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    August 27th, 2012 @ 1:51 pm by Kevin

    This is turning into quite the rabbit trail, so let me quickly retrace the path for you.

    • On August 18 I posted an outtake from Justin Taylor’s interview for Hellbound?, which asked whether Calvinism turns God into a moral monster.
    • Two days later, Justin Taylor posted a brief response to the video, in which he appended his defense of the Calvinist view and criticized my line of questioning in the video as invalid.
    • That same day, I posted a long response to Justin’s response, wherein I defending my line of reasoning and pushed it even further.
    • Two days later, Patheos blogger David French weighed in, supporting Justin’s position that there is no contradiction between a God who kills his enemies while at the same time asking us to love ours.
    • The next day, I responded to what I see as the inherent contradictions in David French’s argument and his invalid use of Scripture to support his claims.
    • The following day, David responded to me, claiming that I essentially missed his point.

    At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’m going to offer a not-so-brief response to David here. Normally, I wouldn’t carry things on this far, but how we conceive of God’s character is fundamental to the discussion of hell, so I think it’s important we continue this exchange until we reach some sort of terminus. So here we go…

    In his latest post, David begins by offering an explanation for the seeming contradiction between a God who smites his enemies but who asks us to love ours.

    Put simply, it is this: God imposes one standard on his fallen children who have imperfect knowledge and reserves another standard for Himself, as architect of the universe.

    This makes sense in light of our own experience, David argues. For example, he has one set of rules for himself and another set of rules for his four-year-old daughter. Just as there is a huge gap between David’s understanding of the world and his daughter’s understanding of the world, imagine how much larger the gap is between our understanding and God’s. So it’s only right that God would reserve certain behaviors for himself, just as we prohibit our children from engaging in certain behaviors in which we freely indulge.

    At first blush, it seems like a reasonable argument. But take a moment to think about it, and you’ll realize David’s analogy is completely spurious. Of course he allows himself more freedom than his four-year-old daughter, but this is a difference of degree, not a difference in kind. David may order his daughter to bed at 8:00, even though he stays up until 11. She has to ride in a car seat while he merely wears a seat belt, and so on. But he doesn’t tell his daughter not to lie–and then cheat on his income taxes. He doesn’t teach her about the sanctity of marriage–and then cheat on his wife. He doesn’t forbid her to kill her siblings–and then execute one of his offspring if they happen to transgress one of his commands. And yet, this is exactly what he is saying God does when he commands us to love our enemies but then destroys his enemies or plans to destroy or torment them forever in hell. This isn’t a difference in the degree of freedom God allows us; it’s a difference in kind. Put simply, David’s God isn’t just a moral monster, he’s a hypocrite!

    To further bolster his spurious claims, David rattles off a list of Scripture passages–from the Flood to the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts–that appear to support his view of a violent God who directly assaults his enemies. According to David, anyone who disputes his interpretation of these passages is merely suffering from “the overwhelming cultural power of moralist therapeutic deism, the cult of self-esteem, and our own persistent self-love.” If only we had a proper understanding of God’s holiness and the utter depravity of our sin, then we would be amazed we don’t find even more smiting within the pages of Scripture. Finally, David brings out his ultimate trump card: “the wrath [God] poured out on His own, innocent Son as His Son atoned for our sins.”

    Game, set and match. Or is it?

    Strangely, David seems completely unaware that a great number of Christians throughout the ages have interpreted these “plainly understandable” texts in vastly different ways. And you can’t simply write them off as suffering from the “overwhelming cultural power of moralist therapeutic deism, the cult of self-esteem, and our own persistent self-love.” Consider Irenaeus or Gregory of Nyssa, for example. They would find his interpretation of the Old Testament and the crucifixion of Christ completely foreign–possibly even heretical. Even modern paragons of orthodoxy,  such as C. S. Lewis, would vehemently disagree with David’s position.

