Why we should all think about a God who punishes, for a moment….then forget about it.

Does salvation save us from actual punishment in the after-life?

The answer is sort of “yes”, and most definitely “NO”……

It’s a soteriological concept, meaning an idea centered around salvation.  More specifically, how we see God extending the gift of salvation to mankind.

Although there are many names for it, Punitive Atonement (or the concept of a God who works out our salvation by redeeming us  from the “punishment” of our sins) has a specific infrastructure and approach to it…typically, though the verbiage may be different, the message is the same:

1.  Mankind was born into sin, by which we cannot redeem ourselves.  We commit sins against God through our unholy behavior.  There is no hope of redemption without God.

2.  The wages of sin are death, therefore, we deserve to die for our transgressions, by which, God steps in and offers us salvation, through the atonement of Christ’s work on the cross.

3.  If we accept Christ’s atoning work, we are saved.  If we deny it, we are denied salvation, and therefore rendered to the full punishment of our sins (meaning Hell).

To give this idea 4 wheels (and a wall), here is a video from Ray Comfort and Living Waters Ministries:

To be totally honest, using this approach in an attempt to “share the good news (gospel)”, while possibly well-intended, completely misses the mark…for a number of reasons:

1.  Where’s the love?

This approach asks people to begin their “relationship” with God based on the fear they will go to hell in the final judgement.  If relationship with God is akin to a marriage union (Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke Luke 14:15-24), would you enjoy making a lifetime commitment based on your fear of the alternative?  Would you appreciate being coerced into a love relationship for fear of your own life?

2. Is this God’s or man’s idea of justice?

So, to be clear, we are all born into a fallen world, in which the odds are already stacked against us, we make mistakes, break God’s moral law(s) (specifically, the 10 commandments), and are sentenced to eternal judgement and damnation?  (Because, God is Holy, and we can’t really get close to Him, being as unholy as we are, without Him first pardoning us..)

3. Is this a good concept of what God thinks of justice?

Does this interpretation of justice depict loving restoration (God’s idea) or lustful revenge (man’s idea)?

If God is the judge, jury, and lawyer, by which we are the accused, yet He swoops in as savior and takes our punishment for us, what kind of light does this cast on God’s character?  At best, this depicts a God who’s willing to express a “lord it over them” behavior towards creatures inferior to Him, born into a world in which they are destined to lose, through no fault of their own (the sin of Adam has cursed us all).

At worst, it depicts a cruel-hearted elitist, exhibitionist God who is more worried about our actions than our motives.  It’s a transactional relationship by which we get to evade eternal punishment, and He gets……well, that’s a little unclear, but seemingly, an audience to witness Him and His magnificence.

4. God’s love is depicted as TRANSACTIONAL, not UNCONDITIONAL.

No Christian (I know of) thinks their salvation has anything to do with their own merit system, because scripture (and Evangelical preaching) is so heavy handed on the point.  There tends to be unilateral agreement among the Christian community on this idea:  there’s nothing you can do to earn your way to heaven. However, the idea of salvation as a way to avoid eternal punishment not only pushes against the idea of salvation by works (good), it over-sanitizes it (bad).   In fact, by tipping the pendulum, it put’s God’s grace in grave danger. If the beginning of our relationship with God starts in a transactional way (you need to escape eternal punishment, God has a corner on the market for your escape…etc.), what’s to stop the rest of our faith from becoming transactional?  In fact, if that’s what God wants, why won’t He continue “saving” us from such things as bad finances, failing health, our annoying coworkers, and so on?   His promises for our lives seemingly stop (or are “touch and go” at best) after salvation.  However, in an unconditional love relationship, His promises are everywhere, and in everything….including our own suffering.

Unconditional means just that….without any condition attached.  If, we believe the Judeo-Christian God to be a God who love’s us unconditionally, we have got to begin to see how that comes into direct conflict with the idea that He’s allowed a system in place by which we will be punished unless we yield to Him.

