How would you respond to someone who perceives God as vindictive? He cites Leviticus 26:25 and Rom 12:19. He also is troubled by God’s seemingly “Obey or Else” characteristic (Deut 28:15-68, Rev. 2:5,16, and 3:3). I’m not sure how to answer him. We are engaging in email and phone conversation and we are trying to establish some truths about God and His character and nature. Thank you.
Hi, @Duffer! Yes, such a tough question…one that I also have asked myself! In my own personal wrestlings with this topic (as well as trying to explain it to some atheist friends), I really had to ask myself “What on earth is going on in these stories?” because they really do not sit well with my 21st century western ‘liberal’ sensitivities. Particularly in Leviticus and Deuteronomy… those books were written into a culture vastly different from our own (and interpreted in the context of God’s covenant of love and provision). And the Revelation verses were prophetically spoken to the churches, not to the world. In light of this, couple of questions that come to mind that would need answering would be…
How do we understand obedience? Are we to obey so that God doesn’t smite us? Are we to obey so that we get the reward? Or is obedience about relationship? If God is the source of life, what does it say about us if we turn from it?
How do we understand God’s judgement? Is God giddy for vengeance? Or is this what justice actually looks like?
How do we understand our sin? Is it really that big a deal? What did it mean for the Israelites to know the physical presence of God and yet still choose to worship and serve other gods?
So really, it’s about re-framing the narrative or questions. There’s a lot to grasp in this, so my prayers are with you! Would love to hear what others would add…
Such a great answer! Thank you! I will explore these excellent questions with him. The good news is he is willing to engage. The Holy Spirit will have to open his understanding. Prayers are very powerful and much appreciated.
This is a really interesting line of questioning. I’m glad he is engaging on this issue with you and is therefore open to learning more. I would only offer a few other insights in light of the great responses that have been given already.
This may not satisfy his understanding of God nor is it the best place to start but if God was interested in vengeance (not that I think He is) that wouldn’t inherently make the scriptures false nor would it disprove God’s existence. I only offer this because I often try to help people focus on what do we know for sure and then work out the other issues from there. The evidence that I see and teach from science, history, morality, archaeology and philosophy seems to affirm His existence and the validity of the Biblical documents. Therefore I would start from that point and then work on understanding the nature of God.
God is perfectly just, righteous, merciful and gracious. It’s sometimes hard for any of us to reconcile a being that is able to do ALL of those well at the same time when we can often do one OR the other but not all. For example in the Leviticus passage God says, “I will execute the vengeance of the covenant;” which means there was an agreement (covenant) that IF violated requires a just response. With God, it is never a case of vengeance or vindication just for the sake of it and it is never a surprise.
As far as God’s plea to ‘obey or else’ is concerned, from our perspective that may seem harsh or overbearing but a perfect God with perfect foreknowledge with a loving desire FOR us may simply be pleading with us to obey because it will work out in the best possible way for our lives and we will avoid distraction, disappoint or destruction through our obedience.
Lastly, throughout the entirety of the Bible it seems that God reserves vindication or punishment ALWAYS as a last resort and often after much pleading with us to get right or act right. But what I think is important to remember is that only God should be the one executing any form of vengeance or vindication if and when it ever needs to be executed.
I hope that helps.
@Duffer Praying for your friend and for wisdom in your conversation The short answer is no, God is not vindictive. God is a righteous judge.
The dictionary definition of vindictive is actually the exact opposite of what both the Old and New Testament say about God. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He does not desire revenge. God desires repentance. Both Ezekiel and Peter are books filled with warnings about judgment and yet contain clear declarations of God’s desire to save. I think we would do well to ruminate on how these two things fit together.
vindictive: having or showing a strong or unreasoning desire for revenge
Ezekiel 18:21-23 - “But if a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. 22 None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them. Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live. 23 Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?
2 Peter 3:9 - The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
In response to your friend’s concerns, here are a few thoughts and some additional angles I hope you would find helpful.
- Deut 28 should not be read out of context. The covenant blessings and curses were given in the context of a covenant - an agreement akin to a marriage between a man and a woman. This was a sacred commitment between God and Israel. Just as adultery has serious consequences for a marital union, idolatry has serious consequences for those in covenant with the living God. God was choosing Israel to be His light to the nations - to be salt and light and salvation for all who were near and all who were far… But if they chose to do evil, they too would suffer His judgment just like other wicked nations. And how much more egregious their offense for having left their first love?
