensibilities, but if every generation and culture reshapes God to fit their own ideological outlook then it isn’t God we are worshipping but ourselves. The first step in considering judgment is not asking yourself how you feel about it but determining what God says about it.
That being said, I know many Bible-believing Christians who, in faith, submit to God’s Word but who still wrestle with the idea of eternal punishment. So how should Christians think about God’s punishment of the wicked? Over the next couple of weeks I will give several truths I think may help us see our way through mere sentimentality and help us better understand the rightness or justice of God’s judgment.
Remember, arguments such as these do not remove all tension or necessarily make it easier to accept. God’s punishment of sin is something that will always make us tremble. If you are looking for something that will make you feel good about Hell, you won’t find it here, or anywhere for that matter. What you will find, I hope, are Biblical ways of explaining God’s judgment on sinners that help us see his justice more clearly. Today I’ll begin with the first.
People knowingly and willfully reject God. Romans 1 teaches as much. In this passage Paul is demonstrating the guilt of all humanity and his point is clear. God’s wrath is coming upon humans for their ungodliness and unrighteousness and this because they have suppressed the truth they know about him. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them…although they knew God, they did not honor him as God." (Romans 1.18, 21)
This does not mean that people know everything about God, or that every person has heard the biblical passages cited above concerning God’s judgment. Many have not. What it does say is that God has made himself known to them, and they have decisively rejected him. This means no one will be able to plead ignorance when it comes to Judgment Day. Furthermore it means we should not let the misguided notion that there are “innocent people” who are simply uninformed shake our faith in God’s justice. Humanity, every last on of us, is guilty of suppressing and rejecting the truth we know about God and going our own way.
Why do people do this? It’s simple. We love our sin. We do not want to recognize God because that would require that we yield to his will. We don’t like giving over control or admitting our way is wrong. Jesus said it this way, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil." (John 3.19) People are so in love with their sin they have chosen to reject the light God provides. This makes them culpable and deserving God’s punishment.
I remember a familiar scenario when I was in school. The bell rings, you show up to class, but the teacher isn’t there. There is a class full of students who know the rules and what is expected of them, but in the absence of a teacher to enforce said rules things get a little crazy. When the teacher finally arrives she begins handing out punishments and inevitably someone speaks up (never me of course), “But you weren’t here and we didn’t know what we were supposed to do.” True enough, no specific assignment had been given. No direct instructions for that day had been received. But that never seemed to be a winning argument with teachers.
You see, they didn’t feel bad doling out punishment because they knew that even in the absence of specific instructions, students had an awareness of the expectations for behavior in school. We had all been in the system long enough to know throwing paper wads across the room, building a tower out of the desks or carrying on at a decibel level sufficient to interrupt classes on the other side of the building was not acceptable behavior. Our behavior was so egregious that we could not plead ignorance. We were simply too engrossed in the thrill of the moment and too shortsighted to care that the teacher would walk in the room in just a few short minutes.
That, says Romans 1, is what is going on with humanity. “Though they (we) know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they (we) not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” They know. We know that there is a God to whom we are accountable. We know what is expected. We know the sorts of things we do are wrong, but we suppress that knowledge. We convince ourselves that the guilt we’re feeling is misplaced. We medicate it away, educate it away, entertain it away, but apart from God’s grace we don’t turn away. We keep going. We get caught up in our sin and willingly choose to ignore the reality of God. We are not ignorant, nor are we innocent. We are guilty, and when God’s punishment falls on us it will be just.