Like many modern evangelicals, my faith was grounded in a concept of an inspired, inerrant, and infallible Bible that forced me to embrace ideas and images of God that seemed incoherently inconsistent.  In Jesus, God is peace-loving, merciful and kind. He forgives and even loves his enemies. His Father is worthy of our trust, love, and worship because of an intrinsic goodness, faithfulness, and fairness that characterizes his very essence.  And yet this God is also vengeful and angry and will practice retributive violence upon those who do not trust and obey him. He brings difficulty, pain and suffering into the lives of those who are wayward in an attempt to lead them to a change of heart, but if they refuse his correction, he will bring the full force of his vengeance upon them and cast them into a lake of fire on the day of judgment where they will spend eternity paying for their sins and suffering the consequences of their unbelief with no opportunity for reprieve.  Merciful on one hand, merciless on the other.

I was supposed to love and trust God with all my heart with a love that casts out all fear, and yet fear of this two-faced God was always invisibly present.   Every time I sinned, I waited for the hammer to fall. And when it did, whether truly a consequence of my sin or not, I assumed I was being punished.  I could never really be sure that I was OK with God—that He was happy, even pleased with me. I knew he was happy with Jesus, and I knew I was safe in Jesus, but his Father seemed austere. I tried, but I had a hard time opening my heart fully. I never enjoyed punishment as a child. I escaped it as often as possible, lying when necessary. But God is everywhere and sees everything. There is no escape. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in confession and repentance. An inordinate amount of time to be honest. I was afraid of punishment. Was God merciful or merciless at any given moment?

These contrasting images of a merciful, merciless God then became the basis for my relationships with others.  On one hand they lead me down a path of exclusion and separation from those whose beliefs and behaviors were not like mine.  And yet, I was also supposed to engage and reach out to them, showing love and kindness and offering hope in the gospel. But I couldn’t get too close so I wouldn’t be corrupted by their sinful attitudes and behaviors.  I was cautiously compassionate. I was judgmental and yet hopeful that somehow others might escape the wrath of God and get on his good side so they could see the merciful side.  The way to that was by believing the gospel. 

The gospel I offered as “hope” perfectly reflected this tension between gracious forgiveness and unforgiving retribution.  God is love, but he is also holy, as if these are assumed to be mutually exclusive. His holiness demands that he punish sin, which in the case of an unrepentant sinner requires physical and eternal death.  His love for us, however, means that he doesn’t want to punish us. He will never force us to act against our free will, yet He is grieved by the idea that we have exercised our free will in a way that has chosen sin over obedience.  But because of his retributive nature, his hands are tied, justice demands punishment of all wrongdoing.

So, God thought long and hard about this and came up with a brilliant plan, actually it was devised long before anything in creation ever existed.  He figured out a way to be both loving and just. He would himself take the sinners punishment and let them off scot free. After all, if they got even a small dose of what they actually deserved, they would experience eternity in hell.  It only takes one sin to make one a sinner. It only takes one broken law to make one a lawbreaker.

The gist of the plan was this: Jesus, like an innocent lamb, would be sacrificed in a bloody death on the cross in order for God’s justice to be satisfied.  As an infinite God-man, his death could somehow become an equivalent payment for all the transgressions of every person who had ever lived. Then, in a radical economic reversal, the righteousness of Jesus would be transferred to the ledger account of the sinner, who is now justified before God, having been pardoned by the grace of God.

The conditional, contractual gospel is essentially means that you deserve to die because of your sins, but because God loves you, he will allow you to exercise your free will and choose to accept or reject this limited offer made in Jesus.  If you repent of your sin, and believe in his Son and confess that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved. That is, your sins will be forgiven, you will be born again, you will receive God’s Spirit, and you will have passed from death to life, from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God.  If however, you choose to reject the gospel, you will face justice meaning that you will fully pay for your sins and, as you were warned, this means being permanently shut out of heaven in outer darkness and cast into a like of fire for eternity.

Now of course, not everyone who reads the Bible comes up with this version of things.  Still, I think it is fair to say that those who include the words “infallible” and “inerrant” to describe the Bible as the only rule for their faith and practice in their doctrinal statements are fairly agreed upon this version of the gospel.  In other words, we believe everything else we believe about God, man, the world, the world-to-come because this is what an “inspired” and “inerrant” Bible seems to say. We must believe these things literally as the Bible presents them on the very surface, because that is what the Bible requires us to believe.