- Revelation 2, again, is a warning to believers - to people in covenant with God through Christ. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead (Acts 2) when they lied to the Holy Spirit. There is something extremely serious about entering into covenant with the living God - when He comes to dwell among us. In the Old Testament, the people had to be clean for God’s presence to dwell there and we must walk in holiness for God to dwell in us. Also, in both cases, the consequences are serious for rejecting God.
Here are some more general thoughts:
- God’s commandments are for our good. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a world with no murder, no stealing, no adultery, no covetousness? Wow! That would be an amazing place to live. While it is hard for us to understand sometimes - the first four commandments - to love God more than anything and avoid idolatry - are even more important. All strength, life, joy and beauty flows from God - if we cut ourselves off from God, we cut ourselves off from life. Sin results in death not because God is vindictive, but because sin separates us from the source of life - God Himself.
- even King David was shocked when Uzzah died after touching the ark and after entering God’s presence Isaiah realized he was a man of unclean lips. And Job, the most righteous man on earth, abhored himself when he finally saw God. Even John falls on his face before an angel - who only reflects God’s glory. God’s holiness - His set apartness - something that is indeed shocking to us as humans. Only in Christ can we truly enter into that holiness with full confidence (Hebrews 4).
Christ grant you wisdom
Uzzah and the Ark
When Uzzah died after just touching the Ark of God - King David was so upset that he sent the Ark to another man’s house (2 Samuel 6). Uzzah did nothing more than accidentally touch the ark, but God’s presence resided there and Uzzah was not clean. Even King David - who had killed many men with his own hands - felt this was unjust. So if we are sometimes shocked by the realities of God’s holiness, we are in good company. So was King David.
2 Samuel 6:6-11 - When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.
8 Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.[e]
9 David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” 10 He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. 11 The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household.
Lessons from the Flood
In Scripture, God judges nations when they persist in wickedness for many generations. That judgment is, without a doubt, terrifying. Enemy armies, starvation, terror… But I think what we must remember is that God sees where that culture is headed - He has seen it before.
Genesis 6:5-6 - The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.
God is patient in judging - often waiting hundreds of years, but to prevent another flood evil must be kept in check in some fashion.
Lessons from Narnia
There are some really great perspectives on this topic in Lewis’ works. I really like this excerpt from C. S. Lewis’ book ‘The Silver Chair’. Jill is thirsty and wants to drink but she is afraid of the lion Aslan, whom she has never met. Of course Aslan represents God in the story - and the exchange is quite powerful. Aslan has swallowed up kings and nations and boys and girls and yet he is the only ‘stream’.
Jesus has judged nations and yet He is the water of life - the only way to salvation. There is no other stream. We must trust Him and He has proven His trustworthiness by dying in our place and conquering death and the powers of evil that held us as slaves. Only the true King - the true Shepherd - would make such a sacrifice. A hired hand would have let us die.
Excerpt from C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair
“Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
“I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.”
Good but Not Safe (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…
”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Someone Wrestling with this View in Dark Times (The Last Battle)
In this story, wicked men have dressed up a donkey with lion skin and are calling it ‘Tashlan’ - a mixture of a pagan god tash and the name Aslan. Tirian, the King, has seen his own people forced into slavery at the hands of this ‘Tashlan’ and in the midst of his suffering wrestles with the character of Aslan.
“He is not a tame lion," said Tirian. “How should we know what he would do? We, who are murderers. Jewel, I will go back. I will give up my sword and put myself in the hands of these Calormenes and ask that they bring me before Aslan. Let him do justice on me.”
“You will go to your death, then,” said Jewel.
“Do you think I care if Aslan dooms me to death?” said the King. “That would be nothing, nothing at all. Would it not be better to be dead than to have this horrible fear that Aslan has come and is not like the Aslan we have believed in and longed for? It is as if the sun rose one day and were a black sun.”
“I know,” said Jewel. “Or as if you drank water and it were dry water. You are in the right, Sire. This is the end of all things. Let us go and give ourselves up.”
“There is no need for both of us to go.”
“If ever we loved one another, let me go with you now,” said the Unicorn. "If you are dead and if Aslan is not Aslan, what life is left for me?”
Thank you for that excellent response! This is only one of many objections he raises and so I prayed and asked the Lord what to do. I felt that if I just chased after his questions, he would only come up with more. The Lord directed me to go back to the basics to uncover any misconceptions he had or lies he was believing. This is confirmed in your first point. I will keep your response handy and I have used some of it already in our conversations. Again, thank you for your wisdom and prayers.
I agree with you that chasing questions can be a recipe for disaster. Although, sometimes it helps uncover the true objection. I’m glad that something I said helped.
Please let me know if I can be of service in any other ways.