The Rage against God (Part 2)

Last week,I suggested that both atheists and theists have motives for their belief systems.

When King David declared, “The fool says in his heart there is no God,” he identified skepticism and atheism as a heart problem, not an intellectual one. In other words, being free from God is part of the skeptic’s wish list.

I suspect most atheists, when they’re being honest, admit they prefer there to be no God, and therefore no judgment. Last week I quoted Peter Hitchens, formerly an avowed atheist, who confessed that after burning his Bible he felt “free”—free from rules and free from fear of judgment. He also shared the confession of Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, and author of The Last Word: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God…. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (pp. 149, 50, emphasis mine)

Now as for me, I admit that I prefer an orderly universe with rewards and consequences at the end of life. Either position—God or no God—requires faith.

One of the men at The Shepherd’s House where I volunteer likes to declare his belief that there is no God and the Bible is a human book filled with fairy tales. I admit he has added pizzazz to our class discussions. I confess I am also coming to love him as a potential brother. I commend him for his honesty, and we hug after almost evey class session.

So what difference does it make if we believe in or deny God’s existence? Can’t we just agree to disagree? Of course. But we must also bear in mind that there are critical issues at stake—issues that affect both the individual person and our culture.

Consider the second part of Psalm 53:1: “They (the fools) are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good.”

Is that overstatement? Perhaps. We all know skeptics and unbelievers who are good citizens who do admirable charitable acts. But, we can’t do anything that will appease God or earn brownie points with Him.

David warns that choosing to exclude God leads to other choices resulting in destructive behavior. Paul affirms this truth in Romans when he says that people who once knew about God suppressed that truth—a willful choice driven by their motives. The result has been the perversion of the entire human race. Consider the litany of bad behavior, in Romans 1:29-32, that has resulted from the decision to ignore God.

There is a price to pay whenever a nation chooses to toss the Rulebook under the bus or to deny God’s existence or relevance. The inevitable results include chaos and eventually anarchy—the law of the jungle where the strong rule over the weak.

So how do we decide what is good and what is evil…what is right and what is wrong? Postmodern thinking and the emphasis upon individual freedom have created a culture of moral relativity. It’s a replay of the book of The Judges, where “every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

Nobody will be safe, and no one held accountable for their actions. It is essentially war in the streets. In literal military warfare both sides (the good men in white hats or the evil men in black) are often guilty of committing atrocities. That is why modern nations have adopted rules of warfare. Unfortunately, too often the rules are ignored. This is especially true in atheistic states that attempt to erase every vestige of religion and God.

In his book, The Rage against God, Peter Hitchens writes, “Atheist States have a consistent tendency to commit mass murder.” We need not look any further than Soviet Communism under Stalin with an estimated 6-9 million non-combatant deaths. Or consider Chinese Communism under Mao zedong with up to 70 million civilian deaths. Today there is a renewed attempt in China to resist the expansion of Christianity. Consder the atrocities under the totalitarian dictatorship in North Korea or Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

I admit horrible atrocities have occurred in the name of religion—even Christianity. But, that was religion gone awry. It was wrong and flew against the teaching of Jesus who instructed His followers to turn the cheek and forgive their enemies.

Without God it is impossible to determine right and wrong. Your “truth” may not be my “truth.” Who then decides what is good or bad? Consider the following quote taken from Tim Keller’s recent book, Making Sense of God:

Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov sarcastically summarized the ethical reasoning of secular humanism like this: “Man descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.” The second clause does not follow from the first. If it was natural for the strong to eat the weak in the past, why aren’t people allowed to do it now?” (42–43)

Keller concludes, “While there can be moral feelings without God, it doesn’t appear that there can be moral obligation.” (178)

Without an absolute set of rules we are free to create our own. Is marriage a lifetime covenant between one man and one woman or a temporary agreement to “hang out together?” Without the Rulebook who determines if the fetus in the womb is a real human being? Unfortunately, the choice is too often based upon motives. Even avid pro-lifers have capitulated to convenience to avoid embarrassment.

I propose that there is only one reliable force to restrain evil: biblical Christianity.

When any culture seeks to remove the influence of religion and belief in God they create a vacuum—a vacuum that quickly fills with subjectivism and “the right to do as I please.” That is a culture without a compass to point the way or a lighthouse to warn of dangerous rocks beneath the surface.

Removing God in the Public Place has resulted in the rapid loss of civility. We are becoming just plain rude. Whether entrenched on the Right or the Left we seldom listen but shout over one another and insult one another.

Yes, there is a price to pay when nations rage against God, pronouncing Him irrelevant. I suspect part of their motivation is to resist any One who challenges their freedom to do as they please without accountability.

