I really appreciated most of the thoughtful, honest answers Jean Sheldon gave during her Spectrum interview, "Making Sense of a Vengeful God," just as I appreciate Jean herself. I know her to be an excellent teacher and a wise, loving, caring, and thoughtful person. I live in the same community as she does. The other day I offered a ride to a college student escaping campus for an afternoon. When I found out he was a senior theology student, I asked him who his favorite teacher was. Without hesitation, he replied “Jean Sheldon.” He then began a long list of the many reasons he felt that way.
The part of the interview that troubled me was the way Jean attempted to offer a rationale for the astonishing difference between the angry, vengeful God portrayed many places in the Old Testament and the merciful, compassionate God presented by Jesus in the New Testament. This is, of course, one of the greatest problems to face Christian believers though most are unwilling to attempt to address it and, in some cases, resist even acknowledging it or even thinking about it! It truly is “the elephant in the church.”
Sometimes, I am afraid, if we do not have the solution to a difficult conundrum, people feel tempted or even compelled to create one, especially when the stakes are so high as is the case with this troubling issue. And troubling it is indeed. As Jean illustrated when she reported in the interview; “Two students came to me separately to tell me that the Old Testament God is the biggest deterrent to their peers’ having a close relationship with Him.”
I have a friend who is an atheist. We have a good time kidding each other. I like to ask him how he can explain why there is something here instead of nothing. He tells me that he can’t explain it but that he feels his skepticism is more honest than believing in a fairy tale like I do! But when we get serious, he tells me that the real reason he could never be a believer is because of the portrayal of God in the OT. “Under today’s standards your God would be convicted as a war criminal by the Geneva Convention,” he tells me. He refers to this god’s instructions (in Deuteronomy 20 and 21) to his people that when they take a city in battle they shall “save alive nothing that breathes.” He is especially incensed when an exception is made for when a beautiful and desirable woman is discovered among the captives. A conquering soldier can bring her home to his house. After a month, he can have sex with her. If he finds her pleasing, she must become his wife. But, “if it be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go.” He is equally appalled by the divine instruction that if a man rapes a virgin, she must then be forced to marry him (after the rapist has paid off the father with 50 shekels of silver)!
I can only tell my friend what I believe to be the truth . . . that these abysmal rules (and many others like them) were not inspired by God. They came straight from the patriarchy. They were written by men compelled by their own ignorance, anger, and burning lusts. They are a disgusting, distorted picture of God.
My friend is not the only one to be turned away from Christianity by this problem. Richard Dawkins, the most prominent and evangelistic atheist today, who was once an altar boy in the Anglican Church and is the author of the best-selling book, The God Delusion writes:
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, masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." (p.51)
To put it mildly, God seems to have an image problem! He was, after all, the first victim of identity theft! Lucifer stole His benevolent identity in heaven, repeated the trick again in the Garden of Eden, and repeated it again when he influenced some of the OT writers. He tried it again on Jesus! “He is a glutton and a winebibber and has a demon” declared the religious leaders! The devil is still at it today and an incorrect understanding of inspiration is allowing him to foist it on our world.
So, I have to tell my friend that I, too, am an atheist--an atheist when it comes to the god of Islam, an atheist when it comes to the thousands of gods of Hinduism, and yes, an atheist when it comes to the angry, vengeful, monster god of parts of the OT.
We have to stop, take a deep breath, and finally admit that some of the OT writers sometimes were wrong in what they considered God to be like, how they portrayed Him and the rules and actions they credited to Him. Their own distorted picture of Him crept into their writings.
We finally have to stop making excuses and doing theological backflips in order to try and defend these writings as all flawless and inspired. Here is the bottom line. It is a kind of blasphemy to consider all the writings of the OT as equally inspired as those of the NT. As equally inspired as the teachings of Jesus. They aren’t. They must stand in judgement by what He taught and what He was. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Jesus understood this and could separate the truth from the error in the OT. “Moses said to you… but I say unto you.” And He would teach something entirely different than the OT did. That is one of the things that got Him killed.
Seventh-day Adventist teachers and pastors and theologians dare not speak this truth or they too would be terminated. (How sad that our dear brother William Johnsson had to wait until he was retired to become angry and safely speak his truth to power, though I do not fault him for waiting.) Our whole understanding of inspiration needs to be revised. The issue of women’s ordination that threatens to split the church is not about women’s ordination. It is about how we understand inspiration. The ordination battle that has caused Jean and so many other women such pain is just a symptom of the real problem, the real elephant in the church that everybody is afraid to acknowledge and clean up after. Until we clarify and update our understanding of inspiration, there will always be an ordination problem and a homophobia problem and countless other problems.
In her interview, Jean said the following:
God was forced to communicate His character to people who believed whole-heartedly in violence. So violent ways of dealing with human relationship and violent ways of making wrongs right seem acceptable in the Old Testament . . . . A vengeful god who would retaliate against abuse and bring retribution on one’s enemies . . . was a god that people anciently felt they could trust . . . . God meets them (Israel) within their preferred context of violence.”
I would say that just because the people of that day had not reached a certain stage of moral development (in her assessment) does not justify considering the remote possibility that God would lower Himself to their level by becoming vengeful and violent and merciless or that He would even be willing to appear so.
Jean said it so well in one of her others comments: “Jesus came to reveal the Father.”
Yes! Jesus had to come to correct all the horrible untruths about God, some of them found right in the OT. At last, He brought us the truth about God! “The Father Himself loves you.” “He that has seen me has seen the Father.” “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.”
Now we know… . God is Christlike!
He is, was, and always will be. Nothing must stand against this great truth.
Douglas Cooper is president and owner of The Alpha Corporation, a wholesale distributing firm, and a part-time family counselor. He is a graduate of Walla Walla College (B.A. Theology, 1964), Andrews University (MDiv, 1967), and the California Graduate School of Family Psychology (PhD in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling, 1992). He is author of eight books, including Living God’s Love, which has sold over 100,00 copies. He worships with his family at the Pacific Union College Church where he is a deacon and Sabbath School teacher.
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