Does God Love Too Much to Punish?

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Seventh-day Adventists believe in conditional mortality. This is the belief that eternal life is not something all human beings possess but something that is given to those who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Since eternal life belongs only to those who believe in Jesus, the logical conclusion is that it does not belong to those who reject him. Simply put, the righteous have eternal life and the wicked do not. Consequently, hell is not a place where the wicked suffer for all eternity because, after all, they don't have eternal life. The SDA understanding is that the wicked will be punished according to their sins (some will suffer greater punishment than others) and all will be ultimately annihilated. 

For some the concept of a temporal versus an eternal hell is good news. God is no longer a sadist who will torture people for all eternity. Instead, he is a just God who will punish the wicked accordingly, but once justice has been satisfied, will bring their existence to an end. However, for others such a revelation is not good enough. The idea that God will punish the wicked at all seems to them a bit too much. As a result, various theories have been proposed. 
1) Everyone, including the wicked will eventually be saved and spend eternity in heaven.2) The wicked will suffer and die as a natural result of Gods holy presence, but God himself will not inflict punishment.3) God will not punish the wicked nor will he allow them to experience suffering. He will simply annihilate them. They will not suffer at all. 
While the first two proposals differ in the details, the unifying thread between them is an attempt to remove the death of the wicked from God's hands. "God is not a murderer" is the central thesis. Now of course Jesus came to save us from sin not an angry God who is bent on killing us. Even if God did nothing, sin would, like a cancer, naturally kill everything it wrapped its vile tentacles around. But this reality does not remove the act of destroying the wicked as ultimately an action which God himself initiates. So the question then is, Is God a murderer? No. But how?

Perhaps a short illustration can help. Suppose I let you borrow my car for a few weeks. Since the car is mine I give you some rules as to how to take care of it. However, a few days later I discover that you are breaking all the rules and are in fact mistreating my car. Not only do you park it outside instead of the garage like I asked you to, but you have even been street racing with it. As soon as I find out I slip on my jacket, head over to your house, and bring the car back with me. Let me ask you a question, Does that make me a thief? Can you accuse me of stealing the car? The straight up answer is no. Why? Because it is my car. I can take it back whenever I want to. In the same way, life does not belong to us. It belongs to God. He lets us borrow it, and if we misuse it he has the right to take it back whenever he wants to without being a murderer.[1]

But what about the whole punishment thing? Does God punish the wicked? While I can go into a huge theological debate over this, allow me to share a simple reason why I believe he will: closure. You see, suffering demands justice. God is not simply going to let the wicked off without any punishment. To do so would be to deny victims closure. To those who say God is too loving to punish anyone I ask, was he too loving to spare the decadent cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? Was he too loving to pass by the wicked antediluvian world? Last time I checked, he rained fire on the former and drowned the later. What about the idolaters who worshiped the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai? Did God in his great love simply annihilate them? Or did they suffer fear, terror, and agony as they died at the hands of the faithful men God commanded to slay them with the sword?

God will punish because in his great love he will bring closure to those who were abused and mistreated in this life. He will bring closure to the souls under the altar in Revelation 6. He will bring closure to the millions of Jews who were tortured, mangled, and incinerated at the hands of Nazi masochists. He will call Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and Adam Lanza to give an account for the horrendous pain they inflicted upon their victims. He will punish the bullies, the extortioners, the greedy, and the abusers. They will not simply cease to exist. They will pay for their crimes.

