Monday, August 10, 2015

Christian teaching and Romans 13, part 6

Comparison with the Christian teaching on God’s judgement, wrath and punishment

Romans 12:19-13:7 contains a discussion on leaving room for God’s wrath and vengeance, and introduces the governing authorities as wielding the sword and as God’s servants and agents of wrath. The apparent implication is that God’s wrath is expressed by the sword of the state, and that God legitimises the state’s use of the sword for redress of wrongs.
Before accepting this at face value, we should examine the Christian teaching on God’s judgement, and wrath, and the relationship between wrongdoing and God’s punishment of it and check for consistency with the apparent implications of this passage in Romans.
From the beginning it is the presence of God that gives and sustains life. Living in the presence of God is paradise, the garden of Eden where God’s presence is the tree of life. But God warns men that if they do evil, that they shall suffer not to be slayed by God but to be forsaken by God and left to return to the dust. God will hide his face from us and to hand us over to corruption and ultimate death (Gen 2:8-17; 3:1-19).
When Cain killed Abel, God heard Abel’s blood crying out from the ground for justice and vengeance. God’s response, however, is to warn Cain:
Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’ (Gen 4:10-12)
Cain understands that God is not judicially imposing a punishment on him, but removing his mercy and grace from him by withdrawing his presence:
Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’
But the Lord said to him, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (Gen 4:13-15)
Paul in Romans 12:19 quotes Deut. 32:35 concerning God’s repayment of evil: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’ This comes from the song of Moses, where Moses teaches the people of Israel about the consequences of breaking the covenant and rejecting God and his laws:
And the Lord said to Moses: ‘You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.  And in that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and calamities will come on them, and in that day they will ask, “Have not these disasters come on us because our God is not with us?” And I will certainly hide my face in that day because of all their wickedness in turning to other gods. (Deut 31:16-18)
Note the consistency: God’s wrath is expressed passively, by the withdrawal of his presence, just as with Cain. Moses teaches the people that sin is like poison and that God’s repayment of sin consists of him allowing them to drink it:
Their vine comes from the vine of Sodom
    and from the fields of Gomorrah.
Their grapes are filled with poison,
    and their clusters with bitterness.
Their wine is the venom of serpents,
    the deadly poison of cobras.
‘Have I not kept this in reserve
    and sealed it in my vaults?
It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
    In due time their foot will slip;
their day of disaster is near
    and their doom rushes upon them.’ (Deut 32:32-35)
Jesus suffered the cup of God’s wrath in his death (Mat 26:39) for our sins. The contents of the cup are the poison of sin referred to above. Jesus was judged and died for our sins. But the penalty of sin is not a judicial penalty, imposed as an external evil visited on the sinner by God, rather it is the evil of the sin itself corrupting and harming. The wrath of God is the withdrawal of God’s protecting presence (Mat 27:46), or God’s mercy, and his allowance for sin to take its course. For example, it was violent human beings who judged and crucified Jesus, the Father did not slay his son, rather he forsook Jesus and allowed him to be handed over to sinful men (Mat 26:45). The death of Jesus was not to appease the wrath of his merciful Father, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6:35). Nor was it to satisfy cosmic justice, or a judicial result that the Father was compelled to carry out on the sinner or someone in the sinner’s place, and that could not be forgiven. The scriptures are explicit on this: God does not desire blood to appease his wrath against sin (Is 1:11-17; Heb 10:4-8). The Father simply releases the debt (Mat 18:27), receiving payment from no one. The Son’s life was a ransom paid to the one who held us captive to purchase our freedom (Heb 9:15), and it was not the Father holding us as captives, rather it is sin and Satan who held us in slavery (John 8:34; Acts 26:18; Rom 6-8, Heb 2:15, 2 Pet 2:19).
The wrath of God is God withdrawing his protective and merciful presence from us and handing us over to the sins we have done and their fruit. For example, Paul writes that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven, rather than judicially imposed (Rom 1:18). Therefore God ‘gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity’ and ‘gave them over to shameful lusts’ and ‘gave them over to a depraved mind’ (Rom 1:18-32). The punishment of sin is not imposed as a judicial execution, rather it is the natural product of the sin, for ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom 6:23). Paul also taught:  ‘A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction’ (Gal 6:7-8).
God’s heart towards sinners who are suffering his judgement and wrath can be seen from the heart of Jesus towards Jerusalem as he prophesied its destruction:
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.’  (Luke 19:41-44).
Note that the wrath of God was carried out by the brutal Roman army, and that it pained God’s heart to withdraw his protection and allow this bloodbath. God did not approve of or impose the bloodbath, it was the will of sinful men to oppress, to rebel, to fight and to kill. In allowing this evil God’s character is not impugned by willing it or approving it or legitimising it. God is but giving us a taste of our own evil, rather than engaging in it himself by proxy.
Even in God’s church, it is by withdrawal that sin is judged: For example, Paul teaches that serious sin in the church can lead to a person being shunned by the church, but he describes the action as handing the person over to Satan (1 Cor 5:5, 1 Tim 1:20). It is not God’s will to allow Satan to torment his children, rather it is the will of the sinful to cut themselves off from God’s grace and from communion with his church that leads to them being tormented by Satan, and it is the will of Satan to accuse, to torture, to kill and destroy .
So the concept of God setting up a legitimate earthly agent of his wrath to judge and punish those who do evil judicially is inconsistent with the Christian teaching on God’s wrath. Judicially imposed punishment as a means of creating social order through fear is not a demonstration of the character of God at all. God is love, and ‘there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.’ (1 John 4:18) Judicially imposed social control is, as Paul wrote, ‘the lion’s mouth’ (2 Tim 4:17), a symbol of the devil and the devil-controlled beastly state (1 Pet 5:8; Rev 13:2).
We should heed the warning of James about attributing to God what belong to ourselves and to the devil, also his teaching about the organic rather than judicial relationship between sin and death:
When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;  but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:13-17)

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