5.  So, God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ is free?

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Is it really though?

Sure, it doesn’t cost money, or any of our possessions, but is it really free?  If we are honest, according to Punitive Atonement, it really isn’t.  Any love relationship won’t last unless there’s a “bending of the will”, and in the case of our relationship with God, it’s no different.

Whether or not God’s will bends in His/Her relationship with us is another topic, but surely, ours does.  In fact, numerous times we are told in the gospels to love God with all our “heart, soul, mind and strength”…..I can’t think of a more comprehensive way to describe the human will.  Obedience should begin as an act of love, but if it’s a fear response, love is in danger of never being realized (or actualized).  More importantly, if we shift the message of salvation from one with love on the forefront to one of atonement on the forefront (atonement follows love, NOT the other way around), the message, ever so slightly, goes from, “Come as you are, you are loved”, to “Come and give up your ability to choose, so that you may be loved”.  Therefore, it would only seem like a natural response to experience pain, suffering, and hardship in life and equate that with the thought, “I must not be loved by God.”

But when love is placed at the beginning, it becomes the guiding light and principle by which life’s conditions are completely conditional to.  In fact, I’d argue when our love relationship with God begins, everything we experience after that, both good and bad, is only a process by which we get the privilege of understanding, and defining love in deeper, unimaginable ways.  Sometimes it’s through joy, other times it’s through tears….either way, it’s always the same consistent constant…God’s love for us guiding the way.

(By the way, if you’re scoffing at the use of the word “love” here, it’s important to recognize it’s YOUR problem, not ours.  Sure, “love” is a broadly defined word, which is in danger of overgeneralization and misinterpretation, but in no way means it can’t (and shouldn’t) be defined.  If you are cynically narrowing it down to fluffy rainbows, unicorn kisses, and unmitigated acceptance, it’s YOU who has lost touch with reality through the use of your own imagination.  If you need to align yourself with a truer definition of what love really is, I suggest experiencing it through the eyes of those who are truly expressing it.  Here’s a great place to start. Here and here would help too.)

Surrendering our will to God out of love involves enticement, intrigue, and romance….all of which are free and freely pursued.  But surrendering our will from fear is a “forced-hand” decision, by which, the case can be made salvation is not free at all, but indeed, demands the most sacred things of us.

In the end, the question arises:  Does punitive atonement really offer us the free gift of salvation, or does it point us down the path of legalism and salvation by works?  If the first action required for salvation is not falling in love, but giving up our will in order to avoid punishment, the case can be made that salvation ISN’T free, but earned.  It’s the difference between breaking the human will with guilt, or ALLOWING the human will to soften and change through the persistent force of love.

(**Side note:  How interesting, in all of the Living Waters videos and their written material on evangelism, no one thinks to ask someone on the street if they are following what Jesus said was the first and foremost commandment, which is to “love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Matthew 22 vs. 37-40)…..most likely, they’ll not get the answers they are looking for and the mind trap will be sprung without catching anything, leaving both sides to see each other as equals……)

God’s love is communicated through ambassadorship, by which we use words, diplomacy, and our very actions to show others how much they are loved…..their response to the offer of love determines the path of salvation and restoration in their lives.

5.  Last and final point:  How can you really trust a God who breaks His own rules?

In Comfort’s video (and in most of Punitive Atonement’s infrastructure) the built-in assumption is: God’s commands and moral decisions are always the same thing, AND they are always black and white…right or wrong.

But morality (and real relationship) doesn’t work that way.  There have been NUMEROUS discussions about morality (and even God’s will) throughout human history, and it’s never found to be that cut and dry of a subject. Without swamping this article with heavy details and philosophic history around morality, think about these few questions and how you might answer them:

Is removing someone from life support killing them?

If you were trying to smuggle Jews out of Nazi Germany and were stopped at a checkpoint, would you lie and say you didn’t have any Jews on board your vessel?

