Good grief. Here I go again. Thanks to those who are reading and journeying with me through the dark and doubt. I don’t particularly enjoy these posts, but nevertheless feel compelled to put them out there – probably because I believe I’m giving voice to something felt by more believers than just me. Take comfort – you are not alone – and you can be angry and bewildered with God and still be faithful (in fact, if you are angry and bewildered with God, being honest about it is the only way to be faithful!) Maybe we can call these latest entries in my blog the “angry Psalms” section.
God says, in Ezekiel the book of the Bible, through Ezekiel God’s prophet to Israel, “I’ll slaughter these people – I’ll obliterate that nation – then they [Israel] will know that I am God” (my paraphrase of much of the book).
In church these days, it’s fashionable to say, “God is good all the time.” I can’t say it without wincing anymore. That doesn’t sound like the God of Ezekiel. I am quite aware of what the beaver said about Aslan, the Christ-figure of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” I even admit that when Aslan slashed Aravis’ back in The Horse and His Boy, to help her feel the pain she had carelessly inflicted on someone else, it seemed right to me. Maybe it even seemed good.
But how could God’s total annihilation of a nation be good? What is “good,” if it includes threats like those in Ezekiel? What is “good,” if we are to believe that the prophet Samuel was truly speaking for God when he said to Israel’s King Saul – “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ ” (I Samuel 15 – a mercilessly decreed holocaust that was actually carried out)? How is it good that God commanded the slaughter of babies? Or is it possible that God is not good all the time? I hope not, but an honest reading of Bible passages like these begs this question.
Whatever his reasons, God’s destructive ways towards people never seemed to stick in convincing Israel “that I am God.” Some might say that the most concentrated destructive act of God – in slaughtering the innocent Christ, in being slaughtered as the innocent Christ, has resounded as the most convincing of God’s ways of communicating “that I am God.”
In the crucifixion, they may say, God threw out the angriest, deadliest arrows imaginable, fully worked-up righteous wrath, lashing out completely; and then traveled at the speed of light out through the universe, circling back, and absorbed every shot. The anger and the agony met in their most intense moments, in the person of Christ, in the center of God, and the big bang of that moment set in motion a whole new creation, one that is spreading like the indestructible mustard plant all through the old world order, transforming it from inside – even destroying evil systems and pulling down evil power structures – and maybe that is good, but it is surely not safe.
Some might say that. I said that not long ago, and it sounds profound and poetic. But underneath it all it just sounds like more destruction. I’m weary of violence being the only problem-solver, unwilling to accept that God’s ultimate fix for a sick world was self-destruction.
These days, my faith has lost its resting place. From without, from within, it’s being pulled forward down a path of uncertainty, of wondering and wandering. How does one live faithfully when faith itself comes unglued?
Or maybe faith was never meant to be glued, nailed down, safe and snug in a resting place. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ call to his disciples was “follow me.” Movement. Road trip. Flux. Big bang setting everything in motion. Doubting believer faithfully tussling with the living God.
Confidential to Keith – I still haven’t read the chapter on the atonement in The Orthodox Way. I got the book on special request through my public library, started it, really was getting into it, got busy, then had to return it with no renewal allowed. But it looks like a book worth owning, so hopefully soon I will finish reading it and maybe move this conversation along a bit.
I was just about to attempt to paraphrase Father Kallistos, but he is much more eloquent than I could. You are getting to some of the best stuff of that book. We will chat when you get back into it.
Brilliantly expressed! This is a theological problem that I have been profoundly ill-equipped to deal with
As far as the problem of Amalek goes…
I am certainly no biblical scholar, but from what I have read the books of Samuel are considered to be from quite a number of sources and highly redacted. They are also not considered to be written by anyone contemporary with the events. So the real question is whether or not you hold to biblical in-errancy.
Thanks, Keith. The story of Amalek is something I’ve not asked about since I was a small child – it seemed a strange story to me then but I guess all the OT warfare just piled up to desensitize me to the strangeness of it.