They may claim they are being rational or high minded in this. In reality, it’s just a shortcut to the gutter.

Do you agree or disagree? I welcome your feedback. Do you believe a culture can remain moral and survive without God?

The Rage against God

Why do the nations rage

and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

and the rulers take counsel together,

against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,

“Let us burst their bonds apart

and cast away their cords from us.”

Psalm 2:1-3, esv

This blog may be the most relevant that I have shared. The title, The Rage against God, reflects Psalm 2. It is also the title of a book by British author, Peter Hitchens, once an avowed atheist, but now one of the most effective apologists for Christianity. The subtitle, how atheism led me to faith, describes his voyage from skepticism to faith.

I love good books, and especially the ones with backbone and meat. I always have a book or two that I’m reading. I recommend The Rage against God to every person, believer or skeptic. Hitchens’ rebellion against God began when he literally burned the Bible his parents had given him. Hitchens is an easy read because he places profound truths on the lower shelf. All following quotations from his book will be followed by page numbers.

Centuries ago, David wrote: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good” (Psalm 53:1).

As I see it, there are two powerful truths imbedded in this verse. First, David claims that atheism is rooted in the heart, not the head. Second, the consequence of excluding God in any culture will always be destructive.

Think about this: Is it really true the fool (in this case the atheist) says in his heart that God doesn’t exist? Don’t most atheists claim their objections to God are rational rather? They claim that they find no rational evidence of God. But is it actually true?

In his youth, having burned his Bible as a declaration of freedom from God, Hitchens wrote, “We were all free now, and the Bible was one of the things we had to be free of.”

He went on, “At that moment I knew—absolutely knew—that it was the enemy’s book, the keystone of the arch I wished to bring down. I knew that there was no God, that the Old Testament was a gruesome series of atrocity stories and fairy tales, while the gospels were a laughable invention used to defraud the simple. And I joyfully and clearly understood the implications of all that.” (18, emphasis mine)

Did you catch Hitchens’ confession that he had a motive for denying God’s existence? He wanted to be free of God and Christianity. It was a heart problem. Without God, he would be free to do whatever he desired with no fear of eternal consequences.

Consider Hitchens’ confession:

This blatant truth, that we hold opinions because we wish to, and reject them because we wish to, is so obvious that it is too seldom mentioned. I had reasons for wanting that proof. (24, emphasis mine)

Later in the book he asks, “Might it be because they (atheists) fear that, by admitting their delight at the non-existence of good and evil, they are revealing something of their motives for their belief? Could it be the last thing they wish to acknowledge is that they have motives for their belief, since by doing so they would open up their flanks to attack?” (149)

Hitchens also quotes from another skeptic, Thomas Nagel, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, and author of The Last Word.

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. (149, 50, emphasis mine)

So the psalmist was correct. Everybody has motives. Even me. I want good to be rewarded, and I want there to be a God who cares about me – a God who will ultimately punish those who think they have escaped punishment. The skeptic or atheist is motivated by hope there is no judgment after death—no hell.

Isn’t that the issue in Psalm 2?

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

and the rulers take counsel together,

against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,

Let us burst their bonds apart

and cast away their cords from us.

(emphasis mine)

We have barely scratched the surface of our topic, but it’s time to leave the porch. Next week let’s consider the negative impact excluding God has upon a culture.

On reflection, I believe we will find ourselves right in the middle of that impact.

(Peter Hitchens, The Rage against God, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010)

God in His Own Image – Recovering God’s Majesty

“Humph! You couldn’t raise much wheat here.”

So spoke Mr. Wutzke, a North Dakota farmer, as he gazed into the Grand Canyon for the first time. Having been raised on a Nebraska wheat farm, I can imagine one of my stoic ancestors saying the same thing. After all, if the land can’t produce grain, what value does it have?

What was wrong with Mr. Wutzke’s statement? It was true. Unless there is something going on in the bottom of the canyon that I don’t know about, I doubt that the Grand Canyon has ever sent a bushel of wheat or corn to market.

So even though the farmer’s statement may have been factually correct, it was the wrong response. I know, because I have stood almost breathless on both the north and south rims of the Canyon. The sheer majesty and splendor is almost disorienting on first glance. I don’t like overusing the word, but I think awesome fits very well here. Mr. Wutze’s view was too small for the occasion.

The same is true when we minimize, or worse, ignore the attributes of God that make us uncomfortable. To make God into our image is to make Him safe. Comfortable. Even cuddly.

