Abraham Sacrificing Issac by Laurent de La Hire
Photo Credit: Carol Gerten-Jackson
By Aaron Gaglia (@GagliaAC)
I have noticed recently how some Christians have been writing about how our beliefs about God have a moral impact on what type of people we are. Belief in a violent god leads to being a violent person; whereas belief in a peaceful god leads to being a nonviolent person. This idea in and of itself is not a new idea. The aberrant morality of many pagan gods and the taboo practices used to worship these gods is a good example of this. This idea that we become like what we worship is even found in Scripture. Yet the perfection of the God of the Bible is traditionally understood as the flip side of this coin. Yahweh is gracious and loving. Yahweh is not cruel. Worship him and you will become more like Him.
Yet now Christians are applying this idea to the Christian God. An example of this was Rachel Held Evans’ blog post entitled, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart”, in which she spoke of the importance of not only “intellectual integrity” but also “emotional integrity.” In speaking about the genocide in Joshua, she wrote, “’But genocide always bothers me…especially when it’s in the Bible. And I get the idea that maybe it’s supposed to. I get the idea that maybe God created me to be bothered by evil like that, even when it’s said to have been orchestrated by God.’” In addition to this example, she cites the Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty over evil and eternal torment of non-believers in hell as examples of cruelty she could not accept. Our theological views must line up with our innate emotional reaction to hate and injustice. Our belief in God must be based on our view of what is loving and just. Showing the moral implications of these beliefs, she begins her blog post with this quote from Thomas Paine: “Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”
The intellectualization of belief is indeed very dangerous. We must feel our beliefs in our hearts and not merely in our minds. It is not enough to merely intellectually believe something. Actions and feelings must accompany it. Our belief in God must encompass and include our God-given ability to recognize the good and the beautiful. The God we believe in must match up with what we know to be good and beautiful. Yet is there human consensus on what is good and beautiful? Sadly, there is not.
Our pluralistic world is a living testament that we do not agree on what is right and beautiful. Heated and emotional arguments over abortion and homosexuality attest to this reality. Even more so, radical Islam terrorist groups and Christian white supremacist groups muddy the waters even more. In addition to living in a world where we don’t do what we ought to do, we live in a world where we do not know what we ought to do and believe.
Whether our beliefs exploit other humans for our own purposes or elevate the individual to supreme, we inhabit a nebulous ethical space. Many will say that society is corrupted and we must free ourself from society and look within for guidance. Yet when we look within, we just seek a concentrated dosage of our society’s corruption. We see the corrupt cog that makes the machine of exploitation so effective. To look within, we will find only more confusion and muddied clarity. Thus, we must look without—we must look outside of ourselves. We must let God tell us who He is. We must let God tell us what is good and beautiful. Instead of fitting God into our view of justice, we must glean our view of justice from God.
In Exodus 34:6-7, God reveals His name; He reveals His character. “The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘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.’” These verses give us a quick summary of God’s character. He is characterized by faithful, committed love unto his people. He is full of mercy and grace, withholding from mankind what they deserve and giving them what they don’t deserve. Yet God further describes who He is. He is a God who will punish the guilty. He will not just look the other way at evil; he will punish it. Any idea of justice that does not include punitive wrath is incomplete. We must get our ideas of what is fair and what is not fair from God and not from our marred minds and intuitions.
Since this is a very confusing and controversial topic, let me clarify a few things. I am not saying that humans have no way of understanding what is good and beautiful. Each human has a conscience and an innate understanding of what is right and what is wrong. Yet our world is a testament to the fact that humans suppress and reject this knowledge on both a conscious and unconscious level, some more than others. Though I believe many humans arrive to aspects of the truth apart from special revelation, our broken minds and hearts muddy the truth. Thus we need God to reveal His truth to us.
Furthermore, I would argue that due to the transcendence of God, there are certain things about God that are simply impossible to intuit. If we imagined a God solely with our intellect, he would look much more human than He actually is. Scripture makes it clear that his ways are higher than our ways and this is a truth we must submit to. I would also argue that God can morally do things we cannot do. Romans 12:19 is an excellent example of this: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (ESV) Being perfect and sinless, God is able to exact judgment in a way that sinful humans are not able to. I am not saying that God could arbitrarily do whatever he wants and it would be just, but that all His actions, stemming from His perfect character, are just even though our finite minds cannot fully understand them.
Yet at the same time, we must not play the trump card, “God does what he pleases” whenever God does something we do not understand. We must seek to understand the narratives or teachings in Scripture that seem to contradict each other. We must avoid both the above extreme and the other extreme of pitting Scripture against itself and choosing the Scripture that fits with our ideas of love and justice. We must put in the work and prayer to understand the antimonies of Scripture and understand the justice of God’s actions that seem unjust, yet submit to God and His Word even if we do not understand completely.
God showed us his love, power, and faithfulness by defeating death through His death and resurrection. God’s Spirit testifies to our spirit that Jesus is indeed raised from the dead and we have new life in Him. This truth frees us in the midst of our doubts. Because of God’s proven love and faithfulness, we must not suspend our belief when plagued with doubt, but mudy will ourselves to believe that God is who he says He is even when it does not make sense to us. If we instead decide to suspend our beliefs because of doubts, eventually our view of God will morph far from who He really is.
Understood in the context of Mimetic Theory, one could argue that a belief in the punitive wrath of God will lead to believers who exact punitive wrath on others. Yet an understanding of the transcendence of God (or just the idea that the perfect God can do certain things that our sinfulness makes impossible for us to do), coupled with an understanding of the Gospel shows this is simply not true. The Cross is the great leveling plane that shows that all humans are sinful and in need of divine rescue. The gospel certainly includes divine wrath but definitely excludes and extinguishes human wrath. Any Christian who cites the wrath of God or his sovereignty over both good and evil in order to justify abuse or mistreatment of another human-being is grossly distorting Scripture and not being faithful to God’s character and the life He calls believers to live. May we as believers hold firmly, in both actions and words, to the true and beautiful God revealed to us in Scripture.