Atheist Arguments: God Is Cruel


Often atheists claim that God, if He exists, is cruel, even evil, because look at the people who died in the flood (which they also don’t believe in), or how about all those Egyptian soldiers who died when the Red Sea closed over them (another account atheists claim is nothing but myth). A third example are those Amalekites Saul was supposed to wipe out (yes, those would be people atheists don’t actually believe ever lived). The war against the Amalekites, according to these atheists, shows that God is genocidal.

Taken out of context those examples do make God look bad. But here’s the truth.

First, God’s nature. Scripture reveals the character of God throughout. He identifies Himself as merciful and true, good and kind. There are many other traits revealed and demonstrated, but most pertinent to this question raised by the atheist argument is that God is righteous and He is just.

Psalm 7 contains one such revelation:

The LORD judges the peoples;
Vindicate me, O LORD, according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me.
O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous;
For the righteous God tries the hearts and minds.
My shield is with God,
Who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge,
And a God who has indignation every day.
If a man does not repent, He will sharpen His sword;
He has bent His bow and made it ready.(vv 8-12)

Notice that God’s job as judge is actually a hedge, a safeguard, a shield for the upright, to protect them from the wicked.

Here’s another passage in the Psalms that makes the point that God deals with the wicked. He won’t let them hurt others with impunity:

The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked,
And the one who loves violence His soul hates.
Upon the wicked He will rain snares;
Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup.
For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness;
The upright will behold His face. (11:5-7)

See? some atheists might say. There God is, hating and raining fire on people. Such a view misses the context again. The recipient of God’s wrath is the wicked who loves violence. As it happens even we fallible humans, with our imperfect laws and legal system and law enforcement officers, sometimes use deadly force to stop a violent person. We should not be shocked if God treats unrepentant oppressors and violent men in the same vein. After all, His knowledge is complete. His judgment is never wrong. So He doesn’t sometimes bring down His fire on innocent people. He gets the judgment right every single time.

The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. (Ps. 19: 9b-10)

Psalm 119 repeats the truth about God’s righteousness more than once:

5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous;
Yes, our God is compassionate.

75 I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are righteous,

137 Righteous are You, O LORD,
And upright are Your judgments.

Psalm 145 declares a number of God’s attributes, including His righteousness:

8 The LORD is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.
9 The LORD is good to all,
And His mercies are over all His works. . .
17 The LORD is righteous in all His ways
And kind in all His deeds.
18 The LORD is near to all who call upon Him,
To all who call upon Him in truth.
19 He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him;
He will also hear their cry and will save them.
20 The LORD keeps all who love Him,
But all the wicked He will destroy.

These last lines bring up the next salient point in the answer to the atheist argument that God is cruel. In His righteousness, in His justice, He saves those who call upon Him, which obviously pits Him against those who are doing harm. How can you keep people safe who are being oppressed without dealing with the oppressors?

As it happens, in the three Biblical examples atheists like to use to claim God’s cruelty, He did in fact deal with oppressors.

First the people in Noah’s day. Too often we forget why God sent a flood. Yes, judgment but why did the people have to be judged?

Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.

Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth. (Genesis 6:11-12)

As I read this, I think, Man would be extinct today if God had not stepped in and saved Noah and his family. Maybe not, but why wouldn’t Noah have eventually become a target for these violent people whose thoughts were only evil, all the time?

Then there were the Egyptians. These would be the people who ordered and enforced the killing of the Hebrew male babies, who kept them under slavery for 400 years. They would hardly qualify as innocent. When God judged them, He did so as part of the process of freeing His people from captivity. They were no match for the trained Egyptian army and chariots. So God intervened and stopped the potential slaughter of all the descendants of Abraham.

Which brings us to the Amalekites. This people group harassed Israel on their way to the Promised Land. Waited and watched and picked off the weak and the vulnerable. God did not send judgment on them right away. He gave them time to do the right thing, to turn from their wicked ways. He gave them a good 200 years! But throughout the exodus, throughout the time that judges ruled Israel, the Amalekites oppressed Israel. When God allowed Israel to select a king, He turned the punishment of the Amalekites over to him. As it happened, Saul didn’t complete the job. As a result, years later, a descendant of the king Saul had spared—a guy named Haman—hatched a plot to wipe out any and all Jews. He would have succeeded, too, if Queen Esther had not intervened.

Atheists see God’s intervention, His judgment of evil, His protection of the ancestors of the coming Messiah, as cruel?

