Does God punish people?
The Bible teaches that God disciplines those who are His followers and punishes those who reject God and continue disobeying Him. Before answering your question, lets define what we mean by discipline and punishment. The word discipline usually refers to correction by parents or God to motivate us to behave correctly. In God’s case, He seeks to make us more holy. Discipline has a positive purpose. Likewise, punishment refers to a judicial decision when a wrong has been committed. It also has a positive purpose from God’s perspective.
Trials Draw Us To God
God allows difficult situations to come into our lives. Because of these trials, heartaches, and traumas, people seek God. Many people rarely stop long enough to think about God. Physical sickness, disasters, loss of employment, and other major tragedies motivate many to look beyond themselves, their families, and their friends for help. Eventually some seek help from God. The Apostle Paul tells about a major event that occurred in his life when he was traveling to the city of Damascus.
But it happened that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And I answered, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said to me, “I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.” And those who were with me saw the light . . . (NASB) Acts 22:6-9
As a result of the bright light, Paul (or Saul) became blind. After hearing what God said, Paul believed in Jesus Christ. God uses trials to draw us to Himself. This happens every day in wars, automobile accidents, prisons, times of income loss, and when physical disease comes. God has to put some of us in a death or life situation before we will respond to Him. Even then, some of us will not yield.
Another example is King Nebuchadnezzar. God had to humble a king and give him a psychological disorder before he would seek God. The event is described in Daniel 4. The disorder is described in the following verse.
Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws. (NASB) Daniel 4:33
As a result the king humbled himself, acknowledged God, and turned to Him.
Job is another example. God allowed Job to suffer at the hand of Satan. The book of Job says that the man Job had not done anything wrong. Yet, the trial was allowed. It was for Job’s spiritual growth. God is more interested in our spiritual growth than in a few moments or years of pleasure in this life.
Discipline For God’s Followers
God also disciplines those of us who believe in Him in order to cause us to grow in our faith (James 1:2-4). He also disciplines some because they are sinning and will not stop (1 Cor. 11:17-30; Heb. 12:4-12). One great example of this is the prophet Jonah who tried to escape from God and avoid doing what God had wanted him to do. The book of Jonah tells us that God had asked this prophet to go to the city of Nineveh and warn them to repent of their sins or wickedness.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.” Jonah 1:1-2 (NASB)
But Jonah boarded a boat that would sail away from Nineveh. Jonah did not want to do what God had asked. Therefore, Jonah and all of the sailors on the boat suffered because of Jonah’s sin. Eventually, Jonah repented, yielded to God, and did what God had asked. The sailors also suffered, but not because of anything that they did. This means that sometimes the followers of Jesus will suffer because they sin and others may suffer because they have sinned. This happened to the nation of Israel when King David sinned (2 Samuel 24).
Blessed is the man whom You chasten, O LORD, and whom You teach out of Your law . . . Ps. 94:12 (NASB)
Punishment In The Future
The word punish and its various forms occur 128 times in the Bible, but most of them do not refer to God punishing someone. Punishment in the Bible always occurs because of sin. 1 John 3:4 says that sin is lawlessness. Lawlessness refers to those who ignore God’s law(s). That is, they are criminals in the truest sense. They did not just disobey a local, state or national law. They did not break the mayor’s, governor’s or president’s laws. They broke God’s laws! Consequently, they truly deserve what happens to them.
For example, in Psalm 89:32 we find this statement about God and punishment,
Then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes. Ps. 89:32 (NASB)
The Hebrew word that is translated as “punish” in this verse is paqad and it actually means “to visit, to number, and to punish.” It has a board range of meanings. This means that the word does not really have the idea of punishment as our English word does, but it does mean that God will not let them escape. God punishes people today, but the greatest punishment will come after people die and end up in the Lake of Fire.
Here is an example of God punishing people in the past. In Jeremiah 21:12-14 God states that punisment will come because of “the evil of their deeds” and it did. That is, these folks were defiant and disobeyed God. Later in the passage we discover that these individuals taunted God with “Who will come down against us?” That does not sound like followers of God who desired to please Him. Consequently, God said He would punish them.
O house of David, thus says the LORD:
“Administer justice every morning;
And deliver the person who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor,
That My wrath may not go forth like fire
And burn with none to extinguish it,
Because of the evil of their deeds.
Behold, I am against you, O valley dweller,
O rocky plain,” declares the LORD,
“You men who say, ‘Who will come down against us?
Or who will enter into our habitations?’
“But I will punish you according to the results of your deeds,” declares the LORD,
“And I will kindle a fire in its forest
That it may devour all its environs.” Jeremiah 21:12–14 (NASB)
In this passage, punishment is announced against the Israelites. This is not an end-times prediction. That is, God has punished people in the past and He will do that today against those who reject Jesus Christ. In our next passages, we discover that God will punish people in eternity.
For many, punishment will come in the future at the end of the age. In Isa. 13:9-11 we read this,
Behold, the day of the LORD is coming,
Cruel, with fury and burning anger,
To make the land a desolation;
And He will exterminate its sinners from it.
For the stars of heaven and their constellations
Will not flash forth their light;
The sun will be dark when it rises
And the moon will not shed its light.
Thus I will punish the world for its evil
And the wicked for their iniquity; Isaiah 13:9–11 (NASB)
The passage says the Day of the Lord is coming. This is a reference to the end times. When it arrives God will punish evildoers. Jesus revealed that God will punish people in the future because they reject Him.
He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (NASB) John 3:18
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (NASB) John 3:36
Judgment will come if we did not believe in Jesus and yield to Him. Later in Matthew 25:46, we are told that everyone will live eternally. But one group will live in eternal punishment because they were never serious about following God. Notice the contrast in the following verse and that punishment is forever, that is the penalty for rejecting God.
These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Matthew 25:46 (NASB)
God allows trials into the lives of His followers – Christians – to cause us to grow spiritually. He seeks to motivate us to stop sinning. For those who do not follow Him – non-Christians – punishment is certain at the end of this life. They will be punished for not believing in Jesus Christ.
Reference Links:Nebuchadnezzar Believes
Book of Jonah