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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:
- Text: What it says.
- Subtext: What it actually means
- 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.