A “revelation of God’s true nature”?

RU listening?

I concluded my previous post on DNA and evolution with this comment:

“DNA is fundamental to all life. As christians we can see it as part of the way God has set up the universe. So we should be willing and interested to learn what it tells us about life. I think what we learn is exciting.”

I want to explore that idea a little more. (I’m wondering if this might be one of the most important topics I’ve tackled here.)

It’s hard not to think about God in certain ways

In our western English-speaking culture there seems to be two different folklores about God. Either he’s a benign grandfather in the sky who smiles at whatever we do as long as we don’t hurt anyone else, or else he’s a cosmic controller who ordains catastrophes (“acts of God”) and smites whenever he is displeased.

Neither of these is really a christian view of God, but you can see where they both came from. The first interprets the love of God as mere sentiment, and not the hard-as-nails love of an ethical and just father. And the second is derived from the most primitive ideas about God in the early Old Testament.

The first seems often to be the view of people who have never been very religious, but kind of believe in a God and expect him to be as tolerant as they are. The second seems to be held by two very different groups of people – christians of a fairly fundamentalist kind, or atheists who once were christians of a fairly fundamentalist kind.

Yahweh vs Jesus?

But christians face a difficulty, because we have both the Old Testament and the New, and while the cosmic controller and the benign grandfather are both caricatures of what the Bible teaches, there still does seem to be a difference between what Jesus taught and how God is portrayed, say, in Exodus.

Most christians want to defend God as all-powerful, sovereign, all-knowing, good and unchangeable, so they are uncomfortable with saying the Old Testament picture is wrong and Jesus corrected it, or that God changed.

We have a dilemma.

CS Lewis to the rescue!

As a scholar specialising in ancient history and literature, CS Lewis saw the Bible as containing many forms of ancient literature, including myth (see CS Lewis on the Bible, history and myth). This didn’t bother him as it seems to bother many people. In God’s providence, the Bible includes poetry, parables and letters, so “I think he meant us to have sacred myth and sacred fiction as well as sacred history”.

His explanation is interesting. He believed God started with ancient pagan beliefs and refined them, so that what was “not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself”. “The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical — hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becomes more and more historical.”

The medium is the message?

But he went further, and made this significant comment almost as an aside:

“That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature.”

What did he mean?

I think he meant that this process of refining what is already there, using forms of communication that were natural to the people of the day, shows us that God is less inclined to impose himself on us humans, and more inclined to work unobtrusively to serve us.

Yes, the sovereign God of the universe loves us with a love that serves rather than takes or demands. Why? Because he wants to give us the dignity of being his “children” and friends, not servants (as Jesus said in John 15:14-15). The creator creates not to impose, but to give life and freedom.

It is an audacious claim. Let’s see if we can see other examples of this.

God’s true nature

The big bang and the universe we see

God could have created the universe as a going concern, just like it portrays in Genesis, but it appears that he didn’t do it that way. Instead he created an enormous amount of energy at a small point, plus space, time and the laws that govern it all, and then more or less let it go, to form itself within the parameters he set up. Of course he knew all along how it would turn out, but it is a less obvious way for an all-powerful God to do it.

Evolution

We see a similar process in evolution. God “could” have created human beings straight up, along with a habitat for us, but he didn’t do it that way. Instead, God waited for something like 10 billion years for earth to form, cool and take shape, and for life to form with cells, amino acids and DNA. Then he waited another 4 billion years for that life to evolve through many complicated processes, until finally human beings formed, with the mental, moral and spiritual capacity to be autonomous beings with choice that could relate to him.

It appears that we humans appeared via a more “hands-off” process than many christians have been led to think.

God’s initial revelation of himself

Again, it would seem to us that God “could” have done it differently. He could have appeared directly to people, told them exactly what he expected, not in the simple way expressed in the Genesis story where only one things was forbidden, but with full instructions on how to live a life that pleases him. He could have made things so clear, and imposed himself on the human race so strongly, that we had little choice.

But he didn’t.

The historical, archeological and literary evidence indicates that God allowed the human race to develop their own impressions of who he is based on their experience of the numinous which many anthropologists believe were the beginnings of religion. I think it quite likely that God was interacting with responsive humans all over the world.

But eventually he settled on one responsive tribe, and took them through the process that CS Lewis describes, of refining their beliefs so that they gradually became aware of his greatness, his sense of morality, his wisdom and his love. But they learnt most of this through experience, both positive and negative, none of it was forced, they had to choose to follow.