    Admittedly, it’s easy to see how a simplistic, literal reading of the Old Testament in particular could lead one to believe that God is violent. But why would you possibly want to read the Bible that way? That’s not how we read Shakespeare or Plato’s Republic or any other ancient text. We don’t just go with the surface reading and leave it at that. Sophisticated readers realize there are three parts to every piece of writing:

    1. Text: What it says.
    2. Subtext: What it actually means
    3. Context: The historical, cultural and literary surroundings that act as the Rosetta Stone to help us discern text from subtext.

    If you just go with the surface meaning of a text and fail to take into account its historical, cultural and literary conversation partners, you’re guaranteed to come away with a vastly distorted interpretation.

    Take David’s example of the Flood. A simplistic, surface reading would lead you to believe at one point God literally flooded the earth and wiped out all of humanity except for Noah and his family. This is the way it was taught to me in Sunday school. But if you study the context of this story, which was likely written and edited while the Jews were captive in Babylon, you begin to see things quite differently. Especially when you become familiar with other ancient flood narratives–such as the one found in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, which is possibly an adaptation of an even earlier flood narrative from the Epic of Atrahasis. Instead of seeing the biblical flood as descriptive of God’s actions, you realize the biblical account consistently subverts these earlier stories in order to show the captive Jews that their God in no way resembles the violent Babylonian gods who are consistently conspiring against humanity and each other. In fact, the entire primeval history of Genesis (chapters 1-11) follows a similar pattern. It adapts pre-existing myths in order to serve as an apologetic against the violent creation stories told by other near Eastern religions–and the violent cultures that arise from such myths.

    To press home the point that God is unlike the bloodthirsty pagan gods that surround them, the writers of Genesis depict a God who literally calls Abraham out of that culture and then dramatically demonstrates his true nature by refusing to accept the sacrifice of Isaac. Adam and Eve got into trouble because they withheld their obedience from God. They viewed God through pagan eyes, as someone who was out to get them. So they ate the forbidden fruit as a sort of “preemptive strike.” The result was a culture soaked in blood and violence that never stopped striving to overcome God.

    Set free from such darkened thinking, Abraham holds back nothing–not even his son. As a result, he becomes a blessing to the the entire world, because his radical obedience is the only antidote to the self-destructive culture fueled by delusional beliefs in a wrathful, violent god who must be either outwitted or appeased.

    Ironically, this is exactly the type of god that David and his ilk are defending. Not the Christian or even the Hebrew God who not only teaches us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves but who demonstrates his own love for sinners by doing the same. Rather, they defend an entirely pagan view of god who demands satisfaction and sacrifice–even human sacrifice–a god who still sees humanity as a rival that must be either subdued or destroyed. I don’t know any other way to say it except that their view utterly negates the gospel. As my friend Archbishop Lazar Puhalo said recently,

    If Christ was punished on our behalf, then God does not forgive us. Punishment and forgiveness are mutually exclusive. If punishment was meted out even vicariously, then there cannot be forgiveness. Forgiveness precludes any form of punishment. Punishment precludes forgiveness. The father of the prodigal son did not say, ‘First I will beat you, and then I will take you back into my house.’ Rather, his forgiveness followed the son the day he left his father. It did not originate the day he returned. The father had already forgiven and waited every day at the top of the road, hoping that his son would come back and be embraced by that love and forgiveness.

    To that I would add a paraphrase of something Brian Zahnd said in response to Archbishop Lazar’s comments: A retelling of the prodigal son story according to David’s way of thinking would require the father to first “satisfy his wrath” upon the elder son before he could welcome home his wayward son.

    Granted, throughout the biblical text we see a number of competing voices. Some press for the pagan view of a violent God, which is why you’ll see many of the biblical writers attributing such events as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the deaths of Nadab and Abihu to God. But these voices are consistently challenged by other voices that seek to expose the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of this view.

