God Is. . .
How far will love go?
I realize I am walking on holy ground when I try to adjust the picture of God we all have. Some of those pictures are why we became or remain Christian.
I want to be sensitive to that, but also to remember that models of God are just that—models, and at times alterations may be necessary. One model of God that continues to gain traction is associated with Graham Maxwell, Jack Provonsha, and Dan Smith. 1 It is a model that claims to correct other warped models, and in many respects it does just that. However, I (and many others) believe that the MaxProSmith model (as I call it) has unnecessarily dispensed with some key attributes and actions of God. While trying to vigorously erase some mistakes, they have ended up tearing the paper; this article seeks to apply some tape.
The Model in Question
If the MaxProSmith model of God were transformed into a hymn, the first three verses would joyously proclaim that the character of God is oriented toward love, personal relationship, and grace more than anyone has imagined. The fourth verse would climax with the testimony that the results of discovering a God such as this, one that is completely trustworthy and always on our side, produces immense healing in our sin-damaged and self-condemning souls and restores us to proper intimacy with God and one another. After each verse, the truth of God’s noncoercive nature and His profound desire for us to relate to Him primarily as friends instead of fear-driven servants would ring through the chorus. Who wouldn’t want to sing a song like that?
It is a song I’ve sung and helped others to sing for most of my adult life. So where is the problem? The controversy lies in what could be considered two small footnotes at the bottom of this hymn. The first footnote states that this hymn cannot truly be sung as long as one holds a view of the cross (representing atonement) in which God pours out His wrath or punishment on Jesus for sins that we committed. The second footnote says that this hymn can’t be authentically sung if God is viewed as actively destroying the wicked for eternity. As we well know, most Christians, including Adventists, hold precisely to these views. Herein lies the crux of the matter.
I have been significantly blessed in researching this subject because of how beautifully the character of God is depicted by MaxProSmith material. As a result, I’m convinced that those on both sides of the debate can ascribe to an almost identical picture of God. The real issue is whether a maximally loving God can be synthesized with a God who authors both a legal, substitutionary atonement and the active eternal destruction of the wicked. They say nay. The following is my invitation to reconsider.
Mixing Metaphors Can Be Dangerous
Recently a Sabbath school teacher’s comment caught me off guard: “I think the apostle Paul was relating to God immaturely when he called himself a slave of Jesus Christ. I think God wants us to relate to Him as friends.” If we’re not careful, metaphors cause confusion.
It can come as a surprise that metaphors are used to think about God and salvation. Some may not believe it at all. Think for a moment of how we refer to God as father and as husband (Deut. 32:6; Isa. 54:5). Obviously, having a father as a husband would be considered revolting unless one was speaking metaphorically. The point is that the Bible is full of rich metaphors describing God and His actions.
But there is a danger inherent in metaphor itself when (1) we forget that a metaphor is in use; (2) we stretch the meaning/scope of a metaphor beyond its intended use; and (3) we use one metaphor, even a biblical one, to the exclusion of other metaphors. The table shows the surprising number of metaphors the Bible uses in terms of salvation and sin. 2
This table is the proverbial “red flag” for any theology that seeks to take one metaphor and superimpose it over the whole Bible. To think biblically, we must resist the temptation to take our model of God and squeeze it into a favorite metaphorical mold. This is precisely what I believe has happened when applying certain relational/friendship metaphors to God to understand His wrath. Note this revealing conversation Maxwell had with a group of children:
“We were talking about the many references in the Bible to God’s destruction of the wicked. I asked the children if their mothers ever said, ‘You do what I say, or I’ll kill you’?
“ ‘Yes!’ the whole group gleefully responded.
“ ‘Do you think they really mean it?’ I inquired.
“ ‘No, of course not,’ replied young Tina. ‘We know it’s just a figure of speech.’
“‘Do you think God is just using a figure of speech?’ I continued the question. They indicated that they didn’t think so. ‘Then does that mean your mothers love you more than God does?’ ” 3
Maxwell says that one child, Casey, broke the silence and simply said, “Wow!” This interesting interaction relies on a parent/child metaphor and taps into corresponding visceral emotions inherent in such a relationship.The children are presented with a logical dilemma of either accepting that God’s threats of death are figures of speech or that if God actually threatens to kill the disobedient, He loves you less than your mother does.
So what answer should the children have given? If little Casey had eaten his academic Wheaties for breakfast, he could have said, “You have presented a case of metaphorical crossbreeding. We would not have had difficulty speaking of God killing if you had used a comparative metaphor of God as a judge or king or warrior. The responsibilities inherent in those metaphors often include necessary acts of retribution, protection, and, yes, killing. But you compared God’s actions to that of a mother in juxtaposition to killing, and we think that is an illicit use of metaphor.”
