One of my favourite preachers, American pastor Brian Zahnd, coined the following maxim:
God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There’s never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We haven’t always known this.
But now we do.
Now, I’m fairly sure most readers will nod their heads and heartily agree with Brian’s little aphorism. But, as is my wont, I’d like to dig a little and make an important distinction.
Here it is: it’s not enough to affirm that Jesus is like God; we have to be willing to affirm that God is like Jesus.
You see, if we say that Jesus is like God, that leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre. Specifically, it allows us to say, “Jesus is like God in this respect, but not in this other respect”. More specifically still, it allows us to view Jesus as reflecting the nice/good/merciful aspects of God but not the angry/violent/vengeful/retributive aspects. So, for example, when we come across passages of scripture in which God apparently commands the slaughter of innocents, we can square this away by saying this is an aspect of God that Jesus didn’t particularly major on.
Now, some critics will respond to the above paragraph by arguing that Jesus did, in fact, represent even the angry, retributive God that is sometimes found in scripture. Two arguments are commonly put forward in favour of this position:
1. Pointing out that Jesus did, in fact, demonstrate violence. The text most often cited in support of this position is Jesus’ so-called cleansing of the temple, in which he overturned the tables in the temple court and drove out the moneychangers with a whip. I would point out three things in response. First, while Jesus may have turned over tables and cracked a whip to drive people out, there is not the slightest hint that he committed physical violence against any person. Second, I would contend that Jesus’ action was not an angry outburst but a deliberate prophetic enactment of the coming destruction of the temple. (On both these points, see this article by Canadian theologian Brad Jersak.) And third, there are plenty of examples in the gospels of Jesus expressly forbidding his followers to use force of any kind.
2. Pointing out that Jesus often warned of violent, fiery judgement on those who did not heed his words. My answer to this is that Jesus’ words of judgement (such as, for example, the “Olivet Discourse” found in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21) need to be understood not as promises of violent retribution unleashed directly by God but as warnings of the fate that would be brought upon themselves by those who refused to embrace Jesus’ way of non-violent peacemaking and instead chose the broad road of violent uprising and armed insurrection. The proof is in the pudding: Jerusalem was razed in AD 70 following just such an uprising.
For me, then, you can’t take either Jesus’ cleansing of the temple or his warnings of coming judgement as justification for squeezing Jesus into an angry, violent, retributive mould.
So we are left with two alternatives: either Jesus reflected some but not all aspects of God (specifically, he reflected God’s mercy, compassion, forgiveness and restorative love but not his implacable justice or his burning anger); or God really is like Jesus in every respect.
Let’s take a text from the New Testament. Speaking of Jesus, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says this:
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.
The question is this: can the description of Jesus as “the exact imprint of God’s very being” be interpreted such that there is some way in which God is almost but not quite entirely like Jesus? Is there some wiggle room? Could God be 99% the kind of all-forgiving, all-enduring, always compassionate, relentlessly merciful God we see in Jesus, and 1% the kind of angry monster God who demands blood for the slightest trespass, kills people for what sometimes appear to be innocent mistakes and condemns people to eternal torture for not quite getting their beliefs lined up right?
I don’t think so.
So what is it that so often stops us from taking the plunge and believing that God really is just like Jesus, and only like Jesus? I’m sure there’s more than one thing that holds us back, but I’m pretty convinced that the number one reason for our reluctance to fully embrace this view is our insistence on believing that all of scripture is inerrant or infallible. You see, if all of scripture is equally authoritative, and some of the depictions of God in scripture are not like the God revealed in Jesus, we have a problem. Something has to give. Unfortunately, the inerrancy of scripture is usually maintained, and what gets trashed is the true nature of God as revealed in and through Jesus.
I believe in the inspiration of scripture. But, to once again quote Canadian theologian Brad Jersak, “Yes, scripture is inspired, but it’s an inspired record of our journey towards understanding a God we didn’t get”.
When we insist on making scriptural inerrancy more important than Jesus’ revelation of the character of God, we demote Jesus and make the Bible an idol. We make the sign more important than the person to whom it points. I now recognise that I did that for years. But no more.
It is Jesus, the only Son of God, who has made the Father known. You keep your angry, retributive God if you want to; I’ll take my cues from Jesus.
(If the idea that the Bible might not be completely inerrant is new to you, you might like to read my post Setting scripture free.)
[ Image: Vinoth Chandar ]