The fullest revelation – a “nobody”!

And so Jesus came, the son of God reduced down to a mere human being so we could understand the character of God. And not a king, a general, a philosopher or a rich man, but a baby born in some hick village, a man who worked with his hands, a peasant teacher, and eventually an executed criminal. A nobody who “could” easily have escaped attention, even after his followers said he had been raised back to life by God as a vindication of all those amazing crazy things he had been teaching.

It was easy to miss what was going on. The religious leaders, with centuries of revelation stored away in their minds, often missed it. You had to have ears ready to hear what God was saying through him, eyes to see the truth behind the “nobody” speaking it out. Isaiah had somehow seen that the one to come would be “Mighty God”, but also a man “despised” and not “esteemed”. (Isaiah 9:6, 53:3)

Too many people today miss it too, even many christians.

But some then and now see him, and catch a glimmer of God’s perspective. Paul said (Colossions 2:6-7) he “did not think equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”, so that God’s purposes would be achieved.

The omnipotent God achieves his purposes of creating fully autonomous beings capable of choosing to love him or reject his love, by becoming a servant and making only a small ripple in history – yet a ripple that is still spreading outwards to this day.

Life in the Spirit

And the beat goes on! Today we christians are just animated carbohydrates like everyone else, yet we carry within us the Spirit of God, hidden unless we attend carefully, and barely discernible (unfortunately) to the watching world. God’s truth is really stored in fragile “clay pots”!

We stumble along, the church of Jesus stumbles along, but still God works in generally unobtrusive ways. The most unlikely people become converts and we can hardly understand how, but it was God working subtly. The kingdom of God is slowly advancing; even as it declines in some places it is growing elsewhere. Where it is functioning well, some people are healed miraculously, but many more benefit from the hospitals, schools, clinics, aid and development projects and neighbourliness that characterise christians at our best. And quietly people keep turning to the God that many people simply do not see.

Eyes wide open

I believe Lewis was deeply insightful, and right. All these processes do indeed reveal the nature of the “three mile an hour God”. He respects the physical universe and the human beings he initiated, but which in a sense made themselves, and he generally only interferes in subtle ways. He waits for us to turn to him but is constantly offering himself to us with hints and impressions that we’ll miss unless we’re paying attention. He works within human limitations and culture, but inspires us to transcend them.

But once we “see” this revelation of his nature, we see so many things more clearly.

We understand the Bible better

We don’t have to grit our teeth and try to defend the Bible, especially those bits in the Old Testament that seem so far from the God of Jesus. We can see God refining, building from the known to the new, correcting wrong ideas and offering tantalising glimpses of wild and beautiful ideas beyond human imagining. God can reveal himself through wrong ideas, myth and incomplete history – it’s just that the God we now see is not quite the same as the God we thought we knew.

We understand God better

God is more like Jesus than he is like any of our other preconceptions and imaginings. He does indeed have all power and all knowledge, but he chooses to veil that power to allow us to develop as autonomous beings, invited to share friendship with him if we can dare to take up his offer. A God who “stoops to conquer”.

We can ask him to intervene, to guide, to heal, and sometimes he does. But other times that would be contradictory to his plan. I don’t pretend to understand how he works all that out, I can just faintly see that is something like how he works (I think). So let us keep praying, and keep trusting.

And he calls us to nothing less than a partnership with him in restoring creation, including “lost” humanity, starting with ourselves.

And we can understand how he wants us to live

If we are following Jesus, God’s character will be slowly formed in us if we will let him. We will start to behave in ways that are consistent with his newly revealed character. We will …..

  • advance his kingdom on earth by serving rather than imposing,
  • love and forgive even if it kills us,
  • treat others with respect and never force our views, or God’s views, on them,
  • do good to others, following the example God sets us, and
  • be content to be “nobodies” who are quietly changing the world, one small step at a time (after all, there are very many of us, and if each one does their bit ….).

Don’t stop now!

I am still grappling with these ideas, praying for more wisdom, and struggling to understand and apply these insights.

I offer them to you in the hope that they will be as revolutionary to you as they are to me. Please don’t stop now – don’t stop learning or growing.

We still have much to learn and know, much to do to fulfil our part of the mission while we still have breath. Together we can see him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly.

Photo Credit: 7-how-7 via Compfight cc, modified by unkleE

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15 thoughts on “A “revelation of God’s true nature”?

