HEALING: What About Vengeful Punishment In Scripture? by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn

Healing Our Image of God

What About Vengeful Punishment In Scripture? by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn

From: Good Goats

At first I found it hard to believe in Hilda’s loving God.  I had grown up reading Matthew 25, about what God would do to goats, and other seemingly vengeful punishment passages in scripture.  For example, Matthew 5:29 says that if your right eye is a temptation, it would be better to pluck it out than to have God throw you into the fires of hell.  Such passages made God seem to be a child abuser, much like Good Old Uncle George.

Assuming that what I had learned from Hilda might be true, I began asking myself, how do those who love us the most use vengeful punishment language?  Then I began to notice that those who love the most – grandparents, parents, lovers – often use the same words of vengeful punishment as Good Old Uncle George and other child abusers, but their meaning is very different.

For example, our cousins Ann and George have raised four of the healthiest teenagers we know.  We often ask Ann and George, “How did you do it?”  One time we asked them, “Can you remember a time in the past year when you punished your kids?”  They both looked blank.  In desperation we asked, “When in the past five or ten years have you punished your kids?”  They looked at each other and came up with the same thing.  And said, “I remember a family trip.  It got so loud in the back seat of the car that George said, ‘If you kids don’t be quiet, I’m going to tie you to the roof of the car!’  And do you remember, George, how quiet it got?”

About that time their son, Joe, came home.  We asked him when his parents had last punished him and at first got the same blank look.  Finally, we asked him, “Joe, can you remember any time at all in the past five or ten years when your parents punished you?”  Joe’s face lit up.  “You remember when we were in the car on a trip and we were making so much noise?  Dad, you told us that if we weren’t quiet, you’d tie us to the roof of the car!”  Then Joe added, “And, boy, were we quiet.  But we knew you weren’t going to tie us to the roof of the car.”  And they all laughed.

To tie your children to the roof of a car is vengeful punishment.  Yet we use vengeful punishment language all the time in our homes and families.  Such statement are exaggerations (hyperbole) that can safely be used only in a context where everyone understands that they are not to be taken literally.  (The authors of scripture and Jesus himself often used hyperbole, as in Matthew 5:29.  The people of their time understood that they were not to be taken literally.)  Like Joe, we know that if at the time people use such language they are really loving us, then they will never carry out the punishment.  Everyone involved knows that the language is used only in order to emphasize the importance of doing something so that we can enjoy being together.  Thus George’s angry words in the car probably mean, “It’s important that you be quiet so that we can enjoy the trip together.”  And in Matthew 5:29, instead of commanding us to pluck out our right eye, God may well be saying something like, “It’s important that you not misuse your sight through lust (that you not damage your right eye – the window to your heart) so that we can enjoy the inner beauty of creation together.”

But what if Ann and George were child abusers who did tie their kids to the roof of the car?  If we overheard them threatening to do that to their children, we would call the police.  We would have the police come and put Ann and George (or Good old Uncle George, for that matter) in a mental institution before they could do more harm to their children.  But the good news is that God is at least as loving as Ann and George.  Like them, God is not a child abuser but a child lover.

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