Category Archives: Theology

How Can God Be Both Merciful and Wrathful at the Same Time?

Within the Bible, God is described as wrathful over one hundred times. We see God’s wrath mentioned in Ezekiel 8:18 after God shows Ezekiel the idol worship taking place in the temple precincts. In the same Bible, however, God is said to be merciful. How can the same God be both wrathful and merciful? Aren’t these opposites of each other?

Theologian Norman Geisler, in Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation, explains in very simple and succinct terms how this is possible.

Wrath and mercy are not incompatible, since they are exercised toward different objects; wrath is on the unrepentant, and mercy is on the repentant. As established previously, God is consistently and unchangeably angry with sin and consistently and unchangeably delighted with righteousness.

God acts mercifully toward those who repent of their sins, while God displays His wrath toward those who are unrepentant. There is simply no inconsistency.

There is a further objection about God’s wrath. Some people cite New Testament passages which speak of Jesus Christ taking the wrath of God for sinners. If Jesus took God’s wrath, then nobody should be subjected to God’s wrath any more. Geisler answers this objection:

This objection is based on a misunderstanding of what Christ did on the cross. The salvation of everyone was not applied; it was simply purchased. All persons were made savable, but not all persons were automatically saved. The gift was made possible by the Savior, but it must be received by the sinner (Eph. 2:8–9; cf. John 1:12). In short, the salvation of all sinners from God’s eternal wrath is possible, but only those who accept Christ’s payment for their sins will actually be saved from it.

How Should We Understand Metaphorical Attributes of God?

The prophet Isaiah writes in chapter 40, verse 22, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in.” Does God literally sit above the earth in a tent? How are we to understand verses that speak of God in this manner?

Theologian Norman Geisler explains the important distinction between metaphysical and metaphorical attributes of God in his Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, God/Creation:

Not all language about God in the Bible is metaphysical (or literal). Scripture does employ many metaphorical and anthropological descriptions of (attributions to) God. God is said to have ‘arms’ (Deut. 33:27), ‘eyes’ (Heb. 4:13), and even ‘wings’ (Ex. 19:4). He is called a ‘rock’ (1 Sam. 2:2), a ‘tower’ (Prov. 18:10), and a ‘shield’ (Gen. 15:1).

The difference between metaphorical and metaphysical attributions of God is found in the nature of God and what is being said of Him. Metaphysical attribution is based on the way God actually is—it results from His efficient causality. It is like its Cause; it is based in an intrinsic causal relation between an efficient cause and its effect. . . .

However, a metaphorical attribution of God is not the way God actually is. It is based on an extrinsic causal relation; it is not like its Cause.

So why do the biblical writers employ metaphors so frequently? Doesn’t this just lead to confusion?

There are several reasons for using metaphorical expressions of God.

First, metaphors often inform us what God can do, not what He is. They often describe His abilities, not His attributes. Thus, He is like a strong tower or shield that can protect us, or He has wings that can hold us up, etc.

Second, metaphors communicate what God is like in an indirect and non-literal way. The nonliteral actually depends upon the literal. We know God is not literally a stone, since we know He is literally an infinite Spirit, and a stone can be neither infinite nor a spirit. But once we know that God is not literally a stone, a metaphor does tell us what he literally is, namely, stable and immovable.

Third, metaphors (similes and other figures of speech) are often evocative, even though they are not literally descriptive; that is, they do not literally and directly describe God. Even so, they do evoke a response to Him (while metaphysical descriptions often do not). Hence, metaphors are frequently used in the Bible because God wants a response from us. For example, compare the evocative power of a metaphorical vs. a metaphysical statement about God:

  • Metaphysical: God is the uncaused Cause of our being.
  • Metaphorical: ‘Underneath are the everlasting arms’ (Deut. 33:27).
  • Metaphysical: God is omnipotent.
  • Metaphorical: ‘Who is like me and who can challenge me? And what shepherd can stand against me?’ (Jer. 49:19).
  • Metaphysical: God is omniscient.
  • Metaphorical: ‘Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account’ (Heb. 4:13).

Verse 22 in Isaiah 40 is clearly, then, a metaphorical description of God. Since we know that God is literally an immaterial spirit, then He cannot be physically sitting down under a tent. The verse is trying to communicate the metaphysical attribute of God’s infinite power.

Why Is God So Concerned with Idol Worship?

The Second Commandment, as given in Exodus 20:4-6, forbids the worship of idols. The northern kingdom of Israel, starting with the reign of Jeroboam, ignores this commandment and after 200 years of existence is finally judged by God in the form of a devastating Assyrian invasion.

The author of 1 and 2 Kings writes that God’s judgment upon Israel is due to the rampant idol worship of the kings and his subjects. So why is this so important to God? We know that worshiping the creature instead of the Creator is a foolish error and disrespectful to the Creator. The Creator is a jealous God who covets the love of his creation. But I think many people miss the further implications of idol worship.

