Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The View from Eternity

God is very much misunderstood.

This is not without reason. God and man come at things from vastly different perspectives. Two of the most common features of online discourse about God are befuddlement and frustration. “How can a loving God permit this or that?” “How could God command genocide?” “Why animal sacrifices? Doesn’t God care about his creation?” “Why does the Law of Moses contain so many weird and apparently pointless rules if God was really behind it?” “Why would God say two people who love each other cannot be together?”

For older Christians these can be challenging questions.

Questions Not Easily Answered

Most veteran believers are well past the point of questioning God’s wisdom in all but the direst personal circumstances. We have the experience of having lived out at least some of the Bible’s principles and finding they are by far the wisest advice we’ve ever received in this life. We treasure them, and the God who gave them to us. So when somebody hits us with a worldview which presupposes God’s morality is more primitive than his or her own, our instinctive reaction is to get just a little bit annoyed at their stupidity. At least, I know mine is. We have been taught God’s love and wisdom are unimpeachable, and most of us really do believe that. Hey, we teach it to our kids.

Now here comes some presumptuous newbie with a question that is not only insulting to the God we love, but often quite difficult to answer. In many cases, doing so requires a lot of deep Old Testament background with which a person seeking or new to the faith is generally not familiar. Unless the person doing the questioning is fairly patient and committed to the subject, and unless the person being asked is fairly knowledgeable, getting a clear and useful response to such questions can be a challenge.

All the same, there are answers to these uncomfortable challenges to faith. I’m confident of that. Not boilerplate religious cop-outs and evasions, but real, solid explanations built on careful scrutiny of the Old Testament in its historical context. It’s one of the reasons I like to write ongoing series like That Wacky Old Testament and Anonymous Asks: I really believe the answers exist if we’re prepared to do the spadework of putting ourselves in the shoes of the people who first received God’s commands and responded to them in obedience.

The Answer of the Cross

More than anything else, my confidence is based on the cross of Jesus Christ. It reminds me that the God who “so loved the world” in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that he “gave his only begotten Son” was also loving the world when he created it, and when it fell, and when Cain killed Abel. He was loving the world during the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the giving of the Law, the rebellion in the wilderness and the conquest of Canaan. He was loving the world throughout the brutal period of the Judges, the apostasy of Israel and Judah, the Captivity and the long, quiet period between the last of the Minor Prophets and the coming of Messiah. He never stopped loving the world, and he certainly didn’t start when he brought the Son into it. We know this with absolute certainty because scripture tells God chose human beings in Christ “before the foundation of the world.”

He’s always been the same God with the same love and the same desire for fellowship with his creatures. He hasn’t suddenly reconsidered his Old Testament “genocidal impulses” and taken a different tack with respect to humanity when it was belatedly brought to his attention that all the blood and thunder wasn’t getting the job done. His plan of salvation was always in place, and nothing man did between creation and the cross surprised God in the slightest or prompted him to act from any but the highest possible motives.

Those who know we serve a God of ultimate love are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt when we come across things he has commanded or for which he is said to be responsible that don’t initially make sense to us.

Intense and Short-Term

That said, not everyone is in that place. Getting our heads aligned with Heaven is no easy task. The view from earth is pretty intense and short-term. Pain and suffering are not trivial matters, even when we have full confidence that we are eternal beings with a bright hope in front of us. Looking forward to the cross, the Lord Jesus himself prayed, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” The fact that he did so in full hearing of his disciples and had his wishes committed to the pages of holy writ demonstrates how completely he understands the difficulties that come with being a creature of time and space.

Given the tunnel-vision common to our species, I can understand some of the reasons men and women who don’t know God level accusations against him; or, if I do not fully understand them, I can at very least sympathize with their confusion.

A Laundry List of Unproven Assumptions

Nevertheless, all accusations against God must necessarily rest on unproven, usually unstated, and often poorly-examined assumptions. A few brief examples:
  • that mutual desire is the highest value to which human beings can aspire, and that it justifies anything done in its name;
  • that a longer life is always better than a shorter one;
  • that the results of pain and suffering are always bad in every way;
  • that if the consequences of sinning are not instant and obvious to the sinner, then they cannot be particularly important or far-reaching — certainly they can pose no major danger to society or to others;
  • that ignoring sin would be a less egregious violation of God’s nature than punishing the sinners;
  • that if the nations and peoples God judged by flood, fire or the sword had only been granted more time, or if it could have been proven to them that God’s judgment was impending, they would have repented;
  • that creating and maintaining an entire race of beings incapable of resisting the divine will would be a fulfilling exercise for deity;
  • that God could have stepped into history to a greater degree than the Bible says he has done without drastically affecting the ability of human beings to make choices;
  • that preventing fallen creatures from experiencing the consequences of their own actions and that of others would result in greater “good”;
  • that we know more about how animals suffer and their relative importance compared to human beings than the God who created both; or
  • that a holy God could absent himself from the presence of eternal beings completely dependent on him for everything without leaving them in a state resembling that of the biblical hell.
These and many other undemonstrable presuppositions lie behind all critiques of the Old Testament God. Not one of these assumptions is guaranteed to be true and some are very unlikely indeed. A few, if we think about them objectively and unemotionally, are transparently false.

Pretending to Know Things We Don’t

The fact is, we can only presume to stand in judgment on God by pretending to know things we don’t, and can’t possibly.

If we are honest, we have to confess — if only to ourselves — the profound extent of our ignorance. Apart from God’s revelation, we cannot tell for certain exactly how we are made or what sort of life will bring us the greatest satisfaction. We cannot determine what are the most important values we ought to embrace. We cannot foresee what would have happened if the more horrible events of the past had not taken place, and we cannot confirm that what would have happened instead might not have been much worse. We cannot tell what sort of a world we would live in if God had never directly judged sinners within their lifetimes, and we can have no confidence it would be better for either us or them. We know how things appear to us. We do not know how they really are.

We cannot see the view from eternity. We need to accept the judgment of One who can.

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