Why do we believe…God is not a threat? (Rob Bell and Luther)

Recently Dr. Thompson made some amazing comments in a class on Luther that sparked a lot of thoughts in my head and a number of conversations with friends.  Recently, Rob Bell has been accused of universalism stemming from previews of his book and this video.

In this video Rob Bell appears to think that it is not true, or a ridiculous notion, that Jesus saves us from God.

Given my recent class and some additional searching of the scriptures for myself, I do not think this is the case.

To begin with what Dr. Thompson said…

Dr. Thompson presented that Luther did not believe in a detached theology that was highly speculative, Luther’s theology was highly invested because what is at stake for Luther is no less urgent than this: “How can I survive in the presence of God.”

Luther was concerned with surviving in God’s presence because not everyone does. The sons of Aaron who offered strange fire before the Lord did not.  Uzzah who caught the ark when David was bringing it back to Jerusalem did not. Isaiah, when he found he was in the presence of the Lord, seemed to share Luther’s terror.  Simply put, not everyone survives when they get too close too the Holy of Holies.

This is why Luther’s work was not marked by a concern for sanctification (if one was making real progress towards real holiness in this life).  Luther was far more concerned with justification because that is a fancy word for the real question Luther was trying to answer: “Why doesn’t the Holy God destroy me, a sinner?”

For Luther, God was a threat.  The puzzle of theology was figuring out how one survived this threat.

Dr. Thompson admitted that talking about God in this way, where God is a threat to sinners because He is holy and cannot and will not tolerate sin, is not popular for our culture.  Rob Bell is one of a gigantic list of Christian leaders who want to minimize, ignore, or downplay God’s justice and wrath because people want a “buddy-God.”

Thompson argued pursuing this “toy-God” is not scriptural and costs us dearly. God is merciful and loving but also just and holy.  We can’t just take whatever traits of God appeal to us and conveniently forget the parts of the Bible that offend us.  To the point of what it has cost us we have traded away the terror that can come from the presence of the living God but in doing so do so we are left with a lesser sense of joy, a lesser sense of God, a lesser sense of rootedness in the divine character. Without knowing the full threat God poses we cannot know the fully joy at having been forgiven and escaping this threat unscathed.

Now more to my thoughts that were sparked by this discussion…

I believe that catering to this “toy-God” is not scriptural. This toy-god it is not a complete picture of who God says He is in the Bible.  Christians are very uncomfortable with the concept of God intentionally doing harm to humans but we need to get over this.

The Bible is filled with violent imagery and history where God is the perpetrator. If one reads the Bible one will be confronted with a God who kills many of His own creatures. The Floodthe instance where God seeks the life of Moses (like a “terrifying night demon” to steal phrase from Michael Coogan) the the killing of Egyptian first-born, the killing of disobedient Israelites in the desert, the destruction of Canaanites in the taking of the Holy Land, the bloody establishment of the Davidic monarchy, the Babylonian and Assyrian exiles, etc. etc.

Either directly or through human agents God has killed countless human beings, both those in and outside of Israel and even those in and outside the Church. In pursuit of a “toy God” who is only safe, loving and merciful, we have to expel, ignore, or explain away a lot of who God says He is. This is a very dangerous and unfaithful pursuit for Christians to practice. We need to seek to understand these passages and the violent, wrathful, just and holy aspects of God’s character or we open the Bible up to numerous abuses.

Furthermore, I think Luther is right.  God is a threat. To illustrate this point I want to use a line from the common hymn Come Thou Fount…

“Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood

I was singing this in the shower when I was pondering through this issue. And it made me ask the question, “God interposed Jesus’ precious blood…between what? Between whom?” I believe God did, in his lovingkindness, His mercy and His love for humanity interposed Jesus’ precious blood between ourselves and Himself, to rescue us from His holiness.

Let me deal with two comments I already anticipate.

First, we are not saved from Satan.  Polytheism has it easy when it comes to theodicy.  When something bad happens a polytheist can blame a bad God or a bad spirit.  In monotheistic religions we have to wrestle with there is no other culprit for evil. Christians have historically blamed the Fall, other humans, or the work of Satan to avoid the concept that God might wish some humans ill (you know…like He does in the Bible).  I dare say that for some Christians they have raised up Satan to be another God, to blame all the bad things on.  This is not, biblically speaking, orthodox.  Satan serves God and if Satan has any dominion in this world or the next it is through the express permission of God.  Satan, is like Gabriel, not another god equal to God.

