The snarky God of the Old Testament [book review]

2 Apr

In his book God Behaving Badly David Lamb delivers a succinct yet fairly thorough presentation of the most common charges against God stemming from the Old Testament and debunks them convincingly. He orders the books as a series of questions, the chapters include:

  • Angry or Loving
  • Sexist or Affirming
  • Racist or Hospitable
  • Violent or Peaceful
  • Legalistic or Gracious
  • Rigid or Flexible
  • Distant or Near

Each chapter contains a general appraisal of the topic with some voices from both sides of the debate, followed by a few specific examples of the charge. Lamb then goes into depth over the course of a few pages giving background information and explaining why the particular charge is in some way misconstrued or misunderstood.God-behaving-badly

One such example is Uzzah whom Yahweh struck down for putting his hand on the Ark of the Covenant to steady it (2 Sam 6:1-8). Lamb goes into detail about why the laws about transporting the ark were in place and how they conveyed respect and holiness. Lamb explains all the rules and regulations for Ark-carrying by comparing it to transporting nuclear waste: not that it is garbage but that it’s extremely dangerous. By transporting the ark their way as opposed to the way God had outlines the Israelites were not only dishonoring but blatantly disobeying God. All of Israel was present at this procession and their lack of concern for the Ark symbolized their apathy towards God. God had a right to strike Uzzah because he had outlined the penalty for disobedience – in doing so he sent a message to all of Israel (and all future recorded transportations of the Ark mention that proper protocol was followed).

I really enjoyed Lamb’s easygoing style, use of current cultural phenomenon to explain antiquated ideas and practices, and his overall commitment to using the scriptures rather than running from them. I recommend this book for anyone who has asked these questions or been asked them by a friend.

If you are interested, you can find the book at Amazon or if you are an alumnus of InterVarsity, simply register and get 30%-50% off from IVP

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The two most important planks of wood ever…

28 Mar

Why did Jesus have to die on a cross? It seems barbaric and unnecessary.

I will leave the task of explaining the depth of meaning behind the cross to better theologians and better wordsmiths. My task here is to simply respond as if someone had asked me in conversation, which conveniently, someone has.

Sin.

The short answer is sin, and we cannot explain the meaning of the cross without first making sure our friend has an understanding of the nature of sin and its consequences. I usually make a reference to the laws of our country, asking what happens if someone gets caught breaking the law. My friend usually observes that the lawbreaker pays a fine or goes to jail, etc. Exactly. Every human breaks God’s law. We know this because the law is impossibly difficult to keep: Looking lustily at another person is the equivalent of committing adultery. Harboring anger is tantamount to murder. The elevation of anything other than God to a primary place in our hearts (even our spouses, our kids!) is idolatry. We have all sinned, we have all broken the law.

Justice.

We would be incensed if proven rapists, drug traffickers, and murderers got no penalty for their crimes. We have a deep sense of justice and want evil to be repaid with punishment and good to be repaid with reward. This is natural and good (as long as we realize that we, as individuals, shouldn’t be making those judgment calls). The same is true on a cosmic scale: evil merits punishment and good merits reward. God is the final judge and his justice is perfect. The only problem is that we’re all evil. This doesn’t mean we don’t understand right and wrong, just that we’re crappy at picking right. If we stop at 99 consecutive red lights, run one, and then stop at the next 99 lights we are still guilty of an infraction. The same is true with regards to God’s law. If we’re super nice most of the time but act selfishly even once a day we’re still subject to punishment. The punishment for sin is death. Seems harsh, no? Remember, the law is a high standard. I am not a fibber – I am a liar. I’m not angry – I am a murderer. I’m not checking out that girl – I’m cheating on my wife. Because God is perfect and holy there is no middle ground for people who are mostly good. We must be perfect and holy as well or own up to our wickedness and rebellion, it won’t get swept under the rug because we’re good ‘most of the time.’

