Why does God bring judgment upon some sinful people, yet others who do much worse things remain healthy, prosperous, and well? In some cases they even seem to be getting God’s approval or at least not His punishment for the same sins as those who receive judgment. Examples of this would be Michal (David’s wife) and Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6, and the story of the two prophets in 1 Kings 13.
This is a good question, and is related to a question that David asked in the Psalms about why God allows wicked people to prosper and righteous people to suffer. This question, from David, was not an abstract query, but one that was deeply person to his lived experience.
We can see this dynamic at work in the world today as well, where some people do evil things and seem to suffer no consequences, and in some cases succeed as a result, whereas many who endeavor to lead a godly life don’t succeed or even suffer.
I responded to this question with a podcast episode which is embedded and linked below. In this episode, I give three important considerations which help us to understand this dynamic.
Recently a reader of this site reached out asking for my thoughts about this question:
If Jesus came to save sinners, then why didn’t he come before the flood in the time of Noah?
It’s an interesting question. If God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to save sinners, then why did he wait so long? Could more people have been saved if God had sent Jesus sooner – and if so, then why did He wait as along as He did to send Jesus?
The Nature of Justice and Mercy
First of all, it is important to remember the nature of justice and mercy. Justice means giving someone exactly what they deserve: no more, no less. Mercy, on the other hand, means not giving someone the judgment they deserve for the wrong things they’ve done.
In his book, The Cross of Christ, John Stott explains that God not only must do justice because He is God and is obligated to do justice, but that God desires to do justice because it brings Him satisfaction to act justly, and that acting justly is part of His glory, goodness, and righteousness.
However, God also desires to show mercy. The difference between justice and mercy, however, is that mercy is not owed to anyone.
Showing mercy to those to whom He chooses to show mercy is God’s prerogative (Romans 9:15, Exodus 33:19). He is not obligated to give it to anyone. If God were to give us what we deserve, the result would be judgment.
God Did Not Leave Himself Without Witness
In the time of Noah, though many people perished in the flood, it is important to remember that those people had a chance to repent and be saved from the flood.
2 Peter 2:5 tells us that Noah was a preacher of righteousness, and 1 Peter 3 tells us that Jesus preached through Noah to those who were disobedient in his time. As Noah built the ark, which took a very long time, he was apparently preaching a message of righteousness and repentance. However, it would seem that no one heeded his warning.
In other words, the people who died in the time of Noah did not perish for lack of opportunity to be saved from the flood, but because they were in knowing rebellion against God, and they refused to accept the offer of salvation which was extended to them via repentance and heeding the warnings of Noah.
It is helpful to be reminded of a biblical view of anthropology here: contrary to the modern assumption that people began as animists (worshipers of nature), who over time then began worshiping a pantheon of abstract deities, and eventually “evolved” into monotheism – the biblical view of anthropology is different. According to the Bible, people didn’t discover God, rather: from the beginning people knew God and walked with God, until they knowingly turned away from God.
The Bible begins with a description of the first humans as monotheists, who knew God. Polytheism and animism then came about as a result of the devolution of sin. As Paul explains in his letter to the Romans:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Here’s what’s really interesting: Genesis 5 tells us that there were people alive at the time of Noah who had lived at the same time as Adam! Namely: Jared and Methuselah, if you run the numbers, were alive when Adam was still alive. Because of the length of the lives of early people, the people at the time of Noah’s flood were either contemporaries of Adam, or were only removed from him by one or two generations. This means that they could have heard first-hand accounts from him.
Could People Go to Heaven Prior to Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?
Simply put, prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, those who died in faith went to a place called Abraham’s bosom: a place of comfort for those who died in faith while they awaited the fulfillment of their redemption by the Messiah. The way to receive this salvation and redemption was to humble oneself before God, cast yourself on His mercy, and put your faith in His promise to bring salvation through the promised Savior (as opposed to saving yourself by your good works).
