Does God play by the same rules?

Are you one of those who finds it difficult to reconcile many of the acts attributed to God within the Hebrew scriptures with the dominant picture of God painted by the life and teachings of Jesus? If so, you’re not alone.

I’ve talked about this problem extensively in the past, but I return to it again because, as we’ve seen time and again, flimsy walls of apologetics constructed to hide the issue tend to result in an exit door being blasted through people’s faith. That’s why I’m devoting this post and the next to the topic.

When we talk of tension between pre-Christ and post-Christ depictions of God, defenders of inerrancy will frequently counter with observations about God’s goodness in the Old Testament and Jesus’ wrathful warnings of judgment in the New Testament. Gladly granted, there is not a sharp, uniform discontinuity between the Old and New Testament’s portrayal of all aspects of God’s nature, so we should expect to see God’s lovingkindness extolled in the Old Testament just as in the New we find assurances of a divine reckoning on oppressors. It is because of His lovingkindess that God will take drastic measures to wrest the downtrodden from the grasp of those who use His name to excuse the neglect and exploitation of His people. But we cannot contentedly ignore the obvious: the divinely enacted, sanctioned, or commanded decimation of entire people groups in the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Canaanite conquest, etc., and the hopeful anticipation of such divine violence crystallized in the frequent imprecations in the Hebrew psalter–all of these stand in dramatic contrast to Jesus’ insistence that his followers love their enemies, pray for their persecutors, avoid calling down fire from heaven on those who reject God, etc.

The other standard response to this has been that we as fallen humans, warped by the Fall, just don’t have the equipment necessary to judge right and wrong. We must leave it up to God to tell us what’s good and bad, and even when everything that’s within us and in our scope of understanding screams that God is being described as committing evil acts, we must say, “No, it must be good, because God is doing it.” Because the Bible says it and the Bible is inerrant, of course.

This popular understanding was well articulated a few years back in the promo video for Francis Chan’s book, Erasing Hell. Critiquing the idea that humans would deny that God has done something on the grounds that we deem it to be immoral, Chan responds:

I’m like a piece of clay trying to explain to other pieces of clay what the potter is like. Think about that for a second! It shows the silliness for any of us to think we are an expert on Him. Our only hope is that He would reveal to us what He is like, and then we can just repeat those things.

And of course folks like Chan believe that such a revelation from God is exactly what we have in the Bible. I have offered several critiques against this view of the Bible in earlier blog posts, often calling to attention the impossibility of magically knowing exactly “what it says” without having to account for the myriad assumptions we bring to the table. But for people who believe as Chan does, we must not only consciously and resolutely affirm everything attributed to God within Scripture, no matter how abhorrent to our consciences, but we had better not fail to call it “good”!

In my next post I will address the question of whether we as fallen humans actually have the equipment to make valid moral judgments. But whether or not we can make good judgments, it appears we are exhorted by the authors of Scripture to make those judgments anyway.

Consider the Golden Rule:

By teaching the Golden Rule, Jesus was instructing humans to take seriously their own (fallible) observations and preferences when determining what is right and how to behave. Pay attention: when Jesus advised his followers in the way we are to treat one another, telling us how to go about fulfilling the second greatest commandment, we don’t see him saying, “Read the Bible” or “Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you.” Rather, he instructed you to consult your own will – your undoubtedly human, self-interested desires about how people should be treated – in order to determine the best course of action. Not only that, but this instruction was not reserved for the renewed, sanctified minds of the Christian elect: Matthew records this teaching to the general audience of the Sermon on the Mount. This goes even further than telling us to ask, “What would Jesus do?” It’s saying, “What would you do?”

Based on this, wouldn’t it seem that someone who obeys Jesus in this way would stand a pretty good chance of pleasing God? To my mind, the prohibition against “imposing” our desires and opinions about morality on God because of our fallenness was not on Jesus’ radar.

If you’ll pardon the blatant anachronisms for sake of principle, if an Israelite had heard Joshua’s command to “kill everything that breathes” and disobeyed that order either because he knows good and well that he wouldn’t appreciate being on the receiving end of the order to kill or because he rejected the notion that such a violent and cruel command could truly have come from the God he served, it seems God would have reckoned this disobedience as righteousness even if He had indeed given the command.

The objection lodged at this point might be that this is only valid between us mere mortals, blindly milling around in our dark world, and that the moral requirements for us and God might actually just be different. But George MacDonald had some choice words for this point of view:

If you say, That may be right of God to do which it would not be right of man to do, I answer, Yes, because the relation of the maker to his creatures is very different from the relation of one of those creatures to another, and he has therefore duties toward his creatures requiring of him what no man would have the right to do to his fellow-man; but he can have no duty that is not both just and merciful. More is required of the maker, by his own act of creation, than can be required of men. More and higher justice and righteousness is required of him by himself, the Truth;–greater nobleness, more penetrating sympathy; and nothing but what, if an honest man understood it, he would say was right.

Unsurprisingly, MacDonald’s influence on C. S. Lewis is obvious when the latter weighed in on this subject:

To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socrates’ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s, Paley’s) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.

In other words, we have no good reason to insist that right and wrong are suddenly, radically redefined into unrecognizability just because we’re talking about something God does. Rather, as Paul argues in Romans 2, everyone is held responsible for living up to the light they have (or think they have).

But what about the Fall? How can we be expected to make valid moral judgments if our sinful natures impair our moral intuitions? I’ll be discussing that subject in my next post on the topic.

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