The Christian God is a being of terrific character – cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. – Thomas Jefferson
What are we talking about when we talk about God? The answer differs depending on who you are and who you are interacting with. For the traditional Christian talking about God revolves around exploring his attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Thus, for the believer talking about God essentially revolves around discussing what he is.
For the modernist, the answer revolves more around contingency, causality, and ontology. In this post-enlightenment milieu, God’s non-existence is assumed and wrestled with using reason, logic, and philosophy. And yet, in the end, we likewise end up talking about what he is, albeit from a different angle. But there is another gradient which both precedes and resides in the postmodern scenario and tends to be the main contention of the age: the virtue of God.
In this schema, talking about God pivots more around his eminence and posture. That is, whether he is real or not is not the central thesis but rather what is his virtue? In this post-truth context, therefore, it is not so much what God is that is supreme, but rather what God is like.
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This question of what we talk about when talking about God formed the basis for Rob Bells 2014 title, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” in which he asserted that misconceptions about God are the root of the culture’s axiomatic rejection of him. But one need not read Bell in order to arrive at this conclusion.
Roughly 200 years ago, US president Thomas Jefferson asserted that “The Christian God is a being of terrific character – cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.”1 This sentiment is echoed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his best-seller “The God Delusion” when he wrote,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction; jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.2
The entertainer Woody Allen also took a shot at God’s virtue when he declared that “God is either cruel or incompetent”, a perspective likewise advanced by neuroscientist Sam Harris when he wrote that, “God is either impotent, evil or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.”3
Thus, it appears there is a long and vigorous rejection of God which preceded, informed, and survives the enlightenment and our cultures subsequent ideological evolutions (modernism, postmodernism, and metamodernism). But regardless of the complexity that accompanies these shifts, the foundation is the same and demonstrates that the rejection of God has increasingly more to do with our perception of what he is like than the mystery of what he is.
This concept was explored in the previous article where I demonstrated how, in my context, rejection of God is not due to the attributes of God (his omni-elements) nor of the nature of God (Triune, transcendence, immanence) but rather how this God is introduced to the culture. We began by exploring the evangelistic posture of “God as a necessity” as a posture which, from the onset, is bound to disconnect with the secular language of being by presenting God as a product that can somehow “fill-in” our emotional and existential gaps.
To the contrary, God must be introduced as “inherent” meaning that we do not seek him because he is a divine product through which we can achieve a certain list of desired outcomes but rather because he is intrinsically worth knowing. God is, in his naked autonomy, a personal being with innate value. He is interesting on the one hand, mysterious on the other, a genuine consciousness, trustworthy and present—but more than this—he is the author of everything in life from which we derive meaning and joy. Would such a being not be worth investigating to some degree?
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However, the previous article closed off with the following question: Assuming a person recognizes God’s inherence, are they not justified in questioning some of its assumptions? Assumptions such as the goodness and beauty of God—priori ideas which are easy to suspect in light of life’s suffering and injustice—an existence which New Atheist icon Christopher Hitchens referred to as a potentially “pointless joke.”4 Thus, to the suggestion that God is organically worth knowing the culture will generally go in three directions. 1) Some will affirm it and go on the journey. 2) Others will shrug it off and 3) the slightly more sophisticated might counter that they prefer to appreciate the work of art and have no need to know its author.
The simplest response to this is to affirm it. There is no “need” but we are not discussing need, we are discussing inherent value. Of those who choose to pursue the adventuresome will retort to modernist contentions such as “the presence of a painting does not necessitate a painter” while those who have a more postmodern or New Atheist approach will appeal to the injustice of God and the church.5 If he is the designer of all that is good, he is likewise the designer of all that is unjust and thus, his inherence is canceled out. And what are we to do with such claims?
God as Virtue vs God as Claim
This brings us to the second perspective I mentioned exploring God as virtue versus claim. Once again, when talking about God the conversation—for an Adventist at least—immediately goes to what God is in which we focus on his attributes and essence. For those who are theologically inclined, this usually revolves around themes like is God immanent, transcendent or both? Is God timeless or does he exist in some sort of supra-temporality? And how does his omniscience work? Can he know the future complete with all of its contingencies? And how does this play into libertarian freedom? What of the Trinity? The incarnation of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit? All of these questions often form the basis of what an Adventist is talking about when talking about God.
