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Is God Like the Terrorists?

For those who form opinions about blog posts after reading only the title and opening sentence, my answer is no.

Yesterday, I read a comment on social media which compared the actions of God, who casts some into hell, with the actions of ISIS terrorists, who burn their victims. The Tweet states, “I hope you won’t watch the ISIS burning video, but if you do, ask yourself: is God like the terrorists, or is God like the victim?”

I do not have a relationship with the author of that comment, but I follow him on Twitter because I appreciate his writings at Patheos. Since he is a doctoral student at a respected, evangelical seminary, I wondered if I misunderstood his comment. I asked for clarification, “Are you referring to the doctrine of hell?”

He replied: “Yes, but ECT (eternal, conscious torment) in particular.”

So, his comparison is:

  1. Terrorists burn people.
  2. In the traditional view of hell, God burns people.
  3. Therefore, in the traditional view of hell, God acts like a terrorist.

I have not identified the author of the comment, because I have no desire to engage in an online dispute. Instead, I simply want to reflect on the comparison he suggested.

I am aware of objections to the traditional view of hell, and present and critique the arguments of evangelical Universalists and Annihilationists in the Systematic Theology courses I teach at NOBTS. Universalists teach that God eventually saves all through Christ, and Annihilationists teach that God eventually annihilates the unrepentant. Although I have exegetical and theological reasons for rejecting their conclusions, I will not attempt to present those arguments in this post. Rather, I will simply identify with the traditional view of hell, which affirms that God’s final judgment entails the eternal, conscious torment of the unrepentant.[1] My goal in this post is to explain how it is consistent to simultaneously affirm hell as eternal conscious torment and to deny that in such a view, God acts like a terrorist.

First, all reasonable people (whether or not they affirm any major world religion) should regard the actions of ISIS terrorists burning humans alive to be morally repugnant. It is just and right to label the actions of the terrorists as evil and as sin for which they should repent and can be forgiven by God through Christ.

Second, comparing God to the terrorists fails to account for the radical differences between a holy and loving creator who exacts just judgment upon the unrepentant, and sinful and fallen people who inflict unjust punishment upon innocent victims. Affirming both God’s holiness and the authority of Scripture can lead us to affirm certain views which offend our sensibilities.

In Leviticus 10, Nadab and Abihu “offered unauthorized fire before the Lord.” The next verse states, “And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (verses 1-2, ESV). The deaths of these two sons of Aaron might seem harsh by our standards. But a reasonable interpretation of that story is that those men had weighty responsibilities in representing the people before a holy God, and God took their lives because of their sinful actions. Was this the action of a terrorist? No. This was the action of a holy God.

Consider also holy war in the Old Testament, when the Hebrew army was commanded to destroy certain groups. As examples, see Deut 13:15–17 and Joshua 6:2. Although Christians do not affirm holy wars or genocide, we also do not accuse God of acting like Hitler.[2]

Even in our legal system, the same action can be considered right when committed by one person but wrong when committed by another person. If I shoot a man without cause, that action would be wrong. But if a police officer shoots a man with cause, then the action would be regarded as justified. The same action is judged differently when it is carried out by different actors in different circumstances. Similarly, God and ISIS terrorists are different actors in different circumstances. God is holy and His ways are always just. Terrorists, like the rest of us, are not holy and their ways are sometimes corrupt. Christians affirm that God’s actions are just, whether we consider His taking the lives of Aaron’s sons, commanding the extermination of a group who lived in the Promised Land, or judging the unrepentant by consigning them to eternal conscious torment. None of those affirmations are pleasant, but they are all consistent with affirming both the holiness of God and the authority of His Word.

Many of us who read the Bible are persuaded that the parables and warnings of Jesus, along with other statements by New Testament writers, portray this future judgment of sin, death, and Satan, as including eternal conscious torment. And Jesus, who gave Himself for us, will one day justly judge the unrepentant. The comparison between the God of the traditional view of hell and the actions of ISIS terrorists confuses holiness and justice with sin and injustice.

The proper image of holiness and justice portrays Jesus, who died on the cross for our sin. Out of love, God provided for us what His holiness demanded, a perfect and human sacrifice for our sin. In this way, the God of the traditional view of hell is not like terrorists. Instead, He is the God of love, holiness, and justice.

[1] For a biblical-theological case for the traditional view of hell, see Hell Under Fire, ed. Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).

[2] See Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011) and Heath Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan, eds. Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013).

One Comment

  1. Doug Sayers Doug Sayers

    How does a “doctoral student at a respected, evangelical seminary” have such a low view of the biblical God? This forces me lose respect for the seminary. It’s probably good that you didn’t name the school.

    O Lord I will praise you. Though you were angry at me, Your anger is turned away and You comfort me.

    He that does not get angry at sin lacks enthusiasm for good. (+/- M Henry)

    Thanks Adam.

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