Unpunishable: Part 2

In my last post, I made reference to the book Unpunishable: Ending Our Love Affair with Punishment by author Danny Silk but made little mention of it beyond this, because I had not actually read it. Having now read it (or truth: am well into reading it), I regret to say I find it a bit disappointing.

You might recall the topic we explored in our last post was the idea of God’s wrath. I shared that God’s wrath is not a topic I tend to dwell on, but explained there is a tendency in our modern era to divest the Gospel — and God — of all semblance of wrath, and the result is that the modern believer finds themselves alienated from the very Scripture upon which their faith is based. Unpunishable is a perfect example of this.

Unpunishable seeks to persuade us that the “punishment paradigm” — the idea, in a nutshell, that there is punishment for sin — is a thing we, humanity, have made up, and has never been a thing God has believed. In Silk’s own words:

In revealing the Father, Jesus systematically confronted and exposed humanity’s false views of God — in particular, the view of God as a punisher . . . “

“Jesus’ beliefs, motives, behavior, and goal countered the punishment paradigm in every aspect, because He, the Father, and the Spirit do not operate from this paradigm.”

“On the Cross, Jesus allowed Himself to enter our sin-distorted view of the Father, to feel our terror and shame, so that He could finally expose that nightmare for what it was — an utter lie.”

Just in case it is not clear, what Silk is suggesting here is that God does not punish sin. And the idea that He does has been one big misunderstanding from the beginning of time.

You may be inclined to agree with Silk for all the reasons we have discussed. After all, there has been a lot of emphasis on God’s goodness and little emphasis on judgment in many of today’s churches. Further, what is taught is how important believing in God’s goodness is. Under such teaching, we begin to think that God is not only good but our moral obligation is to believe He is. In such an environment, it becomes less important to believe or understand why He is. 

But there is a big difference between believing the privileged unpunishable state of grace in which we now stand is the result of the Cross and believing it is the result of clearing up a big misunderstanding. It is also important to understand that the war Silk is fighting is not really a war for God’s goodness. A classical view of the doctrine of grace brings us to the same destination. And it actually brings us there with far less casualties.

For example, Silk spends time exploring Jesus’ unpunishable nature, in particular discussing His treatment of the woman caught in adultery. Based on His exchange with the woman and her accusers, Silk concludes punishment is simply not in God’s nature. A classical view of grace on the other hand would explain that His treatment of the woman, as well as His healing of the sick and in fact His entire ministry on earth, was a foreshadow of the mercy He was to ultimately purchase for mankind at the Cross.

A classical view, furthermore, is even more astounding because it is not only a goodness unfathomable in its riches but also because it is a goodness we expressly did not deserve: We deserved punishment; we received grace. But if the idea our sins deserve punishment is just one big misunderstanding, the Cross becomes pretty unnecessary. Grace is just something inherent in God’s very nature that He has always wanted to express to mankind, but mankind has been too deceived to recognize. The salvation mankind ultimately needs then is not sacrificial death but understanding. Rather than fighting for God’s goodness, then, Silk is inadvertently fighting against the Cross.

So how did we get here? I mean, how on earth did we find ourselves fighting against the very foundation of Christian belief? I believe the reason is we have become so accustomed to God’s grace, we have taken it for granted. One of the things we explored in our last post is that if we are attempting to understand God in our privileged and arguably unpunishable state of grace, we will never come to understand His just and holy nature, particularly its response to sin, which is punishment. This is because at the Cross, God took these things upon Himself. And as we also explored, if we are not careful, we will begin to assume our privileged unpunishable state of grace is simply who God is, not what God has done for us.

But for Silk, I believe it is also because the foundation of his book is that punishment is the root of everything that is destructive in life, relationships and beyond. That true relationships in the Kingdom must be devoid of all punishment in order to create a place of safety. That also, however, is something a classic view of grace can agree with. But it is important to make the distinction that just because punishment is not conducive to relationship and the prosperous life overall does not mean it is not deserved. No criminal would consider their sentence conducive to relationship or life, either. But that does not mean the crime is not deserving of the sentence.

The real question then is: What do our sins deserve? See if our sins deserve punishment, not because we think they do but because they actually do, then the healing properties of God’s unfathomable grace coming into our lives (a great part of which is restoration of relationship with Him and as a result with others) makes the Cross that much more precious and beautiful. But if our sins do not deserve punishment, then that element of God’s nature becomes something that should have been all along. God’s grace is, from this perspective, not a gift paid at a high price but rather something we are entitled to.

One also gets the sense that Silk simply finds the idea of God punishing sin incompatible because of his lack of understanding of it. For example, in discussing the classic view of the Cross, he writes:

Many books have been written unpacking the significance of Christ’s suffering and death and how His sacrifice satisfied the wrath of God toward sin. This subject brings up age-old questions — Doesn’t the idea of the father punishing Jesus sound like divine child abuse?

But the classic view of the Cross is not a Father abusing a child — and secondly, this is not an age-old question; it is a relatively modern question in a movement that has spent little time understanding the context of the grace in which it now stands. And thirdly, it is a bit disingenuous to describe the exchange of the Cross as child abuse. For one, Jesus is not a child. For another, according to the classic view of the Cross, Jesus willingly offered up His own life, just as the Father willingly gave up His own Son. And lastly, unlike abuse, the act was not done senselessly: It was done because it was necessary in order to see us free.

Putting this in proper context then, what happened at the Cross is like a son of a king willingly taking our place in the hands of captors so we might be free, and the king willingly consenting. Or the son willingly taking our place and being sentenced to death for the crimes we committed, and once again the king consenting. These things might be many things: A bold miscarriage of justice perhaps (if the condemned should pay for their own crimes), or the most profound act of selfless love. But the one thing it certainly is not is child abuse. 

