Monday, October 09, 2006

3. A Critical God

Happy Monday everyone!

Today I am going to post the third in my series on God. We come to the Critical God and issues of judgement and the after life. This fits rather well with where I am in the series on Changing our View of God and I will be writing about God and Judgement later in the week. It is perhaps here more than anywhere that the modern church departs from the beliefs of previous generations. I was reading the other day a prayer in the old Book of Common Prayer. It is not only the language (so beloved by some) that is different, it is the the whole theological air that it breathes (ignored by all). I doubt, for example, that the Commination Service has been used in a church near you recently. As the sub-title explains this is a service 'Denouncing of God's anger and judgement against sinners.' Do those who argue that we should still use the Book of Common Prayer because of its 'beautiful language' ever stop to think about what the language means, I wonder.

Anyway, it may be appropriate to begin this week with a prayer from the service, which I do think beautiful and not simply because of its language:

O MOST mighty God, and merciful Father, who hast compassion upon all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made; who wouldest not the death of a sinner, but that he should rather turn from his sin, and be saved: Mercifully forgive us our trespasses; receive and comfort us, who are grieved and wearied with the burden of our sins. Thy property is always to have mercy; to thee only it appertaineth to forgive sins. Spare us therefore, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed; enter not into judgement with thy servants, who are vile earth, and miserable sinners; but so turn thine anger from us, who meekly acknowledge our vileness, and truly repent us of our faults, and so make haste to help us in this world, that we may ever live with thee in the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

3. A Critical God

In this series on God, I have been looking at the four views of God identified by researchers of the Baylor Institute through a major new survey into the religious beliefs of Americans. So far, we have seen that there was an authoritarian God and a Benevolent God. While, in many ways, these two views of God are very different what they have in common is that they both see God as being intimately involved and engaged in the world. One who tells us what we should do and who punishes us if we don’t, and One who accepts us as we are and who forgives us if we foul up. The next two views, however, do not see God as having much of a role in the here and now. The first of these is the Critical God.

‘Believers in a Critical God feel that God really does not interact with the world. Nevertheless, God still observes the world and views the current state of the world unfavorably. These individuals feel that God’s displeasure will be felt in another life and that divine justice may not be of this world.’

On this view, this world is a theatre where we play out our lives as best we can and then, in the next life, we will receive either reward, for having done well, or punishment, for having done badly. My experience is that this is not a popular view of God amongst religious believers, and this is confirmed by the survey. Only 16% of Americans were found to believe in this sort of God. It goes against much contemporary Christian teaching in which God is seen as being active in his world, caring passionately about what happens to it and to its creatures in the here and now. Furthermore, contemporary Christians don’t believe in hell, and if you remove hell, or at least remove what it stands for, then judgement rather loses its meaning anyway. Judgement, after all, implies some sentence to follow it.

The Bible certainly does portray God as active in history and in the world. He has an opinion on what happens now and intervenes to bring about his will. He doesn’t just leave it to us only getting involved at the end. He’s there at the beginning in the middle and at the end. One of the most damning things that can be said of anyone in the modern church is that they are ‘too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use’. Consequently, Christians are much involved in social action, politics, and the affairs of this world. We pray for leaders and world events. We busy ourselves in issues of peace and justice.

Much of this is a reaction to the Christianity of previous generations, which upheld the existing social order and argued that religion and politics don’t mix. The Gospel was about going to heaven when you die and not about the world in which you live. Hell was a reality and often portrayed in sadistic terms. It seemed as if God got pleasure out of burning people in its fire. As for this world, it was destined for destruction anyway, why waste time trying to improve it or preserve it?

But have we perhaps gone too far in the opposite direction? Are we now so involved in earthly affairs that we have forgotten that there is a heaven and a hell? The Bible does warn us that we all must appear before the judgement seat of Christ to account for the deeds we have done in the body? The Bible does not only speak of rewards it also speaks of punishment too. While rightly we have rejected primitive views of hell as a place of torment and pain, we should not forget the passages of the Bible upon which they are based. This world is God’s and it does matter. But heaven matters too, and we should not give the impression it doesn’t.

While we may not like the idea of a critical God this should not lead us to reject the idea of a God who does have an opinion of us and of what we do, and who will one day pass judgement on our lives. This may seem scary and frightening, but if we are to believe in Jesus, this was exactly what he taught. Perhaps in our desire for a God who approves of us and of what we do, we have forgotten that there is a distinct possibility that he may not.

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