The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Q&A with Derek Flood- author of "Healing the Gospel"



You say “traumatic” is defined as injury “harmful to their welfare” (and thus argue that by definition we can’t say that God allows such painful things to bring good). And, of course, if one defines “traumatic” as “harmful” in the sense of ruling out any potential to bring ultimate good, then your conclusion follows. I suppose all “pain” could be assumed by definition to be opposed to our ‘welfare,’ but I use “traumatic” precisely in the context where real “pain” is used in a sense that can be consistent with a severe mercy that can lead to our ultimate well-being.

I sympathetically understand in terms of practical, pastoral concerns, why you are opposed to discouraging any understanding that God has any purpose in pain. What I don’t see is the alternative for why God would allow this ‘traumatic’ world, if it by definition cannot be part of any good purpose. Then such permission implies the most perversely terrifying kind of God, and for many people in pain, it seems to contradict grounds for hope and assured redemption of their suffering.


Hi Mel, may I jump in here with some thoughts?

For one thing, the surgery is not imposed on the patient by someone else.

But much more importantly, it’s not how Jesus healed people.

If it’s that hard to tell, that in itself should set off the alarm bells. Why would anyone be asking what kind of harm is OK? Harm is harm. Jesus did not harm, he healed. It’s really that simple.

There is a literal part to this and there is an idiomatic/cultural part to it. The obvious bit is giving your enemy food and drink when he needs them: that is not harmful. The non-obvious bit is whatever it means to “heap burning coals on his head”. Does it mean he will burn with shame? Does it mean you will put burning fuel in the pottery shards he carries on his head so he can safely take it to his own house and re-light his fire that’s gone out? Does it means something entirely different? Thing is, we don’t know. What we DO know is, again,

what Jesus did.

That is our model of how God does things – never harming, only healing; never starving, only feeding; never taking, only giving; never cursing, only blessing; never killing, only giving life.


So I have been trying to iron out my thoughts on justice and retribution and how this interplays with the cross and what this makes of the doctrine of penal substitution. In my years as a Christian, I’ve always seen penal substitution expressed in 1 of 2 ways.

  • God is furious at sin! Only a blood sacrifice can appease his anger. The blood sacrifice of Jesus appeases his wrath, but only towards those that accept it. (God has a lust for blood and an anger problem - not very pretty)

  • God is just. It is an inherent part of who he is. He has no choice but to bring punishment against sin. There cannot be forgiveness without punishment and somebody has to be punished. Somehow punishing an innocent person can satisfy God’s need for justice though??? (God seems to be bound by a higher law which dictates that he cannot bestow mercy on a whim - This view makes it seem that God is not as omnipotent as we thought)

Both of these explanations for penal substitution have serious problems (as shown in brackets). Thankfully there are other ways of understanding what it was that Jesus accomplished on the cross (Christus Victor and Moral influence theory are just two examples)

I am currently in the process of tearing into the second of these two explanations (hopefully I will get round to tackling the first explanation next).

I cannot see that is biblical that God cannot forgive without punishment. If I look through the OT, it seems to be a consistent theme that God’s justice serves a purpose. It has intent and that intent is to bring about reform. It is restorative and it is not at all about paying people back. When I read through the OT and the gospels, there seems to be a consistent theme that God’s wrath only persists while people are unrepentant. As soon as people repent and put on sackcloth and ashes, God relents of his wrath. In most of these OT examples there is no need for a blood sacrifice to meet God’s requirements for justice. It seems consistent that the only sacrifice God desires is a repentant heart and that we turn from our oppressive ways.

This is exciting stuff… Justice is no longer needed after repentance! Justice is only needed to lead to repentance. God’s justice never demands revenge for wrong-doing post-repentance. Somehow the church has been sown with this warped idea that justice demands vengeance – justice cries out for blood. No… justice cries out for repentance. This view is infinitely more compatible with a God of love.

