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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.

30 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kerby #

    Well said, Ryan. Until the critics answer these questions (and more like them) cogently in theory and practice, they will have little relevance to a world in need of less judgment and more love, less violence and more peace, less verbiage and more empathy. Keep up the good work!

    October 25, 2012
  2. Good point Ryan – one which I think the film has much to offer, especially the parts on peace and violence near the end. You push for a level of humility in our knowledge and understanding of God that is sadly lacking by many.

    I mentioned in my review that, perhaps unfairly, the Christian universalists come across as the only “sane” ones. But the numerous critiques you mention do seem to confirm the film’s bias. He probably wouldn’t do it, but what would a review of the film from someone like Tim Keller look like?

    October 26, 2012
    • Yes, it would have been interesting to see what the film would have looked like with a different selection of voices. I wonder, for example, about the wisdom/relevance of soliciting the opinions of death metal bands. All part of the balance between making an provocative (sensationalistic?) film and actually engaging the topic in a thoughtful and fair manner, I suppose.

      I actually wish Miller would have spent more time probing the links between our conceptions of hell and our understanding and exercise of power. And, as you say, the connection between hell and how we look at peace and violence. Perhaps he has given himself another film to make :).

      October 26, 2012
      • Yeah, the death metal stuff more entertaining than anything.

        And yes, several individuals didn’t pull punches on the relation between hell and power. I think it was The Shack author who implied belief in hell is all about authoritative control. Overstated, yes, but an important question nonetheless.

        October 26, 2012
    • Gil #

      At the Saskatoon showing Miller mentioned that he asked for an interview with Keller and was turned down. He also asked to talk to John Piper and Francis Chan; same result.

      October 26, 2012
      • Thanks Gil. I had heard about Chan, but not Piper or Keller. Not surprising though.

        October 26, 2012
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Not having seen the film but recognizing a response similar in tone to the one inspired by Rob Bell’s, “Love Wins”, I suspect your sup-positional phrase, “fair and thoughtful manner”, may be the culprit here.

    No one likes themselves or their ideas regarding truth, being cruelly caricatured. As you seem to infer here, Ryan, surely no serious advocate of what the totality of God’s justice might look like, deserves to be lumped in with “Hillsboro”. Likewise giving death metal advocates a “soapbox”, to speak from will likely inspire about as much constructive discourse as does giving one to Fred Phelps.

    Starting to sound to me like the filmmaker is more “smoke than light”. More about ticket sales than enlightened debate.

    When the entertainment business masquerades as purveyors of truth, the truth inevitably suffers. No one ever seems to go broke pandering to the potentially self absorbed excesses and often under informed positions, of youth culture.

    October 26, 2012
    • There may have been some caricaturing involved, but I wouldn’t call it “cruel.” A film is not a book or an article and does not have the same goals. A film seeks to entertain as well as to inform and provoke discussion. In that light, I continue to think that Hellbound? is a film worth watching. It’s not perfect, of course—there are things about it that could (should) have been better—but nothing made by human beings is perfect, is it?

      October 27, 2012
  4. Larry S #

    Ryan asks “Can genuine love be the result of force or the threat of punishment?” I think Ryan may be pushing against “fear of hell-fire” in eternal conscious torment as motivation to ‘accept Jesus and be saved so I can go to Heaven when I die’

    I’m wondering if it is possible to separate the ‘hell’ of eternal conscious torment from the ‘hell’ of God’s judgement (annihilation). Did the movie move in this direction? Or mention NT Wright’s dark musing in ‘Suprized by Hope’ where he speculates about God’s judgement as the loss of humanity but apparent continued existence of some sort.

    I can’t imagine the Triune God not judging evil. Universalism (as in everybody gets in) is as nonsensical to me as eternal conscious torment. I can see why the Catholics believe in purgatory – burn some of the evil out.

    October 26, 2012
    • No, the film didn’t deal with anything quite as nuanced as Wright’s view :). I find Wright’s view very compelling—it doesn’t take the easy way out of jettisoning judgment altogether, but it also doesn’t take the equally easy route of some of the more literalistic views of hell either.

      I can’t imagine God not judging evil either—I just don’t share some of these critics’ confidence that we know precisely what this judgment will look like (and for whom).

      October 27, 2012
  5. mike #

    ..Great thought-provoking post.. i have’nt seen this movie,but i’m famiIiar with the ensuing debates that swirl throughout Chrisendom whenever a Hollywood producer gets philosophical and the same time.. Sometimes these types of debates serve only to reinforce and perpetuate the warm cozy self-righteous religious side of our Egos ..(my)Truth is,we know very little if anything for certain about The Mystery we call God…we cling to the Jesus in our bibles and pray for safe passage,.. ..God help us all…

    October 30, 2012
    • Thanks, Mike. I love how you end your comment. We cling to Jesus and pray for safe passage. Beautiful.

