2 poisonous lies about God (that I used to believe)
I’ve become very disillusioned with the way some of my fellow Christians sometimes talk about God.
I want to prayerfully voice a few of my concerns here, under the following confession: I’m not a pastor, I’m not a professional theologian, I’m not even a seminarian – I’m just a college student who is ashamed of the ways I used to speak of God.
However popular they may be today, these ideas are painfully untrue…and they’re far from innocent. I almost abandoned Christianity entirely because of these false conceptions of God, and I know many people who have left organized religion because they were told that these were the only acceptable ways to think about God.
Without further ado, here are 2 poisonous lies about God (that I once wholeheartedly believed):
1. God is mad at you.
Like, really mad. God’s holy wrath is burning so fiery hot against humanity that just by the crime of your mortal, infant birth, He is poised to cast you into the pits of hell for eternal torture unless you bow down and worship Him forever instead.
It’s important to note that not only will belief in this angry, capricious God literally make you sick, but it’s also completely at odds with the God that Jesus testifies of in the Bible.
I will defer here to a particularly relevant parable, one which deeply counters the idea of a hate-filled, revenge-seeking God. It’s one of the lengthier narratives on God’s character that we find in the Christian scriptures, and is well-worth a review if you haven’t heard it in a while:
In the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we read that a now-famous Galilean preacher named Jesus is speaking to the powerful group of religious leaders that ran the temple’s sacrificial system in Jerusalem.
Jesus tells them the story of “a man who had two sons“– one son who works diligently for his father for many years and another, the younger of the two, who one day brashly demands his share of the family inheritance. By this act, the younger son essentially commits social patricide, humiliating his father in front of the entire community, the Ancient-Near Eastern equivalent of saying: “hey dad, I wish you were dead. Give me my rightful portion of your money right now so I can leave this meshugganah family already.”
Miraculously, the father, grants his son’s request, and after dividing up the family estate, allows the boy his leave. The young man immediately leaves home “for a far country” where we are told he quickly squanders his fortune on sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll (or, as Jesus puts it, “wild living…with prostitutes”).
When the money runs out, we hear that the son “comes to his senses,” figuring that things actually might be better back home. “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!” he reasons. The prodigal son decides to make the trek back home and ask to be allowed to live in his father’s mansion not as a family member any longer, but as a slave.
You can picture it. The son is walking back home with what little dignity he has left, absolutely destitute, rehearsing his apology as he goes along – “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you…I am no longer worthy to be called your son! Make me like one of your hired servants!”
You can almost hear the scoff kick up in the crowd around Jesus at this point – “he has the nerve to return home after what he did?”
A sacrifice is required, they must have been thinking. Somebody has to be punished – the powerful father would never – not in a million years – simply forgive his enemies without first spilling blood.
The son, apparently anticipating such a reaction, approaches his home with great regret and shame.
But Jesus tells us that when his father sees his son still a far way off, he becomes “filled with compassion for him.” And a most unexpected thing happens: this dignified, Middle-Eastern patriarch – instead of waiting inside with his belt and a grimace – comes sprinting straight out of the manor towards his boy.
In those days, men of his status did not run.
The twist in the story is that instead of tackling his son to the ground and pummeling him with his fists – instead of capitulating to the violent reaction the religious community expects of him – this father hugs and kisses his long-lost son.
The father, understanding how much his son has already been punished by his own sins, forsakes further condemnation and instead offers him unqualified forgiveness.
This is what the early Christians meant when they described God not as anger or hatred, but as Agape, the Greek word for unconditional love.
This is how God feels about you.
God is not furious with you, not eager to rub your nose in your past failures and mistakes. Rather, Jesus unveils a God more loving than we ever could have imagined – a God who leaves the mansion and actually comes sprinting down the road to welcome you home, a God who renews and restores prodigal sons, a God who, in a humility beyond understanding, throws parties for people who have spit in his face.
“Mercy trumps sacrifice,” He smiles. “Welcome to the party. Let’s pour some drinks and slaughter the fattened calf.”
Mm, calf. Anyhow, this brings me to my second point…
2. God desires sacrifice, not mercy.
God is bloodthirsty and can only be persuaded against casting humanity into eternal torture by the sacrificial murder an innocent Man.
In this view, God is absolutely furious at humanity for the great insult of sinning against Him, and so instead of simply “forgiving” his creation, God makes up His mind to Crush Everybody.
