Is God Like the Terrorists?

February 20, 2015

** This article was originally posted by Dr. Adam Harwood on his website www.adamharwood.com and is used by permission.

Dr. Adam Harwood is: Associate Professor of Theology (occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology), Director of the Baptist Center for Theology & Ministry, and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary 

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For those who form opinions about blog posts after reading only the title and opening sentence, my answer is no.

Yesterday, I read a comment on social media which compared the actions of God, who casts some into hell, with the actions of ISIS terrorists, who burn their victims. The Tweet states, “I hope you won’t watch the ISIS burning video, but if you do, ask yourself: is God like the terrorists, or is God like the victim?”

I do not have a relationship with the author of that comment, but I follow him on Twitter because I appreciate his writings at Patheos. Since he is a doctoral student at a respected, evangelical seminary, I wondered if I misunderstood his comment. I asked for clarification, “Are you referring to the doctrine of hell?”

He replied: “Yes, but ECT (eternal, conscious torment) in particular.”

So, his comparison is:

  1. Terrorists burn people.
  2. In the traditional view of hell, God burns people.
  3. Therefore, in the traditional view of hell, God acts like a terrorist.

I have not identified the author of the comment, because I have no desire to engage in an online dispute. Instead, I simply want to reflect on the comparison he suggested.

I am aware of objections to the traditional view of hell, and present and critique the arguments of evangelical Universalists and Annihilationists in the Systematic Theology courses I teach at NOBTS. Universalists teach that God eventually saves all through Christ, and Annihilationists teach that God eventually annihilates the unrepentant. Although I have exegetical and theological reasons for rejecting their conclusions, I will not attempt to present those arguments in this post. Rather, I will simply identify with the traditional view of hell, which affirms that God’s final judgment entails the eternal, conscious torment of the unrepentant.[1] My goal in this post is to explain how it is consistent to simultaneously affirm hell as eternal conscious torment and to deny that in such a view, God acts like a terrorist.

First, all reasonable people (whether or not they affirm any major world religion) should regard the actions of ISIS terrorists burning humans alive to be morally repugnant. It is just and right to label the actions of the terrorists as evil and as sin for which they should repent and can be forgiven by God through Christ.

Second, comparing God to the terrorists fails to account for the radical differences between a holy and loving creator who exacts just judgment upon the unrepentant, and sinful and fallen people who inflict unjust punishment upon innocent victims. Affirming both God’s holiness and the authority of Scripture can lead us to affirm certain views which offend our sensibilities.

In Leviticus 10, Nadab and Abihu “offered unauthorized fire before the Lord.” The next verse states, “And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (verses 1-2, ESV). The deaths of these two sons of Aaron might seem harsh by our standards. But a reasonable interpretation of that story is that those men had weighty responsibilities in representing the people before a holy God, and God took their lives because of their sinful actions. Was this the action of a terrorist? No. This was the action of a holy God.

Consider also holy war in the Old Testament, when the Hebrew army was commanded to destroy certain groups. As examples, see Deut 13:15–17 and Joshua 6:2. Although Christians do not affirm holy wars or genocide, we also do not accuse God of acting like Hitler.[2]

Even in our legal system, the same action can be considered right when committed by one person but wrong when committed by another person. If I shoot a man without cause, that action would be wrong. But if a police officer shoots a man with cause, then the action would be regarded as justified. The same action is judged differently when it is carried out by different actors in different circumstances. Similarly, God and ISIS terrorists are different actors in different circumstances. God is holy and His ways are always just. Terrorists, like the rest of us, are not holy and their ways are sometimes corrupt. Christians affirm that God’s actions are just, whether we consider His taking the lives of Aaron’s sons, commanding the extermination of a group who lived in the Promised Land, or judging the unrepentant by consigning them to eternal conscious torment. None of those affirmations are pleasant, but they are all consistent with affirming both the holiness of God and the authority of His Word.

Many of us who read the Bible are persuaded that the parables and warnings of Jesus, along with other statements by New Testament writers, portray this future judgment of sin, death, and Satan, as including eternal conscious torment. And Jesus, who gave Himself for us, will one day justly judge the unrepentant. The comparison between the God of the traditional view of hell and the actions of ISIS terrorists confuses holiness and justice with sin and injustice.

