Punishment Free

One of the misconceptions that I encounter when in conversation with people about God is that God is all about punishing humans. This is an idea which has stemmed from interpretations of Scripture passages and been perpetuated by some churches. Various passages from the Bible, especially from the Old Testament, are lifted up as proof that God desires to punish those who do not follow God’s instructions or even those who God does not like for some reason. I would argue that these passages are often misunderstood and usually taken out of context. I find much more language regarding God’s love for all humanity in the Bible than I do any words which may support the image of a punishing God.

First, let me talk a bit about what I view as misinterpretation of Scripture. One problematic trait which I see too often when someone is trying to claim that the Bible is presenting some negative image of God is that the individual is often attempting to use the words literally. Why this is a problem is something which I have blogged about previously in Word by Word on April 19, 2019. Let me lift up a few key points from that post. One must remember that the Bible which we hold in our hands in the United States today is part of a line of translations which date back to the original writings in Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. We actually have none of those original writings today. Translation requires a level of interpretation since words from ancient languages many times have no modern day equal. Next, we have the fact that the whole of the Bible was originally communicated in an oral, not a written manner. This required the listener to hear what was being said and communicate that to others effectively which opens these stories up to minor alterations. Also, the fact that cultural understandings are not at all the same today as they were then so is important to place whatever we read/hear into the cultural context of the original speakers and listeners. All these realities cause us to use caution when interpreting and applying stories from the Bible into our everyday life. I would argue that the only way we are able to effectively do so is to seek the main point of what we read and avoid any attempt at literal interpretation.

In a similar vein, it is important to remember what was occurring at the time a story was created and/or interpreted into writing. This historical context influences how a concept is communicated. In the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, there are often times a passage is stated during times of war, destruction, and disease. These human factors will influence how a message is communicated and what types of imagery are used.

The next issue which arises is one which I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Scripture must be taken as a whole. What I mean is that we need to identify the major theme of all Scripture before we attempt to interpret a specific portion of Scripture. Earlier I mentioned that I have discovered more passages about God’s love for all creation and humanity than I find passages which talk about God’s wrath and punishments. The major theme of Scripture is that God loves us even when we cannot find a reason to love ourselves. This love is manifested in what God does to and for each one of us. Jesus provides the greatest demonstration of this love which is why he is referred to as the greatest revelation of God. Any passages written about God’s wrath and punishment should be understood in this light. There clearly are times that punishment is used in human life to redirect individuals. These should be moments where the redirection is provided out of love and a desire for the well-being of a person. Unfortunately, humans do not always have this as the motivation but God always does.

By combining all these factors, a person can see the pitfalls of coming to conclusions about God and the behaviors of God. We receive only a minuscule glimpse into the full nature of God. I believe that this is one of the truths Paul tries to communicate in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ” For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I caution people that making the assumption that we can predict the actions of God, the motives of God, or the thoughts of God based on words in the Bible is a dangerous assumption that can lead to error in thought.

I share these words to support my conclusion that God is NOT a God of punishments. I experience God as a God of complete love. God avoids punishments in all ways possible. God does redirect. I also claim that humans are actually much more inclined to punish ourselves or one another than God ever does. In fact, we may even think that we deserve to be punished for failing God in some way.  Though even if we are inclined to think in such a way, God shows up and gives us grace and full forgiveness. God tells us that we are not deserving of punishment but instead of the greatest love possible.

Word By Word

A variety of writing types are available for one to read. Each writing and book has its own purpose. Textbooks are intended to communicate knowledge to those seeking to gain insights into a particular field, skill, or set of facts. Volumes from throughout the ages contain poetry which are intended to inspire, comfort, encourage, or unleash creative thought. Other books are fictional in nature which paint stories for a reader to follow. Fictional books are intended to be for entertainment or relaxation. Some books actually contain elements of more than one of these genres. A book which contains more than one of these genres listed above is the Bible.

Within the Bible are historical facts and events. Some portions which give insights. Poetry and imagery is scattered throughout this book. Words of encouragement, comfort and inspiration are shared at various locations. You will discover stories that entertain, teach, and inspire. These wonderful elements written by different individuals over thousands of years are assembled in a book which we now call the Bible. The question is, what do you do with this book?

Some individuals have made an attempt to use the Bible as a history book. Others have chosen to look at this book as a rule book. Still other people see the Bible as just a group of fictional stories written by ancient people who were trying to explain the world which they experienced without any factual or scientific understanding. I would argue that the Bible was intended to tell the story of God, God’s people, and the world God created.

Here are some important realities which must impact our approach to the Bible:

  • Most of the writings included in the Bible began as oral stories passed from one generation to the next.
  • Writings are by multiple authors who lived in a variety of times and locations.
  • The cultures from which the stories and authors originated are in most cases not the same as your own but shape the way the stories, events and thoughts are communicated.
  • The original languages of the writings which we inherit are Greek and Hebrew, not English.
  • A fair number of Hebrew and Greek words do not have English equivalents.
  • Symbolism is frequent throughout the Bible.
  • Interpretation of meaning depends upon the interpreter.
  • Duplication of the writings before the printing press depended on a reader and a gathering of scribes who tried to write down what they heard read.
  • Edits of the texts have occurred from the beginning of sharing these stories.
  • The decision of which writings would be included in the canonized Bible was constituted by a group of humans.
  • While the writings were inspired by God, humans wrote them.

If you combine the different forms of writing along with the realities which I have listed, a great disservice is done to the Bible by anyone who would choose a literal interpretation approach when engaging with this book. Instead, the best approach is to look at a passage and seek the major meaning within that passage. Asking questions like,

“What are the key concepts presented here?”

“How might the people of that time understand this passage?”

“What is the overarching message here?”

are helpful. Doing a little research into the historical setting and the cultural background of the ideas will aid a person who wishes to place the passage in the correct context. Then you are able to find the connections with your own context.

The Bible was intended to give insight, not to be the sole source of understanding our relationship with God and each other. When you interact with all the elements of the Bible, you find it to be an enriching and a wonderful guide to deeper relationships. Do not take each word at face value or you will lose the true beauty of this book.