Thank you so much for your recent letter. I’m glad you’ve started going to the church I suggested. I do pray that things will start to become clearer for you, and you’ll begin to understand why Christians get so excited about what Jesus Christ has done.
I’m glad too that you’ve been reading your Bible, and already it’s helping you think through some vital questions. The particular issue you raised is perhaps one of the most difficult of all. I looked up the passage you mentioned, Deuteronomy 7:1-2:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations… and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
I should start by saying that I understand why you shudder at the sheer carnage that occurs in some Old Testament passages. I know too that when the Bible makes it explicit that at least some of the bloodshed was carried out at the command of God, you are inevitably left asking the question, ‘How can a loving God do this?’
The easy answer would be to say that in the New Testament God is loving and kind and merciful, and to suggest that you stop reading the Old Testament and concentrate on the New. But the easy answers are not usually the best answers, and in this case that’s a completely wrong answer! But let me encourage you. Although there are no easy answers to these questions, there are answers.
It’s harder than you think
We rightly look at 9/11, Rwanda, and the Nazi holocaust and instinctively know that these acts of man were unspeakably evil. We therefore struggle to make sense of how God’s total destruction of the Canaanites without mercy can ever be justified morally. I should point out that this kind of thing happened only at one particular period in Israel’s history. It’s not something that was repeated, nor something that will be repeated. But let me add something you may find surprising. I said earlier that the question you raised is perhaps one of the most difficult in the whole Bible. But there is another aspect to this that you might find even more difficult.
The awful fact is that the people who are mentioned in Deuteronomy 7 are still being punished at the hand of God – in hell. As you know, the Bible talks about both heaven and hell. Heaven is a glorious place where ‘God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning…’ (Rev. 21:3-4). But hell is very different, a place where ‘the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night’ (Rev. 14:11).
Deuteronomy 9:5 says it is ‘on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out.’ In 12:31 God warns the Israelites, ‘You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.’ In exactly the same way, God makes very clear that it is wickedness that sends people to hell (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
When the Bible speaks of the Canaanites, it is not speaking of genocide or ethnic cleansing. Instead, God was justly punishing a wicked people – a people who even murdered their own children in the name of religion.
Did God go too far?
But despite the severity of the crime, perhaps the destruction of the Canaanites still seems very harsh. From your letter, you wonder whether hell also seems too much of a punishment. Is it really fair to be punished forever just because you have sinned?
How do we decide what is fair or not? Either morality is fixed by God, or it is always changing according to the standards of the day. If it can change, what the Nazis did in WW2 could be justified – they defined a new morality and then operated according to those principles. We might not like the idea that it is God who decides what is right and wrong, but the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
Of course, if God took pleasure in suffering, then living in a world where He determined morality would be pretty horrible, too. So we’d better find out what God is like. In Ezekiel 33:11, God says ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ That hardly sounds like the words of a malevolent God does it? Then in verses 19-20, we read this:
If a wicked man turns away from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he will live by doing so… But I will judge each of you according to his own ways.
I wonder what you make of that last sentence, ‘I will judge each of you according to his own ways’, particularly when you remember that Jesus said, ‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees [the most outwardly moral people of His day]… you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 5:20). You see, the biggest problem that the Bible faces us with is not the fact that God punished the Canaanites. It’s not even the fact that He’s still punishing the Canaanites. The biggest problem is that we’re just like them, and we deserve to be punished too.
But perhaps you’ve spotted a difficulty. God says, ‘Turn from your evil ways.’ Have you ever tried? I know that you have. But, just like me and everyone else, you found it impossible, didn’t you? So the problem’s getting deeper. We deserve to be punished for our wickedness, but try as we might, we cannot escape it. We cannot change our hearts.
It’s here where we find perhaps the most stunning evidence about God in the whole of the Bible. You know John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.’ It tells us that God’s love is not something abstract, but something concrete; not something only spoken of but something proved. Have you ever read Romans 5:8? ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
This is God’s answer to this great problem. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ to die. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor. 5:21).
So is God just? He’s more than that. He’s gracious and merciful. God must punish sin, but in order to save us from the consequences of sin, He gave His only Son to die in the place of sinners. On the cross, Christ took the punishment that we deserve – if you like, He suffered our hell.
So, as the Bible makes clear, God justly punishes the wicked. He did it in Canaan, and He still does it today. But, at great cost – to Him, not us – He offers a rescue. In the Old Testament, pagans like Melchizedek, Rahab (both Canaanites), Abraham, Ruth, and others all believed and were saved. And today the same thing still happens. Sinners who deserve hell find mercy and forgiveness in the God who says, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!’
I’ll be praying for you as you think through these things. Please do keep asking questions and reading your Bible.
Yours in Christ’s name,