When God is primarily referred to metaphorically as a friend or parent, the idea of God killing sounds outrageous because it rides upon the emotional outrage of a friend killing a friend or a parent killing a child. The fact is that God is more than any single metaphor can capture, and we do neither His Word nor His reputation any favors when we swap the descriptions or responsibilities inherent in one metaphor with those of another metaphor.
|Rescue||Perishing||Saved||2 Cor. 2:15|
|Legal||Crime and Punishment||Forgiveness/Justification||Rev. 18:5|
|Freedom||Slavery||Emancipation||1 Cor. 7:23|
|Military||War||Peace||2 Cor. 10:4|
|Horticultural||Pruned||Grafted in||Rom. 11:24|
|Development||Infancy||Maturity||1 Peter 2:2|
|Ambulatory||Falling/Stumbling||Standing/Walking||1 Cor. 15:58|
The irony is that the MaxProSmith supporters often point out how the rest of Christianity has relied too heavily on legal metaphors in the Bible and turned God primarily into a just but wrathful judge. Fair enough. Perhaps many sectors of Christian thought have turned up the volume too loud on the judicial metaphors. But I suggest that they also keep an eye on their own flank and remember that all parental, spousal, and friendship pictures of God (as much as we all cherish those) are metaphors as well.
What’s Good for the Goose
Metaphors and descriptions of God are rooted in culture, but their force should not be minimized in light of culture. If relatively clear biblical texts speaking of God’s character and actions are considered suspect in depicting who God really is because of cultural considerations, then current texts including Maxwell’s, Provonsha’s, and Smith’s should be similarly scrutinized for modern cultural influences. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.
We should guard against a subtle patronizing attitude toward the ancients and realize that (1) those of the past were not so barbaric in their thinking that they could not see clearly who God was, and (2) we in the present are not so enlightened as to have achieved immunity to our own cultural biases. Smith, trying to understand Old Testament pictures of God that don’t resonate with Jesus’ example, says that God lowered “Himself to speak in terms people of that time and place could understand.” 4 This is a good exegetical principle, but Old Testament pictures of God should be deemed as clear, even though the revelation of God through Jesus should be deemed clearer (Heb. 1:1-3). Old Testament pictures of God are not just for a past people and place; they are for us here and now (1 Cor. 1:10).
Killing in Context
I have a family member who has killed a man; perhaps you do as well, or at least know someone who has. Do you think this family member is a killer, a hero, a murderer, or a saint?
Unfair question, isn’t it? Was there an accident? Is he a solider? Was there a break-in? Is he a police officer? Was it self-defense? Killing without context tells us nothing.
The charge of believing in a “God who kills” is virtually meaningless when isolated from context. The labored efforts to exclude “killing” from God’s reputation may be better spent reflecting on the twin biblical themes of justice and judgment. Even our gut tells us that when an individual or nation is faced with deadly aggressive evil, responding with killing can be justified when other avenues have been exhausted. Actually, to not respond may be considered unjust and irresponsible at best and complicit at worst. I’ll show later how this is applicable to the final destruction of the wicked.
Maxwell does ascribe active killing to God concerning the first death, 5 but believes final destruction is achieved by passively being exposed to the glory of God.6
God is more than any single metaphor can capture.
Smith also concedes that those “troubled by the traditional model believe that God doesn’t kill sinners, at least in the sense of the second death”7 and that God actively kills no one but only “[withholds] His life-giving power.”8 This affirming of God’s active role in the “first death” but denying it in the “second death” is fascinating but questionable. Many “first death” destructions by God ended an individual’s probation and sealed their fate. In other words, the first death was a de facto eternal death sentence. This is hard to swallow, but it should give us pause from vindicating the character of God by depending upon a radical dichotomy between God’s pre- and postmillennial wrath.
A Multiplex Atonement
The same liabilities inherent in metaphor are carried over into atonement models. Maxwell calls his the “trust, healing, great controversy model . . . of salvation.” 9 Smith’s is the “Revelatory Substitution” model.10 Jesus dies in humanity’s place to reveal the natural consequences of sin, demonstrating a God who can be trusted, who heals our broken friendship with Him and answers the great controversy accusations against God. There are variations between their models, but they all seem to agree that a legal/forensic model undermines the integrity of God’s character. While the MaxProSmith materials offer brief histories of other atonement models, their own models don’t fully embrace a multiplex atonement view:
Substitution—Jesus dies for my sins (Rom. 5:7, 8).
Penal—Jesus experiences the punishment I deserve (Isa. 53:5, 6).
Great Controversy/Cosmic—His blood brings peace to heavenly places (Col. 1:20).
Christus Victor—Jesus defeats the devil (1 John 3:8; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14).
Moral Influence—His death reveals God’s love (1 John 3:16; 4:7-12).
Ransom—His life is a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Example—Jesus’ sufferings are an example for us to follow (1 Peter 2:21).
