For years I have been troubled by something I could not quite put my finger on. I was unable to define what was producing this vague unease as I read popular Christian writings. It’s kind of like being asked to describe what color is missing in an abstract painting.
I felt this uncomfortable sensation again reading Love Wins. Finally, yesterday it hit me. The unexpected insight was as startling as Marley’s ghost making his dramatic entrance into Scrooge’s sitting room. So, I decided to step back a little from his book and look behind and underneath to address the cause for this persistent disquiet.
I felt its force almost 10 years ago when I made my way through A New Kind of Christian by Brian MacLaren. Its impact was so intense that it seemed to compel me to write a response. For months I worked on an extended essay that would eventually bloat out at 32 pages. It was a cleansing of sorts but of what was not always clear. I had specific disagreements and listed them point by point. But, having laid them out, I knew there was something deeper—something was dreadfully amiss.
The phrase I would eventually borrow to describe my malaise was “a disquieting contrast” which is C.S. Lewis’s phrase for what he felt when he compared Christian literary theory and modern literary criticism. It was a “repugnance of atmosphere, a discordance of notes, an incompatibility of temperaments.” Christian Reflections, “Christianity and Literature,” (GR: William B. Eerdmans, Pub. Co., 1982) 3.
A few years later, my essay was refined into The God Who Smokes (thanks to my sons, who encouraged me to heed the autobiographical muse rather than the inner academic pedant). Over the years as I’ve continued listening to the cutting-edge communicators within the church, that distressing “incompatibility of temperaments” has become increasingly apparent. Not till I was a third of the way through Love Wins that at last I knew what it was. It was reading the Church Fathers that provided the reference point.
As I tell my wife, Patty, when I’m reading those exemplary men, it’s not like stepping back into another century, it’s entering another world entirely. There seems to be so much more weight and gravity there. It is disorienting because it always makes me question the flimsiness of my own reality. All the great doctors and fathers and mothers of the faith do this to me. Their universe is drenched with God. They are these amazing God-entranced humans whose intellects were welded with white-hot devotion to a glorious and loving piety. In a word, they were holy; they were saints, and I am not. And, sadly, very few who teach today are, whereas, back in the day, most were. That is why it I am wanting to make them my good friends. Maybe their holiness will wear off.
Putting down St. Chrysostom, and Jonathan Edwards (who died right before the Revolutionary War and preached blistering sermons on Hell and sermons about Heaven that make your heart break with longing), it became obvious. What has been steadily seeping out of our discourse over several decades is the humble, awe-struck recognition of majesty. This did not just happen ten years ago. It has been disappearing for several generations. But it is in this most recent generation that the resultant lightness of God’s being and immateriality has become obvious, even to those who like myself are least situationally aware.
This is the golden anniversary of a bold, prophetic book written by one of the most popular preachers of his day. His name is A.W. Tozer and the book is The Knowledge of the Holy. He wrote it in response to an appalling condition in the church which he diagnosed as “the loss of the concept of majesty from the popular religious mind.” He was convinced that in his day “the Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshipping men.”
Tozer’s book reads as though it was writing today rather than in 1961: “This loss of the concept of majesty has come just when the forces of religion are making dramatic gains and the churches are more prosperous than at any time within the past several hundred years.” All is not what it seems, he warns. “But the alarming thing is that our gains are mostly external and our losses wholly internal; and since it is the quality of our religion that is affected by internal conditions, it may be that our supposed gains are but losses spread over a wider field.”
What is so interesting to me is that Tozer is not dismayed by the assertion that God eternally punishes rebellious and unrepentant humans. He is not shocked or distressed by what Bell regards as appalling and inconceivable: that God is Someone from whom we need to be rescued. This is scandalous to sensitivities finely calibrated to sympathize with man and exclude God from the frame—sensitivities like mine and like yours.
We have all been made drunk on distilled spirits that have distorted our view of reality. Man is now great and God is made small; man’s rebellion is marginal while God’s infinite justice is monstrous. This is why Bell has to ask: “How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted?” In asking these rhetorical questions Bell discloses more than he realizes. He is unpacking for the world his view of God.
And fifty years back, with shattering lucidity Tozer reminds us that “What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. . . . For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at any given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. . . . Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech.”
The reason Bell has to express his repulsion with biting sarcasm and ironic incomprehension is because his view of God has become so very, very flat. His God is bounded by a humanist, or humane frame. God is to be judged by the same standards that govern man. He must live up to our criteria for rightness and fair play. What we learned in Kindergarten applies just as rigorously to the Creator of the Universe as it does to any five year old playing in the school yard. God has been drained of transcendent majesty and replaced with a culturally-accepted deity whose goodness prevents him from punishing those who insist on rebelling against His love.
