by Stephen Ferguson | 14 November 2021 |
“For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son.” (Romans 5:10)
Renowned atheist Richard Dawkins once said, in his award-winning book The God Delusion:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Of course, Dawkins is correct.
I should clarify I do not believe God is a work of fiction – more on that below. I also appreciate the Bible is as much a reflection of what people hear God say, rather than what God actually does say. As we Adventists rightly believe, “The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen.”
Nonetheless, Dawkins seems largely justified in describing the God of the Bible as this capricious and malevolent bully. Even tying ourselves up in theological knots, it is still hard to explain away God’s command concerning the Canaanites, “Do not let anything that breathes remain alive” (Deut. 20:16).
Does God really have His angels count the exact number of hairs on each child’s head? Yet He had those same angels stand by and do nothing, just hold pens, as these children were thrown alive into the furnaces of Treblinka? Or slaughtered by Herod? Or killed by Pharaoh? Or butchered by Saul? Let’s put aside the façade and go full Godwin’s Law for a moment: Adolf has nothing on Yahweh.
Is God a moral being?
A wise man once said if you don’t question the accuracy of the writers of the Old Testament, then you have to question the morality of God. Well put. But maybe we should question the morality of God.
Not only is Dawkins right; he probably isn’t being harsh enough. It isn’t just this Old Testament god who has a problem. The god of the New Testament isn’t much better. In some ways He is worse, for all the Christian claims that Jesus was a morally upright man incarnating the love of God.
A strong but uncaring god can almost be respected for His power. But a god who claims to be a being of love, but weakly answers only some prayers and not others— well, that is all the more disappointing.
Are atheists brave or adopting their own fantasy?
The problem of a supposedly all-powerful and all-loving God who does not stop evil is an old, perhaps the oldest, theological and philosophical question of them all. The traditional responses, that it is blasphemy to question God, or that some sort of reward awaits us that justifies the suffering, or that God’s inaction is some secret beyond our comprehension, always felt rather hollow to me. These are the sorts of answers one would expect to hear from a psychopathic boss, or an abusive spouse, or a sexual predator.
This is the sort of issue that has, quite understandably, turned many people into atheists. For example, I recall celebrity biblical scholar Bart Ehrman explaining how after a lifetime of studying the Bible, it was this question of suffering that ultimately made him finally conclude there must be no god. I strongly object to Ehrman’s reasoning for one simple fact – it lets God off too easy!
As much as I deeply respect many atheists, I don’t think they as brave as they sometimes think. For all their talk of mythical spaghetti monsters and flying teapot deities, I think atheists might be engaged in their own form of fantasy. They are akin to a mistreated child who imagines they must be an orphan when the truth is far darker – they have a terrible parent.
I personally think it is braver to believe in God but be honest. To be angry at Him for all the suffering of innocent people. To have the honestly of David and publicly sing the laments of your own unhappiness, or the wisdom of Solomon and ponder the vanity of doing good in a world where God seems to do nothing to prevent evil.
Real courage is to be a theist but risk blasphemy. Maybe even to put God on trial.
Are we on trial, or is God?
I am happy to observe then throughout history people have had the courage to do just that. The idea of a lawsuit against God is a well-trodden motif in literature, from Elie Wiesel to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Weirdly, the idea is also found throughout the Bible. The book of Job is especially preoccupied with this theme. Contrary to the myth of an eternally patient and loyal man, a very angry Job is tempted to bring charges against the Most High Himself (Job 7:11; 9:20-35; 40:2), even if it upsets his supposedly pious friends (Job 33:13).
You can’t just read the first two chapters and then skip to the happy Hollywood ending. You need to read the thirty-nine other chapters of the book, where Job’s underlying theme is profound but disturbing: God exists but He is a horrible monster, a psychotic stalker (Job 7:17-20), predator (Job 10:16) and cosmic bully (Job 40:2-41:34).
Moving into the New Testament and Christian thinking, we have the book of Revelation tell us that earth’s final days conclude with an angel’s message to, “Fear God and give Him glory, for the hour of His judgment has come” (Rev. 14:7). As angels go to pour out the last plagues they exclaim, “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways” (Rev. 15:3).
We Adventists have personally adopted these passages as our special message. Yet they presuppose a just deity not merely dispensing judgment but also being judged Himself.
I feel our theology is also spot-on that point. As the SDA Fundamental Belief #8 rightly explains, the question before the whole universe is whether a “God of love will ultimately be vindicated”. So, will He be?
Is God guilty?
If God is on trial, is He guilty or innocent? Here for the disturbing part. I think God is probably guilty!
