False Ideas About God

I think perhaps the most harmful idea about God is that He’s sort of like a kindly, somewhat doddering, grandfather with a long white beard, waiting to give out presents to people who ask.

This false image is not only damaging as it is, it opens up a lot of people to anger who expect God to be this way but instead find Him to say no to their requests and to be quite engaged, in control, and not at all doddering.

I’m not sure where the idea of “grandfather god” came from, how it got started. I think it’s a fairly recent concept, though I don’t think Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of God in the act of creating did anything to dissuade people from seeing God in this benevolent, passive, aged way.

I find it hard to imagine, though, that the people in the 1700s listening to preachers like Jonathan Edwards who preached “fire and brimstone” sermons such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” would conceive of God as a kindly grandfather. They understood from the sermons they heard on Sunday and those they listened to during revival meetings, that God’s judgment of sinners was anything but kindly.

In reaction to this focus on God’s judgment, I believe Christendom began to focus on God’s love rather than on His wrath. Hence, the script flipped to this kinder, gentler God who loves the world. The natural outgrowth of this emphasis was a redefining of God’s image. He was not angry; He was loving. He was not eager to judge; He was eager to save. He was not a kill-joy; He was willing, even desirous, of showering His people with good gifts.

The problem actually is the focus, the over-emphasis of one of God’s traits to the exclusion of the others. And to be honest, grandfather god, while accurately identifying some of God’s attributes, neglects others so that the overall concept of God is drastically distorted.

As you would expect the preachers of Jonathan Edwards’s day knew nothing of “grandfather god.” Here’s a flavor of Edwards’s famous sermon:

II. They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using his power at any moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins. Divine justice says of the tree that brings forth such grapes of Sodom, “Cut it down; why cumbreth it the ground” (Luke 13:7). The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and ’tis nothing but the hand of arbitrary mercy, and God’s mere will, that holds it back.

III. They are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell. They don’t only justly deserve to be cast down thither; but the sentence of the law of God, that eternal and immutable rule of righteousness that God has fixed between him and mankind, is gone out against them, and stands against them; so that they are bound over already to hell. John 3:18, “He that believeth not is condemned already.” So that every unconverted man properly belongs to hell; that is his place; from thence he is.” (excerpt from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as posed by Yale.edu)

What I find interesting—though I haven’t read much of the sermon at all—is that I see nothing so far that doesn’t square with Scripture.

So which is true about God? Is He angry or is He a kindly grandfather?

Again, I’ll say, the problem is that both these perspectives are incomplete. God is kind, loving, merciful but He is also just and uncompromising and angry at sin.

The thing is, in this era of grandfather god, we don’t like to hear those things about God that contradict our image of universal benevolence.

But actually God is universally benevolent. He sends rain on the just and the unjust. He mercifully withholds His wrath from deserving sinners so that we have a chance to accept His free gift of grace. And it is His kindness and love for mankind that prompts His offer of salvation.

The mistake we make today, I believe, is speaking only of the traits that we like, that we’re happy about, and sort of mumbling under our breath that yes, God hates sin. Honestly? It’s even hard for me to write these truths. If feels a little foreign and I’m afraid someone will misunderstand. After all, we humans don’t have the holiness that God does which mitigates His traits we can only understand as negative.

In truth, God’s wrath is no more negative than His love is. His wrath is directed at rebellion and the cause of death which haunts the human race, and in fact all of creation. God hates death. He hates the sin that caused it. His plan is to bring it to an end. But the truth is, some will resist His love, His kindness, His mercy, His grace. As a result, they align themselves with that which God hates.

The best analogy is not a new one. Sin is like a cancer that will take a person’s life unless it is attacked aggressively, excised, dealt with ruthlessly. Should a doctor be benevolent toward the cancer? Or toward his patient?

To be benevolent toward the one is to be wrathful toward the other.

In short, God is both, kindly and angry. But grandfather? No. That doesn’t fit. God dwells in inexpressible light.

Time we retired the idea of grandfather god and look at Almighty God as He has revealed Himself—and that means we need to look at more than the qualities we find easy to talk about.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. There are two points about Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that help to illustrate this topic of false but commonly-held ideas:

    First, while judgment was a major theme of Edwards’ preaching, it was by no means the major theme. Sermons like “God Glorified in the Work of Redemption” were more typical; if I remember the numbers right from when I wrote a paper on this for an American-literature class a couple of decades ago, judgment was the theme of only about a third of Edwards’ sermons.

    And second, those sermons on judgment, and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in particular, were necessary because Edwards struggled with, and was eventually dismissed by, a congregation full of false teachings. In particular, his father (or was it grandfather?) had “compassionately” allowed people to take Communion and (if I remember correctly) become church members without any sign of repentance for sin or spiritual regeneration, and the congregation protested when Jonathan Edwards tried to change that and require a believable profession of faith.

    I’ve run across a quote a few times, attributed to Woodrow Wilson and possibly others: “When your enemy is destroying himself, don’t interfere.” This illustrates another angle on the interaction of love and hatred, complementing your “cancer” analogy: when people are on a path that is certain to lead to disaster, it is an act of love to stop them, rebuke them, and try to persuade them to choose a better path, and an act of hatred to let them go their own way unchallenged—despite the modern notion that the slightest rebuke is “hate speech” and tolerance is the “loving” thing. The best example of this is, of course, God’s dealings with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Such excellent points. About Edwards, even in the opening of the Angry God sermon, he still referenced God’s mercy, which supports what you’re saying. Honestly, I wanted to keep reading what all he said, because it seemed spot on. And now, since you supplied this backstory, what he said in this sermon seems even more necessary.

      And yes, the idea that it is the loving thing to turn people from destruction, not hateful, is absolutely true. But our current thinking is that we do the turning by proclaiming “the carrot” rather than “the stick.” But God always dealt with His people by putting both before them, requiring a choice. If you do this . . . , but if you do that . . .

      Anyway, thanks, Jonathan. You make me want to study the Edwards sermons too. 😉

      Becky

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  2. I love what you’ve said here. Wonderful points!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reminds me of these verses in Jude v22 & v23
    22 Be merciful to those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We just love to make God incomplete don’t we Becky? We think He can’t possibly be all of His attributes, fully and all of the time, so we pick the one or two we like and say that must be the real God. Great stuff, here, thanks for it.

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