I see the violent men in Noah’s day as the cruel ones. I see the Egyptians who were exposing babies and keeping a people in subjugation for 400 years, as the cruel ones. I see the Amalekites who were intent on destroying the Hebrews, starting with their weakest people, as the cruel ones.

I see God as He’s described in the Psalms and elsewhere: He is a righteous judge, who administers justice, which He always gets right.

Advertisements
Published in: on February 15, 2019 at 5:31 pm  Comments (14)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Deadly Lies


Photo by Eduardo Braga from Pexels

Hananiah was the son of a prophet. Maybe he’d always wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps. Maybe he wanted his fifteen minutes of fame. Whatever his reason, he decided one day to stand up against Jeremiah.

This quirky prophet enacted at God’s command a series of object lessons to bring a dire message to His people: Because Judah had forsaken God, He was sending Babylon against them and they would go into captivity.

God replaced the wooden yoke with one of iron

On this particular occasion, Jeremiah was walking around with a wooden yoke on his neck—the kind that oxen wear, or that people hauling water might use. The yoke was a sign of servitude.

Hananiah faced him down in the temple and said, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.’ ” He went on to say that those who had been taken captive earlier and the valuables removed from the temple by the Babylonians, would be returned in two years.

I wish that was true, Jeremiah said, but it’s not. The prophets who came before me have prophesied that God will send judgment on His people. Besides, “The prophet who prophesies of peace, when the word of the prophet comes to pass, then that prophet will be known as one whom the LORD has truly sent.”

At that, Hananiah took the yoke off Jeremiah’s neck and broke it.

I wonder what kind of a crowd they had by this time. Did some people turn away, muttering about how these crazy prophets hadn’t learned how to get along? After all, there was enough conflict with the Babylonians camped outside the walls. Why did they have to bring hate inside the city?

Or maybe there was another set cheering Hananiah on. After all, they’d had years of Jeremiah’s gloom-and-doom predictions. It was about time someone stood up and gave a message of hope.

But God told Jeremiah how to respond. First he declared that Hananiah might have broken the wooden yoke, but that would be replaced by one of iron, Furthermore

Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen now, Hananiah, the LORD has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie.”
– Jeremiah 28:15 [emphasis mine]

As a result, Jeremiah continued, Hananiah would die because he counseled rebellion against the Lord. True to this word from God, Hananiah died in July of that year.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only false prophet of the day. Lies in God’s name were prevalent and had a deadly effect. To the people who were already in exile, Jeremiah sent word saying

Thus says the LORD concerning Shemaiah the Nehelamite, “Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, although I did not send him, and he has made you trust in a lie;” therefore thus says the LORD, “Behold, I am about to punish Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his descendants
– Jeremiah 29:31-32a [emphasis mine]

To another false prophet Jeremiah encountered:

“And you, Pashhur, and all who live in your house will go into captivity; and you will enter Babylon, and there you will die and there you will be buried, you and all your friends to whom you have falsely prophesied.” [emphasis mine]

And another time

“They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially,
Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace.
Were they ashamed because of the abomination they have done? They were not even ashamed at all;
They did not even know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;
At the time that I punish them,
They shall be cast down,” says the LORD.
– Jeremiah 6:15

Today the issue facing Christians is whether or not God’s word means what it says—is God really going to punish people who do not name the name of Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior?

Universalists are crying peace, peace. “Good people,” or all people eventually, will have peace with God no matter what they believe about Jesus.

Because their claims contradict the Bible, we can know as surely as Jeremiah did, that the message is false.

Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds.
– Jeremiah 14:14

Sadly, today’s lies may not be as easy to spot. I mean, we don’t have prophets standing on street corners. Rather, the lies come from false teaching that might even use the Bible. Certainly it sounds good. Often it satisfies a hope we have: I hope I get rich; I hope my uncle will go to heaven; I hope my neighbor can walk again.

Over and over I’ve read rants against God because “He commits genocide.” The truth is, many people—actually, all people—die, because the wages of sin is death. However, God is not responsible for these deaths.

1) He warned against sin, and if Adam had obeyed, death would not reign.
2) God is a just judge, a righteous judge, knowing what we will say before a word is on our tongue. He knows each and every thought and intent of the heart. He makes no mistakes in judgment. We can’t fool Him into thinking we’re OK when we’re not.
3) He reconciles humans to Himself, “while we were yet sinners,” if only we accept that reconciliation by believing in Jesus.

Many lies, from those who do not believe God exists and from those who say He exists but who want to make Him conform to their party line.

God will not be mocked. He will not be toyed with. He will not be manipulated. Best plan? Cling to the truth in face of the lies.

