Friday, April 1, 2011

Divine Child Abuse

 Jason and I met with some new friends over the weekend and had one of those conversations that lets you know you are not alone, especially in the community of faith (I need this at a time when my understanding of my faith is constantly changing and conflicted). At one point, as we discussed current conservative perspectives on God, Wade accused the popular stance of condoning “divine child abuse.” And then, I got very excited, which I tend to do when I hear something that resonates with my concerns on a subject. (It’s actually kinda funny—I shake a little bit, and start waving my arms and hands. Almost always derails the excellent direction of the conversation.)

I took a distance theology class a few months ago with all the discussions online. The professor asked controversial questions and let the class go at it. Sadly, he expected mainline/mainstream answers, and the class largely complied. He asked “what about those who never hear?” Meaning, where do people “go” who never hear about Jesus? Almost all the class believed these people go to hell—and hey, who are we to question God? If he believes that’s justice, then his ways are not ours, and he’s right. This made me very uncomfortable. The questions were so designed, that if I answered honestly, I could no longer hide the changes in my faith and beliefs. Plus, they revealed the underbelly of common beliefs, but no one seemed bothered to see it. And this question, or the perspective it stems from, contained flaws, just like the majority of the answers.

            1. Is Christianity only about who escapes hell and wins the heaven lottery?
            2. We are allowed to question God.
            3. We say we get our sense of justice from God, then assign to him what would be considered the worst behavior among ourselves.

On the first point, I work constantly to overcome a fundamentalist background, the majority of whose theology revolves around heaven and hell. This life is most important for picking where we’ll spend eternity, and then wracking up extra mansions as we wait for the “real life” beyond. I no longer consider this life a long tunnel on the path to the true life. And maybe I’ll write further about that later. Too much to put in now.

Job questioned God. So did Moses. And the Psalmist. And Luther. And St. Augustine. And me. Not that I’m classing myself with those guys. My point is that questions are fundamental to how humans learn and grow, from childhood. I don’t trust a religion that nixes questions. I’ve been in a religious environment long enough to see what that squelching accomplishes. It encourages personality cults. It allows abuses, of all types, to continue. At a seminary level, it raises people for “ministry” who are untrained in empathy (basic to understanding why an individual might question your faith), and ill-equipped to handle real challenges.

But let’s talk about this “God’s justice is just, even if the same behavior on our part would not be” idea. My 3 youngest siblings were abused. All three prenatally, and two post. Their parents created, then rejected, neglected, and out-right harmed them. This behavior raises a scalding anger in most of us. When I think back on the earliest, and most important messages my little brother got (You aren’t worthy. You aren’t loved. You are unwanted.) I understand better why he can’t love himself. Essentially, the belief that God “saves” only a tiny handful of his creation, sounds like the same type of abuse. We have to acknowledge this because this is exactly how people outside the faith, and increasingly inside, hear it.

I cannot know how God will actually handle this. Just as I can’t know if heaven and hell are literal. And I do believe the question misses the bigger point of what God may be trying to do for his creation in this life. Ultimately, what I believe makes no difference in what will be found true. But what I believe makes all the difference in how I perceive and interact with God. Is it out of fear? Attraction? Anger? I choose to believe the best and accept that my beliefs have no control over his behavior, only mine.

I know this is something of a hot topic (warning: understatement) right now, with Rob Bell’s book just out. Haven’t read it yet, but I’m going too. With others, I found the furor over the book, before it even reached bookstores, amusing. A blog I follow, has just finished a substantial interaction with the book, if you’re interested. Also, Matthew Paul Turner, at has interacted with the subject quite a bit. I enjoyed his response to Mark Driscoll’s insistence on hell in a post titled, remarkably enough, “My thoughts on Mark Driscoll’s hell…” (it's from March 29).


  1. Thanks for this post. I would offer that not only are we allowed to question God-- we are expected to do so.

    If we meet a new friend, how do we get to know him better? By asking things we wish to know. (The difference is, there is no question we cannot ask God, nothing too big for God to handle.. Some things-- better not to ask of human friends.)

    It is through such times of questioning-- and listening for God's answers-- that we grow into closer relationship with the One who created us.

  2. Thanks for your post. I don't know if you came across it, but in England there was a book written by a Baptist minister, Steve Chalke, called "The Lost Message of Jesus". In it, he suggests that some understandings of Penal Substitution amount a form of cosmic child abuse, the Son placating the wrath of an angry father.

    The book got a lot of the similar reaction to Rob Bell's "Love Wins" (including from the likes of Piper etc), but I think it opened up an opportunity for many people from mainstream Evangelicalism to begin to ask questions.

    For what it's worth, I also did some interaction with Bell's "Love Wins" over on my blog :)

  3. Rob Bell merely raises questions about hell and hopes for something better, while I am willing to state unequivocally that the Bible teaches everyone is going to heaven:

    Jesus Christ is Lord and He is willing to tell us answers to questions we haven't even thought to ask Him.

  4. I really enjoyed your post, especially the poignant story about your three youngest siblings. Your point #3 is one I've been mulling over a lot lately. When confronted by conceptions of God that clashed with my basic sense of justice, I used to just turn my conscience off and chalk it up to "His ways are higher than our ways". But I'm increasingly of the view that this leads to bad theology and corrodes our own sense of justice. Great post.

  5. I could really appreciate this post as I identify with much of the conflict that you described. It's not very comfortable being in the box when your thoughts transcend beyond its perimeter. I think it's always important to question and to journey onward down the path God is beckoning us towards, not down the alleys man tries to drag us down.
    Would love you to visit me at my blog, I think we have a bit in common :)

  6. Heidi, Well put. I think Job is a good example of the type of questioning and growing you are talking about. Thanks for reading and responding!

    David, the book sounds fascinating--and bound to stir both questions and controversy. I look forward to reading your blog. Thank you for sharing it with me.

    Blog for the Lord guy: Thanks so much for reading!

  7. Cognitive Discopants: A) you have the best moniker ever. B) You say it so well. We are taught to turn off our conscience. So many times I have had people tell me that I cannot pay attention to my experiences, or my sensibilities. Like you say--it leads to poor theology and an inverted justice.

    Jessica, thanks for reading, and responding. I have taken a look at your blog, and look forward to reading more. I have to say, I'm tired of boxes. The more I see of life, the less I trust boxes to contain the variety of experiences, people, and perspectives.

  8. I admire your vulnerability. Thanks for letting me share in your journey. Past, present, and future.

  9. Nothing "foolish" about this post, regardless of when you posted it! :-)

  10. Steve, Thanks for reading. I have read about your blog on other sites, took and peek, and can't wait to read more! I look forward to more interaction, too.

    Sarah. My friend. Thank you so much for never telling me I had to conform, or that I was outside the faith. Your steadfastness in loving me, even when you disagree with me has given me so much hope. Miss you.

    To all: apparently, blogspot doesn't allow you to individually reply to comments. I really want to do this, but until I find a work around, this sloppy method is the one I'll employ.