“It is such a ludicrous notion that the God who is love would of His own volition inflict torment upon people eternally. The idea is so ridiculous that it is either hilarious or horrendous. The notion that God, out of personal offense and infinite spite, inflicts eternal torture upon His wayward children is completely incompatible with the revelation of God in Christ. Being saved includes being saved from believe in a malicious God.”
- Brian Zahnd, Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God
This is the final week of our God’s Not Mad series and I wanted to start off with this quote from Brian Zahnd because I think it captures something that’s really, really important. I’ve mentioned this before on the What If Project and have touched on it a bit throughout this series, but I think it’s worth mentioning again …
… Especially as we leave Lent 2019 behind and close our God’s Not Mad series.
Towards the end of the quote Zahnd says, “the notion that God inflicts eternal torture on His wayward children is completely incompatible with the revelation of God in Christ.”
This is one of the biggest places where I bump heads with my old tribe of people, people I would call …
“Literal readers of the Bible”
… Many of whom take the Bible word for word as and treat those words as if every verse in every chapter of every book stands on the same level playing field as all of the others.
Sometimes I’ll be talking with these people and will share something about Christ, like how He invited everyone to the table …
No one was turned away.
No one was told to change before they sat down with Him.
No one was outcast.
… Everyone had a place. I’ll toss around ideas like that along with stories that spell it out verbatim and each and every time I’m inevitably met with the argument that “although Jesus did that, well – God did THIS”, and they’ll bombard me with a slew of Old Testament verses and even some New Testament verses where Biblical writers and prophets seem to condemn sinners, declare them to be cut off from God’s blessings, and hone in on judgement, fire, and the destruction of the wicked.
For them, it’s as if THESE words from Biblical writers somehow trump the words of Jesus.
For these literalist / fundamentalist readers of the Bible, the “wicked” referred to by the Biblical writers become people who don’t “believe in Jesus” or people who don’t believe in the same ways that they do and for them the fact that some Old Testament passage seems to condemn such wicked people gives them the right to outcast, judge, and threaten those same people with fire, destruction, etc.
“Muslims are going to hell. Only Christians, like me, go to heaven.”
“Atheists have no hope. Only those who believe in Jesus, like me, have hope.”
“LGBTQ people will be condemned. Only straight people, like me, are acceptable.”
“Turn or burn.”
“It’s not God’s fault you’re headed for hell, it’s yours. You had your chance to believe.”
NOW. This might all sound incredibly judgmental and mean on my part. And maybe it is. But I’m saying it as bluntly as I am because I used to be that kind of Christian. I was a literalist, a fundamentalist, an over the top evangelical who firmly believed that God had a bone to pick with humanity and Jesus took the punishment for me.
I memorized all the verses about hell.
I knew where to find all the passages about God’s wrath.
I had a memory bank full of stories about God’s disgust with humanity.
And I could pull them all out at a moment’s notice, insert them into any discussion, and come out the other side having proved my point that God’s ticked off and mad at the world.
Here’s the thing, though. And I’ll just say it without beating around the bush – I no longer think that every passage or verse or chapter or book of the Bible sits on the same level playing field as the next.
Like (for example) …
I don’t think that Paul’s letters are on the same level as Jesus’ words.
I don’t think that the prophets are on the same level as Jesus’ teachings.
… And I realize that’s probably not a very popular opinion with a lot of Christians, but it’s where I stand right now.
In other words, I don’t think that Isaiah’s words or Ezekiel’s words or whatever other Old Testament prophet you want to pick (Moses, David, Jeremiah, etc.) are on the same level as Jesus’ words and like I said in an episode a few weeks back, I don’t think that we can cite some Biblical writer (no matter how big or popular he may be) in order to shut Jesus up.
I don’t think we can quote Elijah’s anger to silence Jesus’ love. Like, I can’t point to that one time when Elijah called down fire from heaven on the prophets of Baal as justification for my own outcasting of someone who believes differently than me or as justification for my own fiery and burning words towards another person.
Because when Jesus’ disciples asked Him to take a page out of Elijah’s book and call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans (a group of people whom the Jews hated), Jesus refused and chose to model and live a different way.
And so these kinds of polar opposites tell me that the words of Elijah the prophet and the words of Jesus the Messiah aren’t on the same playing field. Jesus and His words and His way of doing things are greater than Elijah and his words and his ways of doing things.
I said this a few weeks ago and I stand by it. Jesus preached and lived a life of love, grace, forgiveness, and the inclusion of all people, everywhere. No one was turned away, no one was excluded. And so when we flip through our Bibles in search of a verse or passage that seemingly gives us the right to outcast “the other”, then we’re using the Bible in a sick, twisted, and Satanic way.
And so with that in mind, I’m convinced that we need to rework the way we use the Bible. I’m going to drop a whole series on reading the Bible sometime later this Fall or early in 2020, but for now I want to share with you one simple observation about reading the Bible in conjunction with following a God who’s not mad.
We often read the Old Testament and the letters of Paul as if they are the stuff that “mature” and “real Christians” can read and understand and apply.
… The Old Testament and words of Paul are filled with the “hard teachings” and those are things we need to drive home in this world.
“The world needs harsh words!”, we say. “The world needs hard truths! It’s up to us as God’s chosen warriors to share those things that are clearly stated in the Bible!”
And so we elevate the words of the Old Testament prophets along with the words of Paul and others and move Jesus and His words to the back burner as if His stuff is for the less mature Christian.
