“If it’s unjust for God to take 32,000 lives, it’s also unjust for God to take two”

Fellow UMC pastor John Meunier tries to make sense of Adam Hamilton’s “Bucket Three,” about which I preached a couple of weeks ago, and is no more successful than I’ve been. To refresh your memory, Hamilton has designated certain scriptures as “never fully reflecting the timeless will of God.” These are what he calls “Bucket Three” scriptures.

Meunier got into a Twitter discussion with Hamilton on the subject recently. One of the scriptures that Hamilton says belongs in Bucket Three is Numbers 31, in which Israel exacts God’s judgment against the Midianites. God commands widespread killing. (Hamilton says 32,000 women and children were killed, although I’m not sure how he arrives at that figure. Unless I’m mistaken, the 32,000 in v. 35 refers to people who were taken captive—not that it affects my point.)

Meunier argues that we can’t separate Jesus from the God of the Old Testament because God is a Trinity: what God the Father wants, God the Son also wants.

I agree. As I posted on Facebook:

Excellent post, John. I’m sure Hamilton would say that the Third Person of the Trinity failed to properly inspire or guide the writers of the Old Testament for those Bucket 3 scriptures. Very unsatisfying answer, to say the least. Moreover, applying the “Jesus filter” (or, as Andrew Wilson put it recently, the “Jesus tea-strainer”) fails to appreciate Jesus’ many endorsements of God’s violent judgment both in the OT and in future judgment. Most of what we know of hell comes from the lips of Jesus, after all—take, for example, the sheep and the goats of Matthew 25, for one example. Is that Bucket 3? Does much of the Book of Revelation get filtered out, too?

And what about God striking poor Ananias and Sapphira dead in Acts 5? Is that Bucket 3? Logically, whether God strikes down 32,000 (through human agents) or 2, the principle is the same: God has the right to take life (or command life to be taken), even when we don’t in most cases. That’s why his ISIS analogy is wrong. Surely Hamilton can see the difference. 

Or, to put it another way, if it’s unjust for God to take 32,000 lives, it’s also unjust for God to take 2. Beware of “sum of suffering” arguments, as C.S. Lewis rights warns: no one suffers 32,000 deaths. One person suffers only their own death. The worst suffering in the world is the one person who suffers the most. Everyone else experiences some fraction of that suffering. 

Besides, when I read these passages about God’s judgment against sin, I usually think, “That’s what I deserve! That’s what my sins deserve! Thank God that God loved us so much to come to us in Jesus and take away my sins on the cross!” 

If it’s unfair for God to judge and punish sin, then what’s left of the gospel? I’m not saying that Hamilton believes this, but I don’t think he’s thought it through.

19 thoughts on ““If it’s unjust for God to take 32,000 lives, it’s also unjust for God to take two””

  1. Liberals/Modernists are forever thinking that they must apologize for a Sovereign God. “My God wouldn’t do that”, is their usual retort.

  2. PS: I find this discussion refreshing. Encouraged that there are so many “fundamentalists” out there. 🙂

    1. I’ve been called that recently! And a “literalist.” Someone also implied that I “worshiped the Bible.”

  3. It’s the Word of God. He is the WORD of God.
    Not a bad thing to be accused of IMO.

  4. I totally agree with your statement that God must have the right to judge and punish sin to make sense of the gospel and most all of scripture. The only “tricky” part is the death of “innocents” in the process. Of course, on one level there is no such thing as “innocents.” “All have sinned.” James indicates that failing to obey the law in one aspect is equivalent to disobeying the law altogether.

    But there still seems to be a principle of “proportionality” of punishment as relates to sin. Hence the differing punishments for violations of the various commandments in the Pentateuch. So, what can “justify” the killing of babies when total “extermination” of a “people group” is ordered by God in the OT? I do find this to be somewhat puzzling, but I have a couple of ideas about it.

    First, as I (and you) have said before, eternity is the ultimate key to the “fairness” of various earthly scenarios which seem unjust from an earthly perspective. (Which, incidentally, supports my view that people must be treated differently in eternity from other people, not just all in heaven equal to each other and all in hell the same.)

