I’ve recently been listening to a series of lectures from Muslim and Christian theologians called “A Common Word,” on the concept of “The Love of God,” where it is–frustratingly–presented by both groups as a self-evident truth. And while I appreciate the sentiment, without a theology that is firmly and exclusively rooted in the Cross, saying that “God is Love” is just that–a sentiment.

This morning, I ran across an article in Slate.com by David Plotz, which made me wonder if he had been listening to the same series. The article has the inauspicious title,“Good Book: What I Learned from Reading the Bible,” and opens:

After spending a year with the good book, I’ve become a full-on Bible thumper. Everyone should read it—all of it! In fact, the less you believe, the more you should read. Let me explain why, in part by telling how
reading the whole Bible has changed me.

This certainly caught my attention. As I was blithely reading along about how the origins of many of our literary and cultural allusions can be traced to the Bible, how there are some really great stories, how it has helped him appreciate the Judaism of his youth, etc., etc., I suddenly came across the following section which violently wrenched me out of my casual morning reading:

You notice that I haven’t said anything about belief. I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn’t really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I’m brokenhearted about God.

He continues:

After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

When I complain to religious friends about how much He dismays me, I usually get one of two responses. Christians say: Well, yes, but this is all setup for the New Testament. Reading only the Old Testament is like leaving halfway through the movie. I’m missing all the redemption. If I want to find the grace and forgiveness and wonder, I have to read and believe in the story of Jesus Christ, which explains and redeems all. But that doesn’t work for me. I’m a Jew. I don’t, and can’t, believe that Christ died for my sins. And even if he did, I still don’t think that would wash away God’s crimes in the Old Testament.
The second response tends to come from Jews, who razz me for missing the chief lesson of the Hebrew Bible, which that we can’t hope to understand the ways of God. If He seems cruel or petty, that’s because we can’t fathom His plan for us. But I’m not buying that, either. If God made me, He made me rational and quizzical. He has given me the tools to think about Him. So I must submit Him to rational and moral inquiry. And He fails that examination. Why would anyone want to be ruled by a God who’s so unmerciful, unjust, unforgiving, and unloving?”

Having clearly expended his emotional energy on these passages, he concludes–Q.E.D.–the article with a whimpering, obligatory postmodern nod to the (supposed) intrinsic value of doubt as he, evidently, retreats back to agnosticism; however, the anger-cat is out of the bag, he has clearly played his hand, and I’m glad he did.

Sometimes it takes a complete outsider, or in this case, a self-described “lax, non-Hebrew-speaking Jew” to point out clearly the seeming absurdity of faith in a God of Love. And while his arguments are nothing new, they are gathering more and more cultural traction as people are becoming increasingly less content with the tired, pat answers for the existence of pain and suffering in light of an all-powerful God. The growing popularity of the (so-called) “new Atheist” movement is fueled, in part, by an ever-increasingly vacuous and vapid response from the Christian church.

The profession that God is Love, in the face of both experienced and recorded human history, is not a self-evident truth; it is a profession of faith, and, as Hebrews 11:1 states, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”In The Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther’s treatise against David Plotz–I mean Erasmus–he describes this in customarily stark relief:

Now, the highest degree of faith is to believe that He is merciful, though He saves so few and damns so many; to believe that He is just, though of His own will He makes us perforce proper subjects for damnation, and seems (in Erasmus’ words) ‘to delight in the torments of poor wretches and to be a fitter object for hate than for love.’ If I could by any means understand how this same God, who makes such a show of wrath and unrighteousness, can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need for faith.(101)”

Outside of the message of the Cross the statement “The Love of God” is patronizing and meaningless, and even that we proclaim–sola fide–by faith alone.