Not surprisingly Mark Driscoll’s heart warming sermon on how much God hates some of us stirred up quite a few emotions.
It should. The issue of who God is and what God is like is fundamental to not only Christianity, but any faith.
Like any other issue of such importance, this one deserves some serious reflection. So, as a follow up to stirring up the pot yesterday I thought I would try to get to the heart of this debate over wrath and love, and hopefully offer an alternative to, what is for many of us, Mark Driscoll’s unpalatable God of hate.
But first a story.
A few years ago I was with my youth group at our denomination’s quadrennial youth conference in St. Louis, MO. It’s a “big to do” in our little denomination. Lots of teens from all over the world, dozens of speakers and activities, and of course top tier Christian music artists, because you’ve gotta keep the people entertained.
One night the guy that spoke was the head of a major student evangelism ministry. This organization challenges and “equips” students to proselytize (I’m not convinced its really evangelism) to their friends and strangers walking down the street. If you’re a youth pastor you get their mailings on a weekly basis.
The opening was pretty good, a couple of funny stories to get the students engaged and interested in what he was saying. But then things made a strange and disturbing turn.
In his attempt to get the students to better relate to Jesus he made reference to Jesus’ experience on the cross. The basic premise was essentially “Jesus feels your pain.” Of course he does and that’s one of the beautiful aspects of the faith. It was how the speaker said Jesus understands our pain that I found incredibly problematic and which I think is at the heart of Mark Driscoll’s misunderstanding of the nature of God.
According to the speaker, and I feel safe in assuming Mark too since they’re both part of the Reformed camp, God the Father turned his back on Jesus while he hung on the cross and abandoned him in order that he could pour out all of wrath on his son.
First of all, even though Jesus echo’s the cry of the Psalmist “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”, I don’t believe for a second that the Father abandoned his son or that he poured out his wrath upon him. However, this is a very nuanced and somewhat technical conversation. So, [shameless plug] if you have way too much time on your hands and you enjoy boring academic papers of margainal quality, then you can read the thesis I wrote on the subject, literally as a result of hearing this sermon at the youth conference.
That being said, this is standard Reformed theology. It’s an interpretation of how we are saved called “the satisfaction theory.” Essentially, it is the idea that Jesus dies to satisfy the Father’s wrath. It’s a widely held belief by many Christians whether they consider themselves reformed or not.
I think it’s not only theologically incoherent, but that it also creates a God which I am not convinced is even worthy of worship.
If as that speaker and Mark argue the cross is a moment in which God the Father commits an act of unbridaled hate while Jesus performs an act of self-sacrifing love and yet we as Christians are to believe in “one God”, then what we are left with is a God with a serious multiple personality disorder. A God who, at least in one personage, we should hate and despise. This simply will not do.
I think at the heart of the problem in Mark and that youth conference speaker’s theology is that they don’t understand who or what we are being saved from. Likewise, I think this issue of “being saved” is at the heart of the conversation we’ve been having over the past day or so about God’s wrath.
There are only 3 possibilities here. Only 3 people from whom we could possibly need saving.
Our first option is the obvious culprit: Satan. Lots of Christians believe that this is who we need saving from. This is another theory of the atonement called “ransom theory.” In this view, God uses Jesus as the ransom to buy us back from the devil. There’s a big problem with this idea, however. If God has to bribe Satan to hand us over, then Satan is not only really powerful, he is, in fact, on par with God. Though that sort of dualism may have life in our popular conciousness, it’s certainly not biblical and definitely not orthodoxy. God and Satan are not co-equals. So, this theory is out for me.
Our second option is the culprit Mark and the youth conference speaker have chosen. According to them, God is saving us from Himself. This is called the “satisfaction theory of the atonement.” As we mentioned before, in this theory Jesus’ love saves us from the Father’s wrath and we are left with a God in need of a psychotherapist to help him work out his multiple personality disorder. Seriously, though, I find this theory to be incoherent, repugnant, and confusing. From a logical point of view, how does God save us from himself? Before you answer that too quickly, please note that that idea of God the Father pouring out his wrath on Jesus while he hung on the cross is not found anywhere in the Bible. It is read into the Bible much later. Even if this were true, then we are left with a God whom we should at least hate in part for his fraticide of Jesus. If it is the case that the Father is a murderer, then I am confused as to why he is worthy of worship at all? So, again, this theory is out for me.
Which leaves us with our third and final option. For me, I think we are saved, not from a godlike Satan or a murderous Father, but from ourselves. It all goes back to sin. If we think sin is simply “missing the mark” or breaking the law, then we don’t understand sin or therefore salvation at all. Sin is idolotry. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve aren’t guilty of stealing fruit. They’re guilty of trying to steal godhood away from God. In other words, they were trying to put themselves on the heavenly throne as an act of self-worship in the attempt to be lords of their own lives. We are guilty of sin, not because Adam stole fruit, but because like Adam we continue this pattern of trying to be god’s of our own lives.
As Christians we believe that God is the source of all life and that apart from him there is only death. So then, if we try to live apart from him, making ourselves god, then the inevitable result is death. This is why Paul says “the wages of sin is death”. This isn’t because God stands by ready to be judge, jury, and executioner whenever we make a mistake. Rather, death is the inevitable consequence for following our own path which leads away from the only source of life.
So then, when Jesus dies on the cross he is not saving us from Satan and he is certainly not saving us from himself. He is saving us from our own destruction. Hell isn’t simply God’s punishment for people that make him mad. Hell is our attempt to create our own kingdom, an alternative kingdom to the kingdom of God. Because of God’s love, not his wrath, and because he took the risk of giving us free will which allows to establish our own alternative kingdom.
The cross, therefore, is not an act of wrath at all. It is an act of love in which God saves us from our own destruction and opens the gates to his kingdom allowing everyone, sinner and saint alike to dwell with him forever.
God certainly has wrath, but if we look at the direction it’s pointed at in scripture, instead of simply counting how many times it appears and assuming we know what that means, then we see that God’s wrath has a very specific target. God’s wrath is stirred, almost exclusively in Scripture, when we worship other gods, especially when that god is us. And it is stirred again when we ignore and trample on the marginalized, persecuted, and oppressed.
God is one. He does not hate his son, nor has he ever, “this is my son in whom I am well pleased.”
And God doesn’t hate you.
Does he hate it when we try to take control of our own lives? Absolutely, but only because he hates the thought of living apart from us.
God loves us, that’s why he sent his son, and that’s why he died on the cross.
Telling the world that God hates them isn’t just fear mongering, it’s bad theology, and because it repudiates God’s fundamental nature, I find it to be rather blasphemous.
God loves you. His people should love you. And I’m sure Mark Driscoll can find a way to really be Christ-like and love you too.
Grace and peace,