Second, some might suggest we are saved from the just punishment of our sins.  My question is who determines what is a sin and that people deserve to be condemned to Hell and/or destruction for sins?  The answer is God, a holy, awesome and just God.

As sinners we face face a holy God that cannot be escaped in this life or when we die and face Him.  For Jesus’ followers, Jesus’ blood is interposed between God’s absolute and unchanging just and righteous character and our sins.  God’s vision of us is stained with the blood of His Son who took our punishment in Himself and is our righteousness.  This is how we can be in the presence of a Holy God: we are counted as righteous and holy through the blood of Jesus.

Jesus’ sacrifice did not change God’s just nature, God did not switch from a holy and terrible God to a safe neutered one that was loving towards all at the Cross.  The cross is how God’s just demands as a holy God become satisfied in us, even as we are sinners.

Speaking of God in this way, where God is holy, terrible and awesome, is not popular in our culture or in our churches.   We want a buddy God who is safe.  We want a God who is forgiving and merciful.  Some conjure this up and take it to the extreme where God is a like a senile benevolent force who just wants to make sure everyone has a good time in their life.  Others scale it back a bit and just focus, almost exclusively, on the forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ and certain versebites from the Bible such as, “God is love.”

The first option, for me, is much less of a threat because it is so clearly non-biblical and represents a universalism that it is easily seen by many.  The second option is far more common, far more subtle and something I want to bring out more.  But I shall leave that for another post.

What is at stake for luther is no less urgent than this – “How can I survive in the presence of God” – not everyone does.

-Sons of Aaron who offered strange fire

-Uzzah who caught the ark when david brought it over (trying to do a good deed)

-Not everyone survives when they get too close to the holy of holies

About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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11 Responses to Why do we believe…God is not a threat? (Rob Bell and Luther)

  1. phillipchan1 says:

    Great thoughts, Kev. Loved it.

  2. Jane says:

    I’m going to be chewing on this for a while, I really appreciate the time you put in to post this. This is a nice call to shift perspectives on the entirety of who God says he is.

  3. Joel Gonzaga says:

    Interestingly enough, I’ve heard people use Luther’s major premises to argue for something that eludes to universalism. I’ve also noticed that people who strongly detract against universalism assume penal atonement as the *ONLY* possible theory of atonement.

    I don’t know if Rob Bell can be accused of believing in toy god, but I look forward to reading his book along with random stuff written by non-theists and other people who I might not agree with.

  4. accblogz says:

    Hey Kevin, this is Mike Rauwolf. I had some classes with you at TWU. I got this post via Facebook. Good stuff, you make some really good points, especially where you say “we are not saved from Satan.” Very true. We are saved from God’s inevitable wrath. We are saved from sharing the same fate as Satan, due to our nature of aligning ourselves with that which is fallen, and therefore, is “of Satan,” or because of Satan and the Fall. In a sense, one could argue that we are saved from Satan in a roundabout way, because we are saved in part from the results of our voluntary yet inevitable correlation with all that is of him and the Fall. The problem with this, however, is that it easily eliminates my responsibility for my actions. My sin becomes “because of Satan,” which can subconsciously be a way of excusing myself. We have to own up to the fact that because of holiness, God’s wrath burns against us without Christ’s blood to cover us.

    I did want to share a couple of personal observations. As an associate minister in a church, I’ve been guilty of presenting a “toy God,” capitalizing on His love, his desire to rescue a fallen creation, renewed relationship, etc. but leaving out the fear and holiness aspect.

    On the other hand, I’ve been guilty of the opposite: Showing God as angry, just and wrathful, but failing to leave people with the hope we now have in Christ.

    I find that it’s very difficult to maintain a balanced perspective. How can God be both? You say that God hasn’t changed, and you’re right, but our relating to Him has. Hebrews describes this change in detail. Where once we could not approach the throne directly, now we do so boldly and with confidence. If I read you right, I see you posing the question, “has this confidence allowed us to remake God into the image of something else?” We want God to be love, because that’s what we need. This is totally true, but in that revelation we also seek a political correctness that shies away from mass genocide of the flood or the Canaanites, or selective hardening of hearts, in Pharaoh’s case.