The usual refrain to all this is that God isn’t evil but He simply allows evil to exist as the price of freewill. When I am less melancholy, this too is my preferred theodicy. Yet to be quite candid, I don’t see how this gets God off the hook.
Freewill can explain God’s inactivity. However, it can never excuse it. Passivity in the face of evil is evil. God Himself said so.
Is God a sinner by passive omission?
The Old Testament teaches us it is a requirement of God’s own Law for a bystander to rescue their neighbour:
“Neither shall you stand against the blood of thy fellow” (Lev. 19:16).
Likewise, when you see disaster befall someone, whether a lost donkey or misplaced cloak, you have a positive obligation to safe keep it and return it (Deut. 22:1-4). The injunction “do not ignore it” is particularly poignant. In other words, passively watching calamity befall another is sin, if you have the power to help but don’t. Just like the last episode of Seinfeld.
In the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus likewise tells us that fulfilment of the Law requires we love our neighbor. Our neighbor includes almost everyone we interact with, including the stranger we happen to see beaten up on the side of the street.
The whole point of Jesus’ condemnation of the priest and Levite (Luke 10:30-32) is to point out that being holy, which is to be “set aside” because of some higher-level purity, is no excuse at all. Now let me ask, who has greater power to intervene than God Himself? It seems to me God is that priest, and His angels the Levities.
It is we, flawed human beings with a flawed mixed-up religion, who are the Samaritans. Yet we perhaps do more good in this world than the Most High Himself. I don’t see a perfect but invisible deity feeding, clothing or healing anyone, except perhaps through otherwise imperfect and messed-up human beings.
Do we have to fear God’s punishments?
In light of God’s own trial and likely guilt, and to adapt the thoughts of Irving Greenberg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jürgen Moltmann, moral influence atonement theory and radical death of God theology thrown in, God cannot punish us more than He already has.
Adam’s punishment is already your punishment. Stop trying to wriggle out of the curse, because it isn’t going to work. Sucking up to God is pointless. God has no threat left over you or me, because to cite Jim Morrison, no one is getting out of here alive.
You are not going to some eternal torture in hell or purgatory, because you are already in it now. Another cornerstone Adventist belief that has immense truth.
For all the historic disputes about a heavenly judgment, there is a simple truth many of us are overlooking: you are not on trial, God is. If we have any role at all in some cosmic courtroom drama, our role is as victims.
Worshiping God needs to be voluntary and not out of a sense of obligation, because you don’t owe Him anything. If anything, God probably owes you.
Who needs saving – we humans or God Himself?
Therefore, rather than a God-man coming to save humanity from its sins, it now seems self-evident to me that God Himself needed a human to save Him from His. That is why God had to become a human being in the person of Jesus Christ, who had to live a perfect life here on earth (1 John 3:5).
So perhaps we have had the plan of salvation all backwards. It is God – not we humans – who needs to be saved.
What punishment does a guilty deity deserve?
So, what is the solution here? How can I bring myself to serve this criminal deity? How can any human being?
Is it enough for God to pay us off, like He did Job when He provided double restitution (Job 42:10)? Which by the way, is conclusive evidence of God’s own admission of guilt:
“If anyone gives a neighbor silver or goods for safekeeping and they are stolen from the neighbor’s house, the thief, if caught, must pay back double” (Ex. 22:7).
Likewise, is it enough for God to bribe us with promises of a future afterlife? While I am open to just recompense, I don’t think it is enough to be bribed. A promise of heaven does not justify the pain of earth and is almost insulting.
There is only one viable solution for this greatest of sinners. God needs to die!
Can’t sin just be forgiven without cruel punishment? Yes, but I won’t allow it. Just like so many human beings have experienced, God needs to experience the anguish of crying into a darkening sky for an invisible being who will not answer. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (Mark 15:34).
I know these thoughts are probably wrong. Nonetheless, I cry out for His blood. Crucify Him! Kill Him between two criminals, for He is the greatest of criminals.
What are those marks in His hands?
Then I realise, when the rage of the whirlwind dies down, when I repent in my own ashes, when I am quiet enough to hear the small whisper of the wind:
“I have already done all these things, put your fingers here and see my hands – do not doubt but believe” (John 20:25-27).
A wise woman once observed that we “need to understand that deity suffered and sank under the agonies of Calvary.” An all-powerful god can be believed, can be feared, and can even be hated. But only a crucified God can be vindicated and worshipped.
 Ellen White, Selected Messages, Book 1, p.21:1.
 Ellen White, Manuscript 44, 1898, and the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 907.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.