Hold On To The Good, Reject The Bad: Moving Beyond Retribution in The Bible

Sunday, October 07, 2012

I received this letter from a reader,

"I was first introduced to your writing with the Sojourners article early this year. Your blog has been very helpful and inspiring. Healing the Gospel was one of the healthiest theological books I've ever read. Even though I tend to agree with all of your sentiments in your book, I think it is even helpful for individuals who strongly disagree with you; due to your demeanor and thoughtfulness--your intentions and heart were apparent and that alone is capable of spreading light to others.

I enjoyed your treatment of Romans 1 and 6; and I resonate with the idea that God's wrath is essentially the natural consequences of sin, whether the sin is our own or other's. I was wondering if you have ever written on Hebrews 10:30 or 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7. In those verses, it seems as if the wrath/vengeance/payment is more of an active role, rather than a passive consequence. Those verses have been difficult for me to reconcile with my view of God's forgiveness and non-violence. I understand that justice is pain for the unjust, but the 1st Chapter of 2 Thess doesn't seem to scream out restoration and reconciliation. I want to take all of scripture in context, but now I find myself wanting to throw these verses out because they don't fit into my current theological framework (I don't see much Jesus in these words)."

- Geoffrey H.

It's a great question. For sake of space, I'll focus here on the passage from 2 Thessalonians. The key part Geoffrey is referring in verses 6-7 is this statement:

"For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you."

Here we have a classic statement of payback justice. An eye for an eye. Repaying hurt for those who hurt.

But didn't Jesus repudiate an eye for an eye in the sermon on the mount, replacing it with the way of enemy love?
So is this verse a contradiction to that? Is it promoting the very way Jesus rejected?

Let's take a look at the whole passage for context:

"We ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." (2 Thes 1:4-9, NRSV)


The first thing we notice is the violent language. "flaming fire, inflicting vengeance... suffer the punishment of eternal destruction." However we understand the phrase "eternal destruction,"--whether we understand that to mean eternal torment, annihilation, or something else--it is pretty clear that the audience is supposed to feel comforted knowing that the people who are hurting them are gonna "get what's coming to them." This is about appealing to people's desire for vengeance. So why would they feel that way?

If we look at the beginning of this passage, we read that the church in Thesselonia was undergoing persecution and oppression, "all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring." From this context we can make a few observations:

First, this is not an endorsement of people seeking violent retribution. Unlike the Old Testament which does seem to endorse people committing violence in the name of God, the NT consistently calls on followers of Jesus to not retaliate, to not return harm for harm. This is no exception. This is a letter to a persecuted church that is practicing non-retaliation and suffering as a result, helping them cope with that, encouraging them to stay the course of nonviolence.

That brings us to the second insight: What is said here is intended to be a comfort to them in their suffering. It was supposed to make them feel better to know that their enemies would suffer. It may shock and disturb us now--That's important for us to recognize, and I'll return to that in a moment-- But it was originally intended to encourage them.

For us to wrap our heads around this, it's important to understand the broader cultural context of their time: This was a world where compassion and humility were not considered to be character traits, but immoral weaknesses. The idea of payback justice was self-evident both to Greco-Roman thinking as well as to the Jewish mindset. Today we live 2000 years after Jesus, and a lot of his values have sunk in. Love of enemies is still counter-cultural today, but back then it was literally unheard of. This was an idea that originated with Jesus, and it flew in the face of everything their Greco-Roman and Jewish religious culture told them. It was considered crazy, blasphemous, scandalous, foolish.

Consequently, to their thinking, to go from "I want to kill you" to "I will trust that God will kill you" was a big step foreword. However, for many of us today it seems like a step backwards now. Once we really start trying to love our enemies, praying for them, "blessing and not cursing" as Jesus says, this results in our developing compassion for them. We come to desire their good, not their harm. We come to have the heart of Jesus.

