WORLD’s editors recently selected Books of the Year in three categories: popular theology, history, and analysis. One of the popular theology runners-up is How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-to-Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics (Bethany House Publishers) by Donald J. Johnson.
In his apologetic approach, Johnson, the president of Don Johnson Evangelistic Ministries, doesn’t treat Christianity as a consumer good that meets a person’s felt needs. Instead, he stresses the truth and reliability of Scripture and how the Christian worldview makes the most sense of the life we experience on earth.
In the excerpt that follows, Johnson deals with the skeptic’s view of God as “a schoolyard bully who makes little kids give him their lunch money in order to feel better about himself.” Johnson explains that God’s motivation for His actions comes out of an overabundance of love, not cruelty or an inferiority complex. —Mickey McLean
Chapter 4: Love and the Meaning of Life
Christianity According to a Typical Skeptic
“An Atheist Meets God” is a five-minute animated YouTube video that has been watched two and a half million times. In it, an atheist is run over by a bus and finds himself at the entrance to heaven, face-to-face with God. In the subsequent exchange, a petty, unjust, and angry deity explains why the skeptic will soon be thrown into hell: Even though the unbeliever was in fact a good person, because he did not praise and worship God and believe everything written in the Bible, he will be punished with eternal torment.
In the previous chapter we learned how important it is to understand what the skeptic believes Christianity teaches. You want to know how she thinks the church and the Bible answer those big questions of life. In other words, you want to learn the Christian story according to the skeptic. “An Atheist Meets God” is a good example of what you will hear. Almost inevitably, this process reveals that the skeptic has a very ill-informed view of God’s purposes in creating and redeeming mankind. Indeed, her understanding of the Christian worldview will usually sound something like this (or at least pick up on some of the plot points mentioned here):
God seems to be some sort of egomaniac who created people to tell him how great he is. He apparently has some sort of inferiority complex or lack within himself that needs to be filled by people’s worship.
He also likes giving people silly and arbitrary rules and then punishing them unjustly for not keeping them. In fact, he even punishes people for the sins of others! For example, for some strange reason we are held responsible for Adam and Eve breaking that crazy rule about not eating apples.
After Adam and Eve fell, God made even more silly and arbitrary rules and rituals for people on earth to follow, threatening them with eternal torture if they couldn’t keep them, even though it seems there is really no way to keep them all. Also, these rules seem to change over time or be selectively applied to different people at different times or something—the whole rules thing is very confusing and contradictory.
The same goes for the nation of Israel. Apparently God chose a group of people to go wipe out other groups of people?
As for how to avoid hell, it does seem God is willing to let some people off the hook. Those who intellectually assent to the proposition that he exists or acknowledge that Jesus was God or repent or some such thing get forgiven of their so-called sins and get a pass into heaven.
God doesn’t give us any evidence supporting any of these claims other than to drop a book out of the sky that we have to accept on “faith.” In other words, we have to deny science and reason and every other means of gathering knowledge and just accept that the Bible is true, even though it is self-contradictory and teaches things that science has proven to be false (such as the age of the earth, etc.).
Those who somehow hear this message and believe (and most people in history haven’t heard it) will get to spend forever holding hands and singing low-quality praise choruses to God (eternal boredom is the prize) while those that never heard and all atheists will spend forever getting tortured.
To sum up this view, God is “cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.” As Richard Dawkins writes,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
As many have pointed out, this view shows a shocking ignorance of the theological reflection that has taken place over the past four thousand years. In Terry Eagleton’s review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion he writes, “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” Or to use Rodney Stark’s words: “To expect to learn anything about important theological problems from Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett is like expecting to learn about medieval history from someone who had only read Robin Hood.” One more, from Edward Feser: “One gets the impression that the bulk of their education in Christian theology consisted of reading Elmer Gantry while in college, supplementing that with a viewing of Inherit the Wind and a Sunday morning spent channel-surfing televangelists.”
We won’t address all of Dawkins’ specific charges here (Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? is a great resource in this area), but in this section of the book I do want to examine some of the more fundamental flaws in the typical skeptic’s version of the story of the world according to Christianity.
Before I do, however, let’s note that skeptics are not the only ones with terrible theology. Many Christians don’t properly understand the faith either. Indeed, many of the doctrinal positions Dawkins tries to knock down have been set up by believers, as he notes in the preface to the paperback version of The God Delusion. He rightly points out that he is not setting up a straw-man argument against Christianity so much as he is simply addressing the beliefs of one very popular subset of Christianity, one which he labels fundamentalism. Fair enough. However, all that means is that one subset of Christianity is just as wrong as Dawkins in their understanding of God. They both need to be educated in the truth of the historic orthodox faith.
