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Published: 31 October 2015 (GMT+10)
wikipedia.org destruction-of-sodom
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin, 1852.

Does God repent?

People are often perplexed by questions that, once you think a little about them, actually have quite simple answers. Skeptics try to use these ‘problems’ to undermine Christians’ faith, so knowing the answer helps us to ‘give an answer for the hope that is in us’ (1 Peter 3:15). Reuben F. from the U.S. writes:

I have recently been confronted with the claim that God is not perfect because He regretted creating mankind (Genesis 6:6), therefore He makes mistakes, and therefore He is not perfect. This person also used God's jealousy (Exodus 20:5) as an imperfection, his "overreaction" against Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s wife, and how He was dissuaded by Old Testament characters, such as Lot and Moses, to not bring destruction as evidence that sometimes even God is in the wrong and needs to be confronted by someone in the right. How does one refute these claims?

Lita Cosner from CMI-US responds:

Thanks for writing in. There are some very simple answers to all the conundrums you were confronted with, but first some foundational thoughts that are more broadly applicable to these sorts of questions.

Whenever we come to something that is unclear to us in Scripture, we should interpret it in light of what is clear in Scripture. For instance, perhaps the most climactic self-disclosure of God in the Old Testament is when Moses sees God’s back and thus some of His glory, and He proclaims:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6–7).

So this is what God is declaring about Himself, so whatever the Bible describes about God must be consistent with that. And when Samuel declares that God has removed the kingship from Saul’s line, he says, “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” So God does not experience regret as we do, so we must interpret the Bible’s description of God’s actions in light of what the Bible declares about Him.

So with this in mind, let’s look at the passages in question. In Genesis 6, humanity’s sin and rebellion is spiraling out of control, typified by the sin that results in the Nephilim offspring (see Who were the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis 6? for more information about that). It was actually another attempt to be like gods, as the rebellion in Eden was. God sees that the thoughts of their heart were continually evil. In response, God was grieved to His heart. His heart is responding to their hearts; He feels emotional pain over their sin. This is consistent with the rest of Scripture, where the Holy Spirit can be grieved, for instance (Isaiah 63:10; Ephesians 4:30). As commentator Ken Mathews says:

Genesis 6:6–7 is describing the emotional anguish of God; our verse does not present an abstract statement about God’s decision making. This would be altogether out of place for the intention of the passage, which depicts God as wronged by the presumptuous sin of humanity (Genesis 1:11–26, New American Commentary, p. 342).

And:

God’s response of grief over the making of humanity, however, is not remorse in the sense of sorrow over a mistaken creation; our verse shows that God’s pain has its source in the perversion of human sin. The making of “man” is no error; it was what “man” has made of himself (p. 343).

So the solution to your first conundrum is simply understanding what the text is trying to convey. Second, let’s take a look at Sodom and Gomorrah, and whether it really was an ‘overreaction’ on God’s part.

The first biblical mention of Sodom is in Genesis 13, when Lot and Abram separated because their herds were so great that the land could not support them together. It says, “Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (13:13). We have no elaboration so far, but already the city was notable for its sinfulness. Abram was not permitted to take anything from the king of Sodom because of the city’s sinfulness (14:22–24). This happened when Abraham was between 75 and 86 years old (see Genesis 12:4, 16:16). At least 13 years passed (17:25) before God told Abraham He intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin—presumably God was giving them time to repent of their sin.

Abraham has apparently heard how wicked Sodom is, because he bargains with God not to destroy the city if even ten righteous people live in the city (Genesis 18:22–33). But when the angels go to the city, every single man in the city tries to attack the men together; even being supernaturally blinded did not make them stop looking for the door. This shows the depth of their evil; God was just to judge Sodom and Gomorrah. He shows extraordinary mercy to Lot and his family, taking them by the hand to lead them out of the city and sparing Zoar for their sake. One can only object to God’s judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah if they think He doesn’t have the right to judge at all.

When Exodus 20:5 calls God ‘jealous’, it is not in the sinful sense, but in the positive sense. It is the same sort of jealousy Paul speaks of when he says, “For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2). God is zealous for His own honor and glory, and refuses to cede it to false gods. That is a good jealousy, and it is good for us, too, because the false gods lead people astray from the one true Gospel.

Finally, whenever the Bible speaks of God having emotions, or describes God in ‘human’ terms, we have to remember that we can never fully understand God’s mind, because we are human and He is not. So He has to represent Himself in terms we can understand—this is called anthropomorphism (when God is depicted as having a ‘strong arm’ or ‘eyes’), or anthropopathism (when God is depicted as having humanlike emotions). God does act, and He does think and feel, but when He wants to tell us about these things, He has to bring it down to our level so we can understand.

I hope this helps.