Jesus tells us in fact that this love is a reflection of God's heart who is our model for enemy love, encouraging us to "be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect." God's "perfection" here, Jesus tells us, is seen in God's demonstration of enemy love. Paul says the same thing: "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:8).

So if we have a problem with this verse, it is not because we are rebelling against God. It is precisely because we have been following in the way of God in Christ, and because our heart has been changed to see things as Jesus does that we now stumble over this passage! What was intended as a way to help suffering people cope with their feelings of revenge, is now seen by us as making God look unlike Jesus. We have learned to embrace the way of Jesus, and believed that this was a reflection of God's true heart and character revealed in Christ. But this passage appears to say that God does not look like that, and does not follow the way of Jesus.

So we stop. We struggle. We question. And I think rightfully so!

After all, wasn't Jesus constantly questioning things like this? That's what got him in such hot water with the religious teachers. He even directly challenged commands like "an eye for an eye" (the very premise that this passage in Thessalonians is based on!) claiming that because God loves his enemies so should we. So, in contrast to what this above passage seems to say, Jesus says that there is not a double standard between how we are to act and how God acts. According to Jesus, God is the model for enemy love.

This passage also flies in the face of what Paul says. But wait a second, didn't Paul write this letter? Many scholars suspect that he did not, and one of the major reasons for this is that this passage just doesn't sound like something he would say. Typical for Paul is to present the "foolishness" of the gospel, to go against the cultural assumptions of payback justice, to promote the radical way of love over law, all in keeping with the message of Jesus. This passage doesn't fit with that. It doesn't sound like Paul, let alone Jesus.

But I don't think our criteria should be who said it. If we want to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did, this will involve questioning and wrestling with Scripture, no matter what the source. What I would propose is simple: We should evaluate all Scripture based on merit. As an example, let's look at something Jesus said and apply that principle:

Many people read the Sermon on the mount and understand it to be demanding us to do things that seem really hurtful: telling women to stay in relationships where they are being abused, telling people not to defend themselves, to not resist oppression, to not defend those who are being hurt or wronged.

As much as I believe in nonviolence and following that way of enemy love, I would say that if you are understanding the words of Jesus as wrong and hurtful and against your conscience, then you should not follow them. You should never do something that feels wrong or hurtful. Don't ever violate your conscience. That can cause irreparable harm.

Now I believe that I could intelligently articulate the application of enemy love in a way that would not mean submitting to oppression, but rather actively resisting it. Properly understood, enemy love is not about ignoring suffering, but actively working to alleviate it. But until you can understand this, understand how it is good and right, you should never simply blindly follow that way, even if it comes from Jesus himself. Because that can, and often has, lead to misapplying these principles, and thus promoting deeply hurtful things that are the opposite of what Jesus intended. That's what happens when we do things blindly. That's how the Pharisees read their Bibles, and why Jesus was so opposed to that way of reading.

Our priority needs to be on doing what is loving over blind obedience to commands. That is precisely the focus Jesus (and Paul) had. So we need to do things because they are good, and not simply because "those are the rules" or "the Bible says so" or even "Jesus says so."

Now let me stress here that I am not saying that we should simply do whatever we feel like doing. This is not a license for selfishness. My assumption is that we are trying to live our the way of Jesus the best we know how, not find an excuse to live out the values of Snooki from Jersey Shore. Paul councils us, "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Rom 12:2). As we live in the Spirit, as we develop in our relationship with God, we come to have the mind of Christ, we come to think and see like Jesus.

The key here is that we engage our brains and hearts, rather than shutting them down. We don't do things blindly (as if we don't know Jesus, and are just following a book). Rather, we seek to develop the mind of Christ so that we "will be able to test and approve what God’s will is." Note those words: test and approve. In other words, we can evaluate Scripture on its own merit.

