Skeptical conversations, part II: What is God like? (full post)

Continuing the conversation . . .

R: Anyway, God is a diversity, and he is also a unity; you might say that God is unity in diversity. The Father, Son and Spirit are three different, distinct persons, and they fulfill different roles, but at the same time they are a unity. They have different functions, but every act involves all three, and they are one in being; they are utterly united in love. This is why John can say in 1 John 4 that “God is love,” because in the very being of God, the Father, Son and Spirit are and have always been in relationship, loving each other, dedicated to each other. It is that love between them which is the central element of God’s nature and character, and it is that love which drives everything he does.

A: Everything? What about sending people to Hell?

R: As regards Hell in particular, I’d like to come back to that later; but to speak more broadly, yes, I think God’s judgment and wrath are very much consistent with his nature, which is love. Stop and think a minute. If someone was trying to undermine your relationship with your wife and daughter—to take the extreme case, think Iago—what would your reaction be?

A: I’d be furious. I love them, I would never let anyone come between us.

R: And if someone tried to hurt them?

A: Just the same. I would defend them to the best of my ability, and whoever had threatened them would deserve whatever happened.

R: Well, that’s how God reacts to sin. He is perfectly good—the Bible says that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all”—and he made the world good; he made us good. The Father made us so that he, the Son and the Holy Spirit could expand the circle and share their love with us, and he gave us the world as a gift so that we might enjoy its beauty and care for it.

A: Now you’re getting close to environmentalism.

R: I am, and I think rightly so; I think our theology needs to address environmental questions. (I’m not the only one, either; if you’re interested, look up Steven Bouma-Prediger or Loren Wilkinson, for starters.) We were given the earth to be its stewards, and I think we will be held accountable for what we have done with our charge; but the threat to the earth from which we must defend it is our own sin. Sin, you see, threatens everything that God has made, and most especially all of humanity, whom he loves; sin mars his creation, and hardens our hearts against him. His response is jealousy and wrath against sin—the same jealousy and wrath you would show to anyone who tried to hurt your family or your relationship with them.

A: Jealousy? Come now, I’m not a jealous person.

R: Jealousy is a threat reaction. In people we think of as “jealous,” it’s set off by anything and everything, causing all sorts of unjustified behavior; but when someone really is threatening your relationship with your wife or daughter, jealousy is the appropriate response, as long as it is within bounds.

A: It sounds rather like antihistamines in the body; when they’re set off by false threats such as pollen, they give us allergies.

R: But when germs set them off, they are an important part of the body’s defense system. Exactly. And they will not stop until the germs are dead, and the same is true of God’s reaction—something akin to an allergic reaction, I suppose—to sin: his wrath is ferocious and uncompromising. He does not tolerate sin in any way, shape or form, and he will not settle for anything less than the absolute defeat of sin. Which is where Hell comes in.

A: That I can accept. It’s the absolute defeat of sinners I find hard to take.

R: Well, as I said, we’ll come back to that. In any case, God is love, which makes sense because he is three in one. I suspect you’ve thought of God as egocentric, to demand our love and worship?

A: Yes.

R: It would be a fair charge, were he just a single person; and in fact, I’ve heard a preacher defend God against that charge by admitting it and then saying he’s justified in being egocentric because he’s so wonderful. But in truth, it isn’t that God is all wrapped up in himself, some sort of cosmic Narcissus—rather, the Father, Son and Spirit are all wrapped up in each other. Except that they invite us into their circle, to share their love, which is the reason why he created us.

The fact that God is perfect, self-giving love is the root for everything else that we can say about the character of God. His love is unflawed, and so he is good in everything he does. His wrath against sin arises out of his love, as I’ve said, as does his command that we be holy just as he is holy—he does not want us to settle for less than what he intended for us. At the same time, though he hates sin and is perfectly just, he shows great grace and mercy and patience in dealing with sinners, because even in our broken, sinful state, he still loves us greatly. He is perfectly faithful to those who follow him, for the same reason. And note that all of these statements describe him as a personal, active God; he is no impersonal force (this isn’t Star Wars, no midichlorians here) nor a distant, uncaring, uninvolved God, but three persons who relate to us on a personal level out of love for us.

A: Sounds like you see God as pretty involved in your life.

R: Not just in mine—in everyone’s, in one way or another. He is Lord over everyone, in every moment, whether they acknowledge him or not; he created everything, and he sustains it—the universe only continues to exist because he keeps it so.

A: I might have to come back to that last statement of yours. But this all reminds me of an essay I read recently called “Why Smart People Believe in God”; the author is a smart man who doesn’t, and poses the same question I asked you. Along the way, he sets out two poles: either God is a God “who pokes his finger into the muck of human experience”—I think that’s exact—who tests people, makes strange demands, tells his follower to kill his son and takes vengeance on those who cross him, or he is infinite beyond imagining, “a circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere,” as someone said; and if he is the latter, then why would he pay attention to us? As I recall, the author concludes that most people who believe in God believe in the little one who cares about us, not about the big one who, it would seem, shouldn’t. You were talking earlier about God in cosmic terms, but now you’re using much more local terms, for lack of a better phrase; do you really try to hold those two together?

