Pretend for one minute you are a parent of a 3-year old child who, just before bedtime one night, asks a seemingly simple question; “Mommy, where do clouds come from?” How would you respond to that question?
On the surface, you may think it would be an easy answer, but, if you were to try to fully answer the question truthfully, you would quickly realize that much of the explanation is beyond the grasp of a young child. Many adults would struggle to explain the technicalities of how clouds form and dissipate and a full explanation would be far too much for a 3-year old to understand. In the end, you would likely give a quick, one-sentence answer that a 3-year old will find satisfactory, even if it is not entirely accurate, and move on. Years later when they are taught the specifics of weather patterns and our atmosphere, and, assuming this same 3-year old can remember that brief conversation many years earlier, they might wonder why you didn’t tell the truth. Why did you leave out so much information and hide some fairly important facts?
Why would a parent even consider treating a child in such a way? Why not simply give the answer?
Of course, anyone who has any experience with children (or co-workers for that matter) will understand immediately that this is not an option. People learn at their own pace and trying to fill them full of information is similar to filling a jug of water; eventually it will spill over the top and continuing to add more water is useless until you get a new, larger, jug to fill.
We all need to learn things slowly.
You cannot begin to teach multiplication until a person has a firm grasp on counting.
You cannot teach syncopation until a musician has a grasp of playing on the beat.
You cannot learn to write until you have learned how to read.
The list goes on.
This is why we have different grade levels in our schools. Each age group is expected to learn and understand certain things before being asked to move that knowledge deeper, understand it in new ways and find various methods of application. In fact, there are some instances where what you are taught in early years has to be un-taught in later years in order to show there are actually many exceptions to the “rules” learned at a younger age.
The easiest example of this in action is the common mnemonic device “i before e, except after c”. This is a very useful spelling rule many people, myself included, still use today. But as you progress in education, you discover this rule is not true. There are actually more exceptions to the rule than those words that conform to it. A total of 923 exceptions have been counted, which is 21 times more words than those that conform to the rule. This includes words such as weight, height, caffeine, foreign, sufficient, science, etc…
Even with this evidence, the rule is still a very useful one for many people; however, in order to progress in one’s ability to spell, you can’t stop with this simple rule because it will fail you more times than it will help. As with virtually everything in life, we must continue to learn and develop our understanding in order to have a better picture of how things actually work.
I would guess most people would not have a problem agreeing with the statement that their own understanding of who God is has developed over time. I can attest with certainty that mine has grown and developed immensely throughout my life. The harder thing for people to accept is that God, as our teacher on who he is and what his plans and purposes are for us as individuals and for creation as a whole, would choose to reveal himself in the same slow, unfolding fashion that a teacher would use in every other aspect of life.
Why wouldn’t God simply download everything there is to know about himself to us in one, quick session? Not to sound too glib on this point, but I think we have already answered the question. We need to learn things at our own pace.
The revelation we are given of God in our bibles was not as quick and immediate as we in the 21st century may like to believe it was. While we have a complete collection of the canonized bible at our disposal, the same could not be said during the time when God first inspired writers to reveal his love for humankind.
As pointed out in a previous post, the majority of the bible was written in a cultural context that did not know who Jesus was, and, without that knowledge, had a limited view of who God was. It was only with the arrival of Jesus that God chose to fully reveal his character, his plans and his essence of complete love to the world. This revelation illuminates the Old Testament in new ways because it is the inspired story of God, but does not eliminate the fact that for centuries God was slowly revealing himself to people; taking them where they were and leading them closer to the ideal image of who he was.
Even with our advantageous position of having the completed canon, we still are taught by God at a pace we can understand. I look back at things I believed about God as a teenager and shudder to consider the fact that God was willing to let me believe him to be like that. There is an element of mystery to our faith; a constant learning of what it means to be like him that will never be finished in this lifetime.
In the bible, there are many things that you can see being taught over time. One example is God’s revelation moving Israel from a purely religious/sacrificial relationship with him to seeing him as a God who desires justice and mercy. In this post, we are going to focus on a single truth that was being slowly revealed.
That idea; Yahweh is the only true God.
Let’s return to some of the building blocks we’ve set in place over the first few chapters;
- The Old Testament is the foundation of Judaism; Christianity reframes the view of God through his fullness revealed in Jesus Christ.
- In order to discover the “plain meaning” of the bible, we should read it first “as it was”. Only when we understand what it meant to them can we understand what it should mean to us.
- The bible was 100% inspired by God and 100% written by humans from within their own cultures and contexts. God’s inspiration works within humanity – it does not override.
- God is the pursuer. He stoops to our level and works with imperfect people to reveal himself despite the conditions of humanity.
