Removing the linchpin of Christian hate

Removing the linchpin of Christian hate April 13, 2013

People hate each other for all kinds of sinful reasons. In my life, I’ve hated people unfairly before, usually out of some sort of envy or paranoid presumption about what somebody else thought of me. It’s different when people hate out of devotion to God. Two nights ago, when I took a look at Way of the Master evangelist guru Ray Comfort’s account of his airplane evangelism, it was jaw-dropping to see the contempt he held for the people he was witnessing to. I don’t think that Comfort is an evil person; I think he genuinely believes that God wants him to hate ungodly people. His hate, like the hate of the Pharisees who crucified Jesus, is a genuine solidarity with a God he has misunderstood. The linchpin of Christian hate, insofar as it has a theological root, is the assumption that God’s holiness amounts to a nihilistic, ruthlessly unsympathetic perfectionism. This assumption is largely derived from a distorted inheritance of the medieval satisfaction atonement theory of Anselm of Canterbury and a ubiquitous misinterpretation of Romans 3.

I’ve told the story several times about the misfortune of 11th century monk Anselm who was just trying to come up with a logical explanation for why Jesus had to be God and man and had no intention of laying the groundwork for the most toxic feature of contemporary American evangelical theology. Living in a feudal context, Anselm’s audience understood that the honor of the king was the foundation of their social order. His word was the law; if his honor was compromised, there was no law. If the king were dishonored publicly without public satisfaction, then it would have been no less disruptive to every member of his society than if today in our market-grounded social order, the dollar suddenly ceased to be legal currency. The king’s honor was the security of every peasant (at least in theory).

So Anselm’s explanation of sin was to say that even the slightest deviation from the will of God dishonors the king of the universe as though we publicly walked up to his throne and slapped him with everyone else watching. Because this dishonor crumbles the peace and security of the universe, it must be satisfied. Instead of challenging us to a duel and crushing us with his pinky toenail, God sends His Word to Earth as a divine man to publicly satisfy the dishonor through His death on the cross. Because God is infinite, Anselm reasoned, the worth of the blood shed to satisfy the dishonor must be infinite, hence Jesus had to be divine. Because humans were the ones who dishonored God, Jesus had to be human to act as our champion.

Since we don’t live in a medieval world, the interconnectedness of their social order gets lost in the thousand year game of telephone between Anselm and us. We do not understand that a king defends his honor out of solidarity with those under his protection. All that we retain is the infinite scale of the infraction. Instead of being a composite dishonor that threatens the entire created order which God is charged with protecting, our sin is simply an abstract violation of “the Law,” which God is a nihilistic unsympathetic perfectionist with infinitely high standards about enforcing.

And going beyond Anselm’s assertion that Jesus had to die to clear the air of our sin’s dishonor is the further claim that God longs to glorify His name by torturing us forever for the slightest transgression against Him. Because He’s holy (so we’re told). And that is how holiness comes to be defined as misanthropy, which causes some Christians to think that hating ungodly people is an appropriate expression of fidelity to their misanthropic God. It is an ugly caricature to speak as though God’s love and holiness are opposites that must be “held in tension,” and yet this is what famous Christian pastors do all the time.

In addition to Anselm, this ugly definition of holiness gets a lot of support from references to this passage from Romans 3:10-18:

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness,
there is not even one.”
“Their throats are opened graves;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of vipers is under their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery are in their paths,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

The way that this passage gets deployed is to say that God’s moral standards are infinitely higher than ours. There is no such thing as a pretty good, decent person. We may not see how monstrously evil everyone around us is, but that’s because we’re completely corrupt and evil ourselves. Everyone is infinitely evil in the eyes of God (because He is not infinitely understanding or sympathetic, only infinitely exacting in His demands for retribution). And taken out of context, this seems like a reasonable conclusion to make from this passage.

In this passage, Paul is drawing quotes from several different psalms and prophetic passages from the Old Testament that cry out in anguish to God about the injustice of the prosperity of the wicked. The question is: who are the psalmists and prophets talking about? To be a 1st century Jew meant that you believed all these things about Gentiles as a matter of your religious identity. Otherwise there was no purpose to being a set-aside, circumcised people. Gentiles were utterly filthy, godless people to be avoided unless you were going out to convert them to Judaism (c.f. Matthew 23:15).

