Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Servant King

John Loftus has written an article on the character of God, and he made similar comments in a thread at this blog earlier today. Another poster, by the screen name of Having Words, wrote some comments critical of Christianity in response to Loftus' article. I want to address some of the claims made by both of them.

At his blog, Loftus makes comments like the following about the book of Job:

"So that an all knowing God (and/or one who determines all events) could win a contest with an 'accuser' (lit. heavenly prosecutor who was overzealous in doing his job as a fully credentialed member of the heavenly court). The fact is, 'satan' shouldn't have been given the time of day."


"Job was experimented on by a God who knew the end result to win a bet, a contest. Why? There's no indication that God really loved Job or his family. To test this, just ask yourself if you would allow 'satan' to do what he did here to a loved one of YOURS, especially if you knew the outcome. There's no reason to do so."

We're being asked to accept assumptions Loftus has made that he can't prove. How does he know that God's interaction with Satan had no larger motives than "winning a bet"? He doesn't. Loftus just assumes it, because that assumption helps him in making the God of Christianity look bad. It's not difficult to think of potential reasons for God to have done what He did. It's not difficult to think of potential benefits to Job and his family, indications of God's love for Job, etc. But Loftus assumes and asserts, without evidence, that God just wanted to "win a bet", didn't have any love for Job, etc. He also assumes, without evidence again, that Satan was "fully credentialed" in Heaven and that there couldn't have been a good reason for allowing Satan to act as he did. How does Loftus know these things? He doesn't. But acting as if he knows them prepares the way for his criticism of the God of Christianity and makes his article more emotionally appealing to people who already agree with him.

We have indications of God's love for Job from what He says about Job in His discussion with Satan and in the blessings He gave Job after his suffering, for example. Why is Job's suffering supposed to be unacceptable? Does Loftus somehow know that Job's later blessings and his eternity in Heaven, for example, are outweighed by what he suffered for a portion of his life on earth? How would Loftus know such a thing? If Job's sufferings led to the glorifying of God, the improvement of Job's character, the further punishment of Satan, the instruction of millions of people who would later read the book of Job, etc., how can Loftus possibly know that Job shouldn't have been allowed to suffer?

Loftus continues:

"We punish people who experiment on others without prior consent, even if those we experiment on are prisoners. Josef Mengele is widely hailed as a monster for doing just that to Holocaust victims."

As other posters here have said before, and as Rhology mentions in his response to Loftus at the Debunking Christianity blog, Loftus doesn't give us any reason to trust his moral judgments. He's criticizing the Christian God's behavior, as if he knows of a higher standard by which to judge that God, and he suggests that we should object to the behavior of Josef Mengele. He doesn't give us any reason to agree with his assessment of the Christian God or Mengele. He's relying on the assumption that his readers, most of whom have lived under the influence of largely Christian societies, will agree with his moral sentiments. But what reason do we have to accept Loftus' moral assessments under his belief system?

And why are we supposed to think that the Christian God is similar to Mengele? Was Mengele the creator of the Jewish people, did he express his love to them before experimenting with them, did he give them resources that would help them endure their suffering, and did he restore their health and give them even greater blessings afterward, as God did with Job? No. Mengele didn't have the authority of God, the foreknowledge of God, the good intentions that the book of Job assumes God had, etc. If Loftus is so incapable of distinguishing between Josef Mengele and the God of the book of Job, then Loftus shouldn't be writing articles and books criticizing Christianity. There are basic issues of Christian theology and critical thinking that Loftus still doesn't understand. Or, instead, is it a matter of Loftus understanding such things, but being careless or dishonest about them? None of these possibilities put him in a good light. It's Loftus who's on trial here more than the God of Christianity.

He goes on to write:

"And this kingship model was written by ancients to describe the God that Christians worship. Christians have been tricked into loving such a king because they believe this God-king, can do anything he wants to do, call it good, and then demand that his subjects worship him."

