There are any number of texts in the Bible that depict God as a punishing God, and God's punishments, according to these texts, can be quite severe. I have noticed that some evangelicals who emphasize God's love tend to ignore these texts, while others seem to take delight in a punitive God. Some progressives are not sure what to do with these texts either.
There is no need to be afraid of these texts. We don't have to ignore them or deny them or cut them out of our Bibles. The inspiration of these texts of terror is not to be found in what they teach about God, but in what they teach about ourselves. These texts do not tell us who God is, they tell us who we are, namely, fragile, fallible human creatures who are inclined to project our flaws onto God.
These texts expose our all-too-common tendency to project our fears, anxieties, insecurities, guilt, biases, skewed perceptions, and negative self-image onto God. These texts show us how messed up we can be in our understanding of God.
Why can I say this? Because I read these stories through the lens of the greatest story in the Bible, the story of Jesus. For a Christian, the story of Jesus should trump all other stories. To be a Christian is first of all to be a follower of Christ. The sacred story of Jesus is the story through which I filter all the other stories. And in the story of Jesus I meet a nonviolent God.
Jesus teaches his disciples to love their enemies, to pray for them and do good by them so they will live as God's children in the world, for God "is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked" (Luke 6:35). Jesus bases this instruction on the compassionate character of God, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).
Jesus, of course, embodied what he taught. Jesus rebuked the disciples when they wanted him to call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritans when the Samaritans refused them passageway through their country. I imagine Jesus thinking, "Don't you get it yet. I didn't come to torch people, I came to heal people" (Luke 9:51-56). When a disciple cut off the ear of one who had come to arrest Jesus, Jesus told his disciple to put his sword away and then healed the injured man (Luke 22:49-51). Jesus never responded violently to violence, and according to one Gospel account he even prayed for the forgiveness of his tormentors (Luke 22:34). He endured the intense suffering and humiliation of a Roman execution without any hate or desire for vengeance or retribution. The story of Jesus reveals a compassionate, forgiving, nonviolent God.
By reading the rest of the Bible through the filter of the story of Jesus, the human propensity for projecting our violent tendencies onto God is exposed. A simple rule that can be applied to any text is this: If the God described in the text is not as good, loving, merciful, just, and compassionate as we know ourselves to be in our better moments, then we should know that the God depicted in the text cannot be a true picture of God.
We can call this listening to the Spirit, trusting our "inner authority," connecting with our true selves, or we might simply call it common sense, but we should know in our hearts that if we are ever more loving than the God we imagine, then the God we imagine cannot be God.
I recently discussed the subject of hell with a conservative Christian friend. She brought it up because she knew I didn't believe in eternal torment. In the course of the conversation I asked her, "Would you under any circumstances condemn your worst enemy to a fate of eternal agony? She wouldn't. (I knew she wouldn't, which is why I asked her that question. I'm not sure I would ask that of just anyone.)
I said, "Then why do you think God would? Are you more gracious and forgiving than God?"
This seemed to make sense to her. But then she came back with the common traditional response, "But you know the Bible says . . ." I responded, "Yes, in a few places the Bible talks about hell, but could it be possible that you are misreading the Bible?"
"What do you mean?" she asked. I said, "Could it be that the passages about hell, as well as all the other biblical texts that seem to sanction divine violence, are actually teaching us, not about God, but about our human propensity to project onto God our negative qualities and repressed fears?" She was quiet after that and said she would think about it. Perhaps she is ready to take a new step on her spiritual journey
These texts of terror expose the ways we project violence onto God and invite us into the drama of the human struggle to understand and relate to God in more healthy and transformative ways. There is no need to be afraid of these texts, any more than we need to be afraid of the God of Jesus.