  1. ignorantianescia says:

    Good job, Eric. I have seen you discuss this view several times, but I think this is your most impressive, elaborate and erudite exposition to date. Thanks for sharing this.

    Like

  2. unkleE says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for reading and commenting, and for bringing this matter to my notice. It is an interesting read.

    But while I appreciate seeing an alternative viewpoint, I feel that viewpoint has serious flaws. My main criticism is that creationist christians too often seize on a small anomaly and proclaim that it refutes evolution when science is always discovering anomalies and modifying hypotheses in response.

    This is an interesting development, but is quite unlikely to bring evolution down – and it is far too soon to be making strong statements to this effect, as likely explanations will be discovered.

    I thought the matter was interesting enough to merit a separate post – Christians need to get smart over evolution?. I hope you find it interesting.

    Thanks again for bringing this matter to my attention.

    Like

  3. Arno says:

    Wow 😀 Eric, this happens to be a rather cool article. As I continued reading, I inwardly found myself saying “yes, Yes, YES!” The contents speaks to me in a most remarkable manner on a very deep level indeed. I do not know exactly how to convey the deep, inner satisfaction the concepts of this post brings to my inner being. It is remarkable. It is nourishing. I pray that others who may *happen* on it will have a similar kind of experience.

    Sure I would like to share – even add – a few comments, but that will take some time, because this is not something just to pass over in a superficial manner. so, watch this space… 😀

    Like

  4. unkleE says:

    Thanks. I think it is one of the most important posts I have written, and it still excites me too. So I am pleased you have found it so encouraging, and I look forward to further comments.

    Like

  5. Kevin says:

    Unklee, to add to my earlier comment above, I believe there is a literal, personal devil, who blinds the minds of the unbelieving—even if they happen to wear white lab coats. Since I also believe EVERYTHING that has been made was made during “Creation Week,” I would further argue that his creation (as the unfallen Lucifer) was then, merely a few days before man.

    Wrong premises lead to wrong conclusions, in science as well as theology:

    -Darwinian (Macro) Evolution assumes all physical phenomena must have non-supernatural explanations.
    -The question “How could a good God allow evil to happen?” cannot provide any meaningful answers, since God has already disallowed all evil through the finished work of His Son, “slain from the foundation of the world.” (Of course, each person must choose not to neglect so great a salvation, but rather to receive it and enforce it.)

    Atheists reject a violent God, and so do I. God is not bipolar. Whenever people assign evil to God, they are confusing Him with Satan. So, although I accept the literal, worldwide Flood of Noah, in contradistinction to Moses I do not believe God sent it. The Bible is only part of a progressive revelation, reflective of the human mediators’ growing recognition of God’s goodness, and Satan’s subterfuges. Please consider,

    “Is God Violent, Or Nonviolent?” at

    http://evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=6581

    Blessings.

    Like

  6. unkleE says:

    Hi Kevin, thanks for your further explanations. I would like to explore your ideas further please.

    1. I too believe there is probably a literal devil. I’m not sure I believe a lot of things people say about the devil, but since Jesus spoke of him, I see no reason not to accept his existence. I’m less sure how much he can and does blind people’s minds (this phrase seems to imply people have little choice about this), but I accept that people can be fooled, including scientists. But using this fact to cast doubt on e.g. evolution raises problems in my mind. Couldn’t you or I be just as much fooled? Are evolutionary biologists who are christians similarly fooled? What criteria would you use to determine who is fooled and who isn’t?

    2. I can see that full 100% 6-day creationism is a belief that can intelligently be held, but this too raises problems for me. The sciences of biology, palaeontology and (especially) genetics provide some very clear evidence that evolution occurred. To counter this, the creationist has to argue (IMO) that the world only looks that way, but we should trust the Bible rather than the science. There are two problems with this: (i) It requires us to believe the Bible is more trustworthy on science than science is, despite other signs that it contains contradictions and was never intended to be scientific, and (ii) we must believe that God has deliberately mislead us by making the world look like evolution occurred when it didn’t. Do you ever have any similar thoughts and questions?

    3. Your view about the OT writers confusing God and the devil is an interesting one that seems to me to be at least partly true, if not more. There are several actions ascribed to God (trying to kill Moses, commanding Abraham sacrifice Isaac, sending an evil spirit to Saul, ordering genocide) that don’t seem to be godlike, and one explanation is that they called anything supernatural “God”. Another explanation is that there were many gods at that time, and they hadn’t yet distinguished the true God from the rest. Either way, we are not far from each other on this one.