For example, you may have noticed that capriciousness is a strong theme that runs throughout the skeptics’ story. They see God as arbitrary and unfair; he does stuff for no other reason than he decided to do it. In other words, God’s story could have been fundamentally different. He could have defined sin differently, for instance, or found some other way than Jesus’ death and resurrection to deal with our disobedience to his random rules. Because of this, thinks the skeptic, it is pointless to try and make too much sense of God’s actions or to expect them to be consistently just. There is no essential rhyme or reason to the story of the Bible. God does what he does and we just have to deal with that. This notion is false, as we will see in the following chapters, but one can understand how the skeptic came up with it. After all, it is widely believed within many Christian circles.
For instance, I recently read a skit in a children’s curriculum book about the work of Christ on the cross. The instructions went something like this: First, choose a kid from the audience that you are sure does not know that much about Christian theology. Have him come to the front of the group and explain that he has been selected to take part in a test. He will be asked a question and if he answers correctly he will receive a bowl of candy (or some other prize of your choosing). However, if he gets the question wrong, he will get a pie in the face. You then ask the child to define substitutionary atonement. When he is unable to answer, start preparing the whipped cream in a plate for the big event. However, just before you hit him with it, a person from the audience (someone you have prearranged) should jump up and run forward, offering to take the child’s punishment on herself. You then smash the pie into the substitute’s face, explaining that, in the same way, Jesus was our substitute. He took our penalty on the cross.
Now, I suppose I can see some small glimmer of truth in this skit, but it is overshadowed by the fact that the instructor—the God figure—comes across as capricious and unfair. Think about what the child at the front would be thinking. If he is anything like me, it would be this: What did I do to deserve to be sitting here? How am I supposed to know what substitutionary atonement means? What does that have to do with anything anyway? Why should I get a pie in the face for not being able to answer correctly? And what sense does it make for someone else to take a pie that neither of us deserves? The whole thing is silly and pointless.
The kid would be right. The whole thing is silly and pointless because it is completely arbitrary and unjust. The test was made up by the instructor and impossible to pass, the punishment bore no relationship to the “offense,” and the solution to the made-up “problem” was similarly random. The whole situation was contrived. The skit writer made the instructor seem capricious.
God is not like that. We will discuss the redemptive work of Jesus in more detail later in the book, but for now I just want to emphasize the fact that God’s actions are not arbitrary, unjust, or completely beyond our understanding. There is a unity of purpose to the story of Scripture that reveals a loving father graciously and consistently working to draw people into the relationship for which they were created. As we walk through some of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of that mission, we will see that God has good reasons for all that he does.
Worship and Sacrifice
In this chapter we will address God’s desire for worship and sacrifice. As seen in the “An Atheist Meets God” video, skeptics see this as evidence that God is motivated by lack and cruelty. They look at God as a schoolyard bully who makes little kids give him their lunch money in order to feel better about himself. In this view, God needs people to keep telling him how great he is because he has some sort of inferiority complex.
The answer to this charge is that God is not motivated by lack or cruelty but by an overflow of love. God doesn’t need anything. Quite the contrary; God has so much of one thing in particular that it naturally runs over: love. Love, not cruelty, is the reason that God desires worship and sacrifice from his creatures. To support and explain this assertion, let’s start by defining love.
The Nature of Love
Love is first and foremost a response to value. It is a recognition and affirmation that someone is objectively valuable. To love is to proclaim to the beloved that he or she is of great worth. Many of us have experienced this, of course, in the very first stages of a relationship: You see that girl or boy across the room and think, Wow! I’ve found someone very special! Exactly. You don’t love someone you think is worthless. Love is not present or possible if one does not think the other person has any value.
Secondly, love is the giving of oneself sacrificially for the good of another. To love someone is not just to say that he or she is valuable, but it is to act sacrificially for that person’s good. It’s not enough to think that a person is great, or even to tell them that several times a day; we must act in a way that benefits that person. We don’t just love in word and thought, but in our actions (1 John 3:18).
Thirdly, love is the desire for unity with another person. You want to be together, but even more than that you want to be one with that person, at least to some degree. (Romantic love has a higher degree of union than friendship, for example, but each involves a degree of union.) To love someone is to hurt when they hurt and rejoice when they rejoice. It is to know them as they know themselves. This union is only possible as people share time and experiences together. This longing for union includes a longing to simply be with the beloved. Parents who say they love their kids but never want to spend time with them do not actually love those children according to this definition.
Much more could be said about the nature of love, but let’s leave it at that for now and talk about where I got this definition of love. Is it arbitrary? Did I just make it up out of thin air? No. It is based on the nature of God, who is love.
By that I mean that God has eternally existed in a mutually self-giving relationship within the Trinity. The Trinity involves the three persons of the Godhead recognizing the infinite value of each other and giving sacrificially of themselves to each other. Love, as I described it, is the essence of God’s existence.
This means that love is the most basic thing in all of reality. As Jean Daniélou writes, “Without doubt the master key to Christian theology … is contained in the statement that the Trinity of Persons constitutes the structure of Being, and that love is therefore as primary as existence.” In other words, love is foundational to everything; love is what reality is all about.
