Divine Punishment as a Problem in Theodicy

by Roberta Allen

Does God Punish?

However much one dislikes the idea, divine punishment has plenty of Scriptural backing, it is firmly established in church tradition and, rightly or wrongly, human beings have a tendency to assume that all wrongdoings are punished sometime and somehow. If any of these conventional beliefs are fallacious then it cannot be right to perpetuate them.

In speaking of divine punishment we are speaking of the nature of God and his actions. In order to determine whether God does punish it is necessary to know something of God. The Bible is singularly lacking in any clear description of God but it conveys the nature of God. The impression of God in the Old Testament is that God involves himself with his people in history; he has feelings, pity, anger, etc. Although God is portrayed in somewhat anthropomorphic terms, the unseen omnipotent God is very definitely personal. The problem is whether his nature is deduced from his behaviour; or rather what is thought to be his behaviour, or whether his behaviour is deduced from what is thought to be his nature. If God's being cannot be separated from his action, and his action cannot be separated from his purpose, then perhaps God's purpose will prove to be the decisive criterion. The aspects of God's nature which are important for this discussion are the 'wrath of God' and the 'love of God', the corresponding actions are 'divine punishment' and 'divine forgiveness'.

In the Old Testament God both inflicts punishment and saves. In the older prophets love and wrath are the dominant features of God's nature; sometimes wrath and love are in tension; sometimes one aspect predominates. In the exilic period, for example, the message of hope implies that wrath has ceased, at least for Israel. There is no attempt to harmonise love and wrath.

The flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah are used throughout the Bible as examples of divine wrath.(1) But temporal divine punishment is not so evident in the New Testament; the 'wrath of God' usually refers to the wrath at the day of judgement. (2) There are, however, the examples of Herod Agrippa and Ananius and Sapphira. (3) Overall the New Testament emphasizes divine punishment in the afterlife and it is this aspect which has remained in church tradition.

The doctrine of hell has been gruesomely illustrated down the centuries, and we now associate hell with all the horrors we can imagine in this life - multiplied. The doctrine of 'last things', death, judgement, heaven and hell, effectively begins with the day of judgement when God will judge each individual and will separate the righteous and the unrighteous. The righteous will go to heaven and the unrighteous will go to hell. To be in heaven is to be in the presence of God, it is the life everlasting. Hell is eternal damnation and death, and is traditionally thought to be a place of punishment. However hell is conceived, it is not a nice place or state to be in.

If hell is punishment it must involve the criteria already set down, that is, it must be unpleasant, for an offence or sin, of the offender, the work of personal agencies, part of a process, coercive power, and optional. Of these criteria the second is the most problematical. What is the offence or sin?

The confusion of Sin

In Catholic thought a distinction has been made between mortal and venial sin, which roughly corresponds to the distinction between Sin and sins. A mortal sin is one that separates a person from God so that if a person dies in mortal sin he will be condemned. A venial sin is forgivable. (4) The reformers rejected this distinction because they considered that there was only one sin, rebellion or separation from God. But the distinction does have its roots in the Old Testament.

While there are several words meaning sin in the Old Testament, two of the most common are 'a won translated 'iniquity' which implies a wrongdoing, and p-sh-' often translated 'transgression' but which actually means 'rebel' or 'revolt' and implies a law or lawgiver who is knowingly disobeyed. For the former it was possible to make a sin offering (Num. 15:17f.), but for deliberate rebellion a man was lost. The latter term is the one which the prophets emphasized because it also implies the broken relationship between God and man. Therefore, Sin is a 'state' into which man has come because of actions (sins) he has taken, or it can be deliberate rebellion against God which itself may issue in some form of action. The Old Testament speaks of two results of sin, one is punishment and the other, more seriously, is estrangement from God.

Being in a state of estrangement is often equated with being in a state of original sin. Traditionally it is said that because all men are in a state of original sin, that all men deserve to be punished. Without denying that the doctrine of original sin may tell us something about human nature, it is preferable to take the view that on the whole the Scriptural evidence points to God punishing for wrongdoing rather than wrongbeing.

