The Problem of God – The Solution of Christ

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.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Ken

    For myself in reading the arc of God’s story with mankind throughout Scripture it seems as if these apparent contradictions fall into better order with the notion that it is the story of God fashioning an expression of himself to a rebellious people, first pre-Israel, then to Israel as His chosen people and finally to and through believers in Christ. I’m just not certain the absolute of God is the same yesterday, today and forever is a concept our minds can get a grip on. Scripture says it’s true, but it’s a truth we have difficulty comprehending. His truths from our perspective often look very different. Perhaps because we read our personal bias into His story? From the perspective of eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, etc., etc., all of our present light and momentary afflictions, no matter how weighty they are to us fall into a plan so grandly beyond our understanding that misinterpretation should come as only a faint surprise.

    The bottom line for me is that the Old Testament is so ridiculously honest in telling the story that it simply can’t be manufactured by anyone this side of eternity because we’d never create a god so puzzling. In fact as other religions illustrate they have a very different vision of how god would and should relate to man. Strict guidelines of just how to earn salvation and live life. The one true God instead calls us to Him by putting Himself into our story to relate to our plight. To be fully honest I think we would have to admit that we bring these miseries upon ourselves not only by our actions but because God knows that we will only respond to Him if life is difficult. If (and when) life is easy we have no thought for God. Relationship and thus salvation demand difficult. Injustice allows us to know within ourselves what true justice should look like even when we try to deny it. Gives a whole new meaning to tough love. Maybe that’s the proper definition of Agape, tough love.

  • Paul S

    You state that “We have questions about God’s sense of fairness, justice, mercy…And it is these questions that the “new atheists” use as fodder for their atheism. You sound surprised that atheists use a believer’s own questions/incomprehensions about the nature of his God as an argument to strengthen the argument for atheism. If believers don’t comprehend their own God’s sense of fairness, justice, and mercy, then an atheist is justified as using it as “fodder.”

  • TH

    Thank you for this post, Pastor Richard. I spent three weeks working/doing an internship rotation on a bone marrow/heme-oncology floor last month, and it was heart-breaking to see the folks there going through intensive chemo regimens, complications with transplants, cancer relapse after transplants, and multiple deaths. I spent many evenings sitting on my bed literally crying, asking God why such suffering is allowed to exist. I don’t have a clear-cut answer (and Romans 8:28 hasn’t worked for me since 6th grade; I appreciate what you wrote about shouting slogans), but God did change my perspective on things. Instead of focusing on “how can a loving God allow so much suffering,” I now try to daily ask God to allow me to be a person of hope, peace, and stability to the patients and families I interact with, in the midst of their suffering. I’m still definitely wrestling with the idea of the goodness of God in a broken world, but there seems to be a measure of freedom that comes with realizing that my response shouldn’t/wouldn’t change…

    I’m now many miles from BCC, but I am grateful for the spiritual foundation that was laid during my time in Seattle. I grew up in a church that did not really discuss justice issues, and it was not until coming up to SPU/BCC that I realized that God’s heart for the world is so much bigger than trying to pass out tickets to Heaven someday. And actually, my home church is now doing a series through “The Hole In Our Gospel” and my parents’ small group + senior pastor have recently studied your “Colors of Hope” book; the winds are changing. May God continue to work through you and the Bethany staff, and hopefully I’ll be back in Seattle someday soon.

    • Richard Dahlstrom

      Thanks for the encouragement Tina… continuing to wrestle with these things, even as we seek to be people of hope, seems embodied to me in the life of Moses who, in public needed continually to point people to God’s character and faithfulness. In private, though, he’s wrestling with God over and over again. It’s poignant and beautiful, and very real so often! Blessings to you as you continue to serve and I hope to see you again.

  • Brittanie Braun

    Hi Mr. Dahlstrom,
    I am a former Capernwray Quebec student of yours from 2002. I have kept up with your blogs and podcasts ever since. You taught on the book of John and when you taught the wedding at Cana, that was the first time my eyes were opened to the Bible and I began to see that the Bible MEANS something and is saying something. I went on to get my Bachelor’s in Bible and Theology from Multnomah University, and I’m recently trudging through the Pentateuch book by book with red flags raised at the character of God. Like WHY does God care so much about the manner in which his people come to Him (Leviticus)? What happened to ‘come as you are’? Who is a God that would allow the Israelites to defeat the Midianites and keep the young girls as part of the plunder (Numbers)?? Thus- I’m encouraged by your blog. I don’t want to ignore it, I don’t want to smooth it over and make God look pretty (He’s more than capable of that) yet how do I reconcile these things–In Christ alone…the fullness of God.


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