Among the liberal “Christian” sites that I peruse on a daily basis is Jim Wallis’ website/magazine Sojourners. Yes, this happy conservative Christian reads through many liberal sites daily. It is good to stay current on those who teach a message opposite yours. One of today’s featured articles at “Sojo” was titled: “Rob Bell, Oprah Winfrey, and Christianity’s Identity Crises.” That is a great title. I could write a very lengthy article entitled the same. It’s content would be radically different. But perhaps the very first sentence of that article could be endorsed word for word:
Christianity is facing an identity crisis that boils down to one question: Who is God?
I think this is stunningly accurate. Jesus asked his disciples this very question: “Who do you say that I am?” It was Peter who answered: “You are the Christ.” This answer was a good one. Jesus replied: “Blessed are you [Peter]!” This was recorded in Matthew 16. Christianity depends, has always depended, on the answer to that question.
What happens when we are not correct in our identification of God? What happens when we do not know who He is? How could we possibly worship Him? Sojo and C.Jay Engel agree: Christianity must answer this question. Our identity as Christians depends on it. Unfortunately, Sojo, Rob Bell, and Oprah, much to the surprise of no one, take a far different path than I do in seeking an answer.
For instance, the article reports that in a conversation between Bell and Oprah, the following exchange took place (italics original):
Rob: For many people … God is against us. God doesn’t want human flourishing. God is the one waiting to punish or torment …
Oprah: Yeah. Because when you say to people, “God is love,” there’s a whole other group of people who say, “Yeah, he may be love, but God is also judgment and wrath and punishing …
Rob: Right … People immediately take that to mean, whatever struggle I’m going through, whatever life is really like for me, God is against me.
This is a common liberal structure of argumentation. It can be difficult to quickly break down, primarily because, as conservatives, we are mentally preparing for a proposition about God which can be used a representative of their position. We want Bell or Oprah to say something like: “God is always for us and this means that He will not punish us because of how we act.” That way, we can whip out verses A, B, and C to counter the proposition. But anyone who reads liberals (please don’t read this word as a derogatory term) like Rob Bell knows that he likes the mysterious, come-to-your-own-conclusions,” type of conversation. For the record, I do not in any sense oppose the “whip out the verse” type of argument, unless it lacks a spirit of love. It is to our society’s detriment that we fear leaping to the Scriptures to prove our case.
So therefore, in order to actually analyze a positive assertion that may be held by the liberal in the quest to answer Who is God?, we must look beyond conversations such as the one excerpted above. The liberal, as clearly shown above, enjoys making claims about what people tend to think (feel), but they rarely make a truth claim that they will stand behind. They will talk all day about how “many people” feel that God is this or that, but they are never willing to show why the “many people” are right or wrong.” The conservative, who believes that truth is propositional, must either refuse to get involved to deeply in these conversations at all, or else push the liberal to offer a proposition so that a more productive discussion can ensue. When the conservative comes to the table with his theory of truth and tries to debate the liberal who has an entirely different framework, it is obvious that not much will be accomplished.
Thus, we seek something more substantive in the article with which to interact.
Here is a set of assertions written by the Sojo article which does not rely on the “many people feel or think” argument:
The crisis facing Christianity is whether God is for human flourishing or against it; whether God is love or a mixture of love and hate. Of course, this crisis is nothing new. Humans have always assumed the divine was a mixture of good and evil, of being for humans sometimes and against us at other times.
“The crisis facing Christianity is….” This is good. It is a statement that does not rely on the subjectivity of the masses. We can interact with this. We will start by disagreeing with the first dichotomy. God is not for either one of those as an end in itself. God is for His own glory and He glorifies Himself by portraying Himself to the world. He portrays His love, His justice, His foreknowledge, His mercy, His wrath, His wisdom, His grace, His anger, and on and on. He will make the human flourish or not flourish based on whether it gives Him glory. If He was for human flourishing as an ultimate, none would be eternally punished. This is Bell’s position, but it is not Biblical. If He was against human flourishing as an ultimate, none would be eternally saved. This too is wrong. For some are saved and some are not. Thus, this is a bad way of representing the crisis. What we should say is that the crisis is whether God is ultimately for His own glory. And also whether God demonstrates His glory be saving some and not saving others. Some humans will flourish, others will not.
On the second dichotomy, this one has always confused me. That is, I don’t know what the philosophical problem is. Let’s say that God loves when people get along. What then does he think about people unnecessarily fighting? Does He love that? It would seem that if you love something, you must logically hate that “something’s” opposite. And isn’t this a good thing? Can’t we agree that the activity of rape should be hated –and is hated by God? Certainly God does not love such an atrocious crime! What else is left? Is He neutral toward it? What, then, does the word justice even mean? Hence, this dichotomy, while perhaps more understandable, is at least misleading. A better way of framing this is by asking, what, exactly, does God hate and what does He love?