Paul tells us in Galatians 4:4 that “in the fullness of time, God sent His Son.” That phrase “in the fullness of time” implies that it happened “at just the right time.”
Those who lived in the time of Noah did not perish for lack of information, nor for lack of opportunity, but because they “suppressed the truth in unrighteousness,” “loved darkness more than light,” and rejected God’s calls to them (through Noah) to repent and be saved. Perhaps it is for this very reason that the people in the time of Noah are mentioned several times in the New Testament, so that modern people would be warned not to follow in their footsteps.
In regard to God’s treatment of Eli in 1 Samuel 2-4, I’ve always been disturbed that Eli was included in judgement because of his sons.
1. Aaron was not condemned to death because his sons offered “strange’ fire. 2. Eli raised Samuel to be an upright man of God; he must’ve done something right.
I know that perhaps Eli’s heart was not right with God as the text does not elaborate and it does not say that he asked for forgiveness or repented. His admonition of Hannah for being drunk may also reflect that he did not possess the compassion and empathy that reflects God’s character in his servants. Still, I was hoping you might point to other portions of the Bible that explains Eli’s punishment more effectively rather than trying to “read between the lines” and dangerously make up what’s not written.
Still, this has always made me ask if my heart is in the right place and whether or not my faith in Jesus’ redemption is truly “genuine enough”
For those who might need a refresher on the story, Eli was the high priest at the time recorded in the beginning of 1 Samuel. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, served as priests in the temple, but they were corrupt, stealing, embezzling, and committing acts of sexual immorality by abusing their positions of power with women who came to the Tabernacle to worship. As a result of their actions, not only was the Tabernacle profaned, but people avoided coming to worship because of the presence of these wicked priests.
The reason for God’s judgment on Eli is outlined in 1 Samuel 2:27-29, in which a prophet tells Eli that he is going to be judged for the sins of his sons because he did not do enough to stop them from doing these acts. In 1 Samuel 2:29, God states that Eli honored his sons more than he honored God, and it is for this sin that Eli is being judged. Although Eli had scolded them, he did not do anything besides talking to them. Eli’s responsibility is two-fold, since he was both their father and their boss – as high priest. Eli should have fired his sons or carried out some sort of disciplinary action, and it is for this reason of allowing these things to take place and not doing anything about it, that Eli received God’s judgment.
I’ll never forget that one of my mentors fired his own son in law over an act of impropriety in the church. It must have made for a very awkward Thanksgiving, but at least he was not following in the sin of Eli.
The sin of Eli was covering up the abuse of his children
Allowing them to stay in power
when he knew they were taking advantage of ppl
Caused God to remove Eli
We must call out abuse
Even when it’s in our own families or party or churches
Two Important Thoughts About Judgment: Temporal Judgments and the Mercy of God
It is worth noting that the removal of both the priesthood from Eli and his life were temporal judgments, rather than eternal or spiritual judgments upon his soul. I think it is likely that Eli, recognizing his shortcomings and sins, and knowing the promise of God to send a savior to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), he would have cast himself upon God’s mercy and received forgiveness. Temporal judgments, in other words, do not preclude eternal salvation.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the very nature of justice is that it entails getting what is deserved. Mercy, on the other hand, is not getting the judgment that is deserved. So, for God to judge Eli for his failure to lead well as high priest, is fair. On the other hand, when God chooses to give mercy, such as in the case of Aaron, that is His prerogative. As Paul puts it in Romans 9:18: “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy.” Mercy is never deserved, nor can it be demanded or expected. God reserves this right, and does so for His purposes, which we may never fully know on this side of eternity.
Knowing this helps us understand both the reasons why sometimes God doesn’t save us from the consequences of our sins even when He forgives us of them, and it helps us marvel all the more at the undeserved grace and mercy of God towards us!
Project Greatest Gift, our church’s annual outreach to children and caretakers in the foster care system in Northern Colorado, was a success again this year.