Helpful Resources

The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
From
US $35.00
Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
From
US $17.00

Readers’ comments

Yoke Peng K.
Hi Lita, Thanks for the answers. I've always enjoyed reading your well thoughout answers. I have this nagging question. We like to say that God knows everything even before it happens. So, did God foresee that mankind would become so evil that He had to destroy them with the flood?
Lita Cosner
Thanks for your comment. All orthodox Christians believe that God exhaustively knows all future events--so yes, God did foresee that the world would become so evil that the Flood would be necessary. The way most Christians answer the apparent problem, of course, is that God judged that a fallen world redeemed through Christ's sacrifice was better than never creating mankind at all.
Robert W.
YHWH looked at His creation and pronounced everything good. And finally "very" good.
He formed man from the earth and breathed the breath of life, then gave the man dominion.
Along with the dominion our Great Living God gave a few pointers, and one rule. In His perfection, He pronounced the penalty for violation of that one rule. Forewarned, as always, man, not God, brought about death. God is consistent: Everyone who lives will die, even the most radical atheist won't argue that point. (An exception, of course are believers who are alive at the glorious appearing of Christ at the rapture). As well as Enoch and Elijah.
Gods plan for each life is for that life to be righteous.
As the article eloquently teaches, mankind cannot fault God for any negative occurrence. Only we ourselves and our fellow man. We took the dominion, and did it our way.
Even still, Jesus Christ waits to reconcile us to our Creator, presenting us blameless before Gods throne. If we only believe.
Gennaro C.
Thank you Lita for your conclusion to the question posed on the alleged imperfections of God who 'repents'; 'anthropomorphism is the right word. Indeed when we are facing problems in translating from a language to another (and we are talking about 'human' languages), in the absence of an equivalent expression, we are employing circumvolutions to express at least the thoughts behind the expressions. So a 'thought to thought' is in my opinion, the best method used to translate. So, how can we translate in human languages the perfections of God? Simply using metaphors at times. So to convey God's intervention in His interrelations with us humans the prophets are forced to use a language that they themselves can possibly understand. Jealousy, repentance, wrath and even full actions are translated with expressions we may understand. For this reason it is good for us to know better and better the Bible as a whole, studying it deeper and deeper in order to have a wider field of vision about the issue under investigation. Thank you to you and to the CMI at large for the very important work you are doing. God bless you all.
Robert M.
God does not have regret or Repentance as man does. Repentance means God made a mistake, which is impossible, here repentance or regret means God is showing more of his divine decree made in eternity. He is revealing more of his divine plans. God at the same time decree to create man and to destroy them all by a deluge some ages after. See, God without passions a reader by Samuel Renihan.
What changes in Genesis 6: 6-7 is not God’s inner “emotional state,” but the manifestation of his countenance toward creatures. The change is revelational in God’s work of manifesting himself ad extra, not ontological, touching the actuality of God in himself. God’s intrinsic hatred for sin does not rise and fall, but the demonstration of that hatred against sinners in time does. Also, it should be pointed out that Calvin is not denying that God really hates sin— his hatred for sin is perfect and eternal– but only that the temporal modality in which wrath is made actual by external provocation to grief does not properly belong to God. From all eternity God lacks no intrinsic blessedness (Rom. 9:5 ).
(2014-05-14). Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies 2014: JIRBS (Kindle Locations 1964-1968). RBAP. Kindle Edition.
Mark V.
A particular passage that has puzzled me is Exodus 32:10-14 where God is determined to destroy the Israelites and start a new nation out of Moses. He was talked out of doing this by Moses and in particular v14 "God repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people." Is this passage saying God can consider doing evil?
Lita Cosner
The word 'evil' has slightly changed in meaning in English, meaning that the modern translations are a little easier for us to understand in this instance. The ESV says, "And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people."

God never does evil in the sense of sinning, but God can bring disaster and bad things about as judgment. Interestingly, the majority of cases where God 'repents' are in cases where God has decreed a destructive judgment but there is repentance or intercession on their behalf.
Jeffrey C.
An edifying answer!
Steve S.
Besides giving time for people to repent, God waits for the wicked to fill up their measure of iniquity and once full then judges. This generation (evil) like the one before the Flood, is filling up iniquity and will one day experience God's wrath. It's evil because they continue to refuse the Gospel and they persecute Christians.
Richard L.
Re. jealousy, and in support of Lita's remarks: It is helpful to note 3 contrasts between fallen-human jealousy and perfect divine jealousy:
The evil fallen-human version:
1. Jealousy often comes out of uncertainty and lack of knowledge. The uncertainty turns to fear which can turn to false accusation.
2. There can also be unpredictable (and sometimes unjust) anger--often wickedly expressed, in victimization.
3. The jealous person will often compensate by so bounding or 'protecting' the object-of-desire that that person feels suffocated. There can be a crushing of spirit of that person.
Perfect divine jealousy:
1. Omniscience. Never false accusation.
2. Always perfectly ethical anger, when needed. Never unjust anger. Because the Bible clearly reveals where the moral boundaries are, never does God have unpredictable anger.
3. God nurtures our spirits and desires that they grow--into all grace and godliness. We grow into the fruit and gifts of the spirit, etc. One day, we will see God face to face. The VERY OPPOSITE of the crushing-of-spirit of evil fallen-human jealousy.
It is perhaps best to see God in the OT (and in the NT) as a loving parent of often bratty kids living in a dangerous neighborhood. The priests of the false gods--with their victimizing religious rites--are the equivalent of dangerous street gangs and their vicious victimizing practices and initiation rites. Of course, a parent wouldn't want to share parental authority with such street gangs. This is a godly version of good jealousy. In like manner, we should understand the "jealousy of God" as being his refusal to share his glory and authority with illegitimate and victimizing false religions. May this help.

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