    Second, I also have a view that some people refer to as “middle knowledge” (but which I thought of before I heard of that nomenclature), which is that God puts people where they end up being in this life depending on what he foreknows their hearts will be like. Thus, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated before they had done anything either good or bad.” I don’t read that as a support for a predestination interpretation that God unilaterally selects whomever he will for whatever he wants, but that he foreknew what Jacob and Esau’s hearts would ultimately be like so he “selected” them to be brothers whereby Jacob would receive the birthright and blessing. Similarly with raising up Pharaoh to stand against Moses (same passage). Thus, “For whom God did FOREKNOW, them also he did predestinate….” Long way around to say that as to the babies of the Canaanites, God may have foreknown what they would have turned out to be like had they lived long enough, and therefore was “justified” in having them killed even without regard to the “eternal accounting.”

    1. God’s “middle knowledge” is a powerful apologetic argument. My understanding is that if someone doesn’t receive Christ and goes to hell, it’s because God knows, by his middle knowledge, that that person would have rejected Christ in any possible world. God places everyone in a particular point in history to ensure the choice they would have made in the “best possible world” for them. Therefore the question about those who’ve “never heard the gospel” (the age-old problem) becomes irrelevant. God knows they wouldn’t have been saved in any conceivable world. Is that about right?

      So, as you say, God knows that that baby wouldn’t have been saved under any other circumstances and arranged to have the child in that particular place and time.

      I’ll reserve judgment until I study it some more. Apologist William Lane Craig is probably the most popular defender of this idea, usually call Molinism.

      1. Jesus’ statement in Matthew 11:21 completely busts this theory of God’s “middle knowledge” for me. What do you think?

      2. Maybe so, although it is literally a “middle knowledge”-type statement: here’s what would have happened under other circumstances. But William Lane Craig is no dummy. I’m sure he’s discussed that verse before.

        Maybe Tom has some thought about it?

    2. And one final thought: I much prefer thinking it through like this—like speculating about God’s middle knowledge—to simply saying, as our most famous Methodist pastor says, “The Bible must be wrong!”

  5. I’m having a bit of difficulty with the this “middle knowledge” concept. Seems to me to be a convoluted way to deny predestination. If God knows every inclination of your heart before He created you, what’s the difference? He chose how he would create you. No one molecule exists outside of his control. He is the potter and we are the clay. ???

    1. God’s “middle knowledge” is part of Molinism (as distinct from Calvinism and Arminianism), which attempts to reconcile God’s sovereignty with human freedom. God knows, for example, that a Hindu living in a remote part of India, untouched by the gospel, who dies without knowing Christ, would have rejected the gospel even if he had lived in an active, churchgoing family in the Bible Belt of the American South. God arranges to put people in a particular place and time in history that “confirms” the choice they would have made in any other place or time.

      I think it’s an interesting intellectual exercise, which holds some apologetic promise, but I’m not endorsing it. I’m an Arminian, as you know. But even more, I’m committed to the truth of scripture. So, like Karen, I agree that Matthew 11:21 is a contradictory verse on its face. But Christian thinkers I respect, like William Lane Craig, have surely considered that verse and have found some way to reconcile it to their Molinist belief. I would have to study the subject more.

      I know that Tom Harkins likes “middle knowledge.” Maybe he can chime in?

      1. Whether I fit into any category of “middle knowledge” or “Molinism” I can’t really attest to. However, what I believe is that God had “options” that were available to him in deciding what universe to create (speaking somewhat anthropomorphically). For example, he could have created a universe which was essentially heaven to start with–no sin, no pain, no punishment, etc. Speaking somewhat derogatorily, I might refer to this universe as the “robot” universe, since despite being in “bliss,” people would have no “option” but to do as God “directed.” As an alternative, he could create a “love” universe, one where people would have the opportunity to respond “Yes” or “No” to God from their own hearts. Love being the summa bona of all “goods,” and not available in the “robot” universe, God “selected” the love universe. However, since God is omniscient, he knew who would end up saying “Yes” or “No” to his love overtures. He would not, did not, and does not “force” anyone to do one or the other (which would, of course, defeat the very universe he intended to create). (Since omnipotence means that God can do whatever he chooses to do, consistent with who he is, we must assume God could create a love universe–i.e., create free choices). So, God created a universe where people could choose, but he already knew that in doing so, some would say “No,” and he would know in advance who would say “Yes” and “No.”

