In “God as Father on Father’s Day” I pointed out the incongruity between calling God the most perfect Father and ascribing to God punishing actions such as are described in Lamentations. Chris offered an interesting and fairly standard response: present that which is described as an intentional punishment as if it were in fact merely a natural effect of bad, sinful behavior. This is the way that many Christians attempt (unsuccessfully in my view) to explain the rise of carnivory in the animal kingdom as a “natural” consequence of Adam and Eve’s bad behavior. Even more notably, this is how many, many Christians try to explain hell: Hell is not a place of God actively torturing people. Rather, it is God leaving people to their own actions. (This too is unsuccessful given that scripture describes God repeatedly as punishing people actively in hell. Thus, I must conclude that such modes of response are really eisegetical exercises for the sensitive modern mind.)
Chris’s response to the Lamentations punishment text I quoted was similar: claim that it is properly interpreted as God leaving people to the natural consequences of their actions rather than punishing them. In the next two sections I’m going to recount our prior conversation (section 1) so that we’re all up to speed on the discussion. Then in section 2 I’ll offer a two-point rebuttal to Chris’ final alternative analogy. Thus, if you’ve already read the prior conversation in the last thread, you can drop down immediately to section 2:
In response to my focus on the Lamentations description of cannibalism of one’s own children as punishment, Chris began by asking: “What scriptures would you use to support that [God] punishes them by causing them to do this, rather than allowing human evil to run rampant?”
Chris, I didn’t say God “caused” people to cannibalize their own children. I said he punished them by orchestrating conditions that he knew would result in their cannibalizing their children. And for the evidence just look at the very passage I quoted: “The Lord has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations.” “The Lord himself has scattered them.”
Now here’s an illustration. Imagine that Jones punishes Smith by infecting Smith’s leg with gangrene. But Smith is the one who hacks off his own leg with a hacksaw. It is true that Jones did not cause Smith to amputate his own leg. But Jones did seek to punish Smith by establishing the conditions that he knew would lead to Smith amputating his own leg.
That’s essentially what the text is describing viz. women cannibalizing their children. Doesn’t that bother you?
Chris then asked me to explain further. So I unpacked the analogy more precisely:
God punished Israel for her unfaithfulness by having Israel be invaded by the Babylonians, knowing that this invasion would result in Israelite women cannibalizing their children. Jones punished Smith for whatever by having Smith’s leg be infected with gangrene, knowing that this infection would result in Smith amputating his own leg.
But it’s actually worse than that. Smith’s amputation of his own leg, foreknown by Jones, is actually part of Jones’ intended way of punishing Smith. And according to the understanding of Lamentations, the cannibalism of Israel’s mothers, foreknown by God, is actually part of God’s way of punishing Israel.
If you want to propose understanding the text in a different way in which the litany of horrors described unfolding in Israel are not a part of God’s active judgment, the onus is on you to do so.
Chris’s response to this was, to say the least, deflationary. After all that work he replies: “How about another illustration.”
Actually, how about not. I took a lot of time (close to twenty minutes, all told!) developing the analogy I presented. Rather than simply ignore it, Chris should say “This is the specific place where your analogy goes wrong.” Instead, he wants to dismiss it without argument and present another analogy.
Ordinarily, I would insist on principle that Chris first address the analogy I presented to demonstrate where it is flawed before he goes on to offer an alternative. (The one exception being if presenting an alternative analogy clearly demonstrates where mine goes wrong: but his doesn’t do this.) However, in this case I’m going to suspend that policy because it is just as easy to take apart his most recent analogy and offer a superior one, thereby modeling the way Chris should have responded to me.