If you were found out, and had a chance to take a few Nazi’s lives in order to save the Jews on board, would you choose to take their lives?

Would you shoot someone if they broke into your house in the middle of the night?  What if you did, and that person turned out to mistakenly be a member of your own family?  Did you violate the the 6th commandment (“thou shall not kill”)?

Before you answer in a hasty manner (and assume that everyone else should agree with your answer) remember, these sorts of questions have existed within mankind for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and many have answered them in many different ways.  Some of these same kind of complex decisions are part of our real life, everyday experiences, and breaking everything down into simple A/B solutions diminishes their ability to be effective in reality.   Ultimately, even God Himself is calling us to a deeper, more complex definition and understanding of morality and spiritual principles in our own lives….

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” Matthew 23:15 NIV.

If God desires absolute authority of His commands/moral laws, yet breaks them Himself, what kind of duplicitous God is He?

In Samuel 15 God commands Saul (through Samuel) to attack the Amalekites and kill every man, woman, and child.  Why is it ok for God to break the commandment, “thou shalt not kill” by committing genocide and infanticide?  (Of course, technically, He didn’t do it, only commanded His followers to do it…..but that’s a mental “cop out”, trying to dodge the deeper question).

In Genesis, God creates Adam and Eve, and yet gives their children no choice to procreate, except through incest.  Yet, in Leviticus 18, incest is labelled as a sexual sin (in most cases, punishable by death). 

Even still, Abraham, one of God’s chosen men of faith, was married to his half-sister Sarah….also punishable according to Leviticus 18.

In 1 Kings 22 God sends out a deceiving spirit into the mouth of His prophets, to deceive king Ahab.

Jesus continually breaks the Sabbath (4th commandment).  You could even make a case He dishonors His parents by leaving them as a child in the temple and instead of apologizing, tells them He’s doing His Father’s business….

Keep in mind, shrugging your shoulders to these questions, and answering, “Well, He’s God, so He can do anything He wants to.” is not only circular reasoning, but it’s a lazy, side step that misrepresents God Himself.  And, misrepresentation of the character of God is one of the most vile of sins, according to Jesus’s words to the Pharisees:

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.'”  Matthew 23 vs. 1-4 NIV.

If I were to try and describe, with imagery, the kind of God I’m seeing in all this theology, it might look something like:

A God, who likes seeing Himself and basking in His own glory, while we get the privilege of viewing it as a picture from a picture within a picture.  It’s a never ending, downward spiral of inwardness (yet, God’s not selfish with His love?) in which, we hopefully get a glimpse from the side car.

So, why’s all this so important?

Well, it’s not just good ‘ol Ray selling the snake oil….

Whether Catholic, or Protestant, Mainline, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Calvinist, or Arminian (two opposing Christian camps), Punitive Atonement is still promoted in bulk rate from many platforms.  Sure, it comes in different extremes and intensities (the other day, I heard a very mild version of it from our own church pulpit), but it’s there nonetheless.


Honestly, the answer most likely revolves around guilt.  Guilt gets results. (a possible future t-shirt slogan, or future name of metal band?….please write me to obtain the copyrights ;).  Ideas free of guilt take time, patience, and a certain amount of personal autonomy.

It’s an easy platform.  Who wouldn’t want to have access to a red button they could push and instantly yield results?  Many  preachers and teachers of scripture use the idea of punitive atonement as a “fix it” tool, instead of a reference point (what I believe it was originally intended for).  It instantly gets rid of the relativism of post-modernism.  It instantly makes people feel an imminent need (not desire) for God.  It gives us feelings of lowliness, which fosters an immediate “appreciation” for God, and false sense of humility.  And, creates a power structure by which the one in front of the button (leader(s)) have all the control over the levers.

Using guilt is just the same as using bleach….It’s ok when applied sparingly, but completely hazardous when applied liberally. If we oversanitize everything  that comes from loving relationship, we remove the gospel from real life…the modern-day equivalent of a white-washed tomb.

