Dueling Billboards

As Julie and I travel around the country, we see many billboards and church marquis. Most of these say in one way or another that God loves us. But along with these glad tidings of a loving God stand others, which tell a very different story. One of these, for example, has a picture of glowing clouds on the left and wicked flames on the right. It read, 

Where will go when you die? Heaven or Hell?

An 800 number was given to find out. Another warned in giant, capital letters, 

“REMEMBER HELL”
(Matthew 25:41)

Matthew 25:41 says this.

Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41)

Does God love me? It depends on which billboard you read. This confusion is not just on billboards. The Bible seems to contain a conflicting messages as well. We delight in John 3:16-17. 

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. (John 3:16-17)

No judgment? Eternal life? That sounds like a God I can come to! But a few verses later we read,

He who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36)

What happened to the God who loved the world and wouldn’t condemn? Could I be one of the disobedient ones? I certainly can’t claim to always obey Jesus. Will God’s wrath abide on me? 

Evidently, God has a good side and a bad side. He is a loving father, ready to throw his arms around me but also an angry judge, ready to throw the book at me.

The standard way to resolve this is to say that God’s love is conditional, just like mine. I can be loving and I can be mean. It all depends on how you approach me. Push the right buttons and you’ll walk away saying, “What a nice man!” Poke the wrong buttons and you’ll walk away saying, “What a jerk!” This is how God is. The trick is to get on his good side. 

How, then, is it claimed that God loves everyone? By emphasizing that God is willing to love everyone who approaches him in the right way. All are invited to the party. Not all get in. Some are loved. Others are shut out forever. Who gets shut out? That’s the big question. 

The Calvinists say God decides who is in and who is out. There is nothing we can do about it. The Arminians say it’s up to us. Either way, we’re left with the same result. Some are in and some are out.

When churches preach the “good news,” they are generally not proclaiming that God loves everyone. The good news is that they have discovered the formula for getting on God’s good side. There is a list of beliefs, or religious rites, or set of behaviors that guarantee God’s love. They have the formula. Of course, other churches have formulas too. Watch out. Likely as not, they’ll land you in hell. 

Here’s the problem: If God has a good side and a bad side it’s hard to be certain about how God feels about me. I may think I have the formula but how do I know for sure? A lot of smart people disagree on this. What are the odds that my group has it right? It’s hard not to keep glancing nervously over my shoulder. Millions of Christians live this way. They hope God loves them. They think so. But they can’t really be sure.

But what if you don’t have to worry about getting on God’s good side since God doesn’t have a bad side? What if God isn’t divided? What if God loves everyone? What if the warnings about fire and judgment are not contradictions of God’s love but expressions of it, meant to cleanse and purify, not destroy. 

The Consuming Fire

The problem with God is that he loves us too much. Parenthood is a common image used in the Bible to describe our relationship with God. A good parent aches for her children to be all they can be. She sees their potential. She will not be blessed until they are blessed. She wants them to thrive. If a good parent feels this way, how can God do less?

Growth is a journey. Every poisonous thought must be conquered. Every false version of ourself must be destroyed. God loves us too much to leave us in our brokenness. Our lives are stories of redemption. There are dark chapters in which we must experience pain. We will fail. We will fall. But again and again, God will pick us up, dust us off, and send us out a little wiser. In the end we will be far more than we ever were.

We wish God would back off. We would like him to be like an absentee parent who sent gifts but leaves us plenty of room to go our own way. God loves us too much to let us go the wrong way. Our fallenness breaks God’s heart and causes him to burn with rage at the wrong that destroys us. In Romans 1:18, notice that God’s anger is not directed at us but at the ungodliness which destroys us.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.  (Romans 1:18)

God’s anger is not condemnation; it is love. We may wish God would leave you alone but God will love us until we are free from all impurity. Like a good parent, God warns of danger. Like a good parent, God does not shield us from reality. The hot stove will burn. The Great Shepherd not only guides by the sweet sound of his voice. When you ignore that voice, he uses a rod and a staff. King David did not find this frightening. He found this comforting. 

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

But what about that dark verse on the billboard, mentioned earlier? 

Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;

It sounds like the goats are doomed to roast for eternity with the devil. This is due to a poor translation of the word aiōnios. (αιώνιος). Aiōn, like our English word eon, means “age” or “period of time.” This verse warns of fire in the coming age. 

There are those who think what they do in this life doesn’t matter since death is the end of the story. How they treat the hungry, sick, and hurting people doesn’t matter. What will they care when they’re six feet under?

To this line of thought, Jesus offers a slap in the face: The fire of love will burn in this age, in the age to come, and in every age. When you don’t love, when you don’t even see those in need, you have taken sides with the devil. This is a hot stove indeed. It does not mean God’s love for you has turned to hate. It means you are on an evil path. Death will not get you off the hook and the fire of God’s love will burn until you are free from this deception.

