God Doesn’t Punish? (2019)
The claim that “God doesn’t punish” appears about 100,000 times on Google; another 150,000 hits can be found when French, German, Russian, and Spanish equivalents are also added.
Haven’t the authors of this phrase heard of the Flood (Genesis 6:7): “So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them”? Or of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Then the LORD caused to rain upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven” (Genesis 19:24)? And how about what he did to Dathan and Abiram: how the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, their households, their tents, and all the substance that was in their possession, in the midst of all Israel (Deuteronomy 11:6)? Haven’t they read Amos 1 and 2, where the Almighty promises to destroy eight nations for their wicked deeds? Don’t they know that the Roman Missal of the Catholic Church contains the hymn “Dies Irae” (“The Wrath of God”), where the following verse appears: “When the Judge his seat attaineth, And each hidden deed arraigneth, Nothing unavenged remaineth”? And if the Jewish Bible is passé, how about the descriptions of hellish torments waiting for sinners in 2 Peter 2:4, Luke 16:23, Mark 9:47, Matthew 5:22, 10:28, Romans 6:23, and Revelations 9:5?
There is no lack of religious fanatics who would also reject the notion of an all-merciful divinity. Their view is particularly conspicuous with respect to natural disasters. In its article on “Divine Retribution,” Wikipedia quotes Christian and Jewish religious leaders blaming sexual immorality (particularly the practices of abortion and homosexuality) and various political events for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2007 UK floods, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (Wikipedia, 2019).
So how do the Christian apologists justify their stance on the Almighty’s mercifulness? In the following I’ll quote a few relevant passages from the wisdom of several denominations. These are arranged in three groups.
The first group contains semantic games played by demagogues, who are blatantly contravening H. Paul Grice’s 4th maxim (that of manners, in Grice, 1975; see also Moore, 2015):
- “God corrects, but does not punish,” said Creflo Dollar (2015). Dollar, a televangelist pastor, then adds that “God doesn’t want us to suffer, but He uses those times to develop our character and strengthen us…. When we accept and believe in what Jesus did for us on the cross, we become God’s own children, whom He loves too much to punish.”
- The Orthodox Church in America had an all-inclusive answer: “No, God does not punish us. Rather, He guides, chastens, purifies and strengthens us through every event and every experience, with the single minded concern to embrace us forever in the fullness of His love…. Insofar as penance is conceived as the means by which we free ourselves from the consequences of sin, rather than as a pedagogical tool to aid us in a quest for holiness or sanctification, then we have misunderstood the very core of the gospel and have set ourselves outside the bounds of Orthodox Christianity” (Breck, 2006)
- The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod had the following to say: “When Christians sin, God does not punish them. He has already punished Jesus in their place. What God may do is exercise discipline … (cf. Hebrews 12:4-12). Discipline is far different from punishment. The motive behind discipline is love and it has the good of people in mind. So, no, God does not punish Christians when they do wrong” (WELS, 2018).
- Daphne Delay, the born-again founder of Mirror Ministries, responded to a question: “[How] long does God punish us for doing wrong? If you’re a Christian, He never will. The Bible says, ‘Whom the Lord loves, He chastens…’ (Hebrews 12:6). The word chasten doesn’t describe punishment at all. It means to educate or train” (Delay, 2019).
In an effort that competes with Roget’s Thesaurus, the above apologists tried to sanitize “punish” and “punishment” by substituting correct, chasten, discipline, develop character, strengthen, guide, purify, educate, train, penance, and pedagogical tool for them. Their work, however, is wasted on those who read the 2nd commandment: “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Deuteronomy 5:9-10)
Authors in the second group qualify the “God doesn’t punish” claim: He punishes only those who deserve it!
- Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, had two conflicting opinions. Early on in her foundational text, she justified suffering as a price paid for sinning: “To cause suffering as the result of sin, is the means of destroying sin. Every supposed pleasure in sin will furnish more than its equivalent of pain, until belief in material life and sin is destroyed” (1875/1934, p. 6). Further along, however, she disputed the reality of pain and suffering: “the only reality of sin, sickness, or death is the awful fact that unrealities seem real to human, erring belief, until God strips off their disguise. They are not true, because they are not of God. We learn in Christian Science that all in harmony of mortal mind or body is illusion, possessing neither reality nor identity though seeming to be real and identical. The Science of Mind disposes of all evil. Truth, God, is not the father of error. Sin, sickness, and death are to be classified as effects of error.” (1875/1934, pp. 472-473).
- Writing for the God and Science organization, Richard Deem replied to the question about Deuteronomy 24:16: Why would God “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children unto the third and the fourth generation”? Not unlike Eddy’s first response quoted above, Deem had a simple answer: “This verse confirms that those who are punished are not innocent, but the children, like their fathers, are haters of God and His laws. If you hate God, He will punish you. But if you love God, He will love you and show you His kindness” (Deem, 2013).
- Mark Maulding, writing for the evangelist ministry GraceLife International, stated that “the punishment of God, because of our sins, was completely satisfied when Jesus died on the cross in our place. God doesn’t punish who we are in Christ when we sin. He already punished Jesus instead” (Maulding, n.d.). Yet his ministry’s manifesto has a caveat: “We believe those who reject Christ’s offer of salvation will suffer eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire with the devil and his angels” (GraceLife Ministries, 2019).
