My mostly private, ongoing struggle within my discipleship of Jesus of Nazareth has been a simple, embarrassingly cliché, lingering suspicion somewhere in the faculties of my skull…
What if God doesn’t love me?
Seems silly. If anything is taken for granted within the worldview often called Christianity, it might be God’s love. The first song I ever learned about Jesus went, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” I very much believe and affirm God’s love for all people. Even so, somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve wondered… What if God doesn’t love me?
After all, Mark Driscoll, John Piper, that handful of Westboro Baptist kooks, and other Calvinists agree that there are some whom God hates. He hates them a lot. At the very least, he loves them much less than those he has selected for salvation.
Driscoll, with all his trademark “eloquence,” puts it thusly:
“Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn’t think you’re cute. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He doesn’t think your excuse is meritous [sic]. He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you. He hates them too. God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.”
And as easy as it would be to write this all off, what about those confusing texts (almost entirely relegated to the Old Testament, and even there in the poetic language of the Psalms) that they cite? Quite frankly, I don’t expect much from Driscoll. His reckless, abhorrent words have been thoroughly deconstructed elsewhere. But, for whatever reason, there are a thousands of folks listening to what he (and others like him) have to say. Numbers, of course, do not equal rightness, but it is voices like this that prey upon those with a serpentine whisper in their ear, “See? I told you.”
1. Two world views?
John Piper described his “conversion” out of Arminianism and into Calvinism as an exchange of world views. Some prominent Calvinist leaders have said they do not consider open theists Christians, and that Arminians are on “the precipice of heresy.” Things have become so heated that one Reformed Professor has compared his Calvinist peers to a cult, calling the movement…
“…a sect within the broad landscape of Christianity which takes as its operating center some principle other than Christ crucified. This is certainly the case for the Young, Restless and Reformed. It is obvious that the operating center which holds this movement together is TULIP, not the gospel of the cross. One gets the impression that their sense of identity is inseparable from their sense of superiority.“
What makes us so different?
2. Predestination with two heads.
Put in tremendously simple terms: God chooses who he will save and who he will damn. Those that he chooses have no say in the matter. The folks that God saves are called the Elect. The folks God damns are called the Reprobate. God made this call before the foundation of the world, before dinosaurs or that weird squirrel thing in Ice Age. He saw in his mind’s eye the billions of people he would create and went down the list saying, “You get salvation, hope, joy, God’s presence… But you? You get eternal conscious torment.”
Why? Well, the thinking goes that, actually, we all deserve hell, so God’s already going out of his way to save anyone at all. Be grateful for that. But things get hairier…
2. God is the all-determining reality behind everything… Including sin and evil.
Why do we all deserve hell?
Who renders our sin certain?
Why are we held responsible for the sin God ordains?
It’s a mystery.
Now, of course, this is a complicated theological concept pared down to a handful of funny-sounding sentences. I get that. Calvinists have long had complex philosophical explanations for this “mysterious” idea of a God who makes us do stuff and then punishes us for it. It even gets weirder and darker than that. This issue alone isn’t what drew a black cloud over my head.
Calvinists agree that God’s glory (or fame, prestige, renown, however you want to put it) is his ultimate end. The ultimate end to the entire universe actually. So why does God determine things like the raping of children, the holocaust, famine, disease, and the eternal torment of the reprobate? His glory. Somehow it all contributes to his glory.
But God is good, right? Yes, Calvinists contend that their God is good.
But let’s say I somehow forced someone to do something awful, then tortured them as punishment for the awful thing I forced them to do. No reasonable person would ever call that good.
“But wait,” they say, “the reprobate want to do the evil that God ordains them to do.” But who made them want to do it? God did.
So, at the very least, Calvinists must confess that our finite human definition of “good” cannot be used to understand God’s goodness. Okay, I guess. God is God, not me, so I can’t presume to define him exactly. But wait…
The idea of a God who determines that humans commit evil, then punishes those same humans with an eternity of agony for the evil he determined they’d commit isn’t just mysterious. It doesn’t just fail to jibe with our human definition of good, it’s exactly the opposite of our human understanding of goodness. That’s a problem.
After all, if God’s “goodness” looks like our idea of malevolence, cruelty, and evil… What about his love? His kindness and compassion? His faithfulness? Do they similarly look more like our idea of the opposite of each of those things?
John Piper is willing to remain consistent in his understanding of what John Calvin called, “the horribly decree of God.” Even when it implied the possibility that God created John Piper’s own children with the express purpose of eternal and unimaginable torment and suffering.
