Seeing God from the Rocket

“Take care of that cursed woman,” [Jehu] said, “and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter.” But when they went out to bury [Jezebel], they found nothing except her skull, her feet and her hands. They went back and told Jehu, who said, “This is the word of the LORD that he spoke through his servant Elijah the Tishbite: On the plot of ground at Jezreel dogs will devour Jezebel’s flesh.”

There seems to be a crisis in the modern-day church concerning who God is. In the charismatic renewal movement, for example, there seems to be a great drive to redefine both who God is and what the Cross represents. One a ministry growing in popularity among renewal advocates has even proposed that the accounts of God’s judgment we see in Scripture are not because of God but because of “the Law” under the Old Covenant, and as as a result, God’s judgment no longer exists.

The Bind That Ties

As a supporter of the renewal movement, I find developments like this perplexing. After all, why would I wish to split hairs and pin God’s judgment on “His law” instead of Himself? Why draw a distinction between the Law and the Law Giver? Or why would I go so far as to suggest God is too good to even allow (let alone execute) judgment in the first place, given the mountain of evidence in the Bible for it?

The answer I believe is found in the fact that the charismatic renewal movement today, and the church at large, finds itself in a bit of a bind. This situation might be best expressed by the following words penned by one of its advocates (emphasis added):

“As I preach this gospel of grace and proclaim the goodness of God one of the major obstacles people have in accepting this is the topic of God’s wrath and judgement. I myself have struggled to come to terms with this topic.”

One of the cornerstones of the renewal movement’s theology is the goodness of God. This is not surprising, since the renewal has witnessed an extravagant outpouring of God’s goodness. But what this has led to I believe is what I would call a myopic view of God. Instead of understanding God’s goodness in the context of the Cross, we are now inclined to emphasize God’s goodness in spite of it.

What I mean, theologically speaking, is that we have sought to define God purely in terms of His mercy at the exclusion of, rather than in the context of, His judgment. Many are not merely downplayed the role of God’s judgment in light of the Cross: They are flatly denying it.

Not surprisingly, this has led to a crisis among believers — which we see in the words of the renewal advocate just quoted. Because believers have been told that God is simply too good to execute judgment, they now struggle with Scripture that clearly says otherwise. They come across examples of God’s judgment in Scripture — like the one that introduces this essay concerning Jezebel’s death — and cannot figure out how the only-good God they have been told about could possibly prophesy and ordain what reads to them like a mob hit upon a woman.

It is important to note here that, contrary to what many seem to believe, the real crisis is not the discovery (or suggestion) that God is an executor of judgment. Rather, the real source of the crisis as I see it is believers simply coming up against a God in Scripture that directly contradicts the God they are being taught.

The Crisis from Space

Let’s say you were raised in a sheltered environment where you were taught the world was flat. Years later, you ventured beyond the borders of your home, boarded a rocket and viewed Earth from space for the first time. To your horror, you discover the world to be as it truly is: Round. But the source of your horror would not be found in the roundness of the Earth; it would be because its roundness now calls into question all you were led to believe to be true.

This is the crisis many in the church are now facing. Having sat under teachings that have exclusively emphasized God’s goodness — and often flatly denied God’s role in judgment — they now find themselves looking upon God from the rocket ship of Scripture only to find an entirely different picture. God is not Flat: He is Round. That is, His nature is more complex than the God-is-only-good theology has allowed for, and now believers do not know what to think. True, the God of Judgment haunts them. But it is not God’s judgment, per se; it is rather the vast chasm between the God they have been told about and God as He truly is.

In saying this, I realize there are many who are troubled by a God who could pronounce judgment at all. But my point is that this issue becomes monumentally more challenging with a theology that refuses to acknowledge God’s role in judgment in the first place. The truth is, there are perfectly good reasons to believe that God is a God of both judgment and mercy, and neither aspect contradicts His perfect nature. In fact, both aspects provide insight into the nature of life and of reality and are indispensable for properly understanding God’s most profound achievement, the Cross. Remove either one and the Cross ceases to have meaning.

The difficulty, however, is that we will have no such God, and this trend leaves us vulnerable.