So what exactly makes the difference between these two scenarios? Selfless love, or child abuse? The answer hinges on whether the punishment was deserved — and necessary. A father allowing a son to die when it is not necessary raises all sorts of questions. But a father who gives up his own son — and a son who gives up his own life — for the death I deserved: This is what makes the difference.

So once again we return to the real question: What do our sins deserve? If they do not deserve punishment, then truly the Cross was the worst atrocity in history. And it was committed not only by an abusive Father, but by a sadistic God. But if our sins deserve death, the Cross was the greatest act of love and mercy heaven and earth has ever witnessed.

The problem with denying the classic view of the Cross — that Jesus took our place and satisfied God’s punishment that our sins deserved — is that we end up creating the very thing we are trying to avoid: A God who allowed His own Son to die a senseless death.

Silk attempts to build a new understanding of the Cross that I found hard to follow but goes something like this: 1) God did not cause His Son to suffer at the Cross: We did 2) Jesus’ death was not really about paying the penalty for our sins as it was to show us how terrible we were (bring our rebellion “to a head”), 3) This is because God is not into punishment and therefore the idea that God would allow His own son to die as a punishment for sin on the Cross is absurd, 4) Nonetheless, at the Cross God absorbed both our sin and its punishment and “bore it away from us.”

If I may, allow me to re-order this in the way I am guessing it logically follows for Silk:

  1. God is not into punishment.
  2. Therefore, the idea God sent His own Son to die to suffer the punishment we deserved at the Cross is absurd.
  3. Therefore, God did not punish His Own Son at the Cross: We did.
  4. But Jesus allowed this to happen to show us how bad we actually were.
  5. Somehow that event removed both our sin and its punishment.

This raises all kinds of problems in my mind. The first is: Why did God the Father, who is all-powerful and reigns supreme over His creation, allow Jesus to suffer at our hands? Jesus makes clear before His death that He could summon a legion of angels to rescue Him but does not so that all would be fulfilled. He also pleads with the Father to take this cup from him, but not His will but the Father’s be done. So clearly it was the Father’s will that Jesus suffer at our hands. Why? Silk provides no answer.

Second, what purpose was serve by Jesus allowing our rebellion to come to a head? Was it necessary for us to see how bad we were? Silk is also silent on this point, and the Bible is, also. Because this is an idea not supported by Scripture.

Lastly, how exactly did Jesus’ death remove both our sin and its punishment, when God apparently believes in neither? Here, Silk offers an explanation which I again found hard to follow, but I will try to sum it up: Since punishment for sin is all in our head, Jesus’ death and resurrection simply demonstrated to us how totally unnecessary punishment for sin is.

But Silk’s line of reasoning is not as clear. On one hand, he makes clear his contention that our separation from God due to sin is based purely on our misconception of God and therefore not real. And that the truth is “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” something that apparently has been true from the very beginning. On the other, he contends the result of Jesus’ death and resurrection allows us to enter into relationship with God by us “believing He was the offering for sin and punishment once and for all” and also “enabling God to extend free and full forgiveness and bring us back into life-giving connection with Him.” So it would seem that Jesus’ death and resurrection acted as a way of convincing us of what was already true: That our sins did not separate us from God, nor was punishment ever necessary. I do not want to assume too much here, but if that is true, that would mean when Silk says God “bore away our sin and its punishment” he means God simply found a way to convince us of what was already true and break the spell of misconception we were under. But if this is so, the idea of Jesus becoming a perfect sin offering for us pretty much loses all meaning. 

And none of this explains how this enabled God “to extend free and full forgiveness and bring us back into life-giving connection.” I mean, was God also under a misconception? Did He too believe sin had caused separation? It just doesn’t make sense.

I am going to go out on a limb and say I believe what is really happening here is Silk is doing his best to follow his premise “God is not into punishment” to its logical conclusion but is running into trouble and is doing his best to navigate his way through it while keeping the Biblical evidence intact. The truth is, the most logical conclusion to his premise — that God is not into punishment, nor ever has been — is to do away with the Cross altogether. If God’s history with humanity has been based on a terrible misunderstanding, certainly no one needs to die. All we need is understanding. Of course, that would have the effect of leaving most of the Bible, and the Christian message, in shambles.

All of this seems regrettable, because none of it is necessary. Silk has a beautiful message about the power and beauty of us understanding, and conducting our relationships in a way, that we are unpunishable. And none of this really requires a theological over-reach. All that is necessary is for us to take one step back, rethink our premise and acknowledge that God is into punishment — not because He is bad but because our sins are deserving of it before a holy and just God. It is here and only here that we come to understand the depth of mercy and love God expressed at the Cross, one that ushered us into unfathomable riches of His grace through a forgiveness that was not imaginary but very real, a grace which truly and eternally makes us unpunishable.

Unpunishable, Hell and Wrath

I did return from Ireland, dear readers. And for your sake, I am glad my disembodied thoughts did not take over the website in my absence. Ireland was beautiful, and then like Gandalf with that enormous fiery demon called Balrag, I descended into untold darkness only to come out the other side a changed man. A story for another time, perhaps.

Speaking of hell, I have been thinking about being unpunishable recently. Neither hell nor being unpunishable is something I dwell on myself regularly, but author and speaker (and former Bethel pastor in Redding, California) Danny Silk has come out with a new book titled Unpunishable: Ending our Love Affair with Punishment. I love Silk and the title of this book, though I have not read it yet. But I can assume it is about us coming to realize that as Christians, we are literally unpunishable before an amazingly good Heavenly Father.

What caught my attention, however, is Silk touching upon something that I, too, have discussed in the past. He shared recently that in his conversations with others, the most common objection he has heard to the idea that we are unpunishable is hell. People have said, “But what about hell?” The objection, it seems, is that a God who created hell could not be good enough to leave us unpunishable.