The New Testament shows God overcoming the barrier of Sin, in the sense of estrangement. Christ's saving work was to do what no man could do; in the past man could atone for sins by making a sin offering but could not mend the broken relationship. As the doctrine of the atonement 'developed' it tended to interpret Sin in a legalistic fashion as a transgression of laws instead of a deep violation of a personal relationship. Tertullion was one of the early Fathers to promote this idea. The distinction between Sin and sins became blurred and sin was understood primarily in a juridical sense. The advocates of penal substitutionary theories of atonement maintain that God cannot overlook sin and therefore he must punish before he can forgive.

The major problem seems to be that there is no positively stated doctrine of sin and therefore confusions have arisen over actual reasons for punishment. As a result of this confusions objections have been raised against penal substitutionary theories and divine punishment in general. The chief objection being that God is love and the idea of the love of God excluded the entire range of juridical notions to which punishment belongs. The idea that penal substituion is immoral leads to the idea that divine punishment is immoral. Eventually on arrives at the point where punishment and the wrath of God and forgiveness and the love of God are treated as alternative and mutually exclusive ways of dealing with sin, and the belief that God does not involve himself in the former. (5)

Objections to Divine Punishment

As we move into the objections to divine punishment it is necessary to point out that there are in fact very few objections as such. We have apparently reached the stage where the denial of hell or eternal punishment is assumed and, as a consequence, reflections on eschatology do not mention it at all. In a recent book on Christian doctrine C. Braaten states:

Christianity today stands at the crossroads between two diametrically opposed interpretations of eschatology. On one side as the "conservative evangelicals" who think of eschatology in the traditional sense of "last things" to occur in some near or distant future. On the other side there are "post-Enlightenment" Christians who think of eschatology more concretely in relation to social-ethical objectives. (6)

He continues by saying, "The renewal of biblical eschatology in contemporary theology is trying to overcome a false dichotomising of eschatology into other-worldy and this-worldly hopes." It appears to be doing so by emphasizing an 'it'll be all right in the end' hope and by keeping the symbols of 'hell' and 'wrath of God' only as existential concerns. (7) Although Braaten has overstated the dichotomy, it nevertheless does exist and may be traced back to other enlightened theologians.

Apart from a few isolated individuals, Origen, Hobbes, etc., the main attack on divine punishment has taken place since the nineteenth century. Ritschl has been very influential in stressing the love of God. Love, he said, is the true nature of God. If we feel the wrath of God upon us it is only an illusion, for it is not part of God's true nature. Ritsch did not refer much to eschatology for, being a "post-Enlightenment" Christian, he was more concerned with the ethical connotation of establishing the Kingdom of God in history. But he allowed the wrath of God to remain as an eschatological possibility. Ritschl's importance lies in his assertion that love and wrath are incompatible rather than in any 'eschatological possibilities' he may have entertained. J. Hick in our own day is a foremost theodicist who believes in such a 'God of love'.

The Universalist Objection to Divine Punishment

Hick finds that eternal punishment does not fit in with his 'Irenaen type' theodicy which, being eschatologically orientated, finds its solution in universal salvation. God's purpose cannot be thwarted and the notion of even one person remaining unredeemed, whether by being condemned to hell or by drifting out of existence, would mean that either God could not or would not bring his purpose to fulfilment, and therefore is limited either in power or goodness. Hick says that everlasting suffering would be an evil out of which no good could ever be brought, and he maintains that the needs of Christian theodicy compel us to repudiate the idea of eternal punishment. (8) But he also says that this does not entail that human choices are unreal or that hell does not stand before all men as a terrible possibility. (9) Surely, if it is even a 'terrible possibility' this means that God is 'possibly' limited in power or goodness? Perhaps Hick is thinking here of the possibility of hell as he re-defines it, that is as the fact of purgatorial experiences made necessary by our imperfections and sins in this life. According to Hick, purgatory signifies real suffering occurring as a consequence of moral evil and rightly to be set before our minds as a real aspect of the moral order under which we live.(10) Hick appears to be saying that as long as good is brought out of evil then God may punish us (remedially) in purgatory.

