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 Flood, the 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.