What About Rewards and Punishments?

Contributed by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Psalm 97

The scripture passages provided in the lectionary for today generally emphasize the idea of God’s justice. This is certainly a central theme for Christians. It was highlighted in the North American “Social Gospel,” which was widely influential in my youth. It has been highlighted again by Latin American liberation theologians, and by other liberation-oriented Christians around the world. We become aware through their work of the extent to which we have acquiesced in profound injustices over the centuries.

If the passages assigned for this Sunday emphasized “justice” in this basic sense, I would have a title with no question mark. “God’s Call to Justice.” But there are other ideas associated with “justice,” which for Christians are more problematic. And it is just these ideas that are present in these texts. We read in Psalm 97 that fire goes before God and consumes God’s adversaries on every side.

Psalm 97 and others of today’s lectionary readings express an attitude that is deep seated among people in many societies. Bad behavior should, in one way or another, be punished. Good behavior should, in one way or another, be rewarded. In Judaism and its daughters, Christianity and Islam, God is the agent who punishes and rewards. In the traditions of India, punishments and rewards are built into the nature of things and called karma.

There are further differences. In early Judaism, as in this psalm, the rewards and punishments occur in the course of history, even quite immediately. Much of the literature in our Old Testament is warning people that if they continue to sin, disaster will come upon them and assuring them that, if they are obedient to God, they will be protected. The psalm before us belongs to this genre. Like most of this genre, the emphasis is on reassurance of the righteous. But the punishment of sinners is also affirmed. “All worshippers of images are put to shame, those who make their boast in worthless idols.” By contrast: “The Lord guards the lives of his faithful; he rescues them from the hand of the wicked.”

Implicitly, there is here, a call for us to act justly. Righteous behavior is required for us to receive God’s blessing. But the emphasis is on God’s justice in condemning the wicked and safeguarding the righteous. It is this note, frequently sounded in our scriptures, that is problematic.

It was problematic already for the ancient Jews. They noticed that events did not always occur as this teaching implied. Sometimes the righteous suffered and the sinners prospered. The most orthodox insisted that in fact those who suffered must have deserved it, but thoughtful Jews saw that the connection between virtue and happiness was far from assured. There were several responses.

Some affirmed, with Habakkuk, that they would be faithful to God’s call to justice regardless of consequences. This is closely related to the idea that righteousness is its own reward. Others looked to the historical future as a time when current injustices would be rectified. Still others decided that the just rewards and punishments would occur after death or, perhaps, at the end of history. For the most part, Christians and Muslims followed these directions rather than expecting that in this life the virtuous would consistently fare well.

Nevertheless, the older idea continues to play a large role. When evil befalls someone who lives a good life, she often cries out against the injustice. When religious people ask why something happens, they often want an answer that will show that it is part of a plan that will have a just outcome.

This expectation and deep-seated assumption would not survive if there were not much in life that confirmed it. A great deal of our suffering is caused by, or at least exacerbated by, our sinfulness. Some of this is obvious. People who are nasty to others become friendless, isolated, and profoundly lonely. Those who indulge their appetites excessively, often suffer health problems and psychological problems as well. They may become addicted in seriously disruptive ways. Obviously criminals, even if they are not caught, are unlikely to have emotional security. Many feel guilt about past sins.

In other cases the relation between sin and suffering is subtler and less direct. For example, one may act in ways that are successful in gaining an enjoyable popularity, but which erode one’s own integrity. That loss will color one’s own sense of oneself even if it fails to damage one’s public reputation. One may also worry that some day it will damage that reputation as well – even if it never does.

To take another example, the excessive desire for wealth, power, and prestige is, on the one hand, sinful, and, on the other, frequently disappointed. Furthermore, it is the sort of desire that is never really satisfied. However much one attains, one wants more. These are the idols whose worship never fulfills. An important part of virtue consists in orienting life to other goals.

I will not proceed further along these lines. Overall the connection between virtue and happiness, on the one side, and sin and unhappiness, on the other, actually does characterize our lives. The Jews understood that God orders the world in such a way that this is often, even usually, the case. If it were not so, we would not be so shocked and angry when we are hit hard by suffering that we have done nothing to deserve.

Nevertheless, my main point this afternoon is that a great deal of what happens in personal life and in history runs counter to this idea of earthly justice. Profoundly unjust institutions such as slavery lasted for thousands of years. No doubt slaveholders actually suffered from this institution, but slaves suffered more. Today those who profit from global capitalism are so far removed from those who suffer from it, that their peace of mind is hardly disturbed by the cruel consequences of the systems from which they benefit.

