I hope I’m not scaring you with this title, but it’s time to look at an issue that most people these days discount, undoubtedly to their spiritual peril. The idea of a God who punishes sin seems to have flown out of the Church when the Vatican II windows were opened. But a rejected idea does not mean the reality behind it ceases to exist.
Too sharp a distinction is often made between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New, as if they were two different Gods. The Old Testament God is a punishing God and the New Testament God is a loving, merciful God, they say, so we can discard those archaic images of inexorable divine judgment. It is true that you can find numerically more expressions of divine wrath in the Old Testament, but you can also find much tenderness there. On the other hand, you will also find the wrath of God in the New Testament.
Why then have we decided that Jesus and his Father are merciful and that other God is harsh and vindictive? Sure, Jesus revealed God as a loving Father, and even sacrificed Himself out of love for us. But the divine nature hasn’t changed just because now there is a Jesus. There’s still no free pass for sin: “Whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him” (John 3:36, the same chapter in which we read: “God so loved the world…”). I could overload you with more citations, but I think you get the point.
There's a description of God in Psalm 98(99) that seems to hold together the two sides of this divine coin. I used to have some difficulty with this, but I don’t anymore: “For them you were a forgiving God, yet you punished all their offenses.” We seem to want forgiveness to mean merely looking the other way, saying everything is OK without any honest accounting. And somehow punishment (or correction, or discipline) seems to be little more than a vindictive demand for the satisfaction of justice. But both of those are wrong. So is the image of God (explicit or implicit) as a benign old Grandfather who sits in his rocker saying, “There, there, everything’s OK. I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Punishment and forgiveness are both bound up in the mystery of the Cross. There is no punishment we could endure to atone for a single sin. We are utterly incapable, so we would not be able to satisfy divine justice by any sort of punishment or discipline from God that He may require. We received forgiveness because Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice, enduring all that was due to us, atoning for every sin ever committed. Therefore God doesn’t punish our offenses as a way for us to atone for them; He does it for didactic and therapeutic purposes—because He loves us.
You see, we have a lot of lessons to learn, and our tainted nature tends to resist the path of righteousness and hence needs constant instruction and correction. This our Father graciously supplies, though sometimes it is in the form of a punishment. Certain “punishments” are administered not directly by God but as a result of the nature of things or the structure of society. If you jump off the roof of your house, you will likely break some bones; if you rob a bank, you will likely get caught and go to prison; if you commit sodomy, you will likely contract AIDS or some other related disease (yet other punishments may be forthcoming); if you have an abortion, you will likely suffer physical and emotional (and definitely spiritual) harm. Probably you who are reading this rarely, if ever, do any of those things. But there are a host of smaller sins that we commit all the time which, even though atoned for by Jesus (God is a God who forgives), require that we bear the fruits of repentance and accept divine discipline. "The anger of God I accept," cries the prophet, "for I have sinned against Him." Yet once we acquiesce to God's judgment, "He will bring me forth to the light; I shall behold his deliverance" (Micah 7:9).
Remember this important passage from Hebrews: “Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines the one whom he loves, and chastises [literally, scourges!] every son whom he receives” (12:5-6). So rather than deny that God punishes—thinking that He somehow has evolved from a strict God to a lenient one, a punisher to a forgiver—let us simply embrace the truth: He is a merciful Father who, out of love for us and concern for our spiritual well-being and salvation, has recourse to punishments, corrections, and whatever it takes to help us learn the lessons of life that are essential to our lasting happiness. Easy forgiveness without clearly-felt correction may not reach deeply enough into our hearts and minds to effect the required change. We must not take the horror of sin or the gift of divine mercy lightly. God intends that we be fully aware of what we have done and the price of the atonement thereof. If we just say, “Sorry about that!” and dance off happily, without having felt the painful reality of sin in our hearts and our very bones, chances are we won’t learn our lesson and won’t think twice before offending Him again. But thus we flirt with blasphemy.
To accept that God may be disciplining us because of our sins, even if we have repented and received forgiveness, is not to have a false or negative image of God (you’d have to deny practically the whole of Scripture to assert that). The authors of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament are always saying that if a wise man accepts reproof, discipline, and correction, he becomes wiser still. For everything that comes from God bears good fruit—if we allow it. If it is God who punishes, then it is a blessing, for God is love. We can reduce our confusion and anxiety over the events and sufferings of our lives if we simply accept that we are in God’s hands, and that even his punishments are advancing our salvation.
But we have to co-operate; we have to say “yes” and prove that we are learning our lessons. If we’re on the way to salvation we’ll only be punished for now. Tomorrow I’ll have something to say about those who are punished forever—quite a different state of affairs.