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.

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