The proper image of holiness and justice portrays Jesus, who died on the cross for our sin. Out of love, God provided for us what His holiness demanded, a perfect and human sacrifice for our sin. In this way, the God of the traditional view of hell is not like terrorists. Instead, He is the God of love, holiness, and justice.


[1] For a biblical-theological case for the traditional view of hell, see Hell Under Fire, ed. Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).

[2] See Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011) and Heath Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan, eds. Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013).

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Lydia

Whenever I come across this thinking, I always wonder about their view of justice. Is God just at all? And I wonder what they think human responsibility is in relation to eternal life? Is there any human responsiblity/choice? Can we live as evil thugs never repenting and expect eternal life with Christ?

I have an in law who was raised by a Universalist Methodist minister. Every holiday this Universalist minister would start in on “every knee will bow and confess and live in eternity with Christ”….schitck. I once asked him about an unrepentent Pol Pot or Stalin and he claimed we would be with them in eternity because God would change them. Forcebly, I suppose. It is just more determinism in my book.

Les Prouty

“Is God just at all?… Is there any human responsiblity/choice? Can we live as evil thugs never repenting and expect eternal life with Christ?”

Yes, Yes and absolutely no. Good points Lydia.

Bob Cleveland

Whatsoever God does is right. Period. If He to strike me with lightning and kill me, that was right to do. If a criminal electrocutes me, that must be measured against what God has said.

We measure man by what God has said. We measure God against no one.

    Lydia

    That does not sound like God expressed as Jesus Christ who was /is the full representation of God. It does sound like Pipers tornado god.

      Max

      Lydia, there you go again dragging Jesus into this! Have you noticed how much reformed folks talk about God, but with little mention of Jesus and hardly a word about the Holy Spirit?

        Andy Williams

        Seriously, who are you listening to? I’ve listened to a whole bunch of reformed, Calvinistic, etc. preachers over the last 15 years, famous, non-famous, live, and recordings…and they all talk about Jesus…a lot! I also have heard many of them speak of the Holy Spirit, albeit less…but that is generally a weakness that is true across the board of all non-charismatic Christians, not something unique to Calvinists.

        lydia

        Max, Jesus does not fit well with their focus and definition of Sovereignty nor their arbitrary view of God who by default consigns people to hell before they are born or Adam sinned. . I think the problem with the young restless and reformed types is that in their formative years including seminary they are not really influenced or encouraged by the Jesus paradigm as you and I might be because we are older. They dont see that the focus has changed as we see it. is is not something that can be proven to them. They will want to count the times a Calvinist has the name Jesus in a talk. Missing the point entirely. when they use the name of Jesus do they presented as Jesus the full representation of God.

        it is sad that the Holy Spirit is practically awol in that tradition. there is a reason for that. the Holy Spirit denotes individual soul competency as a Guide and Advocate. that does not work well in a top down authotitarian tradition like Calvinism.

          Max

          “It is sad that the Holy Spirit is practically awol in that tradition.”

          Actually, I’ve found that to be a problem with 21st century Southern Baptists – regardless of stripe. While the Holy Spirit may not be completely AWOL, we have certainly relegated Him to the back pew. Long before SBC’s current theological wrangling, we grieved and quenched the Holy Spirit – as evidenced by the prayerless and powerless condition of the saints. We don’t have enough spiritual power in most churches to blow the dust off a peanut! Good Lord, the Holy Spirit is not something to be confined to charismatic or pentecostal ranks! When was the last time you sat through an SBC Sunday School quarterly study on the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit? Or heard that preached accurately in a sermon series? When was the last time you saw a local body of Christ en-masse linger at an altar seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit on a church decision? Or repent and weep over grieving the Holy Spirit because of personal and corporate sin? Should we wonder why our members are so easily led astray and indoctrinated to the whims of the age when the Spirit of Truth is held at a distance by our rebellion? The Word (Truth) + Holy Spirit (Spirit of Truth) = Revealed Truth. Without the Holy Spirit, we act on human intellect not revelation knowledge. Sad thing is, we don’t even miss the Holy Spirit in most places … that’s why the teachings and traditions of men so easily set up camp in our midst.

          Your point about “soul competency” is right on. It appears that the BFM2000 revision diminished this doctrine, along with “priesthood of the believer” … two truths that were once prominent in traditional SBC life.

            Andy

            “Actually, I’ve found that to be a problem with 21st century Southern Baptists – regardless of stripe. While the Holy Spirit may not be completely AWOL, we have certainly relegated Him to the back pew. Long before SBC’s current theological wrangling, we grieved and quenched the Holy Spirit – as evidenced by the prayerless and powerless condition of the saints.”