Righteousness Is Love, Not a Scale

Many of our wrong ideas of God’s love stem from a misunderstanding of the word “righteousness.” One definition of the word is fairness, like balanced scales. When we are told that God is righteous we conclude that this means that God insists on everything being even-Stephen. 

But there is nothing fair about love. A person who goes into marriage expecting it to be fair is in for a short ride. A parent who expects parenting to be fair is in for a rude awakening. To love someone is not to demand fairness. It is to lay down your life. There is nothing fair about sacrifice. So what does it mean to say that God is righteous?

There is a second definition of righteousness that fits the love of God perfectly. Righteousness means right behavior. I never remember to send my sisters birthday cards. I’m not proud of this but it’s the truth. They, on the other hand, nearly always remember. They are more righteous than I. “Righteousness” in this context is not about fairness. It is about faithfulness. Righteous people do what is right.

When we say that God is righteous, the point is not that God insists that the world be perfectly fair. The point is that God never fails to holds up his end of the relationship, whatever we do with ours. If we are faithless, he is faithful, for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:13) Is this fair? Absolutely not. Is God righteous? Yes.

The “even-Stephen” understand of righteousness has led to the following distorted picture of the cross. This is called the “penal substitution theory.” 

A Confused Picture of the Cross 

In this view, righteousness means perfectly even scales. Every time I sin, I tip the scales toward sin. How can they be balanced again? I must be punished. Punishment balances sin. Since righteousness means keeping things even, God must not allow a single sin to go unpunished. If he did, he would no longer be righteousness.

In the middle ages, the Catholic church exploited this idea by selling indulgences. If you sinned, you would be punished in purgatory. However, if you made a contribution to the church, it would offset your sin and you would spend less time in purgatory. The more you gave, the less you suffered.

“Nonsense!” said the reformers. The good news is that Jesus’ suffering on the cross has evened the scales. This is summarized nicely in an old gospel song.

He paid a debt he did not owe.
I owed a debt I could not pay.
I needed someone to wash my sins away.

By Jesus’ suffering on the cross, God evened the scales and we no longer have to pay for our sin. All we have to do is say a prayer and receive God’s gift. But this idea creates many problems. 

Problems with the Penal Substitution Theory

  1. Punishment does not create justice.  Punishing someone for a crime does not make things fair. Let’s say you steal my car, sell it, and spend the money on loose women. They catch you and punish you. Is this fair? No. I am still without a car. But let’s take it a step further. What if the judge had a newborn baby and punished his baby in your place and let you go free. Can any human heart celebrate this as justice? 
  2. It turns God into a pagan deity. The idea of human sacrifice to appease an angry God is common in paganism. Why did the crops fail? Someone made God angry. How do we fix it? Sacrifice a virgin. Is this the meaning of the cross?
  3. It is not biblical. The Bible does not stress God’s anger as a reason for Jesus’ death. The Father’s attitude toward a sinful world is love. God so loved the world at he gave the Son. Never are we told that God vented his anger toward this world by pouring it out on Jesus.
  4. It makes approaching God confusing and scary. A God who is honor-bound to punish every sin is terrifying. This fear was put on steroids in the middle ages by the myth of an eternal hell where God would roast his enemies forever. Not surprisingly, people were not attracted to this god. They needed a gentler one. This led to the exaltation of Mary, a safer, more maternal option. The Reformers replaced Mary with Jesus. God remained a God of wrath. Jesus took over the softer side of God in which we could take refuge. God gave you thunderbolts. Jesus gave you love. Can God be divided like this?
  5. It makes God a violator of his own commandments. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, just as the Father “who makes his sun to shine on the good and bad alike” (Matthew 5:45). Jesus also said we must forgive those who sin against us, not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. How can a God who commands us to love our enemy and forgive those who sin against us demand an eye for an eye and cast his enemies into eternal torment?
  6. It leave us broken. The picture above may get me off the hook for my sins but it does nothing to change me. My righteousness is a loophole worked out by heaven’s legal department to get me off the hook with God. I am forgiven but I remain disgusting. God can’t even stand to look at me unless he puts on Jesus-glasses first. 

All of this is rooted in the misunderstanding what it means to say that God is righteousness. 

A Truer Picture

The righteousness of God is not God’s insistence that everything be fair. Love, which “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Corinthians 13:5) forfeits all rights to fairness. The second definition of righteousness is clearly in view. Righteousness means doing what is right. God always does what is right and that is what makes God righteous. We drop the ball again and again. God never does. God never stops loving. God never stops forgiving. That would not be right. 

The cross reveals this righteousness. It does not level the scales. It tips them forever in our favor. There is nothing fair about this. 

The purpose is was not to satisfy a legalistic God. The purpose of the cross is to reveal once and for all that we are forgiven, that we are welcome home. That’s what life is about: coming home to God. What God wants is not to even out the scales. What God wants is you.

Why Did Jesus Die? 

If you are like me, you may be so steeped in the penal atonement theory of the cross that you can’t imagine its purpose without it. The death of Jesus is a great mystery but here are seven glories. 

