The Dilemma of God Demanding Justice from Beings Incapable of Meeting God’s Standard

There is one critique of the Christian notion of sin and the justice of God that is troubling on its face. That key critique for anyone who claims that God demands justice for sin is that God is seemingly unjust to require justice of beings who can’t measure up.

Many modern people bristle at the Christian idea of sin, and they bristle even more at the idea that God would punish sinners. Frankly, I think many modern people simply don’t understand what sin is and who God is.

But, that aside, there is one critique of the Christian notion of sin and the justice of God that is troubling on its face. That key critique for anyone who claims that God demands justice for sin is that God is seemingly unjust to require justice of beings who can’t measure up.

Alongside the notion that the God of the Bible and demands judgment for not measuring up to God’s just standard is the notion that all people are sinners who don’t measure up. In fact, the New Testament is fairly read to say that people are incapable of living up to God’s standard.

The doctrine of original sin says that we are all corrupted because the sin of Adam and Eve has been passed down generation after generation. Even if we don’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, however, the Bible is clear from the Old Testament to the New Testament that human beings don’t measure up to God’s standard:


They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
    there is none who does good,
    not even one.

Psalm 14:3


They have all fallen away;
    together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
    not even one.

Isaiah 53:5


as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
   .
 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”

Romans 1:10-12


Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18 (NIV)) Yet, he says, “Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect?” (Matthew 5:48)

This is the dilemma: How can we be perfect?! “To err is human” the bard once said, and so it seems we are imperfect by our very nature.

Many people reject the idea that God can be just and demand justice from people incapable of measuring up to the standards God’s justice demands. They say it would be unjust for God to demand justice from beings who have no ability to act other than they do, and so fail to meet God’s standards.

God seems to be acting unfairly to demand that we meet His standards when we are 1) created beings, 2) born into sin, and 3) incapable of living up to the perfection God requires.

Other questions tumble after these thoughts: Why didn’t God create us perfect? If we are born sinful, how can God blame us for being sinful? If we are incapable of being perfect, how can God punish us for our imperfection?

Continue reading “The Dilemma of God Demanding Justice from Beings Incapable of Meeting God’s Standard”

Abraham, Isaac, the Blood Path, Christ and Him Crucified

I started on a journey exploring the story of Abraham and Isaac deeper and with more nuance in my previous article, The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Introduction. The story of God’s seeming demand to Abraham to sacrifice his son, and Abraham being seemingly willing to do it, is quite misunderstood, especially without reference to the Ancient Near East context.

Child sacrifice was ubiquitous among the religions with which Abraham was familiar. Abraham would have thought the demand for the sacrifice of Isaac unsurprising among the arbitrary and capricious gods in the Ancient Near East world he knew.

The story is of the first 11 chapters of Genesis and of Abraham is a revelation that the God of Abraham is different than all the other Ancient Near Eastern gods. In the subsequent article, The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Here I am!, we explore the interpersonal dynamics of Abraham and Isaac that set the stage for much greater revelation of which God is.

Through Abraham’s dutiful and faithful obedience to the demand he feared would be required of him, God demonstrated His character in a way that was indelibly etched into the experience and psyche of Abraham and Isaac. They would learn that God does not make the same kinds of demands as the other gods: God would provide the sacrifice Abraham feared that God required of him.

In Abraham, Faith and a Hope Deferred, I may seem to take a sideways turn off the path of revelation of God’s character to Abraham, but I will finish the story in this article and get to that point.

The ground we covered in that last article included a blessing by God to Abraham, but the experience of God’s momentary blessing was dampened by the cold reality of God’s yet unfulfilled promise.

In Genesis 15, Abraham sought more assurance from God that the land he lived as a stranger would really become the land of his descendants and, more fundamentally, that he would actually have descendants. Many years had passed, and Abraham was still childless.

In response, God asked Abraham to set up a covenant with five animals of specific types to be slaughtered, cut in half and placed opposite each other on either side of a depression. The blood of those animals drained into the depression creating a blood path. This, Abraham knew, was the stage for entering a covenant with God.

These types of covenants were familiar to ancient Middle Easterners. I understand that similar covenant rituals are practiced today by Bedouins.

Abraham would have known the drill. As the lesser party to the covenant, he would go first, signifying that God should do to him (stomp on a pool of his blood) if Abraham didn’t keep his part of the bargain. With the lesser party committed to the covenant, the greater party would seal the deal, and go last, walking through the blood path.

Only Abraham doesn’t initiate the covenant by walking through the blood path. He waits so long that he must drive the birds of prey away from the rotting carcasses. Then Abraham falls into a fitful and dark sleep.

Why did Abraham hesitate? Maybe he realized the significance of what God was setting up – a covenant between a fallible person and the Almighty God! Abraham was not likely worried so much about the commitment God would be making to him, but about the commitment Abraham would be making to God!

