Critics would accuse me of following empty imaginations, making God in my own image. My God is too nice.  He forgives sinners apart from an economy of exchange. He loves us and accepts us unconditionally. Despite the fact that we have all sinned, having been made in the image of God, all human beings are nevertheless his children.  I believe that in Jesus, God has universally delivered all who are in Adam from sin and death and that he will never give up on anyone until they have responded to his mercy and kindness with repentance and faith and participate fully and freely in his kingdom. His justice demands that everything that has been lost, must be found.  Everything that has been stolen, must be restored. Every wound must be healed. All injustice must be justified. All that has died, must return to life. This is the God I believe in. This is the justice that I find compatible with the Father that Jesus revealed as the One true God.

Of course, this goes against much of what is “revealed” in Scripture.  In much of the Bible, God seems angry at sinners and his justice demands that he must punish sin.  There is something affronted within his nature that requires satisfaction, payment for the damages humans have done to him and his creation.  God’s justice, based upon dynamics of retributive violence that are fundamentally and obviously the essence of God’s very nature, cannot rescue sinners apart from a violent, bloody, compensatory sacrifice.  He truly loves sinners and wants to rescue them, but apart from such an exchange, his holy nature would yield to injustice. God would effectively have to sin against himself to deliver sinners without making them pay.

The “biblical” solution, of course, is found in Jesus, the perfect, sinless human, who did not deserve death.  His substitutionary death could, in fact, fulfill the righteous requirements demanded by God’s holy justice, attested by Mosaic Law with its many demands for lex talionis (an eye for an eye) punishment, including the death penalty. In fact, only  Jesus’ death could fully pay the penalty for sinful humanity.  Then, in deference to human free will, God has offered a “way out” from punishment through a conditional contract based upon human faith.  God himself would provide a satisfactory substitute for the sinner’s justly deserved death (and by this is meant eternal conscious torment in hell with no provision for reprieve).  All that is required to effect this transaction is an individual’s personal belief in the gospel.  Such a belief is only valid, however, if it evidences genuine saving faith manifested through repentance and a lifestyle of discipleship in obedience to the gospel. An individual’s eternal salvation is completely dependent upon one hearing, understanding and properly responding to the contractual offer made in the gospel.  Furthermore, this gospel message has been committed to humans who are now responsible for communicating it to those who must hear the gospel in order to have any chance for salvation. If people do not hear, understand and respond with proper repentance and faith, they will perish for all eternity.

I recognize that this is one way to read the Bible, but it is one that must synthesize two competing, conflicting “revelations” within Scripture. On one hand, the Bible reveals God as a merciless, violent, retributive deity who requires death as the only satisfactory form of justice for humanity’s crimes.  On the other hand, God is revealed as Jesus Christ, a Father who loves and forgives his enemies, who enters into humanity as a man himself and becomes a friend of sinners, and who takes their sin and death upon himself to reveal himself as their deliverer, not their accuser and judge. This God views sinners as sheep without a shepherd, sick in need of a doctor, wayward children who need the correction and guidance of a loving father. He boldly asserts that he is not their judge.

If Scripture is presumed to be inerrant and infallible, then the reader must conclude that both of these depictions of God are equally true, and must responsibly find a way to synthesize these conflicting images. Biblical revelation is flat, so to speak, and all revelation it contains is essentially equal. The OT might have been given within a different context than the NT, but the two testaments are equally inspired, inerrant and infallible. God, we must conclude, is both merciless and merciful.  He invites little children up onto his lap to bless them, while also commanding his warriors to dash their heads on the rocks.  The gospel of penal substitution and satisfaction is just that: a logical way to reconcile the image of a just God who must punish sin, with a loving God who does not want to punish sin.

An alternative approach to a flat reading of the Bible is to view the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as a higher, more complete revelation. Jesus alone is the inerrant, infallible revelation of God.  He alone has the right to interpret Scripture.  His interpretation, if it differs from other interpretations, carries a weight that supercedes all other interpretations.  And if Jesus reads the Bible in such a way that contradicts other texts within the Bible, then we must conclude that Jesus is right and the other biblical texts are wrong.  This would mean that the Bible, though inspired, is not actually infallible and inerrant as we presumed.