In this post, I am hoping to finally bring this together to showcase a framework for how these building blocks have led me to see the God of the Old Testament as fundamentally consistent with Jesus on the cross. Let’s start in the most obvious place; free will and the cosmic conflict. (OK, so maybe it’s not that obvious, but hopefully the reasons for starting here will become clear).
Free Will and the Cosmic Conflict
The key issue we have been investigating throughout this book is the concern many have with the God of the Old Testament. It has to do with God commanding and/or engaging in things that are very ungodly as we now understand them.
Why would a good God command his people to slaughter all the Canaanites, even the women and children?
Why would God himself strike down the firstborn of all the Egyptians?
Why would God make women barren, kill people in battle or open up the ground to swallow the sons of Korah?
These are the things we see in the Old Testament and yet they do not seem to fit with the full revelation of God found in Jesus.
So, the question is; did God really do these things? If so, how could that be possible? If not, can we trust the bible at all?
I have been building to an answer to these questions throughout this book and now humbly submit an opinion on how to answer in a way that both respects the inspiration of the bible and allows us to see the unchanging character of God throughout the entire bible.
God has paid a high price for our freedom. He created us with the ability to choose and has suffered the consequences (and rejoiced in the blessings) ever since. From the very beginning humanity was given the ability to freely choose their own path. This freedom to choose is so completely built into our nature that many of us don’t even realize how opposed to outward control we are.
Some may point out that we really aren’t free to choose because we are limited by our environment, societal class and so on. These are all valid points, but only insofar as they point out that the will of those people around us has a real effect on us individually. We cannot necessarily choose any job we want because there are many other people who would also like that job and so the person hiring can choose whomever they desire to fill the position. In the same way, while we cannot choose where we are born, our parents can (to some degree) and so other people’s decisions and choices have a very real effect on us.
As stated above, we naturally react negatively when we feel there are parts of our lives that are not within our own realm of influence. We will curse the system that prevents us from achieving the success we so badly want and at times will even complain “if only my parents had chosen location X as a place to settle, maybe then I would have been better off”. We don’t like people taking the controls of our lives out of our hands. This is part of the image of God that is stamped on our lives.
We were created to reign with Christ! We were not created to be slaves.
There is nothing else in creation that feels so strongly about freedom of choice as humanity. Just think for a minute about dogs and cats; while they may prefer certain locations, they pretty much will do whatever their masters desire and go anywhere as long as there is food and a loving hand.
Why is this so important? Humanity was created in the image of God and his desire for us is to choose life in his kingdom as opposed to the alternatives. Adam and Eve had a choice; trust God has your best interest in mind or trust the serpent. They made their choice and each day we are given the same choice. Sadly it seems we choose death more often than we choose life. But God is so determined to win creation back to himself that throughout the centuries he has been willing to enter into our mess and create paths of reconciliation back to his life-giving kingdom.
Let’s consider marriage as a metaphor for a second. One person usually plays the lead role in pursuing their future spouse. In our culture, in order to build a lasting relationship, the person being pursued must have complete freedom to choose whether or not to accept.
In the same way, God is the pursuer in the divine relationship. He is the one who takes all initiative and asks us to respond. Relationships require a freedom of choice. If a bride-to-be was made to feel she had no choice in this relationship, finding a deep love that is based on mutual respect and affection is a much more difficult task. There are a number of cultures both throughout history and in other non-North American settings where marriages were and are arranged, but I believe there is significant evidence many of these marriages, while frequently successful and quite loving, are not initially built on mutual love and respect, but on a contractual framework. This comment is not said to invalidate them, but to indicate God is looking for a relationship where we choose to be his bride, not to be coerced into something we do not desire.
On the cross, God shows us just how far he is willing to go to win us back to him. He places his love on display to show he would rather die than see us suffer for the things we have chosen. He did this with full knowledge many would still refuse his offer and go their own way.
That is amazing love – sacrificing yourself not just for those who love you, but for people you know will choose their own path and reject you.
This display of God’s self-sacrificial love is on display throughout history and continues to be put on display in our lives today. God paid a high price to secure our freedom to choose.
This beautiful thing called freedom not only provides us the opportunity to truly love God, it also provides freedom to choose the opposite;
“Evil arose in the context of freedom; there could not be evil in the absence of freedom. And yet freedom only provides the opportunity and is not the cause of evil. Freedom is the value that God will not surrender even in the face of sin … in the Christian account freedom is seamlessly tied to the character of God. God has, as it were, taken upon Himself to pay the price for freedom rather than solve the problem of sin by abolishing it.” – Sigve Tonstad
The very concept of free will depends on choice and God has proven how much he values our ability to choose. In the case of our big picture – or cosmic – discussion, the ultimate choice is between two kingdoms; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. We know and understand that the Kingdom of God is “ruled” by God himself; it is the effective range of God’s influence, where the things he desires are done and the way to life is lived in its fullness. Much more can be said about what this kingdom looks like, but for now it is enough to simply state that God is its head.