“…I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. And-, though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the Almighty. He is God. I am but a man.”
It seems clear to me that here, Piper confesses the possibility that he may love his children more than God does. That he is a better father than their heavenly father is. Piper is willing to die for his children, but God may not be. Indeed, if Piper’s children were proven reprobate, the issue would not be one of a distinction between amounts of love given, but an issue of a father who loves and a father who hates. At least by every human definition of love and hate imaginable. Every rational human would call a father who brings children into the world only to impose torture on them forever is not a loving father.
If God’s love might be the opposite of everything we know about love, how can we hope to understand God? Can we love a God who creates our children for torment? What is left but to cower in his terrible presence, shaking, our hands out to shield us from his unpredictable cruelty like an abused child?
4. Denouncing the God of TULIP.
Roger Olson was the first non-Calvinist theologian I read to clearly and unapologetically assert that if God were indeed the cruel, sin-authoring deity (he believes is) behind TULIP, then he would not worship him. David Bentley Hart takes things even further when he writes:
“If indeed there were a God whose true nature–whose justice and sovereignty–were revealed in the death of a child or the dereliction of a soul or a predestined hell, then it would be no great transgression to think of him as a kind of malevolent or contemptible demiurge, and to hate him, and to deny him worship, and to seek a better God than he.”
My soul did a teary-eyed standing ovation when I read first read these words. But wait, if the John Pipers of the world are all over there praying to this “contemptible demiurge,” how is he not justified in the claim that we do indeed see through the lenses of two distinct world views, not the singular world view of Christianity?
This troubled me deeply. After all, I don’t hate Calvinists. Some of them are my good friends. As an open theist, I have often been on the receiving end of irresponsible, divisive behavior. I have had my views laughably caricatured to the point of outright deception. I certainly don’t want that same blood on my hands. But how can I denounce the God of TULIP and then continue to behave as though John Piper and I worship the same God in solidarity? How can I proclaim Calvinists as brothers and sisters without leaving the door open for their “contemptible demiurge” to eek his way into the back of my mind as a real possibility?
Interestingly, it was Roger Olson who helped me to make some sense of this whole thing. When asked as much, he had this to say:
“(Imagine a) scenario of two groups of resistance fighters within a resistance movement in enemy occupied territory. Both groups within the movement share a common hero and leader—a resistance leader who is in hiding and moves around a lot but keeps in touch with them by couriers. The two groups have very different ideas of what their hero is like and each side thinks the other is badly mistaken. But they are united in their passionate commitment to him and his cause—to liberate the country from the evil occupying force. Both cannot be right about some images of their hero; when he finally shows up in person among them and leads them to victory one group will be more right than the other group. But their common bond of opposition to the enemy and commitment to liberation holds them together. And both love their hero. For the time being, until their hero is more fully revealed, they agree to disagree about him and get on with the business of liberating the country from the enemy occupying force in the name of their hero. Occasionally they fall into debates about him, but they refuse to allow their different images of him to divide them.“
This line of thinking frees me up to decry wholeheartedly within my own view what some of my brothers and sisters hold to be true about the God that we both worship.
5. The hateful God gone, the God of love reigns.
Confiding to a friend of mine about this bit of an intellectual crisis I was going through, he asked if he could pray for me. In his prayer, he said something like, “Lord, I know that Josh believes you died for all people.” This is true, I do believe that. Just then, I believe the Spirit brought Romans 5:8 to my mind.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.“
Most followers of Jesus know this verse well enough, but something about it clicked into place for me in that moment. If this thing that Jesus has done was carried out while I was at my worst, what else could it be called but love? Unconditional, unwavering, unquestionable love. For John—one of Jesus’ disciples—Jesus’ death is the reason we know what love is in the first place. And he makes it quite clear that this love is not for an elected few only, but for “the whole world.”
Conclusion: Silencing the serpent.
This morning I was reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to my son. He can’t understand it yet, but I like reading it with him anyway. As we read through the story of Adam, Eve, the Garden, and the subtle Serpent… I began to weep.
“…and a terrible lie came into the world. It would never leave. It would live on in every human heart, whispering to every one of God’s children: ‘God doesn’t love me.'”
It seems clear to me that just as I have decided to pursue the way of Jesus of Nazareth, with all my questions and doubts intact, I must similarly choose to believe in his love. Specifically, his love for me. With everything unlovable about me intact.
“God hates you” is a lie from the lips of the snake. “God is not good” is the deceit from which all lies found their first footing.
And I choose not to believe it.
Instead I return to my heart’s refrain as John put it, so simply:
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”