The question of hell and, by extension, God’s judgment and wrath is, in my opinion, the greatest threat to the modern church. Not because we believe in it but because we don’t — or at least don’t want to. And whether as a cause or as an effect, we seem to completely lack understanding as to what God’s wrath actually is.

I was happy to find Silk supporting the reality of hell and providing a good defense for it. Still, at the beginning of his discussion, he shares that the idea of a good God sending people to hell is “weird” and “once we get to know how good God is, we realize [his goodness and wrath] just don’t go together.” I could not tell if this was his thought or simply his attempt to identify with his audience, but either way it left me a bit dismayed. When leaders express their discomfort with foundational Biblical truths, it is no wonder we are where we are with this subject.

You might be thinking, “Who on earth wants to believe in God’s wrath? I don’t. I want to believe God is a good God.” But that is exactly the problem. There has been such an emphasis on God’s goodness in the past several decades with little or no effort to understand what God’s wrath is and where it fits in the overall narrative of Christianity.

No don’t get me wrong: Emphasizing God’s goodness has, for the most part, been a really good thing. But like all good things, if it is is emphasized in a vacuum and not tempered with truth, it begins to unhinge itself and develop into an extreme position. In our case, what has developed is a belief that God is so good He could not possibly be in the business of punishing us for our sins. And certainly if He is too good to do that, He is certainly too good to send people to hell.

As with all extreme positions, rather that providing greater peace and tranquility in the soul, it has actually had the opposite effect. It has alienated us from Scripture, cast doubt on its authority and reliability, and caused no small crisis as believers try to come to terms with a “good” God clearly responding to sin throughout the Old AND New Testament with violence. Some raised in the church have expressed concerns about God’s wrath that border on emotional torment.

The good news is that God’s wrath and goodness are perfectly reconcilable. The problem we face in understanding God’s wrath is not a problem with God or the Bible: It is a problem with us. It is not an eternal problem; it is a modern problem.

Now I have written about the dangers of building a theology purely on God’s goodness previously, so God forbid as a blog writer I begin to repeat myself 🙂 What I would like to do instead is help the person genuinely struggling with reconciling these two concepts.

So let me introduce to you Eva, a young Christian troubled over the idea of God’s wrath, and Philo, a sage of unknown origin who happens to meet her. Forgive me for abruptly dropping you into their conversation, and also its length. It is hard to cram an important discussion into a handful of words! 

And forgive me if you feel any offense over Eva not being the strong female lead who has all the answers and Philo the witless, inept male who cannot do much of anything; that too is a modern problem.

Philo: You are far too young to look so sad. What on earth is troubling you?

Eva: Excuse me? How would you know if I am troubled? Oh it’s no use. I AM troubled. But I am sure no one would not understand.

Philo: Well I could certainly try. I may not understand but maybe I could just be a listening ear. Would that help?

Eva: Fine. What could it hurt. So I guess you might call what I am going through a crisis of faith. 

Philo: A crisis of faith? Meaning faith in God? How so? Do you find it difficult to believe He exists?

Eva: No. I have always believed in God. It is just that I do not find God in the Bible to be who He really is, or at least who I have been told He is.

Philo: How so? 

Eva: Well it is quite simple really. I have been told God is a God of Love. But when I read my Bible, there are so many places where He is a God of wrath, a downright angry God. A God who sends plagues and executes revenge and causes death and destruction. Those two Gods cannot possibly be the same. At least, I cannot imagine how they could be.

Philo: Ah, I see.

Eva: You do? Are you a believer then?

Philo: Yes, if by believer you mean Christian, as a matter of fact, I am.

Eva: Then I AM talking to the right person! So How do you make sense of it all? I want to believe in a God of love, but the very book that tells me about this God shows me He is a God of wrath. I want to believe in a good God, but I am faced with an angry God. I do not know what to do. Certainly you have faced this question. At least, I hope you have.

Philo: Yes, I have. So I think it will help by asking you an important question: What exactly do you mean by a good God?

Eva: Are you suggesting God is not good?

Philo: No, I am not suggesting that. But I am curious how “good God” is defined by you, or at least has been defined for you by others.

Eva: Well, I guess for starters a God who is loving and kind and gracious, who only wants to bless us. A God who is definitely too good to pour out wrath or cause suffering.

Philo: So when you say God is good, you mean God is by His very nature incapable of causing us to suffer. 

Eva: Well at least unwilling. My pastor often says, “If I treated my children the way some say God treats us, I would be arrested for child abuse.”

Philo: So God is good because he does not cause us to suffer, and if He did cause us to suffer, He would be evil. You are defining “good” as “not causing pain or suffering” and I suppose by logical deduction “only causing blessing, favor and prosperity.”

Eva: Yes, right. I have always been told God is responsible for only blessing us and bringing good things into our lives. That is what makes Him good. Doesn’t it? 

Philo: Does it? 

Eva: Well of course. How could God be responsible for the bad things in our lives and still be good?

Philo: Well whether that is true or not, the problem I see is not with the Bible: It is with life. After all, God does cause us to suffer.

Eva: What do you mean?

Philo: Well, we do suffer. Bad things do happen. We go through difficult situations all the time. And God — being God — could prevent it. Does that not mean He causes us to suffer?

Eva: No, that is the devil.

Philo: The devil no doubt is involved in our suffering. But do you believe the devil is more powerful than God?

Eva: Well, no, I guess I would not say that.

Philo: I would agree. And the Bible agrees with you. The devil is a created being, and he can only do what God allows. But if this is so, then God allows the devil to do all that he does.

Eva: But my youth leader says the devil only has power that we give him, that there are spiritual laws God has put in place that God will not violate. And the devil exploits those spiritual laws and uses them against us.

Philo: That may be true. But God still allows the devil to exploit His own spiritual laws in order to cause us to suffer; God therefore allows us to suffer, no matter what the reason. And if God allows us to suffer, it means God causes us to suffer.

