Years ago, as I was having lunch in a cafeteria, a man who was clearly bothered by something sat down across from me. He immediately challenged me with an authoritative tone, arguing that God punishes people more severely than someone had suggested earlier. I responded that God’s glory, which is love, will destroy sinners in the end, to which he responded in no uncertain terms that the final end of sinners would be much more hellish than that.
I am not looking for a warm and fuzzy religious experience; I am simply repulsed by the smugness of those who view God as seeking vengeance and punishment. Some seem drawn to images of retribution and vengeance. Perhaps they need God’s actions to be vindictive to justify their own authoritative and violent tendencies. Those who start with the assumption that God punishes sinners end up spending all their time justifying how this is good news. Indeed, they see everyone who is destroyed as God’s victim, even His Son, Jesus Christ. God’s punishment is not a subject they shy away from; it’s a subject they run to because to them, it’s the good news of the gospel, which explains how we come to be saved.
Biblical judgment conveys that God will deal rightly with the evil working against His loving intentions. At the start of the Exodus story, the Israelites needed rescue from the encroaching Egyptians trying to run them down at the Red Sea. Psalms 74 emphasizes that demonic forces of evil were at work in Pharaoh and his armies. God must save us from everything that seeks to thwart His good purposes in this world. Often overlooked, however, is that evil is destructive, so punishment is merely its inevitable consequences. Understanding this requires some unfolding, but ultimately, it is God’s love that destroys. There is a mystery here to be sure, but I will not accept caricatures of this judgment that depict vengeance as good and just, as some twisted variation of love.
Consider Exodus 14:19–20: “Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long” (NIV).
I find it absolutely fascinating that God’s presence in the cloud was perceived as darkness by the pursuing Egyptians and as fire and light by the Israelites (Exodus 40:38). This scene depicts the simultaneous presence and absence of God—both light and darkness. The glory of God in the cloud was light to some and vengeance to others. Now, that’s something to consider.
Just as God did in the opening verses of Genesis, He separates the light from the darkness (Genesis 1:1-4). One could say that God destroyed the Egyptians, but why were only some destroyed? If you recall, both the Israelites and the Egyptians had a choice. Those who had chosen to live apart from the Creator were left in an uncreated existence—a dark and watery chaos that blocked out the light and saving warmth of God’s presence. Might I suggest that this darkness was already in the hearts of the Egyptians? The fear, hatred, and oppression to which they had surrendered created their own darkness, and this is what destroyed them. God merely gave them over to the chaos already in their hearts, effectively separating the two camps into light and darkness. The Egyptian armies were defeated in the Red Sea—seen as the very forces of disorder and chaos that encompassed and destroyed them, and maybe that’s how God’s judgment works in the end.
God simply does what He did during creation. He brings order out of chaos—separating light from darkness and dry land from chaotic waters. God comes to rescue His good creation from the destruction perpetrated by evil. If God were to let evil forces take over, we would be left with chaos and destruction. The choice is ours; God does not will any to perish. When we act out of harmony with God and refuse His loving protection, we cut ourselves off from the giver of life, and the outcome is death. This is not because God is out to destroy us but because we have disconnected from life.
One could say that God’s glory can both save and destroy. In the end, each person chooses which it does because judgment acknowledges one’s choice to have it the way they want it to be. If I acknowledge God’s existence and submit to His guiding love, I will experience light and salvation. Those who deny the Creator, by contrast, will be left in an uncreated world of their own making—a world that expresses darkness, chaos, and death. Those who receive God’s warmth and light embrace a God who infinitely loves them, while those who refuse to love, who want to oppress and hate others, plunge themselves into a dark and watery chaos that will inevitably destroy them.
Just as the same cloud was fire and light to the Israelites and darkness to the Egyptians, God’s judgment is encased in His love. God remains steadfast in His love; the difference lies between those who confront Him, some experiencing the Angel of the Lord as consolation and others as judgment.
This judgment is nothing more than God’s all-consuming love, but some want it to be more. I do not intend to play loose with divine judgment, but neither should we be smug about it. When we are, we darken our hearts, obscuring our view of God. Though God remains totally good and loving no matter what, we can place ourselves where we can no longer see His love for us by choosing hatred and darkness. The judgment we then receive is damage we have done to ourselves. As someone said, “God destroys no man. Everyone who is destroyed will have destroyed himself.”
Craig Ashton Jr.