Moving on. The author writes:
I’m in the midst of reading the revised and expand version of Michael Hardin’s book The Jesus Driven Life. Michael brilliantly speaks to the history of this crisis. From nearly the beginning of religion, the human experience of the sacred has been marked by ambivalence. The gods were fickle and you never knew where you stood with them. They were loving and wrathful, forgiving and judgmental.
Michael refers to this as the Janus-faced gods. Janus was a god of Rome, and the god that January is named after. Janus was literally two-faced, but the metaphorical way we use the term “two-faced” is a good way to understand Janus, and indeed, all the archaic gods. Christianity’s identity crisis stems from our conception of God remaining infected by Janus. In fact, many theologians hold to a god that looks more like Janus than the God revealed by Jesus.
That last sentence. I’d like to know who he is talking about. Hint: it is not the liberals (like Bell and Oprah). More likely, it is the conservative theologians whom he refers to. This is a common liberal argument that can be seen often in liberal writing. But our reply is to point out that, in actuality, it is the Conservative who avoids the problem of the so-called Janus-faced god and the liberal who pushes it. The reason I say this is simple. The Conservative trusts that the propositions of Scripture are literally true. This is different than “true literally!” (oh! please dear reader, don’t misunderstand me!). As Gordon H. Clark once explained:
This thesis that the Bible is literally true does not imply that the Bible is true literally. Figures of speech occur in the Bible, and they are not true literally. They are true figuratively. But they are literally true. The statements may be in figurative language, but when they are called true the term true is to be understood literally.
Thus, the phrase “never knew where you stood with them” cannot by applied to conservative Christian worldview in the least. The Scriptures are very clear where we stand and what God’s response is to both faith as well as sin. On the other hand, what about the liberal who understands the nature of Scripture far differently and embraces things like “mystery” and “subjective” and who certainly don’t take the Scriptures as literal truth? How could they possibly know where they stand with God? The “God revealed by Jesus” is one of clarity and absolutes. There should be no question as to where we stand: for those who believe in Christ, they are saved. This, the basis of the Christian doctrine of assurance.
For the conservative then, the crisis of Christianity, Who is God?, is a matter of life and death.
Here comes the most important quote of the Sojo article.
In Jesus, we discover that God has nothing to do with violence or retribution, but everything to do with a love that is for human flourishing. As Michael puts it:
“By removing retribution from the work and character of God, Jesus … opened up a new way, a path, which he also invites us to travel. Sadly, few have found that this path and church history replete with hundreds, even thousands of examples of a Janus-faced god, a god who is merciful and wrathful, loving and punishing. Some have said that we need to hold to both of these sides together. Jesus didn’t and neither should we. It is time for us to follow Jesus in reconsidering what divinity without retribution looks like.” (70)
John 3:36 reads: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” This is the opposite of what Sojo writes. This verse shows us two things. One, it shows us that God is a wrathful God toward those who do not believe in Christ. Two, it shows us something that we noted above; namely, that God is not for or against human flourishing as an absolute. For some are saved and others are not. It depends solely on how God wants to demonstrate His glory through them.
The quote from Michael Hardin’s book too is very misguided. I’m curious what basis Hardin has to say that Jesus removed an aspect of God’s character! What does that even mean? He literally (or figuratively?) took a part of “Who” God is, His very character, and removed it? That is remarkable, not to mention patently unbiblical. That seems like a doctrine that comes from the same place as our modern Federal Reserve-monopolized dollars: straight out of thin air.
Hardin apparently does not like the idea that God can be both merciful and wrathful depending on the situation and the person that he is dealing with. But the Bible is full of examples of believing Christ leads to life (because of God’s grace) and rejecting Christ leads to wrath (because of God’s justice). To say that Jesus didn’t support this is absurd. It may seem a bit tedious to share some verses contradicting Hardin, but is a simple rebuttal indeed. We only have to look at one gospel to find some examples.
1. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
2. “Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” (Matthew 11:20-24)
3. “The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:38-42)
4. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” [...] “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41 and 46)
And this is not even to mention the fact that the rest of the New Testament, which records the words of God written by other people besides Jesus, supports the idea that faith leads to life and faithlessness leads to death. Hardin’s final statement as copied above was this: “it is time for us to follow Jesus in reconsidering what divinity without retribution looks like.” Not only is he not following Jesus in such an endeavor, but he is also taking a path which leads away from the Scriptures completely.
The Sojo article contains the following in its concluding paragraph:
Christianity is suffering from an identity crisis and I thank God for it. I’m also thankful that we have Rob, Oprah, and Michael to help guide us through the crisis….
Lesson: You are not going to make it through the identity crisis successfully if you rely on Rob, Oprah, and Michael to be your guides.
But I think the identity crisis is spot on. ”Who is God?” There is only one answer and Christianity must depend on the Scriptures to find that answer. Sadly, much of what is called “Christianity” today does not, in fact, rely on the Bible and therefore has failed in the midst of crisis. And if you fail in this area, if you fail on the very fundamental of the nature and person of our God, your faith is in the wrong object. It is “your faith that saves you,” and we therefore better answer our question right. Thanks be to God for giving us His word.
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-22)