Friday, March 20, 2009

The Problem With the Bible is it Talks Out of Both Sides of its Mouth

"God is Love."  Right?  Yes.  Of course.  Pure, unconditional love.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  Well... maybe.  What I love about the Bible and the God it proclaims is that God loves humanity like a gentle father.  God cares for humans like the perfect mother.  Nothing can get in the way of God's unconquerable love.  It is unflappable.  Unquenchable.  Unmeasurable.  God is the shepherd who leads us besides the still waters and goes with us through the valley of the shadow of death.  God holds our hand.  God promises that we will have perfect peace as long as our minds are stayed upon God.  Just to contemplate God is perfect peace.

"God is Love."  Love is described in 1 Corinthians 13: 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.  (NIV)

Love is all about giving.  "God so loved the world God gave...."  What did God give?  God gave everything.  That's God.  God is love.  Who can help but to love a being  such as this?  Such great love.  It should inspire us to love.

Ah, but there is more.  For you see, the Good Book is a little schizophrenic.  In the midst of all of this love, where God makes the world and declares it all good, is also a picture of unmitigated wrath.  And, I think we must admit that is true of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, at least as we have it.  It is full of eternal damnation and pure hate language. Rightly did Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards preach about the character and actions of this God in an attempt to win converts:
 
So that, thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment. The devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out: and they have no interest in any Mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of, all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliging forbearance of an incensed God.

The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire....

Surely not! you say.  Read much of the book of Revelation lately?  Or the "hellfire and brimstone" words of Jesus?  What's going on here?  Part of me is drawn to this book and this God.  Part of me is repulsed.  And you cannot chalk it up to justice, as some preachers do.  That might work, except the Bible takes it all too far-- too much violence, too much hate.  Justice and punishment in the context of love always carries a remedial aspect-- not pure hate and destruction.

So, how do we understand this?  It seems as if the Bible writers and redactors were trying to reconcile two images of God that had been handed down to them.  Sometimes, they would get lost in the beauty and wonder of the love, sometimes, the hate images would take over.  I would say that the preponderance of evidence is that Jesus went the love way (he did NOT, as some evangelicals teach, speak more about hell than heaven).  When we attempt to construct the original sayings, as many have, we are left with precious little vengeance.  Still, the hateful/violence side of things  remains is  troubling.

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