About two-thirds of this article is a re-post of one that appeared here in March, 2011.

Do The Good Go To Hell? – A Story


Once upon a time, during a particularly difficult economic down turn, the president of the land of Make Believe decided to use his own money to help his people.

“I’ll build an industrial plant,” he told his economic adviser, “a huge complex, big enough to employ anyone who needs work. First we’ll hire people to do the construction. All kinds of people. No experience necessary. What they don’t know, we’ll train them to do.”

His adviser consulted with the necessary PR personnel and soon word spread: anyone who wanted a job could begin to report to the designated location, effective immediately.

People came slowly at first, hardly believing the president really meant what he said, and some stayed away, convinced the offer was a sham, or worse—a trick to bilk the people of the little they still had.

Eventually, however, as those first folk went home tired each night after a full day of hard labor, gold coins clinking in their pockets, more and more people decided to sign on for a job too.

One day, a nicely dressed young man named Warren Wingate showed up at the application center.

“Would you like to apply for a job?” the receptionist asked him.

“Oh, no, no. I don’t need a job,” Warren said. “In fact, I’m here to help out.”

“Help out? In what way?”

“I have money, lots of money, more than I can ever spend in my lifetime. I want to give it away.”

“To everyone?”

“Well, I could do that, but the amount would be so small, it might not make much of a difference.”

“So you plan to divide your wealth with just a few people? How will you decide which will receive your gift and which won’t?”

“I’ll figure something out—maybe based on need. You know, the poorest of the poor.”

So Warren set up a table and sat with his checkbook open. Whenever a poor man with a torn shirt or holes in his shoes came to the application center, Warren called him over, wrote a check, and sent him home.

“Warren,” the receptionist said, “you should be sending those poor people in to sign up for their job.”

“They don’t need it any more. I gave them enough to last a lifetime.”

“You don’t know that. What happens if inflation rises or our currency is devalued? These people need jobs. It’s the only way they can have a secure future.”

“That’s certainly a narrow-minded perspective. Look at me. I invested wisely, and I’m wealthy beyond measure. I don’t need a job, and in fact I can help shoulder the burden for all these other folk.”

With that Warren passed out checks to the next one hundred people who showed up at the application center, regardless of need. Each person was so happy, they shook Warren’s hand, said how grateful they were, how much they owed him, and headed back home.

The next day, all the people with checks hurried out to the bank. But instead of open doors and a lighted building, the shades were drawn and the doors were locked.

“What’s this about?” one person asked.

“Haven’t you heard?” a man on his way to work said. “The bank closed its doors yesterday. Those checks you have aren’t going to buy your groceries.”

“But Mr. Wingate said he had more than enough money for us all.”

“I’m sure he thought he had plenty. But he’s not buying groceries either, not unless he has some gold. And the only place I know where you can get gold is from the president. You all should come with me and put in your job application. They’re taking anyone willing to work.”

As the worker hurried toward the plant, a few folk trailed after him though most stayed in front of the bank.

“It’s a misunderstanding,” one man said. “They’ll open the bank in an hour or so, you’ll see.”

When those who went with the worker arrived at the application center, who did they see but Warren Wingate, handing out more checks to the poor.

One of those who had just left the bank, stepped forward. “What are you doing, Mr. Wingate? The bank is closed, and we can’t cash the checks you gave us.”

“Well, isn’t that sad. Would you like another? I can make this one for a good deal more if you like.”

“That won’t help. We need to buy groceries for our families and we need money, not a check we can’t cash. You need money, too. They say the only place to get any is here at the president’s industrial complex, so we’re going to apply for a job. You should too.”

“Me?” Warren said. “Why would I need a job? I have plenty of money. Take a look at my last bank statement.”

“But the bank is closed.”

“I’ll simply show this statement at the grocery story. I’m sure they’ll give me the food I need. You can show them your checks too. They’re bound to give you the food once they see how rich you are.”

– – –

So what do you think? Did the kind man giving out checks to the poor get the food he needed?

This story is an edited version of one first published here in October, 2010.

Published in: on October 16, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

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.

Volcanoes And Earthquakes And The Flood


This post is mostly my speculation. Some of you might be aware that in the last month there have been three volcanic eruption along the Pacific Rim. The first was in Indonesia and didn’t end up with any lose of life. The second is in Hawaii and is not finished yet. A few people have died. The third was just last Sunday in Guatemala, the land of volcanoes. That eruption was more violent than the first two and at least 69 known deaths have occurred.