So, who is the head of the kingdom of this world?
Here are a few verses that, when combined, provide a pretty clear picture;
“Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” – Ephesians 6:11-12
“… It [Satan] was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it …” – Revelation 13:7-8
“… the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” – 2 Corinthians 4:4
“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” – Ephesians 2:1-2
“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” – John 12:31
“We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.” – 1 John 5:19
The ruler of this age is not God (or else why would we be instructed to pray “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”?). In the verses above the head of the kingdom of the world is described as the devil, rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of this present darkness, spiritual forces of evil, the god of this world, the ruler of the power of the air or the evil one.
So, we have two kingdoms and each has a “head” – with that we can take a look at what we mean when we say there is a cosmic conflict. To do this, let’s start at the beginning of our bibles;
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”‘ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” – Genesis 3:1-6
That sets the stage for what continually happens in human history. A very controversial debate, a war of words, started in the garden. Satan (the serpent) opposed God and misrepresented his character. You can see in this description, commonly referred to as the “fall of man” that his initial attack was to deceive humanity about who God is and what his intentions are for us.
He starts with the words “Did God say…?” and with this first political attack ad steered humanity off course. Eve lost confidence in God’s goodness and the stage was set for the serpent to directly attack, claiming God lied to humanity and we will not die, rather, he is keeping us from being like him … and down the spiral things began to slide.
Is God truly good?
Is he keeping things from us?
Does he even care about what is happening on earth?
How can such awful things happen if God is a God of love?
Is God not powerful enough to stop evil things from happening?
These are all valid questions and ones people have struggled with for millennia, but here is a key, both to these questions and to the question of God at work in the Old Testament — we have attributed things to God that are actually the work of his opponent.
The “ruler of this age” has done a good job of misrepresenting God and we continue to fall for the same trap generation after generation. We exchange truth for a lie and many times don’t even see who is behind things that happen to us. Just think of the question, “God, why is this happening to me?”. We blame God for suffering in our lives and for anything that happens we cannot see as part of a “blessed life in the arms of Christ”. We let ourselves, others and the rulers of this world completely off the hook and attribute everything to God.
On many occasions God does not seem at all concerned about clearing up the matter. God has defeated his enemy once and for all on the cross and so he does not want us to live in fear of evil – we live in a time where “it is finished” – but we still haven’t seen the fullness of this victory. We can trust God can work all our trials into gold, but that does not mean there will not be suffering – and the cause of this suffering is not God.
So why won’t God simply get rid of evil once and for all?
The answer lies in free will, which is why free will and the cosmic conflict are so entangled. If God were to destroy a being who has chosen a wrong path, are we really free to choose? Had God destroyed Satan at his first challenge to God’s goodness, he would have been sending a message that “you can choose whichever path you wish, but if you choose the path that leads away from me, I’ll simply destroy you.”
Is that true freedom?
Would that not simply cause people to obey out of fear?
That is not a recipe for a loving, mutually respectful relationship.
But this is not where it ends. In order to show himself to be “good” and not simply someone who is buying our love, God must allow Satan to present other options and to “rule” this age. In a battle of perception, the only way to truly prove an opponent wrong is to let them trap themselves in their own snares. God will let Satan’s work go on display so we can see him for what he truly is.
Sigve Tonstad describes this quite eloquently;
“As a deceiver, Satan wins support for his cause and programme by something other than what he truly represents. If this is the case, simple demolition of the deceiver will not suffice unless or until his true character has become manifest. Such a perception of the cosmic conflict depends on [the] presentation of evidence for its resolution. To the extent that the deceiver wins support by purporting to be what he is not, he must be unmasked by evidence to the contrary, that is by the evidence of his own actual deeds… The crucial point relates to the fact that a conflict of this nature cannot be resolved by force. Inevitably, this requirement exposes at least one troubling risk that is intrinsic to the non-use of force: If the deceiver is partly to be unmasked by the evidence of his own actions, it means that he will be granted the opportunity to bring his design to fruition. Satan must be allowed to commit evil for his evil character to be manifest. The political risk to the divine government of this projected policy, not to mention the theological risk, hardly needs to be elaborated.” (Saving God’s Reputation, pp. 110,129)
Alden Thompson builds on that same theme;
“If God’s ultimate authority is to be established, then the full impacts of demonic rule must be allowed to develop. The ‘benefits’ and ‘blessings’ of demonic rule must be allowed to develop for all to see, if God’s lordship is to be finally regained. So just as God had to remain silent during Job’s agony, just as he allowed Satan to destroy Job’s innocent children, just as God allowed circumstances to deteriorate to the point where Job’s wife could say: ‘Curse God and die,’ so it is with the world which God has created. Demonic forces must be granted the right to rule. Man must be granted the right to rebel without the threat of immediate and sudden punishment. And so we have the tragic sequence of Genesis 3-11, a somber reminder of the devastation caused by rebellion, but at the same time, a testimony to a God who loves freedom so much that he even grants us the privilege of ruining our lives and the lives of others.” (Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God, p. 30)
Finally, Ellen White describes it this way;
“God could have destroyed Satan and his sympathizers as easily as one can cast a pebble to the earth; but he did not do this. Rebellion was not to be overcome by force. Compelling power is found only under Satan’s government. The Lord’s principles are not of this order. His authority rests upon goodness, mercy, and love; and the presentation of these principles is the means to be used. God’s government is moral, and truth and love are to be the prevailing power.” – The Desire of Ages, Ellen G. White
Freedom of choice requires that there are no direct punishments imposed for choosing one path over the other – and so it is with the world God has created. Yes, sin has its consequences and we see these consequences each and every day, but that is what makes those paths “sin”.
