Can I Believe In A Mean God?

The concluding sermon in our 4-part series on God’s Not Dead

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Standard Vulcan logic. Spock said these words to Kirk in what is perhaps one of the greatest Star Trek movies every made – The Wrath of Khan. He said it at the beginning of the movie when he offers up the Captain’s chair to Kirk and then again at the end when he saves the crew and the ship by sacrificing his life. When it happens, we think of Spock as heroic. We don’t question his motives or his actions because by sacrificing the one he saved the many. Perhaps the same can be said of Jesus. When Jesus gives his life on the cross for the forgiveness of us all, we don’t question it. We honor it. We praise God for it. Only a few would criticize God for giving up the life of his son for the souls of all humanity. But when we see God order the deaths of an entire population of people as he did with the Canaanites in Deuteronomy or the Amelikites in 1 Samuel, it pulls at our conscience. It makes us wonder if our God is the loving God we’ve been brought up to believe in or if perhaps we’ve just conveniently ignored this brutal and cruel aspect of God’s character. This is another of those tough questions that make people feel like the Bible can’t be trusted or that there isn’t a God in these pages worthy of following. So the question we ask today is, “Can I believe in a mean God?” And the short answer is “no.” If God is truly mean or cruel or vicious, then whether or not he exists, he is not worthy to be followed.

Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

So how do we look at these tough passages?

As Christians we don’t believe that God is cruel or vicious, but it’s hard to ignore these stories. For an answer, we’re going to explore a passage from the book of Genesis, chapter 18:24-33. Genesis 18:24-33. When we read this passage together, we’ll see that God’s primary motive in any situation is not to kill but to save. God doesn’t take a person’s life randomly or capriciously. That doesn’t mean that every death in existence is “God’s will” but simply that when we read in the Bible about God ordering the death of another or protecting the life of a person, it’s with this framework in mind that God’s intention is not to kill but to save. So if you would please rise for the reading of the Word of God, we’ll be sharing this morning from Genesis 18:24-33. Hear now the Word of God.

24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

Jonah finally getting the message
Jonah finally getting the message

I love how Abraham negotiates the numbers in this passage.

But the truth is, God isn’t interested in killing people. WE might be bloodthirsty, vengeance-seeking savages, but God is not. Like we said last week, too often we transpose our own emotions and characteristics onto God and assume that God operates exactly like we do. But that’s not true. God’s primary engine is fueled by love. Even in a city filled with depravity, God will spare their lives for the sake of literally a couple of handful of people. The entire town of Nineveh was poised for destruction, a town so vile that one of God’s prophets tried to escape having to go there. It took being stuck in the belly of a giant fish to convince Jonah to go where he was needed. And when he went, the people repented and God spared them. Remember the words of Peter who wrote in one of his letters, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:8-9).” God’s first and primary mode of behavior is love. God’s first and primary mode of behavior is love.

Then how do we understand these tough parts of the Bible?

How DO we reconcile the loving God we believe in from the seemingly unfeeling God in those passages? This is by no means a simple question and from my research, three main arguments surfaced. One – God is the author of life and thus has every right to take it. Two – God didn’t actually give those commands, human beings interpreted their own actions in the light of God. And three – God did order those deaths but not for the reasons we think he did. One – God is the author of life. Two – God didn’t give those commands. Or three – God did give those commands but not for the reasons we think he did.

Saying God is the author of life is true.