Mercy.The cross

It’s been said that the cross is the place where God’s justice and mercy kiss. Jesus was innocent of any violation of God’s law – though he did violate some of the human customs of his day. He bore no guilt and yet was given a criminals death. In this moment God’s justice was satisfied as his wrath (the penalty for sin) was poured out onto Jesus who paid the price (the ticket so to speak). His perfect mercy is evident here as well because all are free to put their faith in Jesus and claim his righteousness for their own – allowing the guilt (and thus the punishment) of sin to be removed. Many will say this is the free gift of God but I’m reluctant to use that term, knowing that there is always a cost. The cost for us is our very lives: “he who wishes to save his life must lose it.” We exchange our will which is bent on serving ourselves for God’s will which is bent on God’s glory. Conveniently we were built to glorify God, he cares about this world more than we do, and he’s better at it than us – this means that the exchange of wills actually frees us, we are more satisfied, and we do more good in the world. The caricature of coming to faith is giving up fun things to become a prude, the reality is leaving the bondage of self to truly live.

So when someone asks “why the cross?” you must explain that we are spiritual criminals who deserve sentencing in a spiritual court. Instead of charging us God has charged his own Son with the crimes of every human of all time and sentenced him to die on a cross – which Jesus did willingly. Our option is to proudly refuse this kindness like someone who won’t let a friend pay for a meal at a restaurant or to humbly submit to Christ’s Lordship and find freedom from the tyranny of self-interest.

All the Gospel accounts disagree with one another!

26 Mar

Sometimes when I’m speaking with people who are moderately to well-informed about the New Testament, they bring up some of the seeming discrepancies in the Gospel accounts. The objection is raised by pointing to two Gospel accounts of the same narrative and noting the differences. This is sometimes easily explainable and sometimes very difficult to make sense of. I am convinced that there are no actual contradictions in these accounts and that those who wish to invest the time studying them will come to a similar conclusion. These examples will specifically focus on the Resurrection narratives in homage to Easter – but the idea holds for all of the Gospels.

I won’t tackle every single issue that exists because that is beyond the scope of this blog. Instead I’ll cover some of the basic types of objection as well as a general response when dealing with this sort of thing.

X mentions _____ and Y doesn’t!

Someone might mention that Jesus appears to two disciples on the road then to the eleven in Luke’s account, but he appears to women at his tomb in all the other accounts. Luke records the women encountering the empty tomb just like everyone else, but choses to describe Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus instead of his appearance at the tomb. We can’t be sure why he does this, perhaps for theological reasons, but it doesn’t exclude a tomb appearance by Jesus. In the same vein, if I mention that Bobby, Joe and Suzy were at the party, that doesn’t mean LeBron and Dwyane weren’t at the party unless I also claim that my list of attendees is exhaustive.

Seriously, who saw what? And can we determine once and for all if Legos were involved?

Seriously, who saw what? And can we determine once and for all if Legos were involved?

X mentions ____ and Y mentions _____ (different thing!)

Who saw Jesus first? Mary Magdalene, the eleven, the eleven minus Thomas, and two disciples on the road are all options. This variation falls prey to the same response as our last objection. The Gospel authors focused on different aspects of the same narrative, sometimes for theological reasons and sometimes in order to communicate more effectively with their intended audience.

X and Y contradict one another clearly!

There aren’t as many objections that claim this, but generally they require a nuanced answer and specific study. A simple example would be the women’s reactions as they leave the empty tomb of Jesus. Each account records different emotions: fear, joy, grief over the stolen body, and no emotion recorded by Luke. I recommend inviting your friend to study the alleged contradiction with you, getting academic resources from both sides of the debate. Most of us will not be able to make sense of these alleged contradictions offhand, so an invitation to study is a great response: it shows commitment, interest, and humility.

At this point it would be worth reminding your friend that it would be more reasonable to be skeptical of texts that aligned 100%. Even if an event is fresh in the mind of an eyewitness, different vantage points offer different perspectives. If the accounts all read exactly the same we would be suspicious that they were not four separate accounts (as claimed and believed) but one account, possibly forged. The accounts agree on the majority of the information presented and they all harmonize perfectly concerning the major points: Jesus’ virgin birth, his divine identity, his miraculous ministry, his death and resurrection. Again, because the perspectives are different we should expect the accounts to differ – but push for investigating whether or not the accounts contradict one another or if they simply seem to.

