Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Vengeance of God

The primary objective of this blog is to present the beauty of the Gospel of Christ in as many different ways and perspectives I can.  In most installments I have held to a positive path, although a few times I have ventured off into darker territories.  Recently, in so many words I was gently accused of being too saccharine regarding God’s holiness.  Specifically the person didn’t agree with my non-face value definition of the vengeance of God.  In the person's opinion, I was downgrading its clear meaning in order to pander the modern sensibilities.

If anyone thinks I believe there will be no final judgment by God by which He will bring His full vengeance to bear on all unbelievers, let me state as clearly as I can: this is not my position, at all.  All those who resolutely choose to remain outside of Christ’s kingdom will suffer the full brunt of God’s wrath, just as John succinctly states in his gospel,

The one believing into the Son has eternal life; the one disobeying (disbelieving) the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him/her.” (John 3:36)

Allow me to digress for a moment to make a Greek comment. The Greek reader of the above passage would understand that implicit to the Greek word, απειθεω, which means “I disobey” or “I rebel,” is the meaning, “I disbelieve”.  Hence, I put both disobeying and disbelieving in the translation to help us English readers fully grasp what John is trying to communicate. We all rebel against or disobey God because we don’t believe Him—we don’t trust Him.
When we look afresh at those New Testament passages referring to God’s judgment variously translated, vengeance, punishment, repayment, and judgment, except for Romans 13 that describes God authorizing human governments to execute retributive judgment as a means of preventing chaos in human societies, all the other passages in one way or another focus on three truths,

1) Vengeance/retribution/judgment is God’s to do, not for us to do. 

2) God’s retribution will occur at final judgment, and

3) The basis of this final judgment will be whether the person stands by faith in Christ or not—that is, obeys the Gospel or not, which is tantamount to standing or not standing in the kingdom of God by faith.  John clearly teaches us this basis for God’s judgment:

For in this way God loved the world, so that He gave His one and only unique Son, in order that everyone who is believing into Him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God didn’t send the Son away into the world in order to judge the world, but so that the world is saved through Him.  The one who is believing into Him is not judged.  But the one not believing has been judged already, because he/she has not believed into the name of the one, only, and unique Son of God.” (John 3:16-18)

It is true the Bible and these New Testament passages concerning God’s judgment often speak about how God will ultimately judge us according to our deeds (works).  But we must understand this from a kingdom perspective; otherwise we will be in danger of lapsing into a works based justification.  To put it simply, if we are truly standing in God’s kingdom by standing in Christ it will be evidenced by our good works; if we stubbornly stand outside God’s kingdom, it will be evidenced by our evil works.  For this reason John completes in this way the passage we just read:

This is The Judgment, that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness more than the light; for their deeds were evil.  For everyone who is practicing evil hates the light and does not come toward the light so that his/her deeds are not exposed. But the one doing the truth comes toward the light, so that it is revealed that his/her deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:19-21)

God will base His judgment on whether or not we are standing in Christ by faith, and therefore God will judge us according to our works.  In other words, our works validate where we have placed out faith.  But it is our faith in Christ alone that saves us, not our works.

The reason the kingdom of God has become the basis of judgment is because God had entered into the middle of human history in order to deal with the problem of Sin and Death by placing His full wrath for the Sin of the world upon His one, only, and unique Son, Jesus the Christ.  And because Jesus overcame death by being raised to eternal life and ascended to the right hand of the Father, Jesus is King, the source of all life, so that in Him and Him alone is salvation.

Now, I see at least three essential responses to the good news of the Gospel of the Christ:

1) We are to be God’s agents of mercy in the world, not agents of His wrath , because

2) By bringing mercy to the lost souls we necessarily bring kingdom justice, which is right order from wrong order, not tit for tat.

3) Because God dealt with the Sin of the world once and for all in Jesus the Christ, it is through Christ God’s justice can enter the world; it is through Christ God is reconciling the world to Himself.  And we as Christ followers are joint ministers in this reconciliation (II Cor. 5).