Eva: What do you mean? Cannot God allow a thing but not cause it?

Philo: No, not really. I mean, there is little difference. A church leader recently said, for example, the idea of God not causing sickness and disease but allowing it is foolish. He was trying to say God is responsible for neither. But the only way that can be so is if God is not God, for it would mean something greater than Himself is causing it, and also preventing Him from doing anything about it. Besides, which is worse: For God to directly cause our suffering, or for God to stand by and allow us to suffer at the devil’s hands and do nothing?

Eva: They are both pretty bad.

Philo: I agree. Either way, God is ultimately the cause. We can say it is the devil, or we can say it is spiritual laws. But unless we are saying God is powerless over either one, it is ultimately God bringing suffering into our lives. For “God is in Heaven and does as He pleases.” No power in hell or on earth could ever prevent God from ending our suffering, or preventing it in the first place.

Eva: Well that just makes me feel worse!

Philo: Hang in there! Our problem is with our idea of God’s goodness. Fortunately the Bible has a much better definition for His goodness. Before we get into that, let’s explore the idea of Gods wrath.

Philo: So let me ask you another question: What do you mean by God being a God of wrath?

Eva: I don’t understand. You mean why do I think God is a wrathful God and not a loving God?

Philo: Actually, you have just answered my question. You are saying if God is a wrathful God, then He cannot be a loving God (and therefore, not good). It stands to reason, then, that you consider wrath to be the opposite of love.

Eva: Yes, of course. What else could it be?

Philo: Well it makes sense why you would be struggling with God’s wrath! Fortunately love and wrath are not opposites. Wrath is not the absence of love anymore than love is the absence of wrath. At least, not according to the Bible.

Eva: But how could that possibly be?

Philo: Let me give you an illustration. Growing up, did your parents ever punished you?

Eva: Yes of course.

Philo: And when you were punished, did you suffer “their wrath” so to speak?

Eva: Of course.

Philo: But when you suffered their wrath, did your parents stop loving you?

Eva: No, I suppose they did not.

Philo: This is because wrath and love are not the same thing. Now let me give you a better example. Suppose a criminal is found guilty and convicted. And the judge sentences the criminal to prison. Could we say the criminal suffering the wrath of that judge?

Eva: I suppose we could.

Philo: But does that necessarily mean the judge does not love that criminal? In other words, must the judge hate the criminal in order to sentence him?

Eva: No of course not. Otherwise the judge would be filled with hate all the time.

Philo: That is right. Because wrath is not the opposite of love.

Eva: But it seems to me the judge probably hates what the criminal has done. I mean if he did not think it was that big of a deal, he probably would not be a great judge.

Philo: I agree. And so it is with God. Wrath is not the opposite of love: It is the presence of justice. I mean: Wrath is the proper response to injustice. In God’s case, wrath is the perfect, divine response to evil and sin. 

This has an important implication: Since God (like the judge) can be both just and loving at the same time, so He can be capable of wrath and love at the same time. In fact if you look closely at Scripture, this is exactly what you see: A God with unfathomable compassion but also exacting justice that demands punishment for sin. You see that throughout Biblical history.

Eva: But wrath seems like such an ugly word. So is anger! How can a good God be angry and wrathful?

Philo: The same way all of us can be angry at injustice. Besides, anger and wrath are simply the closest words we have in our language to express God’s perfectly just response to evil. You have to understand that we are describing God here, and the best we can do is describe Him by something we are familiar with, that is, in human terms. When we talk of God’s anger and wrath, we mean God’s response to evil is similar to anger and wrath. But it is also not exactly the same. When we get angry, we are often out of control or acting out of hate. But God is is never out of control and is always acting from a place of perfect justice.

Eva: So what you are saying is when I read passages about God’s love and kindness and then I read passages about God’s wrath, I am not seeing a God who is in one moment perfectly good and in the next totally out control. I am actually seeing in both cases a God who is perfectly good and perfectly just; I am seeing two sides of God’s perfectly divinity.

Philo: Exactly. And I would go one step further: Both sides of God’s divinity are perfectly good. For even in God’s wrath, He is demonstrating His perfect justice, just as we would think of a just judge sentencing a criminal to prison good. The only time we do not consider wrath “good” is when we are on the receiving end of it! But to the victim of injustice, God’s justice is always good. Imagine a judge allowing the murderer of a small child to go free. Would we say that judge is a good judge?

Eva: Not at all.

Eva: I get the idea that God is just and would punish sin. But why is it that His wrath is so violent? It just does not seem to fit with the idea of a good God.

Philo: Well that is a different question I suppose.

Eva: Different? How?

Philo: Well, it is one thing to say, “God, your punishment of sin does not agree with my idea of you being good.” It is another to say, “You have a right to punish sin, but you go too far.” Tell me: How far should God go?

Eva: I don’t know. It just seems God’s punishment of sin makes God out to be a horrible person.

Philo: In whose eyes?

Eva: Well, in everyone’s I would imagine. Right?

Philo: Well, historically — and certainly Biblically — God’s response to sin was always seen as how horrible we were, not how horrible God was. In other words, we saw the violent way God judged sin to be a measure of just how evil sin was, and how hostile it was to God’s perfect holiness. But something in our way of thinking changed. Do you know what that was?

Eva: What?

Philo: In the past few centuries, as humanity’s knowledge grew, we began to think we knew everything. We began to think WE were the ultimate standard of all knowledge. WE were the ultimate standard of truth, even truth about right and wrong and truth about God. It was no longer God who judged us; we judged God. It has caused us to look upon God’s actions and say, “Well, I would not do that. I do not think that is right. So God must be wrong.”