Sin leads to death.
Sin leads to suffering.
Sin leads down paths that are outside of God’s perfect rule.
God’s path leads to eternal life – starting now!
God did not simply create a bunch of rules to follow randomly. He gives rules to protect us from the innate consequences found in choosing wrongly; one path leads to life, the other death. He wants us to trust him that he will lead us down the path to life, while the Adversary wants us to distrust God and believe we will be better off on any other path.
Building on this foundation of free will, God is very much out to vindicate his name – his true nature. He wants everyone to see he is not the one responsible for evil and yet since the beginning of time we have not trusted he is working for our good.
This is why salvation is by faith alone. The word for faith in the New Testament (pistis) can also be translated trust. God wants us to trust his ways are best and then act as though it is true. Action reveals what you truly believe and trust in.
Humanity has a habit of not believing what is true, but rather what they think is true. Perception is reality and Satan is called the deceiver. That means his very nature is to lie and deceive God’s good creation. When anyone portrays another person in a certain light, it doesn’t seem to matter if the accusations are true; they stick.
This is essentially what Satan has done to God; he has persuaded people he is something other than good. In order to defeat this perception, God has to allow Satan to work in the world in order to finally and definitively reveal himself to be good and his Adversary to be the opposite; a deceiver and bent on destruction.
We see this clearly at work in Job where Satan tells God;
“Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” – Job 1:9-11
Basically, Satan is claiming humans simply serve God because he gives them good things. It is a typical behavioural reward program. “You serve me and pretend to love me and I’ll make your life easy.” Satan is saying humans cannot truly love God without coercion; we love him simply because he has bought our attention. And so, God throws his creation to the lions (not literally of course).
This obviously causes him much pain, as can be seen in many places throughout the bible where God mourns over destruction, but he definitively says, “I will grant you freedom, the freedom to die in war, or by starvation or disease” (Jer. 34:17). He allows Satan’s rule because his plan of winning us to him is based entirely on grace and love, not coercion. He cannot buy us with gifts or destroy any being that chooses the wrong path because this removes our ability to choose for ourselves and freedom would disappear.
This is an amazing thought. A creator of a “thing” is so loving toward his creation that he dedicates history to demonstrating his goodness toward it. We have heard people say many times; “I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. If people can’t see what I am doing is good, that’s their problem.” And yet this is not what the creator of the universe does. He engages in a political war to prove to creation that he is, in fact, good.
That is self-sacrificial.
That is loving to an infinite degree.
To summarize, we live in a world that is ruled by the Adversary. A world where God’s will is not imposed. A world where we truly have the freedom to choose and these choices have very real impacts on our lives and the lives of others. Suffering, pain and death result from our choices and the work of God’s enemies, determined to destroy both God’s good creation and his reputation. Satan cannot comprehend love and is hell-bent on proving God wrong; that we would never choose his path if we actually were given the choice and there is no such thing as “love” (1).
This cosmic conflict rages on each and every day, despite the fact the definitive battle has already been won. With each choice we make we are choosing to trust God’s path or to turn and choose another path that seems right to us, yet leads to destruction.
The nature and effects of the Adversary are very clear in the New Testament and his ways of destruction are exposed for what they truly are …
… but is this the case in the Old Testament?
2. A Brief History of God
3. Concentric Circles
4. Jesus & Judaism
5. As It Was vs. As We Are
6. 100% God – 100% Human
7. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt1)
8. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt2)
10. A Gradual Revelation (pt2)
11. Checklist Time
12. Wrath + Love
13. The Vindication of God
14. Who is God & What is He Like?
(1) The subjects of free will and the cosmic conflict are far beyond my ability to succinctly and effectively describe in this small section, but if you are interested in learning more about the topic, I would recommend reading two books by Greg Boyd; God of War and Satan and the Problem of Evil. Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God by Alden Thompson also contains significant discussion on this topic. There are numerous other resources if you are interested in looking into this in more depth, but this section attempted to provide a quick overview.