I haven’t done any research into the background or authorship, but I would agree with you that one’s view of biblical authority/inerrancy would make a difference in understanding it. I also have only recently begun to ask, what if the biblical heroes – prophets (such as Samuel), theologians (such as Paul) weren’t always 100% ‘speaking for God,’ and the words of Scripture simply report what they said, for the reader to decipher?
Perhaps a better (and ultimately more answerable) starting question would be if the words of Samuel are truly the words of Samuel?
God tells Abraham: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
Isn’t that interesting? It seems God let us ‘cook’ in our sin. We can jump out of the pot by trusting in Jesus, but most seem to like it in the pot.
However, eventually the pot reaches the boiling point and everybody is cooked (or baked, if you want to stick with the pot theme 😉 There seems to be a universal truth that sins must be paid for.
Even one sin deserves instant death. The fact that I’m not already dead truly amazes me!
So even if I was 4 year old Amalekite boy and I was killed by God’s chosen avenger, I would have gotten more than I deserved. I’m sure I would have committed at least one sin in those 4 years.
What angers me is when people presume to be God’s avenger, or even claim it with “God zij met ons,” or whatever. As James says: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
How do we feel after reading the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus sets the righteousness bar so high that nobody can meet it. I think anybody who claims they deserve life after reading the Sermon is not being honest with the sin inside them.
We’re all just beggars destined to starve, but those who love Jesus happen to know where you can get free bread! Woo Hoo! Let’s spread the WORD.
Thanks for interacting. You’ve laid out pretty much exactly what I’ve always been taught. I’m just not so sure I can accept that anymore. If God is love, why do we so blithely accept that God is justified to condemn four-year-old children to everlasting punishment for their sins?
Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, do good to those who persecute them. Why is it alright for God to annihilate his enemies? Maybe it is – i surely can’t stand in God’s way – and for a while I thought maybe Jesus’ death was supposed to be the answer to this question – that when someone has done wrong to me, I can look at Jesus’ crucifixion, see him being punished, and be satisfied that justice has been done.
But that just seems absurd to me now. Does Jesus’ death really make up for the combined atrocities committed down through the millennia? If we’re looking for purely eye-for-eye punishment, satisfaction of some debt for all the pain ever inflicted, I think not.
But I suspect that something other than punishment, or payment of debts, was going on in Christ’s death. I’ve read that the ‘payment of debt’ idea was something medieval theologian Anselm came up with. It looks clearly there in Scripture now that we’ve thought of it that way for centuries, but I wonder, I just wonder . . .
I think God has full rights to destroy anything He created at any moment. Isn’t that the case for the artist
on Earth? How would you like it if the moment you wrote lyrics you were forbidden to delete or change them?
I don’t have the right to delete your songs, but that’s exactly what happens when a man kills another man.
So is God unloving to destroy one of his creations? I don’t think so. Here’s one of my favorite passages:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The loving act of turning of the other cheek to enemies applies to us here and now on Earth, but doesn’t apply for all eternity or to God. God doesn’t let the unjust “veto joy” in the just, as CS Lewis tries to explain in the episode with the man and his wife in The Great Divorce. God lets his rain fall on both for a time, but there is a point God deals with them and the unjust no longer get their evil, self-serving way. At some point, the judgement must come and on that day, the other cheek is not turned.
Nathan once suggested that it would be more loving if the unjust simply ceased to exist, and the just get resurrected to live with God. The problem with this theory is that it is completely contrary to a boatload of scripture. From what I read, it seems every single person is an eternal creature by design, even though it appears that we cease to exist by dying on earth. Everybody lives forever, both just and unjust, it’s just a matter of where you choose to reside (presuming your not a fan of Mr. Calvin.)
I’m not sure that using the words of Christ admonishing people to turn the other cheek and not retaliate against one’s enemy is a great way to justify the apparent annihilation of infants by sinful men with swords.
Sinful men with swords killing infants = bad.
God directing sinful men to kill others/including infants = good, even though the sinful men are still bad and will get judged for it. (see Habbakkuk)
A good carpenter can pound a nail with a bad hammer and still be a good carpenter doing a good job. He can even throw away the bad hammer afterwards if he wants.
