A reader once asked me a question I hadn’t heard in several years. It’s a question I used to ask a lot when I was still an atheist: Did God kill people in the Bible?

Yes, God killed a lot of people. Now what? Does that mean…

  • …there is a God whose ways I question or disagree with?
  • …that if God were actually real, He never would have killed so many people? Therefore, God must not be real?
  • …that the fact that there were stories in the Bible of God striking people down for touching the Ark of the Covenant or wiping the world out with the flood proved there wasn’t a God because those aren’t the actions of a ‘loving God’?
  • …they should have left those stories out of the Bible since they only disprove God’s existence? Don’t they?
Hmm. Now we’re onto something.

When I was a card-carrying member of the unbelieving class, I was quick to point out God’s overwhelming death-sentence statistics as a reason why I was right either not to believe in God or to denounce God completely, whether He was real or not.

So why does God kill all those people?

I previously wrote an article called, Why does God allow suffering? Looking back at it, I realized that this question comes from the same place. It’s a position that says:

  • If I were God, I would have done things differently.
  • Since God didn’t do things the way I would have done them, He must either not be real or He, at a minimum, is wrong.
  • I don’t want to worship ‘that kind’ of God.
Yes, God did kill many, many people. Others, He had ‘put’ to death through some of the laws that can now be found in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Some, by our standards, deserved to die. Others, as we would measure justice and fairness today, were not as deserving.

Therein lie two categories of God’s judged (people) in scripture: people who (by our standards) deserved to die, and people who (by our standards) did not.

These people ‘deserved’ to die.

I previously wrote an article called, Why does God allow suffering? Looking back at it, I realized that this question comes from the same place. It’s a position that says:

  • God wiped out the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:25). They sounded like pretty rotten places. I get that one.
  • God killed Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas (1 Sam 2:34, 4:11). They were actually priests but turned out pretty evil. That was okay, I guess.
  • God took out Herod (Acts 12:23), who imprisoned Peter and had James killed. Later, he tried to take credit for God’s actions. If I were God, I would have taken him out too.

…but these people?

  • God wiped out all but 8 people in the great flood (Gen 7:21-22). Really God?!?! There wasn’t a 9th anywhere? I mean, in the WHOLE world?
  • God killed Uzzah just for touching the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam 6:6-7). Seriously, God?!?! He was only trying to keep the Ark from falling.
  • God put Onan to death when he ‘wasted’ his semen on the ground (Gen 38:9-10). Uh oh!!!

Does God kill?: The larger point.

Our standard, however, is meaningless. Only God’s standard matters. Only God can justly and accurately judge sin.

Perhaps the reason we disagree with God’s actions is that we do not have a firm understanding of the severity of sin.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

Drilling down into God’s reasons for each individual (or mass) death in the Bible, though it does reveal some reasonable explanations, misses the larger point. I feel a more important question to ask is, Why did God let anyone live?

Here is what gives me pause – we actually all deserve to die. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Fortunately, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). This, by the way, is the message of the gospel.

The exceptions.

Before I came to faith, what I was confused about was how God could sometimes (seemingly) arbitrarily kill people, while at other times He would spare someone, or befriend others who had seemed to commit (in my eyes) unforgivable acts. For example:

  • He killed everyone in the flood, but He spared Noah’s family.
  • God spared Cain after he killed Abel.
  • God spared King David after he slept with Bathsheba (another man’s wife) and then had her husband killed. David later winds up the multiple-great grandfather of Jesus.
  • God put Moses in charge of leading the Jews out of Egypt after he had murdered an Egyptian.
  • God didn’t just start over when Adam and Eve sinned. By then, He was only two people deep. He could have undone the fall of mankind by lunchtime.

The perspective issue.

It is difficult to be alive today in a post-New Testament world experiencing God’s New Testament grace and view God’s capital punishment, especially in Old Testament times, and believe that they somehow are the same God.