So, Abraham, perhaps, feared to enter in to the covenant. He falls into a restless sleep, and God comes to Abraham in his sleep. The “assurance” Abraham receives in his dreams is far from satisfying: God says the promise to Abraham’s descendants would not be finalized for 400 years!

Abraham would be long dead and gone.

This is where we pick up the story. This is where we get the next revelation of the kind of God the God of Abraham is. If we aren’t tracking with the story, we won’t appreciate what happens next:

Continue reading “Abraham, Isaac, the Blood Path, Christ and Him Crucified”

Abraham, Faith, and the Hope Deferred

I ended the article, The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Here I Am, with a promise to come back to the story of Abraham and Isaac one more time. Recall that Abraham had the intuition to tell Isaac “God would provide” when Isaac asked him where the lamb was for the sacrifice.

We do not know whether Abraham really believed what he told Isaac, whether he was simply being hopeful, or whether he was merely dodging Isaac’s question. We learn in Sunday school that Abraham truly believed it. Perhaps, that is the right answer.

I say that, not because of a Sunday lesson, but because of Abraham’s experience and particularly his experience with God in moments of great doubt and angst. One such moment was described in Genesis Chapter 15. The set up is interesting.

Four kings conspired together to attack Sodom and Gomorrah. They attacked and routed the inhabitants, seizing their goods and carrying off Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his possessions. (Genesis 14:5-12) Abram (as he was still known at the time) responded immediately with “318 trained men in his household”. He pursued them, routed them, pushing them all the way to Damascus, and recovered Lot and all the goods. (Genesis 14:13-16

Melchizedek, “priest of the God Most High”, pronounced Abraham blessed by “God Most High”, and Abram tithed a tenth to him. (Genesis 14:18-20) After this great victory and blessing from Melchizedek, we read that the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield [sovereign],
    your very great reward.”

Genesis 15:1

We might expect Abram to be exalting in the afterglow of his decisive routing of the four kings and blessing by Melchizedek, but he wasn’t. Abram appears to be struggling with the lack of fulfillment of the promises God gave him so many years before.

Abram is human. He has held onto the promise, but his faith is waning. The doubts are rising. Though God had just given him an encouraging word, Abram is focused on the unfulfilled promise:

“But Abram said, ‘Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?'”

Genesis 15:2

The text continues with Abram still talking. That means God hasn’t responded, and so Abram continues:

“And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.'”

Genesis 15:3

Finally, God breaks in, telling Abraham that his legacy would come from his own flesh and blood, taking Abram outside to look at the sky and telling him his offspring would be like the stars. (Genesis 15:4-5)

We are told that Abram believed in that moment, and God, who sees the hearts of men and knows the thoughts and the intents of mean’s hearts, credited that belief to Abram as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6) God also reminded Abram that He brought Abram out of Ur to the land Abram stood on to give it to him. (Genesis 15:7)

Though Abram believed, and though God had just given him more assurance, Abram kept pressing:

But Abram said, ‘Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?’”

Genesis 15:8

It wasn’t for lack of belief that Abram kept pressing God. We were just told Abram believed. In fact, this was the very moment that God credited Abram with righteousness for his faith!

At the same time, Abram was pressing God for something more than a bare promise. Doubt is not the absence of faith, and pressing God for assurance is not a lack of faith. I hear echoes here of another father who cried out for his son when Jesus promised deliverance, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

God doesn’t rebuke Abram, and he doesn’t take away the righteousness God had just credited to Abram. In the same vein, Jesus didn’t rebuke the father who asked for help in his believing unbelief. Jesus commended him, and God tells Abram,

“Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

Genesis 15:9

If you are scratching your head right now, that is good! God’s response begs for some understanding and insight. Just as Abram pressed God, we should be pressing right now for understanding.

Continue reading “Abraham, Faith, and the Hope Deferred”

The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Here I am!

I set the stage for digging deeper into the story of Abraham and Isaac in The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Introduction. Abraham’s faith is the lesson we learned in Sunday. Faith is the basic place we start, but Abraham’s faith is only scratching the surface of the story.

This story is not simply about Abraham’s faith. We often view this story as simply a test of Abraham’s faith, which it is, but it’s much more than that.

Think about it: God does not need to test Abraham to know who he is. God already knows what kind of man Abraham is. Many decades before this story, we are told that Abraham believed God, and his faith was credited to him as righteousness.

When God called Abraham to leave his country, his people, his father’s household – which was his legacy – and God would make a great nation of his descendants, Abraham left, not even knowing where he was going. Though he was 75, Abraham responded with faith and went. (Gen. 12:1-4)

Many years and adventures later, Abraham was still childless, living in the land God showed him, and Abraham still believed the promise God made to him, though he had nothing to show for it. His faith was already counted to Abraham as righteousness. (Gen. 15:1-6)

Isaac was not born to Abraham and Sarah until Abraham was 100 years old, a quarter century after the initial promise. (Gen. 21:1-7) All the while, Abraham had faith. The story of Abraham and Isaac is not primarily a story about Abraham’s faith.

