Long ago, at a time before recorded history, a man was arrested by the emperor of the land in which he lived and thrown into to a dungeon to live out the rest of his days. During that time, the man was regularly beaten and tortured, and was often on the brink of starvation. He had little shelter from the cold around him, and regularly suffered illness and disease.
Then one day, the man, finding the door to his cell unlocked, managed to escape. Seeking to discover why he had been condemned to such a life, he disguised himself as a palace guard, infiltrated the palace grounds, and confronted the emperor in his private chambers. But upon seeing the man and hearing his complaint, the emperor said, “Condemn you? I have nothing but good intentions for you. On the contrary, I allowed you to be sent to prison because it was always in my heart that you find the means to escape it.”
Making God Only Worse
In the past several weeks, we have examined Bill Johnson’s book God is Good: He Is Better than You Think and his efforts to paint a picture of God that is so good, He could not possibly have any involvement in judgment. His goal has been to place God in the best light possible, making Him untouchable as far as responsibility for human suffering is concerned.
But as we conclude our review of Johnson’s book, I would like to suggest such efforts have had the opposite effect. By making God out to be more good than He is (that is, by our own idea of what is good), we end up making Him worse than ever imagined. Like the emperor in our story, God becomes a person whose actions are at best puzzling and inexplicable, and at worst unjust and downright evil — the very thing we seek to avoid.
Where Was God?
To start with, if God is too good to be in the business of judgment, then we no longer have a good explanation for God’s role in the Fall.
In keeping with his goal, Johnson’s retelling of this event is stripped of any mention of judgment. He explains that the Fall was essentially about a loss of authority, not an act of rebellion: The devil was able to trick Adam and Eve into relinquishing their control over the Earth and giving it to him, and according to Johnson, “God’s predetermined plan of redemption immediately kicked in.”
No doubt this makes God seem good on the surface, since He appears to be unconnected to any of the bad stuff that happens next. But doing so leaves a question unanswered: Why did God let this happen in the first place? Why did God allow his children to suffer captivity and suffering at the hands of a malicious predator? And why did He allow it to continue for thousands of years?
Removing God from His role in judgment makes Him look good on the surface, but raises the question: Why then did God allow mankind to suffer?
Johnson seems to suggest it is because God intended all along for mankind to exercise his own authority over Satan, and that Satan was used as “a chess piece.” But this raises two thorny questions. The first is why did God wait thousands of years after humanity’s loss of authority to restore it (through Jesus Christ). The second is: Does it make sense that a God too good to judge mankind should nonetheless allow mankind to suffer untold tragedy, simply to teach them to exercise their God-given authority?
This line of reasoning is not much different from the woman who claims God has given her cancer to teach her patience. Both suggest God’s way of bringing about an intangible good is to afflict His own children with suffering. In our ongoing discussion, we have made some allowance for God being justified in allowing suffering, but Johnson has not, so this is a problem. Johnson’s portrayal of the Fall betrays the very picture of God he hopes to establish.
One might say it leaves God looking more like an absent father than a good father. Granted, God is ready to bless whenever He shows up, but He is also responsible for the fate they suffer when He is not around. This is why Johnson works hard to make God seem less powerful: He must let Him off the hook for His parental failure.
Scripture provides the only valid reason for God allowing mankind to suffer: Because mankind’s actions warranted it.
Scripture on the other hand provides the only valid reason for God allowing mankind to suffer: Because mankind’s actions warranted it. The presence of human suffering throughout history is evidence of mankind’s rebellion, deserving of judgment before a Holy God. This is not only orthodox Christian doctrine but also the only sufficient and justifiable explanation for why an otherwise good God would allow it: He is not only good but holy.
Why the Cross?
A holiness that demands judgment for sin may be a part of God’s nature, but it is no longer part of his intention in the Person of Jesus Christ. This of course is because at the Cross, Jesus took upon Himself the condemnation we rightly deserved. But if the lack of condemnation we now find in Jesus Christ reflects an inability for God to condemn mankind from the very beginning, then the Cross becomes unnecessary.
Just as he does with the Fall, Johnson works very hard at describing the events of the Cross without making any reference to God’s judgment. Johnson explains that “Jesus . . . took on flesh to complete the assignment that we failed to finish.” That assignment according to Johnson was to defeat Satan, and those who receive Jesus are now “grafted into that victory.” He goes onto to describe Jesus’ defeat of Satan and concludes that “in redeeming man, Jesus recovered what man had given away.”
The Cross then is primarily about Jesus restoring the authority mankind lost. The problem, however is that loss of authority alone does not require that anyone die; only sinful rebellion before a Holy God does.
