Thursday, April 16, 2009

The God of Love

Considering all of my recent posts about Annihilation and Hell, I'm left pondering what it all means to me, personally.

In some ways, looking at things from this new perspective is very freeing for me.  Things make more sense to me.  I actually feel as if God is a God of Love, rather than paying lip service to the concept while justifying a doctrine of hell which damns the large majority of people who have ever existed to eternal torment.

Besides the tactic of not thinking about it much, most conservative Christians harmonize the God of Love and the God of Wrath by explaining that we all deserve Hell, therefore God is loving towards us by providing Jesus as a way for some of us to be saved and avoid damnation. It's our own damn fault and we should be grateful for the meager scraps God throws our way...or so such an attitude appears to express.

My mind conjures an image of an exasperated Father, irritated with His children, not really liking them, wanting to simply show them the door, but then Child Protective Services might show He guesses rather than hassle with all that, He might as well try to do something about them.

That picture of God, while definitely not consciously being drawn by Christians, is at the heart of many people's relationship with God. God is our Father, but it's not a trusting relationship. It's an uneasy one in which we're never quite sure where we stand.  Is He going to open His arms to draw us in, or raise his voice and shout at us, maybe even slap us if we get too far out of line?

My intention is not to downplay God's right to judgment, or to minimize evil. Surely evil is all around us.  We see it everyday in the news.  We experience it in our lives. 

However, the window with which I view God has changed angles.  Instead of looking through it and seeing a brick wall, I see an endless blue ocean and vast white sand.  Instead of a sterile lobby, I see a cultivated courtyard.

Specifically, I have found focusing on eternal life as being physical resurrection and perfection, and condemnation as being true death/annihilation, to be life-affirming. God loves His creation.  He is not interested in its destruction, but in its redemption.  He is not interested in making us less human, but more human--perfectly human.  He is not interested in making us austere, stoic people, unaffected and unimpressed by life.


He has placed a value on us that we cannot fully appreciate or understand.  It's useless to try and understand. Love is the only word for it; caring for us because He chooses to, because we are important to Him.

When you know that you are truly loved by somebody, your relationship with that person matures and becomes secure.  You don't worry that they are constantly evaluating you, looking for your weaknesses, and mentally counting up your insufficiencies.  You become relaxed in their presence and are able to be open and share what you're thinking and feeling without fear of reprisal. 

It's what John expresses in 1 John 4:13-18
13We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 16And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. 17In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 18There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
Fear of God's judgment never moves us forward in our spiritual lives.  We don't overcome temptation and evil through fear. In contrast, we mature by apprehending God's love and grace. 

There is a paradox in life that certain things can only be overcome by caring about them less, not more. We become more confident in ourselves when we stop caring about what other people think of us, not when we constantly try to make sure that we measure up.  We learn to dance by enjoying the music, rather than slavishly trying to follow dance steps.  We lose weight when we stop obsessing on food and simply eat when we're hungry. We overcome addictions when we realize they don't really give us what we want and have no real power over us anyway.

In the same way, we overcome our failings and the fear of judgment by seeing them as nothing in the face of God's love for us.  We can only truly share God's love and grace once we begin to comprehend and accept it. We give from what has been given to us.

Reflecting on God's love lifts mankind from the depths of a pit and sets him on solid ground. It realigns us with God's original intent for us.  It fights against the view of mankind as pitiful vermin, worthy of destruction.

You must, in some ways, have a high view of yourself to enter into relationship with God in such a way. Yet, it is not regarding yourself as perfect because you're better than others, but because you have found your purpose as a child of God, valued by Him, because He has declared you valuable....not only you...but all who choose to follow Him.

In Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas travel throughout Israel spreading the message about Jesus.  At one point they worship at a synagogue and are asked to share a message of encouragement. Paul relates the history of Israel and Jesus' role as Savior.  People flock to hear their message and many believe.  The Jewish leaders became jealous of the attention and following Paul and Barnabas obtain and begin to persecute them, stirring up trouble for them. What is interesting, is Paul and Barnabas' response to them.  Out of exasperation, acknowledging that they have shared the message with the Jewish community there, they say:
Acts 13:46-47a 
Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: "We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47For this is what the Lord has commanded us...
It's a compelling way to put things; they are rejecting the gospel because they do not consider themselves worthy of eternal life.  Granted, Paul may be responding sarcastically, yet even so, there's a nugget of truth in there.

It takes faith to trust in that love, to rely on it in the face of failure, to see it as steadfast, unconquerable by fear, to judge oneself worthy of the love of God and eternal life.


Anonymous said...

If God truly loved us, eternal punishment or separation wouldn't even be an option.

It's a big contradiction in Christianity that I put out of my mind for years. Christians talk a lot about God's unconditional love, but the fact of "hell," however one defines it, is inherently conditional.

I wouldn't eternally punish my kids and I would be horrified at the thought. My love for them is unconditional.

If we have to perform a certain way to get into God's grace, then his love is conditional. If we are evil, well, we are in the image of God, so he must be as well. If God wants us to be redeemed, why make it so difficult that only a few can enter the narrow gate?

