What Kind of God is This?!
Those who know me well will attest to the fact that the question of how we think about the nature of God is important to me. Like, really important. Like, it’s the fundamental reality behind almost every significant theological, anthropological, exegetical, hermeneutical issue we get excited about. Like, it’s implicitly or explicitly operative behind nearly every pressing existential question we spend time agonizing over. Like, it affects how we relate to and understand others (especially those who are different from us!), how we understand and exercise power, how we parent, worship, pray… How we think about who God is, what God is like, and how God relates to human beings matters. A lot.
The truth of this has been borne out in spades as I have observed some of the online fallout around the Hellbound? film I saw last week (and wrote about here). Against my better judgment, I have been reading articles and listening to podcasts by some of the film’s more ardent conservative critics. At times, these folks have made legitimate points and asked good questions. Why, for example, use the freak show that is Westboro Baptist as representative of conservative positions on hell? Does the mere existence of a diversity of viewpoints on hell mean that all are equally valid or that the truth of the matter cannot be known? Do we operate like this in any other realm of human inquiry? What are the assumptions around the role and authority of Scripture at work in the film? Fair questions, all.
But more often than not, these critiques of the film tend to degenerate into some version of “we read the Bible correctly and you don’t.” What usually happens is we are presented with a barrage of bible verses outlining precisely how and why “eternal conscious torment” is the only correct position on hell and how anyone who doesn’t agree has a liberal agenda or doesn’t take the Bible seriously or is “influenced by the Enlightenment” (as if any of us weren’t!) or is going soft on sin, has a weak view of the atonement, etc, etc. Films like Hellbound? are labeled “dangerous” (or worse) because they direct attention away from the “clear teaching of Scripture” which is that those who do not accept Jesus as their personal Saviour will burn eternally in hell.
What I often feel like saying about midway through one of these articles/podcasts is this: Ok, let’s just temporarily bracket the question of what the Bible “clearly” teaches. Just for a minute—we’ll come right back… We won’t be gone long, I promise. The Bible is important, but let’s just take a step back and ask ourselves, What kind of God is this?! If a human parent treated their children in the way that we describe God as behaving, how would we react? If a human parent were to say, “I love you but if you do not respond in the correct way to my love, I will torture you” what would we say? Mostly likely, we would want to see them locked up as dangerous, insane, or both. Yet so many people seem to have no problem in affirming this sort of behaviour in God and calling it good news! Indeed, some seem to virtually take pleasure in it! It boggles the mind.
Of course, reason and human experience are not trump cards in theology, nor do they take precedence over (our profoundly limited and highly contextual interpretations of) Scripture. But neither are they irrelevant. They can and do have a role to play in the life of faith. They can and do affect the kinds of questions we come to Scripture with and the kinds of answers we will entertain. And if what we are saying about the nature and character of God would be offensive and immoral when referring to any human being in any other domain of life, it is at least worth asking some questions. Questions like: Might there be other ways to understand Scripture? Have others thought differently about this? How? Why? Is my opinion on this matter central or peripheral in the life of faith? The list could (and should) go on.
A basic theological principle that I unapologetically operate with is that God is lovelier, wiser, more beautiful, true, and just than I can understand or imagine. The view of God set forth by some of the critics of Hellbound? I have come across this week fails on each of these counts. The God they advocate seems absolutely monstrous to me, and utterly unlike the God I see in Jesus Christ. Such a God can certainly be feared, possibly even worshiped, but loved? I don’t see how. Can genuine love be the result of force or the threat of punishment? Can true love be the product of fear? Is that how (or why) I would want to be loved?
In Matthew 7, near the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says these words to those gathered on the hillside:
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Is it too much of a stretch to apply this logic to the question of how we think about God? If we, who are sinful and limited in so many ways, understand a little bit about love, justice, truth, beauty and wisdom and can periodically make stumbling efforts to make these a reality in our world, how much more and in how much more complete and true a fashion will the God of the universe do the same?
How much more? Not less. More.