In a previous post, I talked about how the God of the Old Testament is not a moral monster. In fact, God is better than you think—because he pursues you, even when you run. In this post, I want to kick off my series on defeater beliefs for Christianity by again considering the nature of the God of the Bible.In his Proslogion, the great philosophical theologian Anselm argued that God is the “greatest conceivable being.” That is, God is supreme in all the ways that a someone (or something) can be supreme, great, worship worthy, maximal, and so on. But, later (chapter 15) Anselm pushes our conception of God with these words:
“Therefore, Lord, you are not merely that than which a greater cannot be thought; you are something greater than can be thought.”
Not only is God the greatest conceivable being, God is even greater than our conception of him!
As a point of contrast, consider the pantheon of Greek gods that you find in (say) Homer’s Illiad. In theIlliad, the gods are (at times) arbitrary, aloof, deceptive, fickle, mean-spirited, selfish and petty. Yet (at other times), they are generous, compassionate, engaged, truthful, honorable, honest, and loyal. In short, they are a lot like you and me.
In fact, they are a lot like what we’d would expect if we “made up” a god. But the God of the Bible is not what we would expect. As C.S. Lewis argues, when considering the Being behind the moral law:
“The Being behind the universe is intensely interested in right conduct—in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness.”
This Being is good, in fact the source of morality, but the goodness in view is not soft or indulgent. Rather, “It is as hard as nails.” God’s goodness is hard—and this leads us to the problematic passages in the Old Testament (they are in the New Testament as well, but we’ll stay focused here!) that seem to impinge on the claim that God is good.
To take one particularly knotty issue: When God judged the Canaanites to death, does he do so, as it might appear, arbitrarily?
The answer is NO for at least two reasons.
First, the fact is God waited 430 years because (according to Genesis 15:16) the sins of the Amorites [a Canaanite people group] had not yet reached its limits. In other words, in Abraham’s day, the time wasn’t ripe for judgment on the Canaanites (this is why God didn’t give the Israelites the land promised to them earlier); the moment wasn’t right for them to be driven out and the land to “vomit them out” (Lev 18:25) (so God was incredibly patient!)
Second, the fact is the Canaanites were an exceedingly wicked people. God tells Israel in Deuteronomy 9:5 that it was not because of “your righteousness or your integrity” but “ on account of the wickedness of these nations” that he was driving out the Canaanites. How wicked were the Canaanites? To cite one unpleasant example: they were regularly burning as sacrifices their children to the god Molech (not just infants, but children as old as four years old were burned in scolding cauldrons—and they would play flutes and drums so that the cries of the wailing would not reach the ears of the people).
So, God is not arbitrary. Contrast this view of God with that found in Homer’s Illiad, where we find the arbitrariness and fickleness of Zeus, Athena, Apollo and the pantheon of Greek gods. But the goodness of the God of the Bible is not a kind of soft sentimentalism, rather it is a hard, just, wholly other passion to protect and provide for his creation (which, when understood within the framework of the Bible’s story, includes the Canaanites, indeed, all the people of the earth).
My thesis: God is better than you think because he is, well, greater than our conception of him. In other words, we would never make up the God of the Bible, if we were starting from scratch. And here is the beauty: while initially this reality is terrifying, “the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort.”
“Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.” – Psalm 145:3