So here are some examples of where God relents and shows mercy as a response to repentance:

  • The story of Jonah and Nineveh. Their wickedness has come up before me. God intends to bring justice and punish them because they were violent and oppressive. The Ninevites repent and God relents. He doesn’t demand that they make a blood sacrifice to meet his need for justice, he just forgives them. Jonah becomes furious at this apparent injustice. God responds by saying “Why should I not have compassion? They repented. I love these people (and their animals)”

  • 2 Chronicles 32:26

  • Isaiah 30: 15. Salvation lies in repentance!

  • Jeremiah 15: 19

  • Jeremiah 18: 8

  • Ezekiel 18:31-32. God takes no pleasure in death! We need only repent to come right with him.

  • Mark 1: 4. Prior to Jesus, John the Baptist taught that forgiveness can come through repentance and baptism. He makes no mention of blood sacrifice!

  • John 8: 2 – 11. My favourite! A woman was caught in adultery. Justice and the law required that she be stoned. Jesus showed that he wasn’t bound by the law because he chose to forgive her. God is not bound by the law either! God can and does occasionally choose to forgive without requiring punishment.

What I believe this all points to is the idea that the act of Jesus on the cross is about justice. Not the vengeful kind of justice, but restorative justice. Blood didn’t have to be spilt for God to forgive us, but Jesus chose for his blood to be spilt to restore us and to inspire us. Jesus chose self-sacrifice to teach us about how serious sin is and to teach us how desperately God longs for us to turn from oppressing others and to turn to him instead. It is God’s desperate call that we wake up and realise that we are his children and that he longs for us to repent. When we partake of the sacraments, we are reminded of how far we fall short of God’s glory and we are reminded of the great extent of his love for us, that he died for us while we were still unrepentant. This is what I believe is the purpose of the cross. It serves as a reminder and a call to repentance.

What I would like to do now in order to flesh this picture out further is to look for counter examples. Can anybody think of a single example in scripture where after people have repented, God has responded by saying - Thank you for repenting, but there is still the matter of retribution in order to settle your debt. I can’t, but I would like to make sure that I am not being close-minded to the possibility that I am wrong.

Summary: I am asking for anybody’s help. Do you know of other examples of where God has not been bound to bring retributive justice but has shown mercy after people have repented? Do you know of any counter-examples of where God has acknowledged people’s repentance but still gone on to show retribution for the sake of “justice”? I cannot think of any counter-examples.

I posted this on Reddit… more information here


Thanks Ruth; but my questions were specifically for Derek, as I’m trying to better understand his take on these things.


Ace, I am very close to your understanding of how the cross functions, and I think that there is no point in any sort of ‘retribution’ when repentance already exists. My impression is that ‘judgment’ is not to balance some supposed scales of ‘justice.’ but to make things whole with corrective and restorative purposes. Thus I have no counter-examples to offer. But the distinctions in this discussion remain difficult to clarify, and I have similar questions as Melchizidek on the other end of the continuum where painful correction toward repentance is thought to have no place.


Hi Bob

Thanks for the feedback. When I talk about God’s wrath, I see this as being the natural consequences that God allows to befall us in order to bring us to repentance. If I steal from the poor, God might allow me to get caught in order for me to face up to my actions and bring me to repentance.

In the next life I have a sense that God’s wrath may involve his allowing us to be faced with all of the people we have hurt through inaction or selfish decisions. Ultimately God knows what is necessary to bring each of us to repentance, but I agree with Derek that physical or psychological violence will likely do more harm than good and only serve to hinder our restoration.


Ruth, you argue God could never affirm painful ‘surgery,’ because Jesus only brought healing “blessing,” “never cursing.” Growing up with “gentle Jesus, meek & mild,” this sounds like the Jesus we want. I guess we’re back to semantics, but I think Yancey’s account of the historical data (The Jesus I Never Knew) represents most careful readers. My perception is that Jesus seems to be able to harshly curse those to their face who destroy others, and to warn them of exceedingly painful divine judgments that will bring weeping and gnash of teeth.