Isaac was not born to Abraham and Sarah until Abraham was 100 years old, a quarter century after the initial promise. (Gen. 21:1-7) All the while, Abraham had faith. The story of Abraham and Isaac is not primarily a story about Abraham’s faith.


Though the story begins with the statement that God was testing Abraham, it doesn’t say God was testing Abraham’s faith. (Gen. 22:1) Perhaps, God tested Abraham to show Abraham who God is!

I will explain, but first we need to understand something of the Ancient Near East culture Abraham lived in. A key factor in this story is that child sacrifice was a universal and ubiquitous practice in the Ancient Near East.

Abraham was intimately familiar the gods of his culture who were unpredictable, arbitrary and capricious, requiring allegiance and sometimes even child sacrifice to be appeased. What Abraham may have sensed, but didn’t fully understand, was that his God is not like the other Ancient Near East gods.

In our western mindset, we might expect God to announce who He is: we might expect Him simply to tell us. In the eastern mindset, we discover who God is through our lived experience and the lived experience (stories) of other people.

God doesn’t simply tell us who He is; God shows us. To “know” God is not simply an intellectual exercise; it is a lived experience. Thus, all of Abraham’s life is an example for us, and here we learn who God is through Abraham’s lived experience.

God reveals Himself to Abraham experientially through Abraham’s faith, and He reveals Himself to us through Abraham’s story. If you haven’t read the introductory article yet, I encourage you to do it now at the link above.

With this basic understanding, I encourage you to read Genesis 22:1-14 now. Following we get into the details of the story.

Continue reading “The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Here I am!”

The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Introduction

God tests Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his son. Abraham in faith goes ahead but God intervenes to provide a ram for sacrifice instead.
Genesis 22.

Everyone in the western world has heard of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It is iconic. Even people who didn’t hear the story in Sunday school as a child have heard the story somewhere along the way in their lives. The story is a commonly referenced in literature and art, and often with negative connotations in our modern world.

Dare I say that most people have a shallow understanding of the story – even Christians? I would include myself in that category for most of my life, though I had the fortune of hearing the story and considering it for the first time, not in Sunday school, but in a college World Religion class.

The “fortune” of hearing the story for the first time in the context of an academic environment is that that I approached it first intellectually with an open mind. I approached it critically – not as in being critical of it, but as in being thoughtful about it.

Those discussions have stuck with me. We learned about the Mesopotamian world in which the story arose, including the theory that monotheism was born in that time and region (not necessarily of Hebrew origin).

I have since spent many hours thinking and writing about those things I first learned in that class about the Ancient Near Eastern world in which Abraham would have lived. I have learned other things as well, such as the apparently universal practice of child sacrifice to the gods that dominated the religious thought in that culture.

The story of Abraham and Isaac must be read in that context to understand how it fits in. We learn through the story that the God of Abraham was radically different from the gods of the Ancient Near East culture in which Abraham lived.

In Abraham’s world, every people group and community had their own gods. While each community of people had their own gods, and each god was different from the next, one thing those gods all had in common: they were unpredictable, arbitrary and capricious.

Everyone Abraham knew assumed that the gods had to be appeased, and appeasing the gods often meant sacrificing your own children to them if necessary. Abraham would not have recoiled in moral horror at the thought that God was insisting he sacrifice his son. As difficult as it might be, you didn’t argue with the gods.

We tend to focus only on Abraham’s faith, as if that is the sum and substance of the story. Faith is the Sunday school lesson, but it’s only a shallow understanding if we see nothing else in the story. Faith is merely the beginning of understanding:

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

Hebrews 11:6

Without Abraham’s faith in God, he would not have learned that God was different than other gods. Abraham’s faith was the key to learning that God was different, and Abraham’s discovery of the unique character of God is the real gem of this story – that He is not unpredictable, arbitrary and capricious like the other gods.

Abraham was a man of faith. He believed God exists, and he believed that his God was the God of gods. He believed that God could be approached; God could be trusted; and God rewards those who seek Him. Abraham was a man who sought to draw near to God, but that is only the beginning.

In the story, we see that Abraham expected God to be like the other gods he knew, but we also see that Abraham sensed something different about God. God used Abraham’s cultural understanding of the gods to show Abraham that He was different.

God is not arbitrary and capricious. He has plans for His creation. He desires to bless His creation. He desires relationship with His creation, and we (like Abraham) can engage God in that purpose by faith – by trust in God’s benevolence and good intentions toward us.

This understanding of the story will become more evident as we dig deeper in the next article: The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Here I Am. While the Sunday School version is all about Abraham’s faith, and the secular, cynical version fixates of the savage notion that a god might demand child sacrifice, the real gem of the story is that God is not like the other gods Abraham knew.