Bears Mauling “Little Children” in II Kings 2

There’s a rather obscure objection, but one I’ve heard raised, about the Bible in II Kings 2. After God takes Elijah up to Heaven in a sign of approval of his prophetic ministry, his successor Elisha is traveling to Bethel. Verses 23-24 in the KJV: “And as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city and mocked him and said unto him, ‘Go up thou baldhead. Go up thou baldhead.’ And he turned back and looked on them and cursed them in the name of the LORD, and there came forth two she-bears out of the wood and tore forty and two children of them.” Now, any atheist worth his salt knows that this is petty of Elisha and unfathomably cruel of God (I speak as a man) to curse little children and send bears to attack them, so let’s do a little case study.

In the first place, we might not need to have this discussion at all. It could be that the KJV translation is not particularly accurate in this case. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) The Hebrew word can mean children, but it is used elsewhere in Kings to denote Ben-Hadad’s troops (I Kings 20:17-20). In Samuel, it’s used for Kish’s domestic servant who accompanies Saul (I Samuel 9:3). I think the idea is more of someone in subordinate status rather than necessarily a Kindergartener. It’s like when a British officer refers to “my brave boys” or “my lads” when his troops are all grown men or when we call a waiter garcon(French for “boy”). The connotation of this word, however, is that that subordinate is not acting very subordinate, as here. It’s quite possible that the 42 “little children” in question are a gang of young ruffians out looking for trouble.

But when we consider the rest of Elisha’s life, do we see a primitive barbarian who we would expect to do something so obscene and frightful as to curse a toddler? Far from it! Kings tells two stories, one for Elijah and one for Elisha, of the prophets pleading with God for the resurrection of their hostess’s sons, which is granted. In Elijah’s case, this is after God has provided for a foreign widow and her son and brought her to faith in the God of Israel. In Elisha’s case, it’s after he’s prayed to God for his hostess to have a son when it looks like her husband is too old to sire one. Elisha, in addition to cursing the “children,” is willing to cleanse Syria’s best general of leprosy, in spite of the danger that might cause to Israel to restore him to the prime of life. When the Syrians send raiders to kill him and they are blinded by God, Elisha takes them to Samaria to have them captured, but then he refuses to allow the King of Israel to slaughter his prisoners of war. When someone loses an expensive iron axe head he has borrowed, Elisha retrieves it from the water. He weeps when he foresees the bloody judgment Hazael is going to bring on Israel. One of the recurring themes in Kings is condemnation of child sacrifice, and Elisha would definitely have agreed with that denunciation. He himself appears to have had a very caring personality.

So, what happened here? Was Elisha still so stressed about losing his beloved mentor or so vain about his baldness that he just snapped? Well, the one thing Elijah and Elisha were not gentle and understanding about was rebellion against God, which this clearly was. God had shown His almost unparalleled approval of Elijah by sparing him the pains of death, and these “children” were laughing it to scorn. This act of judgment is an object lesson in the fate of all mockers of God’s truth who don’t repent. We only think it’s overly harsh if we don’t take defiance of God when He warns us for our own good seriously. Moreover, this action demonstrates Elisha’s succession to Elijah’s place of prophethood, which was obviously intended to support his credibility before a very skeptical Israel.

One rather vexing controversy in Christianity is what happens in God’s justice to children who don’t have fully developed moral compasses. Does God send children to Hell? Well, the Bible isn’t absolutely clear on this, but here’s what we do know. The children are born sinners. They are not blank slates society makes a stain on. David, when he feels the weight of the most crushing guilt in his life, traces his evil nature back to the womb. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). The Bible is clear that Adam passed on a sinful nature to all of his posterity. If this seems unfair, Paul explains that Adam was our representative in Eden. Since he was created as a morally perfect being and fell anyway, we must accept that all of us would have done as our representative did, so we are all under the curse. After all, would God make a representative in a perfect world who didn’t perfectly represent us?

On the other hand, Isaiah does make a reference in one of his prophecies to, “Before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good” (7:16). It seems that God in His justice does take into account children’s less developed moral compasses. Also, when David’s newborn son with Bathsheba dies as judgment on his horrendous sin, David reassures himself, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23). The traditional Reformed interpretation is that, when God takes the life of a child, it is because He intends to take their soul to Heaven. Certainly, there is no Biblical reason for parents of children who have died before they were old enough to have faith in Christ to think they will never see their children again because they are in Hell. After all, Ecclesiastes 6 refers to stillborn children having rest.

Whatever age the “children” here are, they clearly don’t have that excuse. They apparently are old enough to appreciate that all people die and express skepticism and downright scorn that anyone should go straight to Heaven without dying because they have served the Lord faithfully. So much for wide-eyed innocent babes.

What we have here is not an egregious act of barbarism on the part of the prophet, but a just punishment for rejecting God’s loving words of warning. We don’t actually know how old the “children” were or whether they were really children at all. One thing we do know is that the punishment for their rejection of a miracle was not unjust on the part of God, who wants His messengers taken very seriously when they speak His words.