Eva: Yes, I heard recently that atheist Richard Dawkins said, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistist, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Philo: That is a perfect example of humanity, in the person of Dawkins, judging God. And implicitly feeling we are in a place to do so. What is ironic is that Dawkins demonstrates the same moral outrage that God demonstrates against sin. What I mean to say is, Dawkins is saying, “According to what I feel is right, God’s actions are intolerable. I am pronouncing judgment on God.” If God were not fictitious in His mind, no doubt Dawkins would demand God be punished in a way just as unforgiving and exacting and petty as he accuses God. So both Dawkins and God agree wrongdoing is condemnable. The question is: Who is in a better position to decide what is right and what is wrong? Is Dawkins?

Eva: But does what Dawkins say have any merit?

Philo: Do you mean do any of Dawkins’ accusations stick? Have we truly found evil and injustice in God? In my mind, no. Dawkins is like the criminal raging against the judge. And all that besides, misinformed. He does not understand God’s jealousy and mistakes it for human jealousy. His understanding of pride seems to not understand that what makes pride evil is when it is found in human beings, who think they ARE God (which is the very thing Dawkins demonstrates). His accusations of God being unjust stem purely from Dawkins’ personal ideas of justice. He seems completely unaware that forgiveness is a Christian concept (there is no reason why God should forgive us of sin). And all his other accusations levied at God come from his conspicuously modern ideas of right and wrong. Never once does it occur to him that when it comes to right and wrong, he is not the ultimate judge: That if there is such a thing as right and wrong, God alone reserves the right to decide what that is.

But I am afraid people like Dawkins have had greater affect on us than we realize. We have been so intimidated by the accusation that God is not good, we have escaped into the idea that He is “only” good. Our attempts to paint God in only glowing terms, like loving and kind and gentle and compassionate, are as conspicuous as Dawkin’s attempts to demonize God.

Eva: Do you think that is what has happened to me?

Philo: Perhaps. I would say to the degree we think God’s wrath makes God out to be the problem, and not us, we have all been affected. Let me ask you: If God never sent His Son to the Cross to die for our sins, would He still be good?

Eva: I don’t know. I mean, I never thought about it before.

Philo: Because if we think He would not be good, or even less good, it means we believe we deserved the Cross. It means God owed it to us.  It would mean our sins did not deserve death; they deserved God’s favor. 

Eva: But certainly the Cross says something about God’s goodness.

Philo: Yes. But there is a difference between believing God demonstrated a love we deserved, and a love we did not deserve. Both say something about God’s goodness, but they are very different. The truth is, God is perfectly just in holding us accountable for our sin and pouring out His wrath against sin. If we don’t get this point right, then I am afraid we have completely misunderstood the Gospel.

Eva: That makes sense. So what you are saying is according to the Bible, we are condemnable before God. But somehow we have made God condemnable before us! And God’s response to sin throughout the Bible reflects just how condemnable we are. So how on earth then did we come to believe in a God that is only loving? Certainly that was not because of Dawkins.

Philo: No, certainly not! All the ideas we have about God’s goodness comes from the Bible, especially the Cross.

Eva: What do you mean?

Philo: We mentioned earlier that God has shown Himself to be a God of compassion and love throughout Scripture. But His supreme act of love was demonstrated at the Cross. There, God willingly chose to take upon Himself the condemnation and wrath we deserved.

But something else happened at the Cross. God ushered us into a relationship of pure acceptance before Him: Despite our sin, we are considered perfectly blameless in His sight. We call this state grace, or unmerited favor. More than anything, it is this state of grace where our ideas of God being “only a loving God” come from.

Eva: But my assistant pastors say, “The more you get to know God, the more you realize that the idea of God being a God of wrath is incompatible with who He really is”.

Philo: Your pastor is right! But let me explain. First, we have to be clear what we mean by “get to know God.” If we mean get to know him through Scripture, then Scripture clearly shows God to be capable of wrath and love. So that would not give us the impression God is not a God capable of wrath.

But your assistant pastor probably has something else in mind. He means as we get to know him by experience, intimately, through the communion with the Holy Spirit — which incidentally is also a result of the Cross. So let me ask you a question: If God has taken away from us the wrath our sins deserved at the Cross and has now brought us into relationship with Him, how would we ever experience His wrath?

Eva: I suppose we wouldn’t.

Philo: Correct. Because of the Cross, it is literally impossible for us to “get to know” God as a God of wrath. But that is not because His nature but by chose: He chose to take upon Himself the wrath we deserved.

Eva: So are you saying we do not really know God the way He truly is?

Philo: I am saying we know God the way He always desired that we know Him: As blameless children in His sight. We are hidden in Christ, and that means hidden and protected from His wrath, eternally hidden in His love.

Eva: But why is it I have been told that God only is responsible for the good things that happen, and the devil the bad things? People say all the time, “The devil has come to steal, kill and destroy. But God only wants to bring life.” 

Philo: Well, that is both true and not true. But let’s look at that verse more carefully to see exactly what it says: “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I [Jesus] have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” Now let me ask you a question: Is this why Jesus came?

Eva: Well, yeah, I suppose it must be. He said it was.

Philo: So tell me then: Is this a statement about His nature, or His mission?

Eva: I am not sure I understand.

Philo: Well, if I came to your house and said, “I have come to fix your refrigerator,” you would probably conclude that my statement was related to why I was there, not who I was. You would think, “He has come to fix the refigerator.” You would not think, “He is only capable of fixing refrigerators.”

In the same way, when Jesus says, “I have come that you might have abundant life,” this is absolutely true — but he is not making an all-inclusive statement about the nature of God. He is not saying, “God is the supernatural force in the universe that is responsible for all good things that happen to you, and the devil is the supernatural force in the universe that is responsible for all the bad things that happen to you” — as though God and the devil are equal. On the contrary, Jesus was saying, “I have come into the world for this purpose of giving you abundant life.” And how do you think He accomplish this?

Eva: The Cross.