    Of course, the ultimate protest against our violent images of God is Jesus’ death on the cross. Because David is still clinging to a pagan view of God, he can’t help but see the crucifixion as a demonstration of God’s wrath against sin. Instead, I think it’s more consistent with the overall thrust of the biblical narrative to see it as a demonstration of our wrath against God when he confronts us with our addiction to violence, justified by our belief in a violent God. To further demonstrate this fact, when Christ returns from the dead, rather than seek vengeance against us–which is exactly what we would expect from David’s God–he proclaims reconciliation and forgiveness for all people. This is why Christ’s blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24), which uttered a cry for vengeance that God refused to honor.

    I can agree with David on a couple of things: Our sin is no small matter. And in light of our wickedness, God’s grace is truly amazing. Just as amazing to me though is how difficult it is for us to appreciate God’s grace for what it actually is–a gift freely given by a Father who has never stopped loving us rather than a mere concession granted by a violent deity whose wrath has finally been appeased.

leave a comment on this post (23 Comments)

  1. Outstanding!

    In particular, I appreciate what you say about Genesis 1-11, talking about those chapters as the Jewish way of taking pagan stories and telling an entirely different theological narrative with them. I think that’s a good place to start with the understanding of what the Bible is all about–a revolutionary new way to think about God.

    God has deep anger toward sin–the same kind of anger a dad has towards habits, attitudes, and destructive desires that his children have, not because he’s inherently vengeful or angry, but because he loves his children and wants to set them free. And so, in reality, the Cross is the application of that anger–in Jesus choosing to live lovingly, nonviolently, and to die and rise again, offering forgiveness, God delivers the ultimate counter-strike to sin, violence, evil, darkness, and death.

    God is not angry at sin against us; God is angry at sin because of how precious we are to Him, and He will NOT stop until He has won every one of us back from its clutches!

  2. I know it can seem redundant to lay these points out again and again, but thanks for taking the time for it Kevin. This is important work–you aren’t just counting pin-headed angels–you are pondering the very essence of the God whose nature was revealed in Christ. Who we worship determines our vision of justice in the world and it always, always trickles down and passes through the flesh of human agency … for great good or horrendous evil.

    My two cents: it is God’s prerogative (alone) to be the mighty smiter, but it is God’s nature to be the relentless Lover. God’s nature trumps His prerogative–Gods mercy ultimately triumphs over judgement.

  3. Great post!
    I just want to add a word to your “Context” bullet point: Genre. I get that you meant that with “literary surroundings”, but I find the word Genre helpful since it’s a term that most people use.

  4. The question I never had posed to me as a Calvinist who believed that Christ received the wrath of God in my stead for my salvation was:
    Did Christ need to die in order for the Father to love me? Or was it because God loved me that Christ was sent to die for me? To put it another way, do Calvinists read over the text of John 3:16, “God so hated the world and His wrath and anger were against the world that He sent His only Son to die so that He might be able to love it?”

  5. “Couldn’t be more wrong” has a Pharisaical tone to it – given that we all “know in part.” I agree with David in his “parental” understanding of God. I agree with Kevin in consideration of parsing age-old writing.
    Broken vessels are God’s choice to reveal ultimate and pure truth. Such a miracle. David seems bi-polar writing his poetry. Paul keeps pi$$ing off people like Peter, Barnabas and early church leaders (but he’s a teddy bear in person). Martin Luther wants to toss out James and Hebrews, but they stay.
    That main resource is still with us accompanied by a mystical presence that conveys the “I have much more to say…more than you can now bear…”
    Iron on iron!

    • I appreciate the feedback, Jeff. Sometimes you need to overstate the point in order to make it (hence the title of this post). However, seeing as I believe David and those who share his beliefs have essentially inverted the gospel, it’s an apt description of the difference between us. In other words, I don’t think the charge of Phariseeism is warranted seeing as I’m not making my beliefs a requirement for salvation.

  6. This post is frankly amazing. This makes sense. I am not being sarcastic.

    I am not a believer, but if I ever do convert, it will be because of statements like this. It will not be due to David French’s legalistic, murder-thirsty version of God.

    This was a real breath of fresh air.