        At the same time, God had “plans” for how history would proceed, including most specifically the redemption plan (necessitated by the fact that even those ultimately saying “Yes” would do so “imperfectly,” i.e., a “more or less” affirmative response, creating sin on all our parts, which needed to be pardoned and atoned for). So, since he foreknew the types of hearts, he was free to put people where he chose in history to not only accomplish his plans, but also allow the state of those hearts to become “manifest.” As scriptural examples, God placed Pharaoh as against Moses, Jacob as against Esau, Jesus as against Judas (and many others), Again, all chose as their hearts directed (“For out of the heart come the issues of life,” etc.), but they did so at the “place and time” that God put them in history to accomplish God’s purposes.

        So, what about Matthew 11:20-24? First, let me say that there are NO theories of human choice that do not present some scriptural difficulties, whether predestination, Wesley’s theology, or my variety of Molinism. So having some one passage that “gives reason for pause” is not determinative. Second, note that Jesus says “MORE tolerable.” In other words, all the “groups” will be judged and found wanting, but those who heard Jesus preach and saw his miracles would bear even greater guilt because of having the message (and MESSENGER) and evidence that God was miraculously present clearly presented to them. Third, we have to consider what type of “would have repented” Jesus is speaking of. For example, both Ahab and Manasseh are spoken of as having “repented” to some degree or another when the “boom” was being lowered against them. However, I have no expectation of Ahab being in heaven (less sure about Manasseh)–their repentance was not of the type that had salvific quality (more tolerable, but not moving into the fold). Hence, Sodomites might have had the good sense to “be amazed” at Jesus and “change their ways,” without necessarily moving to salvation itself. Consider as an example Simon the sorcerer, who “believed and was baptized,” Acts 8:13, but to whom Peter said, “You have no part or share….” Acts 8:21. (I might note, though not as strong of a “proof,” that even the devils “tremble,” whereas some from Jesus’ day did not have the good sense to do even that.) Therefore, I don’t find the reference to Sodom by Jesus to be ultimately inconsistent with “Molinism,” or my “variety” of it. Thus, I ultimately find my view as more “satisfactory” than the other options, though not without a puzzle or two of its own.

      2. Very well said, Tom. (That first paragraph warms my Arminian heart!) I agree with you that any system purporting to do justice to the biblical dynamics of sovereignty and human freedom can’t be defeated by one verse. If so, Calvinism and Arminianism are at least equally susceptible.

        I like your defense of Matthew 11—especially understanding (if I recall correctly) that you see hell as having “levels.” There’s no reason to believe that the people of Sodom or Tyre or Sidon would have been saved even if they had repented of particular sins. Repenting of sins isn’t the same as placing our trust in Jesus, confessing him as Savior and Lord.

  6. Well, the part of what Tom says that rings truest to me is:

    “… there are NO theories of human choice that do not present some scriptural difficulties, whether predestination, Wesley’s theology, or my variety of Molinism.”

    Every time I try and fit myself into one, I find contradictions. Therefore, I am inclined to believe the Bible, which says there are things of God, which he does not intend for us to know.

    I do know that I “know my shepherd’s voice” when I hear it in the words of Jesus. I do feel “chosen”, but I have no idea what he could see in me to “deserve that”. Nor do I have any idea why so many very smart and good people don’t “hear or see” what we hear and see.

    I really enjoy the speculation, however, I don’t imagine that we really approach any real understanding. As Luther said, salvation is by faith alone… Fortunately, that’s wonderfully sufficient.

    1. Grant, I really like this comment and think I land pretty much where you do. Speculation from my perspective is necessary because we, as rational beings, need to work these things through in our own minds, but I hate to see speculation which does not really fit all the biblical data end up as somebody’s systematic theology. Invariably, it seems to me this provides as big a hurdle to faith for some as it makes (a version of) “faith” understandable for others.

  7. I wholeheartedly agree.

    Two of my favorite verses in this regard:

    “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all else will be added..”
    “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

    God wants for us to be seekers; and in seeking to be finders. He seeks us and makes himself known in so many ways.

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