There are not two different Gods; one who suffers for us, and another one who punishes us. We can have a view of God that we might call “Christian polytheism.” Polytheism means many gods. When we ascribe differing behavioural patterns to God, it is like we are portraying many gods. One day, God is suffering for us, the next day he is portraying dictatorial anger. Monotheism, rather, depicts one God with one character, which is dependable. This character is “God is love.” God doesn’t behave outside who he is. “Christian polytheism” means, we can behave in all sorts of ways and claim we are following God, because we think that he behaves in all sorts of ways also. This happens when we misunderstand what the scriptures mean by the wrath of God.
Let’s have a look at the wrath of God in early Genesis. Firstly, the idea that God gave Adam a commandment and that he punished Adam for breaking that commandment is very destructive in our worldview. The New Living Translation translates “commanded,” in Gen 2:16, as “warned.” This is the sense that is being portrayed in the Eastern culture, throughout the Old Testament. The New Living translation is correctly paraphrasing the intent and heart of God. It is showing a loving God who knows what will happen if Adam took the law into his consciousness. God knew what taking the law in this accusative way would do to Adam and how it would destroy humanity, and this is the death God spoke of.
The idea that we broke a commandment and that God punished us for it, is the cause of our violence in the world till today. This is why we get honour killings in various religions around the world. It isn’t because of their religion; it is because of their human nature, which we all share. Before we say that it is the fault of their religion, that makes people violent and punish blasphemers, we should realise that we do the same thing. We fail to serve and help those in the world in great need, for precisely the same reason. We say they deserve it, because of this or that. We find excuses not to help, not to love those who have fallen short. We have the same heart, that stems from the same view of the Garden of Eden.
Jesus was showing us that this way of treating other people just has to stop, regardless of what world conspiracy theories we may hold to, or what we may think of others, or what advantage we might lose. We have to begin loving people, and helping them, rather than punishing them.
God gave Adam and Eve rule over his creation. “The gifts and callings of God are without repentance.” Satan charges God with being unfair to Adam and Eve, and said Adam and Eve could better run things, their own way. So, for God to be just, to not function in a dictatorial way, he allows this new experiment to play out in history. Even after the fall, he allows the rule of Adam and Eve to continue. Man rules man’s way and receives the fruit. This fruit proves both that God’s word is true, and that satan was lying.
God wasn’t continually holding man in sin, as a punishment, because of one sin. Man made continual choices after the fall, and the results of those choices began to have their impact. The curse wouldn’t come automatically, just because of one sin. The curse came as a consequence of 57 continued behaviour patterns, which built up through ongoing human lifestyles. Man was in captivity to the lies of satan, and God, rather than being angry, rather than holding man in bondage, had set out to deliver man from this captivity. God had to do this “lawfully,” in time, by not going back on the rule he had given to mankind. It was man who brought about the curse, which spread in its impact, not God.
When man sinned, we saw a God pleading with his creation. God was still walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden. He didn’t separate himself from them. He cried as a parent, “Oh, Adam…” He didn’t punish the creation, but suffered with it. We know what it means to love and have that love rejected. God took this rejection without thinking of himself. He was still only thinking of what was best for us. This is God suffering with us, taking the offence of his creation and not retaliating, but reaching out to us with redemption, rather than giving us the due punishment. We see the same behaviour of God in the Garden, that we see from Jesus on the cross.
We all know our usual take of Genesis. “God punished Adam and Eve because they offended his magisterial rule, or God was inflicting justice upon those who broke his law.” It’s true that God’s holiness was offended. Selfishness causes grief and God hates to see this, because he is love. So yes, his holiness is offended by mankind’s mistreatment of each other. But this isn’t legal anger. It is his suffering with us in grief. His holiness precludes a type of human anger. He doesn’t treat us as we have treated him, or as we have treated others. He wouldn’t be holy if he did. Rather, he treats us with love.
And, of course, there is a kind of legal retribution for our sin. It isn’t one that God inflicts upon us by his own punishments, just to balance some legal books. The legal retribution, is that God must allow us to go our own way. His wrath is expressed along with his suffering. It grieves him, because of our suffering, but he must allow us to have what we wanted: our freedom to do things by our own judgement. His wrath is to give us what we ask for. This is legally required in a sense; it is what love requires.