      October 30, 2012
  6. Paul Johnston #

    I’ve been thinking about this and the related post a bit more, trying to offer something constructive. I find myself agreeing with the essential argument being offered, that relationships seem morally truer when grounded in love as opposed to being grounded in fear. The questions I still have though are, how is love fully, truly love, unless it is just? And how is justice fully, truly justice unless it is loving?

    My only instinct here, would be to mistrust arguments that advanced one ideal at the expense of the other.

    October 30, 2012
  7. Paul, yours is a view held by a large number (majority?) of Christians throughout church history. For example, I recall attending Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Laing Lectures at Regent College a number of years back, where – if my memory serves me correctly – he was also trying to maintain the tension between love and justice over against what he perceived as distortions of a Christian view that have been perpetuated over the past century or two, whether in favor of love or justice. However, I wonder if our theology can’t take a different approach. I always revert to Christology as a model for such things, where Christ is said to be “full of grace and truth”. Grace and truth are solid stand-ins for love and justice, and Christ did not have a “balanced” view but was “full” of both. Or to put it in Chalcedonian terms, Christ is 100% love and 100% justice. The language of balance distorts the conversation, in my opinion. I would suggest an approach more along the lines of Kierkegaard (despite Wolterstorff’s attempt to discredit his approach, spelled out in K’s Works of Love), where Kierkegaard argues that a life lived in concrete love actually fulfills – and here he argues in explicitly philosophical terms (as he usually does) – the terms of justice, truth, and many of the other virtues. Not to say love is easy – in fact, it is more difficult than justice – but I think Kierkegaard offers a cogent alternative to a “balanced” view. Thoughts?

    October 30, 2012
    • Excellent thoughts, Kerby. I very much like the move away from “balancing” justice and mercy (as if God were tormented internally… should I be just? No, wait, I should be merciful… Ah… I can’t decide!) and toward the person of Jesus who fully embodies both. Of course, this still leaves a lot of room for dialogue about the implications of this Christology for human relationships and social arrangements…

      October 30, 2012
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Kerby, I’m not sure how to respond here. 🙂 I read you and I and Ryan agreeing with the some variation of the proposition, that Christ (and by extension right Christian understanding) is both fully loving and fully just. For the record I am not advocating a balancing of distinctives but rather a proper synthesis of likes.

    October 31, 2012
  9. Yeah, I agree we are all aiming at the same goal here Paul – perhaps we could call it “shalom” to avoid the specifics associated with love and/or justice. In my view, this is a conversation about best practices – the present or ethical dimension of eschatology, rather than the future dimension. And I think the language we use indicates different methods of how we hope to achieve our final goal. To put another spin to this, perhaps we could say that love is our present responsibility, whereas justice is God’s eschatological right? In fact, I think this is one of the main points the movie was trying to make – that is, the connection between our beliefs about judgment and hell, and our willingness to accept or even perpetrate violence in the present. I would say personal observation bears out the thesis that the degree to which the world is concerned with justice is directly proportional to the degree to which it is willing to accept violence. A paradoxical statistic, since I don’t think any of us would want to equate justice with violence in that kind of straightforward way. It’s a complex topic, certainly, but an important one…

    October 31, 2012
  10. Paul Johnston #

    kerby, if Jesus speaks of final judgment, and the possibility of either eternal salvation or eternal damnation, what should we preach about these matters? What, as you understand love, would you have us say?

    November 1, 2012
    • Again Paul, I think our emphasis needs to be more on the present than the future, and whatever we say on the future needs to be said with equal parts humility and hope. Many things I disagree with Reformed theology about, but one thing I did learn from a Reformed prof is that the doctrinal function of eschatology is as much or more about the present than the future. And I suspect without re-exegeting the gospels, that many of Jesus’ “eschatological” statements have just this emphasis. I understand (and have) a strong desire for justice when the innocent suffer, but Jesus did not judge evil during his earthly life. He did name both evil and sin, but he never judged evil in the sense that you are using the term “judgment”. Why should we break from his pattern?

      November 1, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida!…it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgement than for you. And as for you Capernaum, “Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to the netherworld”… Luke 10:13-15

        Kerby, I’d like to think I live in the present as actively as you do. 🙂 And I would agree that humility and hope are crucial dispositions for us all. But I encourage you to confront a Jesus and a Gospel that in Luke 10, and in several other places, refers to judgement in very stark and severe terms.

