The idea of a punishing God is prehistoric and ubiquitous in human ecology, and it is still with us.
In the hunt-and-peck days of prehistory, when aboriginal peoples everywhere conceived of the world as animated by innumerable spirits and sprites and souls—many of these imagined invisible entities required pacification. And if the Invisibles were not pacified, they punished humans.
Punished them how?
With bad luck, with lack of crops, lack of scaled fish, lack of feathered fowl and leathering cow, lack of virility and fecundity.
When the vast animated world of aboriginals segued into formal religions some 6000 years ago, formal religions mimicked the aboriginal multiplicity of the divine players, producing pantheons of hundreds or thousands of Gods, each of whom was capable of punishing humanity.
About 3000 years ago, the winnowing hand of Persia’s Zoroaster cut celestial divines to two. One all good God. And one all evil God. At that moment, only one segment of the divine was dedicated to punishing humanity.
Jewish monotheism emerged near Persia about this same time and reduced all the operations of punishment to the one true God. Numerous Jewish biblical books utilize the punishment motif, beginning at the beginning.
Genesis reports that Adam and Eve are punished for a primeval calamity, a misreading of the prohibition against eating a certain type of fruit. Next, all animals (excluding select fish and birds), and all humans, are punished by drowning in a worldwide flood—except for a representative squad of humans and animals set afloat in a substantial boat. Next, the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah are punished because, as a Shakespeare put it, ‘It’s a bawdy world.’ All that punishment in Genesis alone!
In the second biblical book, all Egyptian first-borns are punished with death—that’s every first-born person from two minutes old to age 99. A lot of people get punished for something their king did, not they themselves did.
In the Book of Kings, God kills 70,000 Hebrews because God is angry with King David. That’s punishment.In yet other biblical books, all the catastrophes that befell ancient Jews are attributed to God’s punishment. Ancient Jews were conquered and colonized over and over again by multiple Middle Eastern empires. They were dispersed out of Canaan, their Promised Land. They had their Temple destroyed twice. Why are the ancient Jews being punished? For their faithlessness, said the prophet Jeremiah.
Christianity is in the divine punishment game too. Not only does Christianity accept the Jewish Bible, but we are all acquainted with the ‘Book of Revelation’ and the bloody punishments doled out in the second coming of Jesus.
Is a punishing God credible nowadays? Millions, maybe billions, believe it is.
September 11, 2001 was God punishing a permissive America, some opine. Disease is punishment, some say. Natural disasters, too. In fact, any mishap whatsoever may be interpreted as divine punishment.
In previous years baseball slugger Chris Davis hit home runs 50 times a season and was rewarded with a $ 160, 000,000 salary. But in the last few years, Davis couldn’t hit a beach ball with a caveman’s club, even if a toddler tossed the ball to him underhanded. Strike outs multiplied. He now has the lowest batting average in the history of major league baseball. He admits he wept briny tears into his wife’s sweater and wondered if God was punishing him. Never mind that the former star hitter is above moral reproach. He’s willing to entertain that he has some hidden sin he knows nothing about. God knows Davis’s hidden sin and God is punishing Chris Davis for it.
Why are humans attracted to the notion that providential care entails the infliction of providential pain? Why is God imagined to be so easily perturbed? Why is human punishment thought to soothe God’s irritated justice?
Psychology must aid us here. What psychological theory may help us illuminate the burlesque tragedy of a good man wanting to explain his bad luck as the intervention of a cosmic hangman?
Featured image ‘Storm From An Angry God’ by Paul Vladuchick via Flickr