The other day, a skeptic asked me, “How can you believe in a God who would command the slaughter of innocent people in the Old Testament?” He is of course referring to the Conquest of Canaan. Reading through the book of Joshua can be a little tough going at first, as God calls his people to cleanse the land. But we should bear in mind that the people who were cleansed off of that land were not innocent people.
In fact, if innocence were the criterion, God’s judgment would have been a lot wider. You probably wouldn’t have had many of your relatives, and neither would I, if God’s righteous judgment had been complete. In this episode of the drama, God was declaring war on the idolatrous and violent nations occupying the land that he swore to give Abraham and his descendants. But if we have trouble with the God of judgment in the Old Testament, we’ll have even greater reservations about Jesus.
They’re one and the same God. When Jesus returns to raise the dead and the whole earth appears before his throne, he will separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be welcomed into eternal life, Jesus says, while the goats will be sent to everlasting punishment. It’s from Jesus that we hear the most vivid descriptions of hell.
In the Book of Revelation, Jesus announces, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last. I am the living One. I was dead and now look, I am alive forever and ever. And I hold the keys of death and hell.” In fact, throughout the book, Jesus is depicted as the lamb upon his throne. He is the rider on the white horse, who comes in vengeance to destroy his enemies. He is the judge, who will cast Satan and all the ungodly into the lake of fire forever and ever. If we have trouble with these previews of coming attractions, then surely, we’re going to have even greater trouble with Jesus.
In this culture, there is so little left of a sense of God’s holiness and righteousness that we sit in judgment upon what God did in these holy wars and say, “Well, if that’s the kind of God you believe in, I don’t want anything to do with him. But I like this Jesus over here.”
The most people will accept, when it comes to God’s punishment, is not punishment per se, but a healing kind of sentence. Or a “moral reform,” like the church father named Origin who said that God doesn’t have any wrath, therefore the only kind of suffering that people can undergo is educational—it’s moral. And that’s how you get the doctrine of purgatory. It’s not really wrath, it’s just, you know, a really bad day, day after day after day after day for who knows how long, until you kind of work off that bad karma.
I think of Calvin’s line in his antidote to the Council of Trent, where he is talking about the distinction in Roman Catholic theology between “mortal sin” and “venial sin.” And he says, “You’ll never understand justification in the cross until you get this firmly in your mind: All sin is mortal.” You see, we’ve got to lower the standard of God’s law so that we can clear it without needing a substitute.
Our default setting is this: we would rather lower God’s expectations or not even talk about God at all. We say, “I judge myself. I’m not going to let God judge me.” I judge myself, lower the expectations and be justified by my own works than I would to have God say the news is far worse than you have even contemplated.
The famous John 3:16 says, “Whoever believes in the son is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” So it’s not just that there’s going to be a Last Judgment and we’re not quite sure whether our good is going to outweigh our bad.
I can tell you right now if you don’t trust in Christ, you’re already condemned. I can tell you right now, on the basis of God’s word, that if that is you the verdict toward you is a sentence of everlasting condemnation.
If the God who says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, he sent his son not to condemn the world, but to save the world,” we have no one to blame but ourselves if we turn away from trusting in this good and gracious Father and in his son, Jesus Christ.
There’s no reason—if you’re reading this right now and you’re not quite sure what you think of Jesus. If you’re kind of the line about this and you’re not quite sure whether you can believe in a God who would do this kind of a thing. You have all these questions. At the end of the day, here’s the thing: the God who tells you that this is what lies up ahead for those who don’t trust in Jesus, is also the One who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. There really is no one else to blame but yourself if you don’t turn to him in faith right now.