Any Explanation

If we — like the Christian believer we quoted — find ourselves struggling and lacking peace over arguably a significant aspect of God’s nature, we are prone to hasty theological conclusions rather than what is really needed, which is a theological reset. We are more inclined to find any explanation, rather than the right explanation, to restore that peace.

What I would like to do is briefly discuss one such explanation I have come across recently (we can call it Theology X) and demonstrate why, though it attempts to provide a band-aid to the renewal’s theological crisis, ultimately does not solve it. In fact, it only serves to fundamentally alter our understanding of both God and the Cross — and I believe, not in a good way.

Theology X, which being adopted by a number of prominent leaders  in the renewal movement, is a rather conspicuous if not elaborate attempt to address the judgment crisis, which might be stated as follows: If we are committed to denying God’s role in judgment, how can we possibly deal with all the Scriptural evidence to the contrary? The answer is to suggest that God’s history with mankind has been marked by several time periods, each corresponding to and governed by a distinct Divine covenant. So far, so good.

But Theology X goes on to explain that “God’s wrath was connected to the Old Covenant” and also that “clearly, the wrath of God is an Old Covenant Law-based concept.” It also goes into painstaking detail to explain that “the crucifixion of Christ did nothing to assuage the wrath of God.” It also proposes that for a period of seventy years, both Old and New Covenants were in effect simultaneously until the destruction of Jerusalem, which marked the “official” end of the Old Covenant.

This somewhat speculative interpretation of Scripture is puzzling at first until one realizes its goal: To remove every trace of judgment from the God we now serve. By proposing that God’s wrath is an attribute not of God but of the Old Covenant, and further by proposing a transition period where the Old Covenant was still in effect, it is able to suggest that all traces of God’s judgment found in both the Old Testament and New have been done away with. God’s wrath literally ceases to exist as part of God’s nature under the New Covenant.

This line of reasoning even allows us to suggest that judgment has never really been a part of God’s nature to begin with. The answer to the follower struggling with passages like the one concerning Jezebel becomes: “Ah, don’t worry about it: That was not God; that was just the covenant talking.”

More Questions than Answers

But Theology X raises more questions than it hopes to answer. The first is: Why would God implement a covenant involving a “law-based concept of wrath” if wrath was not in fact an integral part of His nature? Why implement a covenant that did not reflect who He truly is or what He truly intended? It raises the question why God would ever allow something like that to happen.

There are really only two possible answers: Either something beyond God made it necessary for Him to establish a covenant that went against His own nature and intention, or God is purely arbitrary in His implementation of covenants. In the first case, it would suggest that whatever that “something” is, it is greater than God. Which, of course, does not bode well for the idea that God reigns supremely over His creation, that He “is in Heaven: He does as He pleases.”

But if we wish to preserve God’s supremacy, then we have no choice but to conclude God’s decision to establish a wrath-based covenant was completely arbitrary. He poured out wrath under the Old Covenant simply because He could, and under the New Covenant He simply changed His mind. Who knows what the next Covenant might bring?

A Death without Explanation

The second problem raised by Theology X is: Why was it necessary for Jesus to die in the way that He did? Theology X belittles the idea that Jesus’ death had anything to do with God’s judgment, remarking somewhat disparagingly that “Jesus was not the Father’s ‘wrath sponge’ soaking up His anger toward sin.” Instead, he argues, Jesus was merely “the perfect lamb sacrifice thus creating a brand new covenant through which the Father could forgive sin once and for all.” If this seems confusing, it is.

What Theology X is trying to do here is to show that sacrifice and forgiveness have nothing to do with judgment, that they are presumably as far from one another as the East is from the West. In doing so, it resurrects an age-old question theologians have asked concerning how the death of Jesus worked exactly — that is, how are we to best understand how the death of one man, who was fully God, paid for the forgiveness of sins of all of mankind? The question is not whether it did, but how it did.

The evangelical answer to this question is that Jesus took our place and suffered the punishment we deserved. This idea is as accepted among Protestant evangelicals as the four spiritual laws. This newer theology, however, denies this. It reasons that “no Scriptures point to God’s wrath being poured out at the Cross.” Which, I would argue, is not a strong case for its rejection. (On the same basis, we would have to reject the doctrine of the Trinity, since it is not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, either.)