The prophets are the MAJOR leagues.
Jesus is the MINOR leagues.
Paul is for ADULT readers.
Jesus is for CHILDREN.
We consume Paul, we fill up on the prophets and THEN we go and read Jesus through the lens of things we took away from their words and their letters.
But … dare I say, I think we have it backwards?
Because when we lessen Jesus’ words in order to magnify the words of the prophets or Paul or whoever, we often come away having created a God who is a monster.
A God who sends down fire on people He doesn’t like (1 Kings).
A God who could at any moment command genocide on innocent people (Numbers).
A God who destroys the world because He’s fed up with it (Genesis).
I’ve come to a place in my faith and in my understanding of the Bible where I think that instead of reading the words of Jesus through the lens of Paul and the prophets, I think we need to flip it and read the words of Paul and the prophets through the lens of Jesus.
Through the lens of His words.
Through the lens of His actions.
Through the lens of His teachings.
And if we come away from our reading of the Bible with a picture of God that is any different than what we see in Jesus and the way in which He lived His life on earth, then our reading of the Bible is wrong and we need to go back to the drawing board and read it again. If we come away from reading the Bible and see a particular verse or passage or story as ammunition that we can load into our spiritual guns and tanks that we shoot at and use to run over the lives and beliefs and stories and struggles of other human beings …
… We’re the ones with the problems, not them.
And here’s a brain exercise for you, something to let marinate in your head: Paul and the prophets, remember, never met Jesus.
Think about that:
And the prophets.
And for Paul, the Gospels weren’t even written at the time that he wrote his letters – his letters to the churches in Galatia, Philippi, Corinth, etc. were written well before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John penned their Gospel letters. And so although Paul might have had the verbal influence of the Apostles and the disciples and various other people who physically spent time with Jesus and would end up writing the Gospels … he never had the opportunity (that we know of) to meet Jesus for himself, never had the opportunity to read the Gospels that you and I have access to today, and (therefore) might not have had the most complete picture of who Jesus was, what He did, etc.
Heck, in all of Paul’s letters and writings, he never wrote about the birth of Jesus and never mentioned the teachings or parables of Jesus.
Did he know of the stories?
Did he know of the teachings?
Probably, but for whatever reason – he never even so much as hinted at them.
That’s not to say that the Holy Spirit wasn’t involved in Paul’s writings. It’s not to say that Paul’s words aren’t important. If you’re about to email me and yell, STOP.
The Holy Spirit was involved, Paul’s letters are of vital importance.
What I’m saying, though, is that Paul’s words and the words of the Old Testament prophets (in my opinion) aren’t on the same playing field as the words of Jesus. They are “Biblical”. They are part of this thing we call “God’s Word”. They are important, they are foundational, they are key, they are necessary.
They aren’t the same.
And they aren’t the same because when we read them without having the words and life of Jesus side by side with them, we often come away with a picture of God that is far different than the one we see in Jesus.
Read the prophets – YES.
Read Paul – YES.
Sit with them.
Meditate on them.
Do so with the life and words of Jesus at the forefront of your heart and mind. Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible. The Bible contains letters and writings and poems and stories of people who span the course of thousands of years. They’re all on a journey in understanding who God is, what God is like, how God acts, how God moves in the world … it’s a journey that reaches its climax in the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus is the Face of God. He is what God has to say. And sometimes we need to read backwards from the stories of Jesus into the rest of the Bible so that we can more clearly grasp what it has to say about God.
Like Zahnd said in the above quote, part of being saved is being saved from the idea that God is angry, mad, malicious, and ready to take aim with divine lightning bolts at anyone and everyone who crosses Him wrong, believes wrong, or behaves wrong.
“The notion that God, out of personal offense and infinite spite, inflicts eternal torture upon His wayward children is completely incompatible with the revelation of God in Christ.”
As Zahnd said elsewhere in his book, Jesus is the face of God and Jesus is what God has to say and so if our picture of God looks different than the picture we have of Jesus in the Gospels, our picture of God is wrong – it needs updating, it needs tweaking, it needs reworking.
That’s the season of life I’m in, really. I’ve been putting forth a considerable amount of energy here, at the What If Project, to publicly update my view of God. I spent years at MorningEncouragement.com (my old blog, no longer live) publicly sharing what I used to believe and think about God and so I feel like it’s only fair and right and good to peel back the curtain a little bit and show the wrestling match that’s been going on in my heart and mind over the last few years. For a long time I believed in a God who I now realize wasn’t represented very well in the person of Jesus.
I believed in a God who was angry.
I believed in a God who was full of wrath and anger.
I believed in a God who was exclusive.
I believed in a God who cast people away.
I believed in a God who gave up on people.
But as I began to study the life of Jesus and have gotten to know His work in my life and the lives of those around me, I began to realize that Jesus was a poor reflection of my angry God who casts people away into eternal torture and so I began to rethink things, update things, and openly share the conclusions I’ve been coming to.
All of that to say, God’s not mad. I’m unsure of a lot of things, but that’s one thing I’m 1000% sure of. The God of the Bible as represented and reflected in the life of Jesus isn’t mad, never was mad, and never will be mad.
And so as we leave this series behind and as you go about your own day and week – may you RUN to your loving Creator today. May you FALL into the open arms of the Divine today. And may you find great rest, great peace, and great comfort in the presence of Christ for all the rest of your days.