Hi Ace,

I too like to see ‘wrath’ as working through built in “natural consequences” (cf Pr 1:3-6; Jer 2:13,17-19). But I suspect this isn’t capable of keeping a sovereign God from having a purpose in allowing it. And as you imply, post-mortem ‘wrath’ most clearly can’t just be ‘natural.’ As a psych major and a fellow sufferer, I sympathize with avoiding pain as ineffective. But as to whether deeply painful things can ever serve an ultimate and good purpose, God probably knows psych better than I. It’s not obvious to me that it has no place in Scripture, or the way that we see that reality sometimes works.



Again, “trauma” is medical term that means “injure.” I specifically chose that word as a technical term in order to distinguish it from the more neutral term “pain.” In order to communicate we need to have the same working definitions of words.

To the issue of the problem of evil: I can see that it would be desirable to live in a world where God was in control and only painful but loving things happened to us. But I just don’t think that lines up with reality. Horrific things happen to people. Things so obscene that there is simply no way to call them anything but “evil.” So we are torn between either saying that

a) God is not completely in control, and real evil can happen.
b) God causes that evil.

If we pick (b) then we need to convince ourselves that evil is good. I don’t think that’s a realistic option. I think it is abusive. Again: I use the word “abusive” here in a medical sense. Meaning I am not trying to be pejorative. I really believe that this view is abusive because it tells people to call horrific things good. That will cause severe damage to a person. It also has lead and still does lead people to justify hurting other people. So all around this is a solution that has really bad fruits.

So I would instead pick (a) and place my trust that God can overcome evil, and work in the midst of evil in order to have good win in the end, that God can heal us, even though we live in a world with real injury. I think that view fits with the NT and fits with our experience.


A doctor would not agree that it causes “harm.” From a medical perspective, surgery would not be considered to be trauma, injury or harm.

Medical and mental health professionals have done quite a bit of thought into what constitutes trauma, harm and abuse (and what does not). It’s important, since, if we are going to criminalize something, we of course need to be able to clearly define what it is and what it is not. So I would say that we should begin there with their insights and experience in to where to draw the line. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel here.

I think one of their key insights is that this is not a matter of intent, nor is it a matter of reporting. An abused child may deny any harm because they want to protect their parents. A parent may not *intend *to harm their child. So instead of just relying on reporting alone, basically a psychotherapist will look at that child and observe that they have been messed-up, broken, harmed. Not just temporarily, but in a debilitating, personality-changing way that can leave them screwed up for life. They objectively observe the effect of the trauma.

But it’s not just a matter of observing what damages people, it is also a matter of positively observing what promotes the things we want to see: responsibility, empathy, self-regulation, etc. and doing those things instead.



There are many voices in Scripture, so there is not just one unified view of wrath or anything else since the Bible is a collection of books written by multiple authors with differing perspectives.

However, one way to look at wrath–and especially language of the threat of wrath–is to see it as serving the same function as corrective discipline with parents. Generally speaking I would say that the idea works like this:

  1. threat: “clean your room or so help me I’ll beat you into next week!”
    If the child cleans their room, then there is no punishment. It’s only purpose was to get them to obey via threat.

  2. negative consequence: whipping… a spanking… a time out… no more TV for the night…
    In the past parents tended to be a lot more violent, today most parents would opt for the nonviolent option. What is constant however is that it is a *negative * consequence. It is bad. It is undesirable. So because you don’t like it, you avoid the behavior next time.

That’s the basic idea behind wrath that I think you are observing, and why there is no “wrath” once there is repentance. It’s not about bloodlust, its about controlling behavior. If you do your homework there is no need for the spanking.

That idea has problems too of course. Especially when violent punishment is involved. But I can see how it certainly seems to be a big improvement over the picture of bloodlust and vengeance we often see attributed to God in Calvinism. Instead we have a parental picture (note however that even here the punishment is not supposed to be healing, it is supposed to be undesirable so that the goal is to avoid it)

Attributing this to God is indeed an improvement over the Pagan understanding of a volcano god of anger, but it is still an OT understanding that has it’s own problems. I see the NT drawing attention to those problems and moving away from that OT understanding to a much better one which is restorative rather than punitive.