Recently I met my acquisition editor from Moody Publishers. Drew authored a book, Yawning at Tigers, that deals with many of the same concerns I share in my book, God in His Own Image. In a chapter titled “The God Worth Worshipping,” Drew shared an illustration from the early church leader, Gregory of Nyssa. Comparing contemplation of God’s nature to standing at the edge of a sheer cliff with no foothold, Gregory of Nyssa wrote:

The soul…becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is natural to it, content now to merely know about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things which the soul knows.

Drew writes, “When it comes to God, we’re all beginners.”

Last week I described Moses’ first impression about God at the burning bush. Remember also the response of the people as they stood on the foot of Mount Horeb waiting to meet God and hear His voice for the first time. To borrow words from a movie title, Moses and the people felt “a clear and present danger.”

I wonder, do we? Or, have we created our own safe version of God?

When we gather for corporate worship is there a sense of anticipation? Do we come with fear, respectful in the right sense of the word? Do we anticipate an experience that is extraordinary—even transcendent? That will only be true if we acknowledge God in His own image.

Just for a minute or two, let’s consider another man in the older testament who had a personal introduction to God. His story, in his own words, is recorded for us in Isaiah 6.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

I know it’s difficult—and maybe even impossible—but try to experience that scene in your mind’s eye. The nation was grieving the death of a godly king. And then, in a moment of time, Isaiah suddenly saw the living God, the God of Abraham, seated on a high and lofty throne. Perhaps that describes one dimension of God’s holiness. He is separate from everything in all creation. In other words, other worldly. The train on His robe “filled” the temple—no skimpy Hollywood prop. The seraphim, gloriously bright angelic beings, recognized God’s transcendence and humbly covered their face and feet while calling to each other responsively, “Holy, holy, holy!”

So if you even felt a tinge of Isaiah’s experience, what was your response? But wait! (Sounds like one of those TV commercials pushing some great one-time-only deal if you call in the next sixty seconds.) The plot thickens. Listen. “And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

Now what is my response if I had been there? I am certain it wouldn’t be something bland like, “You can’t raise much wheat here.” Nor would I be singing a song with all the potentially offensive terms like holy or wrath or blood deleted.

Hear Isaiah’s response as he lay sprawled on the floor: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts.”

Paraphrasing in contemporary language, “I’m dead meat. I have a filthy mind speaking filthy words and living among filthy people just like me. I have seen the King! The king who is the Lord of hosts.” I wonder why I don’t feel like Isaiah when I try to pray or when I enter the worship center on Sunday?

Why don’t I anticipate experiencing an authnetic encounter with the living God? Why do I seldom feel the need to confess my filth?

Maybe one of the reasons people feel burned out or “done with church” is because we have lost the sense of awe over God’s holiness and transcendence. Some have said the reason fewer men than women attend church is that the church has become feminized—safe and predictable. I wonder what might happen if we had to put up warning signs saying “Caution, you are about to enter the presence of the holy God. Management is not responsible for injuries from falling off your chair.”

Yes, I’m joking. But, what would it be like to experience God’s presence—His transcendence—and to sense the conviction of the Holy Spirit making repentance and confession a natural response! What would it be like to leave the church building realizing, not just in my mind but experientially, that I have been forgiven—cleansed and my sin atoned. I would then be prepared to exclaim, “Here I am, Lord, use me anywhere you want.”

Is that impossible or is that true Spirit-driven-revival?

God in His Own Image

Next June, Moody Publishers will release my new book: God in His Own Image.

They came up with a good title…but I like the subtitle even better.

Loving God for Who He is, Not for What We Would Like Him to Be.

That pretty much sums up the book in just 15 words. We can’t (even if we wanted to) change God to fit into our small boxes.

Scripture tells us that God created us in His own image, and some have suggested that we have tried to return the favor by creating God in our own image. That may sound like an attempt at humor, but there’s nothing funny about it. In a previous blog, I shared what I believe to be the two most vital questions each of us must face in life. Is there a god? And if there is, what is He like and how can we know Him? The second question is the heart and soul of the forthcoming book

If there is no god then you and I are simply the product of chance—the highest order of life on an evolutionary chart at this particular moment in history. If God doesn’t exist we are free to do as we please without fear of eternal consequences. But if God truly does exist…well, that’s a game changer, isn’t it?

So what is God like? How we answer that depends on whether or not God has revealed Himself to us. God is other worldly—like nothing else we have known. He is majestic. Marvelous. Powerful. His footprints and fingerprints are everywhere in Creation.

But He is also invisible.

As Paul writes, He is “the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17). So how can we describe an invisible, spiritual and always-existing Being?

