Love and Judgment

Christians seem, by and large, to expect a ‘second coming’, and a ‘day of judgment’ - in which, apparently, vengeance against God’s enemies will be enacted and everyone who hasn’t repented will get their just desserts - this forms the ‘stick’ of what I might describe as the ‘popular gospel’; the carrot being, of course, the forgiveness for sins, and subsequent acceptance of the believer into ‘heaven’.

And yet, I wonder. If Jesus came to show us what God is really like - as he said himself:

“Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves…” John 14:9-11

then it’s hard to find much evidence in the gospels for Jesus predicting that God is angry and that therefore he’s going to return with ‘fire and sword’.

That is to say, it’s hard to find evidence for God’s ‘eternal’ anger once you allow yourself to interpret Jesus' prophecies regarding Jerusalem as events which actually took place less than forty years after the events described in the gospels, and which are recorded in history and visible in archaeology to this day. The predictions are very precise and, surprising as it may seem to some, they were fulfilled, equally precisely, during the siege and sacking of Jerusalem by Titus and his army in AD70. Jesus said:

The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you. Luke 19:43-44

“Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

"Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." Matthew 24:2-34

Once you allow those to be predictions of events in our past rather than hanging over us to this day, like some almighty ’sword of Damocles' - and there are really strong textual reasons (see verse 34 above) to interpret them as historical events - Jesus (and therefore God) comes across as a pretty forgiving guy - a far cry from how the earliest of the Jewish scriptures portray God.

It strikes me that the standard exposition of the gospel is inconsistent at a most fundamental level. And I think it’s this inconsistency, at the very heart of what we’re taught to believe, which always made me uneasy and which, ultimately, caused me to doubt the truth of this ‘gospel’ and to start looking for a fresh expression of it - one which was, or is, consistent in its portrayal of God.

As usually expressed, the gospel has a violent god who seeks the destruction of God’s enemies, lest they ‘pollute’ God’s chosen people; and who is saddened (and angered) by said chosen people’s repeated rebellion against God, so God is violent towards them too. We then get a (thirty-three year) ‘moment’ of love and acceptance (in the incarnation of Jesus).

And yet, even in this ‘moment’, much is made of Jesus’ apparent threats of violence -

‘Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’’ (Matthew 25:41)

and the ‘cleansing of the temple’ (e.g. Mark 11:15-17) to illustrate that god is still angry and retributive. I might come back to consider those sometime later.

We then return, in the end, in most versions of eschatology, to a narrative of violence and destruction, in which only a few ‘chosen people’ are ‘saved’ from destruction and eternal torture to spend an eternity of bliss with the God who is love (well, God is love if you’re lucky and were born in the right time and place)… The rest are either annihilated or suffer excruciating torment forever.

In this view, Jesus’ non-violence, passive resistance, and loving, accepting nature, are an aberration - a ‘blip’ - a brief interlude - one might almost dare to say a momentary ‘error’ - in the narrative of extreme violence which is the ‘gospel’.

But it strikes me that, if God really is this angry, violent, tyrant, then the idea that He should willingly die at the hands of His own creatures is so absurd as to be utterly unbelievable. If God really is the violent monster portrayed by the popular gospel, then there is no way he would have meekly laid himself down and allowed the soldiers to hammer in the nails... That God would surely, rather, have called down legions of angels and blasted with holy fire all those who assaulted His person (shades of one of the later scenes from ‘Indiana Jones - Raiders of the Lost Ark’), leaving the hilltop a mess of charred flesh and devastation, with Him standing triumphant over these evil, paltry, humans who have dared to lay violent hands upon Him.

So what is it to be?

Most Christians agree, I think, on the immutability of God (i.e. the idea that He is unchanging). In this case it probably means either God is love, or He is a violent monster - you can’t have it both ways - He ain’t for changing. If you think you can have both, you probably need to look very hard at what you think you mean by love.

I posit that, if the gospel narrative of God’s submission to the crucifixion is correct, then the narrative of violence that we have woven around God’s character cannot be true. Somewhere along the line, we have taken His message of love and non-violence, and subverted it - imposing on it our interpretation of what we would like to happen - i.e. the violent destruction of our enemies.

If the story of Christ’s passion is correct, we’ve got the rest of our narrative and our belief around God dead wrong... And yes, that says that the bible (or at least the Old Testament) is wrong too… Either that or the way we read and interpret it is wrong. Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t (and never was) meant to be read as a ‘flat’ narrative, with all of it seen as equally authoritative, and all of it showing us how God is - but, rather, perhaps we need to see it as the progressing story of humanity’s understanding of God, which reaches its culmination in the passion narrative when finally, we get a clear vision of God as God actuallyis, without the (violent) interpretive lens through which we had always seen Him, and (by a sort of semantic sleight of hand) continue to see Him to this day, despite Him having revealed Himself to us in that most unambiguous fashion in the incarnation and ultimately upon the cross.

If He is truly like the God revealed by the cross, then the rest of the narrative we have created around Him - the violent, retributive, monster - must be in error... That must be us, imputing our own nature onto Him - in effect creating Him in our image. Jesus came to show us that error, and to allow us to turn from that picture of God and worship Him as He truly is: the very epitome of love. The real tragedy is that we haven’t - we’ve, very neatly, reframed the narrative to allow us to continue to worship a false god of violence and retribution, whilst ignoring, almost entirely, the revelation of the non-violent God in Jesus.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2021