God placed the need to worship deep into the hearts of all mankind. It is not possible, as human beings, to not worship something, even if it is ourselves. When we worship something or someone besides the true Creator God, it leads inexorably to horrible consequences.

These consequences are sometimes spelled out in the Old Testament (OT) and sometimes not. The writers of the OT assumed that their readers did not always need to be reminded of the consequences of idol worship, so they would often use idol worship as shorthand for a whole host of sins. The prophetic writings clarify the list of sins that accompany idolatry.

Paul R. House, in The New American Commentary Volume 8 – 1 & 2 Kings, writes:

As a result of their idolatry, which amounts, of course, to covenant breaking of the worst sort (cf. Exod 20:3–6), the people no longer hold high ethical standards for how to treat one another. Oppression, greed, and brutality become common. Hosea notes that lies, wickedness, intrigue, and immorality are regular occurrences among both the people and their leaders (Hos 7:3–7). Amos claims Israel’s women “crush the needy,” “oppress the poor,” and exhort their husbands to hurt the poor for material gain (Amos 4:1). The men, on the other hand, love luxury, are lazy, and care nothing about their country’s moral decline (Amos 6:1–7). People are sold to pay petty debts (Amos 2:6–8). Similarly, Isaiah declares that justice is denied to the poor, the widow, and the orphan (Isa 1:17; 10:1–4). The false prophets do not restrain the people at all (Isa 28:7–13). None of these abuses are mentioned in 1, 2 Kings, so an awareness of their existence in this era helps readers understand that things were even worse than the author indicates. The people are as corrupt as their leaders.

In the Torah, Moses warns the people of Israel that if they adopt the worship of the Canaanite gods, they will inevitably commit the sins of incest, child sacrifice, bestiality, temple prostitution, and a host of other deviant practices. The author of 2 Kings 17 explicitly mentions that some Israelites were practicing child sacrifice before the Assyrian invasion.

So you see, worship of false gods leads to a society that is rotten to its core, a society that preys on the weak, a society where might makes right, where every man is a law unto himself. This is exactly what happened to the nation of Israel. Idol worship is where it all begins.

Sociologist Rodney Stark has studied the impact of different concepts of god on the behaviors of diverse human societies. Stark concludes from his studies (For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery) the following :

The contrasts already drawn between supernatural beings and unconscious, impersonal, vaguely supernatural essences reveal that different conceptions of the supernatural have dramatically different effects on the human experience. Even within Godly religions, compare the social implications of belief in a pantheon of undependable and often immoral Gods with those of belief in a supreme being who imposes moral obligations on humans. As will be seen, the consequences of these and other such differences in how the supernatural is conceived are decisive.

In other words, it really matters what kind of god you worship. The famed Christian theologian, A. W. Tozer, penned the following words decades ago in The Knowledge of the Holy, and they are a fitting summary of this discussion.

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.

The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.

For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God.

Who Is Responsible for the Division of Israel?

In 1 Kings 12, Rehoboam foolishly decides to threaten the northern tribes rather than agree to lighten their tax burden. This leads to the division of united Israel into the northern kingdom, called Israel, and the southern kingdom, called Judah.

In verse 24, the prophet Shemaiah tells Rehoboam that the division of the kingdom is God’s doing, so don’t we have a contradiction here? Whose fault is the division? Rehoboam, who spoke foolish words, or God?

The truth is that both God and Rehoboam are responsible for the division.  There is absolutely nothing contradictory about an infinite God being in control of every little electron in the universe, but creating creatures in that same universe who have a special power of free will.  God can accomplish everything he wants to accomplish in human affairs through human free will.

While He commands volcanoes to erupt and water to flow as inanimate objects, He commands humans as free creatures.  He works in coordination with human freedom, not without it or against it.

Philosophers refer to this as primary and secondary causation.  God is the primary cause of all activity in the universe, but He uses the secondary cause of free will to accomplish his purposes with human beings.

Some say that this concept of human free will takes away from the glory of God, but claiming that God cannot create free creatures and still bring his plans to fruition is really the position that takes away from God’s glory.

#5 Post of 2015 – Is God Subject to Justice?

Skeptics of Christianity sometimes claim that either God is subject to an external standard of justice and morality, or else whatever God arbitrarily says or does is the standard of justice and morality. Both of these choices are a problem, however, for the Christian.

If there is an external standard of justice, then God is not the ultimate being. There is a moral law that is greater than him. The Bible, however, rules that out.

If God can arbitrarily decide what is right and what is wrong, then justice and morality become meaningless because even though it is wrong to kill an innocent person today, tomorrow it could become OK, if God willed it to be. This idea, however, seems ludicrous as well.