This is also why the only sins Bell finds distressing are horizontal, as if all that ultimately matters is whether I am greedy, mean, angry, abusive, fearful, or covetous. There is no mention of hating God, of loving ourselves more than Him, of ignoring God and refusing to submit to His commands. That we steal God’s glory for ourselves and want to be praised, honored and worshipped as little gods, does not crack the top 20 of big sins for which I should feel bad, much less repent. That we think about our own reputations but care less about whether Jesus is known, loved and served by those who have never heard of Him never ever comes up in the conversation.
In Bell’s cosmology God’s deepest longing and mankind’s greatest need is for humans to love each other and the environment well. “God has been looking for partners since the beginning,” he writes, “people who will take seriously their divine responsibility to care for the earth and each other, in loving, sustainable ways.” Love Wins, 36. I am hard pressed to come up with one Scripture that would support Bell’s reduction. But I admit, it does sound sweet, just like the idea of a God who is too nice to punish humans eternally.
The problem is that our view of God is not dictated by what is emotionally or even logically appealing. We do not have the freedom to make Him up as we go, or to redefine Him to make Him palatable to the fickle flights of public opinion. God stands over and against all our wishful thinking and shatters it with these words: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in any form . . . for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Dt. 5:8-10).
Tozer issues a warning: “Among the sins to which the human heart is prone, hardly any other is more hateful to God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on His character. The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than He is—in itself a monstrous sin—and substitutes for the true God one made after its own likeness. . . A god begotten in the shadows of the fallen heart will quite naturally be no true likeness of the true God.”
This brilliant teacher very helpfully simplifies a concept that we make unnecessarily complex: “The essence of idolatry,” he explains, “is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him.” And this raises the obvious question: Where do we get correct thoughts about God? The answer is very simple: from reading His self-disclosure in the Bible, from beginning to its end—not just the parts in the middle we like.
Our conception of God will need to be imprinted with the full and unedited revelation of Himself. This will include the disclosure of His direct involvement in sending a flood, ordering the annihilation of seven Canaanite nations, burning two towns, punishing His people with the armies of Assyria and Babylon, and then fatally crushing His Beloved Son on the cross.
But it will not stop there, it will continue all the way to the end of the Epic in which it is revealed that this Son returns, revealing the blazing eyes of a Father at War. It will not shrink back from acknowledging that the Lamb who was slain will one day be the Lion who Reigns, from whose wrath men will free in terror. It will not close its eyes at the blood spattered vestments of this Warrior for Righteousness who “treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” and on whose thigh are written the words: “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Rev. 19:15-16).
Why does a right view of God matter so much? Only a right view of God can produce a right view of self says Tozer. Only the person who has been overwhelmed with God’s beauty, majesty and transcendence can understand the significance of his failure to love and worship this God acceptably. And it is this conviction that drives the man to the cross for forgiveness and compels him to take up his cross and follow Jesus.
A right view of God alone makes the gospel intelligible. Tozer explains, “The gospel can lift this destroying burden from the mind, give beauty for ashes, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. But unless the weight of the burden is felt the gospel can mean nothing to the man; and until he sees a vision of God high and lifted up, there will be no woe and no burden. Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them.”
Contrary to what Bell implies, the higher the view of God, the more intense and the depictions of future judgment. Paul, Peter and John give us the most terrifying descriptions of an eternal, fiery punishment awaiting those who refuse to come to Christ, yet they are the ones who keep interrupting their letters with almost involuntary doxologies. They keep getting overwhelmed with God’s greatness, not man’s or creation’s.
John, the beloved disciple, “the apostle of love” is the most brutal and unflinching. He prophesies unapologetically that every man who rebels against the love of God and “worships the beast and his image” will be required to drink a cup filled “with the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of His wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur . . . and the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who received the mark of his name” (Rev. 14:9-11).
If you were to ask John, the apostle of love, “who wins at the end?” you would see his face suddenly enthralled with the majestic worth of his beloved Lord, and he would answer you without hesitation: “The Lamb wins, of course. The Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world, the one to whom cherubim, angels, elders and holy martyrs sing eternally: ‘Worthy are you to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength, honor and glory and praise—forever and ever and ever.’”
And it is only those who can sing that song that can recognize the wisdom and justice of an eternal Hell.