    What it comes down to for me is that the Good news can only really be good news once we’ve really had to wrestle with who God really is. And that is the big question, isn’t it?

    But here’s the real fact of the matter: For the purpose of His glory, God did not leave Creation to the results of the Fall. Instead he intervened in order to rescue. In Jeremiah, an entire book of rebuke, we have a very harsh presentation of God. And yet I’m struck by how patient, gracious and merciful He is for not administering His justice more than He actually did, when He totally had a right to. However, we do find that God does not desire to be known only for His awesome and terrible justice. So where is the balance? I find that Jeremiah 9:24 is incredibly relevant to this conversation:

    “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

    Of course, God makes himself fully known in the person of Jesus Christ. I think that knowing God can be neutered by a “toy God” perspective you’ve described. But for me what I cling to is the fact that in light of holiness, justice, and wrath, God made the move to restore relationship. So on the one hand, we cannot forget that God is all about steadfast love, grace, freedom, and personal relationship. But I would also agree that that same God cannot be fully known, nor can that grace be fully appreciated, without first understanding that justice and wrath. Let us not forget either, but seek continually to understand Him and Know Him.

    I thought I’d share those thoughts. Don’t read into any of it, I don’t think I’m arguing with anything you said. Just sharing my thoughts. What are you doing these days anyway?

    ~ Mike.

  5. Simeon says:

    The wrongness of the portrayal of Jesus saving us from God is exactly why I have never felt penal substitution is adequate to fully explain salvation.


  6. I think it’s amusing how much reaction there has been to previews of Rob Bell’s book.
    Kevin, thanks for reminding us of some of the texts and traditions we like to overlook as we struggle to understand God. Some thoughts:
    -universalism does not necessarily negate the justice of God, and should not be equated with some kind of ‘toy’ view of God. If you believe the cross satisfies the justice of God for some, why couldn’t the cross satisfy the justice of God for all?
    -There is a very real sense in which the cross saves us from Satan and the principalities and powers. I think we can learn much from the Christus Victor ‘theory’ of the atonement in this regard.
    -Can you really love this kind of God? Can you love a God who is so angry that the only way he can keep from torturing people for all eternity is to vent all of his wrath on his own son? Can you love a God who can now look the other way when people do bad things because they’ve been ‘justified’ — i.e., when he looks at them as they do horrific things he sees them covered in the blood and entrails of the son he poured out his wrath on and is somehow appeased by this?

  7. Dan Smith says:

    Kevin, my absolute favorite post ever on this blog. Well done!

  8. Kevin says:

    I promise to respond to these comments once I am past my finals here in a week or so. I want to take the time to carefully read your positions, more about Christus Victor, before responding and I just can’t make that happen this week.

  9. David Portela says:

    Kevin, great post! As others have pointed out, however, the Penal Substitution model is only a part of the larger biblical teaching on atonement. One good book that deals with many of these aspects and unites them under the banner of unity with Christ (taking a cue from Ephesians 4) is John Murray’s “Redemption: Accomplished and Applied”: http://www.amazon.com/Redemption-Accomplished-Applied-John-Murray/dp/0802811434. It’s also available for Kindle for those (like me) who are so inclined.

  10. ashleymccleery says:

    I am making an effort to read more of your posts. But stop writing so much so I can catch up! jk Anywho, I’ve wrestled with this issue as well. In my Intro to Global Theology class last year, Dr. Dyrness told us that he asked his Kenyan students what they thought about life: is life difficult and yet with joy or is life good with some suffering? Most Kenyans said the former, and his American students said the latter. While this is not necessarily about God, I think this also points to how we, especially Americans, view God. Like you said, this toy-God then becomes a God that exists to serve us, to love us, to help us have a fun and good life. While God does love us so incredibly much, I think we do miss the beautiful tension that a deep fear and awe of the Lord produces in us. I love C.S. Lewis, and I think this quote from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is perfect in describing this tension.

    ‘If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than me or else just silly.’

    ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ asked Lucy.

    ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.

    God isn’t safe. But God is good. And even as I write this, I still struggle to truly believe that…especially in light of the pain and suffering in the world. And that again is part of the tension.

  11. Pingback: Rob Bell, Universalism and all that Jazz. « Speak Faithfully

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