Besides these, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming has recently experienced some “unusual activity” from at least one of their active geysers. Not Old Faithful. This one is known as Steamboat. But of course the fact that unusual seismic activity is taking place in the region reminds me that Yellowstone is actually an active volcano. A BIG, active volcano.

So what’s with all the volcanic activity?

The Bible talks about an increase in seismic activity in the form of earthquakes. Nothing about volcanoes, though, unless we understand “fire and brimstone” to be the residual effect of a volcanic eruption.

But here’s my speculation.

The facts: when God created the world, Scripture says “the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” We don’t know when He created that water or where it was located. But in the process of creating our world, He divided the water, some above and some below.

Later, when God sent a world-wide flood as judgment on the earth, He didn’t just send rain. Rather, Genesis 7 tells us “all the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened.”

Interestingly, after the flood, the life span of humans plummeted.

My conjecture: The “floodgates of the sky” were a layer of water in our atmosphere that protected us and enabled life to exist in an Eden that allowed everyone long life. The “fountains” were likely an increased amount of water in the water table that cooled the earth and prevented the seismic activity which we have seen and are seeing today.

I suspect the water table is continuing to be depleted and therefore seismic activity will increase.

Of course, I could be wrong. All these volcanic eruptions so close together in time and all along the Pacific Rim could mean nothing.

But God is sovereign over this world, whether we humans recognize it or admit it, or not. There is no random “Mother Nature.” God is also purposeful. He doesn’t allow things for no reason.

Once we understood that God’s hand was in storms and drought and wind and lightning and earthquakes. But now humans have become so very smart and aware of how our world works, that we no longer want to credit God with being in charge. Even Christians assume that much of the attitude toward natural phenomena in years past was a result of simply not knowing or understanding the way things work.

But really?

Understanding tectonic plates or wind patterns or high and low tide does not give us humans control over those things. Nor does it negate God’s sovereignty over those things. Do we think less of an automobile maker because we understand what makes a car work? Are we less inclined to credit Henry Ford or the other inventors for their work because current day auto plants put out a much more complex product? No and No. We understand that the inventors created something new and that the manufacturers today keep updating that invention. We average Jo or Josephine drivers aren’t giving ourselves credit because we understand something about the combustion engine or about how to drive.

We certainly don’t think that now that we have learned how a car operates, it operates itself.

Why would we think that about nature?

Yes, we understand something about the way the world works that people five hundred years ago did not understand. But our understanding does not negate God’s creation of the systems we’ve discovered or His control over them. Just because we don’t see Him causing an El Niño does not mean that He isn’t doing the work. Scripture says He sustains the universe. He’s holding our world together, He set in motion what we now call laws of nature. They are actually laws of God and He can let them play out or He can stop them with a word.

I mean, the resurrection of Jesus Christ should convince us that God is not beholden to the natural way we’ve grown accustom to. He can reverse them, uproot them, change them, replace them.

He is the Sovereign Lord.

And us? We would be wise to see what’s happening in the world and take these “unusual activities” as warnings. God does nothing without purpose.

I don’t know what His purpose is now for all this seismic activity. But why should we not use these things as alarm clocks? We, God’s people, are to be ready for His return. Might these events be reminders that God will bring judgment, that He means what He says about the end of all things? Certainly we can allow them to turn our minds to the things that are eternally important.

God Is Not Benevolent


copOne of the “faults” atheists find with God, and apparently some professing Christians share this thinking, is that He shows Himself in the Old Testament to be wrathful. The first conversation I had with someone about this subject made me think we simply were not defining “wrathful” in the same way. She, I believed, meant that God was quick to anger, that he “flew off the handle” easily, and that He was capricious about when and why He “lost it.” I knew He wasn’t any of that.

Apparently I was wrong about her definition. She meant that God was wrong for punishing the unrighteous.

There are indeed those in the world who think God errors because He judges sin. His wrath, then, isn’t acceptable in any form. There simply isn’t room for a god who doesn’t bend his will toward making life better for the universe. Only if he did so, in this view, would he be a benevolent god.

And clearly, so these thinkers say, the God of the Old Testament is not benevolent.

I agree with this conclusion. The God of the Old Testament, who happens to be the same as the God of the New Testament, is not benevolent by those standards. The Oxford English Dictionary defines benevolent as “well meaning and kindly.” Ah, but as C. S. Lewis reminds us, God is good, not simply well meaning and kindly.

God does not “mean well” in the sense that He’s hoping for the best and trying to help and aiming for what’s good. NO! God is good, does good, brings about good. But good is defined on His terms.