It is not important that Hick, in allowing purgatory, contradicts himself (Hick's God is not coercive and punishment is an act of coercive power, and furthermore, 'treatment' to serve one's own ends is evil), what is important is that Hick thinks, or to be more precise implies, that God does or could punish. It is interesting to note that the needs of Christian theodicy do not compel us to also repudiate divine punishment per se.

E. Moberly's reinterpretation of hell and purgatory has much in common with Hick's, but she has developed it in a different, more psychological, manner. Moberly suggests that being in the presence of God occasions intrinsic judgement and penitential suffering and that neither judgement nor punishment can be externally imposed. Death is transition to an afterlife but it is not the beginning of eschatological realisation. The process that begins in this life continues into the next. The 'last judgement' can be thought of as an interval, but not the consummation of the process of growth, not its abrogation. Purgatory, reinterpreted, is closely related to judgement. Moberly states:

Purgatory is a process... Because it is a process of what we are actually becoming, one is judged not just for one's acts, as distinct from oneself, but for all that one is and has been. The judgement is the suffering, and the judgement and the suffering alike are no more and no less than the statement of what one is. (11)

This idea can be better understood if it is compared to similar ideas of J.A. T. Robinson and F.W Newnman. Robinson in a light-hearted yet serious book, But that I can't believe, says, "in a real sense the definition of heaven and hell is the same: being with God - for ever. For some that's heaven, for some it's hell: for most of us it's a bit of both."(12) Newman, in a similar vein, says that heaven is not a place of happiness, except to the holy. Consequently for an irreligious man heaven would be nothing less than hell. (13) Newman, however, denied that it could be a bit of both.

Like Hick, Moberly suggests that hell as a possibility is necessary but its actualisation is not. She says,

A person could not be 'condemned' to hell as something external to himself; he would be 'in' hell by reason of what he would be, what he himself had chosen to become. The possibility of hell is a necessary possibility in that evil is evil. Sin is a self-destructive force. (14)

Moberly offers a good case for God not punishing. In fact, God does not even play a major role in Moberly's theory. God's presence is all that is required. However, while the theory is interesting it does raise a few problems. Moberly does not make it clear whether the process of purgatory is always successful. This is implied because hell, which is total self-destruction, is only a possibility. Moberly denies universalism, because it offers only one option but she seems to be advocating it herself in a subtle manner. On the other hand, if hell were to be actualised would this in any way reflect on God's omnipotence or goodness? Would God be unable to prevent it happening or would he permit it? If he could not prevent it happening he would be limited in power, but if he permitted it he might just as well punish.

Objection on the ground that evil is self-destructive

The notion that evil is self-destructive and therefore needs no help from God needs to be examined in more detail. It is a persuasive theory closely related to the concept of penalty. While Moberly applies the principle to the afterlife, other scholars believe that it takes place on a temporal level. K. Koch suggests the Old Testament promotes this principle. He maintains the Wisdom literature suggests 'destiny producing' human deeds and that the prophets proclaim the consequences of sinful human deeds are so inevitable that God cannot alter them. (15) This, however, is not to say that God did not, as it were, set this law of cause and effect in the first place. The consequences are, in this respect, under God's providence.

C.H. Dodd and A. T. Hanson take a similar view of God's wrath in the New Testament. They maintain that the wrath of God in the New Testament is indirect and impersonal. (Neither Hanson or Dodd point out that New Testament language about God, apart from occurring less than in the Old Testament, is on the whole considerably more indirect.) Wrath is not something inflicted but something which men bring on themselves. Hanson states, "wrath in the New Testament is not an emotion or attribute of God, but the effects of sin." (16) This thesis is based primarily on Rom. 1:18 - 32 which begins 'the wrath of God is being revealed'. Dodd maintains 'the wrath' is seen to be at work in contemporary history and it consists in leaving sinful human nature to 'stew in its own juice'.(17)

Some biblical texts do indeed suggest the idea of penalty or self-destructive sin, but if these texts are made the guiding principle all the others must either be moulded to fit or ignored. There is also a danger in the fact that the notion of self-destructive sin has a deterministic tendency and thus an implicit tendency to contradict the belief in free-will. In many respects the the notion of self-destructive sin is more an ethical or existential concern than a theological one, for there is an implication that the process cannot be affected by any exterior force. This poses a problem for divine forgiveness and the atonement.