The Christian answer to this dilemma is that God’s very nature is the Good and the Just. In other words, the moral law is built into God, and because God will always act according to his nature, the moral law will never change, and is thus not arbitrary. God is not subject to an external standard, because the standard is God himself.

What Is the Age of Accountability?

In 2 Samuel 12:23, David speaks about his dead 7-day-old child, “But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” This verse implies that David believes he will see his child again in the afterlife, in Heaven. But why does David have this confidence?

Many Christian theologians have argued for a concept called the age of accountability. The idea is that any person who dies before they are old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, goes to Heaven. What biblical evidence do they give for the age of accountability? Norman Geisler and Tom Howe, in When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, provide the scriptural basis:

First, Isaiah 7:16 speaks of an age before a child is morally accountable, namely, ‘before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good.’ Second, David believed in life after death and the resurrection (Ps. 16:10–11), so when he spoke of going to be with his son who died after birth (2 Sam. 12:23), he implied that those who die in infancy go to heaven.

Third, Psalm 139 speaks of an unborn baby as a creation of God whose name is written down in God’s ‘book’ in heaven (vv. 14–16). Fourth, Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10:14), thus indicating that even little children will be in heaven.

Fifth, some see support in Jesus’ affirmation that even ‘little ones’ (i.e., children) have a guardian angel ‘in heaven’ who watches over them (Matt. 18:10). Sixth, the fact that Christ’s death for all made little children savable, even before they believed (Rom. 5:18–19).

Finally, Jesus’ indication that those who did not know were not morally responsible (John 9:41) is used to support the belief that there is heaven for those who cannot yet believe, even though there is no heaven for those who are old enough and refuse to believe (John 3:36).

Can God Lie or Change His Mind?

In Numbers 23:19, we discover two important attributes of God. First, “God is not a man, that he should lie,” and second, “nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.” God cannot lie and God does not change his mind.

If God cannot lie, then every word that comes from God is only truth. It is impossible for God to deceive or to err when He speaks. Humans, on the other hand, lie to and deceive each other all the time. In this way, God is different from fallen man. When the children of God reach Heaven, we will also only tell the truth, as we will stop all sinning.

If God cannot change His mind, then the promises God makes to us can be counted on. He will not promise to usher those who trust Christ into Heaven, and then change his mind in the future and decide that our trust in Christ is not sufficient. Again, humans change their mind and break promises all the time. Only in Heaven will we humans keep all of our promises to each other.

Did God Change His Mind Because of Moses’ Intercession?

In verses 11-14 of Exodus 32, Moses seems to present an argument to God which changes God’s mind. Verse 14 says, “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” Is God actually changing his mind, the way human beings do, because Moses presented information to God which God did not know about?

This cannot be the case, because we know from many other verses in the Bible that God is omniscient (all-knowing), that God knows the past, present, and future. Therefore it is impossible that Moses taught God something. Nobody can teach God anything.

So how should we interpret God’s relenting in this passage? John Frame, in The Apologetics Study Bible explains:

For one thing, God states as a general policy in Jeremiah 18: 5-10 that if He announces judgment and people repent, He will relent; He will do the same if He pronounces blessing and people do evil. In other words, relenting is part of God’s unchanging plan, not a change forced on Him by His ignorance.

Further, God is not only transcendent (beyond our experience) but also immanent (involved in our experience). He has dwelled on earth in the tabernacle and temple, in Christ, and in His general omnipresence (Ps 139: 7-12). When God interacts with people in time, He does one thing, then another. He curses, then He blesses. His actions are in temporal sequence and are therefore, in one sense, changing. But these changes are the outworking of God’s eternal plan, which does not change. It is important, then, to see God as working from both above and below, in eternity and in time. (emphasis added)

How Should We Enjoy God? Part 2

From part 1, we saw that we can enjoy God through the gifts he gives us. Randy Alcorn, in his book Heaven, explains how these gifts are secondary, or derivative ways of enjoying God.

All secondary joys are derivative in nature. They cannot be separated from God. Flowers are beautiful for one reason—God is beautiful. Rainbows are stunning because God is stunning. Puppies are delightful because God is delightful. Sports are fun because God is fun. Study is rewarding because God is rewarding. Work is fulfilling because God is fulfilling.

There is an important corollary to the derivative nature of these goods. I am often asked, by non-believers, why it is that people can’t lead perfectly happy and fulfilled lives without acknowledging God. They see no connection between all that is good about the world, and God. They want to set the God question to the side and go on living their lives.

The problem with this approach is that every good thing comes from God. God is, therefore, the highest good.  To use an analogy, they are like the man who is content to stare at beautiful drawings of waterfalls cascading over moss-covered rocks, but who doesn’t want to go outside and look at the real thing.