The cruel irony of truth without love…..which turns out not to be truth at all, but only a lie.

Interestingly enough, it also never allows any of us to grow in our faith, leaves no space for understanding morality in our everyday life, leads believers into a consumerist faith, and most importantly, restricts our ability to understand and experience the “compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding love of God” Psalm 103:8 NASB.

As the past 75 years have shown us in this country, quick fixes aren’t stable solutions.  We thought we had control of humanity when we stood behind the red button of nuclear weapons.  We thought we were impervious to another attack on American soil.  We thought we could bottle food in a can and call it nourishment.  We thought financial institutions and banks were too big to fail.  We thought the housing market would always prevent us from another depression.  We thought we could build dwelling spaces everywhere and call it community.

But history has taught us (and continues to teach us) there is no silver bullet for anything.  The road to making a better life for ourselves is long and hard and complex….but not impossible.

And, in the same way, our culture’s desire to find the quick fix is almost poetically mirrored in our use of such philosophies as Punitive Atonement.  For decades, it was our theological silver bullet, and we exploited it in every way possible.

Even worse, it’s taking the concepts and ideas of salvation and attempting to break them down into a “simple syrup”.  But the results are disastrously cancerous….you CANNOT take something as complex as relationships and salvation and turn them into a simple “cause-and-effect” science…..it’s not a plausible or sustainable solution.

With this way of thought so rampant in American Christianity, it lends many non-believers occasion to poke holes at it….(and who would blame them?)  In the eyes of a non-believer, this is what American Christianity appears to be:



Well, no, that would only give us:

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(But seriously, whether or not you are a fan of Joel, you should look up his father John, who preached from the same pulpit. They almost work in “yin and yang” juxtaposition with each other, and it’s very interesting to observe what Joel has kept, and discarded, from his father’s approach. Most notably, the absence of guilt and punishment.)

Tipping the scales the other way would only make for more imbalance, wouldn’t it?  I think we’ve earned this much from our history, it’s time we begin to own it by thinking of salvation in deeper ways.

When it comes to terms such as “heaven”, “hell”, “judgement”, “salvation”, and “damnation”, I’m not willing (or able) to throw the baby out with the bath water….especially since Christ himself referenced such things in scripture.   Was He wrong?  Of course not (at least, I don’t believe so).  But perhaps we missed the point He was trying to make….perhaps we’ve been mincing with His words, when He has always been calling us to grasp the concepts behind the words.

It’s time we begin to see the idea of punitive atonement as it was always meant to be, a beginner’s reference point, or guiding reference on the way to salvation…..rather than salvation in and of itself.

As an example, think of when you were a child and your parent helped you understand the dangers of crossing the street.  Most likely, they started by informing you how dangerous it was to enter the road unsupervised, and therefore made it off limits to you.

Later, they might have held your hand, and pointing out the traffic in the road, taught you to look both ways before crossing.  Therefore, you were able to still “see” the street as a dangerous antagonist, yet you were occasionally empowered to cross alone.

Even more, as you grew older, your parents seemingly (and hopefully) didn’t care as much about how you cross the street, and began to care more about other influences in your life.  Further still, when you turned 16, the age by which you are legally allowed to  receive your driver’s license, your parents helped you understand how NOT to be the “dangerous” antagonist on the road, and keep an eye out for such things as children impulsively crossing the street….

You transitioned from your toddler-brain understanding the street as “enemy”, to your adult-brain understanding the street as “advocate”, by which you became the antagonist in the eyes of every parent with small children…

It’s paradoxical, and contradictory, and absolutely 100% real life.  We are constantly growing and changing throughout our lives…often becoming the very thing we once considered the opposite of ourselves.  How can this be?

How can a gang member go from strict loyalty to their street gang, towards love and acceptance of everyone?  How can a homeless person find themselves valued as an equal among society, therefore becoming a contributing member of that same society?  Conversely, how would a person of high stature and wealth come to find themselves a dysfunctional member of society?  Or, how could a longstanding pastor who believes in the power of love, eventually find themselves more of the problem than the answer in their own community?  …..By the ability (or, in the case of the negative examples given, the inability) to differentiate between concepts and words.

