WARNING: I am about to discuss a subject that has occupied greater and lesser minds from the beginning of time, where libraries are needed to contain all what has been thought, said and written, and I will do so in a little more than a page! But given my approach to studying the Bible is to leave no stones unturned and go where angels fear to tread, notwithstanding the flak I might receive when I do so, I see no reason for changing tack now, other than qualify what I have to say with a statement to the affect that I am merely going to offer headlines, yet recognize the need to go a lot deeper, which if opportunity allows I may do so at a later date. I write, having been confronted with those who have either lost their faith or have made radical adjustments because of what the Bible has to say about genocide, suffering and hell. Moreover, after six months intense study, mostly in the Old Testament, culminating in producing my Prophets of the Bible book and not covering these particular topics, but which cropped up several times, even if only in passing, I felt I should say something to set the record straight.
There is a side of God which Christians, especially those of a more liberal persuasion, present: loving, kind, patient, merciful, gracious etc., all of which is true of course. But there is another side: holy, righteous, judgmental, vengeful, jealous etc. that is also true. For the sake of balance, we need both and many fail to offer both. When a few years back, I read Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion, I was particularly struck when Dawkins laid into those who believed in and followed God (even though he put God into the same category as fairies at the bottom of the garden) and made the point – how could they given the evidence of God’s cruelty that can be verified from the Bible itself? After all, did he not command the likes of Joshua and Saul to wipe out whole cities – men, women and children? If it happened today, Joshua and Saul might be hauled before an international court on charges of genocide and few “right thinking” people would object. I should add, if Dawkins were to come to me, I could give more examples. While I may question his context, I can’t dispute his examples. There was a lot in the Bible, especially Old Testament, narrative when God does not make sense.
It brings me nicely on to the question of suffering … the proposition that has bothered many down the ages is while it may not be unreasonable to expect bad people to suffer, i.e. get their just desserts for their bad deeds, but there are countless examples of good people who suffer (as well as the bad people coming off ok or better). We can all think of examples of where that is the case and I will resist giving examples other than saying the one I often give is of good, loving parents losing a beloved child through some unforeseen tragedy – and so many different examples can be added. It is tempting, like Job’s comforters, to suggest why this seemingly more righteous than the rest man should suffer as badly as he did, but we know from reading the book with that title they got it wrong and there was an eternal dimension no-one saw, not even righteous Job.
It was Job who said: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” Job 19:25-26. One of the remarkable things about this text, besides being a response to his suffering, is it talks about the afterlife, i.e. what happens to us when we die. These days I attend (at least before Covid lockdown) funerals on a regular basis. They tend to fall into two categories, depending on the deceased’s beliefs and those of his/her family: those that reflect on the delights the one who is mourned is now experiencing in God’s presence and the other that ignores such considerations, but with the whimsical hope something of that persons life’s energy and qualities will continue with future generations. Whichever our position is, if we were to take the Bible seriously, the question of where one spends eternity is an important one and, while notions of heaven and hell may be simplistic, it is at least a variation on that theme. Perhaps one of the most sobering verses in the Bible is “whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” Revelation 20:15.
One of the discoveries of my recent forensic OT studies is that other than with odd exceptions like the Job example cited above, people did not seem too concerned with what happened to them after death. Often when a king died, including bad ones, there was the comment “he slept with his fathers”. The concern, since much of the OT was about Israel, was mostly about Israel’s future, notably the aftermath of the Exodus or the Exile. Things changed in the NT with, for example, Jesus talking about a place where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth, which we associate with hell. As I said earlier, developing a theology of heaven and hell or wherever we end up when we die, is not my purpose and neither is it to justify or rationalize what the Bible has to say on the subject. And neither is it to dismiss those who teach (as I do) that a literal rendering of John 3:16 is the correct one: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. I know full well that not only are there many who have not heard that message but I often think of loved ones, who not only suffered but died without believing. Whatever our beliefs, the thought of those departed, whoever they were and irrespective of deeds and beliefs, experiencing eternal torment, is an unpallitable one, that is nigh impossible to justify.
I conclude, having raised some areas where God does not make sense and which stumble many, by commending as good advice what Job said in the midst of the trials he was going through: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him” Job 13:15, and conclude with Abraham: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Genesis 18:25.