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Defending the Faith: On 'hanging out' with a comfortable god

Published: Thursday, July 17 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

It's a natural human tendency to seek to walk in our own ways, after the image of our own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world. We need to correct for this tendency by continual reference to scripture and modern revelation.

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Two weeks ago, my column "Two opposing errors about the love of God" argued against cherry-picking scriptures to depict God as “nonjudgmental and always accepting,” a comfortable pal who “would never condemn nor exclude anybody.” (Some hold that the very idea of excommunication, for example, is “un-Christian” in principle.)

A supremely complacent atheist took the spirit of this portrayal to its limits during an online conversation 15 years ago when he assured me, “If there were a God, I think (s)he’d enjoy hanging out with me — perhaps sipping on a fine Merlot (wine) under the night sky while devising a grand unified theory.”

“To portray God’s judgments as unloving,” my column read, “is a grievous distortion; to depict his love as wholly nonjudgmental is a dangerous one. He is both merciful and just.”

I’ve never before used a subsequent column to respond directly to criticism of an earlier one, and I won’t make a habit of doing so. However, a particular strand of criticism so perfectly illustrated the selective reading to which I was referring that I think I’ll do it this once.

The criticism runs as follows: When considering whether God is loving or wrathful — as if the choice were a neat either/or — the Book of Mormon portrayal of Jesus among the Nephites should be preferred. Compassionate, he certainly doesn’t kill anybody. The angry God of the Old Testament was created by fallen people in their own image. They blamed on him the natural consequences of human evil.

Now, there’s undoubtedly truth in this. Sinful mortals have indeed often projected their prejudices, violence, hatreds and vengeful desires onto Heavenly Father, who loves his children and weeps at their self-inflicted suffering (see Moses 7).

However, there’s falsehood in it, too, if it’s taken too far. Yes, the Jesus who appears in the land of Bountiful in 3 Nephi 11 is loving and kind. But, says the Book of Mormon itself, his appearance followed a massive, divinely ordained natural catastrophe and three days of intense darkness:

“And it came to pass that there was a voice heard among all the inhabitants of the earth, upon all the face of this land, crying:

“Wo, wo, wo unto this people; wo unto the inhabitants of the whole earth except they shall repent; for the devil laugheth, and his angels rejoice, because of the slain of the fair sons and daughters of my people; and it is because of their iniquity and abominations that they are fallen!

“Behold, that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof ...

“And behold, that great city Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof to be drowned.

“And behold, that great city Moronihah have I covered with earth, and the inhabitants thereof ...”

And the list continues: Gilgal, “buried up in the depths of the earth”; Onihah, Mocum and New World Jerusalem, covered with water; Gadiandi, Gadiomnah, Jacob and Gimgimno, buried underground; Jacobugath, “burned with fire because of their sins and their wickedness,” along with Laman, Josh, Gad and the city of Kishkumen.

“And many great destructions have I caused to come upon this land, and upon this people, because of their wickedness and their abominations,” says the voice, which then identifies itself: “Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God” (see 3 Nephi 9:1-10, 12, 15).

The loving Jesus of the Book of Mormon cannot be separated from the book’s complementary portrayal of Jesus as the just judge. Nor can the kindly Jesus of the gospels be rigidly distinguished, in biblical faith, from the divine Son who will return someday to judge both living and dead. To accurately understand him, both attributes, both roles, must be kept firmly in mind. The Prophet Joseph Smith wisely taught that “by proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”

“It is a characteristic of our age,” observed Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve during April general conference, “that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds.”

But such “comfortable gods,” such “smooth gods,” aren't the God revealed in scripture. In C.S. Lewis’ memorable image, he’s not a tame lion.

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

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