I watched a movie recently entitled “God on Trial”, which recounts a trial held in an Auschwitz bunkhouse by Jews who have accused God of breaking His covenant with His people. The dialogue, questions, and accusations, are not for the faint of faith, for they bring questions about God’s character to the surface. God sanctions, and even commands genocides, inflicts plagues, makes David’s son die for David’s sin, and calls for children who disobey their parents to be executed. We read these stories, if we actually read our Bibles, and some of us, if we’re honest, have a hard time listening to praise music after we’re finished.
We have questions about God’s sense of fairness, justice, mercy. This, of course, was what the Jewish prisoners were struggling with, as they watched their peers disappear into ovens day after day in German and Polish camps. This is what the “new atheists” use as fodder for their atheism. This is what prevents some people from believing God is good. This where we get the insurance industry’s, “acts of god” phrase, which is used not to describe sunrises, peace, intimacy, and the miracles of daily life, but plague, pestilence, and horrific storms like Katrina, which swallow cities. That, in many people’s view, is what God does. And they didn’t come to that conclusion by reading Richard Dawkins. They got there by reading their Old Testament.
So what are we to do with this challenge? People of faith respond several ways:
1. Ignore this problem. This response is born from people’s fear of wandering very far from their theological safety zone, afraid that if they go too far, they’ll get lost and perhaps never come back. I don’t know about others but can only speak for myself when I say that my intent has never been to stay comfortably within the walls of a self-referential community that answers safe questions, but censors dangerous ones. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, God is big enough to care for Himself. The questions, rather than driving me away from God, have always been me to a place of greater intimacy with God, and enabled me to better walk with others who have honest questions.
2. Shout slogans. This camp’s response to questions about God’s Old Testament behavior is to simply say: “God is good”… and then wait for the other person to respond, “all the time”. I’m not certain, but I think this is just a way of saying, “I know that the Bible says God is good, so that’s all I need to know.” But when a couple tells me, with tears, that their baby was born with a rare blood disorder, I somehow think that this little mantra would have been offensive. They’re grateful to God for discovering the disorder, grateful for great friends who’ll walk with them through the challenges. But slogans only delay an inevitable time of questioning, like the one I had when my dad, who never touched a cigarette in his life, died of emphysema. I didn’t think it was very good of God. Slogans that proof text the goodness of God’s character and his unchangeable nature run the risk of creating a faith that runs on an entirely different set of tracks than real life. Over here, in real life, I’m seeking justice so that the world might be just. Taking my vitamins and exercising so that I might be healthy. Loving my children, so that they might live well. And then along comes some tragedy that runs contrary to all my desires. What do I do with that? I censor every notion of grief and anger, jumping over here to the spiritual track where I just say: “God is good… all the time” as I head off to a funeral. Nope. That doesn’t work either.
3. Recognize trajectory. My hope in the midst of this broken world, in the midst of my Old Testament readings, is found in the New Testament book of Hebrews: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our father by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoke to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
The answer is that we were never able to see the character of God with clarity and accuracy until we saw the person of Christ. Back in the day, we saw facets at various times: the justice of God, or mercy, or wrath, or generosity. They’re all part of God’s character, but only in Christ are all the pieces seen as an ecological, interrelated system, “full of grace and truth” as John said. In Christ, we see loving one’s enemies, laying down one’s life. We see crossing social divides, and pulling all humanity together, serving one another in love, and healing lepers with the dignity of human touch. All of these actions, done by Jesus, pour forth from the same God who acted in the Old Testament – but Hebrews tells us that God’s character is seen clearest in Christ.
I believe it. And it’s important, because without embracing Christ as the summation, the Bible becomes a weapon used to justify slavery, patriarchy, colonialism, and genocide. That tired game has been tried too often, and the carnage in its wake is massive. Instead, I’m looking to the “suffering servant” to frame my daily living – praying that his character will be seen in some measure, because he is, after all, the full and final hope!
I welcome your thoughts.