How is it fair for God to “bring disaster on all people”?

Q. I recently had the opportunity to speak in my church. The theme of my message was, “God doesn’t do what is unjust.”  I talked about the great flood and how God rescued Noah from it because he was innocent, while the rest of the world was destroyed because they refused to believe and follow God’s words.  I also talked about the Sodom and Gomorrah episode and how those cities wouldn’t have been destroyed if there had been righteous people in them. I talked about Pharaoh, drawing on your blog post about why God hardens some people’s hearts. And finally I talked about Job, claiming that God Himself didn’t do those bad things to him, but Satan, with God’s permission.

But during the sermon some people stared at me as if I were an atheist, as if I didn’t know what I was talking about!  And I have to admit, I still haven’t found a completely satisfying answer to this question:  “Does God do what is unjust?” My doubts increased when I read the place in the book of Jeremiah where God says “I will bring disaster on all people.” That doesn’t sound fair or just. I’m really confused about this, despite everything I shared with my church and despite what you wrote in your post.  I hope you can clarify this for me and for all of those who have the same questions.  Thank you in advance!

I have to admit that I share your serious concerns about what is sometimes called “divine violence” in the Bible—episodes in which God wipes out entire cities (Sodom and Gomorrah) or nations (Egypt, through the plagues) or even the entire world (in the great flood).  In the post you mentioned in which I talk about Pharaoh, quoting my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, I call this issue “one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.”

I won’t repeat here everything I say in that post, or in some of my similar posts (such as this one about the episodes of genocide in the Bible).  Instead, let me speak just to the passage you cited from Jeremiah, as a way of addressing a large subject by looking at a small aspect of it.

That passage comes at the end of one of the four major parts of the book of Jeremiah.  It was placed there because it contains a reference to Jeremiah’s words being recorded on a scroll, and this is how the book signals the conclusion of each its major parts.  But the passage also looks forward to the next part of the book, which contains the prophecies that Jeremiah announced against the surrounding nations over a period of many years.

In other words, even though God says in this passage that he is going to bring disaster on “all people” (in Hebrew, “all flesh”), the placement of this episode in the book shows that this phrase refers specifically to judgments that follow against various specific nations for their pride, injustice, and idolatry.  In this case we see that God is indeed doing what is just, by punishing these wrongs.

Moreover, as the passage also says, Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch (whom it addresses directly) will be spared from these judgments, in the same way that Noah was spared from the flood (as you observed in your sermon).  The passage is still something of a rebuke to Baruch, who has apparently been complaining about the sorrows and discomforts he has experienced because of his role as Jeremiah’s helper and scribe—particularly given the hostility Jeremiah has faced for his dire warnings to the Judeans.  God tells Baruch, in effect, “Don’t complain, what you’ve been going through is still a lot better than what the nations are in for when I finally judge them for their wrongs.”  Baruch, at least, will escape with his life, which is a lot more than many others will do.  So God will be fair and just to Baruch by sparing him from the judgment that’s about to come on these surrounding nations.

This is not a comprehensive solution to the problem of divine violence in the Bible—I think that thoughtful, careful readers will always be troubled about that—but I hope I’ve at least helped you with some of your concerns about that specific passage in Jeremiah.

d’Allamagna Giusto, “The Prophet Baruch,” from the Loggia d’Annunciazione

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “How is it fair for God to “bring disaster on all people”?”

  1. Some things I have learned that have helped me is that the Bible is a progressive revelation so that later things should be read in the context of earlier things found in Scripture, with the Pentateuch being the foundation.

    For example, Jon 3:4 As Jonah started into the city on the first day’s journey, he proclaimed the message, “40 days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”

    Notice there is no qualification is what Jonah says, however, the people repent after the warning and God does not overthrow Nineveh, so what are we to make of this prophecy? My take is that Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh should be read with the understanding that God is merciful as an implied but unstated context provided from earlier Scripture. That is, Jonah 3:4b should not and cannot be read as some kind of standalone prophetic oracle, even though it SEEMS to be delivered as such; in fact, despite it seeming to having been given as such.

    This means that seemingly conditionless or exceptionless statements can have considerations or exceptions, based on other Scripture.

    These insights means reading the Bible is much more challenging than simply reading a geometry textbook. While one is taught to stitch axioms and proofs together to create more proofs, this method is very problematical when it comes to Scripture.

    1. Thanks for sharing these helpful perspectives, which I agree with. They speak to the question, “What is the Bible and what are we supposed to do with it?” Not what we do with a geometry textbook!

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