Why God Does Things the Hard Way

For an omnipotent deity, God does seem to like to do things the hard way. There’s a lot of pain and suffering in this world, all of which we know He could prevent with just one word. There are plenty of unbelievers who reject His existence or His goodness on that basis. Even His plan of salvation called for the murder of His Son and His taking God’s own curse upon Himself. If God’s loving, why would He do things this way?

Well, I’m going to answer with an extremely unpopular response, but I’m confident I can explain the dilemma with it since the Apostle Paul uses it too. God ordains everything to happen in the way that will most glorify Himself. I know that’s not the majority report. The majority report is a more homocentric blend of God doing the most loving thing while still respecting the free will of His creations.

Well, when Paul dealt with what to him was the most agonizing part of God’s will, he didn’t use that explanation. He spends all of Romans 9-11 rationalizing what went wrong with Israel and why God would call a people and then reject them at the moment of the promised salvation. His grief at this was so great that he took an oath that he would be willing to go to Hell if it would save the Jews. He explains that there is still a believing remnant of Israel while the rejection of the Messiah means that the Gentiles from every race are being grafted into the Church until Israel will see what a blessing the Gentiles are getting that is theirs by right and want back in the Church.

Paul doesn’t go into an accolade of God’s love in this convoluted plan but rather of “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (11:33, KJV). Having reasoned out what is giving himself much personal grief and then found an explanation, Paul summarizes with, “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (11:36, KJV). So that verse is my premise. We like the “of Him” part where He sends good things to us, we like the “through Him” part where He brings us through our trials, but most Christians today balk at the “to Him” part where everything redounds back to His glory.

That’s understandable because we’re not allowed to seek our own glory. In fact, we really dislike people who do. People will do the most despicable things to win or at least be seen to win in the world’s eyes. It just seems more palatable to us to have a God who does everything out of love for us.

But how hard would it have been for God to create a multitude of Christians today who all love Him as perfectly as we will in the New Jerusalem without the need for a Hell or a murdered Messiah? And there’s something else to consider. The late R.C. Sproul was very fond of preaching Isaiah 6. He said that in Hebrew, to give something the utmost emphasis, you say it three times. There’s only one attribute of God that the Bible does this for, and it doesn’t say, “God is love. God is love. God is love.” Instead, it repeats, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:3, KJV). So the attribute of God the angels most want us to be aware of is His holiness, and to that they link His glory. There’s nothing about love in Isaiah 6.

We like the “of Him” part where He sends good things to us, we like the “through Him” part where He brings us through our trials, but most Christians today balk at the “to Him” part where everything redounds back to His glory.

But how does God get this glory? He displays to His creation His love, wisdom, power, and perfections, and it responds to Him with praise. God gets glory by giving good things to us all. Who can object to that? That’s not an obnoxious General Custer getting himself and his men wiped out in his quest for glory. It’s entirely different from the self-seeking glory we’re used to other humans craving and debasing themselves over.

Of course God is the most loving being of all. He shows unfathomable love in saving us. But on one occasion of His delivering Israel, He says, “I do not this for your sakes, O house of Israel, but for Mine holy Name’s sake, which ye have profaned among the heathen, whither they went” (Ezekiel 36:22, KJV). As elsewhere in the Bible, I read the “not” here not as “not at all” but rather “not so much as.” God makes it quite plain in other passages that He loves Israel deeply, but here He says His most pressing concern on His heart when He saves them is His own glory.

I’m going to work in a lesson I learned from Teutonic mythology. It’s infamous for its darkness. There are very few happy endings. With a few exceptions, the pervading ethos is that the only honorable way for a great warrior to die is in battle with insurmountable odds. Beowulf dies in a fight with a dragon that he wages alone until Wiglaf comes to aid him. Volsung falls in a trap even when he’s warned because he balks at the idea of fleeing. The Nibelungs perish to a man after holding off the entire army of Attila the Hun. At Ragnarok, the gods and the Einherjar fight the giants to the death until the giants immolate the entire earth. What’s with all the hopelessness?

The Teutons craved for glory, especially after death. To paraphrase a famous line from the Poetic Edda, all things die, but glory lives on. Obviously they’ve got the wrong priorities, but they understood that their heroes deserved more glory for doing the right thing when circumstances are against them and the right thing is the hard thing to do.

If you start with that premise, God’s will in hard things makes sense. It takes more wisdom and love to win a people for Himself who start out hating Him than just making one that already complies with His decrees, so that wins more glory for Himself. God the Father gives Christ even more glory after He submits to earthly humiliation and even delivers Himself up to death. It’s a Teutonic myth with a happy ending: the hero remains resolute to the end with the whole world against Him. Only this time He rises from the dead.

In my first post, I made reference to my experience watching Planet Earth by the BBC. Yes, the tropical biomes with the beautiful birds displaying their plumage to impress females is awe-inspiring and glorifying to their designer, but I found myself glorifying God even when the action changed to places I wouldn’t want to go in a million years. They showed animals adapted to scorching deserts and frozen wildernesses, eking out a much more difficult living than the birds who have nothing better to do all day than collect and arrange flower petals to impress females visiting their bower or mimic any sound they hear. Yes, it glorifies God when a lyre bird perfectly imitates a camera lens or a chainsaw, but if He were truly all about love and fairness, the whole world would be a tropical paradise. Instead, He shows His wisdom by setting up rugged habitats and then populating them with creatures designed to survive there in the most striking ways.