That means that while we should not follow something that seems hurtful to us, we should however stay open to understanding it in a healthy way. So if Jesus' way of love of enemies can be demonstrated to make sense and work (and I am convinced it absolutely can), then we should follow it. If it can be demonstrated that Jesus' way of restorative justice does a better job at addressing the deep problems we have than the way of an eye for an eye, (and again we are seeing tons of evidence that this is true too), then we should apply it.

It's a very simple exegetical principle: Evaluate on merit. Test and approve. Follow what you understand. Remain open to learn and grow. Honestly, that's how most of us already read the Bible. We highlight and underline the parts that speak to us, and skip over the parts that don't. The major difference is that rather than doing this unthinkingly (and perhaps pretending we aren't!) I am proposing we do it purposely and intelligently, and with the intention of developing the mind of Christ and following in his way.

Consequently, when we run into a verse that strikes us as wrong (especially ones that seem to fly in the face of what we have learned from Jesus and his way!) such as this one in Thessalonians or the one that says that women should never teach men (which lots of scholars also doubt Paul wrote by the way), then we should apply that same test that we did to the Sermon on the Mount: We should evaluate it on its own merit.

We ask: Is it compelling? Does it help us love better? To act more like Jesus? To open our hearts to God in trust?

As I see it, this passage in Thessalonians fails those tests. Perhaps it did all of these things in its original context, as a way to help people steeped in a culture of retribution to cope with their need for violence. But it seems to do the opposite now. It pulls me away from Jesus, and tethers me to the very broken way of seeing the world that Jesus was trying so hard to help us all move away from. It's a good step forward for those who are still stuck in the thinking of payback justice, but it pales in comparison of the God revealed in Christ.

If we can allow that the people who wrote the Bible were human like us, that they (like us) were not immune to their own cultural blinders, that they (like us) had different levels of insight into the depths of Christ's love and way... then we can look for the good in what they wrote, and pass over the not so good.

As Paul says in his (undisputed) 1st letter to the Thessalonians,
"Test everything. Hold on to what is good. Reject what seems bad"
(1 Thesselonians 5:21-22).

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At 11:41 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Brilliant piece, Derek. And so reasonable. Thanks!

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you do with those verses in the sermon mount? What's the correct understanding for them?

At 3:30 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Derek, I think the difficulty with this passage is a purely western theological conundrum. From an Eastern Orthodox perspective, it means something different than how you have interpreted it. The difference is subtle, but powerful. Verse 9, from an Orthodox perspective is almost universally mistranslated in English versions which reflect a Western theological bias and are rooted in translation histories that do not trace back to the Greek-speaking Fathers of the early Church. Where the NRSV translates "*separated from* the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." this is more properly translated "proceeding out from . . ."! In other words, this is just another affirmation of the punishment of sin as the *natural consequences* intrinsic to sin. If you consider what sin and its effects upon the soul really are and then understand a little of what it might be like as an unrepentant sinner to be utterly exposed for what one has become in the full and unveiled Presence of a God who is utterly and unspeakably HOLY in His love--Whose unspeakably tender mercy and will to forgive are inviolably pure--you might begin to understand what this passage is really pointing to. The Orthodox address "The River of Fire" by Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros speaks precisely to this issue. In context, this is simply a buttressing of the faith of the persecuted with the very necessary affirmation of the moral ordering of a universe of Whom God is the Sovereign Lord.

At 6:36 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"What do you do with those verses in the sermon mount? What's the correct understanding for them?"

Very important and challenging question. I deal with this broadly in the last chapter in my book. I'm also working on a forthcoming article dealing with this subject in detail. Besides that, I have found the work of Walter Wink quite helpful in fleshing this out.

At 6:50 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Grace,

I like were you are going with this. Since I can read Greek, I understand what you are saying about that one Greek word, but there are several other parts from this passage that we would also need to deal with in addition to that. In particular, the phrase "repay with affliction those who afflict you" is quite problematic since it is a classic expression of an "eye for an eye" logic attributed to God. So as I said, I like where you are going, but I think we need more of that here to really pull us out of the pit so to speak.

