DAVID BAERWALD IS AN AUSTIN SINGER-SONGwriter on the political left. Ten years ago he put the following epigraph on his highly politicized album, Triage: "This record is dedicated to Dean Acheson, Paul Nitze, John J. McCloy, John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, Henry Kissinger, James Baker III, and George Bush in the sincere hope that there is a God and that He is vengeful beyond all comprehension."
A conservative friend of mine is a committed fighter against all kinds of international evil. After last Sept. 11, when WORLD discussed statements by Jerry Falwell and others about God's vengeance, he wrote to me, "I know that my God visited plagues on Egypt but wonder whether His affirmative vengeance can't be reserved for people who murder and enslave rather than those who merely lead self-referential, sybaritic lives and fail to acknowledge His existence?"
People disagree on the definition of evil and on what should be punished, but just about everyone would like God (or a god) to punish some evildoers in some way. Some who believe in the God of the Bible think He lets evildoers fall into the pit they have dug, and does not give them a push. That's the suggestion of a commandment like "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long." Those who abort children and demand euthanasia for their parents should not be surprised when they themselves receive a short goodbye.
But God also commands, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain." God calls Himself "a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me." That certainly sounds like active rather than passive enforcement. (We've certainly seen the truth of this commandment in Russia, where children are still suffering because of decisions made by grandparents and great-grandparents who embraced communism.)
Maybe God is so explicit in those first several commandments because He knows our tendency to look at consequences rather than underlying ideas, and in doing so to underestimate the importance of belief in Him. Asked to name one of the Ten Commandments, most of us mention a second-half one such as "You shall not murder" or "You shall not commit adultery." Those later commandments come without explanation: Just as the Declaration of Independence begins, "We hold these truths to be self evident," so God apparently expects us to understand without being told why stealing and lying are wrong. But the initial commandments are very different: God tells us what will happen when we mess up.
Many people think it's right for God to take vengeance on murderers but not atheists. That seems logical-why punish people for expressing ideas?-but I think of how Abraham Lincoln dealt with Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham, a handsome and gifted speaker who in 1863 told thousands in his state that they should not support the Union side in the Civil War. Lincoln ordered that the congressman be delivered to the Confederates and banned from coming back, and responded to those who protested this First Amendment violation, "Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?"
Vallandigham eventually made his way to Canada, announced there his candidacy for the governorship of Ohio, lost at the polls, and was soon largely forgotten. But his views impelled some people to action, and today the wily atheist who leads simple-headed young men and women to believe that there is no God vastly increases their likelihood of committing adultery, stealing, and breaking other commandments. (Many studies show that religious belief and church attendance reduce the likelihood of unmarried pregnancy, crime, and other negatives.)
The Bible shows that God hates actions that assume His absence and the advocacy of those actions, and not only because of their consequences: The atheist also offends God directly. This does not mean that atheists should be deprived of freedom of speech in contemporary America. Nor does it mean that we should assume God is taking vengeance when a disaster occurs, particularly because sudden death, like benevolent rainfall, falls on both the just and the unjust.
God knows and we suppose, often incorrectly. My own hope is that God shows mercy much more often than vengeance. Christians should be particularly grateful that through God's greatest mercy, Christ's sacrifice, our sins are covered over, or else we would deserve vengeance. But, if God were to exile the wily atheist, would that be unfair?