R: Yes. God is infinite—without end, without limits, and utterly uncontrolled by anyone or anything—and so, as theologians will say, he is transcendent, going far above and beyond our limited being and understanding; as such, he is also incomprehensible to us. We can’t understand God solely through our own reason, but only as far as he reveals himself to us, though our reason has a part to play in that. At the same time, God is immanent—

A: “Imminent”? He’s arriving shortly? By train, perhaps?

R: No, not “imminent,” but “immanent”—it’s a term coined by some past theologian: it means that God is right with us, that he is present with his creation.

A: Well, yes, if God is everywhere, then logically that would include here.

R: I don’t just mean that he is present in that sense; I also mean that he is emotionally present, that he cares about all his creation, and most especially about people. As I said, God is love. It really is a staggering thought, that a God who can hold a universe billions of light-years across in the palm of his hand would care about us; but he does.

A: It’s incomprehensible, in fact. Which you just said is one of God’s attributes, so at least you’re being consistent.

R: Yes. Of course, trying to conceive of God as both infinite and personal at the same time—it’s harder to be consistent on that. But anyway, you used the word “attribute” a moment ago; the attributes of God can be broken up into two kinds, according to my theology professor. The attributes I’ve been talking about, those which relate to the character of God and what he is like, are called communicable attributes because they are attributes he can share with us. He is personal, powerful, good, loving, faithful, etc. So, too, we are personal; we have a certain amount of power to do what we intend to do, though we are limited; and while we are sinful, we were created to be good, loving, and generally like God in character. This is part of what the Bible means when it says we were created in the image of God, but I’ll come back to that.

The rest of God’s attributes are called incommunicable attributes, and they have to do with what he is in himself. A lot of these are statements of negative knowledge—we can’t grab hold of what God is, because he’s too big for us, so we define him in part by what he is not. For instance, he is atemporal, which is to say he is not within our time stream. Does he experience time? I don’t know for sure, but I am quite certain that he is not bound to ours; he is in the past, he is in the present, and he is in the future, he sees all times at once, and all are the same to him. God is immutable—he does not change and cannot be changed; he is who he is, yesterday, today and forever. He is also impassible, which is to say that he does not experience fluctuating emotional states, nor does he feel sinful passions. This doesn’t mean that God is emotionally inert, however—after all, he is love.

More positively, he is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent—all-knowing, everywhere present, and all-powerful. This goes back to his being the author of all creation; even in human terms, the author (or authors) of a book can be omnipresent and omnipotent to their characters, though even such limited omniscience eludes us. As well, he is self-existent, as I said before, and self-sustaining; he is completely independent, needing nothing and no one else to be complete—which makes the decision of the Father, Son and Spirit to create us and love us all the more significant, because they were complete in and of themself and did not need us for anything.

A: “Themself.” Now there’s a word I never thought I’d hear.

R: God isn’t limited by our grammar, either. After all, he are one God.

A: All right, enough already.

R: I find it helps on occasion to say things like that—it jars the ear, and so jars the mind out of its ruts, which is an important thing to do whenever one is thinking about God. Anyway, I’d add one other attribute: simplicity. God is never at war within himself the way we are; he may be three persons, but in anything God does, they are totally integrated and interinvolved; the Father, Son and Spirit are each fully present and completely of the same mind and purpose in anything they do. There is no self-doubt, no disagreement, no indecision, no double-mindedness and no second-guessing.

The last thing to say about God is to go back to a couple of points I touched on earlier, that God is sovereign—he reigns as Lord over all creation—and active. This leads to the statement that everything that happens in the world happens through the providence of God. He created everything that is, and it is his will that keeps all of it in existence; he is at work in everything that happens, and nothing happens apart from his will. As the Belgic Confession, one of the confessions which my denomination affirms, puts it, he “leads and governs [all things] according to the holy divine will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without God’s orderly arrangement.” Nothing happens by chance, nothing takes God by surprise, nothing happens apart from his will, and nothing happens despite his work; he is sovereign in everything.

A: Maybe it’s just me—though I doubt it—but something doesn’t fit together here. First you say that God is perfectly good, and now you say that when bad things happen, he’s responsible for them. So is he evil as well as good?

R: No. Whatever happens, happens because God does it—in Isa. 45:7 he declares, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster”—but God is not the author of evil; whatever happens, happens because human beings, or the Devil, or some other creature brings it about. Both statements are true.

Posted in Credo, Religion and theology, Scripture.

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