If you were to ask what one of the most important moments in life might be, getting to meet God would probably be in the top tier. Yet, if you were to talk about what that meeting might look like, it is disheartening the impression people seem to have of His nature. While they will typically see Jesus as a loving and kind Savior, they tend to see the Father in darker hues.
In an informal study regarding our conceptions of God, Dr. Graham Maxwell asked: “‘Would you be afraid to meet God?’” One particular gentlemen responded, “‘Yes, terribly terrified!’ ‘Why so?’ ‘Because of all those terrifying stories in the Bible’”. Maxwell goes on to say, “I heard frequent references to the horrors of hell and the impossibility of trusting a God who would demand obedience under the threat of eternal torment”. All this led Dr. Maxwell to ponder the question, “How can we be friendly with someone who threatens to burn us to death if we disobey?” (1)
Common sense tells us that we should not be obligated to serve someone who threatens us with eternal torture if we don’t “love them”. By comparison, Hitler would seem compassionate. At least Hitler’s victims could finally die. This confused picture of God does not even harmonize with an atheists basic sense of justice.
In consequence, many people picture the Father as a demanding taskmaster, waiting to pounce on them at any given moment. As though God is anxiously waiting for us to make a mistake so He can, “make sure we don’t get into Heaven.” But is this really what God is like? Is this really what the Scriptures teach?
Hell & Fire
In Hebrew, the word “Hell” has its root in the word, Sheol שְׁאוֹל, meaning, the grave, or, a pit. (2) Sheol is described as a place “without thought” or “feeling”, where “dust returns to dust”, and from whence the “Breathe of God returns to Himself”. (3) Sheol was the place where King David was laid to rest, as well as Abraham, Jacob, and all the other fathers and prophets of antiquity, “having died without receiving the promise”, of eternal life. (4)
Hell (Sheol), then, is where both “the righteous and the unrighteous go” when they die, awaiting the “resurrection of the dead”. (3) Thus, the Biblical use of the word ,”Hell”, is simply a metaphor for burying someone. The disturbed idea that, God sadistically tortures people in “Hell”, is really no more Biblical than Easter or Christmas.
“Fire”, on the other hand, in many cultures throughout history, has traditionally been seen as a positive force of renewal. The scriptures use both water and fire as a catharsis for the entire planet. The first cleansing of the earth via water, was at the time of the flood, bringing a literal new birth of sorts to mankind. The second cleansing is described in the book of Revelation as a time when a despoiled Earth, filled with destructive inhabitants, will be smelted by fire.
But unlike those cultural traditions, which teach the equality of good and evil, or that, “evil cannot be defeated”, the God of the Bible, will put a literal and permanent end to evil, through the cleansing power of fire. It is during this very moment in time when death and Hell will be “metaphorically” cast into the purifying flames of the “lake of fire”. (5) Through the obliteration of corruption and evil, the power of the grave will be broken, granting eternal life to those who chose Love over selfishness.
In addition, Lucifer himself, his postulations, and his adherents, will be literally thrown into what is likely to be a sea of molten lava, utterly consumed, leaving nothing behind. (6) In this sense, the eternal and irrevocable sentence of death is an act of mercy. Giving rest to the tortured existence of all those who learned to survive through greed, abuse, facade and manipulation.
The Scriptures call this act of extirpation, “the second death”. It is an everlasting rest in the arms of Sheol, where the unjust dead, “sleep in the ground”, forever and ever. And when the corollary flame has cooled, with a shuttered sigh, the Father will recreate the world in all of its vulnerable Edenic verdure.
I coined a term a few years back called, “projected self-contempt”. It means that we treat others poorly and judge them negatively because, we are dumping what we dislike about ourselves, upon them. Projection is a coping mechanism, a form of self-protection. It is a prison from which we lob projectiles when our wounded and frail identities seduce us into self-loathing.
Like a Turner Classic film, we re-screen unresolved wounds from the cluttered shelves of memory; our percieved-sense-of-powerlessness making us both victim and abuser, both judge and jury. As in the acclaimed album, “The Wall”, our sense of vulnerability is tantamount to terror, “Since, my friend, you have revealed your deepest fear, I sentence you to be exposed before your peers. Tear down the wall.”(7) In those searing moments of shame, we castigate those around us in an effort to say, “back off, I am unloveable and flawed, and I will fail if you put me on a stage”.
As such, mankind’s picture of God can often become a projection of our personal demons, a preconception, rather than anything the Bible actually teaches. God taking the blame for our personal resentments. But is God actually like the people that abandoned or abused us? Is God really like the people that fail us when we need them the most? For that matter, is God even like a large majority of His own followers?
Just like a painting, where every picture has its own specific artist, with their own palette of color and subject, discretion demands that there be a difference between a single opinion and actual reality. A persons life cannot be captured in a snapshot, there is a multiplicity of pieces that fit into what makes up an individuals personality. And it is the same for God.
To assume that God is like what we are shallowly presented, historically, in pop-culture, or by failed authority figures, is to project upon God an assumption of Character. It is to judge a book by its cover. And when we are emotionally invested into the suffering of this world, we are more than happy to erase a seemingly impotent God, with one broad sweeping stroke.