Here’s the other illustration he offers:
Jones has a son named Jr. Jr is 18 years old and lives in a home provided by Jones. Jones supplies everything Jr could need, food , shelter etc. Jr is only required to live under the rules that Jones has established for his household. Jr decides to disobey Jones. Jr goes out and experiments with some drugs that Jones specifically outlawed knowing that if Jr experimented with them he would become addicted. Now Jones has previously warned Jr that using these drugs would result in being kicked out of the house. Jones knows that if he kicks his son out then some horrendous things will happen to Jr because he has seen what people do to each other when they are grouped together – especially people with this particular issue. He knows that if Jr continues and Jones kicks him out, and if Jr does not quit then when he is out on the streets it will lead to being robbed, beaten, raped and possibly even killed, and Jones has wanted his son about this, over and over again. However Jones also has a younger son in the house. Jones knows that Jr is a really bad influence on this younger son. So Jones follows through with his promises and kicks Jr out of the house, knowing what will happen to him if he does not quit and knowing that he has clearly warned Jr both of the consequences of his actions (being kicked out), and what will happen to him by others once he’s on the streets.
Randal, even though Jr is of age to make his own decisions and the consequences of his decisions have been made clear to him over and over again, yet Jr chooses to live the way he chooses, do you believe that Jones is now responsible and culpable for what happens to Jr, because Jones knew what would happen to Jr when he punished Jr, even though Jr was warned that he would be kicked out, he was warned of the dangers of being kicked out, and he was offered many opportunities to repent? Is Jones now not a loving father?
So basically Chris has presented in a narrative format his natural consequence interpretation of the Lamentations text. That is tantamount to repeating oneself while refusing to respond to the critique of the interlocutor. Regardless, here’s my response.
I’m going to respond to Chris’s analogy by pointing out two key points at which it is disanalogous. In doing so I’ll also illustrate the proper form Chris should have adopted for critiquing my analogy.
To begin with, Chris depicts Jones as protecting the younger morally innocent child from the older morally culpable child. That is disanalogous. Lamentations describes God punishing every Israelite from infants to the elderly, whether they were actively complicit in rebellion and sin or not (presumably infants were not). So to make Chris’s analogy work at this point, Jones would have to be casting out not only Jones Jr. but also his infant son.
Second, Chris’s analogy claims that all the negative consequences that befall Jones Jr. are simply natural consequences of his sinful behavior. What his analogy carefully avoids saying is what the biblical text clearly says: that many of the horrors which befall the sinful Israelites (including infants) are intended by God as punishments.
To make Chris’s analogy relevant at this point, he would have to argue like this: “Jones wanted to punish Jones Jr. for taking bath salts (the new street drug) and so he cast him out of the house with his infant brother, knowing that within a few days Jones Jr. would hallucinate under the influence of the bath salts and bludgeon his infant brother to death with a brick. Jones intended this action on behalf of Jones Jr. which he perfectly foreknew to serve as a natural punishment for Jones Jr’s rebellious behavior.”
There, adjust those two points and Chris’s analogy will be relevantly analogous to the Lamentations depiction. I trust I don’t need to underscore that once we make his analogy relevant the problem that I raised about describing God as a perfect Father returns perforce.
So how do we respond? Well, for starters you can bite the bullet and say that God is the perfect father even though he punishes people in this way. If you are going to argue this way you then have two options. To begin with, you could argue that God is disanalogous from human parents at this point. But in that case you’d have to justify your selective usage of the metaphor “Father”.
Or you could argue that God is analogous to good human fathers at this point, a fact which would require a significant challenge to common assumptions about what constitutes a good human father.
A very different response would avoid the problem by denying that this language about God actively punishing people should be read as an accurate description of God’s providential role in these events. They may have felt like punishments to the Israelites, but that doesn’t mean they were. This would involve an antirealist interpretation of at least some of this lament language. (I understand Jared to have suggested this kind of response.)
No doubt there are other options as well. But the point of this discussion is not to offer a comprehensive survey of possible responses. The point, rather, is simply to prompt Christians to go deeper into the very texts they profess as inspired by wrestling with their actual contents rather than either ignoring or misrepresenting them.