What we don’t get taught in Sunday school is that Jewish missionaries were already going out to convert people to the Jewish faith before Jesus came along. Their message to the Gentiles was you are drowning in a sea of wickedness, but we have a Torah that will teach you how to live clean, holy lives that are pleasing to God. In the book of Romans, Paul starts off by impersonating the standard altar call speech for 1st century Torah evangelists. The text for Romans 1:18-32 is thought to be lifted from one of these altar call speeches since several have been found that are almost identical. Except that Paul’s fire and brimstone sermon is a smokescreen for a more radical agenda.

When Paul quotes the psalmists and prophets in Romans 3, they’re not talking about Gentiles like the Torah evangelists did; they’re talking about their own people. In other words, the words Paul quoted in Romans 3 would have been a tremendous embarrassment to those who were trying to claim that the Torah could provide hopelessly wicked Gentiles with the basis for a clean, holy life.

Let’s look at the question with which Paul introduces the passage: “What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9). The rhetorical purpose of the hyperbolic categorical condemnations cited by Paul in Romans 3 is not to inform us 21st century readers that God is a nihilistic unsympathetic perfectionist with infinitely high standards who wants to burn billions of people in hell, but to dismantle the notion that the Torah makes the Jews any different from the Gentiles they judge by giving embarrassing counter-testimony from the Hebrew scriptures.

Paul not only says that the law doesn’t make his fellow Jews “any better off.” He also says that God can make people good apart from the law (which should be as infuriating for Christians today to read as it would have been for Paul’s fellow Jews at the time, because the analogous implication is that God can make people Christlike if He chooses even if they haven’t fulfilled our standards of “circumcision”):

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse themon the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. [Romans 2:14-16]

If those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. [Romans 2:26-29]

Many interpreters have tried to dismiss these two passages about virtuous Gentiles who are a “law unto themselves” and “receive praise from God” by claiming that Romans 3:10-18 “trumps” them with its sweeping condemnations. They try to claim that these two passages are just describing hypothetical situations that have never occurred, which would give them an uncharacteristically awkward purposelessness to the argument of one of the most brilliant persuasive writers in world history in the very opus of his writing.

Paul’s rhetorical agenda throughout Romans is to demolish the argument of the Torah evangelists by demonstrating both that the Torah doesn’t make people righteous and that people can be made righteous without it. This serves the purpose of dismantling the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles not on the basis of Gentile submission to Torah and conversion to Judaism but on the basis of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice whose consummation of the Jewish temple cult in His body fulfills the sacrificial needs of all, so that future discernment of holy living is not a matter of following hundreds of mitzvot regulations, but living in the spirit that Christ gives to those who trust Him.

In any case, there is no reason to conclude from Romans 3 or from Anselm’s atonement theory (which is legitimate according to medieval logic) that God is a nihilistic unsympathetic perfectionist who hates godless people that we should hate too. If non-Christians seem to our perception to be pretty good, decent folks, it’s not because we aren’t looking hard enough for their flaws; it’s because they have a perfectly holy God who can make them pretty good and decent even if they don’t know who He is.

I don’t see any reason not to agree with Paul that there will be people in eternal communion with God who were “inwardly circumcised” and “a law unto themselves” without consciously getting the whole Jesus thing. It’s not inconceivable that Jesus could mysteriously be the way, truth, and life of people who do not know Him by name. I won’t make absolute claims, but Romans 2 does not allow it to be less than an open question.

What I can say is that God’s holiness is neither ugly nor cruel; it is not His intolerance for us, though its perfect beauty would be intolerable to us without the grace of Christ (like it was intolerable to the older brother of the prodigal son). God’s holiness is the perfect hospitality of a prodigal father who longs for us to be holy servants of even our most virulent enemies. If we choose instead to be hateful bigots, then we may end up on the wrong side of God’s hospitality because God protects those under His mercy from all who attack and accuse them.

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