Another poster at the Debunking Christianity blog, by the screen name of Having Words, made a similar comment:

"I think you're insight into the mentality of the ancients is key; they feared their rulers, and that's why the fear of God is so central to the biblical message. While it is softened as one works their way toward the New Testament, it is still very much a part of the biblical mind."

But earlier in his article, Loftus told us:

"But kings were feared in the ancient world...they were not usually loved. All they were concerned with was peace in their kingdoms."

And Having Words goes on to say:

"John (the apostle, not you) stated that 'God is love', and I believe he is right, that love somehow is at the center, but it's certainly not at the center of the Bible or the Christian god."

If the Christian God was modeled after ancient kings, and those kings were so unconcerned with love, then why do we find "God is love" and similar comments, as well as many passages about loving God, in both the Old and New Testaments? How many ancient kings took on the form of their people, lived among them, and suffered and died for their sins, to reconcile them to himself? It wasn't common:

"This early Christian emphasis on God actively seeking to restore to himself, at great cost to himself, those alienated from him by their rebellion was a distinctive position in Mediterranean antiquity of this period….By contrast, pagans often feared that the gods would abandon the world because of its wickedness (Wicker, 'Defectu,' 142); Jewish people felt that the Shekinah could withdraw for the same reason" (Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], p. 571 and n. 354 on p. 571)

When the early Christians spoke of a crucified felon as God incarnate, were they just repeating common ancient themes about loveless kings? Then you have to wonder why the message of Christ crucified was such a stumbling block and was perceived as foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18-23). Celsus, one of the earliest pagan critics of Christianity, doesn't seem to have thought that the Christian God was modeled after a pattern that he and other pagans found appealing:

"This assertion [the incarnation], says Celsus, 'is most shameful and no lengthy argument is required to refute it' (c. Cels. 4.2). God is not the kind of being who can undergo mutation or alteration. He cannot change from the purity and perfection of divinity to the blemished and tarnished state of humans." (Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], p. 102)

If the Christian God is so loveless, you have to wonder why that God has inspired the founding of so many hospitals, universities, and charities. There's far more love in a Christian hymnal or a Christian book of poetry than John Loftus' godless worldview would ever produce.

The attempt to contrast the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament won't work. We would expect some development, much as a child will learn more and will be given more responsibilities as he matures. The parents give the child more information and responsibilities when he's ready for them. But the general outlines of the character of God are the same in both Testaments. The Old Testament anticipates the New Testament, and the New Testament looks back to the Old Testament. The concept of God humbling Himself to become the Suffering Servant isn't a concept we find only in the New Testament. It began in the Old Testament. The sovereign and holy God Isaiah describes as high and lifted up is the same God who is born as a man (Isaiah 9:6) and becomes the Suffering Servant:

"So, in the light of the connexions with Isaiah 6:1 and 57:15, the meaning of Isaiah 52:13 is that the Servant is exalted to the heavenly throne of God. This is why, in John 12:38-41, Isaiah 53 and Isaiah 6 are brought together, and Isaiah is said to have seen Jesus' glory, meaning that he did so when he saw the glory of the Lord in his vision in chapter 6 of his prophecy." (Richard Bauckham, God Crucified [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], p. 51)

Is God similar to an ancient earthly king in some ways? Yes, and there's nothing wrong with that. What else do you expect of the sovereign of the universe? Somebody less authoritative and less just than an ancient king? He's similar to an ancient king in some ways, but He's also more than that.

Having Words, the commenter at Loftus' blog, writes:

"In fact, he's purely egocentric, and his love toward his 'elect' is only a cover for his self-glorification."

Who else would God glorify? If He's the creator and sustainer, and every good thing comes from Him and depends on Him, where else should His focus be? The fact that it's wrong for humans to be self-centered doesn't prove that it would be wrong for God to be self-centered. The reason why humans shouldn't be self-centered is because they aren't at the center. God is.