Instead, Theology X explains that under Old Testament Law, “no lamb sacrifice was ever punished for sin. Rather, the lamb’s death simply enacted covenantal forgiveness.” By analogy, it implies Jesus’ death was this simple, also: It was not actual punishment for our sins, nor presumably did it have anything to do with God’s judgment (for this is the whole point he is making): It was simply the act that was necessary to bring about forgiveness and usher us into a new covenant.

Theology X’s almost nonchalant portrayal of Jesus’ death on the Cross should give any Bible-believing Christian pause. But even if we accept its version of events in order to avoid a God of judgment, we now have new problem: We have no good reason for why Jesus had to die in the way that He did.

If Jesus’ death had no connection to God’s judgment, then why did God the Father require that Jesus die — and die in such a horrific manner? If judgment was not at issue, God could have conceivably used any means to bring about forgiveness. He could have released a swarm of butterflies. Or He simply could have had Jesus wave His hand. Why death at all? And why death on a Cross?

A God Far Worse than Imagined

Again, there are really only two possible answers here: Either God had to do it this way for reasons beyond our knowledge and presumably beyond His control, or God simply chose to do it this way for no good reason: He simply wanted His Son to die a horrific death. Theology X then would strongly suggest that God is either not in control of his own Creation or that He is somewhat of a monster.

And this is a point worth mentioning: Theology X hopes to rewrite the Bible in a way that distances God from any trace of judgment. But any attempt to do so will always have the effect of making God out to be far worse than ever imagined.

In my opinion, we must come to terms with the fact that God’s judgment is the only just reason for God’s actions in human history, from beginning to end. We must also realize that any attempt to “sanitize” God’s character and conform it to our own ideas of what is good will only serve to undermine the Gospel itself. By attempting to rehabilitate God’s character, we only serve to demean the work of the Cross — as seen above.

One Question Remains

I know I have kept my readers far longer than blog post etiquette allows. But let me conclude by briefly addressing the one question that remains: How can we understand God’s judgment in light of His goodness? The answer is quite simple: By understanding God’s goodness in light of His judgment.

There’s a terrible misunderstanding among renewal advocates that God’s judgment amounts to no more than God being in a really bad mood. As one teacher puts it, “I remember growing up thinking that God the Father was angry, and it was Jesus who calmed Him down.” But contrary to what some think, the Old Testament does not, in fact, confirm this misguided idea. Rather, it establishes the fact that God’s perfect holiness demands punishment for sin. In other words, God’s judgment is not a product of a bad mood: It is a product of justice.

Imagine a father who lashes out at his own child for no reason whatsoever and sends him off to his room without supper. We would all agree he is an angry father; we might even agree he is an abusive father. But what if the child was no child at all but instead a criminal — in fact, a murderer? And what if the father was actually a judge, who did not send the criminal to his room, but instead to prison, and eventually to his death? Would we still say the judge was angry and abusive? Or would it not be more accurate to say the judge was perfectly right in his execution of justice? That between the two, it was the criminal who had acted unjustly?

The reason for our present discomfort with God’s judgment lies in our failure to make this distinction. We are mistaking the actions of a judge for those of a father. We are viewing God’s actions as judge through the eyes of a child. A young child of a judge might wonder how his own father could possibly send a man to his death — and may even question whether his father is a good man. But this is not so: His father is perfectly good in his execution of justice. The child can also rest in the assurance of his father’s kindness toward him, expressly because of the special relationship they share: He is his own son.

I fear God’s abundant kindness to us has caused us to lose sight of the fact that we we were once criminals. We have forgotten that the extravagant kindness and mercy we experience from God the Father is based solely on our adoption as sons and daughters — the most costly adoption in human history.

In Closing

I would like to go out on a limb here and propose a few things.

First, I would like to propose that the really disturbing thing we find in Scripture is not the accounts involving God’s judgment  — such as the death of Jezebel, who was a manipulator, a murderer, and who systematically hunted down and killed the prophets of God.