Paul invokes God’s desire for glory to answer another incredibly difficult question for Christians: Hell. Clearly, if God only wanted to show love, He didn’t have to create the Devil, and there would have been no tempter to bring sin into the world. Then there would be no eternal punishment for nonbelievers. But what does Paul say about this decision? Does he invoke free will? He says, “What if God, willing to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had afore prepared unto glory?” (Romans 9:22-23, KJV). Why did God strike Pharaoh with 10 plagues? Paul cites God’s explanation as, “Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show My power in thee, and that My Name might be declared throughout all the earth” (Romans 9:17, KJV).

Paul’s not alone. When Peter discusses unbelief, does he say, “They stumble at the word, being disobedient, because God left them to their free will”? Not at all. His exact words are, “Even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient, whereunto also they were appointed” (I Peter 2:8, KJV). So God ordains even sin to come to pass since He therefore demonstrates His wisdom when He works good out of it, as He always does.

If you start with the premise that God does everything out of love, you might have a hard time explaining such difficult things as an untimely death or natural disaster. Doubtless you fall back on God being too loving to violate free will and then being too just to let sin go unpunished, but that’s not how Paul answered his struggles with God’s will. If you go with the premise that God is seeking His glory by how He will use His power and wisdom to turn all things to good, it’s much easier to explain (and Scripturally sound).

The Critiques of Calvinism, Part III: Oh, the Injustice of It All!

So I’ve shown that Calvinism accords with the human experience and leads to good human fruit. But there’s still the unresolved question of if God is unjust to predestine people to Hell. There’s really no logical way out of the belief that God predestines people to Hell if you’re a Calvinist. If you’re in Heaven because He picked you, what does that mean but that He didn’t pick the other person?

Any Arminian worth his salt finds that positively unjust. John Wesley said that believing that makes God worse than the Devil. Well, whether we like it or not, that is what Scripture says. Jesus explained, “But there are some of you that believe not. Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6:64-65). In other words, My people come to Me because My Father does something for them that He doesn’t do for others. Or Paul: “Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardeneth” (Romans 9:18, KJV). What about Peter saying of nonbelievers, that they “stumble at the word, being disobedient, whereunto also they were appointed” (I Peter 2:8, KJV)?

I think I can lessen the sting a bit. I think what most people have a problem with is supralapsarianism, the branch of Calvinism that maintains that God picks out the people He wants to send to Hell and then ordains the Fall to bring that about. That’s what turned Arminius himself off from Calvinism. I agree that that is unfathomably cruel. I’ll even admit that I think John Wesley was right insofar as supralapsarianism goes.

I subscribe to sublapsarianism, which holds that God decides to permit the Fall and then simply chooses to do justice upon some people rather than show mercy. Justice is about giving people what they deserve for their actions, so I don’t see how logically we can say God decides what is just to do to a person before He decides what they’re going to do.

But is it then unjust to decide not to save some? Clearly Hell is what they deserve, else God wouldn’t send anybody there at all since then He would be unjust. But if we say that grace is undeserved favor, we can’t then complain if He doesn’t show it to some because it was undeserved in the first place. We can’t have it both ways that grace is an amazing gift but that God owes it to everyone. Once something is owed, Paul reminds us, it’s not a gift, but rather wages. I don’t know exactly how many of the great Calvinists were sublapsarian, but I maintain that it is more Scriptural and logical, besides being less offensive to our sensibilities.

Besides, God’s sovereignty in the area of sin is really the only way out of an apparent contradiction in the story of David’s census. II Samuel 24:1 says God “incited” David (ESV) when we know God tempts no one, and then, to add to the confusion, I Chronicles 21:1 says Satan “incited” David (ESV). Then God holds David accountable and punishes him severely for something He incited him to do! So, how can God and Satan both be responsible for something God doesn’t do, something in fact that He was willing to kill 70,000 people over? The only way I can see out of this is to take the Calvinist position. We say that God, in His justice and wisdom, decided that the time had come for David to number the people and let Satan, who was of course more than ready to oblige, tempt David, whose weak human nature caved in to the temptation. That same kind of scenario is described in more explicit detail in I Kings 22 when a lying spirit volunteers to deceive Ahab’s prophets and gets God’s permission to do so. The census was ultimately God’s idea, but the free agents who followed their natures are held fully accountable in His justice.

(In case you think God was overreacting in sending a plague over a census, I have a theory. Samuel explains that He was angry with Israel. My guess is that, after they had conquered their mighty empire, the Israelites were becoming puffed up and feeling self-sufficient, so he let David give that pride a visible manifestation throughout Israel before punishing them.)

By now, I hope you’ll see that our infamous worldview is not a warped and self-serving distortion of Scripture. It accords with Scripture, reason, and the human experience. It doesn’t lead to disobedience of God’s commands to let our light shine before men, and it doesn’t make Him evil (if it’s worked out correctly). And who can really object to a worldview whose rallying cry is, “To God alone be the glory!”