And the Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart, “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done. (Genesis 8:21; see also Genesis 9:11-17)
At the end of the biblical narrative of the Great Flood, God promises never again to curse the earth because of humans and also never to again destroy humanity and all living things. If one is a literalist, one could argue that in Genesis 9 God only promises not to destroy the world by a flood, which leaves open the possibility of God destroying the earth by fire or some other means. Or, perhaps, God only promises not to destroy everything, but that leaves the possibility that God will destroy only evil people or non-believers even if that turns out to be almost everyone.
Be that as it may, God seems to recognize that free will humans have a penchant for sinning but that fact will not determine His relationship with His human creatures. God is love after all, and chooses to act toward His creatures in love, rather than to react to them in anger. God wishes life for humanity not death (Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11), so much so that God promises His human creatures eternal life. Nevertheless, in Scripture God continues to mention a fearsome judgment against those who persist in sin or evil.
“I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will halt the arrogance of the proud, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.” (Isaiah 13:11)
God is both merciful and just, so His judgment has to be quite refined, separating the wicked from the righteous, something very difficult to do in this world where events consume both the good and the wicked indiscriminately. The Patriarch Abraham reminds God of all of this, pointing out that a broad punishment leveled against a nation, territory or people, will sweep both the good and bad together into the same fate, which Abraham says is not just or merciful:
Then Abraham drew near, and said, “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” . . . Then Abraham said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place. (Genesis 18:23-25… 32-33)
Scripture gives us two images of God, which cannot always be easily reconciled: one of a righteous God who is angry at sinners and intends to condemn them as versus a merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love who wishes to forgive sinners in order to save them. Many saints in the Orthodox tradition were awed by this second image of the God who is love and they felt this idea of God is non-negotiable. If we tend to focus on the God of judgment, we are not understanding the message of the bible concerning God’s loving nature.
St Isaac of Nineveh writes:
“God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge – far be it! – but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbor wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution … The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to his justice, the same accuses him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!” (THE SPIRITUAL WORLD OF ISAAC THE SYRIAN, pp 40-41)
For Isaac we misunderstand God if we think His judgment means just punishment, vengeance or retribution. Many think this image of God as a punishing judge defends the integrity of God, but most saints thought that idea of an absolutely just God who requites every single sin was in fact to empty God of any goodness. God is not governed by an impersonal karma (demanding every sin be accounted for), but rather is a personal God of love, capable of forgiving and setting things relationships aright through mercy. God loves every human being, not just the perfect ones. Mercy triumphs over judgment as the New Testament says (James 2:13).
God is not one who requites evil, but he sets evil aright. (THE SPIRITUAL WORLD OF ISAAC THE SYRIAN, p 269)