Don’t shrink-wrap the truth

I suspect that if any of the “new atheists” were to describe to me the God they don’t believe in, I would congratulate them for not believing and explain that I don’t believe in that God either. The God they reject is, as far as I can tell, a caricature of the God of the Bible. He is a composite sketch taken from misunderstood or misused texts, and from the confused opinions of professing believers.

For one thing, the God that unbelievers often reject is, like all caricatures, too simple. They make the God of the universe into a one-dimensional character. Even primetime TV does a better job depicting believable characters than most atheists do depicting God.

The God revealed in the Bible and, even more so, through the person of Jesus, is anything but one-dimensional. The Bible reveals a God who both loves people and hates evil, is just and merciful, is kind and stern. In fact, there are a number of biblical passages where these various facets of his character are presented within the same verse.

So when a critic says, “I don’t believe in a God who wants to send everyone to hell but changes his mind because a perfectly innocent man volunteers to take their place,” I say, “Hear, hear!” I can’t believe in that kind of movie-bad-guy God either. The God revealed in the Bible is far more interesting and mysterious. When we find it hard to believe in Jesus’s God, it is almost always because he is more and better than we imagined, not less.

There is nothing mysterious about the God that critics reject. He is easily understood, flat, and a little dull. But it should be an indication to us that something is wrong when the God under discussion is easier to understand than the creatures discussing him.

A God who evokes no wonder is not the God of the Bible, the God Jesus revealed. The Bible repeatedly uses words like “wonder,” “awe” and “amazed” to describe the effect that God has on people. A boring God is not “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

How did skeptics come up with such a one-dimensional God? I’m afraid they got it from us, from believers who have watered down the strong drink of biblical truth into a pabulum of easily digestible and explainable theological propositions. The biblical authors made an announcement (a gospel), while we give advice. They frequently broke into praise; we frequently break out principles intended to guard belief and modify behavior.

I once had a teacher who was gifted at reducing almost anything in the Bible to five points, from the entire biblical story to what transpired on the cross to the deepest nature of humanity. He could have been the author of “God for Dummies.” I find now, after many years have passed, I cannot remember even one of this five-point systems.

The teachers I do remember, the ones who have shaped my life, sometimes simplified the complex data of life and faith by contracting it to a few points, but more often they expanded my mind to see a bigger world and a more glorious God than I had yet imagined. The great teachers always call us to live in the light of great truths. Instead of shrink-wrapping the truth, they grow their students.

Everyone who has actually inspired me to seek God and live a life that enables me to know him has presented to me a God worthy of worship. Those teachers, some well-known and some not, had discovered a God worth knowing and a Christ worth following.

This, it seems to me, is just what the contemporary atheists have missed. When they blaspheme their Gods, I do not flinch. When they pull down a God of their own making, I applaud: that God was just standing between them and the real one, either blocking their view or hiding them from his. For, in a twist worthy of this remarkable story, we humans are not so much God-seekers as God – the real God – is a people-seeker.

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One Response to Don’t shrink-wrap the truth

  1. Tim Pennings says:

    In response to this essay, please consider your reaction if you knew that a neighbor man down the street provided well for his wife and children and only occasionally lost his temper and beat his wife. He rarely put his children’s hands in boiling water for punishment. The rest of the time he was stern but fair and was generous to a fault.

    Would this full – rather than one-dimensional – view of your neighbor then help you to appreciate him more than those who only saw his brutality?

    Shayne, you are trying hard, but there is just no getting around a God who punished King David by sending a plague through Isreal that killed 70,000 people. Not much consolation for the families of those 70,000 to know that now David has learned his lesson – wouldn’t you agree? A bit like pawns, perhaps?

    And of course this is nothing compared to a God who would let people live in hell for eternity because they were not among the chosen. Read Romans 9 — it’s all there. Who can answer back to God – – He is the potter. Give credit to the Apostle Paul for asking the honest question: How can God condemn when he is in control of us? Answer: God is God – He can do what he wants with his creation. That answer from Paul has integrity and forthright honesty. It also reveals a God (or his belief in a God) that is so far removed my my own sense of goodness and righteousness, that it all becomes a non-issue.

    So Mr. Looper, there are plenty of the “new atheists” out there who well understand the Biblical God. Personally, I have four notebooks filled with my personal commentary on the entire Bible – the results of the IVP 3-year Search the Scriptures course. There may be a personal God – I don’t know. I am open to hearing “that still small voice” whenever and however it should come. But if there is, I am well satisfied to let God lead the dance. I am not going to force the issue by praying as I once did – trying to convince myself that I was not just playing games with myself.

    How interesting that “thinking Christians” – i.e, ones like yourself who are reflective, respond to a letter such as this by saying “Keep searching — if you are truly seeking, God will answer”, and not ever be willing to honestly entertain that YOU may be wrong? I spent years of my life convincing others to become Christians and only later did I take the challenge that I was presenting to them: To honestly look at the evidence with a willingness to change my mind according to the evidence – – all kinds of evidence – Biblical, historical, personal testimony, scientific. I’m certainly not saying that everyone who does the same will reach the same conclusion as I. But I certainly won’t accuse them of being one-dimensional in their understanding or having a mere caricature of God. Shayne, you seem like a reasonable guy. Please be reasonable enough to realize that it may be YOU who has a one-dimensional caricature of the “new atheist.”

    Tim Pennings

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