What God is Like

The nature of God is tucked away ‘in disguise’ in 1 Corinthians 13. If your vision of God does not fit with Paul’s description of Love in that chapter, then there’s something out of focus.

Here is a magnificent piece by Brian Zahnd, which goes into even more detail on this. Read and enjoy; this stuff is life-changing:

What God is like?

Is God harsh, severe, demanding, petulant? God is often depicted this way. Or, to push a little harder, is God vicious and vengeful, malicious and malevolent? Is God (dare we say it?) monstrous? I’ve met many Christians who think so. Or at the very least, they think God has a monstrous side. For them, the hope of salvation is that Jesus will save them from the monstrous side of God. Jesus is beloved as the One who will save them from his angry Father. They usually don’t say it just so, but this is essentially their theology of the cross. When the cross is viewed through the theological lens of punishment, God is seen as an inherently violent being who can be appeased only by a violent ritual sacrifice.

Those who are formed by this kind of theology will harbor a deep-seated fear that God is a menacing deity from whom they need to be saved.

But is this right? I know that if we are inclined to do so we can find a way to make the Bible support a monster-God theology. But is it true? Is God a vengeful giant whose essential nature requires him to vent his wrath upon sinners with omnipotent fury? Or is God co-suffering love whose very nature is to offer unconditional forgiveness?

These are honest questions. The term “God of the Bible” does not give as coherent a picture as we like to pretend. Is the God to whom the Bible points chiefly revealed as infinite anger or as immeasurable love? It’s possible to read the Bible in support of both.

What we need is a way to center our reading of Scripture. We do this by reading from the center of salvation history: the cross.

When we view the cross in the light of resurrection, we are looking at salvation, but what do we see? Are we looking at the appeasement of a monster God through the barbarism of child sacrifice? No, we are seeing the very opposite.

The crucifixion is not what God inflicts upon Jesus in order to forgive; the crucifixion is what God endures in Christ as he forgives. The monstrous aspects of Good Friday are of entirely human origin. What is divine about Good Friday is the completely unprecedented picture of a crucified God responding to his torturers with love and mercy. Golgotha offers humanity a genuinely new and previously unimagined way of conceiving the nature of God.

For eons human beings conjured and internalized a monstrous vision of God. Every flood, storm, earthquake, and plague was interpreted as the contrivances of a vindictive god. Calamities were made a bit more bearable by attributing inexplicable disasters to the wrath of the gods. These gods could be worshiped in dread and appeased by appropriate sacrifice and ritual, but these capricious gods could never be truly loved. Only love begets love.

Across the ages the religious imagination of humankind was haunted by monstrous gods. And if monotheism takes hold, the monstrous gods are absorbed into a single monster god. (Or at least a god with a monstrous side.)

But at the cross we find the death of the monster god. By this I mean it is at the cross of Christ that our wrong idea of God as a vengeful monster finally dies. Among the many meanings of the cross is this one: in the crucified body of Jesus we see the death of our mistaken image of God. God is not a monster. God does not have a monstrous side. God is whom we find in the Word made flesh. When Jesus dies, he does not evoke revenge; instead he confers forgiveness. Jesus does this for one profound reason: this is what God is like. A forgiveness-centered view of the cross saves us from a pathological anxiety about God, which is so detrimental to the soul.

We can now understand that the monster god is our own creation—a monster born of our projected issues of anxiety, anger, and shame. We are the Dr. Frankenstein who created the monster god.

The image of a terrifying god is created in the hearts of anxious people. The image of a raging god is born in the hearts of angry people. The image of a condemning god is created in the hearts of ashamed people.

Because we are such anxious, angry, and ashamed people, we imagine horrors where we should be seeing salvation. If we persist in looking at the cross through the distorted lens of fear, anger, and shame, we will imagine that the cross is what God does in order to forgive, instead of perceiving the cross as what God endures as he forgives.

Jesus’s entire life was a demonstration of the true nature of God. As Jesus heals the sick, forgives the sinner, receives the outcast, restores the fallen, and supremely as he dies on a cross forgiving his killers, he reveals what God is like. To see Jesus is to see the Father.

At last we know that God is not like the thunderbolt-hurling Zeus or any of the other angry gods in the pantheon of terrorized religious imagination. God is like Jesus, nailed to a tree, offering forgiveness. God is not a monster. God is like Jesus!

The truth is that there are monsters in this world, but the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not one of them. We have an imagination for monsters because we know of their existence. Venomous and vicious beasts were a daily peril for our earliest ancestors. Volcanoes and tsunamis can swallow whole cities. Hurricanes and tornadoes roar from the heavens, leaving hell in their wake. Epidemics of disease are lethal predators taking their pitiless toll. Worst of all, there are monstrosities of men—conquerors and warlords, tyrants and despots—galloping across history like ringwraiths, bringing conquest, war, famine, and death. We can imagine monsters because we have met them. But the living God is not one of them. Not the God whom Jesus called Abba.

Oh, the pagan gods are monstrous; of course they are. They are mercurial and merciless, petty and vengeful. They have to be mollified by a virgin flung into a volcano or a victim sacrificed on a stone altar. They always demand a violent and bloody appeasement…or else!

But we know about these gods now; we know what they really are. They are personifications of those beasts and disasters and epidemics and wars and tyrants that frighten us so. They are deified projections of our own rage and fear. They are the desperate attempt to deal with our own sin, suffering, and shame.

The good news is that the God revealed in Christ does not belong to the category of Mars and Molech, of Ares and Zeus. These are the false gods of our frightened and shame-laden imaginations.

The Creator God, the One True God, is not vengeful and retributive like those gods of the primitive pantheon. In his triumph Jesus put these petty and vindictive gods out of business. It’s only their fading ghosts that haunt us today.

In the dread of night we may be tempted to think that the true God shares the fearsome attributes of the vanquished monster gods. In our horror we imagine how Scripture confirms our nightmares. In our terror we may use the Bible as a palette to paint a macabre and monstrous image of God. But then the day dawns and we hear Jesus say, “It is I; do not be afraid.” With the dayspring of Christ the terrors of night fade away.

Jesus is perfect theology. And the perfect theology of Jesus saves us from our primeval nightmares about the divine. The hands of God are not hurling thunderbolts. The hands of God have scars; they were nailed to a tree as he forgave monstrous evil.

– Brian Zahnd

00

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.