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Billy Graham getting it wrong about Earthly punishments

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The early Hebrews did not believe in a heavenly afterlife. Like their Canaanite neighbors, the early Hebrews believed that people died and went to dwell in Sheol, the underground realm of the dead. Those who dwelt in Sheol were mere shadows of their former selves and were unaware of events on Earth among the living. People who followed the rules that Yahweh gave to Moses, the Laws, would be rewarded here on Earth. Those who disobeyed would be punished here on Earth. Death was an end. Only Yahweh and his angels lived in heaven.

By the time of the Hebrew captivity, many Hebrews were concerned that there was something wrong: good people, people who followed the Laws, who tithed, who sacrificed, frequently were struck with disasters and calamities. And at the same time, evil people who broke the Laws seemed to prosper.

Some Hebrew theologians suggested that Yahweh did not look at individuals but at the whole Hebrew community. If too many people broke the Laws, the entire community would suffer.

After the captivity, when many Hebrews who had been living under the rule of the Persians returned to Israel, they brought with them the Persian idea of duality and the idea of an afterlife. The Hebrew theologians adapted this idea, that there were two forces struggling for control of the world, a force of light and a force of darkness. Yahweh was the force of the light and the goodness. A villain was invented, Satan, who was in the force of darkness and evil. Yahweh was in heaven and Satan was in hell. Even though the Hebrews claimed to be monotheistic, they now believed in a second, supernatural being with powers that rivaled those of Yahweh.

Yahweh and Satan were struggling for control, but Yahweh would win, in the end. Meanwhile, Satan was able to cause pain and suffering to the living.

People who obeyed the Laws would be rewarded with life in heaven after they died. Their lives here on Earth might be full of pain and suffering, but the hereafter would make up for those woes. Those who disobeyed the Laws would be punished in hell after they died.

These ideas were common in the Hebrew community when Jesus was growing up, and he incorporated many of them into his teaching and his prophesy of the end times, which he believed would happen within his lifetime.

Because both sets of ideas are present in the bible, some Christians are confused as to what they should believe. Should they expect rewards in this life for doing good deeds? Should they expect punishment if they do evil? When Christians look around at people they think are sinful but who are prospering, how should they view that dichotomy?

In the June 13, 2014 Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Billy Graham’s reader poses this question for Billy, “Why does God allow some people to turn their backs on him, and even lash out him and treat him like an enemy? It seems to me that God ought to stop them. I know he doesn’t, but I don’t understand why.”

There are many ways Billy could respond. He could discuss the concept of free will. He could discuss the ultimate reward in heaven or the punishment in hell. He could discuss the idea that people should not do good deeds just to be successful and wealthy in this life. He could discuss Martin Luther’s idea that faith alone is the path to heaven.

He does none of these things.

Billy Graham starts by reminding the reader of the Calvinist idea that humans are sinful and even completely unworthy of living.

Billy says, “If God treated us the way we deserve to be treated, would any of us be left?”

This does underscore how worthless humans should feel but it also does something else. The phrase, “…would any of us be left?” seems to imply that there is finality to our lives in contradiction to the Christian concept that every person lives forever, either in heaven or in hell. Does Billy mean to say, “…would any of us get into heaven?” Should I, as an atheist, be schooling Billy on how to phrase his words to insure they follow Christian ideas?

Billy then deals with people’s actions. He agrees that some people treat God as an enemy and even persecute those who seek God. Billy says sometimes God does strike them down and this should serve as a warning to those who hate God.

So, sometimes, God strikes bad people for being bad, and, sometimes, he doesn’t. If a bad thing happens to a evil person, it is to serve as a lesson to all of us. What happens if a bad thing happens to good person? Should we interpret that as meaning the person really wasn’t a good person? What lesson are we to learn from seeing a evil person prosper their entire life and die peacefully in their sleep?

Billy Graham thinks he has that covered by saying that, “God often delays His judgment, hoping that those who hate Him will realize the error of their ways, repent of their sins, and turn in faith to Christ.” So the evil person, who prospers their entire life, is being given multiple chances to repent and sin no more. An innocent child, who has committed no sin, and is hacked to death in a war, doesn’t get any second chance and is supposed to be an example for us?

Sorry, Billy. You forgot to read today’s talking points. You can’t have it both ways. Either evil is random and the reward for goodness is in heaven or God is a capricious monster who sometimes overlooks evil and rewards evildoers for their crimes while occasionally inflicting suffering on the innocent.

Billy Graham wants people to behave by making them think rewards and punishments can occur while they are still alive. This is standard faire from the preachers as they try to get people to follow the preachers’ ideas of proper behavior. But if it happens otherwise, and it is obvious that evil people are prospering while the innocent and virtuous are struck with calamity, then the rewards and punishments are in the afterlife. Pick one, Billy, and stick to it. You will still be wrong, but you will seem to make more sense.

You can read all of Billy Graham's answer here.

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