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Mere Christianity: God's justice - 2

Jon Kennedy  

JONAL ENTRY 1253 | September 30 2012

Many readers must get hung up on passages in the Old Testament showing that God does not give us justice and some of His punishments strike us as inhumanly severe. His discipline is sometimes harsh and there is no higher court of appeal (but Abraham found that God's friends can negotiate with Him; see Genesis 18). I remember my father, a convert from professed agnosticism to evangelical Protestantism in his sixties, being dismayed by the story in 2 Kings 2:23-25 of "young lads" being mauled by bears for disrespecting the prophet Elisha. It is one of the most difficult passages in Scripture to reconcile with our understanding of God's nature as a loving Father. I remember encountering an explanation of that incident by an Orthodox elder who said the young lads are metaphors for sinful inclinations and the bears represent the force we must use to put those inclinations to death. I don't find that interpretation sufficient, but think it points in the right direction.

The passage that I was asked to comment on, Ezekiel 35: 1-4, has some commentary by the book's author immediately following the "hard passage," explaining which sins the "word of the Lord" had in mind when he told Ezekiel to prophesy against Mount Seir. Apparently, in context, Mount Seir was a place of egregious sin against God and His people Israel. But many other passages, like the one about the bears attacking the lads, have no adjacent explanation, and in those cases we must be content with realizing that 1. God doesn't owe us any explanation about His decisions and actions, and 2. In the context of the whole Bible, if we will keep the big picture in mind (or, as Dr. Martin Luther King so famously put it, if we "keep our eyes on the prize") instead of being diverted by things we don't understand, we will be able to understand God and His Providence far better, and 3. Though God knows exactly what he is doing, we never know that perfectly and those who don't even believe in Him are not going to think of Him as the source of their misery or thank Him for their blessings.

Even within the four verses of the Ezekiel passage there is a clue about what God is up to. The section's conclusion says that once Mount Seir lays desolate, "then [they] will know that I am the Lord." Those with eyes to see can see in this that the people of Mount Seir were denying that God is their Creator and their sustainer. And of course the people, since they know no real God, can't even blame Him when they go through their catastrophic punishment. Any survivors, if there were any, likely surmised that they had been visited by some especially inclement weather, a run of bad luck, or had made some bad choices. Some day, maybe already in God's economy, the people will know that it was He who punished them, but that will be after He reveals himself to them and pronounces judgment on them directly.

One example of God's "unfairness" (compared with how we would prefer to be treated), mentioned last time is the Lord's confiding to Ananias that He has chosen Paul to suffer. It's almost as though "God's favorites" are the ones likely to suffer the most. And in the Old Testament this is made even more obvious in what many Bible scholars consider the oldest story in the Bible, the Book of Job. Job is described in the opening verses as a very prosperous man, but even more importantly, a man of faith in God. Satan attends a council of the leading angels in heaven and we read that God asked Satan if he has "considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, who fears God, and turns away from evil?" Satan replies that it's easy for Job to believe in God because he has everything a man could desire. But put him to the test, and see whether he remains faithful. Satan predicts that under testing Job will curse God like most other people do. And the familiar story is the Book of Job's account of Job's testing, losing his wealth, his children, his livestock, and every material possession so that he bottoms out on the ash heap covered by sores. Even his wife and his friends turn against him and join Satan in encouraging him to curse God. But as God had said to Satan, Job never doubts or questions God, and in the end all his losses are restored to him.

The point of Job's story is that we can and should trust God, come what may and despite the huge expanse of mystery attending Him that we will never comprehend in this mortal vale. The whole Old Testament consists of one account after another of people who trusted God (Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David) and others who cursed and rebelled against Him (Cain, most of the Israelites most of the time, Saul and all the wicked kings of Israel and Judah), and some who trusted and obeyed Him some of the time, but failed to do so at others (Lot, Jonah, Solomon, Samson).

Next: God's alternatives to "justice."

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

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