Is God Out to Get Us?
(or How the Book of Job Undermined the Retribution Doctrine)
By Neil Earle
The Retribution Doctrine – what’s that?
This is the theological idea that God has infallibly arranged the universe so that he instantly punishes the wicked and just as quickly rewards the doer of good deeds.
It uses Scriptures such as Job 20:5 (“The exulting of the wicked is short and the joy of the godless is but for a moment”) to show that God’s justice is relentless, inescapable and smacks a lot of revenge. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” is another text.
“Life isn’t fair”
Yet somehow in our day-to-day living we know this doesn’t always ring true. Stuff happens. Boot-lickers get the promotion and the not-so-dumb blonde gets the raise. A class gets punished for the misbehavior of one. Innocent victims of fires and hurricanes stand around lost in the cold while semi-crazed dictators starve their people for military advantage.
An attentive reading of Job shows that this distraught patriarch is suffering horribly and innocently. His whole experience seems to gainsay the neat clear-cut promises of the Law that “I have set before you life and death, blessings and coursings. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Some of the prophets repeated the same all-or-nothing rational-sounding dogmatic approach: “If you are willing and obedient you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword” (Isaiah 1:19-20).
Yet Job seems to fly in the face of Biblical tradition when he lashes out with “The tents of robbers are at peace, and those who provoke God are secure” and “he destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (Job 12:6; 9:22).
A Balanced Perspective
It's hard to fault Job's painful outbursts. He lost all 10 of his children in one day’s hurricane and his business success is annihilated just as swiftly. Fire and robbers have done their part. He himself is allowed to be smitten with painful boils by “the Satan” – God’s adversary – as the Bible calls him.
So Job is in the Bible for many reasons – one is to show the limitations of the Retribution Doctrine. Things are not as neat and tidy as a baseball game where three strikes make an out and the perfectly limed lines demarcate clear differences between foul balls and legal hits.
Job shows us that life – even the life of believers – is messier than the this-for-that dictates too many people carry around in their heads. Ambitious rulers shoot innocent passengers out of the sky in cold blood while God’s people languish in prison.
What is going on?
Is God no longer in charge? Has the One True Lawgiver suspended his moral principles?
No, not at all. The retribution doctrine does have merit in the larger sense that when we step back and view things from the cosmic perspective, the principles of God’s word still work. The wicked get their comeuppance in the end. Emperor Nero had the Christian missionary St. Paul beheaded, commented one theologian, but today we name our sons Paul and our dogs, Nero. When I visit Memphis, Tennessee I am always astonished to see that the motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated is now the National Civil Rights Museum.
What a change! God is always working behind the scenes in the human experience. But he sometimes – quite often actually – reserves the right to test the righteous as both Old and New Testaments clearly teach (Jeremiah 20:12, 1 Peter 5:10).
There are Always Answers
Our task at such times of seemingly unfair testing is to seek out God’s answers. We have to re-file the flight plan. There are times when the somewhat seemingly stern commands of St. James come into play. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands you sinners and purify your hearts you men of double mind. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you” (James 4:7-10).
That’s quite a plan of attack isn’t it?
This is Christianity for emergencies. Most people don’t know it’s in the Bible. But James was the Lord’s brother who knew Christianity was no bed of roses. He sealed his own testimony with his blood.
And the payoffs will come when we reach out to God in faith and hope.
One of my favorite parts of the Bible is the happy ending in the Book of Job:
“And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning…He had also seven sons and three daughters…and in all the land there were no women so fair as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them inheritance among their brothers. And after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. And Job died, an old man, and full of days” (Job 42:12-17).
As the preachers say, You can’t out-give God. May similar blessings fall on all of us amid life’s trials and troubles.