The idea of self-destructive evil on a temporal basis would have been easier to understand in ancient times but science may have affected our view of it. For example, in the past if someone caught a venereal disease through illicit sexual behaviour it might have been said that he was paying the penalty for his sin. (18) He had brought it on himself and must suffer the consequences. Today it may still be said that he brought it on himself but the difference is that as it is now possible to cure VD he no longer has to suffer the consequences in full. The effects of the sin can be cured even if the person remains sinful. Furthermore, the person can have a choice in his future; he can accept the treatment offered for his own good or he can reject it to his detriment. There is nothing to prevent him accepting the treatment and continuing sinning ad infinitum. In view of the latter possibility it might be said that it would be better if he was not cured. This, however, would be a human judgement, what is God's reaction to the recidivist sinner? If the theory of self-destructive evil is accepted God has no need to react at all.

Another modern answer to the problem is that 'God is angry not with the sinner but with his sin'. This view is not tenable. Just as wrath is not some kind of metaphysical entity apart from God himself, nor is sin an entity apart from the man who sins. The misunderstanding it involves has arisen because, on the one hand, wrath is wrongly thought to be simply an emotion, and on the other hand because people want to treat wrath as impersonal and emphasize the love of God.

The Conditionalist Objection to Eternal Punishment

There is one other position which is important to the discussion - conditionalism. Just as universalism is a growing tendency for those who wish to stress the love of God, there is a growing tendency for those who wish to hold the tension between the love of God and the wrtah of God. These people advocate 'conditional immortality', which may be described as a mediating position between the extremes of universalism and the traditional doctrine of hell. Conditionalism emerged in the late nineteenth century as a result of the questioning of the doctrine of eternal punishment at that time. (19)

The basis of the doctrine of conditional immortality is that God created man mortal but with a capacity for immortality. This is based on the belief that the Bible does not teach that the soul is naturally immortal and that many biblical images including 'fire' and 'death' suggest total destruction. J. Wenham states:

[Conditionalists] maintain that conditional immortality was generally accepted in the early church until its thinkers tried to wed Plato's doctrine of immortality of the soul to the teaching of the Bible. This unequal yoke, they say, spawned two bastard offspring: universalism (as taught by Clement and Origen) and unending torment (as taught by Tertullian and Augustine). (20)

Against 'eternal punishment' conditionalists say it serves no useful purpose and it involves an eternal cosmological dualism. Rather, they say 'eternal punishment' means an act of judgement whose results are irreversible; it does not imply that the experience of being punished goes on forever.

Conditionalists maintain that in the natural course of events men die, but by the grace of God they can become immortal through faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ is the 'condition'. There are, however, some liberal minded conditionalists who would not be quite so exclusive with the condition. There is also some debate as to whether the moment of death is actually the moment of annihilation or whether this takes place at some later time. The latter is more commonly held for this would allow for the resurrection, judgement, a period of punishment for those who deserve it and possibly a chance for those who, in this life, were unaware of the gospel message, to make their decision.

Conditionalism is another worthy attempt at solving the problem but it also creates others. One is the moment of immortalisation which seems to be equated with a conversion experience taking place in this life. Another is, as C. S. Lewis points out, that in common experience the destruction of one thing means the emergence of something else. If the soul can be destroyed, must there not be a state of having been a human soul? (21) One might argue that the doctine of creatio ex nihilo supports a doctrine of annihilation. But in reply one could say that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is traditional rather than scriptural. It would not answer the question but it is an equally valid argument.

