Why Is It Offensive To Speak Of God Punishing?

First published 27 September 2014

David Silvester is a local government councillor near Oxford in the UK, until recently representing the UK Independence Party. At the beginning of 2014 he (in)famously said in a letter to the Henley Standard, “Since the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, the nation has been beset by serious storms and floods.

“One recent one caused the worst flooding for 60 years. The Christmas floods were the worst in 127 years. Is this just ‘global warming’ or is there something more serious at work?

 “The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.”

The response from the media and some sections of the public was censure and derision. He was then expelled from UKIP and there was a petition asking him to resign his council seat. Most comment I heard at the time falls into the category of the secularist’s favourite way of dealing with religious (and especially Christian) outspokenness – name-calling!

Mr Silvester clearly considers himself a Christian and wants to make a public stand for God’s glory and the gospel of Jesus Christ, and because of that I consider him a brother and desire to stand alongside him in the gospel. The derision and contempt he has suffered do not in themselves indicate to me that his views are necessarily as wacky and misguided as they are made out to be.

But do I stand with him, echoing his remarks? Or do I stand with him as a Christian, whilst distancing myself from such “extreme” views? I think that Christians, especially in the UK, would be well advised to ask themselves these questions. Are we glad that someone has had the courage to speak up with clear truth, even though unpopular? Or are we embarrassed that such extreme words bring the church and the Christian faith further under the contempt of our neighbours, friends, colleagues and journalists?

The whole furore sparked two strands of thoughts for me, so I’ll consider them in two separate posts. I do want to consider whether he is Biblically right in what he says. And for Christians that question must be important, as it’s all about what God is like – the God which we claim to be the only real true God.

But first, I’m also intrigued by what underlies the reaction that he’s faced for holding those views. What are people reacting to? And why have people written him off with very little meaningful engagement with his beliefs?

I will admit that what I say is only based on personal observation, and not huge amounts of research. But it seems to me that what made David Silvester so unpopular was two things:

Whose rules rule?

First, his objection to gay marriage, which is not greatly tolerated at the best of times, had a slightly unique dimension to it. David Silvester has been thrown out of UKIP, whose MPs largely voted against same-sex marriage. So it wasn’t just his opposition to same-sex marriage that has caused the furore. He went two steps further, first by pointing out that God says that homosexuality is wrong, and second by claiming that God is willing to enact some ‘consequences’ on the whole nation for simply approving of it or turning a blind eye to it.

Lots of people have expressed opposition to same-sex marriage, even some practising homosexuals. However, to say that homosexuality is wrong is intolerable in the present cultural climate; and to say that it is something deserving punishment is clearly even more intolerable.

The Daily Telegraph reported (5 Feb 2014) that David Silvester had “deepened the rift… by calling on gays ‘to repent’”. That is what got him dropped from UKIP, which initially said that he was entitled to his religious opinions. The party were happy enough to oppose same-sex marriage, presumably on the grounds (valid enough) that homosexuals have legalised equivalent civil partnerships and therefore we don’t need to redefine marriage for everyone else. That doesn’t involve belief that homosexuality is wrong, that homosexuals need to repent, or that God has anything to do with it whatsoever.

So it appears to me that the main thing that made people angry about Mr Silvester’s remarks was that he suggested something was really and objectively wrong that they believe is right. They don’t like his suggestion that homosexuality is wrong when they think there is nothing wrong with it.

My Who’s Rules Rule? series examined the generalised form of this point. Suffice to say here that the point at issue between modern secular Westerners and their Christian contemporaries is just this – that today’s unbelievers cannot stand the Christian assertion that human beings (including individuals and governments) do not have the final say on what is right and wrong, and that being out of step with God’s laws has serious consequences in this life and the next. Today’s unbelievers want to make the rules themselves… in fact it’s their fundamental rule that no one else sets the rules but themselves!

The other thing I pointed out in those articles is that secular Westerners misunderstand what Christians mean when we say that something is wrong. Just saying something is wrong, and calling for repentance, does not mean that we hate people who do wrong things. So to talk of David Silvester ‘inciting hatred’ is grossly unfair. And when you think about it, the only hatred he actually incited is hatred of himself!

The God who interferes

Second, people don’t like the idea of God interfering with their lives, and particularly that God may be angry with them, because that implies that they are not in charge and have no influence in the rule of the universe. The thought is almost, “What right does God have to tell me what to do? I didn’t elect Him to rule over me! Who is God to interfere?”

Many secular Westerners may call themselves agnostic, because they can’t bring themselves to say for certain that there is no god. But they can only bring themselves to admit there may be a god if the god that may exist is powerless or disinterested!

The kind of god that they can tolerate is one who isn’t too fussy over his friends. He forgives without any cost, just because that’s what he does, and doesn’t mind if you ignore him your whole life. He’s just there to help out if you call on him, and will meet up with you after death to sort out something nice for you. That kind of god is one that they don’t need to bother with at any point in their life unless they feel they are in desperate need. He’s not going to intrude unless they ask him to. It’s kind of a ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ type of relationship. So it doesn’t really matter whether he exists or not.

The kind of god they definitely rule out is one who says they owe Him respect, reverence, worship and obedience; who tells them what’s right and wrong; is undemocratic; and threatens them with eternal consequences for disobedience… whether they acknowledge His existence or not.

Another way of looking at it is that people seem to be ok with religion if it’s a matter of choice. Well, they would be wouldn’t they?!  Some people choose one god, some people choose another, and some people choose none. If people choose a god and then don’t do as he/she/it says then they should be aware of the consequences. Saying that a god punishes his/its/her followers for not adhering to the rules of the religion makes sense, because the followers have made a choice to be under those rules. So secular Western thought has no problem allowing for the fact that some people have religious beliefs, and adhere to a religious creed or code. It’s just their choice.

However, in contrast, David Silvester’s God – the God that Christians believe in – is One whose rules must be obeyed, and Who must be worshiped and revered, by every human being. If people choose not to do so they will face consequences, both in this world and the next. His rules apply to all of humanity and not just Christians.

The gospel issue

So when David Silvester spoke of God punishing people who don’t believe in Him for doing things that they think they have the right to do (i.e. changing the definition of marriage), it touched the secular majority on their most sensitive nerves. Whether he was right or wrong to say that the recent floods are actually God’s judgment on a nation that has given its approval to homosexuality, in essence what the secular media and the public have really reacted to are the central truths of Christianity.

Christianity presents the one and only real God as the Creator of everything, the Owner, the Ruler, the King and the Judge. He sets the rules, and sets the consequences for transgression, and enforces them. God is not passive. He cares what all human beings do, as His special creations. He doesn’t need permission from us to be our Ruler and Judge. He has that on His own authority as the one who made, and who owns, the universe.

The point is really that God’s sovereignty over the universe, and His right to be the only One authorised to define what is good or bad for humanity, are the foundation truths of the Christian gospel. Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 8, “…we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

We should expect at least some unbelievers not to like it when we apply these truths and call attention to them. They conflict with their own basic principles – that morality is a matter of choice and that there is no higher authority than themselves.

But further, since we are called to ‘make disciples of all nations’ we should be aware that people will not appreciate their need of the love and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ if they don’t know why they need it. And they need it because they are sinners who have set aside the only real God in order to have their own way, and because God will not let that go unpunished.

So we should not be ashamed of talking of our great, holy God who sets the rules and enforces them, because that sets the foundation for presenting the good news of the way of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Was David Silvester mistaken? Not in speaking of sin. Not in calling attention to God’s displeasure at the rejection of His laws.

But was he mistaken in linking specific natural events with God’s displeasure over specific sins? To that we will turn next time, God willing.

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