God Smites and God is Gracious: A Response to Kevin Miller

Shortly after I wrote my post “Is the God of Calvinism a Moral Monster” — inspired by (and quoting) a dialogue between Hellbound writer/director Kevin Miller and the Gospel Coalition’s Justin Taylor — Kevin responded on his own blog.  You should go read his whole post, but here’s the part that really caught my eye:

Here’s what I don’t get: Both of these guys recognize the outright contradiction between a God who tells us to love our enemies but who goes ahead and smites his enemies–including their children, animals, etc. However, rather than consider the idea that we might be misreading the violent acts and directives attributed to God in the Old Testament, they essentially retreat into mystery. Who can fathom the ways of God? After all, our minds are fallen, our thinking darkened. If Christ’s words and God’s actions appear to contradict each other, that’s our problem, not God’s.

There’s just one problem with this strategy: Both Justin and David are using those same fallen, darkened minds to arrive at this conclusion. So how can they possibly trust it? As David puts it on his blog, “Simply put, God’s judgment is perfect. Ours is often ridiculous.” And that’s exactly how David and Justin’s conclusions sound–ridiculous!

Kevin missed my point.  I didn’t recognize a contradiction between the God who tells us to love our enemies and the God who smites, I offered an explanation for the seeming contradiction.  Put simply, it is this: God imposes one standard on his fallen children who have imperfect knowledge and reserves another standard for Himself, as architect of the universe.  He sees all.  We see part.  He is perfect.  We are evil.  And this makes sense within our own experience.  After all, the gap between our understanding and God’s is far greater, for example, than the gap between my understanding of life and my four-year-old daughter’s.  She lives under a set of rules designed not just for her own nurturing but also for her own protection, and she chafes at the injustice of it all (“Why?  Why do I have to go to sleep while you get to stay up?  Why?  Why? Why do you get to sit in the front seat, and I don’t?  What is an airbag?”)

Further, the mystery that Kevin says Justin and I retreat to is not the mystery of God’s violence but instead the mystery of grace.  God has mercy upon whom He will have mercy.  That is mysterious.  God chose the Children of Israel to be His chosen people and not, say, the Mayans.  Why?  Mystery.  As Kevin rightly notes, smiting is easy to understand once one understands holiness and justice.  We all deserve an almighty smite, and it is in the act of grace that His ways are not our ways.

Or, at least that was the case until the latest wave of “my God is nicer than your God” theological competition.  The overwhelming cultural power of moralist therapeutic deism, the cult of self-esteem, and our own persistent self-love makes us misunderstand the demands of God’s justice.  (“What?  Smite me?  But I’m a nice guy!”)  We look at the stories of violence in the Old (and New) Testament and — while perfectly understandable to prior Christian generations — we try to explain away the plainly understandable text as a “misreading.”  But let’s be clear, God’s direct assaults on His enemies are detailed throughout scripture.  Here’s a partial list:

-The Flood (Genesis 6)

-Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19, with Lot’s wife as collateral damage)

-Judah’s first-born son (Genesis 38:7)

-The first-born of Egypt (Exodus 12)

-The Egyptian army pursing the Children of Israel (Exodus 14)

-Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10)

-Thousands of disobedient Israelites in a number of separate incidents (Numbers 11-25)

-David and Bathsheba’s first child (2 Samuel 12)

-185,000 enemy soldiers (2 Kings 19)

There are many more incidents in the Old Testament, as well as prophecies of Gods’ wrath against disobedient and wicked nations.  But God changed in the New Testament, right?  Well, let’s ask . . .

-Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5)

-Herod (Acts 12)

-Those Corinthians who participated in the Lord’s Supper “without recognizing the body of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11)

Then of course there is the ultimate expression of God’s wrath — the wrath he poured out on His own, innocent Son as His Son atoned for our sins.

If we look at this (again, partial) list and are appalled or morally outraged, then we’ve lost a proper understanding of the gravity of our own sin and the sin of mankind.  God’s grace is “amazing” because we are so wretched.  God’s grace is “amazing” because justice would demand more — not less — of the smiting detailed throughout scripture.  The fact that God has mercy at all is a miracle.  Our sin is not a light or minor matter (note how many of these acts of judgment relate to events — like eating the Lord’s Supper incorrectly or offering “strange fire” to the Lord — that we would dismiss as irrelevant today).  As Jesus himself said, we are “evil.” There is absolutely no sense in which we deserve God’s grace, no sense in which God’s wrath against us would be the least bit unjust, and no moment in which we should not be thankful beyond words that He has given us the “abundant” life that men have in Christ.