And that's not even getting into the difference between the amorphous vengeful God of the OT and the merciful God of Jesus.


terri said...

Well...I don't know that I would equate man's evil with God being evil.

We most certainly can find examples of evil all around us.

The question becomes what is God's response to evil?

In such cases I tend to see God not as a perpetrator but as a restrainer and redeemer. In other words, evil does not come from God but is a by-product of free-will and our own tendency to be selfish/uncaring/sinful. God intervenes and preserves and works toward the restoration of the human race.

You could say, well why wouldn't he just reach down and stop all these bad things from happening?

I suppose he could, but I view it as simply letting humans be human and make choices. In the same way that natural laws dictate the constraints of gravity, I think that mankind is meant to work within parameters established by God.

Thinking of the narrative of Noah and the Flood is a good example. God wipes everyone out and later feels remorse and promises not to destroy earth's inhabitants in that way again.

The story poses many questions....why portray God as giving mankind a second chance? God could have wiped everybody out and started from scratch.

Why does God feel badly? If people were evil all the time, why don't we see an attitude of "good riddance to bad rubbish"?

The only way I make sense of it all is by trying to see the big picture presented by the biblical narrative....that God is moving mankind towards something. There is a goal we are headed towards and there are no shortcuts to get there. So, for a time, people with free will are allowed to make choices which harm other people.

People with free will are also able to counteract evil through following God.

One of the results of taking men's "souls" off the table, is that puts responsibility onto people to actually do something/take action. We don't get to sit on the sidelines. We are called to work within the physical reality around us, rather than throwing up our hands and equating earthly existence with worldliness.

When the New Testament refers to the church as "The Body of Christ", it isn't just a metaphor. Theologically, God's eternal Spirit is working through physical beings to carry out His will in a physical world.

The idea is that God is now mobile and not kept in a temple tied to a geographic location. We carry Him within us and as such have the ability to spiritual acts through physical acts.

I really started rambling there.....must. get. more. coffee.

Anonymous said...

I don't have the time to respond fully here, but you let God off the hook too easily.

Why did he kill every last human in the flood? What exactly was their sin? The Bible never says. Every one was so thoroughly evil that they had to die? Even the children? Seriously, mass murder is the act of a psychopath. We don't say after the Virginia Tech murders, "well, all those kids were evil so it's just as well they died." (For the record, I don't believe there was a literal flood nor that all humans were killed. But the Bible account doesn't speak well of God.)

Nor do I anymore find convincing the argument that people are so inherently evil. We are the way God made us, if indeed he made us.

And think of your relationship with your children. You wouldn't do to them what God allegedly will do to most of us, because you do love them.

If you unpack these things without starting with the conclusion and working backwards, they don't look the same.


terri said...

I understand where you're coming from. I really do.

Was there a "real" flood? Is it just a narrative meant to communicate something about God? I'm not sure.

I think the real heart of your questions have to do with suffering and what humans have a right to expect.

Looking at things from a merely realistic perspective, what should a human expect? We know that everyone dies, our time on earth is limited.

I don't know if I have outright asked you what exactly you believe...whether you believe in God, or not.

Obviously if we believe there is no such thing as God at work in the universe, then there is no meaning to suffering or death. It just happens. People get sick and die. Children die. That's just the nature of we can't have any expectation for things to be any differently. Death and suffering are just part of being human, and other than trying to prolong life and prevent untimely deaths, there is little to be done about it.

If we have some sort of belief in God, then we are faced with the task of reconciling His existence with the reality we see before us. I am willing to allow certain things to simply fall under the category of "mystery", but ultimately there must be some correlation between our image of God and reality.

I am still firm in my conviction as a Christian, because makes sense to me. I see the world and recognize that evil is a very real force. What other definition could we use to explain mass murder, chid abuse, torture, greed? By recognizing that evil exists, we innately know that such things are not what's best for humanity. There is a general sense of "right" morality that is very basic to all societies.

With regard to God and our relationship to him, I see death at least as no more horrible than it is in a Universe without God.

What is the key difference? The possibility that we might have more than we currently do. The possibility that life can be better than it currently is.

A large component of suffering is manifested in the lack of perfection in our lives....that can be something as petty as feeling unappreciated and unloved by our friends....or something as serious as the decline of our physical health, or the death of a child.

In any case, we're bumping up against the notion that things shouldn't be as they are.

In a world with no God, well we should not whine about such things...who would we be complaining to anyway?

In some ways the buddhist concept of avoiding suffering by avoiding attachment to things and people is a very valid idea. If we have no expectations of people and of life, then we do not suffer to the same degree when life goes horribly wrong.

I think echoes of this principle can be found in Christian theology...such as Jesus teaching about losing your life and finding it, or the idea that where your treasure is there your heart is also.

So in one way I see death as tragic, yet no more tragic than in a Universe without God. Often it's not even so much death that seems unfair to us, but the manner in which it comes. A young adult could be tragically killed in a car accident, and while we would most definitely be sad, our reaction would be far different if she/he were murdered.

Our outrage is centered squarely on the cause and circumstances surrounding the death, though the outcome is the same to the person who has died.