I can say it would be good for me to sell my book for a million dollars. But my understanding of good is limited and finite. I don’t know if a million dollars would make me happy or angry at people who I perceive as trying to leech off me once I got some cash. I don’t know if a million dollars would change my perspective so much that I’d stop doing things of value like writing blog posts and doing freelance editing. I don’t know if a million dollars would make me more prideful, self-centered, and egotistical that I’d lose all my friends. And most importantly, I don’t know if a million dollars would become my idol, if I would worship it in God’s place.

God knows these things, however, and may, for my benefit here and now, in this life, prevent me from getting a million dollars. I also have no doubt that God could give me a million dollars if that were truly for my good—if it would bring me closer to Him, cause me to serve Him more truly, make me conform more closely to the image of His Son. What’s a million dollars to the Owner of the cosmos?

But He withholds what would harm His people in the same way that a good parent doesn’t give a three-year-old candy for breakfast just because she asks. God knows better than we do what is truly good.

God Himself is good, so we can conclude that His judgment is good as well. When He says, the wages of sin is death, that’s not an arbitrary judgment—that’s the testimony of an all knowing Creator. Much the way that a policeman might point to a sign and say, this is a handicap parking zone; you’ll get a ticket if you park here, God has made plain what disobeying His righteous standards will cost.

handicap parking signSomeone who didn’t know what the handicap parking sign meant would be grateful that the policeman told him. They wouldn’t rail against him because he didn’t tear the sign down and let them park in the specially marked spot, and they certainly wouldn’t ignore the warning and park there right under the watchful eye of the policeman.

But that’s what many people want of God—that He would ignore justice for them. Of course, few want Him to ignore justice for those they consider enemies, but they reserve their idea of His benevolence based on how He treats them.

Jesus told an interesting story about a man who thought much as these people do. He owed a debt so great he could never manage to pay it back in his life time–the equivalent would be millions of dollars. His creditor said all the man owned would have to be sold and he himself would go into servitude until he paid his debt. The man begged for more time. The creditor had compassion on him but instead of giving him more time to pay, which was really an impossibility, he forgave him the entire debt.

The man left and immediately ran into a fellow worker who owed him the equivalent of about ten thousand dollars. The man grabbed his co-worker and demanded that he pay up or he’d have to sell everything he owned and go into servitude himself until the debt was paid. The co-worker begged for more time, but the man refused.

A bunch of other workers saw what happened and told the man’s creditor. And this is how the story ends:

Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. (Matt 18:32-34)

Was the creditor in the wrong because he didn’t treat the man in a benevolent way? Of course not. He had in fact canceled the man’s debt. It was the man himself who wasn’t benevolent, who didn’t understand what receiving a gift of forgiveness actually meant.

So, no, God is not benevolent in the way the people of today want Him to be. He doesn’t tear up the ticket we deserve. Rather, He paid it for us. The point isn’t to get us off so we can go pile up more debt. The point is to change our status from debtor, to adopted child; it is to give us an inheritance far richer than any we can imagine.

This post is an edited version of one that appeared here in June, 2013.

Published in: on May 7, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Comments Off on God Is Not Benevolent  
Tags: , , , ,

Comparing


One of my neighbors has a band that recently started rehearsing in his garage. To be honest, they aren’t very good. The lead singer is especially weak.

Understand, I’ve recently been watching The Voice, and the contestants this season are especially strong. So even though I don’t really listen to contemporary music, like on the radio or via iTunes, I still have a standard with which to compare my neighbor’s band.

But here they are, playing for all the neighborhood to hear. Unless they’re playing for the love of music, I assume they have hopes of performing somewhere. I’m sure their family and friends have told them they are good, that they could find an audience. But a paying gig? I have a hard time imagining that anyone would actually give them money for their music.

But isn’t that they way we are? We evaluate our lives, our talents, our weaknesses in a large part in response to what others say about us. We listen to our co-workers, read the evaluations from our boss, maybe get a word of affirmation from our spouse or children, or maybe a complaint or murmured confrontation. From all that feedback we add our own summation based on what we see in the world.

Likely we reach a conclusion that runs something like this: I’m not so bad. After all I don’t cheat on my spouse, I don’t lose my temper that often, and I don’t rob banks or gun people down. I’m a pretty good citizen since I vote in most elections. I don’t speed more than anyone else, and I don’t drive drunk. Nobody’s suing me, I pay my taxes. My neighbors don’t complain about my dog barking, and I always greet the mailman. I mean, I really am not so bad.

