Is God Vengeful?

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In a recent blog post, I noted that the God I have come to know is not a vengeful God. In response, a frequent flyer on the Reddit discussion boards asked me, “Which God do you know, exactly?” He then gave me the following list of Scriptures:

 “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but give place unto wrath: for it is written,  Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom 12:19).

“Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you,” (2 Thess 1:6).

“And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them” (Ezek 25:17).

“For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people” (Heb 10:30).

“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death” (Rev 21:8).

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom 13:4).

“To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste” (Deut 32:35).

“O LORD God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself” (Psalm 94:1).

If we looked only at Scriptures such as these, we could certainly get the idea that the biblical God is a God of vengeance. But then there are other Scriptures, such as these:

“My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal; the Holy One in your midst,
 and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9-10).

“I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live” (Ezek 18:32).

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:44-45).

  “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matt 9:13).

 “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).

“He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17).

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

The truth is that those who seek a God of vengeance will find support for their view in Scripture – but so will those who seek a non-vengeful God. Both views are a part of the Bible, and we need to acknowledge that.

Given the fact that the Bible was written over a 1600-year period by several different authors, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

While the biblical writers may have been inspired by God, they still wrote from their own cultural and historical perspectives – and they didn’t always agree.

Some have tried to harmonize these differing views, suggesting that God is sometimes vengeful, and sometimes merciful. But this makes no sense to me. God cannot be “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35), and also seek to torment or destroy them. The two ideas just don’t mix!

It would be far wiser, in my opinion, to just admit that the Bible has some inconsistencies in it – even on a matter so great as the nature of God.

Yet somehow, even in the contradictions, there’s a message that’s just as relevant today as it ever was. The question is – how do we get there?

Here we have help from other sources – namely, the tradition of the church, and our own experiences with God.

Contrary to what many Protestants believe, our faith can never be based on “Scripture alone,” for the simple reason that there is no single “biblical” view on these things.

It’s worth noting that most of the early church fathers were opposed to the idea of a vengeful God, and gave more weight to the Scriptures which speak of God as merciful and infinitely forgiving.

St. Isaac the Syrian (7th century) typifies this approach, writing, “Very often many things are said by the Holy Scriptures and in it many names are used not in a literal sense… those who have a mind understand this” (Homily 83, p. 317).

In other words, when we read in Scripture that God punishes the wicked, we shouldn’t understand this in the sense of retribution. God may indeed punish people, but God’s punishments are remedial – done for the purpose of correction, not revenge.

My number one reason for believing in a God of infinite mercy is the fact that my personal experience supports it. The God that speaks to me in dreams, visions, and meditative prayer is not a vengeful God, regardless of what some Scriptures say.

I am well aware that feelings can mislead us, and that there is a danger in believing things simply because they make us feel good.

But the God I have come to know doesn’t just comfort me, but also continually challenges me to become a better, more Christ-like person.

I know myself well enough to know that only unconditional love can really motivate me to change. Threats of punishment don’t really help me – they just make me more stubborn and rebellious. I suspect that it’s this way for a lot of people.

If I am to become a more loving person, only a God of love can inspire this in me.

In the words of a contemporary Orthodox priest, “We are to love our enemies. And if that is to be anything more than lip-service then it must first be modeled in the Good God and grafted within us by His grace” (Fr. Stephen Freeman, emphasis mine).

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