I started to write the title of this post, "Is God Unfair to Punish...", but I changed it. The question should not be, "Is God fair?". To me, it is a point of faith that God is righteous and therefore just and fair in all His decisions. There is no injustice or unfairness with God.
How do I know this? I believe God. I believe His word, the Bible, because I made a commitment before baptism, to God and to myself, to believe Him. I believe God when He says He cannot lie (Titus 1:1-2, Hebrews 6:17-18). And God says of Himself, in the Bible, that He is righteous, just, and fair.
So the question is not, is God fair. I already know, and anyone who has committed himself or herself to believe God should know, God is fair. The question is, how? Since God is fair and just, why will He punish mankind in the great tribulation and the Day of the Lord for their sins when He knows that the majority of mankind is blinded by Satan and cannot come to Christ unless God draws them (John 6:44, 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, 2 Corinthians 3:14-15, Romans 11:25, Romans 11:7-8, John 12:37-40, Matthew 13:10-17, Revelation 12:9). How is this fair?
A Catholic or Protestant might work on Saturday, go to church on Sunday, observe Christmas and Easter, and pray to images and think he is pleasing God. He doesn't know. Satan has deceived him, and unless God calls him and opens his mind, he cannot know the truth. In a sense, he can't help being deceived. How is God fair to punish him in the tribulation for things he does wrong when he doesn't know better and CAN'T know he is doing anything wrong? Why should he be punished for not understanding what he is not allowed to understand?
The Day of Trumpets is coming up soon, and that day represents the resurrection of the saints and the return of Christ, but it also represents the Day of the Lord, a time when God punishes the world for its sins. The Day of Atonement is also coming soon, a day that represents the putting away of Satan, the one who deceives the world into sinning.
Satan deceives mankind in many ways. He tempts us and leads us to sin. Even in the Church, Satan tempts us and we have human nature. Satan is the great deceiver and tempter, and he even led one third of God's angels into sin (Revelation 12:3-4).
Who is responsible for our sins, Satan who temps us or we who sin?
It is a shared responsibility. Both Satan and we are responsible for our sins. Satan is responsible for tempting us and we are responsible for yielding to the temptation. You might say one-half of the guilt is on Satan and one-half is on us, as a rough illustration.
The two goats Israel sacrificed for the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament illustrates this (Leviticus 16:1-34). The goat that goes into the wilderness represents Satan, and the goat that is killed represents Christ. Our sins are on both goats. Satan bears his own guilt for causing us to sin, but Christ pays the penalty for our share of the guilt.
Christ gives a general principle regarding our level of guilt, and punishment, for our sins. "And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few" (Luke 12:47-48).
The more we know, the more we are able to do right, the greater our punishment if we do wrong. That seems fair.
But what is meant by "few stripes" and "many stripes"? I suppose most people would think of the great tribulation as "many stripes" because the suffering will be so great. I am not so sure that is the case.
I think the "few stripes", the lesser punishment, would be the suffering of this physical life including the tribulation, or corrective punishment during the white throne judgment period. What then would be the "many stripes", the greater punishment? The lake of fire. So if a person is not called and never is able to know the truth in this age, if he sins because he doesn't and can't know better, the worst that will happen to him is the suffering of the tribulation, or the Day of the Lord, and the first death, but he can't lose out on salvation as long as he is blinded.
But if a person is called or able to know the truth, but rejects it, refuses to repent, and deliberately and willfully chooses a life of sin, that person is in danger of the "many stripes", the lake of fire, which is so much worse than the tribulation that there is hardly any comparison. One who just goes through the tribulation will suffer and die but can still enjoy eternal life if he repents in the white throne judgment, but one who dies in the lake of fire loses that eternity permanently. There can be no worse fate for humans.
I don't say that this is the only application of the "few stripes" and "many stripes" passage. That passage illustrates a general principle of God's justice and God's thinking and can be applied to many situations, but this may be one application of that principle.
But this leaves the question, why punish deceived people at all?
I think there are two answers that work together.
Even a deceived person is guilty to a degree. Satan deceives, Satan tempts, but the person does the wrong. Satan leads us to sin, but we give in to it, even unconsciously, even if we are deceived, I think.