The problem there is that we make our judgment according to a minimal standard. We’re not evaluating if we love our neighbor, just that no neighbor is complaining—to our face. We’re not detailing what service we do for our city or state or nation, just what we do that is required of us. We haven’t identified any selfless, loving action toward our family that puts them first, just what we do to keep those relationships.

And isn’t that enough?

Actually, no, it isn’t. God’s standard is much higher.

First He says, above all we are to love Him with all we have—our mind, body, soul. We’re to be sold out to Him. As if that wasn’t enough, we are also to love others—our neighbors, our family, our enemies—with the selfless love Jesus showed. One example Jesus gave was to give, pretty much, the shirt off our backs to someone in need. If someone asked us to help them, we are to do twice as much as they ask. The story He told on this same topic was about a man who knew he was in territory where people hated him, and still he stopped to help a stranger in need. And this help cost him—in time, in money, in resources.

Do we love like that? Do I love like that?

Not even close.

So, am I OK? Are any of us “not so bad”? Well, sure, some might say. We didn’t beat up the guy who needed help, who’d been robbed and left for dead.

But are we to compare ourselves to the bottom rung of society and evaluate our character based on the fact that we aren’t as bad as we could be? Or are we to make the judgment based on what we should be, what we were created to be?

When we look at what’s highest and best, we have to consider the things Jesus told us He considers:

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.

There’s more, but it’s clear that Jesus set the bar high. He wasn’t interested in our just being better than murderers. He wants us to eliminate hate in our hearts.

With that as the standard, it’s pretty clear, we are not getting any paying gigs any time soon, because we all fall short of what Jesus set out before us.

Which is why He came—to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Published in: on April 11, 2018 at 5:25 pm  Comments Off on Comparing  
Tags: , ,

Hard Hearts


My church is reading Exodus together. Daily we read the selected passage and one of us writes a short response. Today’s portion details the plague of hail.

I’ve noticed a progression in the plagues, from inconvenient and annoying to dangerous and deadly.

Hail might not sound like one of the deadly plagues but it was, because the hailstones were apparently large and could kill anyone who was not in a covered space. Essentially that meant farm workers and others who did manual labor.

There was more. The hail also destroyed the crops, which meant a famine was around the corner.

You’d think for sure that by this time Pharaoh would see that he couldn’t continue standing against God. Up til now he and his people had dealt with a three-day water shortage brought on by the water-to-blood plague, an inundation of frogs, gnats, flies, disease on the animals, and boils on people. Now hail.

And still Pharaoh hardened his heart. Then the incredible. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In essence there came a point that God simply gave Pharaoh what he wanted—to say no to God. God seems to have said, You want to say no to me? Fine! Then that’s what I’ll make sure you do.

The point is simple. Pharaoh couldn’t control God. He couldn’t stand against Him, refuse to go His way or do what He wanted. Time and again, at great expense to his people he proclaimed independence from God. He was not about to free those slaves because, who was the LORD?

God answered that question. He is the God who is greater than all the Egyptians’ gods. They worshiped the Nile, so God had Moses and Aaron turn the water to blood. They worshiped the cow goddess, and God brought pestilence to the cattle. They worshiped the sun god, and God brought a period of darkness over their land. They worshiped the god of the dead or the underworld, and God sent His avenging angel to take every Egyptian firstborn son.

Did Pharaoh get the message? Nope. Sure, he relented a couple times, but as soon as God removed the plague, he reverted to his old position. The Israelites were under his control, and he wasn’t about to let them go.

One thing that I’ve hardly ever heard addressed is that Moses wasn’t even asking if the people of Israel could be set free. He was asking if they could go on a three-day journey away from Egypt so that they could hold a worship celebration to the LORD.

Pharaoh tried saying yes-but. Yes, they can go but only the men. Yes, they can have their worship celebration, but they have to do it here. Yes, they can go but not their animals.

In the end, the people of Israel just left.

Pharaoh never agreed, never liberated them. In fact he realized after they’d been gone for a few hours that his land was in a sorry state—plants thrashed by the hail and later by locusts, most of the animals dead, their carcasses rotting. Families deprived of the son who should have carried on their legacy. And a good percentage of his work force had just walked off the job.

What to do but try to get them back. That’s what a hard heart does.

There’s no consideration that yes, the LORD is indeed the Almighty, the Creator of the ends of the earth. There’s no consideration that perhaps the wise thing here would be to obey, to listen, to relinquish his own will.

Pharaoh’s own advisors were begging him to let the Israelites go. They saw what he could not see. Perhaps they got out of the palace more and knew how desperate things were throughout the land—everywhere except in Goshen where the people of Israel lived.