Those are great thoughts! I concur.

One thing I’d add is that sickness as it was viewed at the time of the NT was not about germs but about demons. So a person who is sick is described by Jesus as being “in bondage to Satan” and his response is the liberate people from their sickness and disability. Healing and liberation are therefore tied together conceptually in the NT.


Ok Derek, thanks for your answers.

With regard to your first response, I agree that a medical professional would not call that “harm”, at least in part due to the fact that it is a procedure done with the goal of the ultimate benefit of the patient. In other words, it is not causing harm (by the medical definition) in the sense that the sum total of the effect this has on the patient (assuming normal recovery) improves the patient’s condition in the end. This is true even though from a not-necessarily medical perspective, this procedure causes real (though temporary) physical injury to the patient, through which they must suffer during an extended recovery period, as part of the healing process. (The intent is to ultimately improve the patient’s condition in the end, even though intent doesn’t apparently really qualify it as “not harm” according to your second point)

With respect to your second point, I understand your thought line here as well; but with the clumsiness of a physical component removed, such as in the surgery example, (but more to the point of the psychological example), can you see how this could get very problematic quickly when we start applying this to God and his operations? What I mean is, even viewing something by advanced human psychological/ medical standards, we’re still viewing things from a finite perspective. So what we see as something that we would define as (according to the definitions you’re working by) harm or trauma, etc. God, in seeing the bigger picture might not see it that way at all.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s go back to my original example of the heart surgery. Let’s say hypothetically that a person encounters someone in the recovery stages of the aftermath of a triple bypass, but they have no idea why this person has a huge gash down the center of their body, another on their leg where the replacement vessel was harvested from, etc.; all that can be seen is the person’s pain from the physical trauma. The person has no idea that the other has just undergone heart surgery or why, and they don’t know the doctor or they don’t understand his intentions. They’re not familiar with triple bypass surgery or why it’s done, so it’s not understood that it was performed for the ultimate benefit of the patient in question, though from the doctor’s perspective, everything is under control and progressing perfectly toward the patient’s recovery.
Now, let’s call the doctor in this situation ‘God’, and the person happening upon the patient ‘mankind’.

What if our limited perspective causes us to view some things as harmful or traumatic (the fact that there are truly harmful traumatic and evil things out there notwithstanding), when in the light of ‘eternity’ they ultimately end up working toward our good?

Are you seeing the quandary here?


I’ll try to be brief here, as I gotta get going soon… just a question, to Derek, and Ruth as well…

Do you guys think God can’t use pain for good? And if not, then why is there pain, and what is it for, if anything? :confused:

I totally agree with you guys about how wrong it is to paint a picture of God as some kind of sadistic bully, and I agree that punishment in general doesn’t really makes things better, and we should try to find a better way if we can, but what if someone has to feel some kind of pain just to wake up, just to come to their senses and realize they’re on the wrong path? What if there’s just no other way? :confused:

I’m not saying that God is all about using pain to destroy people… I’m just saying that God could use pain to help people, or to get through to them…
And I’m not talking about torturing people…
I’m talking about something like drug intervention, detox, that sort of thing… I’m talking about speaking truth that may hurt into someone’s life, which would then lead to their healing and transformation…

I’m saying that healing may not always be easy… and I’m saying that some people are so screwed up, rebellious, and hard-hearted, that they may require some kind of cold slap of reality at some point, some kind of pain that will get through all of their crap and make them see, so they can be open to healing…

Of course I could be wrong about all of this, as I’m only human, and I can be wrong, but in my own experience, sometimes when the consequences of my bad choices have caught up with me, when I feel the pain of that, that’s when I’ve been opened up to repentance and change…
Also, you see examples of this sort of thing all over the place, and throughout the Bible…

What I’m trying to say is that pain may not be inherently evil, even though there will come a day when it will be done away with and will no longer be a part of things… I’m just saying that pain can be a teacher, even if only a first grade teacher…