We might agree that Plato's doctrines of the mind-body dichotomy and immortality are discredited, that modern philosophical interpretations see the unity of the person, and that continued existence is dependent entirely on the grace of God, but surely the doctrines of creation and providence teach this anyway? It is only through God's loving activity that we are held in existence. Furthermore, as Hick says,

If it be God's plan to create finite persons to exist in fellowship with himself, then it contradicts both his own intention and his love for the creatures made in his image if he allows men to pass out of existence when his purpose for them remains largely unfulfilled. (22)

Conditionalism avoids the 'horrors of hell' and 'eternal' punishment while keeping the 'wrath of God' intact. Some will allow for limited retributive punishment but on the whole conditionalist 'punishment' is more akin to capital punishment for all offences. Wenham suggests that it might be nearer the mark to think of their end as a merciful euthanasia than a callous execution.(23) But this is really too sentimental, it is similar in tone to S. Davis's idea that hell is a place where people who reject God choose to go because they would be unhappy in God's presence; it is not a place of suffering and torture, but a sinner's 'heaven'. (24)

It appears that at the root of conditionalism, in a far more subtle way, can be found the same reasoning as in universalism, that is, a rejection of the wrath of God and an assertion of the love of God. For taking it to its logical conclusion conditionalists would probably agree with Baird, who, having for the greater part of his book held wrath and love in tension, declares, "... wrath has ceased to have meaning, or at least expression for rebellious man has ceased to be and God's justice can now exist as perfect love. Ultimately, then, God is love." (25)

The root of the problem - exegetical misunderstanding and the problems of language.

Three positions have been examined, universalism, self-destructive evil, and conditionalism. It can be said that all three are attempts not so much to explain what happens after death or how God deals with sinners, but rather they are attempts to overcome a major problem of theodicy: the 'badness' of God in 'punishing' sinners. The 'wrath of God' is a stumbling block which can only be overcome by denying or ignoring its 'real' existence. However, the root of the problem can be found in exegetical misunderstanding and problems of language.

Much use has been made, by the supporters of the various theories, of the idea that misunderstandings have arisen. It could be said that theology is largely concerned with understanding misunderstandings for the best part of its work is reinterpretation. In the reinterpretation of words it is frequently pointed out that this word does not mean this, it means that or, as in Hick's example, a whole tradition may be tried and found to be wanting. One of the common accusations against the original word or doctrine is that it has been wrongly understood literally. However, literalism is not just an error of past theologians, it is an ever present error. For in reinterpretation something equally literal is put in place of the erroneous literal concept. For example, Hick attempts to de-literalise 'hell' by equating it with "a continuation of the purgatorial suffering often experienced in this life", but is this concept any less literal? Hick does not intend it to be, for according to Hick religious assertions must be regarded as assertions of fact. (26) The conditionalists also make use of deliteralising and reliteralising. To illustrate this the conditionalist's treatment of 'eternal fire' will now be examined.

B. Atkinson maintains the agency by which the annihilation of the wicked will be effected is fire. He explains that although 'fire' is occasionally used in the Old Testament figuratively to describe the wrath of God or even God himself, it has the same elementary meaning in Hebrew as it has today. In the New Testament fire is sometimes used as a symbol of the trial and persecution for disciples, or of judgement, but the Greek pyr has the same elemental meaning as today. Atkinson suggests the greatest use of fire, then as now, is as a vehicle of destruction. (27)

Coal, wood, or human corpses are consumed by fire; they are turned into ashes and effectively destroyed. When the fire has consumed what is in it, the fire goes out. This is what Atkinson means by 'the same elemental meaning as today'. He explains that the descriptions of fire as unquenchable and eternal are not meant to be understood literally.