The string of that argument says that since God created all life, then he is the only one who is justified in taking it. If he orders people to die, then they should die and we can trust that God will reward or punish them accordingly. But this is a hard one for me to swallow. I understand it, but it makes me feel like God has a fundamental character flaw if this is true. God doesn’t actually “give” us life. He allows us to borrow it for a while. If God takes it back on a whim, then our lives are conditional on our good behavior and that runs counter not only to our experience, but also to our idea that God loves us unconditionally. The second reason is far more palatable to me. God didn’t give those commands. As noted theologian William Lane Craig wrote, “The problem, it seems to me, is that if God could not have issued such a command, then the biblical stories must be false.  Either the incidents never really happened but are just Israeli folklore; or else, if they did, then Israel, carried away in a fit of nationalistic fervor, thinking that God was on their side, claimed that God had commanded them to commit these atrocities, when in fact He had not.  In other words, this problem is really an objection to biblical inerrancy.”[1] He goes on to say that many Old Testament scholars doubt these incidents actually occurred but are similar to folktales “akin to the myths of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome.”[2] This would be consistent with our beliefs and with the Bible as a whole. We believe that the Bible is the inspired and not the inerrant Word of God meaning that the essence of the Bible and the lessons we learn therein reveal for us the character and nature of God. But could there be another reason?

For me, it seems that perhaps we aren’t giving God enough credit.

As we prefaced in our reading this morning, God doesn’t kill capriciously. He doesn’t take life just because he thinks it’s being wasted or many of us would have left this Earth already. It takes a LOT for God to give up on someone. You might remember the story of Lot and his family fleeing the city of Sodom while God rained down destruction on that town, and how Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt. But did you ever stop to read why God would destroy a whole town of people? In the story we read in the book of Genesis chapter 19, we find out that Lot was willing to sacrifice his daughters to protect the lives of two strangers who came to his door. All the men of the town, both young and old, saw that Lot was harboring these two arrivals and surrounded his house, telling Lot to give them up so they could rape them. Lot instead offered his daughters for the men to enjoy themselves with if they would only spare these strangers. How twisted is that? That’s how completely depraved these people were. That Lot, who was willing to give up his daughters to be abused and tortured by these men, would be considered the only one “good” enough to be saved. When God gives up on someone, it’s not because they’ve committed a few sins. If that were the case, we’d all be in trouble. God only gives up when there is no hope for redemption. That he actually saw the glimmer of hope in Lot and his family shows you how far God is willing to go to offer us a chance at new life. When God destroys a group of people, he does it only with a heavy heart. Not out of some kind of bloodthirsty vengeance or just retribution, but because keeping them around would only poison everyone around them. There are times when a doctor has to cut off a hand or a leg in order to save the rest of the body. Frostbite, gangrene, sometimes diabetes, cause such a poison in the system that without removing the limb the whole body would die. It’s not something anyone would choose to do, but sometimes it has to be done in order to save the rest of the body. When I read these passages, I assume God would never have done something so horrible unless the consequences were much worse. Because I do believe in a loving God.

The irony of people who associate horrific disasters with God
The irony of people who associate horrific disasters with God

God doesn’t do that anymore.

I know there are still preachers out there who tell you he does, but just look at the evidence. Hurricane Katrina didn’t hit Louisiana because of the debauchery in that city or there would be other hurricanes hitting other places all over the world on a daily basis. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters don’t have to be divine retribution. It could be the result of things we do to the Earth that cause these effects. God simply doesn’t do that anymore. If he ever did. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out those Biblical scholars who believe these events were never caused by God are correct. It would be consistent with what we know of the times and of God’s character through his son Jesus. I take comfort in the fact that there are multiple explanations as to why these events are recorded in the Bible and to know that the loving God I believe in didn’t “change his mind.” These issues are tough ones and people who are steered away from our faith because of it have an honest axe to grind with Christianity. Certainly, there are too many of us who love to embrace the God of Divine Retribution when it suits us, when we want to condemn those who don’t do as we see fit. But our God really is a God of love. It’s the God who wouldn’t destroy a city filled with debauchery for the sake of a few. It’s the God who is willing to wait as long as it takes to save us from our own sin. It’s the God who sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to serve us and die for us. It is in that God that we place our trust. But we should keep asking questions. We shouldn’t be afraid to find the answers. And we should be willing to admit that we also have a tough time with some of these questions people ask. We seek answers to understand the God we love even better and to be prepared as Peter wrote, “to give reason for the hope that you have.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites

[2] Ibid.

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