"God is the one Being in all the universe for whom seeking his own praise is the ultimately loving act. For him, self-exaltation is the highest virtue. When he does all things 'for the praise of his glory,' he preserves for us and offers to us the only thing in all the world which can satisfy our longings. God is for us! And the foundation of this love is that God has been, is now, and always will be, for himself....the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself forever. He stands supreme at the center of his own affections. For that very reason he is a self-sufficient and inexhaustible fountain of grace." (John Piper, Desiring God [Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books, 1996], pp. 49, 266)

In closing, I would note that Having Words needs to be more careful in what he concedes to Christians. Apparently, he isn't too far along yet in his skepticism. He's still rough around the edges. Maybe somebody like John Loftus will take him under his wings, or he can learn from somebody who's further along than Loftus, like Robert Price or Richard Carrier. When Having Words cited 1 John 4:8, he attributed the passage to the apostle John. He's not supposed to do that. The evidence warrants his conclusion. Both the internal and the external evidence strongly support Johannine authorship of 1 John. But acknowledging Johannine authorship has a lot of highly significant negative implications for skepticism, so Having Words will need to learn which authorship attributions he's supposed to deny and which he can affirm.


  1. Did God love Job? Yes, God took special care of him and paid attention to him. Was what God did to win a bet? Well, no, he did it that His name might be praised, and all mouths sealed.

    If we were perfect, then God would be unjust. But we are not, instead we are the felons. We are the soldiers who spat upon Christ and beat him. The problem with the atheist is that s/he believes that God owes him/her, while we know our true ststure before God.

    Oh, and if we want a model of earthly Kingship that describes God's rule of the Universe, I would suggest Haroun al-Rashid, who went among his people to learn their complaints and experience their infirmities. Sadly, Loftus' example seems to be Ming the Merciless. Equally, what is it with John Loftus and the past? What has he got against it?

    Is it realistic that Phil Harris would have been a Republican delegate in 1948, given that he was from the South?


  3. Was Mengele the creator of the Jewish people, did he express his love to them before experimenting with them, did he give them resources that would help them endure their suffering, and did he restore their health and give them even greater blessings afterward, as God did with Job? No. Mengele didn't have the authority of God, the foreknowledge of God, the good intentions that the book of Job assumes God had, etc

    I'm sorry to break in here, but all those things make god worse than Mengele, not better. Mengele has the excuse of possibly being deluded. He can claim that he was brainwashed by centuries of culturally universal hatred. He can claim that he was "advancing science" and "protecting the volk". Mengele was only human, after all, and showed deep human failings.

    God, though? God is all-knowing, all-powerful, blah blah blah. What excuse does he have for his actions? "I have to right to do this, because I created you." It's despicable; the only reason that argument works in our society is the Church found it convenient to make us believe it, so we'd be good little soldiers and be immoral for the priests and kings. Hell, the only reason that Mengele had an excuse to act has he did (if you're a Chistian) is the thousands of years of Christian oppression of the Jews, the example of god's treatment of the gentiles in the Old Testament, and god's complete inaction when men killed and tortured in God's name.

    Now, let me ask you; apart from God saying "I love you, Job", why do we think that he actually did? He doesn't show it through his actions. God is a husband who breaks his wife's arm and gives her flowers. He is a mother who locks toys in the trunk of the car along with the kids she intends to drown. He is the Inquisition who burns Jews to send them to Heaven.

    Let's be adults here and speak honestly. It doesn't matter if god says he loves Job or not; what matters are god's actions. Now, if you see someone torture a helpless victim, could the torturer actually love the victim, even if the torturer miraculously returns the victim to health afterwards? Of course not, because the act of torture is a denial of lvoe, regardless of how the abuser tries to make it better.

    And let's not forget Job's dead wife and children. Consider the paternalistic world-view implicit in their death (remeber, Job gets a new family, not his old one resurrected): Job may have been restored to health, but his wife? His kids? "Nah," says the supposedly all-loving god. "They're chattle. Take these, instead."

    Duke York