I’ve been thinking about the God of the Bible. Particularly God as he is revealed in the Old Testament.
Who is this God? What is he like? No, what is he really like?
I’ve done my homework here. I understand that the right place to establish my foundational theology of who God is comes from the clearest revelation of God’s nature and character in the Bible: we always interpret the less articulate passages from the more articulate ones. And of course, the best revelation of who God is and what he’s like is in the person and the teachings of the incarnate second Person of the Trinity: Jesus Christ.
Jesus taught, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” In other words, “I’m like him. He’s just like me.” The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as “the express image of His person.” In other words: this is the best picture of who God is that we’ve ever had. And Jesus is undeniably, relentlessly, unswervingly good. He never once hurt anybody, never smote anybody, never spoke harshly to his mommy, never stepped on an ant. He didn’t even damage the guy that he knew was stealing from him and his friends, the guy who was the direct cause of his own torturous death.
The only people he did speak harshly to were the religiously self-righteous, but he didn’t even smite them. He just got in their face about their stubbornness, hypocrisy, and inability to see the answer to their prayers who was right there in their faces.
The lesson is clear: God is undeniably, relentlessly, unswervingly good. The Bible is remarkably clear about that. God doesn’t, according to the stunningly clear revelation of God-in-the-flesh, hurt, maim or kill people.
He clearly has no patience for religiously self-righteous people, but he doesn’t even smite them.
So I take this understanding, this clear knowledge, that God is good, and I go look at the God of the Old Testament, the guy with the Bad Reputation.
People tell me over and over about this God’s judgments, generally describing him in vocabulary that justifies their particular vitriol against their particularly hated sin. When God’s people sin, they tell me – forget that; when anybody sins – they can expect a good smiting. (I have to admit, some (not all) of the people telling these horror stories sound a lot like the Pharisees that Jesus was so consistent about castigating; but perhaps that’s not the real issue here.)
One of their favorite stories is
for example. There was a particularly bad night in Sodom (Genesis 19) that gave the town a
justifiably nasty reputation. But a thinking person, while acknowledging that
it was a serious sin, could not reasonably justify destroying two cities in
fire and brimstone.
I don’t throw out a doctrine, any doctrine, just because it doesn’t make sense. But in this case, the Scriptures don’t actually describe that particularly sinful night as the cause for the destruction. God himself, talking with Abraham (Genesis 18:20) declares the reason for the visit to the place: the second reason: they have a reputation for sin, but the first reason: “Because the outcry against
Sodom and Gomorrah is so great…”
Somebody has been crying out about the cities: this destruction did not start with God getting fed up with sin, as I’ve been taught repeatedly. It started with someone, presumably a human someone, crying out to God. This is the result of humans speaking against the city, not the result of an angry God.
In fact, the biggest judgment that God proposes as he’s talking with Abe: “I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know.”
That’s it. “I’ll know about it.” That’s the judgment proposed. That’s all the “smiting” that God proposed for the city with the great reputation for sin.
And we all know about Abe’s negotiation with God over their sin: Abe assumes a greater judgment, and tries to talk God out of it, but chickens out before he finishes the job. That passages teaches well about prayer, but most of the time, people are either implying, or outright declaring that God was out to kill ’em all! No! That’s not what the Book says!
We build our theology on the clear passages, not on our assumptions from the very earliest understanding of God’s nature. God says the judgment comes from someone’s outcry, not from his own “righteous anger.” (I’m not saying there’s no such thing as righteous anger. I’m saying that’s not what went on in Genesis 18!)
There are indeed other passages, stories told later, where God is named as the source of that destruction, in contradistinction to God’s own declaration in Genesis 18. I have heard the argument that “The people of that day didn’t understand that God & Satan were different, so they attributed Satan’s actions to God!” and frankly, I find that to be quite the compelling argument.
Change of venue: By now, most people know about the parallel accounts that describe David’s numbering of
Israel (found in 2 Samuel 24 and 1
Chronicles 21). There’s a serious problem here. We have to ask, “Why does 2
Samuel 24:1 state that God ‘moved’ David against Israel,
while 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that it was Satan who ‘stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel’.”?
It’s the same thing. In our day, we understand a decent bit about the creature, Lucifer, sometimes called Satan. Our greatest source for that knowledge is found primarily in the gospels and epistles that were unknown in earlier times, and so the one event is described by one author as from Satan, and from the other author, not knowing any better, as from God, who ignorantly equates the two.
But we know better. We have the revelation of the life of Christ. We’re smarter than that! God is not, as demonstrated by “the exact representation of God,” in the smiting business.
But some people still go there. “What about Ananias and Sapphira! [Acts 5] God killed them! And that’s New Testament!”
That shows me how little some people actually read their Bible. Read that passage again. Yes, the passage is in the New Testament. But nowhere does it even hint that God did this. From the text, it’s possible that they were killed by the power of Peter’s curse against them. It could be that Satan did the deed, having gained access to their lives through their sin. Only if you haven’t done your homework, only if you believe God is a killer, could it be God who did it. The passage is anything but clear! And unclear passages are not what we build theology out of.
But you and I have done our homework. We come to this unclear passage, having already settled ourselves on the matter of God’s goodness, which we’ve gotten from the clear passages, from the example of Jesus: God is good. Therefore, their murderer couldn’t be God. So do your best with your guesses, inventions, imaginations and assumptions: the Bible doesn’t actually identify the murderer, but we know from previous study that it ain’t God!
Then someone will bring up the story of Elymas the sorcerer who was smitten blind in Acts 13. Again, I suggest people actually read the passage, and read it remembering what we already know about God’s good character from the unmistakable revelation of the Son of God. The passage says, “Paul said” and then it happened. Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit when he said it, so some people assume that it must not have really been Paul who said it, because when you’re full of the Holy Spirit, you can’t say anything on your own. Really? That’s kind of a stretch, isn’t it?
But the reality is that the text never says that God did this; it says Paul did this. And we, having done our homework, already know that God is good, because Jesus, who was revealing God’s nature, was always good, know that this unclear passage is not consistent with the clear passages, and therefore must be representing something other than an angry, vengeful God, because we know that God is not angry or vengeful.
We could go on for hours. Let’s not do that. Let’s learn the lesson: Jesus is the best representation of what God is like, and Jesus always did good; the worst he did was get in the face of the religiously self-righteous. So God, who presumably is also not pleased with the religiously self-righteous, is nonetheless, consistently good.
It’s the enemy who is consistently accusing God’s nature before us. Let’s not fall for his accusations. We know better. We know Jesus.