Punishment in the Old Testament

Question:

I’ve heard that you believe the punishments in the Old Testament were really natural consequences and not imposed punishments. I find that hard to believe when reading Kings II and many of the other books. There seemed to be so many punishments – with lightning bolts, etc. And what about the plagues of Egypt? What is your opinion? Even if they were being punished, I still don’t think it is right to punish children, but I think that God seems to punish people who sin against Him in the Old Testament.

Answer:

I think the way I would answer you is to say that God set up everything along a basic premise — the wages of sin is death. That’s the big natural consequence that He put into play from the get go.

When Adam sinned, that consequence was brought into play for all mankind, and the only hope that we have is for God to step in and block that natural consequence. In the Old Testament that does happen quite often, but it’s more on an individual level, because without Jesus’ sacrifice and the gift of grace, grace was given in individual circumstances to individual people.

So, for example, grace was extended to Noah and his family but not to the rest of the world. It was available to them, but they rejected it. Same with Sodom and Gommorrah. Lot and his daughters were afforded grace and had the consequences blocked, but the rest rejected grace and suffered the consequences of their sins. Throughout the Bible grace is extended within the context of relationship.

And that is why it seems to be selective in the Old Testament — without Christ’s sacrifice grace was given and removed depending on the state of the person’s relationship with God. This is why Jesus had to come and accomplish what He did on the cross, so that grace could be offered unconditionally and in the context of covenant.

Even today the wages of sin is death. It goes on all around us and with lots of people we know and don’t know. And sometimes God does extend grace to the person who cries out to him in a tragedy.

But the focus of the New Testament is that you can live in a state of Grace where the wages of sin no longer apply to you at all. I think that when we look back at the OT through the eyes of the NT sometimes this is what makes us see the things that happened there as being punitive. There’s a passage in Revelation, though, that basically says the people who rejected Jesus, when face to face with God on judgment day, will damn themselves to eternal separation from God because they will acknowledge they deserve nothing better. Even then God will not be punishing.

So our choice is, even today, suffer the natural consequences set up from the beginning, that the wages of sin is death, or choose relationship with our Creator and in that relationship receive the grace that blocks those consequences.