A profoundly self-centered king, filled with bitter pride? A god who can only be pleased by the assassination of a pure, blameless Virgin? A deity who needs to be bribed in order to forgive us of our sins?
Honestly, how much more does this sound like Lucifer or Molech or King Kong or the god of the Aztecs than it does the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ?
Candidly, such a description of God – callous, violent, eager to torture – sounds a lot more like the false pagan gods our Creator constantly defines himself against in the Bible than it does the God of Israel (see, for example Psalm 97:7, Psalm 135:15-18, and Romans 1 – especially, verses 21-25 – for discourse on the futility of worshipping such gods).
The question is thus: does God really need to punish an innocent man (His own Son, no less) to forgive humans and uphold His own celestial dignity?
Yes, some Christians insist. A sacrifice is required. That’s how it works. The Powerful Father would never – not in a million years – simply forgive his enemies without first spilling blood.
Standing against this line of thinking, Christian apologist C.S. Lewis famously called this idea “cosmic child abuse.” He writes against it in Mere Christianity (pages 96-97):
[So] God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off…our being let off because Christ had volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us. Now on the face of it that is a very silly theory. If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person?
There are many clues throughout the Bible that Yhwh is not a God who is pleased by blood sacrifice:
“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?” asks the LORD in the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:11).
The writer of Hebrews further says that Jesus once spoke of of God saying: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.” (Hebrews 10:5-7)
In the Gospel of Matthew, quoting from the book of Hosea, Jesus instructs a group of religious leaders: “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
This is one of my favorite parts of the Bible because, with these 5 words, Jesus is reversing thousands of years of conventional religious “wisdom” as to how the system works, as to what you have to do to in order to get on good standing with God.
Jesus is essentially turning on its head everything humans have always believed about God by declaring that bloodshed is simply not necessary to earn divine favor.
Jesus reveals a God who is at complete odds with Baal, Caesar, Poseidon, and all the other angry gods who desired human sacrifice, who would only help mortals if blood payment was first received.
The whole sacrificial system, Jesus insists, has always been fatally bankrupt.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
With these five words, Jesus literally says the exact opposite of how I have heard some Christians talk about God.
I’m floored by how much we’ve missed the boat on this one.
The idea that God is pleased with the murder of an innocent person blasphemes Jesus’ sacrificial death for us on the cross by making a mockery of Christ’s instructions for us to forgive our enemies without expecting any sort of payment in return.
(Spoiler alert: if you are receiving payment for something done against you in exchange for your forgiveness, that is not actual forgiveness. Real forgiveness is Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10-13), simply canceling the debt (Matthew 18:27), wiping it away completely. This is what God promises when He goes so far as to declare He will “remember [our] sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34)).
I agree with C.S. Lewis on this one – the god who spares our souls only by orchestrating the brutal murder of his young son sounds more like an out-of-control, alcoholic father than it does the Gracious Lord of Hosts, Who the Psalmist describes as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8) and Who the writer of 1 John simply reminds us is love itself (1 John 4:8).
The testament of the Bible, then, is that love (God) does not accept (or force) any sort of payment in return for wrongdoing. It simply forgives the debt, and goes through great lengths to restore the fractured relationship (this idea is what Christians call the Incarnation). We do not repay evil with evil (1 Peter 3:9), because violence only breeds more violence.
Jesus presents to us a God who does not desire blood sacrifice, but One who is actually repulsed by it.
This stands with an authentically “Christo-centric” flavor of Christianity.
After all, it’s been said that the scandal of Christianity is not that Jesus is like God…but that God is like Jesus. Think about that. Jesus, as the exact image of God (Hebrews 1:3), reveals to us exactly what our Heavenly Father is like.
This means that Christianity is so revolutionary, so set against traditional religious “wisdom,” precisely because we can trust that God is exactly as loving, exactly as committed to nonviolence and forgiveness, exactly as patient, and exactly as open-armed as the person of Jesus.
* * * * * * *
Depending on your faith background, I understand that these 2 ideas about God may sound to you either entirely legitimate or completely ludicrous. If you find yourself one of the latter, I painfully assure you that these ideas are still being taught and believed in many Christian circles.
If you are one of the former, I would urge you to not call me a heretic until you explore the alternatives (including the teachings of the more ancient Roman Catholic and Orthodox veins of the faith) in order to understand that the majority of Christians throughout the history of Christianity have not believed these two lies about God.
There are more faithful and biblically fulfilling ways to understand God, the scriptures, and Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross than what some of the loudest Christians are teaching today. I’ll write about this soon.
Grace and Peace,