Defending the Faith: Two opposing errors about the love of God

Published: Thursday, July 3 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

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“He that loveth not knoweth not God,” declares 1 John 4:8, “for God is love.”

“For God so loved the world,” explains John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

In Acts 10:38, the evangelist Luke recounts “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.”

Indeed, says the apostle Paul, “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Many scriptural passages witness to the love of God. They represent an indispensable truth about him. But not the only truth. Some misread such statements about the love of Father and Son to mean that God, properly understood, is non-judgmental and always accepting, that he would never condemn nor exclude anybody.

Non-LDS sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have identified what they call “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a watered-down form of Christianity that they see as very common in America today, in which God is “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

They identify five characteristics of MTD:

1. A god exists who created the world, orders it, and watches over human life on the earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught by most world religions.

3. The principal purpose of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself.

4. God doesn’t have to be particularly involved in your life except when he’s needed to resolve a problem.

5. Good people (and, except for those who are mean and judgmental, most of us are pretty good folks) go to heaven when they die.

However, the scriptures don’t support MTD. In the Hebrew Bible, God banished Adam and Eve from Eden, killed Uzzah for steadying the ark, destroyed the worshipers of the golden calf, sent horrendous plagues upon Egypt and smote Gehazi with leprosy (to choose a few examples). To which some will respond that, of course, that’s just the vengeful God of the Old Testament.

So let’s look at the New Testament, which teaches that “our God is a consuming fire” and that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (see Hebrews 12:29, 10:31).

All four of the gospels mention the incident in which Jesus carefully braids a whip and then overturns the tables of the moneychangers and drives them from the temple.

In the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-41), the patience of the vineyard’s owner is considerable, but not infinite. In Acts 5:1-11, Annas and Sapphira are struck dead for attempting to deceive the apostles. And it’s plainly Jesus who, according to John the Revelator, will come in a robe “dipped in blood” to “judge and make war” at the last day (Revelation 19:11-16).

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth,” says the biblical Jesus. “I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household” (Matthew 10:34-36).

The biblical God isn’t a comfortable, always-affirming pal. Time after time, the first words of even angelic appearances are “Fear not!” And one of Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision recalls that, as the pillar of light descended, he feared that the forest surrounding him would burst into flame.

The Old Testament story of Jonah memorably depicts God’s love for all the world’s peoples, but it also sends that prophet to Nineveh with the warning that its inhabitants must repent or be destroyed. And in the episode of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus (to see whom is to see the Father) forgives her, but also commands her to “go, and sin no more” (see John 8:11). He doesn’t say that adultery isn’t a sin.

To portray God’s judgments as unloving is a grievous distortion; to depict his love as wholly non-judgmental is a dangerous one. He is both merciful and just.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.

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