Answer: We can’t. Not unless He chooses to pull back the mysterious curtain that separates us from Him. That is exactly what God did when He coaxed Moses to investigate the burning bush that wasn’t being consumed by the fire. God’s first words turned the old shepherd’s curiosity into fear and wonder. It wasn’t just a voice from a bush that shook Moses to the core, it was the abrupt command to take of his sandals, because he was standing on holy ground. Almost instantly he was barefoot and trembling.

From that initial encounter Moses discovered that God is holy and will be treated with absolute respect. Holiness is a word that seems to be fading from our Evangelical vocabulary. And it’s not the only attribute of God that’s gone missing from our conversations and our worship. We love to sing about God’s love and His amazing grace, and rightly so. He is the very definition of a loving Father, and amazing doesn’t even start to describe His grace. We also love to think about God’s mercy, and that He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve. If He did, we would all be destined for hell. (Now there’s another word fading from our vocabulary. Hell doesn’t sell well in seeker-friendly churches.)

Moses had several more encounters with God after the burning bush. In fact, God introduced Himself to the nation of Israel standing at the foot of the mountain with severe warnings not to approach under penalty of death. The mountain quaked and smoked and a piercing trumpet blast frightened the people so greatly they asked Moses to request God not to talk to them. Please, they begged, only talk to Moses from now on.

God certainly had their full attention. But only for a moment.

When Moses lingered on the mountain receiving the commandments and instructions for the tabernacle Israel’s attention soon wandered like a toddler. The fear and wonder they had experienced at the foot of the mountain was yesterday’s news. Now they were busy trying to re-create God in a safer image.

Exodus 32 records the tragic story. They asked Aaron to “make us gods who will go before us.” Pause to reflect on that statement. Who had just delivered them from bondage in Egypt? Who had led them through retreating seawater and buried the pursuing Egyptian warriors? Who had provided safe drinking water and food? Who, at that very moment, was meeting with their leader, providing him with guidance and direction for the long road ahead?

A golden calf mysteriously formed itself out of molten gold. (If you can believe that try selling ice to Eskimos in January.)

The next words from the Israelites are enlightening. Pleased with the golden calf image they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” Insulting? Blasphemous? Yes! But the calf—the image—the idol—was safe. They could see it, touch it, control it, and pass it around through the crowd. They were so moved they declared a national day of worship, which quickly degenerated into a full-blown drunken orgy. The calf-god, it seemed, wasn’t too worried about holiness.

I don’t predict our churches will soon set up images and icons in the worship center, but sometimes I wonder. Are we in danger of creating God, the sovereign and all-powerful God—the Holy One—into something friendly, manageable and safe?

Here’s a brief test. Complete this sentence by adding your favorite attributes of God: “I praise God because He is ­­­­_______.” (You fill in the blank)

When this is actually done in a church setting or a home Bible study the responses will typically include God’s love, grace, mercy, faithfulness, kindness and patience. And they are all true! They perfectly describe the God of Scripture. But where are the “other” attributes like God’s holiness, justice, anger, or even jealousy? Yes, God frequently introduces Himself as being jealous of anything man substitutes in His place.

Consider this: Without God’s wrath and justice and holiness, mercy is just five letters on a page. Because God is holy and just He will not excuse sin. You and I desperately need His mercy and grace. But grace without wrath and justice isn’t amazing at all. In fact, it isn’t even grace.

We can’t pick and choose our favorite attributes to the neglect of others. My book is based on two words Paul uses in Romans 11:22. “Consider the kindness and severity of God.” I worship Him for His kindness. Without it I perish. But I also worship Him for His severity. I don’t want an anemic God who never angers, never judges and never punishes anybody. That isn’t our sovereign God, it’s a myth. It’s a weak and wimpy concept worth no more than the statue of a bull.

I like to close these conversations with lyrics from songs. Today I choose the third stanza of a traditional hymn that reflects God as He really is.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty”

Note the three-fold emphasis on God’s holiness.

“Though the darkness hide Thee,

though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see.”

Sinful men and women cannot see His glory, let alone explain it. Unless He chooses to reveal Himself, we can never know Him in our spiritual blindness. Note the pronouns referring to God are capitalized out of respect.

“Only Thou art holy—there is none beside Thee…”

God is set apart and unique from all Creation.

Perfect in power, in love and purity.”

God is perfect in all His attributes. His power has no limit but is never abused. His love has no end. He is morally pure and always does what is right. He is righteous!

Now, there is the God who alone can meet our hunger for a sense of transcendence. A safe god, made in our image, inspires no sense of awe or transcendence but is as ordinary and unremarkable as we are.

And our God is anything but ordinary.

What is God Like?