In the end, we were able to sponsor 241 children and caretakers in three northern Colorado counties. Additionally, we were able to take part in an event to meet and bless the families who were recipients of these gifts. Along with giving gifts, we were able to include materials in each bag explaining to each child and caretaker the hope that we have because of Jesus.
One thing to pray about for 2019 is that Weld County (where the majority of our recipients come from) is considering cancelling their program next year. If that happens, White Fields would consider taking over the program from them. This would require significant resources, meaning we would likely have to expand what we do beyond our church. This might just be the next step God has for this project, but do pray for God’s leading and provision as we move forward!
Check out this interview that our worship pastor Mike Payne did with Christine Appel, the founder and leader of Project Greatest Gift:
Here’s this week’s video in which we discuss the somewhat confusing phrase in Romans 12:20 – “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head”:
Recently at White Fields we have been studying through the Book of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria – a violent and imperialistic nation which posed a clear and present danger to the very existence of Israel. And Jonah was called to take them a message which carried with it the promise of mercy if they would repent of their sins and turn to the Lord.
Archaeologists and historians who have studied the Assyrian Empire report things such as human sacrifice, furniture upholstered with human skin, pyramids of human skulls, how they would put hooks in the faces of captives and leading them around by chains…
So it is not surprising that one of Jonah’s hesitations with going to Nineveh was that he didn’t think it would be fair for God to show mercy to people who did such terrible things. Jonah struggled with the question of how God could still be just if he were to forgive these sins and show them mercy.
This is a question many people struggle with: If you forgive someone, then what about justice?Can anyone just do anything they want and then say sorry, and suddenly it’s okay, and there are no repercussions? Where’s the justice in that?
For this reason, some people are hesitant to forgive those who have hurt them: because it kind of feels like in that case, they are getting away with it, or you are saying that it wasn’t a big deal — even though it was. (More on this topic here: Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?)
One of the great promises of the Bible is that God is just, and even if we don’t see it in our lifetime, there will be justice. Nothing is hidden from the eyes of God, and He will deal justly with every hurtful action and every wrongdoing. This gives us great comfort in the face of injustice, corruption and unfair and unethical behavior that we see or which touches our lives.
In the Psalms, the Psalmist often bemoans the injustice that he sees in the world: that those who lie, cheat and steal get ahead, at the expense of those who are fair and honest. Nice guys finish last. Good doesn’t always defeat evil. However, the Psalmist then goes on to comfort himself with the knowledge that, in the end, God will bring about justice: there is no wrong deed that will not go unpunished.
There’s only one problem with that: ALL of us have done wrong things. Without exception…
So the problem with justice is: if God is totally just and judges every wrong deed, then that means that He will have to not only judge those who have sinned against us, but He will have to judge us as well.
But then, the Bible gives us the good news: for those who turn to the Lord, He will give them mercy!
But here’s the thing: The definition of Justice is: Giving someone what they deserve. On the other hand,the definition of Mercy is: NOT giving someone what they deserve.
So, by definition: if you show someone mercy, then you are no longer being just! The two are diametrically opposed. So, if God shows mercy, doesn’t that mean He is no longer being just? Does one of God’s attributes therefore contradict another one of His attributes?
Isn’t mercy therefore a travesty of justice?
One of the great tensions of the Old Testament is the question of how God can be both Just and Merciful at the same time.
Neither of these tensions are actually resolved in the Old Testament. They only find their resolution in the New Testament – in Jesus.
The way that God can be both just and merciful at the same time, is because Jesus took all of the righteous judgment that we deserved, so that God could show us mercy. In this way, God remains completely just, and yet is able to show mercy without compromising his justice. In this way, He is both just and the justifier of the one who trusts in Jesus by faith. (Romans 3:26)
In Jesus, the Judge of all the Earth came to the Earth and took our judgment HIMSELF, so that we could be saved. It was the ultimate act of grace.
Whereas justice is giving someone what they deserve, and mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, grace is giving someone something they don’t deserve.