God is good! So proclaims the Christian to the world this truth: God is good! And so the Bible tells us. And yet if God is good, then what sense are we to make of many passages in the Hebrew Bible? One of the popular challenges to the truth of Christianity concerns the problem of evil and especially the portrait of God that sometimes emerges from the pages of the Bible. I read through the book of Deuteronomy recently over a period of three days and I had the vivid impression of God being like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, a foul tempered ruler who repeatedly shouts, “Off with their heads!” at the slightest provocation. How do we deal with those passages in which God commands the slaughter of children and infants, or in which God brings about terrible atrocities? Is God a moral monster?
Greg Boyd has been writing a series of blogs in which he addresses this problem of an apparently immoral, grotesque God. He admits,
Honestly, if we found these depictions in any other ancient literature, would we hesitate one second in declaring that they are immoral, grotesque and revolting?
And yet, Boyd is no revisionist, nor will he ignore or cut out those passages in the Bible which depict God in this way. He believes that
all Christ-followers are mandated to confess that all Scripture, including its revolting and hideous depictions of God, are “God-breathed.” I am thus adamantly opposed to any attempts to simply dismiss these accounts, whether on theological grounds, moral grounds or on the grounds that the narratives containing them are not anchored in history.
How then does Boyd read his Bible? He says,
our faith is centered on a crucified person, not a book, and our faith holds that this person revealed God’s character by stooping to completely identify with our limited humanity in the Incarnation and then stooping even further to completely identify with our sin and God-forsakenness in the Crucifixion.
This doesn’t exactly conform to our commonsensical views of how God is supposed to behave! And given how unconventional his behavior was when he fully revealed himself in Christ, it seems to me that we should expect that the book he “breathes” to provide a before-and-after look at this revelation might be rather unconventional as well. More specifically, if God’s fullest self-revelation involved him identifying with our sin and our curse and taking on a horrific appearance, why should anyone assume the written Word through which he reveals himself must completely exclude this type of self-revelation?
Boyd doesn’t think the conventional explanations of the Bible’s problem passages are convincing. As such, he advocates a new hermeneutic. He continues,
The quintessential revelation of God on the cross took place by God mercifully condescending to bear our sin and to thereby take on an appearance that reflects the horrifying nature of our sin. On the cross, God appeared to be a criminal deserving death. Since this event reveals what God is truly like, it must reveal what God has always been like. And it is, recall, this God who “breathed” the book that bears witness to this event. In this light, should we not expect to find in this inspired book harbingers of this event, viz. examples of God stooping to bear the sin of his people, thereby taking on appearances that reflect the horrifying nature of their sin?
That is, if God reveals his beauty by stooping to take on the fallen ugliness of those he’s stooping for on Calvary, why should we not assume that the written witness that he “breathes” would also likely contain similar portraits? It just might be that the unconventional God who reveals his beauty by appearing ugly on the cross has been revealing his beauty by appearing ugly throughout the narrative of his equally unconventional “God-breathed” book.
I don’t know if Boyd is onto something groundbreaking in the world of theology, but I do think a hermeneutic of the ugliness of the cross is a promising avenue for exploration of problem passages in the Hebrew Bible. It won’t make sense to the skeptics, for the gospel is foolishness to them. But the Christian may be able understand and appreciate more fully how an ugly God is ultimately very good. For that reason, I encourage you to read Greg Boyd’s series of blogs on this problem. Discuss it with your friends or with your pastor. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait about eighteen months to read the book he is writing on this topic.