We also struggle to see all sins as ‘equally bad’ and all deserving the same penalty (death) because we are all used to ‘levels’ of crimes. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Class C misdemeanor
  • Second-degree murder
  • Involuntary manslaughter
  • High treason
  • Petty larceny
So when we come across a story in the Bible that ends in death at God’s hands, we say whoa. That’s a little harsh, God. Why’d he have to die?

The real problem.

The real problem is that there is no such thing as petty or misdemeanor sin. There is just sin, and sin = death.

As we sit and judge God for killing, remember from where we got this judgment (Exodus 20:13).

All we’re doing is taking the standards that God gave us to apply to our lives and applying them back to God. Deep down, I think we want to use God’s actions to excuse our own.

When we are commanded not to kill, because doing so would be a sin, it can make God seem wrong to us for doing the same thing.

A death penalty is something reserved for God. It is part of God’s judgment. God created many laws that, if broken, were punishable by death.

Killing without this command from God is then taking God’s judgment into our own hands. This destroys our hearts, compared to forgiveness which frees our hearts. Our command is to forgive those who have sinned against us, not to sin against them in return (1 Peter 3:9).

Unforgiven sins always result in the death of the sinner. Forgiven sins resulted in the death of Jesus Christ. But the wages (what is due) for all sins is always death.

Here’s why God killed people.

God wanted His creation to love Him. In order to create people that could choose to love Him, they also had to be able to choose not to love Him.

That is the root of sin – the antithesis of choosing to love God is choosing to sin. In doing anything that does not flow from our love for God or our love for our neighbor, we wind up sinning. That is the number 1 rule of Christianity.

Since the first sins of Adam and Eve, mankind has been sinning. Even those of us who are saved continue to sin. That is the nature of mankind.

Children do not have to be taught how to misbehave or act selfishly. It comes naturally. Children must be taught to behave because it doesn’t come naturally.

Therefore, all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). And the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

So, if we choose not to have faith in or love God, and are never saved, then we die, eternally in the absence of God.

When we experience salvation, we are forgiven of these sins, through Christ’s atoning work on the Cross, and can then spend eternity with God. This…is called life.

Since we are dealing with Old Testament examples of the body count left in God’s wake, we are also dealing with a time prior to God’s having provided His way of cleansing us of our sins. In other words, Jesus hadn’t come yet.

Put simply, without Jesus, we were all the walking dead. Not in the zombie sense, but in the spiritual sense.

The difference between someone God struck down in his 20s just because he was detestable in God’s sight, and someone who died of old age without having known the Lord is really a distinction without a difference. Both are dead…eternally.

The rest of the message of the gospel is that it doesn’t matter if you committed any of the sins mentioned above or sins worse than those; nothing, not one sin, is too big for God’s grace. Anything can be forgiven. Anyone can be forgiven.

What if we believe in God, and believe He sent His Son Jesus to take our blame and be sacrificed to forgive us of our sins? If we come to grips with what sin is and what sin does and really want God’s forgiveness, we need to tell Him; tell Him we’re sorry, we repent of our sins (regret sinning and sincerely want to change), and sincerely want Him to forgive us, for everything, and He will. He can because of what His Son, Jesus, did on the cross. Then we spend the rest of our lives loving the Lord. That’s for all eternity, by the way. Amen.

Thank God.

Another elephant in the room here is that if God hadn’t struck anyone down for touching the Ark of the Covenant like Uzzah (who was helping transport the Ark differently than the way God had instructed), or for spilling his semen like Onan (who was disobeying the law by willfully denying his brother’s widow children), then what kind of God would we be asked to fear and worship? One that lets things ‘slide’ so as not to offend anyone?

Personally, I’m grateful for a God who has the power to erase any or all of us with a single word. I live in fear and awe of a God powerful enough to erase any or all of our sins too. And most of all, I am grateful that this same God not only spared me from such an awful fate but provided me with a way to forgiveness, righteousness, and salvation. Amen.

What kind of God do you believe in?

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Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.