The point here, is that we must view all scripture through the cross. The cross reveals God. God himself tells us that. So how does the cross reveal God? And how do we see this same God in the early chapters of Genesis? God didn’t behave differently on the cross than he did in Genesis. In Genesis, God was acting by the same love and logic, with which he acted when he died for his creation.
Adam and Eve had separated themselves from God. God had not separated himself from them. And this is what reconciliation is about. The reconciliation is on our side, not God’s side. It is us who need reconciling to God, not God who needs reconciling to us. God was never out of fellowship with us. He was always forgiving, loving and reaching out to us. But we were rejecting him. This is always the case with any parents and their family, at least it should be. Reconciliation is to make our heart right with God. This is what Jesus did for us on the cross. The cross isn’t making an angry god’s heart right with man. The problem was always with man.
The Prodigal Son parable says it all. Here, Jesus was portraying the true God, and all our theology must match up with this. Jesus was bringing the Pharisees into the true picture of who God is.
When the son gave the father one of the greatest offences possible in Eastern culture, immediately, the father wasn’t at all offended in return. Instead of offence, he chose suffering, to love and suffer with his son through the whole experience. The father didn’t punish the son. He brought none of the bad circumstances the son later experienced upon the son. These were all the result of the son’s own actions.
The father had to allow the son to learn for himself. Otherwise, the father would be preventing the son’s own growth and maturity. The father looked and waited and longed for the son’s return, on a constant basis. Always, the son filled the father’s heart, not with the slightest wrath, but with endearment. And when the son returned home, the father put no conditions of return upon the son and demanded no payment for justice. He just loved him and blessed him exceedingly.
This is God. It was God in the Garden; it was God on the cross and it is God today, in our lives, and in our neighbour and enemy’s life. If we aren’t like this, then we aren’t like God.
So, when man sins, we don’t see a God who is offended. We see a God still seeking out man in the Garden. The reason why we often see God the wrong way, is because we have “behind the bush theology.” We view God from the behind the bush, where Adam and Eve were hiding. They were hiding because of their shame and everything in their thoughts about God was seen through the mirror of this shame.
Adam and Eve saw God as they themselves were, not as he is. This was the main captivity satan brought them into. They couldn’t see the God of the cross, caring for them in love, even though they had been so wrong. He didn’t count their wrong against them, but immediately forgave them.
We often interpret the early chapters of Genesis through our warped view of God’s wrath. We say God cursed Adam and Eve as a punishment for what they did. The reality is that all the curses of the fall came about by our own actions. They all flowed from the way humans began to behave, over the creation in which God had given them charge. God didn’t take back this rule from them. They ruled creation, the way they saw fit, so what they did with creation, would bring about the changes in creation that we see happening throughout Genesis.
That is, sin has its own punishment. The punishment is built into sin. Sin brings the punishment upon itself. So God part isn’t to destroy. That is already happening. God is trying to step in with mercy. And that is the part of the church; to step in with mercy. Satan and fallen humanity are the accusers; God is the intercessor, the helper, the redeemer, the justifier. God is also judge, but his judgment is that sin will not prosper, but will bear its own fruit of destruction. Otherwise all creation would be destroyed. And this judgment isn’t wrath in the human sense, the way we take offense and remember sin, but it is love for and rescue of his creation.
It wouldn’t have been right for God to have taken back the rule of creation from Adam and Eve. It wouldn’t have been right for God to have punished them because of their sin, just because of his divine honour. This would have proven satan’s allegations against him. Satan said God didn’t have our best interest at heart, and that he rules unfairly. God didn’t stop satan from making this allegation in the Garden. Neither did God stop the consequences. God allows history to see if satan was correct.
If God punished man directly, then we wouldn’t have the opportunity to see the truth of satan’s argument lived out in the world. Rather, God steps back, allows man to go on, in his own wisdom, to witness what he has himself done, and not what has God has done, to the creation. This is God’s freedom, his love, his wrath and his suffering with creation, all working together. And it all proves satan to be a liar.
