“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Probably the most famous line in the entire Bible, this one verse has encapsulated the entire nature of God’s character and message for centuries. Rightly so, for God is love (1 John 4:8), endlessly merciful and kind (Lamentations 3:22), wanting none to perish, but all to be saved from their sin (2 Peter 3:9). God is willing to forgive the most wretched sinner, the most vile among us for no other reason than because He is so radically loving (Micah 7:18). It sounds good doesn’t it ? What an amazingly loving God we have. How do we know God is truly this loving? One needs to go no further than the Gospels and see how God’s love is displayed in the person and work of Jesus, especially in His atoning sacrifice on the Cross… But there’s a problem.
Christians, if we’re to be honest with ourselves, God doesn’t always seem so loving. God can seem genocidal, rash, unnecessarily angry, and even at times unjust. There are circumstances all throughout the Scriptures where God doesn’t seem to be the all loving and merciful God we see in Christ in the Gospels. How can we, for example, reconcile the God who floods the whole earth (Genesis 6-9), who commands the killing of Canaanites (Joshua), who uses Babylon to punish the Israelites (Habbukuk) with the God who takes no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:32), that loves someone as wicked as Paul (Acts 9), that sends His only begotten Son to die for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2)?
Lately, I’ve been tracking with this renewed debate. The issue is “how can God be both violent and loving at the same time?” From what I can tell there’s a bit of a spectrum with who sits where on the debate. On one end you have the classic evangelicals who argue that God is just and that when He kills people (or commands killing) it is because of sin. When He floods the world, when He judges nations He is completely in His right to do so. This they say is consistent with His character. On the other side, you have theologians like Gregory A. Boyd and Brian Zhand that advocates for a very high Christo-centric hermeneutic. In other words, unless you see Jesus doing it in the Gospels God isn’t doing it at all. For me, this debate brings some important questions into sharp focus:
- To what extent are the Scriptures inspired/infallible?
- What purpose does the Old Testament serve for the New Testament Christian?
- What about what the New Testament authors say about God’s love and violence?
For the moment I’ll let these questions simmer around in our thoughts before spilling my own thoughts on the issue. But I will say this. How we view the above questions, I believe, play a huge role in where we fall on this issue. This issue is an important one, it isn’t something we should just ignore.