  • K. Cisco

    There are alternative views on all these passages you cite, David. For example, in the case of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, who struck them down– the Lord? or that murdering, condemning legalist, Satan? (And was Peter always infallible in distinguishing between the two?)

    Forgive me for repeating myself here, but I believe the overarching question of how to distinguish between acts of God and acts of Satan, is masterfully addressed in “The Forgotten Key To The Old Testament,” by Richard K. Murray, at


    • R.C.

      Yeah, I read that essay. My opinion of it differs from yours substantially, K. Cisco.

      I think anyone whose approach to the text is “bracketing” (basically substituting the word “Satan” for the word “Lord” any time he feels uncomfortable with the implications) is indulging in revisionism of the worst kind in order to avoid the hard work of dealing with Scripture as it actually is. I don’t think we should Bowdlerize Scripture in this way.

      And in fact this approach has ancient antecedents. I think it is basically a rehashing or dilution of Marcionism for those who can’t take their Marcionism straight.

  • Patrick

    The OT may be seen this way.

    It was Yahweh’s Messiah or NOT, that was His option. Do folks today consider the allies of 1945 moral monsters for mass killings to stop Tojo and Hitler?

    IF NOT, why would anyone consider Yahweh one for being forced to kill off the same folks who would have killed off His people preventing redemption of mankind? IMO, any believer who asks this shows how ignorant they are of the biblical text and genre.

    How can we believe in Jesus as Christ and think He was previously a moral monster, how can a human achieve that mental juggling act? Boggles my mind some can.

  • http://www.hellboundthemovie.com Kevin Miller
  • Tim

    If there is one person in hell, then Jesus with go there to love them.
    If there is one person in hell, then any person claiming to follow Christ will be there.
    God’s love goes to where the darkness is.
    God is with those who suffer.
    Jesus sides with the outcast, despised by the “pure ones,” ancient and modern. (Luke 15)
    This is not moral therapeutic deism, this is taking up the cross. (Philippians 2)

    When bin Laden said that Allah was compassionate, but then carried out mass murder, we called that evil. Any faith (Islamic, Jewish, Christian) that defends this “Theo-logic” seems seriously misguided to me. The test is that the actual French Revolution was supported by violence. In the name of “liberty” the Good people always have good reasons to murder the Evil people. Please read the work of Rene Girard on “enemy twins,” and how we are more similar than different, employing thevsame violent “logic”

    So I will never kill you
    I will go to hell for you
    It is the Christ like Way

  • DanVincent

    David, you are saying outright that God lives by a double-standard. I beg to disagree. The Psalms say His law is perfect. We know His Law (and prophecies) comprise His Word, and the Word is Christ, and Christ is God – therefore His Law is the expression of His very character. Christians (and theologians) generally don’t understand that everything God does has some basis in His Law. Here is one good reference work to start with:

    God’s sovereignty did not change with the New Testament, but some of His revealed methods did – again, both OT and NT actions by God are according to His Law, just with different manifestations of His judgments.

    In any case, if Jesus truly “saves” Christians from eternal punishment (or Dante’s torture, whichever you prefer), then he ought to be there to this day, taking that punishment on Himself.

  • Gene

    David, I think your parallel with your daughter doesn’t work. You must demonstrate how you can say you love your daughter but impose violence (chopping off her head, electrocuting her, dismember, or whatever violent nature you have) while logically maintaining that you in fact love her. Telling her to go to bed while you stay up is hardly a parallel to commanding her to do good to her brother, while you yourself abuse and kill him. She would only be left wondering, if dad can love my brother as he loves me (by sending rain and sun on us both), and he can also fatally harm my brother, will he in fact do the same to me? What assurance would the words “I love you” give her?

  • Gene

    And by the way, how rude of me. Nice to meet you Dave.

  • Tim

    Dear David French, who is going to hell, you or me? Any thoughts?

  • Chris McDonald

    We see things through mortal eyes. Death is seen as something awful and dark, but to God it is just a passing from this mortal life to the next life. He is the one who gave us life. He can take us from this life at will. What we see as destruction of life He sees as just bringing someone home. What we may suffer before we die is often the result of our own mortal choices or the agency of others which God allows to condemn them. When an innocent person dies it is not a punishment in God’s eyes. They return to His arms. We just have to realize that there is so much we can’t understand with our mortal minds. Someday we will get it.