God sure seems to get a bad rap sometimes, even from his followers. Well, that may go just a bit far. God’s word gets a bad rap much more frequently than he does. How should we handle this? How about with a bit of imagination combined with a careful reading of the text?
Among some Jesus followers, the historical events described in the first six books of the Old Testament are notoriously hard to square with the identity of God they believe is revealed in the New Testament. A couple of passages in particular give many people — Christian and non-Christian alike — a fair amount of heartburn. These are the stories of the flood and the conquest of the land of Canaan. Specifically, the idea that God would end the lives of everyone on earth (or even everyone in a more localized region) save a single family seems impossible to square with the character of love and mercy demonstrated by Christ. Similarly, the idea that God would command his people to totally exterminate all the inhabitants of a region runs into issues in the same way.
Followers of Jesus are faced with two basic options when it comes to trying to wrap our minds around passages like these: accept them as they are presented in their respective texts, or find a way to show they mean something other than that. The first option is pretty obvious. The text means what it says, and we have to find a way to deal with it. The second option affords a plethora of approaches. We could argue the authors simply got it wrong, that God didn’t really command those things, that these are merely illustrations of what happens when people get God’s character wrong, and so on and so forth.
Folks who line up on the one side accuse the other of being unfaithful to the text. Folks who line up on the other accuse the one side of having no heart. And, to a certain extent, they’re both right. As soon as we think we know better than the text of Scripture and attempt to find ways to show it means something other than what it plainly does, we put ourselves in a dicey position. But, there are undoubtedly some texts that take extra work to understand properly and that without this bit of effort seem to line up with the accusations of the critics. All that said, how do we bridge this divide?
Well, as one who is comfortable with the inerrantist label (and not the caricatured version many who reject such a position make it out to be), allow me to humbly put forth a suggestion. Perhaps the problem here is not with the text, but with the imagination of those who read it. Let me explain. When approaching hard texts like these two there are some important things to keep in mind. First, we serve a God who is impeccably holy. His holiness is perfect. It also consists of two parts: moral perfection and a total distinction from his creation. Furthermore, God is jealous for his holiness. He will not see it violated at any point. His holiness demands that those who would be in a relationship with him must reflect his holiness perfectly.
Second, we serve a God who is absolutely just. He will not allow evil to stand without end. His patience is long, but it has limits. And yet, the ways he deals with evil will always be right because he is absolutely just. We may not understand them — indeed, his ways are higher than our ways as the heavens are higher than the earth — but they are always right.
Third, we serve a God who is essentially loving. He is love. He opts for mercy every time. His mercies never fail. He is absolutely committed to seeing his people become fully who he designed them to be. Everything he does toward us is motivated by his deep love for us.
Fourth, human value is only properly understood in relation to God. To put that another way: we are not the locus of our value. Our value is inherent, make no mistake, but it does not come from us. We are far too subjective a source for our value and when human cultures have tried to root human value in something other than God, it has been a disaster every time.
Fifth, and this is often overlooked in its importance: we serve a God who is not only the creator of all we see and don’t, but he is also absolutely sovereign over his creation. Because he is creator, creation belongs to him, and he can do with it as he pleases. Life and death are his to give, and he owes us no explanation for his actions. We forget ourselves if we start expecting one. Furthermore, the moment we think we know better than him, we set ourselves up for a sudden and arresting date with the walls of reality.
Sixth, sometimes a text that seems hard to understand in its immediate context makes at least a bit (and often a lot) more sense when we read it as a part of the larger story of Scripture. When we treat the Scriptures as unequally inspired, we run the risk of missing this.
Seventh and finally here, the character of God does not change. There is one God revealed in the Scriptures from beginning to end. His character is absolutely consistent from start to finish. We see lavish expressions of his love and mercy in the Old Testament, and we see frightening expressions of his terrible justice and holiness in the New Testament. Sometimes this character is hard to see or understand, but with a bit of imagination and careful reading things often become clearer. In part two, I’ll take all this and put it into action.