In one of my previous blogs on July 1st I introduced the two most important questions each of us must face in life: “Is there a God? What is God like?”

If you missed that blog, why not check it out now? It began with Mary bursting into my office exclaiming, “Syd, look at this quote. It says the same thing you have been writing about in your book.”

So, to honor my best friend who has supported me throughout writing the book, I have replaced my picture with the two of us celebrating our 50th anniversary in a Pizza shop two years ago in Banff National Park.

Now, back to today’s topic here on the swing.

First question: Is there a god? (Please don’t correct my typing here. I have deliberately chosen to use the lower case letter “g” to allow for all alternative answers before we nail down the correct answer.) Are there many gods—each with his or her sphere of limited influence? Do we have one god over the mountains and another over the oceans? Is there a god who rules over the rain and harvest while a competitor god brings on drought and famine?

That’s a description of polytheism—the belief in multiple gods. This was pretty much the accepted belief through the millennia of human history—and describes the religion of the nations surrounding Israel. Polytheism still exists in Hinduism and many native religions and animism. So before assuming there is only one God, the God of Scripture, I have used the word “god.”

I choose to believe there is a God. One God. The Creator of everything. When you think about it, the universe is so expansive and majestic and intricate that it is difficult, if not impossible, to deny that someone had to design and create the cosmos, our planet, and all that lives and breathes. That was Paul’s conclusion in Romans 1:18-32. If it requires faith to believe God exists, and it does, I believe it takes even more faith to consider the evidence of His handiwork throughout Creation and choose to deny His existence.

Honestly, it all comes down to a rather stark choice. Either everything has come from nothing and happened by sheer chance or Some One has created it.

Second question: What is God like? Assuming (choosing to believe) there is a god/God/Deity, what is God like? That has been the challenge throughout the history of human civilization. How can any mere human left to only their limited ability ever hope to discover what God is like? They can’t. We can’t. Left to ourselves, we will always create a god in our own image. Just like each of us, god will be malevolent (mean spirited and harsh) and capricious (unpredictable, always changing with the circumstances).

Just for the fun of it, how about a little snap quiz? Yes, I know it’s always more fun for the teacher than for the poor student sweating it out at their desk. To make it easier, let’s make it a multiple choice exam. Are you ready? Here are the questions:

What do you think God is like?

● God controls every detail of my life, even the seemingly incidental things such as where I work or live or whether I will die of cancer or in an auto accident or of old age.

● God only controls the bigger, more important things in my life.

● God created the world and sort of walked away to let it run by itself, so He really isn’t personally involved in what happens here and now. We’re pretty much on our own.

Let’s try another question.

Is God…

● always good and kind and loving and so full of mercy that He would never sentence anybody to an eternal Hell?

● Or is He Holy and just punishing every sin no matter how insignificant?

No matter how you answered the above questions, you could never be certain your answers were correct, unless God chose to make Himself known to us. We call that revelation—God revealing something about Himself that we could never discover unless He chose to tell us.

My early impressions about God were shaped by my experience in a very conservative church that emphasized God’s holiness and wrath. God was a Cosmic Cop—and very intimidating. I wanted His help whenever I found myself in trouble, but I never felt close to Him, like I did my friends.

I believe that may also reflect Moses’ early experiences with God. Discover for yourself by reading through the book of Exodus, beginning with Moses’ first encounter with a blazing and mysterious God at the burning bush. Moses learned one thing for certain that day on the backside of the desert: God is holy and will not be trivialized. He was not “safe.”

Years of studying the Bible have balanced my early impressions about God. I have attempted to address the question about the character or attributes of God in the book. (By the way, Moody Publishers and I have chosen the title for the book. Perhaps I will share it on a forthcoming blog.) It is my prayer that you will come to know and appreciate God more fully and personally when you have read the book.

Today, why not pause to reflect on your own personal, spiritual journey. How have your early impressions about God changed? Does He seem more merciful or more severe today? Why?

Remember, God’s attributes or characteristics are not a box of chocolates. We can’t pick and choose our favorite. God only offers the full meal deal. He is who He is. We either choose to accept and submit to Him or we put ourselves at risk of devastatingly eternal consequences when we try to make God safe.

He is not safe. But He is good. What’s more, He is always good—even when we can’t trace His hand in the experiences of our life. God is also righteous. He always does what is right. He is never unfair. Never capricious or malevolent. We can count on Him to never change. Never respond out of impatient anger.

I can love that kind of God. Come to think of it, I have no other choice, since He alone is the Almighty God creator of all and rules over every molecule in this vast and beautiful universe.

It’s not that I have to love Him. I want to. Even the “want to” is a gift from Him.