This brings up an important point though: Many times we will learn about a way to understand a verse in a different way: For example we may learn that the Greek does not mean what we thought, and it is a mistranslation (as you are suggesting here) so we can then say "Ah ha!" and solve the whole problem.

However, since most Christians can't read Greek, they need to rely on experts to tell them that. So what I am proposing is that in the meantime we all can say "wait, this seems to really contradict what I know from following in the way of Jesus and developing his mind and heart." That initial "Hey, wait a minute!" can then cause us to do some digging where we then find out information (like an alternate Greek translation that clears it up).

The point being: we can find stuff out when we dig, but this is how we have the initial impulse to do that digging in the first place. Even if we do not find that, we still can recognize something as problematic and legitimately wrestle with it. So we can benefit from expert's insights, but we are not dependent on them.

At 8:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with some of what you said. I don't believe there is a double standard however when we are dealing with God. God sees all of reality and we do not. As God He has rights and prerogatives that His creatures do not. There are ways we are to be like God and ways we are not. We cannot be like God in every way. He alone is God. Some people think that in forgiving and letting go of anger and bitterness that you must then let go of justice too. But this simply isn't true. One can forgive and love someone but still persue justice. God is the avenger not me. He says, Vengeance is Mine. Whatever situation I'm going through I can always trust that God will work it together for my good in the final outcome. Trusting in God's wisdom breaks the bondages of frustration and bitterness and opens up my heart to love and forgive and to seek justice if I want to. Motivated by God's love to persue justice in the hope that it will bring about repentence in the wrong doer is what I'm referring to here. God often times works this way in the Bible with His children. He will mix His mercy and grace with His justice for disciplinary purposes. Whatever the case I can rest assured that the final outcome will be for my good and this gives me hope and the assurance of love which motivates me to forgive and seek justice. When Jesus was in the garden He prayed to God, "Not my will but yours be done". Jesus trusted in the Father and His infinite wisdom and love. The Bible tells us that it was by the joy that was set before Him that Jesus endured the cross. It was the joy of purifying His bride and being exalted at the right hand of the Father. It was this love and joy that motivated Christ's obedience. It was this joy that sustained Him. When I repent, confess my sins, and daily embrace Christ as Savior and Lord His blood bought promises are mine. As we can see, faith is future oriented but it is experienced in the present. When my future is in the hands of an infinitly wise, all-powerful, all-holy God who promises to work all my circumstances together for my good, hope and love rises up and lifts me up out of the dump I sometimes find myself in. Spiritual depression, anxieties, frustrations, etc., etc., are broken as I am motivated to do good. True faith produces good works. Remember, it was the joy that was set before Christ that He endured the cross. This is what sustained Him. His obedience came from trusting and relying upon the Father. The power I need comes from faith and reliance upon Him. In this way I keep from boasting in my own accomplishments. When I rely on God and trust in His infinite wisdom to run things pride is also broken. I am motivated by love to forgive, do good deeds, and persue justice. I'm not saying I'm perfect. But I pray, "Lord I believe, help my unbelief".

At 8:59 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Derek, I understand the verse about "repayment" in much the same way as I understand the Scripture that says "'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." I understand this pretty much in the same way as I understand the "wrath" of God. All of this is to be understood as underscoring the reality of natural consequences of sin.

But, to be honest, I'm not really relying on Greek or experts in Greek, so much as reading Scripture as a member of and in the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church:


At 9:25 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes God is certainly different than we are, but that means that God is more moral than we are, not less. God looks more like Jesus than we do, not less.

At 9:37 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


I appreciate that the EO tradition has a lot to give, but they are not infallible. They are a human institution that is susceptible to sin just as all human institutions are. They are not immune, and we can see this throughout history, right up to the recent headlines with Pussy Riot where the Russian Orthodox church has become a puppet of state sponsored oppression.