We must not import our notions of vengeance into God.  God is not vengeful in the way we are anymore than He is jealous or angry as we are prone to be.  God exhibits all such emotions entirely for our benefit and indeed the benefit of the entire cosmos.  Yes, God’s wrath, jealousy, and anger flow out of His deep love for us and His creation. It is through these emotions God hopes to wake us up to our folly and turn back to Him, who is the sole source of life and the wisdom to live it, by warning us of the horrors that are the certain alternative because God is holy--indeed, horrors so terrible there are no words to express them; for this reason, God uses the imagery of emotions and their manifestations we can all understand.

On the other hand, our jealousy and our anger and the vengeance they precipitate within us is 99.99% self-serving (there are rare exceptions to this, but even in those cases right motives usually degrade into self-interest); therefore our jealousy, anger, and vengeance are Sin; they flow from our hate, not love.    
When God metes out retribution on the Day of Judgment, He will not do so to get even with anyone or anything; no, His judgment will finalize perfect justice, which is right order, peace—Shalom.  We see what I mean described in the book of Hebrews as God once again shaking the heavens and the earth:

Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled. And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears. For you have not come to something that can be touched, to a burning fire and darkness and gloom and a whirlwind and the blast of a trumpet and a voice uttering words such that those who heard begged to hear no more. For they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” In fact, the scene was so terrifying that Moses said, “I shudder with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does.

Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven? Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. For our God is indeed a devouring fire. (Heb. 12:14-28) [NET]

There is, of course, much to unpack here.  But for now, listen to the Holy Spirit admonishing us to be like Christ and promote mercy and justice, not bitterness and revenge.  Abel’s blood cried out from the ground for justice and retribution.  But the blood of Christ is far better, because it has brought true justice through love and forgiveness.  In the end, God will shake out everything not conforming to the blood of Christ—that is, God will shake out everything seeking redemption through creation instead of God.  The world wants its pound of flesh; God wants a humble, sacrificial, and faithful life.

Now, I do concede many of the passages I found in my search speak of how people who wrong us will be paid back by God for their persecutions.  Note again though, this is something God will do, not something we are to do.  Instead, we are to be like our Lord and not retaliate against evil done to us, just as Peter teaches us in his first epistle:

Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether to a king as supreme or to governors as those he commissions to punish wrongdoers and praise those who do good. For God wants you to silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king.

Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse. For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. (I Peter 2:13-15) [NET]

Peter is telling us to silence the world by doing good, which is to be merciful and promote kingdom justice through love and forgiveness—to be such, in Peter’s words , “because of conscience towards God”-- instead of perpetuating the world’s methods of retaliation and vengeance.  And he explains we can do this because we are a free people in Christ.  We don’t need to be justified by anyone, because we have been justified in Christ; we don’t need to vindicate our reputations, because our good reputations are established and made secure in Christ; and we don’t need retribution, because God from His vantage point of perfect holy love will repay on the Day of Judgment.

From the book of Romans we can learn why only the stance of forgiveness and love we are called to in Christ will make possible kingdom justice.  Paul teaches us,

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:18-21) [NET]

By not retaliating against someone for the evil he/she has done, he/she can see something quite different has come into the world; he/she might then begin to recognize the Sin in his/her life, and perhaps turn and be saved.  Our stance of love and forgiveness not only restores to order the material things of life (e.g., alleviating hunger and quenching thirst), but makes possible the restoration of relationships in holy love.  And all of this constitutes kingdom justice.

On the other hand, retaliation breeds contempt and further retaliations.  By following the world’s concept of justice, we fail to bring order out of disorder--far from it!  Our retaliations only cause more disorder, which is injustice.  By failing to leave judgment in God’s hands, we actually undermine His work of reconciling the world to Himself.

Therefore, we need to view this “payback language” we read in the many New Testament passages discussing the vengeance of God by what it is meant to communicate to us—mainly this: that God clearly sees our suffering for His righteousness sake; that our suffering totally matters to God; and that we can and must endure our suffering in the real hope that in the end all we are suffering for—namely, the Kingdom of God-- will come to completion, as God has promised, and will last forever and forever, because everything opposing it —that is, everything unjust-- will be permanently destroyed by the certain vengeance of God.