And like Mel, I’m not saying that God is causing people to be raped or murdered for punishment. That’s just crazy and ridiculous, and we all know that. What I’m saying is that sometimes even restoration may require God speaking to a person through pain, at least at first, in order to get their attention… and not pain that irreparably harms them, but pain that gets through to them, while leaving them preserved and in one piece…

Again, I could be wrong about this, but I’m just keeping an open mind, because at least in my life I can say that I believe that God has spoken to me through pain, to get my attention…

At the same time though, I believe that God does not speak through all pain… a lot of pain is just there, and there’s nothing good about it, and I don’t know why it exists, or why God permits it to exist… this world is full of pain and suffering that is seemingly meaningless, and I can’t imagine that God would be speaking through it, let alone causing it… but I guess I’m just saying that maybe in some cases, God may speak through pain, or allow it, for some greater purpose, though not all the time…

Of course this runs into the whole issue of how much control God over His creation, and we run into the whole sovereignty/free will issue…

But I can say for sure, even while keeping an open mind about the question of how God may or may not use pain to achieve some of His good purposes, I can say for sure that I believe that God shares in our pain, and namely pain that seems to have no reason or meaning to it, that God shares in that with us, shares in our tears and our struggles…

This is a difficult discussion I know… it gets at the heart of who God really is and what God is really like and the ways in which He does things, which of course impacts how we see life and ourselves and each other and how we should live…

Hopefully we can all look for common ground, and learn and grow together, and be at peace with one another despite any differences of belief or outlook we may have…

Blessings to you Derek and Ruth, and everyone, and grace and peace to you :slight_smile:



Now, the problem I have with this is that it presents a false dichotomy. I don’t think (a) or (b) are necessarily true, nor do I think those are our only two options. I simply can’t see from the scriptural witness any indication that God is not in control (He works all things according to the counsel of His will, He declares the end from the beginning, etc), but nor do I think that means that we must conclude that God “causes” evil (unless one is a Calvinist). Does He allow evil? Clearly, but yet he somehow works within it, and probably in spite of it to bring about our ultimate good.

That is far more comforting to me than having a God who is not in control of his universe.


My daily train commute to the hospital where I work takes me through the centre of the city. On that train, and in the streets it travels along, are real people. They are tired, or anxious, or hungry, or homeless, or unemployed, or overworked and underpaid, or cold, or struggling with wheelchairs or canes, or mentally disabled, or they’re children who spend too many hours in day care, or they’re bereaved or getting divorced (I hear their phone calls). Near the hospital they’re limping, or staggering, or nearly fainting, or bleeding, or crying, or bewildered because they can’t find their way to a doctor who might, just might be able to provide a little relief.

Is it good news to them to hear about “exceedingly painful divine judgments”?

Are they concerned about “semantics”?

Will they see in this picture the Jesus who was so popular among people like themselves – the weak, the powerless, the downtrodden, the sick, the sad? Will they flock to him, will they see that he is the Healer and Liberator of the world?

What you say about Jesus, and what you deny about him, would turn away the ones in greatest need – they would be afraid of him. This is exactly the kind of thing that stops people wanting anything to do with him.

Matt’s right – we don’t just need what’s “correct”, we need beauty, we need inspiration, we need hope, we need LIFE.


I certainly welcome the possibility of their being a 3rd option!

Ah, but note that I said for (a) that “God is not completely in control.” I did not say that God was not in control at all. In fact, if you look again I affirmed that God was ultimately in control because as I said “God can overcome evil, and work in the midst of evil in order to have good win in the end.”


Sounds to me like you are going with B :slight_smile:


Amen Ruth.


Not quite; I was going with ‘B(1)’ (aka the unnamed ‘option 3’), because the exception that I take to ‘B’ is that as far as I can see from scripture and experience, God is completely in control, though I wasn’t very clear about that in my previous post.

The only conclusion I can come to then, is that God temporarily allows evil for a purpose; though we can’t always see clearly what that purpose is on this side of the veil (or dark glass, etc.)


The verses you cited do not affirm that conclusion.

What experience is that? I’d like to move to that part of town!