Loss of authority alone does not require that anyone die; only sinful rebellion before a holy God does.
Granted, Johnson acknowledges that Jesus paid for our sins at the Cross. But without God’s judgment, it is difficult to figure out where that factors into the equation. In Johnson’s version of the Fall, the only sin mankind seems to be guilty of is being outwitted by a cunning adversary and having failed to exercise authority.
As a result, the only plausible explanation we have for the Cross is that Jesus had to die, not because God felt it was necessary, but because something or someone else did. Johnson comes close to suggesting this when He says that “the appetite of the Law and the Prophets” were satisfied through Jesus’ death. In other words, God did not want to; the Law and the Prophets did.
Of course, this only makes God powerless over the affairs of His own creation, a topic we have taken much time to explore in past articles.
Perhaps the most distressing statement Johnson makes in his 252-page book is the following: “While I do not believe in Universalism, [the belief that] everyone eventually ends up in Heaven, the message of the Kingdom has a greater reach than I previously thought possible.” When I read this, my first reaction was perplexity. “What on Earth does Universalism have to do with any of this?” I thought.
But as Johnson proceeds to systematically distance God from any involvement with judgment on every page of his book, the answer becomes clear: Universalism is the logical consequence of the belief that God is simply too good to bring judgment upon mankind. After all, if God is too good to judge mankind in this life, what makes us think He is any less good to judge him in the next?
Universalism is the logical consequence of the belief that God is simply too good to bring judgment upon mankind.
It is also the logical consequence of divesting God of any involvement with suffering in a fallen world. If God, who exists in Eternity, has no part in human suffering in this world, how can He possibly have any part in it in the world to come?
This is a problem for Johnson — and for anyone who seeks to sanitize God of what we may consider to be the less comfortable aspects of His nature. Johnson denounces Universalism later in the book. But given the amount of effort he has exerted to distance God from anything but goodness and blessing up to this point, his arguments are not terribly convincing.
For example, Johnson says that “the concept of Universalism is from hell itself, as it strips the Church of any sense of urgency or accountability for embracing the Great Commission.” This is true. But it is hardly a reason not to embrace Universalism if it were true. It is equivalent to denouncing solar-powered cars since it would eliminate the need to go to the gas station.
Johnson also says that “if Universalism were true, there would be little need for the bulk of Scripture, as it becomes pointless in a world where all roads lead to the same place.” But this is not necessarily so. Perhaps God has given us His word so we would know He is a really good guy, too good in fact to send anyone to hell.
One is left then with the impression (at least, I am) that Johnson has not so much dismissed Universalism but that, in light of his conclusions, he is now forced to wrestle with it. His most forceful statements against it are that we must not “go there” because the Bible and Jesus both talk about hell. But the problem as I see it is this: When one has already taken great lengths to remove God from His role in judgment found elsewhere in Scripture, removing God from his role in hell is not far behind. At the very least, making God not responsible for it (and therefore not in control of it) becomes a nearly unavoidable next step.
It is important to point out that in arguing for a God of judgment, we are not arguing for an angry God: We are arguing for a holy God. In doing so we are also arguing for a merciful God, for without judgment, mercy is impossible. As we have said before: Only the justly condemned require mercy; the unjustly condemned require only justice. Therefore, in arguing for God’s role in judgment and human suffering, we are arguing for the Gospel itself.
On the other hand, to say condemnation is not in God’s heart is to say something about ourselves just as much as it is to say something about God. Since it implies God would be less good (even unjust) for condemning us, it also implies our sins before a holy God are not worthy of condemnation. When we argue God is too good to condemn us, unconsciously we are arguing for justice, not mercy.
To say condemnation is not in God’s heart is to say something about ourselves just as much as as it is to say something about God.
But Johnson has it right as far as Jesus is concerned. Condemnation is not in the heart of Jesus because Jesus took upon himself the condemnation that we rightfully deserved. As a result, Jesus’ intention is not to judge us for our sin but to free us from it. Having now been forgiven, our capacity to experience the goodness of God as we abide with Him and in Him is immeasurable.
For this reason, God is Good: He is Better than You Think can be thought of as a book with good intention, but — theologically speaking — poor execution. Had Johnson stuck to defining the goodness of God in terms of and within the parameters of the Cross, I believe he would have hit the mark he sought. And in the process, the Cross itself, and not his own personal ideas about God’s goodness, would have been exalted.
This season, may you experience the holiness and mercy of God as you celebrate the birth of Jesus.