As with metaphors, no single atonement view is able to capture the full breadth of what took place that day on Calvary, nor should there be. To subscribe to a single view at the expense of the others will inevitably say too little by leaving out too much.
An Unlikely Source of Love
The model in question and the traditional model both purport to uphold love as the defining characteristic of God. The MaxProSmith model has stated emphatically that a God who plays an active role in death, whether at the cross or at the very end, cannot also be the loving God they envision. As one friend who holds this position passionately told me, those characteristics
“curdle” the picture of a loving God.
I, in turn, would like to demonstrate how the passive God of the MaxProSmith model cannot contain the brilliance of God’s love displayed in the final chapter of earth’s history.
“ ‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. ‘But you say, “How have you loved us?” ’ ” (Mal. 1:2).In a nutshell God reminds Malachi’s audience that His love for His people is expressed by completely and permanently wiping out their avowed enemy, the nation of Edom. Pause for a moment and let that way of framing God’s love sink in. Now realize that part of the Old Testament background language for hellfire in the book of Revelation is borrowed from God’s destruction of Edom (compare Isa. 34:9, 10 with Rev. 14:9-11), and also of God’s promised fiery destruction of Gog and Magog (compare Eze. 38; 39 with Rev. 20:8, 9). The principle that emerges is that God’s love is on display when He defends and protects His people from those who would destroy them.
This scenario is exactly depicted in Revelation 20:7-9: “When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.” 11
When I read this passage to my wife, she exclaimed, “That picture of God doesn’t make Him a killer, it makes Him a Savior.” When Satan and the wicked gather around the city, they are there, not to negotiate, but to kill the redeemed and tear God off His throne. This is Edom all over again. God’s final act in the great controversy is to lovingly protect His people. A God who passively allows the wicked to somehow die from natural consequences doesn’t quite catch the passion and heroism of the moment.
The God of Revelation actively intervenes to save and refuses to let His children be hurt any longer. The agonizing cries throughout the ages of “Where was God?” “Why didn’t He step in and stop this from happening?” or “How could He allow this to go on?” all climax here. God finally steps in and ends it. Let us praise Him for doing so and join our voices with those who can sing a new hymn, “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the nations” (Rev. 15: 3).
I believe that the wrath of God is the love of God as seen in desperate contexts, therefore He can be trusted. Admittedly, atonement and annihilation do show the edgier contours of love, and it is tempting to try to dull those edges, but rightly understood, they may actually sharpen our picture of who God really is.
- The primary sources used to build this model have been: Graham Maxwell, Servants or Friends? (Redlands, Calif.: Pine Knoll Publications, 1992); Graham Maxwell, Can God Be Trusted? (Redlands, Calif.: Pine Knoll Publications, 2002); Jack Provonsha, You Can Go Home Again (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982); Dan Smith, Lord, I Have a Question (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2004); miscellaneous articles and audio files from www.pineknoll.org/. My apologies to Tim Jennings for not including him. I came upon his material too late in the game, but I look forward to studying his contributions. The chart accompanying this article was produced by Richard Beck.
- Richard Beck, Unclean (Eugene, Oreg.: Cascade Books, 2011), pp. 34, 35.
- Maxwell, Servants or Friends, p. 177.
- Smith, p. 101.
- The title of one of his book sections is “Can the God Who Stoned Achan Be Trusted?” in which he writes that “God . . . must have wept as He ordered the execution of Achan and his whole family” (Servants or Friends, p. 41). He says the disciples wanted to know about the “God . . . who had drowned the world . . . destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah . . . consumed Nadab and Abihu and opened the earth to swallow up rebellious Korah” (Can God Be Trusted, p. 107).
- Maxwell, Servants or Friends, p. 134.
- Smith, Lord, I Have a Question, pp. 35, 36. (Italics supplied.)
- Ibid., p. 176. Woodrow Whidden bypasses the passive/active debate altogether: “Doesn’t it seem that God would be just as surely responsible for the death of sinners by withdrawing His life-giving power as He would be in directly destroying them by the fires of hell? Since God is the source of all life, it is quite apparent that He is also ultimately the one who allows death! And whether such death is actively brought on or passively allowed really makes no difference if one wants to lift the ultimate responsibility for the death of sinners from God. The really definitive question is not whether God’s justice is active or passive, but whether it is just and consistent with His character of merciful love” (Woodrow Whidden, Ellen White on Salvation [Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1995], pp. 50, 51.
- Graham Maxwell, “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?” p. 11, www.pineknoll.org/all-writings.
- Smith, Lord, I Have a Question, p. 53.
- Some Greek manuscripts and early versions include here a specific reference to God as the one sending down the fire. This is reflected in the translation of the KJV and a footnote in RSV. The Greek text is clear that God is the originator of the fire. Cf. Robert G. Bratcher and Howard A. Hatton, A Handbook on the Revelation to John, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1993), pp. 291, 292.