God is surprisingly kinder and gentler than most theologians have been telling us
Why does this happen? Is God punishing me for something I’ve done? When something unpleasant or tragic happens to us, we often ask similar questions.
If you have this tendency, you’re not alone. Have you ever wondered why?
People tend to think of God first as a Judge. They may not consciously realize it but the judge-first view of God is almost universal.
Many people blame God for natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Even insurance companies try to exempt from coverage for “acts of God”. Dystopian movies are often based on a “judgment day” when catastrophes strike, implying some higher power imposing judgement. It seems almost universal that we blame God for bad things that we can’t control.
Responses like this, rightly or wrongly, reveal our intuitive view of God as a judge — a punisher of sinners and their wrongdoings.
I can’t explain why on behalf of all people and religions. I can, however, as a Christian, explain how all this got started. It is a popular misinterpretation of the very first story about disobedience in the Bible: the story about the forbidden fruit. Most Christians are familiar with the story and I’ll summarize it here.
God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden. Everything in the Garden was there for Adam and Eve to care for and enjoy, except for the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God said, “For in that day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17, emphasis mine)
The serpent tempted Eve. She took the fruit, ate it, and shared it with Adam. They then realized for the first time they were naked and they saw the need to cover themselves, inventing the fashion industry. God came to visit them, but they were afraid and hid. When God confronted them, Adam blamed Eve and God, and Eve blamed the serpent.
Most Bible scholars teach that God pronounced a sentence of death as punishment for their disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit. But what kind of death? We need to understand what life and death mean in the Bible.
The Bible teaches about two kinds of death — the death of the body and the death of the spirit or soul. Humans, starting with Adam and Eve, were created with eternal souls. Christians believe life continues after physical life ends, one way or another.
There was immediacy in God’s pronouncement of death when God warned Adam and Eve of the consequence of eating the fruit. Some translations used the word “when” but the original language (Hebrew) has the more emphatic meaning of imminence: “as soon as”, “on that very day”, or “at that time”.
They obviously didn’t die physically immediately — there would be no human race if they had. Therefore, the most logical conclusion is the immediate death of spiritual life.
But what is this spiritual life? The Bible teaches that people’s spirits are alive if they have a loving relationship with God. On the contrary, the spirit is dead when there is no loving relationship with God. This “relational” interpretation of life is common in our thinking. For example, if we say that a marriage is dead, we infer that the loving relationship between the couple is gone, although they may still be legally related in a marriage.
Therefore, if there was an immediate death, God must have referred to the death of the loving relationship among them. It’s a common belief that this death of relationship was punishment from God for their disobedience.
Traditional doctrine says that the consequence of sin is separation from God because a holy and righteous God can’t accept the presence of sin and sinners. Therefore, when spiritual death occurred, Adam and Eve couldn’t enjoy God’s presence any longer. God kept His promise and carried out the death sentence. God terminated loving relationship as penalty for their disobedience.
This doctrine got it all wrong.
Adam and Eve were the ones who terminated the loving relationship, not God. To see that, we need to get into a little more detail.
God knows everything — an ignorant god is no God at all. God must have known Adam and Eve had disobeyed Him. The Bible tells us God came into the Garden in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve heard Him coming, became afraid, and hid from God. God asked, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8–10)
Who was seeking whose fellowship? Who was hiding from whom?
We can compare this to our own family experiences. In the evening, when I came home from work, I often called from the door, “Where are you?” or “Is anybody home?” I knew my family was home, but I hadn’t seen them yet. Seeking their company and announcing my presence, I called out to them. God knew Adam and Eve were in Eden and called to them, seeking their fellowship.
Adam and Eve, after they ate the fruit and when God came looking for them, they hid out of fear.
This was a pivotal moment in the relationship between humanity and God. For the first time, Adam and Eve, the first humans, became afraid of God. The perfect loving relationship God had established with the human race came to an end. In 1 John 4:18, the Bible says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear… [those who fear] have not been made perfect in love.”
Adam and Eve had no previous fear of God. But when they became afraid, the loving relationship ended. Adam and Eve ended their spiritual life not so much when they disobeyed, but when they hid from God’s presence. We know God didn’t intend to end their relationship because he still sought them out. Adam and Eve hid from God’s desire for fellowship and brought death to the loving relationship.