SawBoy, you seem convinced that to God, people are nothing better than tools, inanimate objects, or works of art to be used or discarded. Maybe you are relying heavily on Romans 9, the ‘objects of God’s wrath’ passage. I see an overarching movement of God in history – within and without the Bible – to be in genuine relationship with people, not simply to use or abuse them. That, i hope, is the good news to celebrate at Christmas.
I have been thinking about your comments, and it seems like you are missing the crux of her question.
Your arguments seem to be focused on justifying God’s right to be vengeful and destructive, but that has not ever been in question.
It is odd that you quoted Matthew 5, because it is precisely here where the problem lies: “You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I tell you. . . that you may be children of your father in heaven. . .” The clear implication in this passage is that, while it may be justifiable to fight against the unjust, Jesus admonishes his listeners not to, because God does not. Jesus life and testimony seem to present the reality of a God who would rather die than kill- even when he actually was completely justified to strike back.
Other NT passages seem to indicate that Jesus forgiveness of his enemies is only temporary, and that he will eventually retaliate against them. But according to Matt5 such action will only earn him a spot as chief of tax collectors and pagans- those who love their friends and hate their enemies. The fact that there is biblical evidence to the contrary only confounds the problem.
There are only two categories: the Creator (Jesus) and created beings (everything else).
When (not if) Jesus retaliates, He will not earn a spot among the tax collectors/pagans, because He happens to be the rulemaker.
As Paul teaches “Do not take revenge, my dear brothers, but leave room for God’s wrath for it is written “Vengance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”
Clearly there is a clear distinction between God (the avenger) and ordinary people (Paul’s audience.)
Applying our rules(i.e. Sermon on the Mount) to God himself makes about as much sense as applying a child’s ‘rules’ to the parent.
Perhaps I’m still missing the crux of her question. In any case, Merry Christmas all! I gotta go saw!
Check the logic of Matt5 again. Jesus is not saying don’t retaliate because God will. He is saying don’t retaliate because God won’t (or doesn’t). I don’t see any evidence of the double standard that you propose here.
For right now let’s look only at Jesus, not Paul.
Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection are not about substitution, but about assumption. A taking on, not a taking place of. As Saint Gregory of Nazianzus puts it, “the unassumed is the unredeemed.”
Christ himself prays in the Gospel of John, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Christ is the true and right heir of the kingdom and he shares that inheritance with those that love him. If He did not assume birth, life, hardship, and death, and if he did not become the object of sin (without becoming subject to sin), and if he did not conquer all of it in his resurrection then none of it would be redeemed. Assumption, and not substitution, is the very heart of the incarnation.
Transformative thoughts, especially for Christmastime pondering. Thanks, Keith. Okay, i’m ordering Kallistos’ book today 🙂
I found this poem I had copied from a book i read recently. Do you think this gives a picture of assumption? –
Christ’s body has been newly mingled with our bodies,
His blood too has been poured out into our veins,
His voice is in our ears,
His brightness in our eyes.
In his compassion the whole of him has been mingled in with the whole of us.
-Ephrem of Syria (quoted in Saving Paradise, Parker & Nakashima)
Yes. What a beautiful hymn.
I am right there with you. The cringe at every personal and painful memory when there was no one there, not even a God, so it seemed. An internal wince, covered and hidden away from sight but, yet, one that colors with a shade of disingenuousness the tone of my voice, when I utter words of praise to God in the settings where its expected and eyes pour over me to see if I am doing and saying the right things the way they’re supposed to be done and said. The wincing and cringing strike me as highly irregular, unnatural responses, at least they should be, to a God who is, or should be, Love. So I withdraw from there, against the advice of the author of the book of Hebrews, and seek fellowship and peace between my own two ears.
I’m tired of things, pat religious answers and ways of thinking, etc, that don’t work, that lead to dead ends, that leave me internally vacated, and visibly frustrated, altogether unsatisfied. There’s another approach, another way. There must be a way to know God, to get answers for these questions, to have peace, and to untwist everything that has been twisted.
I love the blog, especially the creative prose. I’ll continue to read here. I hope you continue to write. And whatever I find out there, I’ll stop by here and share.
Welcome Neil! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to hearing of your discoveries as you continue your search.