A recent article on The Daily Beast titled The New Age of Christian Martyrdom, detailed some of the horrendous atrocities being committed against Christians around the world. Speaking of the prison conditions in North Korea, the author Kirsten Powers writes,
It’s chilling to imagine worse treatment than what the average North Korean prisoner has reported, including a mother forced to drown her own baby in a bucket, and tales of subsisting on nothing more than rats and insects. According to first-hand accounts from former prisoners reported by Amnesty International, “every former inmate at one camp had witnessed a public execution, one child was held for eight months in a cube-like cell so small he couldn’t move his body and an estimated 40% of inmates die from malnutrition.”
And of the African country of Eritrea she reports,
Prisoners are packed into 40’x38’ metal shipping containers, normally used for transporting cargo. It is so cramped that it’s impossible to lie down and difficult even to find a place to sit. “The metal exacerbates the desert temperatures, which means bone chilling cold at night and wilting heat during the day….believed to reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit or higher,” Allen writes.  One former inmate…described [it] as “giant ovens baking people alive.”  Prisoners are given next to nothing to drink so “they sometimes end up drinking their own scant sweat and urine to stay alive.”  The prisoners are tortured, sexually abused, and have no contact with the outside world.  One survivor of the prison described witnessing a fellow female inmate “who had been beaten so badly her uterus was actually hanging outside her body.  The survivor desperately tried to push the uterus back in” but couldn’t prevent the inmate’s excruciating death.
And this is not even the half of it. What about the thousands of children who are sex trafficked? What about the thousands of women who are kidnapped and forced into the world of sex slavery? What about those who bully and abuse others into suicide? What about those who con innocent hard working families and leave them broke and on the street? What about those who steal money from charities, diverting funds needed to help the suffering in order to fill their own pockets? What about the war criminals who commit genocide and mass rapes of girls as young as two and women as old as ninety? What about the prisoners who, while being interrogated for answers, have had to listen to, or watch, their wives being raped? What about those who in the name of God "employed the rack, the dungeon, and the stake to control the consciences of... people"?[2] And there are worse things. Things not even worthy of being mentioned. Things so filthy and dark they we are better off to have never known them. Will God not punish these people? Will he simply annihilate them? The prophet Isaiah didn't seem to think so when he quoted God saying,
I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless. - Isa. 13:11
Ellen White captured the biblical picture well when, of the wicked and Satan, she said,
Some are destroyed as in a moment, while others suffer many days. All are punished “according to their deeds.” ...Satan... is made to suffer not only for his own rebellion, but for all the sins which he has caused God’s people to commit. His punishment is to be far greater than that of those whom he has deceived. After all have perished who fell by his deceptions, he is still to live and suffer on. In the cleansing flames the wicked are at last destroyed, root and branch—Satan the root, his followers the branches. The full penalty of the law has been visited; the demands of justice have been met; and heaven and earth, beholding, declare the righteousness of Jehovah. {GC 673.1}
I'm glad God will punish the wicked justly. He wont burn them for all eternity, but neither will he simply let them pass away. He is a God of love, but not a pushover. He is a God of mercy but not a weakling. He will bring justice and in his love, closure for the victims of evil souls who refused to the bitter end to turn away from their decadence. And yet even then we must always remember that:
God’s destruction of the wicked is called his “strange work” and his “alien task” (Isaiah 28:21). It is something that he has never had to do before the rebellion of Lucifer and according to the book of Ezekiel he doesn’t even enjoy it. "’Do you think that I like to see wicked people die?’ says the Sovereign LORD. ‘Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live’” (Ezekiel 18:23, NLT). Again God says, “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone… Repent and live” (Ezekiel 18:32)! And yet again he says, “As surely as I live… I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:11)? And elsewhere it says of him, “For he does not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33).
Contrary to what many people believe, destruction is not something God enjoys. The Bible is clear on what he enjoys. “[T]he LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” (Psalms 147:11). He “delight[s] to show mercy” (Micah 7:18) and he “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). And yet the truth remains, God is just and he will judge. “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Deuteronomy 32:35) he says. And David the poet once wrote, “On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot. For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice” (Psalm 11:6-7).[3]

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[1] I owe this insightful illustration to Seventh-day Adventist speaker Ty Gibson.
[2] White, Ellen G. The Great Controversy, p. 668
[3] Torres, Marcos D. Jude Story: Why Jesus-Truth Matters, (Preliminary Manuscript: unpublished) p. 43.

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