Tuesday, January 24, 2012

God the Tyrant?


Christopher Hitchens
I was fascinated to read all the interesting stuff written about Christopher Hitchens on his recent passing. Hitchens was a renowned atheist, orator, hardy partier and all-around stick in the mud who died of esophageal cancer at the age of 62.

A number of evangelical leaders spoke highly of Hitchens, which gives me some degree of hope for him. But it was another prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, who did Hitchens' final interview. After Hitchens died, Dawkins tweeted that Hitchens was the “finest orator of our time, fellow horseman, valiant fighter against all tyrants including God.”

This statement, the concept of "God as tyrant," caught my interest. I think the reason was the fact that I've gotten to know at least one other (not-so-famous) atheist fairly well, a friend who attended the youth group at my church when I was in high school. He later disavowed his faith.

One of the things that has so fascinated me about my discussions with my friend has been his perception of "God as tyrant." We read the same exact Bible, but my friend walks away with conclusions about God that just don't make any sense to me. He jumps on specific verses or passages and interprets them as God (if He existed) delighting in doing great evil to innocent and helpless people. I look at those same passages and see them as indications of how much God hates sin (knowing better than all of us, apparently, how destructive it is), how concerned He is about justice being done, how utterly holy He is, and how longsuffering (patient) and kind He is.

And I also look at the vast preponderance of Scripture that demonstrates how much God truly loves us, how compassionate He is, how patient, and how badly we wound Him ... or at least try to. And when I try to point these out to my friend, he dismisses them without a thought. He wants to focus on those few he thinks support his case that God is some sort of big meany in the sky.

Since my friend is an atheist, I'm assuming he does this to try and prove that if God did indeed exist, he wouldn't therefore be a very good God; and therefore, He must not exist. But I really am amazed at how much energy he spends, trying to prove not simply that God does not exist, but that if He did exist (as the Bible claims He does), He would be a tyrant.

My definition of a tyrant is a person who has the means to make others suffer, and who wields power over them for His own sake, disregarding them and their needs.

But the Christian worldview holds that God causes suffering to no one, that we have brought an immense load of suffering down upon our own heads because we have rejected the best alternative which God offers to us: obedient partnership with Him in living life the way our Creator designed and intended, choosing instead to follow our own sinful hearts.

While God does not cause suffering, does He allow it? (The distinction between the two, many think, is a moot point when it comes to an omnipotent being ... but I disagree. God may be omnipotent, but He chooses, in many, many cases and for all the right reasons, NOT to wield His power.)

Yes, He allows suffering. Why? So that justice might be done, for one thing. So that people would be disciplined and learn the consequences of rebellion and sin. So that they might be pointed a better direction. And so that, ultimately, His purposes would be shown to be right and desirable.

Jesus gave a very clear and compelling depiction of His Father in the parable which we call "The Prodigal Son." The father figure of the parable (which should really be called "The Prodigal Father," since the word "prodigal" indicates one who gives grace extravagantly) is anything but a tyrant. He lovingly allows his wayward son to choose evil, to squander his inheritance, to spit in the face of his father. After he is gone, the father prays and waits for his return. When he finally does see his broken son returning in shame, he picks up his garments and does something a dignified Jewish father-figure would NEVER do: he runs to meet him with arms open wide! He forgives. He rejoices. He kills the fatted calf.

What a tyrant! (NOT!)

So, I just don't get it. I don't understand how different people can read the same Bible and walk away with two totally opposite perspectives on who God is and what He is like. The only possible explanation is that we are reading the same material from two totally different mindsets, two very different interpretive filters.

Which makes sense to the Christian, to the one who believes. Scripture itself has a number of very interesting things to say about this phenomenon. For instance, 1 Cor. 1:18-19 says: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

The question is, why? Why are these interpretive filters so at odds? And why does God appear to claim responsibility for frustrating the "intelligence" of "the intelligent?"

I think that's a subject I'll wait until next time to tackle ... suffice it to say, for now, that I believe the answer can be found in Christ's parable of the sower and the seed. It goes to the reason Christ even spoke in parables in the first place ... because some types of soil are more receptive to seed than others.

The man who acknowledges his own sinful need looks at a holy and compassionate God and cries, "Abba, Father!" (Literally, "Daddy!") The man who persists in a desire to be his own God, looks at the same Creator of the Universe and cries, "Tyrant!"

Of course, now that I think about it, my own kids have said the same thing about me ... hmmm.