    But there is an interesting consequence of this view. If there is progressive revelation (which I agree with) and if they misunderstood God so much, how can you be so sure that they got creation exactly right?

    Interested in your further thoughts.

    Like

  7. Kevin says:

    Unklee, as to the devil’s actual capacity, as the god of this age, to blind the minds of the unbelieving (2 Cor. 4:4), I commend to you Richard Murray’s short essay, “Is Satan Involved In Every Evil Occurrence?” at

    https://www.facebook.com/richard.murray.1840/posts/626186654108055

    (Annoyingly, there is a pop-up you have to move out of the way in order to read it.)

    Regarding Darwinian evolution, as you know, both how data are collected and analyzed are influenced by the preferred paradigm of the researcher. I argue that research bias can have a spiritual dimension. (Btw, have you watched “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”? It’s free at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5EPymcWp-g )

    Neither you nor I believe God has misled anyone by “making the world look like [macro] evolution occurred when it didn’t.” Again, we must distinguish between Microevolution (observable) and Macroevolution (unobservable).

    As you recall, the biblical Creation was initiated with an appearance of age. For example, Adam and Eve started as adults. And, of course, even the best current dating methods (whether in geology, astronomy, or even genetics) are designed with certain fixed parameters based on best-guess presuppositions.

    Because of what I myself now believe about God’s true nature, I seek to read the Scriptures through the lens of love. And so I must dismiss the suggested model of Macroevolution, and accept the supernatural narrative plainly stated in the Bible. To quote from “Evolution, The Flood, and God’s True Nature” (linked to in an earlier comment above):

    “If He is nonviolent, God could not have used the mechanism of Darwinian Macroevolution to create man. Death is God’s stated enemy (1 Co 15:26). Millions of years of death, bloodshed, suffering, disease, and extinction…eventually leading to “the ascent of man” as a moral agent? This proposed mechanism puts death BEFORE the fall of man. However, the Scriptures plainly state death appeared only AFTER the fall of man in the Garden, coming in through his sin. Death doesn’t precede man, it follows him….”

    Of course, the New Testament clearly references Adam, Eve, Noah, et al, by name, as historical figures—with no sense (in my opinion) that they were only allegorical figures.

    (Parenthetically, I should mention that my friend Richard Murray disagrees with me on this, and believes Adam and Eve are not literal, but only allegorical. But then, he and I also disagree about eschatology: I believe in a literal, future, coming Antichrist, whose spirit I now see at work in the Church via the growing acceptance of postmillennialist Dominion Theology, even in my own church. See, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominion_Theology )

    Blessings.

    Like

  8. unkleE says:

    Hi Kevin, thanks for sharing more of your ideas. I think we are a long way apart on some matters, but no reason why we can’t discuss ….

    My reaction to what you have written is that I agree with much of what you say, but I don’t feel it justifies the conclusions you have drawn.

    So I agree that the devil can “blind the minds of the unbelieving” but I don’t think that entails that people have no choice. If God gives us freedom to act within limits, I think normally we retain most of that freedom, though we can lose some or all of it if we make bad choices.

    I agree with you that “research bias can have a spiritual dimension”, but that can work both ways (both christians and atheists can have biases). Everyone has biases, but the scientific method evens a lot of that out. It isn’t enough to allege systematic bias, we have to demonstrate it.

    We also agree that we need to read scripture “through the lens of love”, though I would prefer to say through the lens of Jesus. But we disagree about the conclusions. If we say a loving God couldn’t have created a world through evolution because it entails death, then surely we must also say a loving God couldn’t have created beings (humans and spirits) that could commit evil because that too entails death.

    And of course I agree that “the New Testament …. references Adam, Eve, Noah, et al, by name”, but I don’t see that you can say that they are “clearly” “historical figures”. The NT often changes the meaning of the OT and sometimes quotes things as if historical but which are not, so this point cannot be clearly established.

    Finally, I’m unsure what you mean by: “Neither you nor I believe God has misled anyone by “making the world look like [macro] evolution occurred when it didn’t.” I think it is clear that the world looks like it is old.

    If the world and universe is only thousands, not billions of years old …..

    1. … it must have been created expanding, with stars having the red shift, and processes apparently partly complete, all of which looks like it began 14 bn years ago in the big bang.

    2. … processes on earth such as sediment deposition, coral and ice formation and continental drift would all have had to be created part complete, and with shapes that match if projected backwards.

    3. … materials used in radiometric dating would have to have been created partly decayed.