On the opposite pole from the unbeliever above is the person who believes it is unspiritual to enjoy the good things God has provided. Alcorn addresses this person:

Ironically, some people who are the most determined to avoid the sacrilege of putting things before God miss a thousand daily opportunities to thank him, praise him, and draw near to him, because they imagine they shouldn’t enjoy the very things he made to help us know him and love him.

God is a lavish giver. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all— how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8: 32). The God who gave us his Son delights to graciously give us “all things.” These “all things ” are in addition to Christ, but they are never instead of him— they come, Scripture tells us, “along with him.” If we didn’t have Christ, we would have nothing. But because we have Christ, we have everything. Hence, we can enjoy the people and things God has made, and in the process enjoy the God who designed and provided them for his pleasure and ours.

So, it is wrong to enjoy God’s gifts without acknowledging who gave them to us, and it is wrong to refuse to enjoy God’s gifts out of fear that we are offending God somehow. Alcorn concludes:

God welcomes prayers of thanksgiving for meals, warm fires, games, books, relationships , and every other good thing. When we fail to acknowledge God as the source of all good things, we fail to give him the recognition and glory he deserves. We separate joy from God, which is like trying to separate heat from fire or wetness from rain.

The movie Babette’s Feast depicts a conservative Christian sect that scrupulously avoids “worldly” distractions until a woman’s creation of a great feast opens their eyes to the richness of God’s provision. Babette’s Feast beautifully illustrates that we shouldn’t ignore or minimize God’s lavish, creative gifts, but we should enjoy them and express heartfelt gratitude to God for all of life’s joys.

When we do this, instead of these things drawing us from God, they draw us to God. That’s precisely what all things and all beings in Heaven will do— draw us to God, never away from him. Every day we should see God in his creation: in the food we eat, the air we breathe , the friendships we enjoy, and the pleasures of family, work , and hobbies.

Yes, we must sometimes forgo secondary pleasures, and we should never let them eclipse God. And we should avoid opulence and waste when others are needy. But we should thank God for all of life’s joys, large and small, and allow them to draw us to him. That’s exactly what we’ll do in Heaven . . . so why not start now?

How Should We Enjoy God? Part 1

The standard answer to this question, from many Christians, is that we enjoy God through prayer, worship, and Bible study. And, those things are definitely important ways to enjoy God. But there is more.

God has given mankind numerous gifts, through his creation (the physical universe and everything in it), that we are meant to enjoy. When we enjoy the gifts God has given us, when we remember that they are his gifts, and when we thank him for those gifts, we are surely enjoying God in a way that pleases him.

Having said that, we all know that there are millions of people who enjoy God’s gifts, but who fail to acknowledge that they are gifts at all. They are like a child who receives a new toy at Christmas, and then plays with the toy for months and never once thinks about who gave it to her.

So what is the proper way to think about enjoying God through his gifts? How do we keep the focus on the giver without taking Him for granted? Randy Alcorn offers some helpful insights in his book Heaven

Suppose you’re sick. Your friend brings a meal. What meets your needs— the meal or the friend? Both. Of course, without your friend, there would be no meal; but even without a meal, you would still treasure your friendship. Hence, your friend is both your higher pleasure and the source of your secondary pleasure (the meal). Likewise, God is the source of all lesser goods, so that when they satisfy us, it’s God himself who satisfies us. (In fact, it’s God who satisfies you by giving you the friend who gives you the meal.)

Some Christians frown upon the pleasures of the physical world, but Alcorn argues this is unbiblical.

Scripture says we are to put our hope not in material things but “in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). If he provides everything for our enjoyment, we shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying it, should we?

Paul says it is demons and liars who portray the physical realm as unspiritual, forbid people from the joys of marriage, including sex, and “order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:3-5).

Alcorn continues:

God isn’t displeased when we enjoy a good meal, marital sex, a football game, a cozy fire, or a good book. He’s not up in Heaven frowning at us and saying , “Stop it— you should only find joy in me.” This would be as foreign to God’s nature as our heavenly Father as it would be to mine as an earthly father if I gave my daughters a Christmas gift and started pouting because they enjoyed it too much. No, I gave the gift to bring joy to them and to me— if they didn’t take pleasure in it, I’d be disappointed. Their pleasure in my gift to them draws them closer to me. I am delighted that they enjoy the gift.

Alcorn warns us:

Because of the current darkness of our hearts, we must be careful not to make idols out of God’s provisions. . . . Of course, if children become so preoccupied with the gift that they walk away from their father and ignore him, that’s different. Though preoccupation with a God-given gift can turn into idolatry, enjoying that same gift with a grateful heart can draw us closer to God.

In part 2, we’ll continue to look at the proper ways to enjoy God through his creation.