I suppose we’ve all grown up with some or other picture of God: the bearded man in the sky with a frown on his face? Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God?’ (1741) (see footnote**) The kindly and harmless Father Christmas in the sky? ‘The man upstairs?’ I grew up in a nominally Christian home: as a young teen I recall being impressed by God, I was aware of his holiness and yet also sensed that in his goodness he somehow ‘had time for me.’ To escape judgment I used to recite the Lord’s Prayer last thing at night in case he came for me and I had sinned (I wasn’t guilty of any coarse stuff but had a tender conscience about subtler things). I was pretty much a parent-pleaser (by excelling at school) and somehow imagined that God the Father was someone to be made happy at all times. If I failed, I just had to ‘try harder.’ These images of God, usually false, have obviously affected the way we relate to God, others and ourselves. Hence the all-important question, ‘what does God really look like?’ [We’ve already indicated some perceptions of the ‘Christian God’: in this blog we won’t be considering non-Christian deities, past and present]
Before referencing the Scriptural revelation of God in answer to our question, it may be worth highlighting some contemporary debate – inside and outside of traditional Church parameters. Here’s a brief resume of materials I’ve collected over the last few years:
- Teacher, author and copywriter Keith Giles, living in California, fellowshipping with a house church group that gives 100% of their offerings to the poor. Giles maintains that many Christians still hold fast to the idea that the Father of Jesus, especially as depicted in the OT, is often that of a wrathful, impatient, angry and even bloodthirsty God. This in contrast to Jesus the Son, who is decidedly softer and more gentle in personality. People try and reconcile Father and Son by referring to the Trinity, three distinct persons yet making up the one substance we call the true God. Giles insists Christians are off-base when they attribute two different personalities to the Father and the Son. To him the Scriptures repeatedly affirm that Jesus is what the Father looks like, i.e. the Father looks like Jesus. I.o.w. the Father is not the wrathful, angry, petty and violent God we often think he is – in fact, Jesus reveals an ‘Abba’ (father) who looks just like himself in heart and character.
- American teacher, blogger and multiple author, Frank Viola, who has abandoned hierarchical institutional ‘Church’ structures for ‘organic church.’ ‘Someone may object that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are the subjects of the Bible. But remember that the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and He has come to manifest and glorify Christ. Biblically speaking, there is no God outside of Jesus Christ. God is known in and through His Son.’
- Brian Zahnd, the lead-pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He is a prolific writer and writes from a fairly recent radical transformation of his life and theology. He writes about ‘The Faceless White Giant’ he grew up with. This is an angry God who terrified him. As a young man he liked Jesus but was scared of his ‘dad.’ George MacDonald (Scottish minister, author and poet, 1824-1905) helped him: ‘I love the one God seen in the face of Jesus Christ.’ This he sees in contrast to Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Angry God’ toward sinners: hence his book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.’
- Jason Micheli of Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, Virginia. He puts it tersely, ‘If you can’t say it about Jesus, don’t say it about God.’
- American author and blogger, Josh Lawson. ‘Behold, the game-changer! Any picture of God that does not align with the Man from Nazareth is false.’
- American blogger, Becky Johnson. “‘God,’ as a name can be used in any fashion we wish until we come to see Him through Christ.”
- Renowned British theologian, NT scholar and author, Tom Wright. In his The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion he says, ‘I suspect, in fact, that we have been misled by the easy assumption that while the Son and perhaps the Spirit are out and about on their various tasks, the Father is, as it were, waiting back at the office, calmly in charge of the world. But if the Christology of the New Testament means anything, it means that we only learn the deepest truths about God himself by looking at Jesus.’
- Probably the greatest theologian of the 20th century, Swiss-German Karl Barth. He put it like this: ‘Any deviation, any attempt to evade Jesus Christ in favour of another supposed revelation of God, or any denial of the fullness of God’s presence in him, will cause us to fall into darkness and confusion.’
- Bobby Grow of The Evangelical Calvinist, citing Barth, takes it one step further. He submits that ‘for the Christian there is no God without the humanity of Christ.’ Christians don’t KNOW God without God in his humanity in Christ. Christians don’t have an abstract conception of God that they’ve developed prior to meeting God concretely in the face of Jesus Christ. Barth is clear, we have no other conception of God available to us except for the conception that God is always already ‘the God-Man for us.’
Does all this make any difference at a personal, pastoral and societal level? Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance, as a chaplain during World War 2, came across a young soldier, scarcely twenty years old and mortally wounded. ‘Padre, is God really like Jesus?’ Torrance reassured him, ‘He is the only God that there is, the God who has come to us in Jesus, shown his face to us, and poured out his love to us as our Saviour.’ As he prayed and commended him to the Lord, the young man passed away in peace.
Small wonder that children, in their simplicity and absolute trust, were attracted to Jesus! While our Lord’s adult disciples shooed them away, Jesus rebuked them, called children to him, touched them, took them in his arms, blessed them and made them happy!
Hopefully what we have shared thus far simplifies our Christian apologetics and daily interaction at home, work, in the market-place and in our places of learning. The fact that God looks like Jesus is indeed ‘good news!’ God has a human face, people can relate to him in personal friendship and intimacy. This reality has the power to change not only families but also the Church and the world!
We would not be doing our subject justice without referring to its Biblical foundations. We’ll take a look at these in Part 2 – please stay tuned!
** Does God become angry? It would seem so, from Scriptures in the OT and NT. Did Jesus become angry? On at least two occasions: when he cleared the temple from the materialistic business dealers (Jn. 2:12); when he wept tears of anger at death claiming his friend Lazarus – yet another victim! (Jn. 11:33-35). [PS, let’s not under-estimate philosopher-theologian Jonathan Edwards’ massive intellect and spiritual stature! He was not your typical hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher as some imagine – he was in fact a softly-spoken, highly logical and sensitive persuader]