Last night, at a young adults group I lead, we got into a discussion about the violence of certain Old Testament texts and how we are to understand/reconcile these with the ethics of Jesus. This led to a discussion of various other evils—from personal struggles down to the most grievous of historical calamities. It was a good discussion, and I was greatly encouraged by the maturity of their views about God, evil, redemption, and hope.
But at times, even with some good theological tools to work with and a strong faith in a God who is bringing and will finally bring good out of evil, it can be tempting to move toward despair, to wonder what God has done/is doing with this planet. As I was beavering away on a sermon today, I recalled this passage from John Stott’s The Cross of Christ that I encountered a while back. Food for thought, as we prepare to enter the Easter season:
I could not myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as “God on the cross.” In the real world of pain, how cold one worship a God immune to it…. I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. “The cross of Christ… is God’s only self-justification in such a world” as ours.
I think that Jesus is not less violent than God as presented in the Old Testament. In John’s vision, for example, he comes drenched in blood, the blood of Edomites that he had slain. Jesus is not more merciful than God as presented in the Old Testament. In spite of the violence in the Old Testament, the books describe God as merciful, not violent, and humanity as lacking mercy. (That is the point of Jonah, for example.)
We cannot justify God to the modern world. God is immoral to modern western sensibilities. We think of ourselves as morally superior to God.
It is odd that we do not apply the same moral scrutiny to natural selection. Or perhaps we do. We cannot justify the morality of the process through which we evolved and so we say that it is inconceivable that a just, or moral, or loving or merciful God is behind such a reality. That is the position Darwin took. It is an indirect condemnation of natural selection. It is a justification for disbelief in God.
Nietzsche did ridicule Stot’s god. But I don’t think Stot’s god, even though crucified, is the one described in the Bible. Stot’s god, his Jesus, is the one Robert Bellah, for example, described, the god of the therapeutic culture of modernity.
I think something definitely changes with Jesus. I think you’re right to say that mercy is part of the character of God in both testaments, but Jesus’ understanding of violence certainly seems like a departure from how God had been willing to work in the past. Being a good Anabaptist :), I would be hesitant to take John’s apocalypse as the best source for understanding how Jesus thought about violence. As you are no doubt aware, Revelation is a notoriously difficult book to interpret, and uses highly symbolic and politically-charged language. That’s not to say it should be ignored, but the gospels—and the Sermon on the Mount in particular—seem a better starting point in identifying Jesus’ character to me.
I agree—to a point. I don’t think it is our task to “justify God,” but I do think we can remove obstacles to belief. This isn’t about making God “palatable” to modern sensibilities—I think there will be aspects of God’s revelation in Scripture that will always seem immoral to us, whether or not we would call ourselves Christians—but I think that if we do believe that God is fundamentally good, that he is for us, and that the goal of the whole story is a future of peace and justice and safety and love, then we will always try to present these elements of the story (and of God’s character) as primary.
I’m curious to hear more here—I haven’t often heard John Stott accused of being untrue to the Bible or of describing a “therapeutic” God.
“Nietzsche did ridicule Stot’s god”
Did Nietzsche ridicule a god or just not Stot`s God. It`s been a long time since I have read any Nietzsche.
You wrote: “I think something definitely changes with Jesus.” I am not sure how to pin down the reason that we see this differently. I suppose my impression is influenced by two main things – (1) I tend to see Jesus as Schwietzer did, and as Paula Fredriksen does, as an apocalyptic figure rather than a moral figure., and (2) my study of the Hebrew Bible in a Judaic Studies program at a public university gave me a different view of the presentation of God in the Old Testament that is perhaps somewhat different from the view common in Christianity. As a result, I don’t think of God in the Old Testament as violent and I don’t think of Jesus as a moralist. Even the sermon on the mount seems more likely to be symbolic of the coming of the apocalypse rather than as a form of morality.
I have not read and am not familiar with Stot, I was only reacting to the quoted passage. In the passage it sounds like his God is primarily one who “feels our pain.” That suggested the therapeutic god to me. In Nietzsche’s writing it has always sounded to me like he was rejecting a modern version of God. The god he rejected is quite different from the one I studied in Judaic Studies and and his Jesus quite different from the one Schweitzer described. He did reject the one Stot appears to admire. (I think it is fair to say that Schweitzer and the Judaic Studies program were interested in history, in how God was understood a long time ago.)
Our difference in the way we see Jesus may also have to do with theological differences, things in our backgrounds, of which each of us is probably only partly aware.
I do not mean to imply that Jesus is violent, only no less violent than and just as merciful as the God is in the Old Testament. And I think your analysis of our attempts to overcome obstacles to belief is important and sound.
JC: Hopefully what I wrote here clarifies what I wrote about Nietzsche.
I don’t think that Jesus is either an apocalyptic figure or a moral one. I think there’s room for both and both can emphases can be found in the gospels. From what I know of Schweitzer, his life certainly seems to bear witness to the importance he attached to Jesus’ moral teaching.
Re: Stott, I can see how the quote could lead to a “therapeutic” interpretation. All I can say is that the rest of Stott’s book would hardly lead to this conclusion, at least in my opinion. It’s a pretty straightforward evangelical understanding of Jesus, I think—one I’m not entirely comfortable with at times.
One more thing: I said that I think “something changes with Jesus.” I hope I didn’t imply some kind of a radical split between the God of the OT and the NT. I do think that Jesus represents an important turn in the story—the most important turn—and that God is seen most clearly in Jesus. But I do appreciate the reminder that the same God is revealed in both testaments.
Thank you. I agree with what you wrote about Schweitzer. And you did not imply a radical split between God in the OT and God or Jesus in the New Testament, only an important turn, the most important turn, as you have written. Seeing it as the most important turn is certainly the path of Christianity. It is my tendency, not yours, to deviate from that path. In reading your words and mine I am reminded that the result of my studies has been my own increased focus on the Old Testament and a reduction in the importance I once associated with the New Testament.