Philo: Yes. So because of the Cross, God has provided a way for us to experience eternal life, abundant life, abundant blessings and grace to flow into our lives. But this is because God no longer holds our sins against us. This is why when the paralytic was lowered down to Jesus from a rooftop to be healed, He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” He did not say, “Well, God is only capable of blessing, so here you go.” 

Eva: But wait: Are you saying God is responsible for things like poverty, sickness and disease? Are you saying it is God and not the devil?

Philo: Yes and no. One could say from the beginning, God and the devil have both been responsible for suffering, but in different ways.

Eva: What do you mean?

Philo: Well, imagine an evil man who lures a younger man into a life of crime, which results in his eventual arrest and conviction by a judge. Is the judge responsible for the young man’s suffering?

Eva: Yes, I suppose so.

Philo: But not in the same way the evil man is. So it is with God and the devil. From the very beginning, the devil has been responsible for luring mankind into disobedience and rebellion, but it is God who has pronounced judgment. So one could say God has been responsible for human suffering in the sense He has justly pronounced judgment upon humanity, but he is not responsible in that it was never His desire to cause suffering anymore than it was the judge’s desire to convict and sentence the criminal.  

Eva: But what about my pastor saying if he treated his children the way some say God treats them — by bringing upon them sickness and disease — he would be arrested for child abuse?

Philo: He would be. He would also be arrested for murder if he put one of his children to death. But what if he were a judge and sentenced a criminal to death? Would he be arrested for murder then?

Eva: No, of course not.

Philo: The problem with using analogies is knowing their limits. Your pastor’s mistake is assuming the only relationship God has to mankind is as a Father. But that is not so. If it were, it would mean He could never judge the world. God’s relationship to mankind is both Father AND Judge. And to be honest, God is only truly our Father through the Cross. It is because of the Cross we have been adopted and become His children. Prior to the Cross, the Bible describes us as objects of God’s wrath. 

Eva: But because of the Cross, we are no longer under God’s judgment, right?

Philo: Correct. So if your pastor is speaking to fellow believers — that is, children of God — then what He is saying makes a lot of sense. Through the Cross, God has literally become our Father. Further, God no longer holds us accountable for our sins. We are literally blameless in His sight. We are unpunishable. And since sickness and disease and poverty throughout scripture are shown to be a result of sin, it makes little sense to believe that a good Father would desire for those things to remain in our lives — that He is “responsible” for them.

Eva: But if He is not responsible for them, who is?

Philo: I thought you wanted to believe God was not responsible!

Eva: I do! But I am just wondering why bad things happen to us!

Philo: It is a fair question. I will answer simply for now, and that is to say all that we experience and receive from God Our Father now is by faith. And one of the main obstacles to faith is the belief that God is not as good as He is, or that God has not done all that He says He has done for us. If we still feel our sins are being held against us, for example, we will believe we are worthy of punishment, even though we no longer are. That unbelief can keep us from experience God’s extravagant goodness.

Eva: So it is important to believe, then, that God wants to bring good things into our lives? 

Philo: It is! And equally important: That it is all because of the Cross. 

Eva: What we have discussed so far makes a lot of sense, but I have a few questions. The first is, I have heard people say the only reason sin demands punishment is because of the Old Covenant, not God.

Philo: I am not sure I follow. Do you mean God only punishes sin  because the covenant he made with the children of Israel simply demanded it?

Eva: Yes.

Philo: So, let me get this straight: God has no problem with sin nor does He think it deserves punishment, but the old covenant simply required it, so He had to go along with it?

Eva: Yes, I guess so. When you put it that way, it seems kind of stupid.

Philo: It does seem like an odd idea. After all, why on earth would a God who does not believe sin deserves punishment create a covenant with His own people that demanded it?

Eva: I have no idea.

Philo: Neither do I. In fact, this would cast a shadow on God’s character. It would suggest God arbitrarily brought suffering and pain upon His own people not because of justice or His holiness but for no particular reason: He just felt like it. I have to think such a idea is someone’s futile attempt to explain away God’s wrathful nature.

Eva: Okay second question: You mention Jesus going to the Cross to satisfy God’s wrath. But a visiting minister at our church said the Cross was not God’s “wrath sponge.”

Philo: He actually used those words?

Eva: Yes. He said that nowhere in the Bible does it say Jesus actually suffered the wrath we deserved, that Jesus was simply the perfect sacrifice. What would you say to that?

Philo: Well I would say just because the Bible does not explicitly say Jesus suffered the wrath we deserved does not mean it is not true. The Bible also does not explicitly say anything about the Trinity, either. But no one in their right mind would suggest the Trinity is not true. But let me ask you: Why then did Jesus have to suffer such a horrific death? 

Eva: The visiting minister did not say. He just said Jesus was the perfect sacrifice.

Philo: Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. But if a sacrifice was all that was needed, He could have simply died a quick and relatively painless death. He could have taken poison and been done with it. Why when Jesus asked, “Take this cup from me,” did God just not take Him there, in the Garden? What is the reason apart from satisfying the punishment we deserve? Did God the Father simply want His Son to suffer needlessly?

There is a difference between explaining the truth and coming up with an explanation for the lie we have bought into. This sounds like another explanation to try to remove God’s wrath from the equation, because we have bought into the lie God is too good to punish sin.

Eva: Okay that makes sense. Third question: I have heard people say the reason Jesus went to the Cross was to restore our spiritual authority we lost in the Garden. In other words, it wasn’t about judgment.

Philo: No doubt we regained power and authority at the Cross, specifically the power over sin and the devil. But this is very different from saying why Jesus went to the Cross. 

Eva: What do you mean?

Philo: Well, let’s say you are a police officer. And a rumor starts and you are falsely accused of engaging in criminal misconduct. As a result, you lose your badge and gun and are kicked off the police force. Years later, an investigator looks into the affair and discovers the truth, and you are exonerated. Now what did the investigator do?

