I went to see Clash of the Titans tonight at the cheap theatres. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t worthy of an Oscar – then again, I never thought it would be. I was, however, intrigued by the image of Zeus that the filmmakers portrayed. The film opens during a period of war between the Greek gods and humankind. The viewer sees Zeus and the other gods convened on Mount Olympus wondering about how to respond. Zeus is very angry the people of Greece. He shouts (as closely as I can remember): “This is what they do to me? I create them out of love and they respond with ingratitude and disobedience! They must pay for their treachery!” Zeus is wondering about an adequate way of punishing the people when his brother Hades shows up, saying: “You love the humans too well, brother. You do not need their love. I have learned to live off their pain and fear.” After some time, Zeus is in part persuaded by Hades and lets him release the Kraken on humanity as a punishment for their fighting against the gods. Zeus here is portrayed as a volatile and capricious deity who, true enough, first reaches out in love but then, when rebuffed by humanity, seeks vengeance. It is a bone-chilling scene and one which reeks of our human (and therefore sin-tainted) ideas about love and justice. I can very easily see many people I know (perhaps even myself….) reacting in a similar way. This is no god that I would care to worship.
And yet, the picture of the Judeo-Christian God that we so often paint is nearly identical to Zeus. He loves us, we say, but watch out, because he may withdraw that love if we are disobedient and lay waste to our lives and plans as a punishment for that disobedience. In fact, we reason, God has no choice but to repay such blatant acts of disobedience with violent retribution because his sense of honour and holiness has been violated and therefore demands the shedding of blood if his anger and vengeance be satiated. To let such rejection pass would somehow diminish his honour and taint his holiness. But isn’t this sense of pride and wrong-doing, as well as the quest for vengeance and justice, behind much of the violence we see in the world today? Should it not make us even a little bit uncomfortable to realize that the God we so lovingly worship might act in such a manner? True, he decides to direct this wrath and punishment toward Jesus instead of we who rightly deserve it, but he still unleashes this violence all the same.
Later on in the film, Hades in fact makes this remark: “Choose either life or death. This is the will of the Father: sacrifice by blood.” This something terrifying, vulgar, barbaric and medieval about such a deity. It may shock many of us (it certainly did me!) to learn that this way of thinking and the model of atonement to which it corresponds — called the “penal substitutionary” or “satisfaction” model — was formulated by Anselm of Canterbury in his book, Cur Deus Homo (1098). And yet, it is touted by Catholics and many Protestants as one and only truly Christian view of the cross, as if the sacrifice of Christ has always and everywhere been understood in this way. Now, this is the deity that we think we encounter in the Bible: one who sends his Son as the necessary blood-sacrifice that will satiate his wrath and need for vengeance. True, he is “gracious” enough to put the Son in our place, but do I care to worship such a bloodthirsty God?
The crux of the matter is this: Is love truly love so long as it is so conditional on our acceptance of it? If God is a Father, should we not expect him to act as a good earthly Father would (and even go beyond that?) and continue to hold out his love and grace to a child who did not want to accept it? Would we not call any father who flew into a rage and smashed something because of the rejection of his love a terrible Father and equally bad example to that child? Would not the child, having seen such a display, at some level come to think that such a response to shunned love is appropriate and thus begin to subject his or her own family to such behaviours? Does it make sense, then, to claim that God ought to send down his burning wrath and vengeance (on Jesus, in our case) in response to a shunned love, especially having just taught, through the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that we ought to love our enemies and continue to show them mercy until they final come to realize their wicked ways? An arbitrary and conditional love cannot be a real love, so God, who is true love, as 1 John says, cannot logically display such a Zeus-like retributive streak.
It is true that there are many problems with such a theory as I am discussing. Certainly we see a God in the OT who does appear to be a fickle and angry as any ancient deity. I would say to this that many of the scenes (though by no means all!) of punishment we do see in the Old Testament are ones through which the people are taught a lesson and chastised, not punished out of mere wounded pride. The Lord brings destruction on Jerusalem for their own good, that they might be turned back to the Lord, the only one who can give them true life.
One might say that God can do whatever he wants, because he is God, and he makes the rules, commanding us to live by them even when he is not prepared to do so. Didn’t Jesus harshly criticize those religious leaders who piled an endless burden of laws on the people but who were not prepared themselves to attempt to fulfill them? (Mt. 23:4). I find such a statement to be logically insufficient and emotionally unsatisfying. God cannot create a square circle because this is a contradiction and God cannot do what is logically contradictory and therefore cannot act in a way contrary to his revealed nature. There are no moral systems are guidelines to which God is subject except those which he creates for himself. For example, God enters into a covenant with Abraham. He need not have done that, but afterward, having done so and being incapable of deceit, must act accordingly. Likewise, anything revealed or taught about God in the Bible forms the parameters within which he is free to act. Therefore, if Jesus teaches about loving the enemy and commands us to live a life of non-violence and active peacemaking (so says the Mennonite in me), then we ought to expect the Father to operate in the same way. True, there will always be apparent inconsistencies, but on the whole this ought to be true, and therefore as it pertains to the great matter of our salvation.
It is true that there are things in Scripture that seem to contradict the idea of an unceasingly loving and gracious God, but there also abound lots of Scriptures which a very convincing case against a penal substitutionary or satisfaction model of atonement and the wrathful God who requires sacrifices in order to forgives sins that such a view necessitates. Can we then with confidence say to others, as a man in Clash of the Titans does: “Let us pray to him who offers us his redemption by blood”?
To all this I would say two things: (1) Don’t be afraid to travel down and blaze new theological trails just because there are some inconsistencies in a new (or possibly not very new) theory that captures your imagination and allows you to appreciate the Lord in a new and deeper way. If you look hard enough at what you believe now, you will see things in the Bible that seem to contradict it. I say be rigorous in your analysis of Scripture on an issue such as this, but do not be crippled by fear and a handful of inconsistencies when the greater weight of evidence and the logic of Scripture appears to be on your side. Don’t hide such inconsistencies – in fact, put them front and centre and own them – and never give up the search for answers to these problems. Don’t be afraid to explore and discuss new ideas just because they contradict or challenge what you or your denomination has always held to be true. As a an amateur historian I do believe that it is vital to pay due respect to the past, to properly understand what it can teach us, and to allow the past and venerable traditions to inform our decision-making process, but the truth of the Scripture (so far as we accurately understand it) must win out. You need not accept a new and radical idea, but never shut something down just because it is uncomfortable. (3) Never make a major theological shift or decision in isolation. Speak with people who know more than you do and whom you know will likely disagree with you as often as you have discussions with those in your camp. Read articles from both sides. Find out what the Bible itself has to say about it, and see if you can interpret all the relevant texts from all the vantage points.
Even as I write this, I am unsure of where I fall on this and whether I might be willing to eschew the current orthodoxy in favour of something that I (and many other eminent scholars today) may come to believe matches far better with actual Bible texts and the logic of Jesus’ own preaching and mission. I am, however, as you might have been able to tell, very intrigued at such a prospect and am leaning that way as I myself begin a thorough search of the Scriptures. I would appreciate any and all thoughts and reflections on this post or anything else you may have read on this now widely-discussed and highly contentious subject.