As such, love is the reason God created the universe and everything in it. Creation is not an arbitrary act of a capricious God. Rather, it is the necessary result of a loving God. Creation is the natural consequence of love. New life and a larger family, which is what God created when he made Adam and Eve, is what love produces. It is love’s nature. There is a sense in which God’s Trinitarian family could not be contained; it had to expand and grow. Love had to continue to encompass more and more people. Creation is simply the expansion of God’s family of love. This means that the “purpose” of creation is loving family. Mankind is meant to be part of God’s Trinitarian life; we are intended to be children of God.
That is one aspect of what it means to be made in the image of God. Although this term encompasses attributes like rationality and sacredness and such, in the text it is primarily familial. For example, in Genesis 5:3 Adam fathered Seth “in his own likeness, in his own image.” God gave us a different nature than the rest of creation in that we are his children, his offspring. God’s goal in creating man was the creation of family. We will have more on this in chapter 14.
So we are made to love God and love one another. That is our ultimate purpose in life, and it is the end for which God works. As Jesus said, all the commandments are summed up in two lines: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–39). Again, this is not arbitrary. Could the meaning of life have been any different? No, because God is love.
So how does this definition of love fit into our topic of worship and sacrifice? Why does God require people in the Old Testament to sacrifice animals, and why does he constantly command mankind to worship him above all other things? In fact, this is so important to God that it is the focus of the first two commandments:
You shall have no other gods beforeme. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:3–6
At first glance one can understand how this might make God appear petty and egotistical. However, as we examine this issue more closely, we will see that the truth is just the opposite. The fact is that God’s desire for worship and sacrifice is intimately connected to his love for us. Love and sacrifice and worship are inseparable.
Love, Worship, and Sacrifice
To worship is to ascribe worth to something or someone. To sacrifice is to give up something. To love someone you must do both. Love and worship and sacrifice go together in that you generally love what you worship, and sacrifice is a part of both love and worship. I think we see this principle in our relationships every day.
For example, have you ever heard someone say, “He just worships the ground she walks on” or “She absolutely worships her husband”? These are good and proper sentiments. To say that you “worship” your wife is to say that you ascribe great worth to her and are willing to do anything for her good. This is a sure sign of love.
We can also see this truth in potentially less commendable examples. If you hear that your friend “worships the Green Bay Packers” it may not cause too much alarm (because you think that hyperbole is being used), but if you hear that he is “worshiping money” or “worshiping alcohol” you probably should be concerned, especially if it is at the expense of his wife and children. Why? Because money and alcohol (and football, for that matter—in today’s culture it may not be hyperbole) are not as valuable as one’s family. It is wrong to ascribe more worth to stuff and sports than you do to your wife and kids because those things are not as objectively worthy as your family.
As such, if a man truly loves his wife and kids more than money and football and beer, he will give up those things if necessary. In other words, he will sacrifice those things if they get in the way of his family relationship.
The principle also applies to other aspects of family life. My wife and I have four children, and if getting married is like attending the college of “How to learn to sacrifice,” then having kids is like going to graduate school. Parenting is all about sacrifice. From changing dirty diapers to paying for university, parents give of themselves for their children. Why do we do it? Because we love our kids. That is to say, we think our kids are far more valuable than anything else we are giving up for them. We worship them and are willing to sacrifice on their behalf. That is what love is.
So then, a major key to love is to only worship what is truly worthy and then to only ascribe the proper amount of worth to that thing or person. We need to keep our love ordered correctly. Some aspects of creation are worth more than others. Animals are worth more than rocks and humans are worth more than animals. We should not sacrifice the good of our child for the sake of the dog, for example. This is not arbitrary; it simply is the nature of reality. To ascribe more worth to a rock than to a person is to live contrary to the real world.
For example, if a man decided to sell his children into slavery for thirty pieces of gold, he would be doing the wrong thing not because of some arbitrary standard, but because his children are actually and objectively worth more than all the gold in the world.
Now, given that the purpose of life is love and that love is intimately tied to sacrifice and worship, we can accurately say that we were created for worship and sacrifice. Specifically, we were created to worship God and sacrifice to him.
Is God egotistical for desiring love and worship and sacrifice? Not at all, because he is worthy of them. Would we say that a wife is being egotistical for wanting her husband to love her and the kids more than football and alcohol? Absolutely not. She just wants him to live in accordance with the truth. The truth is that his family is much more important than those other things. To live contrary to reality simply doesn’t work. It leads to nothing but trouble, like trying to run your gasoline-powered car with nothing but water in the fuel tank.
This is how we need to understand God’s desire for sacrifice and worship. He did not create mankind in order to have his ego pumped up. He created us in order to have a reciprocal loving relationship with him. He wants to love and be loved. God is not an arbitrary egomaniac for desiring people to value him above all else. The simple fact is that God is worth more than anything else. To keep our relationship with him in tune with reality, we need to ascribe more worth to him than anything else. To not do so is to turn reality on its head, which always causes problems.
From How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-to-Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics by Donald J. Johnson. Published by Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright © 2013. Used by permission.