In Jer. 17:27 we read that the Lord will kindle a fire in the gates of Jerusalem which will devour her palaces and shall not be quenched .... But is the fire burning now? Of course not. No one in the world could quench it until it had fulfilled the purpose for which it was kindled, and then in the course of nature it went out. (28)

Atkinson explains 'eternal' means everlasting in its results. Jude Ch. 7 states that the fire which destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah was eternal fire. Atkinson says it soon burnt itself out, but it was everlasting in accomplishing a destruction from which the cities have never recovered nor ever will. Such will be the fire that destroys the wicked. (29)

Fire may have the same elemental meaning in the Bible as it does today, but with the same basic understanding it is used not in a literal, figurative, or symbolic sense so much as metaphorically. As stated above, the Old Testament writers did not attempt to harmonise the wrath of God and the love of God. Because love and wrath are dialectically related the only possible way to express the unity of these two aspects of God's nature is in metaphor. The biblical metaphor for this dialectic is fire: God is a consuming fire. (30) Eichrodt maintains that throughout the Old Testament period the manifestation of the divine in fire was felt to be especially congenial to the concept of God, and that the metaphorical role of fire inevitably went hand in hand with new insights into the way God might be conceived to be present in it. (31) There was also a philosophical viewpoint which equated the divine with fire. (32) Some of the ways in which fire is used metaphorically in the bible will now be examined.

The metaphor fire in the Bible is used to express God's action, presence, and nature, particularly in love and wrath. Fire burns as love burns, fire refines and purifies, and fire destroys and annihilates.

Fire expresses God's saving love in action: The story of the three men in the fiery furnace in Daniel 3 is a midrash on the exile experience. The furnace represents God's wrath in destroying Jerusalem, but the 'exiles' in the fire do not burn (their enemies outside it do), rather the presence of God is revealed to the 'exiles' as saving love. Perhaps the most obvious expression of fire as saving love is in the theophanies of Exodus; first God reveals himself to Moses in a 'burning bush' and then leads Israel in a 'pillar of fire' by night. In the New Testament the descent of the Holy Spirit is accompanied by 'tongues of fire'.(33)

Fire purifies and removes sin: In the call of Isaiah the seraphim placed burning coal on Isaiah's lips to purify him. (34) In the New Testament John the Baptist says Christ will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (35)

Fire destroys: The most familiar example of destruction by fire is that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jude expressed the destruction as a punishment of 'eternal fire', and Atkinson explained that this meant that the effects of the punishment were eternal. However, 'eternal fire' in this case could equally be a euphemism for God. 'Heaven' was often used as a euphemism for God and there is no reason why 'eternal fire' in this case could be equally a euphemism for God's wrath, based on the traditional metaphor.

Bearing in mind the above three metaphorical understandings of fire, and also a fourth which is the 'fire of judgement', we could ask which fire did Christ mean when he said, "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!" (36) The answer might be in the fact that all fire is one. The same fire saves, purifies, judges and destroys.

Fire is probably the finest non-personal metaphor that can be used of God and it expresses well what Otto called the numinous. Ways in which this metaphorical perspective come more precisely to bear on the discussion of divine punishment can be shown by reference to recent developments in religious language, to which we now turn.

The importance of metaphor in religious language

In light of recent inquiries into religious language and linguistic analysis in general, there is reason to believe that metaphor plays a very important, but generally unrecognised, role in the way language is used.

In the past a metaphor was recognised as a grammatical technique in which a word or phrase normally used of one thing is applied to another, but it was believed that what the metaphor said could be said in some other and more direct way. More recently several people have put forward the thesis that the main purpose of metaphor is to say something that cannot be said in any other way. S. McFague says:

The principle contemporary theorists on metaphor as unsubstitutable are I. A. Richards and Max Black.... Richards' definition of metaphor gives the reigning 'interactive' view of it: "In the simplest formulation, when we use a metaphor we have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word, or phrase, whose meaning is a resultant of their interaction." The most important element in this definition is its insistence on two active thoughts which remain in permanent tension or interaction with each other. (37)

McFague uses Black's example of ,war is a chess game, to demonstrate how metaphor works. 'War is a chess game' is not the same as 'war is like a chess game'. Metaphor is a lens. In the example chess is the filter through which war is seen and is useful to understand tactics and the movement of armies, but at the same time it filters out other aspects of war, for example death and injury. The tension, the "it is and it is not" quality of the metaphor, is its most important characteristic. Another characteristic is that both partners of the metaphor are affected by being in interaction; in the example chess would also be seen differently- as 'warlike'. (38)