Those in the third group put the blame for punishment on the Devil:
- The “I didn’t do it” defense was the defense of choice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Only a heartless, diabolical evildoer would cause innocent people to suffer. By contrast, the Bible says: ‘God is love.’… The Bible clearly identifies the primary cause of human suffering. It states: ‘The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.’ (1 John 5:19) That ‘wicked one’ is Satan the Devil, a powerful spirit creature who was originally an angel of God but ‘did not stand fast in the truth'” (JW, 2018).
- The above explanation was shared on the Christian discussion forum TalkJesus.com. Here is the answer to the question “Does God punish Christians?”: “But if God has reconciled the world to Himself and does not even remember their sins let alone punish them for it, who is doing all the ‘punishment’—the earthquakes, accidents, deaths, diseases, terrorist attacks and so on? It is Satan, not God. The Bible clearly says that Satan destroys, but God gives abundant life…. So, if your loved one has cancer or Aids, then his health has been stolen from him and his body is being destroyed. He is being killed slowly and painfully. This is clearly the work of the devil, not God, who heals and gives abundant life” (Abizeid, 2007).
- Televangelist preacher Bobby Schuller, speaking for the Hour of Power organization, writes: “God is not punishing you. The devil is called the accuser of the brethren. The Holy Spirit is called the comforter. All the punishment that you think you would have received is on the cross of Jesus Christ. God is not punishing you” (Schuller, 2018).
If some believers are not satisfied by any of these justifications and excuses, they can always fall back on the most straightforward, no nonsense answer, given by the words John (9:1-3) and put into the mouth of Jesus: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.'” John then describes how Jesus restored the man’s sight. William Shakespeare’s opinion about this was made clear when the blind character Gloucester exclaimed: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport” (King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1).
To recap: The faithful can choose from among these answers to the question “Does God punish?”:
- No, he does not, by virtue of playing word games.
- No, he does not. The Almighty lets the Devil do the dirty work.
- No, he does not punish those who behave themselves, only those who deserve to be punished for not following the rules.
- No, he does not. The bad things that he makes happen serve as props to demonstrate his greatness.
 See, among other things, Jeremiah 7:12 “But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel,” as well as Job 4:7: “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?”
 See also an Islamic view of natural disasters in Understanding Islam (n.d.): “if we curse and blame God for our loss, then we have lost this trial and moved further away from God. So if God took away suffering, then He would take away our ability to develop and grow. In this way, some natural disasters must happen and God will not prevent them.”
 “[W]hen one tries to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and where one avoids obscurity and ambiguity” (Grice, 1975).
 Note that the term “correction institute” is synonymous with “jail.”
Abizeid, Chad. (2007, April 12). “God & Punishment.” TalkJesus.com. <https://www.talkjesus.com/threads/god-punishment.12884/>.
Breck, John. (2006, July 2). “Does God Punish Us?” Orthodox Church in America. <https://oca.org/reflections/fr.-john-breck/does-god-punish-us>.
Deem, Rich. (2013, March 28). “Why Would God ‘Visit the Iniquity of the Fathers on the Children unto the Third and the Fourth Generation’?” God & Science website. <https://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/god_iniquity_third_fourth_generation.html>.
Delay, Daphne. (2019, February 20). “How Long Does God Punish Us?” Daphne Delay blog. <https://daphnedelay.com/blog/faith/how-long-does-god-punish-us/>.
Dollar, Creflo. (2018). “God Corrects, but does Not Punish.” Creflo Dollar Ministries. <https://creflodollarministries.org/Bible-Study/Articles/God%20Corrects%20but%20Does%20Not%20Punish>.
Eddy, Mary Baker. (1934). Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Boston, MA: Christian Science Publishing Society. (Originally published 1875.)
GraceLife Ministries. (2019). “Our Vision.” <http://www.gracelife.org/aboutus.php>.
Grice, H. Paul. (1975). “Logic and Conversation” in Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts (pp. 41-58) ed. Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan. New York, NY: Academic Press.
Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW). (2018). “Who is to Blame?” The Watchtower: Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom, Vol. 139, No. 11 (September/October): 12.
Maulding, Mark. (n.d.). “Do Bad Circumstances Mean God is Punishing Me?” Grace Life International. <http://www.gracelifeinternational.com/do-bad-circumstances-mean-god-is-punishing-me>.
Moore, Michael. (2015). “Word Magic.” Et Cetera: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 72, No. 3 (July): 289-294.
Schuller, Bobby. (2018, April 14). “The Comforter.” Hour of Power daily devotional. <http://hourofpower.org/the-comforter/>.
Understanding Islam. (n.d.). “Natural Disasters or Divine Punishment?” <https://free-islamic-course.org/articles-on-topical-issues/natural-disasters-divine-punishment.html>.
Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). (2018, July 24). “Sin and Consequences.” <https://wels.net/faq/sin-and-consequences/>.
Wikipedia. (2019). “Divine Retribution.” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_retribution>.
Copyright ©2019 Michael Moore. The electronic version is copyright ©2019 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Michael Moore. All rights reserved.