    • Believers, such as myself, amazingly, have more in common with atheists who do not subscribe to blood thirsty gods, than we do with fellow Christians who see God’s character in this way. How wild is that!

      Sadly, this makes the blood thirsty god believers angry. And I don’t know what to do about that.

  7. Praise God. Well said. Amen!

  8. The law of sin and death had ist way on an innocent man as Jesus freely laid his life down. He paid sin of in his Body so that we do not owe it anything.
    We must not Forget that all OT sacrifices are shadows of the one to come.
    He is the one sacrifice that could take away sin forever – no wonder it pleased the father “to bruse” him (just like Jesus endured because of the joy sat before3 him) – it is us and us free.

  9. You and your readers might enjoy these sites that are along a similar vein: http://thegoodnessofgod.com/ http://nodarknessatall.com/

    • Christine. That No Darkness at All site looks very good. Thanks for sharing.

      • I can’t buy into the concept of knoinwg the truth only in the future, at the end of time. That is a neo hardshell baptist concept of not knoinwg when you are justified because to them you are only justified in heaven, and not on earth. I believe in divine revelation and the power of the gospel to cut the heart of man. The elect will hear Christ’s voice in this life and that truth will set them free.

  10. Kevin,
    – Standing ovation –

    While we may have some minor differences, I whole heartily agree that God was not punishing an innocent man so that he would not have to punish the wicked. He was in Christ Jesus reconciling his enemies to himself – and that he did. And if he did that, how much more shall those reconciled be saved?

    Excellent pots Kevin.


    I’ve enjoyed reading “Hope Beyond Hell” by Gerry Beauchemin and other books of research that I have studied such as “Christ Triumphant”, by Thomas Allin (19th century Church of England minister and scholar), that reveal the truth of U/R-THE ULTIMATE AND UNIVERSAL RECONCILIATION OF ALL. The Literal Translation of the Bible confirms this, and the overwhelming majority of the Church Fathers in the primative, Apostolic Church (Catholic means Universal in Latin) taught and believed U/R for the first 5 centuries of church history (although some of the Church Fathers believed in keeping the final universal reconciliation in “reserve” for the “esoteric scholarly saints”, for fear that this truth might lead to more evil and crimes amoung the heathen–using a scripture, “don’t cast your pearls before swine”, as a reason).

    I first came to this Truth in 1971, after finding and studying: “Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible and “Young’s Analytical Concordance of the Bible”. The Holy Spirit led me to this “Apostolic Truth”, and has given me perfect assurance–”but when comes that One, The Spirit of Truth, He will guide you into all truth…”John 16:13. Years of intense research have only confirmed what the Primative Apostolic Church taught and believed.

    I only hope that this movie (whatever it depicts Hell as) will not mislead people into thinking that there is no Hell at all–that Hell is only unconsciouness in the grave. The Bible does not teach this, neither did the Primative Church; but that Hell is a real place to purge away sinfulness, evils, and wickedness–not punish souls forever!

  12. I will add to Phillip and other’s comments concerning the plain truth that “GOD WILL (not desires, wishes, or wants–as some translations have it) HAVE ALL MANKIND TO BE SAVED AND COME TO THE FULL KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH” (future tense, of course) 1 Timothy 2:4. The Greek word (thelo,thelei,thelema) in a good Greek lexicon and in comparison to other Biblical Greek references is always the stronger verb “to will” (as the KJV and Young’s Literal Translation have it), rather than “to wish or desire”-(boulomai,boulei) in Greek. Luke 22:42 bears this out where Jesus prays: “Father, if you desire(boulei),take this cup from me; yet not my will(thelema),but yours be done.”

    • Plus the covenant that God made with Abraham mentioned in Acts 3 where God promised to bring all of Abraham’s seed and all the families of the earth (being everybody) away from their wickedness. Also at the end of Acts where it says “let them who have eyes to see, see…. and the nations WILL see”!

      Plus… plus. We’ll it’s all throughout the text.

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