Metaphor relies on literal meaning but its purpose is to transcend it in order to create new understanding. After the initial impact of a new metaphor the shock element subsumes and the metaphor becomes insightful, at this stage a metaphor is said to 'live'. This stage may continue or the metaphor may 'die'.(39) A large part of our language consists in dead metaphors. For example, a common phrase is 'the situation is in hand' this is a 'dead' metaphor. All it says to us now is 'the situation is under control', but originally it would have conjured up pictures of horsemanship. Dead metaphors are literalized metaphors, they have become dictionary meanings. Many biblical metaphors have become literalized.

McFague says moving beyond metaphors is necessary both to avoid literalizing and to attempt significant interpretations of them for our time. This is achieved through concepts and theories. Concepts and theories arise from metaphors and models (dominant metaphors). A concept is an abstract notion, an idea or thought; a theory organises the ideas into an explanatory structure. However, we cannot make a clear division between metaphorical and conceptual language because of their intrinsic interdependence. The relationship is a symbiotic one in which metaphors provide "food" for concepts and concepts provide "sight" for metaphors. (40)

McFague contends that metaphorical thinking is the way human beings move in all areas of discovery, and that all language is, in effect, metaphorical. (41) Furthermore, it is crucial to understand how this relates to religious language and theology. McFague suggests that traditionally, in what she calls the sacramental universe, religious language was understood as primarily symbolic. She says in the symbolic perspective two dimension exist in a hierarchical order; the symbolic way rests on a profound similarity beneath the surface dissimilarities. But, she says, in the secular world in which we now live we cannot relate to the sacramental, symbolic way of thinking and, as a consequence, religious language has become idolatrous, irrelevant, empty, and meaningless. (42) It becomes idolatrous, because without a sense of awe, wonder, and mystery, we forget the inevitable distance between our words and the divine reality. It becomes irrelevant because without a sense of the immanence of the divine in our lives, we find language about God empty and meaningless. (43) If we understand religious language as metaphorical we can bring it back to life again. The reviving quality of metaphor is, paradoxically, its negative element, the 'is not', for it allows for a sense of discontinuity, scepticism, and relativity between our language and its reference to God and the world. (44)

The point of this excusus on religious language has been to highlight the 'idolatry' and 'irrelevance' of much of the traditional talk of hell, wrath, and divine punishment, and in fact, heaven, love and divine forgiveness. It is easy to forget that all speech about God is necessarily indirect, particularly when we so frequently use personal terminology.

The chief argument against God punishing is that God is love. Although love is a personal, relational concept, it is also abstract and therefore is thought to be exempt from the problems of religious language. However, love is just as metaphorical as other words about God in the sense that is been abstracted from a metaphor. 'God is love' thus means 'God is and is not love'. As a theological statement the latter is as significant as the former but avoids the danger of ontological over confidence.

We may say 'God punishes'; but this statement is also a metaphor and is derived from the metaphor the 'wrath of God'. Punishing and wrath are, like love and forgiveness, personal terms but, unlike love and forgiveness, they have non--personal correctives to the danger of anthropomorphism. This is seen for example in the metaphor fire.

Divine punishment has been conceptualised in the term 'hell'. But rather than escaping literalization 'hell' became a fundamental tenet of orthodox Christianity. There is not much awe, wonder, or mystery left in this doctrine, and it has become so irrelevant as to be discarded. The new theories which have been put in its place bear little resemblance to the original but they may offer insights of a different nature. Therefore in the attempt to discover what is meant by 'God punishes', which will be done in the next section, we will also attempt to avoid committing the genetic fallacy.


Books are referred to by author's surname in upper case; articles by author's surname in lower case. Full publication details are given in the footnote when the work is not in the Bibliography .

