Theology

The Ruthlessness of God

Nate Hoover

I was watching a movie about a Navy SEAL sniper who began his combat career in the Iraq War when it dawned on me that God is ruthless.

The scene that sparked this revelation was the opening: Bradley Cooper—playing the SEAL sniper, Chris Kyle—aims at a young boy attempting to throw a Soviet grenade at a convoy of US soldiers in Fallujah. Cooper struggles with the thought of shooting a mere child in this scene, for obvious reasons (the child does end up trying to lob the grenade). After he takes the shot Cooper stews over his actions which is indicated by a pensive thousand-yard stare back at base.

God is More Ruthless Than Soldiers

I don’t mean to detract from the horror of war. Nor do I mean to say that it’s easy to take another life, not to mention children. But I couldn’t help but think that God is not like Bradley Cooper. God does not hesitate to take the shot in other words. He does not stew over it long afterward.

Let me qualify the idea of saying God is ruthless. The Bible depicts God as compassionate, forgiving, and always ready to turn away from judgment when people truly confess their sin and turn away. He says to the wicked in Ezekiel “Why will you die?” (Ezekiel 33:10-11), offering His enemies pity and forgiveness. Indeed, scripture paints God as one that cannot be unjust. He prefers a repentant soul over a sinner. After all, sinners must be dealt with more severely. But if the wicked will not repent, God will take the shot. God will not shed further tears. He will not contract PTSD afterward. He will take out the wicked and send them to their place in torment forever.

God’s Ruthless Apologists

Many modern theologians have become apologists against the idea of the ruthlessness of God. For instance, when God commands the slaughter of women and children during the conquest of Canaan, certain theologians have gone so far as to say the Bible doesn’t really say what is so clearly said.

Truth be told there was no conquest of Canaan in the days of Abraham. Remember that Abraham was promised the land, but God declared to Abraham that the land would have time to fill the measure of their sins before he would carry out his scorched earth policy on the men, women, and children of that place. Four hundred years of patience is a lot longer than the patience of any human. Nevertheless, the ruthlessness of God enters the picture when it is time for sin to be judged.

When God pours forth judgments, He closes off his pity. He stirs up the heat of bitterness in his heart against evil. He takes action, as Jeremiah depicted him, as a “Dread Warrior” (Jeremiah 20:11). We humans all have a tiny portion of this. Regardless of our political, ethnic, or cultural background, any sufficiently egregious act can make our blood boil. Theologians have likened this instinct to the presence of the Imago Dei, God’s image imprinted on us. For example, stolen elections can make people storm the nation’s capital. A real or perceived injustice by police can make cities go up in flames. Perhaps you too have witnessed evil acts and felt rage. This isn’t an ungodly reaction.

Where God Differs from Us is in the Measure

Because we are only somewhat good, our indignation at evil is only mild compared to God’s. Our time being temporal burns only for so long. God being only good, can only be indignant, and being eternal, he can burn in anger forever against evil. Thus, our human perception of what constitutes wisdom and goodness is not a sufficient measure to determine if God is just for being extremely angry against sin. 

Take this promise by God to his own people if they were to turn away from him:

“And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me;

Then I will walk contrary unto you also in fury; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins.

And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat.

And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you.

And I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries unto desolation, and I will not smell the savour of your sweet odours.

And I will bring the land into desolation: and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it.

And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste.

Then shall the land enjoy her sabbaths, as long as it lieth desolate, and ye be in your enemies’ land; even then shall the land rest, and enjoy her sabbaths.”

Leviticus 26:27-34

There, long before any of this ever occurs, God promises terrible things to the people if they turn away.

Lo, this promise was fulfilled in the days of Jeremiah the prophet:

“The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.”

Lamentations 4:10

Does God ever say, “Y’know, that was a little harsh?” No, he told them beforehand of the consequences. He will not turn back.

The Ruthlessness of God is Good

The ruthlessness of God is good. All of its horror is right, just, and good. We cannot see clearly how horrible the transgressions of God’s laws are, but God can and does. God sees that the only thing to be done with terrible evil is an equal and opposite reaction. A terrible punishment that will not turn back.

Further evidence of this ruthlessness being a good thing:

Recall when Israel was under Egyptian bondage and God poured out the plagues. What was the response of some Egyptians?

“Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every person and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.’”

“Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the field.”

Exodus 9:12-21

And what was the response of the second generation of the Exodus, after they had conquered Canaan and just inherited the promised land of Israel, when they heard of idolatry by two Israelite tribes on the other side of the Jordan?

“And when the Israelites heard that they had built the altar on the border of Canaan at Geliloth near the Jordan on the Israelite side, the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them.”

Joshua 22:12

And sent a message to the tribes:

“‘How could you break faith with the God of Israel like this? How could you turn away from the Lord and build yourselves an altar in rebellion against him now? Was not the sin of Peor enough for us? Up to this very day we have not cleansed ourselves from that sin, even though a plague fell on the community of the Lord! And are you now turning away from the Lord?”

Joshua 22:16-18

But even the offending altar was to help them fear the Lord:

“No! We did it for fear that some day your descendants might say to ours, ‘What do you have to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? The Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you—you Reubenites and Gadites! You have no share in the Lord.’ So your descendants might cause ours to stop fearing the Lord.”

Joshua 22:24-25

And one last example to show the dreadfulness of God is utterly good and good for us is when God came down on Sinai:

“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.”

Exodus 19:16-19

And the people respond:

“When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

Exodus 20:18-19

And Moses later gives God’s response to this scene of terror by the people:

“The Lord heard your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they are right in all that they have spoken. If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever!

Deuteronomy 5:28-29

Fearing The Ruthlessness of God is Our Preservation

The terror of the Lord is our preservation. Our God is dreadful to behold. He makes Moses’ knees knock together (Hebrews 12:21). We have a living God whose eyes are fire (Revelation 19:12), and whose throne pours lava (Daniel 7:9-10).

When this dreadful God acts, who can turn him back? We must not because His judgments are good.

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