God knew what disobedience would do to their relationship. He knew the loving relationship between them would be broken. He knew spiritual death would surely happen. But this death wasn’t God pronouncing a sentence for disobedience as a judge. This death was the result of one party turning away from the loving relationship. God didn’t curse Adam and Eve and the human race. He had warned them what would happen if they were to disobey.
If I were to tell my children, “If you run across a six-lane highway during rush hour, you shall surely get run over,” I wouldn’t be passing a sentence on them. Neither would I be announcing a punishment for disobedience. It would be more like a prediction, a warning, or a deterrent.
Unfortunately, the traditional interpretation of God’s prediction as a sentence has distorted the understanding of God in Genesis Chapter Two, at the beginning of the Bible.
Knowing is not imposing; warning is not sentencing.
But wait! There’s more.
A loving relationship requires at least two parties. We must remember that God initiated and shared this relationship with Adam and Eve out of love. When this relationship died, the impact extended beyond Adam and Eve. It extended to God also.
Is it possible for God, having been an integral part of this relationship, to have experienced death as a result of the end of the loving relationship with Adam and Eve?
Oswald Chambers, in My Utmost for His Highest, reputably the most popular Christian devotional, expresses the same concept in the June 23 entry:
If sin rules in me, God’s life in me will be killed; if God rules in me, sin in me will be killed. There is nothing more fundamental than that. The culmination of sin was the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and what was true in the history of God on earth will also be true in your history and in mine — that is, sin will kill the life of God in us.
God lives in Christians through the Holy Spirit. Some call God’s life in Christians “the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit isn’t the impersonal universal Force in Star Wars. God relates to us and experiences life with us through the Holy Spirit. When we sin, Chambers says that we kill the life of God in us. I agree.
God is eternal; God never dies. Therefore, it would be a stretch to say that Adam and Eve caused God’s death. However, if we could try to understand God’s perspective, we could see, even if just a tiny bit, that God experienced the pain of the death of this loving relationship.
We are not God. We do not love perfectly. All of us love imperfectly. No matter how much we love someone, we always withhold a little bit for self-protection. There is always some point, when we are forsaken, we would say, “Enough is enough!” and withdraw our love. But God isn’t like us. God loves perfectly, totally, and unendingly.
We also know that the more we love, the more we hurt when we’re forsaken. The more we love, the more vulnerable we become. The more vulnerable we become, the more deeply it hurts when our love is spurned or betrayed.
God loves without holding back. God loves with complete vulnerability. I don’t think any human is capable of fully understanding the depth of God’s love and the extremity of God’s pain when we spurn or betray God. I don’t think any of us could know the severity of God’s pain when Adam and Eve disobeyed and turned away from Him.
God wasn’t surprised by what Adam and Eve had done. He knew what would happen when Adam and Eve sinned. He announced to Adam and Eve the consequence of their sin, not as a curse but as a warning.
Again — knowing is not imposing; warning is not sentencing.
God did not cause Adam and Eve to die or issue a sentence as a judge. God warned them of the deadly consequences of disobedience, just like what any loving parent would do when their children do anything that is life-threatening.
Is it possible that this almost-universal misguiding doctrine of God as Judge is behind the bigotry and judgmental attitude of so many Christians? Is it possible that those who judge LGBTQ people think they are following their supreme Judge? Is it possible that those Christian parents who disown their LGBTQ children and throw them out of their homes and churches mistakenly think they are doing what God would do?
(I’m not implying LGBTQ gender orientation is sinful or disobedience according to the Bible. In fact I don’t think it is.)
Most Christians know The Lord’s Prayer by heart. Jesus taught his followers this prayer when they asked Jesus to show them how to pray, and Jesus started with Our Father who is heaven. Jesus wants us to relate to God as Parent, not as Judge.
There are other well-established doctrines that erroneously reinforce the judge-first view of God. If this resonates with some readers, I will further present more parent-first views of God to debunk other judge-first doctrines.
Please let me know what you think, whether you agree or not.