But the thing about a hard heart, it resists reason, good advice, what logic says. It was all right there in front of Pharaoh—the Lord said to let His people go or A, B, C and so forth would happen. He didn’t let them go, and all of those warnings, or threatens, or promises, happened. Did Pharaoh finally admit, Maybe I can’t hold out against this God.

No, he was impervious to such clear thinking. He saw things the way he wanted to see them: all those people are on foot and unarmed. I can catch them with my horsemen and my chariots. They’ll come back if it’s the last thing I do.

He didn’t actually say that, but chasing down the people of Israel was, in fact, the last thing he did. He couldn’t defeat God and that’s actually who he was trying to resist.

He learned the hard way that God is in control, but that’s precisely what everyone who hardens his or her heart will learn. And I think that’s what Pharaoh and people like him can’t stand. They want to be master of their own fate, captain of their own soul, even if it means denying they have a soul.

But God is God. He will not give His place to another.

And He should not.

The one in control should not abdicate. That leads to confusion and chaos. The one who knows what’s right and good and best, should not give way to the one who only does evil.

The thing is, when people resist God and He sends them warnings and difficulties and affliction, He’s giving them a chance to stop and turn around, to yield to Him, to submit to Him. That’s a receipt for disaster because hard hearts like Pharaoh’s will ultimately face God’s judgment.

Published in: on February 22, 2018 at 5:40 pm  Comments (6)  
Tags: , , , ,

No Thank You, Mr. Buffett


Suppose I decide I want to talk to Warren Buffett, the American business magnate. I hunt up a number, call, and wonderfully am answered on the first ring by one of his many assistants.

I explain I want to talk to Mr. Buffett himself. The assistant tells me he just happens to be on site and available. In seconds I hear Mr. Buffett’s energetic voice.

I eagerly identify myself, then move on to the reason for my call. “Thank you,” I say, “but Mr. Buffett I’ll have to say no. I just can’t accept a million dollars from you.”

He pauses, clears his voice, then says, “There must be some mistake. I never offered you a million dollars.”

As you know, this scenario is completely fictitious, but I think there are parts that are analogous to our perception of humankind’s relationship with God.

Jesus clearly said that

he who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18; emphasis mine)

As I understand this passage, there are only two camps—he who believes and he who has not believed. In other words, no one is in the state of my fictitious scenario in which no offer has been made.

We frequently talk about accepting Christ, yet we don’t take much time thinking about what rejecting the Son means. Instead, we assume that first a person hears about Jesus, then he “makes a decision.” That way of looking at things suggests the third category—those who have not heard.

I want to postulate that the decision to reject the Son of God has more to do with our heart attitude than it does with hearing the name of Jesus.

I realize I am walking a dangerous line here, one I think some of the universalists traverse. However, I hope I am coming at it from a Biblical perspective.

More and more, people claiming to be Christians speak of the “innocent” people who haven’t heard the gospel (as Rob Bell did some years ago in his ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos). At best that position is tapping into the “blank slate” theory, that man is born neutral and can decide to be good or evil. At worst, it aligns with the belief that man is good and something from the outside—society or government or Satan or an evil parent or traditional religion—drags him into sin.

The truth is, none is innocent. None is righteous. We are all in “reject” mode, dethroning God and enthroning ourselves.

Let me turn the page for a minute. When Jesus was teaching in the temple one day, He began a discussion with the Pharisees about who their father was. They claimed God was their father, but Jesus said no. Their father was the devil (see John 8:18-59).

Whether Jesus stood in front of them or not, their father would still have been the devil. He did not become their father because they rejected Jesus as their Messiah. The devil already was their father.

Jesus, of course, knew this about them because He is omniscient. He knew they were slaves to sin. The only thing that could free them would be His shed blood.

But today so many are coming to the issue of salvation as if it is a matter of imparting information—giving everyone a chance to hear the truth, and if they haven’t had that chance, then God is either unfair or He’ll give them that chance later or the information we thought they needed, they didn’t really need because their own belief system is a good substitute.

All of this rejects the idea that an omniscient, all powerful, good God who forms us in our mothers’ wombs can know our hearts and that He calls those who are His. It’s an uncomfortable idea.

We don’t know, can’t understand why God put us in America where we could so easily hear the gospel.

But we must marvel just as much about Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, who was kidnapped with the intent to be sold into slavery. As a result, he had the opportunity to learn about Jesus and escaped the plague that wiped out the rest of his people group.

Or how about Mincayani, one of the Huaorani tribesmen that killed Jim Eliot and the others martyred with him. His act of violence did not stop the truth of God from coming to his people and specifically to Mincayani himself.