You can transition from a child with fearful dread of crossing the street to an empowered and safe driver if you understand the concepts being communicated to you, NOT just the words.  Words are only giving you context for your surroundings.  After all, we’d all raise an eyebrow, if after asking a 30 year old why he still doesn’t have his driver’s license, he replied with, “Well my Mom and Dad told me when I was 5 the street was a dangerous place, and so, I’m determined to go nowhere near it!”  He’s decided to hang his hat on words, rather than their meanings, and turned it into a pseudo-science by which he forms a version of his own reality…..”Street’s are bad, therefore cars and anything to do with the street is bad and should always be avoided.”

“Inference” is an important word, it means we come to conclusions based on the process of combining reason with real life experience.  It also means when we arrive at the understanding of a meaning of something, we own it, because we’ve taken the time to process it and live it through….

Our parents weren’t wrong to describe the street as a dangerous place, especially when they intended us to grow out of the concept into new heights of responsibility and empowerment.  In fact, those early ideas “embed” themselves and grow into deep reverence if we allow them.  Just as a seed dies and grows out of the ground, so too our words are only the “shells” of concepts….they too will one day die and leave us with a growing  way of seeing each other and God.

Why wouldn’t our heavenly Father treat us in the same way as our earthly parents, offering us words and concepts by which we can grow into deeper ways of understanding His love for us?

As a pastor, I’ve definitely experienced this myself, numerous times.

Most notably, when my wife and I were college campus pastors, we awoke one night, startled, to a student standing at the foot of our bed.  She was a sweet, fun-loving gal who had spent her freshman year trying all the things her parents had warned her not to try, which led to a slow transition into a life of degrading her own humanity.

On this particular night, she had found the only unlocked door in our house, wandered up two flights of stairs and somehow stood over our bed, knock-out drunk.  As I awoke, I nudged my wife and rubbed my eyes, trying to make sense of what was dream and reality myself.  When I realized who it was, and called her by name, she turned and tiptoed out into the hall, where she collapsed and passed out on a small couch for the night.

Her transition (and disappearance from our ministry gatherings) hadn’t concerned me too much…we had seen it numerous times:  Parents arriving the first day of college, excited and nervous to drop off their “children”, now “adults”.  Many of them would see our informational table, or find us, and pull on our shirt sleeves in order to get their little babies connected to a safe Christian group where they could live out their faith happily-ever-after, amen.

But, all too often, those innocent little babies weren’t interested in their parent’s suggestion, and might feign interest, but never be seen again, except possibly a year or two later, if the bottom dropped out of their existence.

So it was the same with this young gal…her parents were well-intended, but overbearing, and she disappeared quickly from our weekly gatherings and lost interest in meeting with us one-on-one….she had gone MIA, but I wasn’t too concerned, knowing she had a good head on her shoulders, and would “iron it out” over time. After all, you can’t force someone to be in relationship with you, you can only extend your hand in love and wait patiently for their reply.

But this incident was something different.  As she set on our couch, the next morning, cup of coffee in hand and blanket wrapped around her, I felt such a strong sense of urgency and immediacy, it was visceral and almost ineffable….I was struggling to find words.

“You’re headed down a path to complete and utter ruin.  If you don’t turn around now, I fear there’s nothing but a giant train-wreck in your path.”  These where my words in a nutshell.

More than that, it was the feeling I placed into the words that spoke (to both her, and me).  To this day, I’m not sure why I felt the way I did…sure it was completely uncanny she had wandered into our home in the middle of the night, stone cold drunk, and somehow walked straight up the stairs and into our bedroom (having never been before).  Reason told me, had it been any other home, she might have been shot, or worse.  But something was even more gutteral than my own reason.  There was a feeling this sweet gal had become something so outside of herself, she was losing all control of her own person…her future, her life, even her own body.  And if she lost control of her own self, someone with not-so-innocent intent would gladly take control of it for her.  She was ripe for disaster, given the wrong forces found her…..