  1. The cross reveals God’s righteousness. The cross is a revelation of God’s righteousness. You drop the ball over and over. God never will because God is righteous. 
  2. The cross reveals God’s love. John’s answer to why Jesus died is one word: love. “God so loved the world that he gave his son.”
  3. The cross reveals that God is here to serve us. In a symbolic act, just before his crucifixion, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. He revealed that God is in our midst, not as a formidable judge, but as our servant. This is hard to swallow. Like Peter, we know this is ridiculously unfair. God did not send the Son to make things fair. God sent the Son to love us and forgive us.
  4. The cross is God in our suffering. We have hard questions about why God allows evil but one thing we cannot say: We cannot say that God does not care or understand. The cross reveals God to be part of this groaning world. Jesus suffered because he was human, and to be human is to suffer. This is the path for all. Suffering and glory.

    [We are] heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. (Romans 8:17)
  5. The cross reveals that we are forgiven. This is not because an angry God has exacted a payment for sin by torturing his son. It is because suffering is the price of loving sinful people. Any parent with a wayward child understands this. Forgiveness means you never stop loving,  even if it kills you.  
  6. The cross shows us the way home. Adam is the archetype of wandering from home. Jesus is the archetype of returning to the Father.
  7. The cross is an invitation. The cross reveals that the Fathers arms are open, ready to receive his wayward daughters and sons. 

Through The Lens of Righteousness

As one who grew up steeped in the penal atonement idea of the cross, I found two images especially hard to shake. The idea of the passover lamb, and Paul’s description of God’s righteousness in Romans 3.

The Lamb that was slain

Jesus presented himself as the Passover lamb. We are quick to read the penal atonement theory back into the Old Testament sacrificial system. We imagine that God called on Israel to sacrifice animals to dampen the flames of his wrath. This is a misunderstanding.

In the story of the Exodus, the blood over the door, was a symbol of God’s faithfulness. The death angel passed over their houses because they were marked with the sign of life, of love, of faithfulness, not because they were marked by a symbol of death. 

Most Americans have never even killed a chicken. Blood freaks us out. Ancient people were not so squeamish. To them, blood meant life. Blood on the altar was a picture of God’s life given freely for Israel. It was not a lamb blown to bits to pacify an angry God. Temple sacrifice was a celebration God’s faithfulness to the covenant. 

The sacrifices in the Old Testament are not about appeasing a raging deity. They point forward to the cross but not as the punishment of a lamb in the place of a sinner. They point forward to the cross as the expression of God’s love. They revealed the righteousness of God.

Romans 3:21-26

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faithfulness. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

This passage is often used to support the penal atonement theory. If you read “righteousness” as “fairness” this is a natural reading of the passage. But if you recognize that “righteousness” means “doing what is right” it greatly changes your perspective.  

The first underlined phrase “the faithfulness of Jesus” is normally translated “faith in Jesus.” Both are legitimate translations of the Greek.  

“Faith in Jesus” fits the penal atonement theory. In this view, the scales of justice are leveled out when we believe in Jesus’ sacrifice. The “propitiation in His blood” is understood as the human sacrifice required by a God of wrath. This gives God the Father, who insists on perfect fairness, the right to love us, even though we are not lovely. Our sins have been paid for by Jesus so God can now accept us, though he can never look at us directly, but only through the lens of Christ’s sacrifice.

“The faithfulness of Jesus” fits the idea that God’s righteousness is a revelation of his love. In this view, the cross does not reveal an angry God but a God of love. The “propitiation in His blood” reveals how deep God’s love for us is, how far he will go to welcome us home. God’s faithfulness, God’s righteousness, and God’s suffering are all revelations of God’s love, not God’s wrath. Least of all is Jesus viewed as the target of God’s wrath. Jesus, instead, is the expression of God’s love. 

God’s righteousness is not revealed in this passage, by blasting Jesus to even out the scales. God’s righteousness is revealed in the fact that God does not insist on things being even at all. God’s righteousness is defined, not as making someone pay for sins, but as passing over sins. God is not righteous because he meticulously punishes each and every sin. God is righteous because he forgives each and every sin. It’s the right thing to do. It’s what God always does. It’s why God is perfectly righteous.  

Why God Loves You

When I look at myself it’s hard not to wonder, “Why does God love me?” God sees all the dark, creepy corners of my soul. I also know that every now and then I shine. Does God’s love vary with my behavior? Is God’s love a reaction to my loveliness? No.

God loves us for one reason and one reason only: Because God is love. Our behavior cannot alter this. God loves us. Period. 

We cannot change the fact of God’s love but we can change our experience of it. When we run from God and try to live in a fantasy where we are the center of all things, we experience God’s “rod and staff.” If we go further and make friends with evil we will experience God’s love as a burning fire. But make no mistake: God loves us, even in our wayward state—especially in our wayward state. He is the God who leaves the 99 sheep who are safely in the fold to go go after the one lost sheep. 

You might as well give in because God will never give up, not in this age nor the age to come. You might as well let God love you. 

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