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Was (or is) God ever cruel?

Description: Explore God's actions in the Old Testament, asking if he was ever cruel, and how the new covenant through Jesus offers redemption and grace.


Was (or is) God ever cruel?

Introduction

Throughout the Old Testament, we read about God's chosen people enduring trials and tribulations, often at the hands of their enemies. This raises a crucial question: How could a God of love have allowed such profound suffering? This in turn prompts questions about God's justice and mercy, especially from non-believers. The key is the profound shift from the old covenant to the new covenant through Jesus Christ.


Analogy of a wealthy benefactor

It may be helpful to consider the analogy of a benevolent and wealthy man rescuing a group of people who are in dire straits. Initially grateful, these individuals agree to a simple pact: to care for one another and respect their benefactor’s rules. The man freely shares his wealth and fosters a flourishing community.


However, envy and pride among community neighbours sows discord. Some within the rescued group succumb to temptation, abandon their promises, and embrace a path that disgraces their benefactor. Despite warnings, the number of defectors significantly increases, and unsurprisingly, the benefactor's patience wanes in the face of this growing defiance.


Even with such flagrant betrayal and disrespect, the wealthy man persists in his appeals for them to respect and abide by their pact. Notwithstanding, the people worsen their rebellion, until eventually, in despair, the man withdraws his protection. As a result, community neighbours become aggressive enemies and the once protected people face calamity. Only now do they plead for the aid and security they had so recklessly spurned.


It’s not reasonable to blame the benefactor, as he upheld his end of the bargain despite repeated betrayals, until the pact itself was made untenable by the defiant community. Blame must fall on those who so wilfully breached their pledge, ignored warnings, and contemptuously persisted in rebellion. Sadly, as an abridged reflection, this mirrors Israel's journey in the Old Testament, where despite God's warnings through prophets, they persisted in idolatry and disobedience.


God’s Old and New Covenants

God's covenant with Israel was clear: obedience would bring blessings, disobedience consequences. Continual disobedience led to God's judgment, documented in historical events where Israel faced exile and suffering due to their persistent rebellion.


Failure lay not in God's character, but in humanity's inability to uphold its promises – and this limitation called for an entirely new covenant. This couldn’t be made dependent on fallible human pledges, yet had to be a covenant between God and humanity. Enter Jesus. Just as humanity had disobeyed, chosen sin, and separated itself from God, Jesus chose to obey and honour God’s plan for human salvation. In this, he was anything but a helpless victim, and his perfect sacrifice bridged the sin divide, making it possible for God to offer redemption to all who believe. This fully overcame the human failing limitation of the old covenant because Jesus never sinned and, therefore, never separated his human self from the holiness of God.


Cruelty and suffering

Cruelty and suffering are not the same thing. Jesus clearly indicated that suffering is part of the human experience. It’s a consequence of living in a world broken by sin, i.e. it reflects the reality of human free will and the resulting moral and natural evils.


Jesus emphasised that those who follow him are not exempt from suffering. Three examples:


1. In Matthew 10:22, Jesus warned his followers that they would face persecution and hatred because of their allegiance to him. This suffering results from the world's opposition to God's truth and those who follow it.


2. In John 16:33, Jesus acknowledged that trouble and suffering are part of living in a fallen world. However, he encouraged believers to find peace in him, knowing that he has ultimately triumphed over the world's brokenness.


3. In Luke 9:23-24, Jesus teaches that following him involves self-denial and bearing one's own cross, symbolising the willingness to endure suffering and sacrifice for the sake of his mission.


These kinds of suffering are not arbitrary, but serve a purpose, i.e. they refine faith, build character, and bring believers closer to God. Additionally, they are temporary and point towards the ultimate victory and peace found in Jesus. His promise of eternal life and restoration for those who believe, provides a reassuring perspective, even in testing times.


Accusing God of Cruelty

Critics of God often view suffering as a sign of divine cruelty or indifference. This perspective stems from seeing suffering as unfair and purposeless. It misunderstands free will and overlooks the prime importance of this key element in God's creation. Accordingly, it fails to grasp that, by allowing suffering, God is actually respecting human autonomy and tolerating the consequences of free moral choices – and nothing needs to be added here to bear witness to humanity’s record of unprincipled choices and cruelty.


Further, God’s accusers fail to consider the eternal perspective offered by Christianity, i.e. the planned narrative that underpins the Christian faith: free will, restoration, and the promise of eternal joy and peace in God's presence. For Christians, this eclipses the temporary nature of earthly suffering.


Conclusion

In summary, God's justice, tempered with mercy, is evident throughout history. While his judgments and actions in the Old Testament may appear harsh at times, they are rooted in his commitment to righteousness, faithfulness, and his overwhelming desire for humanity's restoration.


The new covenant, sealed through Jesus Christ, stands as a testament to his unwavering love and compassion, dispelling any notion of cruelty. He isn’t, and never was, cruel. Ultimately, and most vitally, his actions point towards his redemptive plan for all mankind. Through his enduring grace, salvation is offered to all who turn to him.


As the Apostle Paul clarified in Romans 6:23: the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, but the penalty for sin is death. Since all humans die, the death to which Paul refers is spiritual and eternal death. This more than anything engraves on our hearts the serious consequences of sin (disobedience to God). For we Christians, it underscores our need for redemption and salvation. Thank God, this is offered as a free gift through Jesus Christ, and we can look forward to eternal life in him.



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