        November 2, 2012
  11. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, I recognize love/mercy vs. justice as a false dichotomy for God. I’m not so sure it is false for me. O.K. in principal just as false for me but in reality I struggle with the “balancing” on an all to frequent basis. How do I fully embody both love and justice so that they are without distinction? How do we get to love is justice; justice is love?

    November 1, 2012
    • I don’t know, Paul, these are obviously very difficult questions. If I could answer these with any degree of persuasiveness or authority, I think I would be a far wealthier man than I am :).

      I will say this. From a human perspective, I think we must alway err on the side of love/mercy. Justice is far safer in the hands of God. I don’t think we, as frail and sinful human beings, are called to “fully embody both love and justice so that they are without distinction.” That job belongs to God and God alone.

      November 1, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        What you say from a “human perspective” resonates with me, Ryan. And yet I wonder. If the Spirit dwells within us why isn’t it possible for people to fully embody both love and justice so that they are without distinction?

        Perhaps prayer is more trans formative than reason?

        November 2, 2012
      • I don’t think that either prayer or the presence of the indwelling Spirit makes us infallible. We are still human, still profoundly limited, still profoundly ignorant and sinful, still incapable of embodying love and justice in their truest forms.

        This isn’t to say that we don’t strive to embody love and justice, it simply means that we do so always with the recognition that we are not God and, specifically with respect to the justice issue, that our conception of these important concepts is and always will be tainted by selfishness and sin. At the very least, this awareness can mitigate some of the damage done by people only to eager to dispense justice, whether in the name of God or anyone else.

        November 2, 2012
  12. mike #

    …..We need only to watch the evening news to witness mankind dispensing/inflicting ‘Justice’ upon one another.The back and forth of the Arab-Israeli conflict immediately comes to mind as a prime example of our/society’s “eye for an eye” comphrension of Justice..When reading the parable of the workers in the vineyard,how many of us relate with the grievance of them that worked all day?..I know i do..what the owner did was’nt ‘right’ in my estimation,yet in the economy of Gods stoic logic,it was not only Just but also Fair.The examples one could cite in support of an unjust God by human standards of right and wrong are innumerable..My point is,we lack understanding..we think we know(God/Justice),but we dont,not really.. and we dont know just how much we dont know.. Will God banish unbelievers to Hell? I hope not, Dont you?….

    November 1, 2012
    • I share your hope, Mike. I don’t trust human “justice” and I am reticent to project it on to God.

      November 2, 2012
  13. Paul Johnston #

    I agree wholeheartedly that we are fallible and that humility is an essential posture, but aren’t all things possible with God? To say that humanity couldn’t, through the Spirit, be transformed so as to reflect God’s perfect understanding of love and justice, whatever else it might say about the human propensity for sin and misappropriation, seems to also place a limit on the power and authority of God. I think, with respect to the ongoing experience of the “present”, there is a real danger we could undermine faith in embracing a belief that mankind is incapable of dispensing justice. I would assume that to be the default position of the cynic;the nihilist.

    Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not advocating a specific Evangelical posture here. I am not “pro Piper” or “anti Bell”, (or ever anti Dueck! 🙂 ) . I am not even pro ECT or anti Universalism, so much as I am trying to make the case that mankind, in right relationship with God, can and in fact will, live in perfect love;perfect justice. The Spirit, if freely surrendered to, cannot be denied. One might even say that a persons first true understanding and application of love and justice may indeed be this very same joyful submission!

    I hear “reality” in Kerby’s statement (that you have reinforced),” the degree to which the world is concerned with justice is directly proportional to the degree to which it is willing to accept violence.” I’m just trying to push back against this idea and suggest it wasn’t meant to be so and doesn’t have to be so.

    In conclusion I leave you with something Catholic. (Surprise, surprise 🙂 ) Something more deliberately material/rational/political so as not to offend any latent Mennonite mistrust of the mystic world of contemplatives. 🙂

    1884- (Catechism of the Catholic Church)

    …”God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence.”…

    So in my simple world, just what is a person endowed with the Spirit, brother to Christ and heir to the Kingdom, “capable of performing”? Just about anything, providing he behaves as a minister of divine providence.

    His peace be with us, my brother.

    November 2, 2012
    • I suppose we just have a bit of a different estimation of “the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature.” I am not denying the power of the Spirit; I am simply looking at the historical record (a history throughout which, presumably, the Spirit has been operative). Whatever else we might want to say about the matter, it seems to me that Christians have proved just as inconsistent in understanding and applying justice—and just as inventive in perpetuating injustice as anyone else.

      How desperately we need his peace to be with us.

      November 3, 2012

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