I get it.  That is where I lived for more than 35 years as a Bible College and Seminary student, staff-pastor, church-planter, and senior pastor.  I was taught to “just live with” the tension of these images of God. An inerrant Bible produces a vengeful, angry God who practices sacred violence to satisfy the terms of a retributive model of justice.  Such a view requires a gospel of penal substitution that is contractual (human consent) and conditional (sufficient repentance and faith). Yes, it was clear that Jesus somehow seemed different from all this, but there were just too many texts that were stumbling blocks that ultimately trumped a belief that God was just like Jesus.  God could not be just like Jesus because God commanded retributive violence, even the death penalty, genocide and even infanticide in the writings of Moses and others.

So, I concluded that Jesus must have really been like that too.  

Yes, he taught mercy and forgiveness in his earthly ministry, but once he got to heaven and started winding things down, his true nature would be revealed: he was going to come back to earth as a violent warrior and lead the charge against all the rebellion of a wicked humanity. Then he would judge the world in righteousness and only a remnant would be saved.  Even some of his own teachings seem to clearly support the idea of God as full of wrath, preparing to judge the world after his grace is rescinded when the limited offer has expired. Sheep and goats.  Outer darkness.  Eternal torment.  Fire and brimstone.  And Paul surely understood Jesus this way. God is furious and angry and will come back to earth with flaming fire taking vengeance upon all those who do not know God. It was all pretty clear.  Unquestionably clear.

So, I believed and faithfully taught these things for 35 years.  The longer I did though, the emptier and more insecure I became.  I could feel the tension churning in my stomach. I stopped sleeping.  I found myself struggling with guilt and shame and anxiety. I tried to control my fear of failure, fear of rejection and abandonment (childhood issues that had never been addressed in 35 years of ministry) with perfectionism and spirituality.  When that didn’t work I took prescription sleeping pills, started drinking and looking at pornography.  I spent much of my time confessing and repenting of my sin but somehow could never find enough traction to ever get complete victory over my lust, pride, doubt, and fear. I was in a downward spiral for about six years.

Eventually I failed as a pastor, a parent, a husband, and as follower of Jesus.  Hidden, secret sin I had struggled with for my entire life finally came to the surface and undid everything I worked so hard to produce: a loving family was shattered, a healthy church became sick and died, and a good, holy life ended up producing rotten fruit.  

Although I ended up confronting the sexual addiction and dishonesty in my life, the damage was already done. I began the work of recovery, but my disclosure was too much for the people close to me and, to varying degrees, they all distanced themselves from a relationship that was too painful to remain closely connected.  I felt like Job.  But unlike Job, I deserved what I was getting.  I don’t blame those who kept their distance. I was a mess. It hurt like hell to come clean and finally be honest with myself and others about my struggles. It still hurts when I realize all the pain and trauma I brought to the people I love.

Recovery began with brutal honesty about where I had been and what I had done.  It lead me to a place of incredible sadness and hopelessness as my world collapsed.  I despaired and thought of taking my life many times.  But for the first time really, I asked a question I had never asked before: how did I get here?  I had come to Christ as a young man from the culture of sex, drugs and rock and roll in early 80’s, but somehow all my years of training for ministry, studying theology, preaching the gospel and building up the church had not been enough to bring transformation to all of my character.  There were some areas of strength and wholeness, but there were also many weaknesses and holes. There was real grace and love, but there was always doubt and fear. I was doing what I had been taught to do: just live with the tension of a merciful and merciless God, because the Bible viewed as inerrant and infallible requires that I never question the images of God that didn’t seem very much like Jesus.

In recovery though, I not only started asking questions, I started finding answers.  It turns out that my version of religion (whether subjectively my undertanding or objectively what I was trying to underdtand) had never really addressed the issues of fear of failure, rejection and abandonment.  In fact, my training as an evangelical, fundamentalist pastor had subtly reinforced these fears. I am not saying this is true for all pastors, but in my own mind, I could prove my worthiness for Christ and his kingdom by believing the right doctrines, building a healthy church and raising a Christian family.  Subtly, I was really trying to impress others for whom I really sought approval and find significance. Jesus was never really enough for me. My head and my heart were on two different planets.

