There are atheists and agnostics who argue that the God who is presented in the Bible is cruel. For example, the online Skeptics Annotated Bible has an entire section devoted to biblical passages that, they claim, demonstrate that God is cruel. By labeling God as cruel, they are appealing to our human, moral sensibilities. The word cruelty is defined as "callous indifference to, or pleasure in, causing pain and suffering.” The question before us now is, Is God cruel? To answer in the affirmative, we would have to allow that God either doesn’t care about pain and suffering, or He actually enjoys watching His creatures suffer.
The atheists / agnostics who claim that God is cruel have a large burden of proof. They are not merely claiming to know about the actions of God; they are also claiming to sufficiently know the circumstances in which He performed those actions, as well as His motivations. Additionally, they are claiming to know the very mind of God, ascribing to Him the attitudes of indifference and/or sadistic pleasure necessary to define Him as cruel. Quite frankly, this is beyond the skeptics’ ability to demonstrate—they can’t possibly know the mind of God. “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
There is no doubt that God both allows and, at times, causes pain and suffering, but God’s goodness cannot be impugned because He commits an act that appears cruel to us. While we can’t claim to know His reasoning in every circumstance, we do know several reasons for actions that can appear to us to be cruel, especially if we don’t know—or don’t bother to find out—the circumstances:
1. To mete out just punishment - If a punishment is just, can it be said to be cruel? What critics usually do not understand is that God’s love is not diminished when He brings punishment on people. God is able to bring judgment on an evil group of people in order to spare those who are devoted to Him. To allow evil and wrongdoing to go unpunished would indeed be cruel and would indicate a callousness toward the innocent. When God caused the Red Sea to close, drowning Pharaoh’s entire army, He was punishing Pharaoh’s rebellion against Him and preserving His chosen people from certain slaughter and annihilation (Exodus 14). Wrongdoing that does not result in punishment inevitably results in greater and greater wrongdoing, which benefits no one and is detrimental to the common good. Even when God told the Israelites to completely destroy the enemies of God, including women and children, He knew that to let them live would ensure the existence of future generations devoted to evil idolatrous practices—including in some cases child sacrifices on the altars of false gods.
2. To bring about a greater good- Pain and suffering that produce a greater good sometimes can be brought about by no other means. The Bible tells us that trials and difficulties produce stronger, better Christians, and we should “count it all joy” (James 1:2) when we encounter them. God brings these about for our benefit, in order to refine us like gold in the fire of affliction. The Apostle Paul saw his own suffering—beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, hunger, thirst, cold, imprisonments—as a means of ensuring that he would be ever conscious of his own weakness, would remember always that the power at work in him was from God, not himself, and would never be deluded into relying on his own power (2 Corinthians 1:8-10; 4:7-12). Against nonbelievers, God’s justice is vindicated when He causes pain and suffering to them because they deserve it. He demonstrates His mercy to them by warning them repeatedly of the consequences of sin. When, through their own rebellion, they bring upon themselves calamity, this is just punishment, not cruelty. The fact that He lets rebels go on shaking their fists at Him as long as He does indicates His mercy and patience, not cruelty.
3. To glorify Himself - God is glorified by the exhibition of His attributes. We all agree that He looks pretty good to us when His love and mercy are on display, but since each and every attribute is holy and perfect, even the exhibition of His wrath and anger bring Him glory. And that is the ultimate goal—His glory, not ours. Our tiny, finite brains can’t even adequately imagine Him, much less call Him into question.
All these are worthy, valid, noble causes for pain and suffering. Contrary to the claims of skeptics, there are good reasons for God’s allowing evil and suffering in this world. We are privileged to know some of those reasons, but we do not always know why God allows evil and suffering. To trust God in spite of not knowing the reasons is not a blind leap of faith. Rather, we trust Him with the things we don’t understand because we see His faithfulness in those actions which we do understand.
If we read the Bible carefully, rather than seeing God act out of cruelty, we see Him acting out of His love for us. For example, the book of Job is often pointed to as an example of God’s sadistic actions against an innocent man. The book declares that Job was innocent of the suffering that came upon him, which appears to favor the claim of the atheist. But to claim that it proves God is sadistic betrays a very superficial understanding of the book of Job.
In the Near East during the time of the patriarchs, a common belief was that God always blessed the righteous and brought suffering on the unrighteous. The book of Job is a polemic against that theology. The story shows that man’s view of God’s justice needed to be modified. We need to understand that God is not limited to using suffering as a means of retribution. He also uses it to tear people away from the earthly things that so easily entice them. Additionally, Job brings people closer to understanding God’s work of atonement on the cross. If mankind continued to think that God couldn’t allow an innocent man to suffer, then we would have missed God’s plan for redeeming the world. For God allowed the suffering of a perfectly innocent Man (Jesus Christ) in order to bring His own to salvation. So this book of Job ends up being an invaluable contribution to the history of redemption.
In summary, the skeptic must bear a very large burden of proof in claiming that God’s actions are characterized by cruelty. In context, the biblical passages which appear to paint God as cruel actually do no such thing. In fact, with a proper understanding of the Scriptures, we see that God’s actions are always motivated by, and consistent with, His holy and perfect character.