The stories of people coming to Christ are many, varied, and no less miraculous if the miracle is about being born where the gospel is readily heard or if it is about one hearing the unexpected and unsought truth of God’s Son.

My point is this. I don’t believe anyone will be judged for rejecting an unoffered gift. God is not Warren Buffett.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in March 2011.

My Least Favorite Book of the Bible


I don’t like admitting I have a least favorite book of the Bible. I mean, all Scripture is profitable, given for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, so I feel like I shouldn’t have dis-favorites.

It’s OK, I guess, to have favorites. People have life verses, for instance, and particular passages they turn to in times of great need. But somehow, admitting there’s a book I don’t like very much just seems wrong. But it’s a fact.

What makes this worse is that a good number of people I “met” in my first online writing community, Faith in Fiction, declared this book their favorite. Yikes! I thought, how can this be?

I thought the same thing again recently as I plowed thro read a portion of Ecclesiastes. Yep, Solomon’s angst-filled, nihilistic, existential treatise is my least favorite book.

And why shouldn’t it be? After all, like the violent, anarchic, everyone-did-what-was-right-in-his-own-eyes book of Judges, Ecclesiastes shows life without God in control—until the very end. (With maybe a glimpse or two of Him along the way).

Somehow, Ecclesiastes seems worse to me than Judges. After all, I know Solomon. Of course, some people don’t think he was the writer, and honestly, I’d feel better if I believed that. Then the wrong decisions and fallacious thinking would belong to someone other than David’s son. God’s chosen ruler. His beloved. The wisest man who ever lived.

How, I keep wondering, could a wise man, beloved by God, come to some of the conclusions Solomon came up with in Ecclesiastes? Things like, wisdom and foolishness don’t really matter because we all die. Or, there is one fate for the righteous and the wicked. Or, whatever you decide to do, do it with all your might because there’s nothing after you die. (Ironic that the first half of 9:10 is often quoted as a verse to inspire industry when it’s actually the beginning of a statement of existential fatalism).

In the end, I guess I can be glad for Ecclesiastes because it helps me understand how people without God may think. But Solomon? With all his advantages? I mean, he met with God, had an “ask Me for anything” moment, and was rewarded four-fold for answering selflessly.

His destiny was set. His father had been collecting the materials he would need for his life’s work—building God’s temple. Solomon didn’t ever have to figure out what his purpose was. In addition, he had admirers, success, influence, wealth.

And from it all, he concluded life was all vanity.

Poor guy. First he relied on himself, not God when he made decisions: “I said to myself, “Come now . . . (Ecc 2:1a)

Then he went through a wisdom phase in which he tried to make sense of life from the standpoint of wisdom. He reasoned out what was generally true about the wise and what was generally true about the foolish. The conclusion he came up with? They both die in the end, no matter what.

He also went through a pleasure phase during which he enjoyed all the pleasures a man could want: sex, wine, all the foods that pleased his palate. But again, the end of this phase met with the same nihilistic conclusion: after all the merriment, we die.

His third phase was a work phase: build, and they will come, or something similar. He poured himself into doing, building, acquiring. And as his desire for more and still more faded, he concluded, all this labor is for nothing because when I die, whoever inherits may or may not take care of what I’ve build.

Yikes! I really don’t like Ecclesiastes. I want to shake Solomon and say, Don’t you realize you’re studying life without factoring God into the equation? He changes everything!

And of course, Solomon came to that realization in the end:

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Ecc 12:13-14)

Well, I suppose that statement puts Solomon ahead of a good number of professing Christians today who deny that God will in fact bring every act to judgment. I just wish it hadn’t taken him twelve chapters (thankfully, short ones) to get there. 😕

But I also wish he had seen the joy of the LORD in the legitimate pleasure God give us to enjoy; that he would have offered his work as a sacrifice to God; that he had seen his wisdom as a means by which he could glorify his Creator.

There are hard, important lessons in Ecclesiastes, as there are in all books of the Bible. I just don’t look forward to climbing into the bleak outlook on life that Solomon had when he wrote the book. All the same, I’m not going to stop reading it.

Not everything we eat can be chocolate or cake, and not everything that nourishes our soul can be happily-ever-after. Sometimes it’s good to look at what life is like “under the sun,” without God’s counsel and guidance.

Honestly, it makes me happily run back to a passage like the end of Romans 8—“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Now that’s the kind of passage I’d put on a list of favorites.

A portion of this post is a revised and edited version of one that first appeared here in Mar. 2010.