Everyone has questions. Everyone is a theologian (a studier of God), as R. C. Sproul so perspicaciously titled his book. Such as anyone’s experience as a theologian, it typically starts off with a question. And so has that been my own personal experience. From the time I was a kid, my journey into theology started with a question: “can I really be sure this is all true?” This began my journey into apologetics (a study in defending the faith), and merely whetted my appetite for more theology to come.
That being said, some questions are commonly put forth that many desire to be answered. This catalogue of my answers to these questions is not to say that I am the best qualified to answer or that my answers are sufficient. However, these replies are merely my journey towards that great precipice which we call theology.
Does God punish us?
In order to dive into this first question, we have to be careful to define the terms used. God, here, is referring specifically to the Christian God (the only true God) revealed in the 66 books of the Bible. Where the terms may get a little more “sticky” would be “punish” and “us.”
The Stance of the Unbeliever
Does “punish” refer to retribution (receiving the punishment one has earned) meted out due to sin? Certainly we see that God does not let the guilty go unpunished (Exodus 34:7). In fact, people’s response to this looming judgement should be fear (Proverbs 24:21-22). Even more so, Jesus teaches, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Why is this so? “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). To be quite frank, for an unbeliever reading this, unless your status of belief changes, one day all creation will rise up and praise God for ridding the earth of you (Rev. 19:1-3, 20:14-15).
The Transformative Gospel
This “status of belief” is extremely important, especially if the “us” in the question was meant to be made up of believers only. So, does God punish believers? Well, in the ultimate eschatological (end-times) sense, no. The wrath that God had toward the believer’s sin was placed on Christ in his place (Rom. 3:23-25). Christ satisfied (i.e. propitiated) the imposing divine punishment (2 Cor. 5:21). The believer stands forensically justified (that is, “declared righteous,” not that he in and of himself is a sinless person) the moment he places his faith in Christ (Rom. 5:9).
The Stance of the Believer After Death
So, this brings us to the other side of this question. What about believers? Does God, even though not eternally, punish believers? Along these lines, in the postmortem (after death) thought, Roman Catholics have come up with the doctrine of purgatory. This place believers go after death in order to further cleanse (or more specifically, expiate, remove) themselves from venial sins. This coincides with Rome’s view of justification being a process. However, as described in the paragraph above, justification is a legal declaration of our new standing in Christ, whereby we can then be called holy (or the substantive: “saint”), yet also be called to be holy. In other words, justification is an instantaneous declaration bought to us by the death of Christ. We need not contribute to Christ’s death (Eph. 2:8-9, Heb. 7:27). Any contribution we make toward our justification (not our sanctification) is to stomp on grace and rush toward legalism. Paul explains just that to us in his letter to the Galatians. Read it in it’s entirety, or at least 2:15- 3:29. Though the nature of this writing does not give me much more room to discuss this issue, feel free to check out this debate on the subject of purgatory. And this one. Protestants believe that believers will have the same status as the man who died next to Christ and trusted in Him (Luke 23:43).
The Absolute Sovereignty of God
Before we tackle a believer’s “punishment” before death, another very important subject must be understood: God’s absolute control over everything. As Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), Dutch politician, journalist, statesman, theologian, and prime minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905, once famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” Meditate on these verses put in the first person as if God were saying them:
“There is no authority except from me, and those that exist have been instituted by me.” (Romans 13:1)
“You, Pilate, would have no authority over my Son at all unless it had been given you from me.” (John 19:11)
“Whatever I please, I do, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” (Psalm 135:6)
“I work all things according to the counsel of my will.” (Ephesians 1:11)
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” (Isaiah 46:9–10)
The Stance of the Believer Before Death
So what about right now? We’ve seen God as sovereign over absolutely everything. Does He punish believers for their sin? “Punish” may be the incorrect term. “Punishment” typically does not carry the connotation of the proper telos (or end, i.e. end goal) for what God does to the believer on this earth. Certainly, God disciplines his own. “For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Prov. 3:12). “Discipline” carries a connotation of the proper telos, namely, to be more like Jesus. This is the same truth Paul proclaims to us, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). This passage goes on to explain God’s purpose for those who love God, again, to be conformed into the image of his Son. Everything that happens to us God does to make us more like Jesus.
In other words, God is not some disapproving Father, looking down on us worms ready to squash us any chance He gets. Nor is He some nervous politician wringing his hands over our suffering and trying to negotiate with Satan to put it to an end. Rather, as Kuyper mentioned earlier, he is just as sovereign over the realm of our suffering as he is every other realm; yet, he allows it for a specific purpose: our sanctification. Everything he allows for us, he allows for our God. And may we cry with Job, “though you slay me, yet will I worship!”