I was hesitant, and unsure if using such poignant “turn or burn” terminology, in a look-down, scolding, Father-figure way would have any useful effect…..but it did in leaps and bounds.  She was struck to the quick with the sense of urgency and fear of the circumstances around her, and began to turn her life around 180% after that, making wiser and more fruitful choices.  Whenever I saw her, I was always struck by the sense of gratitude she expressed towards us for “helping her” realize the shape she was in.  Sometimes, she would voluntarily bring up the experience as a way of remembrance between us…..all this time, I thought I was being an angry parent, yet, she heard the words, but interpreted the concept as one of love…..

But, hey, do you want to know what would be one of the most tragic and devastating things I could ever do with that experience?  Bottle it up, sell it in a can, and call it God’s way of evangelism…. (yes, Living Waters Ministries, Ray Comfort, and Kurt Cameron, I’m looking your way).

Thanksgiving dinner….with all the results, and none of the process.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man (or woman), I put away childish things.” (KJV) 1 Corinthians 13 vs. 11.

Just the same, what if God was/is doing the same with us concerning salvation?  What if He/She used words such as “sin”, “heaven”, and “hell” as reference points, rather than actual ontological realities?  It doesn’t take away the “realness” of those terms, just places them in a narrative, so they are no longer seen as destinations, but launching points to a deeper understanding of the physical and spiritual realities all around us.

This would certainly leave room for a believer to grow, develop and become wise in the ways of God. Just the same as my parents would never expect, or get excited about their (now) 40 year old son still needing to hold their hand when crossing the street, I wonder if the same applies to God and the ideas behind Punitive Atonement?  What if, all this time, He/She was using terminology in order to jolt us into awareness, and communicate a sense of urgency, yet, we decided to camp on the terms themselves and turn them into formulas to get to heaven (and keep ourselves from going to hell)?

Yet some people need to hear some (stressing the word some here….sparing use will do) of the elements of Punitive Atonement as if they are real….for now.  They need something to stir in them and create a level of inner awareness to more than the physical world around them.  In order to find hope, peace, love, patience, joy, etc, you have to journey towards them, and you have to pack for your journey accordingly.  Reverence and a sober idea of what’s at stake helps tenfold in making the journey successful, and enjoyable.  Beginning someone on the path of salvation by the use of guilt is not a unilateral solution, and it’s certainly not a sustainable one, but it’s understandable, in some (again, emphasis on some) cases.

There’s a lot to unpack in this idea, and I won’t pretend to have all the answers.  I do believe God is calling us to deeper understandings of the elements of faith, and further exploration of the concepts behind what Jesus was presenting us with when He used the terms “heaven” and “hell”.   His hand is outstretched, waiting for us, willing to walk the path, and eventually, leave us to walk the path on our own until we find someone who needs our help and guidance along the way…

It’s for this very reason I take delight in teaching my children about the dangers of the physical forces moving around them, hoping one day they too will grow into the concepts (not the words) and see them expand into myriads of meaning.  I give them simple, straight forward ideas and words now, but expect they will walk into the deeper, more complex ways of living as they get older.  Somehow, those simple ideas will serve in making the world a less dangerous place for them, and allowing them to make safe-spaces for those experiencing the pitfalls of life.

Punitive Theology is elementary, beginners theology.  It’s an easy solution, but not always prudent.  It only creates awareness, NOT growth, wisdom, or change.  If we want to foster Christian faith which can handle the complexity of real life, we have to help move others beyond frames of reference into revelations of who God is and what relationship with Him/Her really looks like…. we have to look deeper into the concepts and revelations of God’s words, not pick apart the meanings of the words themselves.

(All paintings by Salvador Dali…)

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