So while it is good to learn from the wisdom of our traditions (and I have learned a great deal from the Orthodox tradition!) we also need to have a way to be critical of its faults and failings, just as we should seek to be aware of our own individual limitations and blind spots.

So the bottom line is that questioning is a good and healthy part of our faith. There is no way around that. We might wish that we could find a way to have certainty--either through the Bible (Protestantism) of thru tradition (Catholic, Orthodox)--but these always fail.

What I want to propose is that vulnerability is good. Openness to our being wrong is good. Questioning is good. It is part of what a healthy and mature faith looks like.

At 6:28 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

There is plenty of criticism of Orthodox institutions from *within* the Orthodox fold (and with good reason). For example, Alexander Schmemmen's "Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy" doesn't sugar coat Orthodox history. But Orthodox *institutions* and Orthodox "Tradition" are not synonymous in Orthodox thought. It's an important distinction.

At 9:08 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Continuing my last comment, Derek, obviously you are Protestant and I am Orthodox, so we are not going to agree about the supposed fallibility of what you call Eastern Orthodox "tradition." There are indeed many EO "traditions" (small t). I'm not talking about those per se. I should also clarify that like so many other Orthodox, I have found Orthodox Christians and clergy as well as Orthodox institutions to fail (and to do so on many occasions rather spectacularly--much more so than many of the Evangelicals I've known!). I have NOT found Orthodox Tradition (cap. T) to fail. Orthodox define "Tradition" as Christ in His Church, and we find Him to be manifest in the Liturgy, dogma, "Ecumenical" Councils, and Saints of the Orthodox Church--and, of course, in the Scriptures, especially as they are as they are used and interpreted in the EO Liturgy. This would probably be similar to a Protestant recognizing that though Christians in the Protestant traditions can fail, this does not negate what you consider to be the "essentials" of the Christian faith and the basic truthfulness of Christ, as God the Son incarnate and the gospel of salvation through Him. What you may not realize is that all Christians (not just Orthodox and Roman Catholics) come to the Scriptures through a tradition of sorts as well. No one reads Scripture in a vacuum. It's unavoidable. We all have filters. Even the "Sola Scriptura" of most Protestants is a filter (and from an Orthodox perspective, this is an unscriptural filter!). I have come to believe--and it is my experience at this point--that only Orthodox Tradition will result in a consistently cohesive matrix through which to view the Scriptures that will also not impede in any way a true experience of Christ.

At 11:16 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I don't think I'm really understanding how you are using the term "tradition" as distinct from institutions or people and synonymous with Christ. Does tradition=Holy Spirit in your view?

At 9:57 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Derek, thanks. Yes, Tradition=Holy Spirit manifest in the Church is how the Orthodox understand this. Where we may differ from Protestant denominationalism is that we see the manifestation of this as necessarily embodied in time/space through the Eucharist of the Church in a continuous sense (and manifest in Her Creed, Liturgy, Saints, etc.) and not merely "invisibly," which ultimately boils down to only in concept or in abstract, divorced from the reality on the ground where there are obvious sacramental divisions, or sacramental participation is divorced from real doctrinal unity around the meaning of that sacrament. From an Orthodox perspective (which is always rooted in the real--not the conceptual), this must be true or Christ's promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church has failed (obviously, an impossibility).

That does NOT mean, however, that Orthodox believe that "Tradition" is simply contiguous with the membership, hierarchy, and institutions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. There are obviously many instances and many members (including members of the hierarchy) who at any given point in time are *in* the Church, but not *of* Her.