I recognize our unwillingness to concede such a position.  Many would hear this and simply toss all biblical revelation out the window.  “If it is wrong in some places, it is probably wrong in all areas.”  But this reaction is unwarranted and unfounded.  Recognizing that the Bible is simply a witness to Jesus, it can be treated like any other witness would be treated.  A witness can be right about some things and wrong about others.  The judge and jury are there to decide what is right.  Wrongness about some elements doesn’t require wrongness on all things. The Bible should be listened to, carefully considered, and held up to the standard of Jesus for verification.

I conclude, therefore, that all Scripture possesses an unquestionable quality of inspiration, and witnesses to this revelation in Christ, though imperfect and fallible.  It is a respectful, carefully thought out record made with every attempt to accurately preserve and protect the revelation of Jesus Christ, but is a human witness nonetheless, and must be acknowledged as such if it is to be properly interpreted and understood.  The interpretive key is Jesus Christ, as his life and story have been transmitted in the gospels.

Once Jesus is recognized as the only true revelation of God, then we can begin to comprehend how and why other versions of God in the Bible say what they say.  For example, because Jesus revealed God as one who willingly took the role of victim in our sacrifice system, and then God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead and simply forgive those who murdered him, we can begin to see (hopefully) that God is not the one demanding sacrifice after all.  Such a revelation shines new light on all the Old Testament sacrifices and shows that we are the ones who require death as compensation for sin.  The scapegoat mechanism that has been a hidden dynamic in all human society from the foundation of the world, is now exposed as a lie.  It is actually the manifestation of human sin.  The Bible alone is capable of such a profound, self-revelational account of humanity’s blindness.  It alone can shine light into the darkness of the human heart.

That said, it has been my personal delight to discover that even some of the ideas and images that first seem inconsistent with a merciful Jesus, texts I  have been tempted to throw out as imperfections, actually say something quite different from how they have traditionally been understood when one is released from a synthetic approach the requires the two gods to be one.  For example, hell, wrath, anger, death, perishing–all of these concepts take on new meaning when the angry, retributive god is exposed as a misguided, “under” informed view of God. The texts themselves, actually are even more clear once we see that God is simply using Scripture to help us perceive the very things we could not see without the entire drama being played out.  God is not angry at us, he is angry for us. Hell is not a literal lake of fire in the afterlife, it is a metaphor for the hostility and war that come from living this life according to a dynamic of violent, retribution and refusing to follow Jesus’ way of peace and self-sacrifice. Judgment, death, perishing–these are not penalties required to satisfy a justice within God’s nature that is different from his love and mercy.  These are consequences of living a life separated from a secure, trust relationship with the very source of life himself are simply what is required by love to set creation free from the lies and distortions that have made us sick and evil. Justice requires that all sin and death–the principalities and powers that have enslaved and dominated his creation–must be destroyed in order to rescue humanity created in the image of God–a creation that a faithful God will never abandon or forsake–not even one lost sheep.

Such a reading of the Bible would be a difficult task if it were not for the witness of the Holy Spirit whose indwelling presence is committed to guiding the believer into all truth.  The Spirit, bearing witness to the Son, enables the reader informed with such a hermeneutic key to read, listen, evaluate and compare all things with Jesus. The longer one does this, the more the human witness of Scripture, informed by something less than Jesus, is seen for what it is: religion born of a view of God as retributive, angry and violent.  The OT sacrificial system is such an attempt to synthesize the revelations of God to Abraham, Moses and other prophets into a nationalistic religion. The NT is an attempt to break free from this in light of the Jesus event from incarnation to ascension and everything in between and beyond. But even the NT still bears the marks of those who are stuck in a synthetic approach.  For example, Romans and Galatians expose the efforts of Judaistic Christians to bring believers back under the law, even by church leaders such as James, the natural brother of Jesus.

So, it turns out that God is just like Jesus.  Jesus is the key to knowing God. Knowing the true God revealed by Jesus is the key to re-interpreting the rest of the Bible. For people deeply entrenched in a synthetic reading of the Bible, perhaps we have an even more difficult time letting go of the angry God’s Bible.  Even Peter struggled with slipping back into a synthesizing approach to revelation and had to be rebuked by Paul.

But I believe that is exactly what God is doing now and will continue to do until he has finished working out the deliverance of humanity.  He will continue to hold forth the revelation of Jesus Christ as the perfect standard until every competing image and idea of God is exposed as a lie–even those in the Bible itself–and the lives we have built around these distortions, are fully untwisted and restored.  It is going to happen. Every knee will bow. Every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Even so, come Lord Jesus. Let your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.