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T

A Demonic Picture of God
Author Unknown
Updated: 03/19/2020

How a young (and naive) philosophy major encounters Western theology for the first time

By cast of mind I tend to be rather conservative. So when I first encountered the argument from evil as an undergraduate, my instinct was to turn to the great theologians of the past upon whose shoulders I was quite prepared to stand. Little did I anticipate, however, the shock and the crisis of faith in store for me when I did just that. For though it came as a complete surprise to me, I found the writings of Christian theologians to be far more disturbing--and a far greater threat to my faith, as I then understood it--than those of any atheistic thinker whom I had encountered. The problem was that I kept bumping up against this awkward fact: I seemed unable to find a single mainline Christian theologian who truly believed, any more than my atheistic professor did, in a loving God. They all claimed to believe in a just and a holy God, but this God seemed not to care enough about created persons even to will or to desire the good for all of them. And anything less than a perfectly loving God, I was already persuaded, would be far worse than no God at all. So in the end, the shock of discovering what the mainline theologians actually taught--and asked me to believe--precipitated a very real crisis of faith.

Part of the problem may have been the "authorities" to whom I then turned and the filter through which I then viewed the tradition. One of the first things I read, even before turning to the great theologians of the past, was a book that a friend of mine had recommended: Gordon Clark's Religion, Reason, and Revelation. Clark is what some might call a "hyper-Calvinist" or "double predestinarian"; he believed that, even before the foundation of the world, God had already foreordained that some would be saved and others lost forever. It is all predetermined. According to Clark, God causes us to sin and then punishes us for it; in the case of the reprobate, those whom he chooses to reject, God will punish them throughout eternity for sins that he himself caused them to commit.

And his punishment, furthermore, will be just, since whatever God does is just solely and only because he does it. Here are a couple of examples of what I read:

God is the sole ultimate cause of everything. . . . The men and angels     predestined to eternal life and those foreordained to everlasting death are particularly and unchangeably designed [my emphasis]; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished. Election and reprobation are equally ultimate. God determined that Christ should die; he determined as well that Judas should betray him. There was never the remotest possibility that something different could have happened p. 238). [See note 1]

God is neither responsible nor sinful, even though he is the only ultimate cause of everything. He is not sinful because in the first place whatever God does is just and right. It is just and right simply in virtue of the fact that he does it. Justice or righteousness is not a standard external to God to which God is obligated to submit. Righteousness is what God does. Since God caused Judas to betray Christ, this causal act is righteous and not sinful. By definition God cannot sin. At this point it must be particularly pointed out that God's causing a man to sin is not sin. There is no law, superior to God, which forbids him to decree sinful acts (p. 239-240). [See note 2]

I was utterly dumfounded when I read such passages as these, and I searched the book in vain for at least an echo of the love of God as I had learned of it at my mother's knee. If this was an example of sophisticated Christian thinking, I wanted nothing to do with it. I assumed initially that Clark's was simply an aberrant way of thinking, an idiosyncratic view at odds with the tradition. But then, the more closely I looked at the tradition, the more I seemed to find the worst of Clark almost everywhere. Wherever I turned--whether it be to such Protestant Reformers as Martin Luther and John Calvin or to such philosophical theologians as St. Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, and even St. Thomas Aquinas--I seemed to find the same narrow predestinarian theology, the same exclusivism, the same attempt to restrict God's mercy to a chosen few. Augustine, whose name I had been taught to revere long before I became acquainted with his thought, extends his conception of God's limited mercy even to children, arguing that God will reject, and eternally separate himself from, even some who die in infancy; after all, he says, they are all drawn from a corrupt mass anyway (see Enchiridion, XXIV and XXV). The more I read, the more bewildered I became and the more convinced I became that Clark's view was no aberration at all; that he had simply made explicit, and with greater consistency, a demonic picture of God that pervades Western theology. And the deeper I delved into the mainline theologians in search of a theology of love, the more I seemed to find, lurking beneath the surface, a theology of arbitrary power.

It was, then, the writings of Christian thinkers and Christian theologians, not the argument from evil per se, that precipitated my own crisis of faith. I turned to the great theologians of the past in the confidence that they would help me to formulate a convincing theodicy--that is, a convincing reply to the argument from evil--but what I found in them disturbed me far more than did the arguments of my atheistic professor (with whom I had a very cordial relationship). I knew instinctively that I could never worship a God who is less kind, less merciful, less loving than my own parents, but that is just what I seemed to encounter in the mainstream of Western theology: a God who, though gracious (after a fashion) to some (the elect), refuses to will the good for others (the non-elect). And I could not imagine my parents refusing to will the good for anyone.

Even more disturbing to me at the time was the curious fact that those who seemed to have the greatest respect for, and the most intimate knowledge of, the Bible--those who actually knew Greek for example!--were precisely those whose theology I found most appalling. I'll probably never forget the time, after a long and heated argument with the pastor of a Calvinistic church, that I read carefully Romans 9 for the first time. I was not only shocked; I fell into a deep depression as well. This was as bad as Gordon Clark! Of course it never occurred to me at the time that I was simply reading Clark into the text, or that my naive view of revelation needed considerable modification. What did occur to me was that the message of the text seemed clear: According to Paul, God loved Jacob but hated Esau; and not only that, God has divided the entire human race into vessels of mercy, or objects of his love, and vessels of wrath, or objects of his hatred. Concerning such teaching, moreover, the Apostle seemed to ask exactly the right questions (first about justice and then about finding fault), but his answers seemed utterly absurd in the first case and not a real answer at all in the second. In the end, I decided I could no longer be a Christian in any orthodox sense.

If Paul really taught, as Augustine and many of the Protestant Reformers insist he did, that God restricts his mercy to a chosen few, then Paul was, if not an outright fraud, just another confused and small-minded religious zealot. I believed that then, and I continue to believe it today.

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