I would also like to propose that Jesus did not have to go to the Cross in order for God to be good. Had Jesus never gone to the Cross, God would in no way be any less good — not even one hair — in His pronouncement of judgment upon mankind. For in His pronouncement, His judgments would be just, for it is a judgment we rightly deserved.

I would also like to propose that in attempting to strip from God of all traces of judgment, it is not really His good name we are protecting, but our own. For the only people who could ever possibly consider God’s judgment to be unkind are those who are not entirely convinced they deserve it. It is the unrepentant criminal who accuses the judge of injustice, but it is the repentant criminal fully convinced his sentence is deserved, who understands the judge’s pardon for what it is.

No, the really disturbing thing we find in Scripture is a God who humbled himself as a man and went to the Cross to take upon Himself the punishment we rightly deserved. As the apostle John says, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” These are the accounts in Scripture we should find most disturbing. They are the ones that should cause us to struggle, lose a great deal of peace, and keep us up at night. For it is a love so unjustified, it borders on the obscene.


The Child Who Refused to Be Comforted

Pastor Bill Johnson tells of a life-changing event in his own life when, after months of prayer to see miraculous healing in his church, he had an encounter with God. During this encounter, the power of the Holy Spirit came upon him. He felt God speak to him and ask, “Did you mean it when you said to me, ‘Lord, whatever it takes’?” Continue reading “The Child Who Refused to Be Comforted”

If I Am Forgiven, Why Do I Suffer?

In our ongoing review of Pastor Bill Johnson’s book God is Good: He is Better than You Think, we shall now turn to explore how God’s sovereignty plays out in the Christian life.

Can  a Christian Suffer?

We will begin our discussion today by asking an important question: If God has forgiven us completely of our sin at the Cross, is it possible for us to experience suffering? And if we can and do suffer, what does that mean about our relationship to God?

At first glance, it may not be clear how this question fits into our overall discussion. Recently, we discussed the folly of assuming that whatever happens to us is God’s will, especially situations involving hardship or calamity. At the same time, however, we have asserted with Johnson that God “is the Sovereign God [who] reigns over all” who is also “all-knowing and all-powerful,” and that “nothing is outside of His reach or His concern.”

But Johnson asks, “But is He in control?” This is a vital question. I would suggest we must accept the only logical conclusion to to this eternal truth: Yes, God is in control. If God is a sovereign God before whom nothing is outside of His reach or care — not even a sparrow that falls to the ground — then there is not one event on the Earth or in our lives that God not only allows but orchestrates. Strictly speaking, anything that happens to us is God’s will.

If God is a sovereign God before whom nothing is outside of His reach or care — not even a sparrow that falls to the ground — then there is not one event on the Earth or in our lives that God not only allows but orchestrates.

But we have pointed out that God, though Love itself, is not focused on ensuring that we experience His goodness, but rather that we choose it. This means our choices play a key role in our ability to experience all that God intends, and also leaves open the possibility that what we experience — though ordained by God — is not ultimately what He wanted for us.

The Case for Suffering

All of this makes sense. In fact, a God whose will for us is to choose the good may look very different from a God whose will for us is to simply make sure we experience the good. A God who is only focused on us experiencing good is confined to activity that will only bring about good things in our lives; the moment He does otherwise, He has violated His primary objective.

But a God who is focused on ensuring we choose what is good is not limited to such activity. If the goal is for us to choose the good, God may use any means to bring this about, even if they involve hardship and suffering.

A God who is only focused on us experiencing good is confined to activity that will only bring about good things in our lives; a God who is focused instead on us choosing the good is not limited to such activity.

This idea may sound familiar. In a previous post, we showed how the mere presence of suffering does not constitute abuse. Rather, it is always the motive behind it (and the motive alone) that does. At that time, the context of our discussion was to show that God’s sovereignty (and thus ultimate responsibility for human suffering) did not prove that He was evil. On the contrary, it demonstrated His holiness in His righteous judgment of mankind.

Here we are extending the discussion and applying it to the Christian life. We are saying that if the intention behind God’s will in our lives is not simply for us to experience good but rather to bring about our willingness to choose the good — in effect, to conform our will to the image of His Son — then even in the Christian life, God could use human suffering to bring about His ultimate aim without violating His goodness. For His motivation behind it is our ultimate good.