At 9:57 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

(cont.) As Blessed Augustine (of Hippo) famously said: "How many sheep without, how many wolves within [the Church]!" But that quote alone reveals a difference between Augustine's understanding of "the Church," which was fully Orthodox, and that of modern Protestants, most of whom seem to have adopted some version of the modern World Council of Churches' definition of the "universal Church" as necessarily "invisible" and from which it was understood anybody who sincerely professes Christ, and practices "baptism" and the "eucharist/Lord's supper" (regardless of the disparity between how these are defined and practiced--potentially, and sometimes manifestly, rendering their meaning radically different from one Christian tradition to another) is to be considered a member of the "universal Church."

This "lowest common denominator" approach to understanding "the Church" is foreign to the NT, which understands the Church to be Christ's very Body "the fullness of [Christ], Who fills all in all" (Eph. 1:22-23). Accordingly, in EO belief Christ is not reducible to a lowest common denominator. He is obviously not contiguous with everyone who simply calls him or herself a "Christian!" Neither is He simply contiguous with everyone who is a formal member of the EO Communion.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

(cont.) There are many aspects of contemporary Orthodox institutions that are in obvious disorder vis-a-vis the historic norms and canons of the EO Church. But, here's the thing--the norms and canons that are the measuring stick to determine this are all there still intact in their fullness within the EO Church. The measure is the very fullness of Christ Himself!

Significantly, this also means that there may indeed be those *not* visibly within the EO Church (or even any Christian church!) at a given point in time, who in the Eschaton when the Kingdom of Christ will have come in its fullness, will indeed be found to be *of* Her. Christ alone knows who are His, and Orthodox refuse to judge this before the time (and if any Orthodox gives you a different take on that, they do not properly represent their own Tradition!). That is why Orthodox refuse to adopt a view that would simplistically say formal membership in the EO Church=salvation, and formal non-membership=damnation. That is *not* what Orthodox believe.

Speaking for myself, personally, obviously, I see Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in many outside the EO Church. I can even say with perfect sincerity that there are many of such people I fully expect to have a much better defense before the "dread Judgment Seat of Christ" in the form of the lives they have lived by the help of the Holy Spirit (and in the terms of the last Judgment described by Christ Himself in Matthew 25), than I do! I just don't buy into all of the philosophical and theological constructs and assumptions of their churches and many of the assumptions they have about how the Scriptures are to be interpreted.

Sorry for somewhat highjacking this thread, but I hope this has been helpful!

At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that was a good explanation. I completely now understand being in the church not of the church. We are all of the church in your eyes but those regulars are in the church.

I had my Southern Baptist preacher daddy reach this and he wasn't impressed theologically and said we (he and I have differences) I've been sending him each blog as it comes out hoping for a discussion. I never get one. I keep hoping our Seminary backgrounds would lead to some discussion because I so enjoy this blog and studying the information. I believe in a fluid Bible and the Holy Spirit speaking today, but some people being so caught up in the old stories or old prophecies that they miss the Holy Spirit speaking today to the new prophets and women and engaging us in debate. He's given us so much information to discuss and we just miss it. Thank you for this blog. It's great that we have this outlet. I appreciate your insight.

At 10:39 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


That was very well said. Probably the best articulation of the EO understanding of tradition I have ever heard in fact. You are an excellent representative of the EO church, and I'm glad you are participating here.

grace always,

At 10:43 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Rebecca, welcome!

At 2:17 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Derek, thanks for the kind comments. I'm indebted beyond what I can express for a lot of my understanding to Fr. Stephen Freeman, a priest (also a convert from Protestantism) of St. Anne's Orthodox Church in TN, who has a wonderful blog to which I linked above. Also, Bp. Kallistos Ware's book, The Orthodox Church, (with which you may be familiar) is a very good primer for getting an overview of the EO Church, her teachings and history. His companion volume, The Orthodox Way, is even better for an introduction to Orthodox spirituality. Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church, also has some excellent expositions of Orthodox teaching available in English. He has regularly visited the U.S. and has recently begun dialoguing with Evangelicals. With your particular interests, you might find his work on Christ's descent into Hades and also on the life and teachings of St. Isaac the Syrian especially interesting.


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