You’re a Christian because you’re American!

21 Mar

This post will conclude the series examining some recent interactions I had on Facebook. The first two are here and here. One of the objections that cropped up in several forms (and also appeared in the comments section of a recent post) has to do with the sociological causes of belief. In his book “Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All?” James sire distinguishes between reasons for belief and causes. When asked to explain why people believe what they do, most people respond with things like family, culture, place of birth, etc. Sire believes that these aren’t reasons at all, they are causes. Here is one of the comments from the thread last week: muhrica son

The objection here is less severe than the objection from my comments section the other day (“Why are you a Christian? Because you were born in America.”) The objection isn’t actually on the surface, it’s implied; the logic looks like this:

1)      There are many religions, each dominant in different parts of the world

2)      Each religion claims it is the correct path to God

3)      Therefore, thinking you are on the correct path to God is a product of where you are born.

american-jesus

Jesus loves everyone, Americans included; but he isn’t from here guys…sorry.

Another subtle and more insidious assumption is that we have no way to discern religious knowledge: it’s assumed such a thing doesn’t exist! The sheer fact of a plurality of religions is seen as a trump card which proves that none of them could be right. However, just because people disagree on something doesn’t mean that both of them must be wrong.

My reply has always been that while people’s religious affiliation is caused by their sociological circumstances, they are free to accept or reject this. This happens frequently as there are plenty of Christians in Africa, Muslims in London and Buddhists in the United States. What matters isn’t the cause of religious belief but whether the reasons we hold for accepting or rejecting the belief of our upbringing are sound. There will never be any proof, and we are all inclined to be convinced by data that supports beliefs we already hold. That being said, people change their deeply held beliefs and values in the face of new information all the time – and this happens with matters of faith too.

I believe Jesus is the only way to God not because I was born in Roanoke, Virginia or because I am a white male but because the human condition, the circumstances of our universe and the facts of history are best explained by this solution.

Attempting to re-route a conversation

20 Mar

Monday I wrote about stirring the pot a little bit on a Facebook post, and mentioned that some of the comments were worth reflecting on. The first that really stuck out to me was this one:

“…you read through the Bible and find stories of it supporting mass genocide, slavery, incest and adultery.”

The implicit objection is: The Bible isn’t a good source of moral truth because it endorses actions which are clearly immoral.

My first instinct is to make a nuanced defense of God’s goodness in light of the above accusations – which is not difficult to do, but would likely fall on deaf ears. Simply conceding (or ignoring the accusation, which is the same as conceding) is also not an option. I remembered my favorite advice about spiritual conversations: ask questions; and tried asking (what I thought to be) a provocative question. I simply responded by asking “on your view, what is wrong with mass genocide, murder and incest?”

The night wasn't THAT slow, and yes - I did ask you that.

The night wasn’t THAT slow, and yes – I did ask you that.

I did this to get them to ground their (implied) assertion that objective moral values exist. What I know is that an atheistic framework provides no ground for believing there are objective morals. Using words like ‘right, wrong, should, and ought’ means the atheist is trading with borrowed commodities.

**Aside – this doesn’t mean ‘atheists are bad people’ or ‘you need the Bible to know right from wrong.’ Everyone has access to moral knowledge. My question points at the foundation or grounding of that knowledge: what makes something right (or wrong)?**

No one had an answer for me. Several guys kept saying that a person with empathy wouldn’t need to ask that question. I responded that empathy just means understanding another person’s feelings, and I still wanted to know what was morally wrong about causing pain and/or death.

Ultimately no one had an answer because you can’t get there. See my earlier posts on objective morality here for more info, or leave a comment if you disagree.

This may or may not have been the best approach, but the lesson for me is that we shouldn’t feel the need to always launch into a defense (even if one can be made). Instead we can look for questions that might help our cause.  Asking a question keeps people engaged, keeps us from doing all the heavy lifting and helps to clarify the points being addressed.

Resource:

A cursory google search will help you if you’re looking for answers to the ‘immoral God’ objection above. If you’re looking for a full length treatment I highly recommend “God Behaving Badly” from Intervarsity Press.

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