Eva: Well, He exonerated me. He proved I was blameless.

Philo: Correct. Now, because of this, you are reinstated and resume your normal duties as a police officer. Now how was your authority as a police officer restored?

Eva: Because I was found not guilty. I see. So you are saying our authority being restored was one of the effects of the Cross, but that is not really why Jesus went to the Cross. He went to make us blameless.

Philo: Correct.

Eva: Okay, that makes sense. Okay one last question, I promise!

Philo: Go for it.

Eva: I know we have talked about God’s wrath. But why do you think God’s wrath is so, well, wrathful? I mean, why is sin so offensive to Him? Clearly His response to sin in the Old Testament shows sin to be horrible, even though it does not always seem horrible to us.

Philo: That is a great question. Before I give you my answer, do you know where we find the most violent act of God’s wrath in the Bible?

Eva: I don’t know. Somewhere in the Old Testament?

Philo: No, right in the center of Christianity: The Cross. At the Cross, God unleashed the full weight of His wrath against the sin of mankind upon one man: His own Son. So if we want to understand how offensive sin is to God, we need to look no further than the Cross. 

Now we have touched upon this, but let me ask again: Do you think God would allowed His own Son to suffer the way He did if it weren’t absolutely necessary?

Eva: No, not at all. That just wouldn’t make sense.

Philo: I agree. God only allows suffering to the extent that it is necessary. His reasons may be hidden from us at times, but God would never allow needless suffering. It would not only be a violation of His love, but also a violation of His justice. What this means is that the Cross is necessary, and if necessary, then His wrath is equally necessary. And if so, then sin is horrific to God and to the Kingdom in a way that we hardly can grasp.

The problem when it comes to sin is we do not believe it is that bad: Like Dawkins, we often have our own standard for right and wrong. And to a great degree, that is based on our limited view of the world. But our ideas of right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil: They all come from God. And if from God, then He alone is in a place to know how right a thing is, and how wrong a thing is.

One of the problems Dawkins makes is to assume, without any basis, that he is in a perfect position to judge right and wrong. But why is this? I mean, what basis does he have for knowing that in all the Cosmos, he is in a perfect position to see how right a thing is, or how wrong a thing is? Is it science? No, science cannot tell us a thing about right and wrong. So what is it then? Is it simply because he “feels” a thing is right? That can hardly be a good basis. Because we have just said for a thing to be right or wrong, not just a thing we like or do not like, God alone can be the one to judge: We therefore only know of right and wrong by what God has revealed to us.

So what is Dawkins’ basis then for his confidence to know when he says a thing is right and wrong that he is seeing things perfectly? I mean, if his mental and moral capacity were impaired or limited in any way so as not to be in the position to see as the Divine sees, how would he know? He wouldn’t.

This question is important because the Bible says one of the problems because of the Fall is that our minds are darkened: We literally do not see things as they truly are, and it is because of our sinfulness.

So to answer your question, Eva, the reason God’s response to sin is so violent and the nature of sin, by necessity, must be so horrific and yet we do not think it is, is because our hearts are darkened. And it is only God who can reveal the true horrific nature of sin, just as it is only God who can reveal the true nature of our own hearts. Does that make sense?

Eva: Yes! And I just realized something! 

Philo: What?

Eva: Well, as you were talking, I was just thinking we know of the horrible nature of sin the same way we know the amazing nature of God’s love: Both are revealed to us. And that got me thinking about the fact that sin must be absolutely horrible to God and horrible to Heaven — horrible in fact to all of creation, even though I could not see it. And then I thought of the sacrifice Jesus made at the Cross, and that is when it occurred to me: Knowing what I now know about how horrible sin is, the fact that God was willing to take upon Himself the wrath He demanded, and I myself deserved, makes God far, far more good than a God incapable of wrath ever could be.

Philo: Indeed it does. Indeed it does.


Atheists Cannot Possibly Be Any Good

If you are an atheist — or at least find yourself sympathetic to those that claim to be — then you are most likely familiar with the term New Atheist. If you are not, it refers to a new type of skeptic who has emerged in the past several years, who not only believes there is no God but who is also particularly hostile to those who do.

Renowned biologist Richard Dawkins is quoted as saying, ““I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils.” Likewise, neuroscientist and author Sam Harris describes religious faith as an “uncompromising misuse of the power of our minds” which “forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity,” and that being a man of perfect faith is “a terrible thing to be.”

What is particularly interesting about the new atheist is his unmistakable sense of moral outrage over faith. Faith is not something that is simply not preferable; no, it is wrong, even evil. But wrong based on what? In a world where there is no more than the observable universe, what meaning does right and wrong possibly have? To be sure, an atheist, if he is consistent, cannot possibly be any good, not because he is not able, but because good does not exist.

Think of it: If the atheism that Harris and Dawkins hold to is true, absolutely true, then it matters little how your neighbor chooses to live, or what they choose to believe.

But are we saying that atheists are not capable of being moral? Of course not.  To be clear (and somewhat repetitive), the atheist is just as capable of being kind and generous and courageous (and whatever virtue you wish to add) as the person who believes in God. What we are saying rather is that in a world where God does not exist, there is no good. In such a world, we can conform to any code of behavior we wish to define, whether it be based on our upbringing or evolutionary past. But ultimately, it is meaningless.

As an illustration, imagine a different world, where evolution on its unguided and indifferent evolutionary course bestowed us with very long necks, and also deposited within us the odd belief that holding our heads as high as possible was the right thing to do. And imagine that that was the extent of our understanding of what is “right.”

And just as in our world, there were many of us who believed holding one’s head high was right because there was an invisible entity who held his head higher than all of us, and it is what He wanted.

But others, more educated and enlightened, came to realize that there was no such entity. But when challenged, they insisted they were just as capable of holding their heads high as the rest of us, even better at it than some of their Entity-believing peers. Or, that holding one’s head to the side was actually the right thing to do — and they condemned those who did not.