1. Gen. 6-9; Gen. 19.(Back)

2. C.H. Dodd has made popular the view that wrath in the New Testament is impersonal. (Back)

3. Acts 12:22-23; Acts 5:9.(Back)

4. The distinction has its origin in 1 John 5:16-17. See J.C O'Neill, "Sin", in A. Richardson & J Bowden (eds), A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, London: SCM Press Ltd., 1983) (Back)

5. It has been suggested that modern theology is attempting to do in the twentieth century what Marcion did in the second century. See BEVAN p. 185; see also R. C. Zaehner, Our Savage God, (London: Collins, 1974), p.233 for the view that we are all Marcionites at heart.(Back)

6. In P. Hodgson & R. king (eds.), Christian Theology, (London: S>P>C>K> 1983), p.293.(Back)

7. For an example see P. Tillich, Systematic Theology combined volume(Digswell Place: James Nisbet & Co Ltd., 1968), II pp.88f.(Back)

8. HICK (EGL) p.378.(Back)

9. HICK (GUF) pp.71f.(Back)

10. HICK(EGL) p.385.(Back)

11. E. MOBERLEY p.116.(Back)

12. J.A.T. Robinson But That I Can't Believe!, (London: Fontana, 1967), p.49(Back)

13. Cited in ROWELL p.95.(Back)

14. E. MOBERLY p.114; cf. C.S. LEWIS p.111.(Back)

15. See Koch in CRENSHAW(Back)

16. HANSON p.85.(Back)

17. C.H Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today, (London: Fontana, 1958) p.67.(Back)

18. The use of the masculine pronoun in this example and elsewhere in this dissertation is for convenience only.(Back)

19. See ROWELL p.193(Back)

20. WENHAM p.36(Back)

21. See C.S. LEWIS P.113(Back)

22. J. Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed., (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973), p.101.(Back)

23. See WENHAM P. 38 n.(Back)

24. See DAVIS p.82.(Back)

25. BAIRD p.235.(Back)

26. Hick op. cit., p.83.(Back)

27. See ATKINSON pp.104ff.(Back)

28. Ibid., p.106(Back)

29. Ibid., p. 107.N.B. I. T. Ramsey said conceptual qualifiers e.g. eternal 'protect' the model from anthropomorphism and idolatry, McFAGUE p. 123.(Back)

30. Deut. 4,24; Heb. 12:29(Back)

31. See EICHRODT p.18(Back)

32. Heraclitus of Ephesus c. 536-470BCE thought that the universe is in a constant state of flux. For this reason the world appeared to him to be an everliving fire. Heraclitus believed that God did not 'make' the world ex nihilo but that it derives from or actually is a divine 'fire' which is at the same time the divine mind. God as divine fire was present everywhere, sustaining and consuming at the same time. Zaehner op cit. pp.86, 92. It is interesting to note Parmenides developed the conception of 'Being is, Non-being is not', in opposition to the 'Becoming' of Heraclitus, and it was Parmenides' conception which was developed and eventually influenced Augustine and thus Western Chrisendom.(Back)

33. Ex. 3:2; Ex. 13:21-22; Acts2:3.(Back)

34. Is. 6:6-7. Not quite so relevant to this discussion but what will be later is the interesting fact that a Hebrew word for angel (Ex.3:2) is 'seraph'. The root s-r-p means 'to burn'. The noun from this root was also used of two kinds of serpent. One of which was a particularly venomous serpent, whose bite 'burned' its victim; the other was the name of a flying serpent or dragon. The same word which Isaiah uses to describe the angels in his inaugural vision he uses elsewhere for the fiery serpent (14:29; 30:6).(Back)

35. Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16.(Back)

36. Luke 12:49.(Back)

37. McFague in Richardson op. cit., pp. 359f.(Back)

38. See McFAGUE pp. 23-24.(Back)

39. Ibid., p.41.(Back)

40. Ibid., p.22-26; 118-9.(Back)

41. Ibid., pp.15f.(Back)

42. Ibid., pp.11f.(Back)

43. Ibid., p.2.(Back)

44. Ibid., p.194.(Back)

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