But when it comes to interacting with the culture, none of these themes are of interest or importance because, as mentioned above, the culture increasingly affirms or rejects God based on how they perceive what he is like as opposed to what he is. And it is here that I suggest Seventh-day Adventists have a unique advantage over other theological traditions for, while many Christian approaches focus mostly on God’s attributes and essence (what God is), Adventists have historically placed a great deal of emphasis on an often sidelined approach to God—and that is his virtue (what he is like).
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God as claim basically works like this: God is the creator. Because he created all things he has a claim over all things. That includes every human being. God has the right to demand obedience, loyalty, and worship because he is the creator. His position as creator imbues him with certain rights that he is well within reason to expect. Thus, God stakes a claim over our lives. We either submit to his claim and worship him or we reject his claim and rebel against him. And if we rebel against him, then God will pour out his judgment on us—eternal destruction being the final end of all who deny his claim over their lives.
It’s easy to see how such a position would be appealing to conservative Christians. In fact, this position permeates much of our evangelistic preaching. For example, I recently heard an evangelist talk about the 3 Angels Messages and he framed it this way: “God is calling his people out of Babylon. Why? Because he is going to judge Babylon and destroy it. And everyone found in Babylon will be destroyed as well. Therefore, leave Babylon friends! Don’t partake in her sins and be destroyed by God.”
Most Adventists will say a hearty amen to this. But for those who understand the secular language of being, we immediately recognize that this position is fraught with problems. For starters, it comes across as a totalitarian governmental approach in which God is essentially threatening people with his authority and power, bullying them into submission. This posture also reeks of oppression by painting a vindictive and authoritarian picture of God—one which basically boils down to “follow me or I’ll kill you.” Allow me to demonstrate how this approach will interact with the secular language of being below:
|What an Adventist Evangelist Says…||What the Secular Person Hears…|
|God is calling his people out of Babylon.
Because he is going to judge Babylon and destroy it.
And everyone found in Babylon will be destroyed as well.
Therefore, leave Babylon friends!
Don’t partake in her sins and be destroyed by God.
|God is calling his people out of Babylon.
Because he is a totalitarian deity who wants to be in total control.
So whoever doesn’t do things his way gets scorched.
Friend? This feels like oppression in disguise.
You mean, don’t self-determine because if you do, dictator God, up there, won’t be happy about it.
We might be talking about an end-time scenario here, but everything the evangelist said in his presentation begins all the way in his theology of God. He is approaching the message of Babylon from the position of “God as claim”—and he’s not wrong! God does have a claim over creation. We are not questioning that. What we are doing is taking the time to recognize two things. First, this posture will repel the secular listener and second, we must find a way to contextualize this message to the secular language of being without denying the essence of the apocalyptic text.
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To this end, let’s turn to the posture of God as virtue. In this perspective, the main objective is not to emphasize God’s assumed authority, title or rights. Emerging generations actually have very little interest in a person’s titles or assumed expertise. These, many millennials assert, often do little more than “add constraints”.6 Therefore, we must steer away from this approach and instead, lean more heavily on God’s character or virtue (what God is like) as we explore the various biblical themes including covenant, cross, and end-time events.
To give a practical application let us return to the message of Babylon. Because the evangelist is operating off of God’s claim he does not take any time to really explore what Babylon means. He assumes people get it’s bad and then focuses his attention on God’s claim which, in a premodern audience, will often suffice.
However, when dealing with seculars I often take an opposite approach which has always served me well. I focus on introducing Daniel and Revelation as apocalyptic tensions between two kingdoms—the kingdom of the impulse of self, and the kingdom of the ethic of love. By the time I arrive at Babylon, the student knows that Babylon represents social injustice, oppression, and exploitation of the voiceless. It is, in essence, an archetype of the human empire built upon the “beastly” impulse of self-preservation, self-promotion, and self-advancement.