Love Requires Judgment?

In principle, Johnson agrees with this idea. In fact, he makes the case in his chapter Love Requires Judgment that all of God’s actions are motivated by love. A lot of Christians feel this way. And I would agree to a point, but I would suggest we cannot draw this line of reasoning too far.

It is difficult for example to explain how God, given the choice to pronounce judgment upon mankind or allow him to remain in the perfection of the Garden, acted in love by choosing the former. It is equally difficult to explain how God’s decision to send people to hell is an act of love. It is better to state that God’s holiness defines and upholds his spiritual laws concerning right and wrong and the consequence for violating his nature, but that this actions with mankind to conform us to these laws is done out of love.

It is difficult to explain how God, given the choice to pronounce judgment upon mankind or allow him to remain in the perfection of the Garden, acted in love by choosing the former. It is equally difficult to explain God’s decision to send mankind to hell as an act of love. This is one of the pitfalls of defining God as a God of love only, instead of the God we see in Scripture.

And that includes, or I may, would justifiably include, God orchestrating difficulty and hardship in the life of a believer. This does not necessarily call into question God’s goodness if God’s intention in it is the conforming of our will to His, and that His master plan is one that ultimately demands our cooperation. Depending on our own choices, we could just as easily find ourselves enjoying God’s goodness, or experiencing hardship that leads us to His goodness.

But — returning to our original question — if we have been forgiven by God of our sins, is it even possible for us to suffer? In other words, if all human suffering is caused by God’s judgment of sin, would that not suggest that we should now not experience any suffering, since we are completely forgiven?

The Case for the Faith-Based Church

This is not a mere academic question. In fact it represents the most notable difference between churches that identify themselves as “faith-based” and those that do not in today’s evangelical church culture. The evangelical church at large tends to emphasize what God’s forgiveness has accomplished for our eternal destiny (that is, where we go when we die). It has less to say about what God’s forgiveness has accomplished for us in the here and now.

This lack of emphasis on what to expect from God in this life explains why there is so much confusion about God’s sovereign will in the church today: Most have been taught we simply live in a fallen world where any calamity is possible, and there is not much God or we can do about it. It is not only a fatalistic world in which the worst tragedy that happens is God’s wish but also in many ways an atheistic world in which God is absent from — or at least not in control of — His own Creation.

Most have been taught that we simply live in a fallen world where any calamity is possible. It is not only a fatalistic world where the worst tragedy is God’s wish but also an atheistic world in which God is absent from — or at least not in control of — His own creation.

On the other hand, the faith-based church asserts that Jesus’ death on the Cross has not only secured our eternal destiny but also secured our freedom from all forms of human suffering. This helps to explain Johnson’s mission. Coming from the faith-based tradition, Johnson is primarily targeting the faulty notions about God in the evangelical church at large and seeks to awaken the church out of its unbelieving slumber to a higher opinion of God’s goodness — one that not only is willing to liberate us from all form of human suffering, but guarantees it.

For what it is worth, I find the faith-based position both provocative and persuasive. Through Jesus Christ, we simply do not see in Scripture a God who is unwilling to liberate mankind from any form of oppression. But this only makes the task at hand more difficult: If Jesus’ work on the Cross is so complete as to eliminate the possibility of human suffering, then God cannot use suffering and hardship to achieve a higher good, no matter how advantageous it might be. If He did, he would technically be allowing His children to come under the very judgment he has forgiven them of. He would be adding a “not quite” to Jesus’ declaration on the Cross, “It is finished.”

What is the Answer?

So what then is the answer? I believe it is found by returning to our story of the woman with cancer who refused prayer, and by asking a simple question: If the woman had persisted in her refusal to be prayed for, would God be obligated to heal here anyway?

Is God obligated to heal the woman in our story who refuses prayer? Upon this question rests our understanding of the entire Christian life.

Whether we realize it or not, upon this question rests not only our answer but also our understanding of the entire Christian life. Join me for our next discussion as we explore the case of the child who refuses to be comforted.

And in the meantime, feel free to leave a comment. I would love to hear from you!