What are we left with? On the one hand...existential resignation that things are the way they are and there's not much to be done about it.

On the other hand, trying to make sense of the inner urges within us that cry out in the face of suffering and adversity.

I would not impart eternal punishment to my I understand your line of argumentation. However, I would allow them to pass on if they were in the hospital suffering from a disease that had incapacitated them, caused them much pain, and made them dependent on life support.

In my mind....that's what I see annihilation/death as doing. It is not revenge from a wrathful God as much as it is removing a cause of suffering.

That makes it seem very cold....and I don't mean it that way.

Instead, I see life as a rewards-based system. God is not taking away something that we already possess. He is offering something we don't have in ourselves intrinsically.

I'm not sure if I hit all your points. It's hard typing in this tiny comment box.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I haven't the time yet to read the whole response, but to answer your question about me, I "became" a Christian when I was young and for decades I would have classified myself as an evangelical christian with a liberal bent.

But in the process over two decades of studying Biblical archeaology and scholarly stuff -- with the idea that it woild help me piece the big picture of the bible better -- I instead realized that what I believed didn't make sense and couldn't be defended.

There has been a process in which my ideas have developed. If you want to discuss in an easier format, I do enjoy kicking ideas around and maybe I'll change my mind again. I've done it before.


Buz said...

Actually, if you read John 3:17 - 18, God does not condemn us to hell, we do it on our own. In court, a jury "finds" a person guilty of a crime, they do not "make" them guilty. The person does that themselves when they commit a crime.

As to why God "allows" us to go to hell, that has to do with free will. We are told "such and such is the path to hell" and we do it in spite of what we are told ... then we expect to go to God and say, "but I didn't know" ??

If he allowed us to choose that path and then at the last minute "forced" us to go to heaven, he would be denying us the freedom to make our own choices.

I have a great cartoon on my desktop, it is "The Buckets" from 3/2/2009. The teen-aged son is lying on the ground at the bottom of a home built ramp, battered and bruised, and tangled in a unicycle. The father is sitting about 10 feet away reading a book. The son is yelling at the father "WHY DIDN'T YOU MAKE ME LISTEN WHEN YOU TOLD ME NOT TO DO THAT?!"

Don't we do that to God? The Bible says "don't do these things" (it calls them sin), but we look at them and think, "but those are all the fun things!" so we do them. Later on when we find ourselves (and sadly, others) battered and bruised by what we have done, we cry that there is no God because if there was, he would not have let these awful things happen to us. God does not micro-manage our lives, he gives us the guidelines and then allows us the freedom to choose how we want to live ... the only caveat is that some day, we will have to face the consequences of our choices.


Anonymous said...

Buz, thanks or reciting Sunday School lessons. But God doesn't allow us to go to hell, he sends people there, allegedly. He made up the rules.

You say he gave us guidelines -- which ones? The ones that say no pork or only single fabric clothes? They keep changing. Whatever you think are the guidelines you are making up as to what you think some anonymous person said thousands of years ago.

terri said...

pf....noticed your message and e-mail address. Mine is terri321 @ gmail. com if you wish to discuss anything in more depth.

I don't know that I would be able to "change your mind again"...seeing as I'm usually busy making up my own mind about things. :-)

terri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Buz said...

Anon, actually, I was not "reciting" the Sunday School lessons. If one learn something in 2nd grade arithmetic via rote, that does not make it wrong, only that the derivation is beyond their current comprehension. Later, when they are in high school, they can learn the laws of mathematics and prove it for themselves.

You can complain to God all you want that you don't like his rules, but that does not make him wrong. You can claim that he sends people to hell, but that does not make it true.

You have free will, you can follow whatever choices you decide to make. But, as with any sentient adult, you will have to accept the consequences of your choices. If you are willing to do that, then go for it.


Anonymous said...


What horrible things have you done to deserve everlasting torture? If you had an incorrect interpretation of an ancient book, would that be enough?

There is no way to justify eternal punishment except on the grounds that, "well, God is God and he can do whatever he wants." And that may well be true. But if in fact God has made rules that condemns the vast majority of human beings to unending torture, then he in fact is not good or merciful. It's like saying that God ordered Israelites to rip open the bellies of pregnant women (or drown them or strangle them or whatever) because those people deserved it. Bull....

And you are in fact reciting Sunday School lessons I've heard a thousand times.


Buz said...

Anon. that is rationalizing.

Hell was not created for us, it was created for Satan and his followers. However, he tricked humanity into following him into that punishment.

Satan hates God, but there is no way he can hurt God, except by destroying the thing He loves the most, us.

If hell was not that horrible, and God did not love us so much, then why would He have sent Jesus to die in our place? If there was no punishment at the end of the road, then why do that?

If there was another way to heaven, then why go through something so awful?

God made the rules, yes. And He will not even violate them Himself. St. Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death. Either God had to violate His own rules and say, nope, your not going to die, or He had to watch us die, or He had to provide someone to take our place.

If you don't want to believe that, fine. I'm not holding a gun to your head to try and force you. But, not believing in the law of gravity will not keep you from falling on your face if you trip.