Intention and Reality
But, consider the length of time that has passed in Judeo-Christian history. Do not forget, that what begins as well intentioned and sincere, can rapidly become encumbered with opinion and self-interest. Like gathering a line of people, what you tell the first person is far from what the last person hears. And this is exactly what has happened with God. What was obvious and plainly stated, became shrouded in mystery. That which was compassionate and just, became encumbered with greed and control. What was once the hoped for end of evil, became sadistic, controlling, and a means to a political end.
But if you were to talk with God, to ask He, Himself, what He’s like, what would He tell you? If you had everyone in the history of the planet judging you, you would certainly would want to speak for yourself, lest your life become a tabloid. And that is exactly what God did, in both inspiring the Scriptures, and by coming Himself, to explain it with His own mouth, in Christ.
Who God Really Is
It can be difficult to hear what is being said when it doesn’t fit our own agenda. Thus, even God speaking for Himself, is not enough for human beings. His own adherents, those who followed Him night and day for three years, hardly believed Him. Just as those of us today, the families, employees, and officials of the first century were desperate for deliverance from their problems. So when the “deliverer” arrived, the whole nation of Israel was ecstatic; they would finally have wealth aplenty. As proud nationalists, they would finally be delivered from oppressive political control. The poor would have wealth, and the rich would have power.
Yet, on the self-same day that they would crown Jesus King, He sent them all away. To their dismay, His response was, “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free.”(8) Let’s be honest, a large part of the reason we don’t like God, the reason we paint Him as fiction, is because the truth that God offers is not freedom from responsibilities and trial, but rather to love one another through the healing of forgiveness.
God does eventually promise us a resurrection for our dead, and a future world without the failings of our current planet. But that isn’t good enough, we see the suffering around us and want to alleviate it, now. We see the injustices and want them to pay, now. But what we do not see, in our impatient anger, is that God wants the same thing.
It is the Father, not just Jesus, that loves His enemies. It was the Father that allowed the punishment of our guilt to fall upon His son. It is the Father that calls His own followers to alleviate the suffering and injustice of the poor and needy, now. It is selfish humans that turn the Father’s simple command to love into theological quarrels about nonsense, completely avoiding His call for us to care for one another.
Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” (9) So if you really want to blame God the Father, then you’ll have to blame Jesus too, because they are the same. They would both hang out with prostitutes as much as rebuke the sickening blindness of religiosity. “I and My Father are One.” (10) Understandably, we don’t want suffering to be a part of normal. It’s hard living in a world of injustice and selfish exploitation. Trial and care makes it difficult to not want to use God as though He were some kind of vending machine. But, truth be told, happiness is far bigger than indolence, and abundantly larger than pain.
Regrettably, the lions share of those rejecting God, will be ill informed, basing their choices upon anger at parents, peers, abusers, false or politicized religions, and the media… but, not upon the Scriptures themselves. We are not unlike those that stood at the foot of the cross, mocking Love, pledging themselves to their “safe” walls of control, and God’s response to our brokenness remains the same, “forgive them, for they don’t realize what they are doing”. (11) The louder our posturing, the more maltreated and terrified the child within. But, there is no need to be afraid, “A bruised reed He will not break, a smoldering wick He will not quench” (12)
The conception, that God the Father is stern and brutal, is just simply a lie. The scriptures describe the Father’s work of judgment, as a strange work, as the necessity of setting boundaries. Hear the Father in His own words, when He states, “‘Why will you die? I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Therefore, repent and live’; ‘People are bent on turning from Me. But how can I give you up? How can I surrender you? My heart is turned over within Me, All My compassions are kindled.’ ‘For I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”(13)
God the Father deeply cares about people. He longs to be, “‘the God of all families’”, who has, “‘loved you with an everlasting love;’”, and who, “‘draws you with unfailing kindness.’”, because, “‘before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.’” (14) Not only does the Father care about us, but He is loves source, He is love itself, not as a verb, but as a noun: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Those who do not love do not know God, for God is love.” (15)
In our search to make sense out of the seemingly antithetical attributes of God, we must open ourselves to more than our wounds demand, more than histories failings, and more than mankind’s paltry efforts at emulation. In his personal struggle to understand God’s personality, through decades of personal study, with tenured years of instructing university courses on the subject, Dr. Maxwell concluded: “If we are lost in the end, it will not be because God has become tired of us, or angry with us. But that we have stayed away from Him so long, with such unwillingness to listen to our gracious God, that there is no remedy, and there is no healing for our condition. Thus, ‘the wrath of God’, is simply His turning away, in loving disappointment, from those that do not want Him anyway, thereby leaving them to the inevitable consequences of their own choices.” (16) Essentially, even if you are an all powerful God, you cannot force a utopian society, for love is only real when it is chosen.
1. Servants or Friends, pg. 2-4 2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheol 3. Ecclesiastes 12:7.; Psalms 115:17.; Hosea 13:14; Psalm 49:15; For a detailed study on these concepts see: http://www.biblicalperspectives.com/endtimeissues/eti_18.pdf 4. Heb 11:13 5. Rev 20:14 6. Rev. 20:10; Mal. 4:1-3 7. The Trial, Pink Floyd, The Wall, 1979 8. John 6:26 TMB 9. John 14:9 10: John 10:30 11. Luke 23:34 12. Matthew 12:20 13. Ezekiel 18:31-32; Hosea 11:7-8; Jeremiah 29:11 14. Jeremiah 31:1,3; Jeremiah 1:5 15. 1 John 4:7-8 16. University Lecture Series, Dr. Graham Maxwell.