How could God traumatize Isaac by having Abraham nearly sacrifice him?

isaacsacrifice
Anton Losenko, “Abraham Sacrifices His Son Isaac”

Q. One of the things I struggle with most is God requesting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I get the dynamic between God and Abraham on this, but why wouldn’t God at least have done it when Isaac was a baby and couldn’t remember it? It just seems cruel to me to inflict lifelong psychological damage on someone from the terror and other emotions that your father tying you up, ready to sacrifice you, would cause. I’m not sure any level of faith in God would compensate for the damage that would do to a person.

In these study guides, I often ask groups to envision particular biblical stories through the eyes of one of their characters. Your question is a sensitive and compassionate one that arises from a perceptive reading of this story through Isaac’s eyes.

We typically interpret this story from God’s perspective and see in it a foreshadowing of the substitutionary atonement: “God himself will provide the lamb.”  Or, we see it from Abraham’s perspective and read it as an object lesson in faith and difficult obedience.  (Charles Spurgeon preached a famous sermon on this passage, using Abraham as a positive example, about the kind of obedience that faith produces: immediate, unconditional, complete, etc.)

But when we see the story through Isaac’s eyes, it is pretty terrifying. It would be bad enough to be tied up and nearly sacrificed by anybody, but for your father to do this, when he’s supposed to be your protector, would be devastating.

One possibility to consider is that Isaac might have experienced this event somewhat differently from the way a person would today. This story is, among other things, about Abraham and his family coming to understand better the character of the God who has called them into a covenant relationship in order to make them a blessing to the whole world. Considered in that light, it’s actually a polemic against human sacrifice, which was widely practiced in this place and time.

It’s not as though God thought up human sacrifice as an extreme way to test Abraham’s loyalty. Rather, God was asking of Abraham what it was believed the other gods were asking of their followers. When Abraham demonstrated his complete devotion, God then made clear that he didn’t want human sacrifices.

But going into the story, Abraham and Isaac don’t yet realize how different God is from the other so-called gods in this respect. This is why neither one of them balks when they realize that a human sacrifice is in view (Abraham at the beginning, Isaac later on): if you didn’t do what the gods expected of you, they would bring disaster on you and your family. In effect, Isaac may not have expected his father to protect him from a demand like this from the gods–no one was able to defy them, and trying to do so would only expose the family to greater danger and damage.  Children today don’t have issues with their parents for not keeping a tornado from hitting their house.

But I think this is only a secondary answer.  I agree with you that, whatever the cultural differences, for Isaac to be tied up by his own father and nearly turned into a human sacrifice must have been terrifying and traumatic on some level. So the primary answer must be that coming to know God deeply and truly as our Heavenly Father can and does bring healing from the psychological damage we suffer through things our parents do. If they fail to protect us, or if they actively harm us, this does more damage than almost any other person could cause. But even when this has happened, coming to know God, in a deep relational sense, as our Heavenly Father brings emotional and psychological healing by reassuring us of our infinite worth in his eyes and giving us renewed confidence in his love and protection. And this is what I hope all readers of this story from Isaac’s life will experience.

Does God punish the same sins twice? (Part 2)

If Jesus took the punishment for all the sins of the world on the cross, why does God also punish people in hell?  Isn’t God punishing the same sins twice?  It reminds me of the master in Jesus’ parable who forgave his servant a large debt, but then made him pay it anyway.

Detail from The Unforgiving Servant, stained glass, Scots’ Church, Melbourne

I discussed the parable in my last post. To address the other part of your question, I wouldn’t say that people in hell are being punished a second time for sins that Jesus already took the punishment for on the cross. Jesus’ work on the cross is sufficient to atone for all of the sins of the world.  But in order to receive the benefits of that atonement, people need to respond in faith and trust to what Jesus did.

It’s as if someone announced a huge relief fund for the victims of a natural disaster, a fund that would be sufficient to cover all of their losses.  People would still need to apply to the fund to get benefits.  If they didn’t apply, perhaps because they didn’t want to be beholding to anyone, or because they wrongly suspected the motives of the benefactors, they shouldn’t think that they were still suffering their losses because the fund wasn’t sufficient to cover them, or because the losses had to be paid for twice–once by the fund and then again by themselves.  The explanation is that they didn’t apply.

In the same way, if people experience separation from God in hell, this is not because Jesus’ death wasn’t sufficient to pay for their sins, and not because God is making them pay for these sins a second time, but rather because they haven’t chosen to trust in Jesus’ work for their salvation.

I would add that the essential character of hell is separation from God.  In effect, those who choose not to enter into relationship with God through Jesus’ work on the cross are choosing to live out of relationship with God.  A holy God cannot have sin in His presence, and that’s why there’s a place where people who do not embrace God’s provision for the forgiveness of their sins live apart from God.  Hell is also described as a place of suffering, but I don’t think its essential purpose is punishment.  Rather, it’s separation.  People who choose not to be restored to relationship with God are given what they have chosen–an existence apart from God.

I hope these thoughts are helpful in addressing your excellent and thoughtful question.

Does God punish the same sins twice? (Part 1)

If Jesus took the punishment for all the sins of the world on the cross, why does God also punish people in hell?  Isn’t God punishing the same sins twice?  It reminds me of the master in Jesus’ parable who forgave his servant a large debt, but then made him pay it anyway.

These are excellent questions.  Let me start with the parable, which is found in the gospel of Matthew.  We need to understand it in light of its original context.

The ancient servant-master relationship was one in which servants would be entrusted with resources to accomplish the master’s work.  The king or master in this parable is said to be “settling accounts” with his servants, that is, having them account for what they’ve done with the resources he’s entrusted to them.  The first servant can’t account for a huge amount of money and the master is ready to sell him and his family into slavery to collect what he can.  But when the servant begs for mercy, the master says he doesn’t have to repay the money.

However, when this servant refuses to show the same kind of mercy to one of his fellow servants who owes him only a small amount, the master realizes that he wasn’t worthy of this generosity.  And so, still within the ongoing master-servant relationship, the master says that the servant will have to pay the debt, and sends him to debtors’ prison, exactly where the servant sent the one who owed him a small amount.

In other words, this was not a commercial loan that was cancelled through a legal transaction, which the master then tried to renege on.  Rather, these were the arrangements that the master was prepared to make within his ongoing relationship with this servant.  When the servant insisted that he was operating in good faith and would repay everything, the master was willing to make a fresh start in their relationship.  But when the master discovered that the servant really wasn’t operating in good faith, as evidenced by his ingratitude (if he’d really been grateful, he would have shown the same mercy to his fellow servant), the master realized that he would have to conduct the relationship along different lines, and insist on repayment of the misappropriated resources.

Whatever the specific arrangements (and it might not be possible to reconstruct them exactly from our historical and cultural distance), they must have been understandable to the original hearers, and I don’t think the master’s change of attitude towards his servant is meant to be the shocking or puzzling aspect of the parable.  (Most of Jesus’ parables, by design, have some such aspect.)  Rather, I think it’s the servant’s hypocritical and ungrateful response, even after being shown such mercy, that’s meant to shock us.  That’s what Jesus specifically calls attention to at the end of the parable:  Each person who has been forgiven by God needs to forgive their brother or sister from their heart.

I’ll address your question about hell in my next post.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, stained glass, Scots’ Church, Melbourne