God’s kingdom, on the other hand, is built upon the ethic of love with its central figure being the broken body of the God-king, whose crown is thorns, not jewels, and whose legacy is servanthood and nakedness on behalf of those he loves. In doing so, I am emphasizing Gods virtue in self-abandonment, not his claim. From there, it is very easy to demonstrate that this God has set a day in which he will say to injustice and oppression “no more!” and that when that day arrives, all who are allied to the empires of self will indeed be judged. Here the claim of God emerges, but instead of emerging as the supreme point of the message, is swathed in the virtue of God with that virtue being the central theme that we are exploring and celebrating.
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Now, these are two specific examples, but my contention is this reimagining needs to take place at every level of evangelistic dialogue. God must be approached as inherently worth knowing and then, that premise must be supported by redesigning our entire message in light of his virtue, not his claim. In doing so, we help secular truth seekers encounter God in a way that interacts meaningfully with their own value structure—that is their language of being.
As we wrap up our discussion on God and absurdity, I would like to summarize the points I have made so far. First, if there is any denomination that can introduce God to the secular culture effectively it is the Seventh-day Adventist church. Our theological narrative is the most capable of interacting meaningfully with the secular mind precisely because it is built on the “virtue” of God (The Great Controversy motif, the Sanctuary, etc.) as opposed to the “claim” of God (the classic hellfire and brimstone evangelical approach).
The distinction between the two is huge. God as claim is an approach that begins with God’s claim over the human race. He is God, creator of heaven and earth, and he, therefore, has a claim over your life that you cannot refuse or deny and if you do he will judge you with fire. This claim approach interacts violently with the secular language of being because it clashes with the core values of their system of thought: freedom, justice, and self-determination. Add this to the fact that most secular people today already have a terrible picture of God and this approach—which reeks of divine totalitarianism—is sure to create resistance.
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Instead, in interacting with the secular mind I lean heavily on the virtue of God as expressed in the Adventist perspective on his love as his ontology, the Great Controversy, and the sanctuary. In doing so I introduce God as a giver, not a taker, as a liberator, not an oppressor. We must wrap our message of God in all the angst of God that exists in the secular mind and present it that way. In this sense, instead of “Does God exist?” which interacts with the modernist priority of reason and evidence, we are instead asking, “Is God good?” which speaks directly to secular concerns over justice, equality, and self-determination—all of which they perceive God and Church as threatening.
However, it would be foolish to turn over to our evangelistic flyer and simply add a sermon titled, “Is God good?” My contention here is not that we ought to preach a sermon of that sort, but that our entire framework needs to be reimagined through this contextualization. This is why it is so important to first understand the secular soul-language—because when we do we become keenly aware of the kinds of frameworks, colloquialisms, and explanations that clash with that inner language. This then enables us to more effectively reimagine everything else we have to say, contextualizing it to their value structure, so as not to become stumbling blocks to a soul already in search for something more.
Throughout the rest of this series, I will continue to reimagine each of our doctrines, building each one on the foundational concept of truth as flow and a posture of God that focuses on his inherence and virtue over the classical necessity/claim approach.
- Allen Jayne. “Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, and Theology,” p. 36
- Richard Dawkins. “The God Delusion”
- Paul E. Hill. “The Urban Myths of Popular Modern Atheism: How Christian Faith Can Be”
- BBC News. “Christopher Hitchens on life, death, and lobster.”
- It is important to point out that Adventists need to be on the cutting edge of these conversations. With respect to modernism, while I praised the fact that we do touch on some of their concerns in our evangelistic series I must also add an invitation to do it much better than we often do. At times, it feels like our approach to modernist concerns does not come from any real interaction with modern culture but with books we have read about modern culture. And if those books are approaching the discussion from a fundamentalist evangelical perspective then our presentations are going to be loaded with ad hominems and caricatures of what modern people will instantly spot. Of course, exploring this any further is beyond the scope of this article but if you want to be on the cutting edge of the Christian and modernist dialogue in order to have more compelling presentations on these topics I recommend the following ministries: Unbelievable? (the podcast), The Bible and Beer Consortium, and the works of William Lane Craig, Ravi Zaccharias, John Lennox and Alistair McGrath.
- Jules Schroeder. “Millennials, Here’s Why Job Titles Don’t Matter Anymore.”