For example, a religious Catholic or Protestant celebrates Christmas and thinks he is serving God. Consciously, he tells himself he is doing right. But the heart of man is evil and deceitful and we can deceive our own selves (Jeremiah 17:9). We bury things in our own minds we don't want to face. But at some unconscious or sub-conscious level, the person knows he has not really spent time studying the Bible and believing what God says. He knows he is letting his church do his thinking for him, putting his church in greater control over his life than the Bible. But he buries that thought in the subconscious mind because he doesn't want to face it, and it is Satan who leads him to do it.
He might have come across the information that Christmas is pagan, but as soon as the thought enters his mind, he thinks, "what would my friends think if I stopped observing Christmas?" He can't stand that thought, so his mind searches for a rationalization, some excuse for keeping Christmas, a way he can escape facing the truth, and Satan supplies it - "my church has studied it more than I have and they must be right".
My point is, a deceived person is not totally free from guilt even when Satan deceives him. He is LESS guilty by comparison with someone who knows the truth, but he is not entirely guilt free.
Consider an atheist Nazi military officer in Hitler's army fighting, killing, and oppressing others. He is deceived by Satan into thinking there is no God. But he still knows he is hurting others, but does it anyway because he cares more about his own happiness than that of others. That brings guilt upon him, even though he is deceived.
A selfish man is guilty, even if Satan teaches him to be selfish - the man knows he is hurting other people and he doesn't care, thus he deserves to be hurt himself as he has hurt others.
But more importantly, God uses punishment to teach us lessons for our own good.
Suppose you have a child that wants to play with matches. To teach a lesson, to save the child from burning himself (and your whole house with you and your whole family in it), you may have to punish. But you are not thinking, the child deserves to be punished. You are thinking, I want to TEACH the child so that I can protect him (and others) from harm.
God uses suffering and punishment as a teaching tool.
God's purpose is to teach mankind the consequences of his acts. It is for this reason God allows Satan to deceive mankind for six thousand years so we get a bellyful of Satan's way, so we learn the lesson for eternity that Satan's way brings suffering.
But for that teaching process to work to full effect, God has to be a true witness. He has to let us reap what we sow, even when He knows that Satan is deceiving us into sin. He can't let us off the hook completely just because "we didn't know". If He did that, we wouldn't learn the lesson as deeply as He wants us to learn it.
If God removed ALL the consequences of our sins, He would be giving us a false witness to the effects of sin. Deceived or not, we commit acts that bring wrong consequences, and God wants us to learn the hard way what those consequences are.
The way the human mind works, we will not accept the truth unless it is strongly impressed on us with suffering. Mankind has to experience suffering to learn for eternity the consequences of sin. It is humbling, but it is part of the way God shapes our character.
God uses the process of sin-judgment-penalty as a teaching tool to develop character in the human race.
Paul wrote, "But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unjust who inflicts wrath? (I speak as a man.) Certainly not! For then how will God judge the world?" (Romans 3:5-6). Also, look at Romans chapters 9, 10, and 11. For example, "What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.' So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, 'For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.' Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?' But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, 'Why have you made me like this?' Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?" (Romans 9:14-24). I don't claim to understand every aspect of Romans chapters 9, 10, and 11. But this does indicate God knows what He is doing, that He can work things out to teach us lessons and to work out His will, and that as our Creator He has the right to work things out as He chooses.
My understanding of this is that God's judgments, for those deceived, is for teaching, and for that teaching process to work, God has to judge the world for its sins even when it is deceived.
But lessons God teaches the world, through judgment and punishment, includes a warning, which is part of the lesson, a warning people will take to heart in the white throne judgment: if God punished so severely when you did NOT know the truth, how much greater will he punish you now after you know the truth if you refuse to repent. That warning is about the lake of fire.
God uses suffering as a tool, to test people and to teach them lessons. Even the innocent suffer (Christ suffered), and Christians go through trials of suffering not always in punishment for sin. How much more can God use the suffering of punishment to teach lessons to those who all their lives have lived selfishly even though Satan has deceived them into thinking the selfish way is best?
God is fair, and His coming punishment of the world for its sins, represented by Trumpets, is fair. After Satan is put away and is no longer able to deceive mankind, those who have survived to live into the millennium will remember the suffering of the last years of this age, and without Satan to deceive them, they will be able to learn the right lessons from it and know that God corrected them for their long-term good.
Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:
The Day of Trumpets - the Second Coming of Christ, Chapter 2
The Day of Atonement - the Putting Away of Satan, Chapter 2