            EXACTLY!

              Max

              ” … that’s why the teachings and traditions of men so easily set up camp in our midst.”

          Andy Williams

          1. I don’t know of any Calvinist who counts the number of times Jesus is mentioned, or any who denies Hebrews 1 & Colossians 1.

          2. I think you are conflating Presbyterian church structure, and historical puritan state-church systems, with the soteriology. They have often historically gone together, but not necessarily. Just because one sees a different view of election in scripture does not make them a power-hungry authoritarian, nor does it mean they don’t believe individual Christians can interpret scripture on their own, nor does it mean that they disregard the Holy Spirit.

          -Lest you think I’m being blindly defending one side, if a calvinist comes here and says that non-calvinists promote a human-centered religion, then I will defend you guys as well against that false accusation, but I think you are being unfair here.

          -There have been some excellent critiques of Calvinism written on this site over the last few weeks. Raising questions and issues with Calvinistic doctrines, their scriptural basis, their logic, their logical application, and their consistency are all valid critiques that should be raised. Saying that Calvinists ignore Jesus and the Holy Spirit is not.

            lydia

            . “I think you are conflating Presbyterian church structure, and historical puritan state-church systems, with the soteriology. ”

            and I think you are ignoring the fact that Mohler and the Founders have been trying to lead the SBC down that very road for quite a few years.

            it has been a joke in my neck of the woods for quite a few years that Southern Seminary is the real Presbyterian seminary here.

              Andy

              Not ignoring it, just saying not all who agree with some aspects of the soteriology agree with all the practices of visible leaders.

              (good joke…the conservative Presbyterians would probably agree, since the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary is pretty liberal)

                Lydia

                “(good joke…the conservative Presbyterians would probably agree, since the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary is pretty liberal)”

                Depends on what is meant by Liberal and Conservative. Those definitions are changing, too, in subtle ways. Nowadays, Trads are liberal Pelagians and the Calvinists are Conservative. Or, do you mean politically? I cannot keep up. The joke was concerning Mohler pushing Calvinism and a more Presbyterian style ecclesiology with pimply faced YRR “elders”. :o).

                The Presbyterian Seminary were my clients back in the day and absolutely wonderful people to work with and timely pays.

                  Max

                  “The joke was concerning Mohler pushing Calvinism and a more Presbyterian style ecclesiology with pimply faced YRR “elders”.”

                  I’m not laughing, Lydia … that strategy seems to be working. The old Founders-type Calvinists couldn’t pull it off with their “quiet revolution” … they needed the young and restless to make it happen. Reformed indoctrination at SBC seminaries was a brilliant plan, actually.

                  At this point in the blog stream, I’m not sure what our comments have to do with the topic “Is God Like The Terroists?” … but there is a lot that goes on in church these days that terrifies me!

                  Andy

                  1. I know what you meant. I was referring to the PC(USA) recent approval of ordaining homosexuals, and that the Louisville Presby seminary is on the progressive side of the PC(USA), or has been historically.

                  2. For Max, Don’t forget that each SBC church is free to ignore what goes on in the SBC…thankfully, our structure prevents national or state leaders from “terrorizing” us. “12 “Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. 13 The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, 14 and he will be a sanctuary;” (Is. 8:12-14a)

                  -Andy

                    Max

                    Great passage, Andy. Thanks!

                    And thank God for the free church which is free from State “and” denominational rule. It’s times like these that Southern Baptists are indeed blessed by the freedom they have in local church autonomy. “He will be our sanctuary” for sure … nothing to fear from within or without!

                Les Prouty

                “The joke was concerning Mohler pushing Calvinism and a more Presbyterian style ecclesiology ”

                As bleak as that may look for you, Mohler, et al are so far from Presbyterian ecclesiology I chuckle that they concern you. I think most of these churches that concern you are more like Charles Stanley ecclesiology than Presbyterians.

Doug Sayers

How does a “doctoral student at a respected, evangelical seminary” have such a low view of the biblical God? This forces me lose respect for the seminary. It’s probably good that you didn’t name the school.

O Lord I will praise you. Though you were angry at me, Your anger is turned away and You comfort me.

He that does not get angry at sin lacks enthusiasm for good. (+/- M Henry)

Thanks Adam.

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