Often, even usually, those who work hardest for justice suffer in many ways. They are commonly reviled. Often they are jailed and humiliated. Frequently they see that, despite all their efforts, the injustice grows worse. Sometimes they are killed, and too often the killing is done in such a way that few know what has happened. Life offers no justice for them. Preaching from texts that promise divine protection of the righteous in the face of their suffering for righteousness sake is ironic, at best.

What can Christians say about such matters?  There are many for whom to have faith means to be confident that, despite the enormity of unjust suffering, the cause of justice will succeed. I have often sung “We Shall Overcome”. I am especially moved when I sing this with longsuffering Black folk. They have persevered for centuries against terrible odds. We sing together that we do believe that we will overcome some day. But I wonder whether I am being entirely honest. Do I believe that, because the cause is just, it will inevitably succeed?

Sadly, my answer is No. I deeply hope for this success. I rejoice in all the forward steps that have been taken, but I see also losses and backward movements. I see God at work in the struggle, and I hear God calling me to do what I can. But I also see demonic forces at work in the world and recognize the possibility that global disasters of unprecedented sorts may overwhelm us. My faith in God does not assure me that the cause of justice will win out in history any more than in individual life.

Many Christians have turned from this world to the world beyond for assurance of ultimate justice. We must take this seriously. But some of the formulations of this hope, including some in the book of Revelation – precisely those that accent the punishment of the wicked – hardly qualify as Christian at all. Christians are called to love our enemies. To rejoice in their everlasting suffering cannot be an expression of love. Perhaps any desire to see justice done, in the sense of desiring that the wicked suffer, is unchristian. And if so, surely, we cannot believe that it is God’s way.

I am glad to say that in the passage of Revelation included in our lectionary for today, the punishment of the wicked is not a matter of inflicting torments. The contrast is that, whereas the righteous enter the New Jerusalem, the sinners are left outside. We have here a picture of rewards. The punishment of the wicked is simply their failure to receive the rewards of the righteous. This is surely a more Christian view than the images of hell to be found elsewhere in Revelation and in so many Christian paintings.

But Christian teaching requires further revisions. Many Christians have taught that if we are judged by the standards of Jesus’ teaching, we are all sinners. None are part of a righteous group who deserve rewards. There are problems with the way this doctrine of original sin has been developed, but the general point is sound — none of us are in position to see others as sinful and ourselves as virtuous. Those of us who live approved lives and are generous and responsible know that circumstances have favored us in ways they have not favored most of those who end up in lives of egregious selfishness or crime. We suspect that in similar circumstances we might have responded as these criminals have done. Dividing the world into the virtuous and the sinful is itself a sinful act. Our focus must be on God’s universal love and on how God’s grace has worked in our lives. We can ask no further reward for that. If there is more blessedness to come, that, too, is grace.

In the New Testament, given the recognition that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, rewards and punishments based on moral virtue are often changed into the blessedness of those who believe the good news and the condemnation of those who do not. But that does not improve the situation. We know that there are many reasons for people not believing the gospel as they have heard it, some of them, commendable. There are other profound ways of ordering the religious life through which great values are attained. We know that God will not punish those who remain Buddhist or Muslim even when they hear about Jesus. They will, indeed, necessarily forego some of the special blessings that come to those who follow Jesus. They will have chosen other values.

What, then, of those who meet undeserved suffering in unmanageable portions?  Certainly, this is not punishment! It does not express God’s disfavor. But what more can we say?

We can say that God is with them in their suffering. God shares their suffering. We can say that, however bad the situation, God creates within it whatever avenues of good are possible. We can say that, because there is God, there is hope.

Our hope, however, is not for a final judgment at which rewards and punishments will be meted out according to our deserts. Our hope is for a final fulfillment of all. In Romans 8, Paul shares his vision of the glorification of all creation. I cannot imagine what that could mean in any literal sense, but I do see that it implies that we should love all and work for the good of all rather than judge others, whether for their actions or for their beliefs, and call for their punishment.

How, then, do we relate to those many passages in scripture that speak of rewards for the righteous and punishments for the wicked, whether in this life or beyond it?  We cannot read them as the gospel, but we need not simply reject them either. There is a deep truth, as well as a serious overstatement in these passages.

When we call others into a life of responsiveness to God’s purposes, we do not promise that they will then be free from suffering and sorrow. But we do believe that they can and will grow into a peace that passes understanding and a joy that is not quenched even by suffering. In this sense, we can say, God rescues those who truly worship God from the hands of the wicked. True, the wicked may still torture and kill the body, but they can win no ultimate victory.

“Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, and give thanks to God’s holy name.”