Now I ask you: Would such claims of the long-necked enlightened have any meaning?

And yet, in our world, this is exactly what we see. The new atheist protests he does not need to believe in God to be good (hold his neck high). He also condemns faith as wrong and evil because it is the opposite of scientific rationalism (“holding one’s head to the side”). The one thing we do not observe the new atheist doing is the very thing that seems most logically consistent: Responding that whether he is capable of being good or not is irrelevant, since ultimately the moral pose we choose to assume is pointless.

Think of it: If the atheism that Harris and Dawkins hold to is true, absolutely true, then it matters little how your neighbor chooses to live, or what they choose to believe. Even the worst atrocity — induced by religious extremists or an atheistic regime — is merely an unwanted  exchange of matter and energy.

So what do you think? If there is no God, is there such a thing as moral standards? If so, how did they come about, and by want scientific means do we know they exist? If not, why should we choose to live in any manner that is virtuous or what one might call moral? Lastly, what is your moral code for living, and why? I welcome your comments.

Imagining Science

As I mentioned previously, the fact that the world around us is comprehensible, both rationally and mathematically, is astounding. But it is even more astounding that we are capable of comprehending it, if the widely-held belief of our modern age is true.

The belief I am referring to is best summed up by the words of renowned scientist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins: “There is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural, creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe.” In fact, any belief in a supernatural (literally: “beyond the natural”) dimension to our existence is regarded by many in higher education as backward, superstitious, quaint, and — above all else — irrational.

The fact that the world around us is comprehensible, both rationally and mathematically, is astounding. But it is even more astounding that we are capable of comprehending it, if the widely-held belief of our modern age is true.

The reasoning behind such anti-supernatural sentiment seems to find its roots in the prevalence of scientific thought in our culture. The idea is that, since we have been doing this science thing for so long and have yet to find any evidence for the supernatural, belief in the supernatural is at best grossly unjustified. I have spoken elsewhere how science would come to no other conclusion, but let’s allow for the possibility of such a world that science (actually, scientific naturalism) envisions.

Imagine a world, as Dawkins describes, where there is nothing behind the material Universe. All that exists is matter and energy, operating according to the observable laws of nature, and nothing more.

Now imagine you are observing the Universe, particularly Earth, just before life began. You see a lifeless, turbulent planet where, at the microscopic level, molecules are interacting constantly. Suddenly,  by pure chance, a group of molecules find themselves arranged in such a manner that we would recognize as a building block of life. And, by further chance, that building block finds itself arranged with other by-chance building blocks in a way that we would recognize as the first primitive form of life. Now to be clear: It isn’t really life: It is simply a complex arrangement of molecules. For that is all there is. Life, after all, is a concept, merely a manner we use to describe lifeless matter arranged in a certain way and acted upon by unguided natural laws in a certain manner. That is, there is nothing beyond, or “out there,” making life what it is. Life is not real; matter is. Life is the term we simply use to describe some observable arrangements of matter. And so you recognize this by-chance arrangement of matter as fitting the description of what we call life.

So you  decide to keep your eye on this particular arrangement of matter. Over eons, you observe that, through a strange combination of ongoing chance and unguided processed, more arrangements appear like the first one, a phenomenon we have called “reproduction.” And further, with the same strange combination of chance and unguided processes, the exact configuration of the molecular arrangements begins to change, becoming more diverse, eventually finding itself in a state you recognize to be what we call complex life.

You marvel; you are elated! You are witnessing before your very eyes life evolve! But to be clear, you are not in actuality witnessing life evolve. You are not, because life does not exist, let alone evolve. All that exists is matter and energy acting according to observable scientific laws.

But you cannot help but watch, and as more eons pass, the arrangements change further, finding themselves by chance in ever-peculiar and diverse configurations, till eventually, as a whole, they take on a form that you, with shock, personally recognize: Human life. Thinking, Feeling, Rational Human Life.

But of course, it isn’t really  human life you are observing — nor, for that matter, is it thinking, or feeling or rational. For not only does life not really exist, neither does Thought or Emotion. Nor even, Rationality. These things do not exist because all that exists is matter and energy. Just as life is an illusion, the things we call thought, feelings, and rationality are as well. At best, they are mere descriptors for how molecules arrange themselves, or how they interact in a physical, natural world. And this must be so, for there is nothing beyond the physical, natural world, just as scientific naturalism claims.

And suddenly you realize with horror: You do not exist. Granted you, as simply a by-chance arrangement of molecules, do. But you — as a thinking, feeling, rational entity, who can achieve what we call understanding — do not. That does not mean of course you do not experience what we describe as thought, or feelings, or that you do not experience the belief in what you understand to be rationality. But that is the problem. If all that exists is the material universe, as scientific naturalism claims, that includes you. You therefore, on your very best day, are no more than a highly complex arrangement of molecules in constant interaction. Nor can you be otherwise. The part of you that thinks, feels, reasons, and has the capacity to understand — is an illusion.

No doubt, you struggle against such a realization (even if Dawkins does not). Not because you do not want it to be so, but because everything in you says it cannot be so — including the the you who affirms the claim of scientific naturalism. But the stark reality is that in order to possess understanding, you — at least the understanding part of you — must exist in a dimension beyond the material world, something which scientific naturalism denies.

Troubled by this dilemma, you decide to accept by faith that, although all that exists is confined to the natural, physical universe, your understanding does not. That it exists beyond the natural, and by definition, is super-natural. A supernatural reality you simultaneously deny.

And that, I argue, is faith in a miracle greater than Jesus rising from the dead.

So what do you think? Do you agree with Dawkins that “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world”? If so, what is the phenomenon we call understanding and rationality? And if you believe there is a supernatural dimension to our understanding, how far does it extend? I welcome your comments.