Does God Punish?

10 January 2022

The notion that God punishes those who sin, recalling a strict father who punishes his naughty children seems to be one which is difficult to banish from people’s hearts. Besides, the Church does, indeed, speak of punishment, ‘the outer fire’ and a number of Fathers urge us keep hell in mind, so that we’ll be less susceptible to evil.

Though this is true, it’s not the whole truth. Just as we don’t present a rounded portrayal of a person if we dwell overmuch on one facet of their character, the same is true of God. If we insist, either on a collective or personal level, on some sort of edificatory behavior on the part of God, this doesn’t take into account what he really is: boundless love.

In the Old Testament, God is revealed as a God who wants his Law to be observed, but also as a God of paternal love, who forgives and understands the weaknesses of his people. In fact, his love is the main feature of his conduct, since it expresses what he really is. Motivated by this love, he permits his people to find themselves in tribulations and difficulties, so that they may return to the path he ordained for them and which they themselves, deep down, really want.

No matter how much you talk about God’s love, it remains purely theoretical unless you’ve lived it at a particular time, through a specific experience. Not as unexpected aid at a difficult moment, but an enfolding embrace of the soul at a time of frigidity, abandonment and solitariness. Because if you’ve every felt that you’re in hell, you’ll know what it means for Christ to seize hold of you and raise you to the light. Then you receive his perfect, sincere, love, which depends not on what you are and what you’ve done but on who he is: ‘God is love’.

This is why there’s no trace of vengefulness or human passion in our passionless God. Any references to parallels of human behavior, in anthropomorphic terms, are made so that weak people can understand, can be restrained from plummeting headlong into a life without Christ.

The evil one uses two will o’ the wisps to befuddle us on the path towards God: he presents God as being ruthless, harsh and demanding towards us, and, on the other hand, he depicts him as being condoning, indulgent and pretty much indifferent to our healthy progress. In the one case he says: ‘Fear him’; and, in the other, it’s: ‘Take no notice of him’.

Any trials and tribulations we undergo certainly don’t come from God. The ‘punishments’ which derive from our profligate and sinful life are the result of collective or personal choices. Despite this, his love transforms them into instruments of humility, repentance, and reevaluation of the course of our life; provided, of course, that’s what we want.

Through Orthodox instruction and, in particular, through the experiences of everyday life, we can reconsider the notion that God punishes, can enjoy his presence, love and beauty and can relate to him.