Take, for example, God driving man out of the Garden. We think that means God drove man out of his presence as a punishment. But the text says that God didn’t want man to eat of the tree of life and live for ever, presumably in a fallen condition. So God drove us out in mercy. We know God didn’t drive man out in anger, because Paul said God did it in hope, not in anger; in hope that 59 creation would throw off its corruption, and come into the glorious liberty of the sons of God; i.e., mature, like the Prodigal Son did. (Rom 8:20-21)
And how does God bring about his decrees? He does it through our own human agency. God drove man out of the Garden, to save him. How did he drive man out? Man fled the presence of God, because of his own conscience. This is what drove him away. Even the angel’s swords, east of the Garden, can be seen this way. The swords work in our conscience. Our conscience drives us from God. God didn’t refuse fallen man; man refused God. God used this to save us all.
The father didn’t drive the Prodigal away. The son left his father’s house for his own reasons, like Adam left the Garden. The Garden is like God’s eternal kingdom. God didn’t want Adam to be in his eternal house in his fallen condition, least he destroy the house for everyone. But Adam left with God’s full love. There is no wrath here; there is love for Adam and Eve and also love for the final eternal family God is building.
There is much in this narrative that is difficult to understand in a linear mindset. What is put in the language of “God driving” and “God’s wrath,” is an Eastern and ancient way of saying that man brought all these consequences upon himself. It isn’t literal Western text.
When Cain killed Abel, God told him that the land would no longer yield fruit to him, and that he would be a wanderer. Some have taken this as a punishment upon Cain. Again, it is the fruit of Cain’s own actions. He could not stay within his community, tilling the ground, because there was a vengeance sentence against him from the people. Cain would have to flee. He wouldn’t be able to settle, but would have to move around in fear of having his life taken. This is why he built a city, which then meant a fortress, for his protection. Cities – the need for self-defence – came about because of what we or our fathers have done to others.
Cain argued that the punishment was too great. God lamented that human vengeance would begin to escalate, because of this murder, and violence would soon be seven times worse. Seeing the violence spread, people would begin to grow in fear of this human vengeance, and this fear would also protect Cain from any that might slay him. God wasn’t making a divine sentence against anyone who killed Cain. God was rather forecasting what man would do. Cain’s violence would spread, fortresses would multiply through the land, and Cain’s brutal way of life would pass onto many others. This is presumably the “mark” God put upon Cain, to protect him. It was Cain’s own fearsome countenance.
In none of these things in early Genesis do we see a violent, angry or a punishing God, but a God who suffers with his creation, pleading with them, not forsaking them, while allowing them to go their own way, preparing to come to his creation himself in the flesh, to show us his suffering forgiveness of sin, rather than the vengeance that humans practice so well. All the violence, all the curses, come through our own hearts and actions.
As we noted in an earlier chapter, this violence grows, through Lamech’s announcement of seventyfold revenge, until the Flood approaches, where humanity is violent constantly in all its actions. But our point here is that God is standing back, allowing man to rule as he said, allowing man to rule in his own way, in his own warped sense of legal justice, until the fruit of that kind of justice destroys everything. It wasn’t God who destroyed the world in the Flood. It was man, whose violence destroyed humanity and the environment, opening up the natural doors of destruction that swept them away. This was the fruit of satan’s temptation, which played out in our history.
In the first six chapters of Genesis we don’t see a God punishing people for sin. We see a God who suffers with his creation, pleading, but not interfering. We see humanity left to itself in carrying out its own “wise plans” in ruling God’s world. We see God watching, suffering the pain of losing his people, but refusing to be the dictator. We see that sin has its own punishment. It leads to death by itself. And if it isn’t checked by mercy, if destroys everything in its path, even the whole of humanity and nature.
After the Flood, we are going to see God take a different tack with human history. He is about to get involved with humanity, to interfere, and lead it towards his redemption, and to his kingdom of mercy. Before the Flood, God was always there to be called upon and he would help. He still is available to all who call upon him. But after the Flood, God’s plan, and his involvement with the people of that plan, would be far more interactive.
When God give gifts and callings, he doesn’t take them away. He works with us until the purpose of those gifts is realised. He works with humanity until they rule over creation in his image. This is the purpose of his gospel.