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Character of God

Does God Punish Innocent People?

Sometimes the Bible seems to contradict itself––God is slow to anger, except for the times he appears to get mad quickly. The biblical authors don’t give us a systematic explanation, but they invite us to wrestle through our deepest questions and encounter a clearer, more nuanced picture of God. Learn more as Tim, Jon, and Carissa respond to your questions!
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Episode Details

November 16, 2020
59 min

Episode Details

November 16, 2020
59 min

Show Notes


Maybe the function of the Bible isn’t to give us clarity, but it’s trying to create the venue within which we go to wrestle with God with our deepest questions. And what we discover is not a systematic answer; what we discover is a portrait of God’s character.


  • The biblical authors didn’t have the same categories we do for God’s wrath. They viewed any apparent “contradictions” as pieces in a larger mosaic depicting a nuanced portrait of a loving God.
  • Throughout the story of the Bible, individual people go before God to intercede for entire nations of people. Each of these occurrences points to Jesus, the one who would stand before God’s wrath and take the punishment for all mankind.
  • Although national Israel was conquered by Rome, Jesus brought victory to all true Israelites as he defined them: those who follow his teaching.

Is God’s Wrath Passive?

Laura from Ohio (2:00)

Hi there. At first when you described Yahweh's wrath as him handing over people to their own folly, I thought you meant his wrath was passive. But after looking at the locust plague in Joel and some other examples in Scripture, I'm beginning to think it's more nuanced than that. Can you help me find better words than "passive" to describe Yahweh's wrath?

Rob from California (02:20)

You said, “God demonstrates his wrath by handing his people over to the natural consequences of their own destructive decisions”, which is certainly true. However, I can think of at least two specific instances where God seems to have directly inflicted punishment, which I don’t think you’ve mentioned… In Numbers 16, God causes the ground to split apart and swallow Korah and the others, along with families, and then he sent fire and consumed 250 men who were offering incense. This seems like direct punishment to me, even though Numbers 26 says it was a “warning.” Then there’s the bronze serpent incident in Numbers 21 where “the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; [which] bit them and many died” because the people had been complaining. Again, it sounds like a direct punishment. Could you please address these and any other cases where God’s hand seems to be directly involved? Thanks!

We may want to describe God’s anger as either “active” or “passive,” “natural” or “supernatural.” But the biblical authors didn’t have these same categories when talking about God’s wrath. An example of this is Passover. In one place God says he will strike down the Egyptians’ firstborn sons (Exodus 12:12), but in another he tells the Israelites he will not allow the destroyer to strike them (Exodus 12:23).

Often, the question we’re really asking is, “Was God directly or indirectly involved in this?” The question assumes a dichotomy exists between God’s own actions and the “natural” processes of his creation. In the story of Korah in Numbers 16, for instance, was his death caused by an earthquake or God? Yes.

In Psalm 104, the psalmist praises all God has made, but he includes in his list ships made by humans (Psalm 104:24-26). He praises God as the ultimate originator of all human agency.

God is the Creator and sustainer of the cosmos that keeps humans safe, as well as the one who allows cosmic stability to break down when humans break covenant with him. That’s not to say that every time a person experiences their world in chaos it is due to God’s anger. For example, Job is not a covenant violator, but he does experience chaos and evil in his world.

Ultimately, the biblical authors don’t give us a systematic explanation for why God seems to respond differently to different situations, but they do trust the consistency of God’s patience.

Does God Punish Innocent People?

Isaak from Germany (22:40)

I struggle with the notion that God’s handing over frequently targets a whole group of people, often based on the actions of a few. I realize that I view this in the context of my individualistic culture. However, that sometimes feels unfair to me. How can I better understand God’s love, wrath and justice in this context?

Although one person’s sin can affect an entire community, it can still seem unfair that many people would suffer the consequences of someone else’s sins. The reverse is also prevalent in the story of the Bible. Again and again, one person stands up to appeal to God’s patience on behalf of entire nations of people, like when Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, based on God’s own justice (Genesis 18:16-33).

Aaron and Moses pray similarly in Numbers 16:

Numbers 16:22
But they fell on their faces and said, “God, the God of the spirits of humanity, when one person sins, will you be angry with the entire congregation?”

Daniel, too, intercedes for his people by taking full responsibility for the sins of his nation (Daniel 9:1-20). Each of these examples point to Jesus, who stood before God’s wrath to take the punishment for all mankind.

Romans 5:19
For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

The biblical authors’ understanding of sin, God’s justice, and individual and corporate responsibility is composed of all of these stories that form the mosaic of the Hebrew Bible—each story is working toward a broader picture of the character of God.

Why Does Psalm 2 Say God is Quick to Get Angry?

Kayleigh from South Africa (34:40)

My question is about the description of God in Psalm 2. It seems strange that the psalm speaks of God's wrath being quickly kindled, or flaring up in a moment — which sounds like the opposite of being slow to anger. I'm pretty sure the psalmist was familiar with the passage from Exodus 34, but why does there seem to be a contradiction?

The Hebrew text in Psalm 2 literally says the opposite of Exodus 34’s “slow to anger” or “long of nose”—“it takes little for God’s nose to burn.”

Psalm 2:12
Kiss the Son, that he not be angry and you perish on the way, For his wrath may be kindled quickly. How blessed are all who take refuge in him!

Psalm 2 depicts the Messianic King, whose anger burns against evil kings identified in the beginning and ending of the psalm. Because the psalm expresses hope in a Messiah who will liberate his people from oppressive rule, God’s anger is viewed by the psalmist as a good thing.

It’s important that we look again to our mosaic understanding of Scripture, bearing in mind Psalm 2 is just one “tile.” As the collection of psalms unfolds, the Messiah is portrayed numerous times as the Afflicted One. The biblical authors didn’t view any of this—God’s patience or the Messiah’s anger and affliction—as a contradiction. Although God is patient, at times he quickly and decisively responds to injustice.

Revelation 12:9
And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to shepherd all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to his throne.

The Apostle John borrows imagery from Psalm 2:9, except the psalmist says God will “shatter” the nations. The letters of the Hebrew word for “shepherd” and “shatter” are the same. John is reading Psalm 2 and the shattering it describes in light of the whole story of the Bible. He knows God’s Anointed One will ultimately shepherd the nations.

What Did Jesus Accomplish by His Substitution?

Sarah from Wisconsin (46:22)

In relation to the storyline of Jesus taking the place of rebellious Israel by being "handed over" to the Roman oppressors, what did he accomplish by that substitution if Israel was still destroyed by Rome anyway?

The gospel writers depict Jesus as the leader in a movement to renew Israel. Jesus invites the Jewish people to truly become part of the nation of Israel—that is, the new covenant Israel God is enacting through Jesus.

Although Jesus died for all of the nation of Israel, his death was only effectual for some. Many people rejected Jesus, failed to live by the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, and as a result, Rome decimated Jerusalem. But Jesus brought eternal victory to all true Israelites as he defined them: those who follow his teaching.

However, the church has not replaced national Israel as God’s people. Rather, Jesus, Image of God, himself is faithful Israel (Isaiah 49). People from all nations who put their faith in Jesus, who is the ultimate covenant Israel, become part of God’s family.

1 Corinthians 15:3-4
For I handed down to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

Paul understood the death of Jesus in light of his resurrection, and he understood both those things in light of the whole story of the Bible.

Show Music

  • “Defender (Instrumental)” by Tents

Show produced by Dan Gummel. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.

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