Like the Pharisees, I had struggled with accepting the message that God is like Jesus, because there was just too much tension between the Sermon on the Mount and the Torah.  Heck, there was too much tension between the Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse, especially if the latter is read in terms of an apocalyptic, end of the world scenario.  Jesus is loving, but he is also really pissed and if I don’t get this just right, everything is going to end up in one big, ugly mess. And so, doctrines had to be invented that could bring these two irreconcilable portrayals of God into one neat system. Both the Pharisees and evangelicals like me agreed: we have to kill Jesus to get things to work in our systems. That alone will solve the problem. And for two millennia, the church has been perfecting that system into what we have today: a gospel of penal substitution and a belief in eternal conscious torment as the consequence for failing to believe it.

But in recovery, my fear of failure had been addressed.  I had failed, and though messy and painful, I did not die.  In fact, I did not waste the crisis but actually landed on my feet and used the opportunity to start re-examining everything.  In the process of recovering my life, I recovered my heart, and with my heart came a recovery of my view of God and the gospel.  

Good news!  

God is just like Jesus after all!

This realization turned everything I had ever believed upside down and inside out.  God has always been like Jesus and will always be like Jesus. And Jesus is kind, forgiving, healing, gracious, compassionate and completely fair.  If I could not imagine Jesus commanding Israelites to slaughter babies, then for the first time, I was permitted to think outside of the box. Maybe he didn’t!  Maybe the revelation of the OT is something different than what I had been taught to believe. I questioned the fairness of hell and found out that many of the texts I had interpreted about end times were actually texts about various historical cataclysmic wars involving Jerusalem and a failure to reject war and rebellion.  I re-read texts on God’s justice in terms of restorative justice, like that of a Father with his children, rather than in terms of retributive justice, like that of a Judge with guilty criminals.

I discovered that the Bible can be read with a new set of eyes that do not filter everything through guilt, shame and fear.  The images and ideas of God as angry, violent and retributive can be interpreted much differently from the way that inerrancy and infallibility requires God to murder his own innocent Son to satisfy his own justice.  The Bible is a revelation that is designed to show us what we cannot see about ourselves and God. Of course it is inspired by God. How else could we know what we cannot know any other way? Without an apocalyptic inbreaking of the supernatural into the natural order of things, we would never have seen the forest for the trees.

The Bible exposes our desire for blaming others, our individual and collective practice of scapegoating and building human society on a foundation of sacred violence.  We are the ones who required the death of the innocent man upon whom we were able to pin all of our spiritual angst and relational frustration. We killed Jesus, but God raised him up and vindicated his innocence.  But rather than demanding justice for his killers, Jesus returns with a message of forgiveness.

It turns out that God accepts us.  He doesn’t require anything in payment for our crimes.  His justice is about restoring creation to original goodness, and that is done with love, mercy, kindness, teaching, healing that lead to repentance, faith and restored trust.  A reconnected relationship of trust will ultimately make everything right. It is not that we deserved death because of our sin. It is that we are disconnected from the source of light and life and love and therefore, we sin.  Reconnect the darkened, dead, unloved sinner with the God, and justice is restored. Light overcomes darkness. Love casts out fear. Life is resurrected from death. It is all about restoring trust, not paying for sin. A perfect God is fully complete within Trinity and our transgressions did not rob him of anything, not even his glory.  It is us who are affected by the disconnection.

Many of my questions have been answered, but I still have a lot of blanks to fill in.  A big issue for me now is understanding exactly what the Bible really is. If it is not inerrant and infallible, and yet it is inspired in same way, how does this all fit together?  Is it possible for humans to even comprehend how it might fit together?

I am on a quest to understand how Jesus understood the OT.  The thoughts in the following posts are simply a conversation I am having with myself, but you are more than welcome to listen and and respond.  This is not a formal treatise. This is just me thinking out loud. But as most of my quests to understand God begin with an encounter with Scripture, that is where I turn again.

Blessings

DCG, Pangonu Kampse, IABAYAT