    4. … fossils that we’d expect to find more randomly through geological strata actually appear in a generally orderly manner that fits with the radiometric data.

    5. … genetic (DNA) inheritance and relationships which can be established in the present day must have been set up in a way that appears to show relationships between species in the past which didn’t actually exist – this is probably the hardest to explain and to believe your hypothesis.

    These are very strong evidences. It is possible, though I think scarcely reasonable, to say that God set it all up that way, but I cannot see how that doesn’t mean God has given us evidence that would be likely to mislead us.

    Finally, may I repeat my question from before: If there is progressive revelation and if they misunderstood God so much in the OT, how can you be so sure that they got creation exactly right?

    Thanks again for the opportunity to discuss.

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  9. Kevin says:

    Unklee, I appreciate your point that if God created beings that could commit evil knowing that death would entail, He could also have used the mechanism of Macroevolution. I nevertheless believe that the omniscient God was, is, and always will be anti-death, and so He could never have used death to achieve an end such as the hypothesized evolution of life from spontaneous generation to complex single cell organism to man. I don’t believe the Scriptures or the scientific evidence support that. As mentioned in the above referenced “Evolution, The Flood, and God’s True Nature”:

    “…The idea of an old earth is based on uniformitarian geology, which understands the fossil record to have been laid down over millions of years. But either the fossil record is the evidence of millions of years, or it is largely the evidence of Noah’s Flood.”

    In answer to what I meant by, “Neither you [for your reasons] nor I [for mine] believe God has misled anyone by ‘making the world look like [macro] evolution occurred when it didn’t,’” I have already referenced the biblical narrative regarding the supernatural appearance of age for Adam and Eve (and everything else) on the very day they were created, and I also pointed out that Macroevolution does not allow for supernatural origins.

    There are good alternative scientific explanations to be found for each of your counter-examples to a young creation. As a single example, regarding the red shift, there are any number of scientists who argue that immediately after the posited Big Bang, the universe had an initial monstrous growth-spurt called “inflation.” The Cornell University web site hosts an “Ask an Astronomer” corner. In answer to the question, “Could the universe have expanded faster than the speed of light at the Big Bang?”, a Cornell Ph.D. astronomer—and postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Germany—answers (in part):

    “There are a few problems with standard Big Bang cosmology, which can be solved by ‘inflation’ (an exponential expansion of the universe, which will be faster than the speed of light).”

    I have no difficulty believing God is faster than the speed of light, that the worlds were personally framed by the master carpenter, Jesus, or that there were a literal Adam and Eve. But I’m not qualified to play science “fact” ping pong. Suffice it to say there are many good young earth scientific resources out there which support the biblical narrative.

    You mention, “It isn’t enough to allege systematic bias, we have to demonstrate it.” Demonstrating systematic bias in favor of Darwinian evolution is the main thrust of Kevin Miller’s documentary film, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” which I hope you will (re-)consider.

    Of course, studying the biblical Creation narrative through the lens of love (or as Richard Murray calls it, “the Jesus Hermeneutic”) helps me to see that God is nonviolent, and only a loving daddy to all. As to being certain that the Genesis account portrays Creation accurately, I freely admit that violent editor Moses got many things wrong about God. But on this question, I (prayerfully) don’t discern that. For myself, corroborating scientific evidence found in the many resources I alluded to, is icing on the cake.

    Every blessing to you, my dear, thinking brother!

    Like

  10. unkleE says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for your courtesy, and the recognition that we are brothers, both of which I reciprocate. But clearly we not only see things differently, but approach things from a different basis.

    For example, your statement that “I’m not qualified to play science “fact” ping pong.” I am the same, qualified in only a very small area (of environmental science) to make an argument based on my own knowledge. So both of us must rely on others who we regard as expert. But I think those that you have relied on are not expert.

    1. You say that don’t believe the scientific evidence supports evolution of life from spontaneous generation to complex single cell organism to man. But the scientific evidence does appear to support the old age of the universe, the connection (as exhibited in DNA) and common ancestry of different species, etc. Now you can say you don’t accept that evidence, but it is indeed there. Yes, if geological processes were not as science understands (I think your use of “uniform” is a little wrong), we’d get a different age of the earth, but moving from billions of years to thousands of years is a huge non-uniformity, and I don’t see how a worldwide flood, if that were even sensible, could do it.

    2. You say there are good alternative scientific explanations for the facts I’ve mentioned, but you haven’t actually offered any. I’m not a cosmologist, but I have read quite a bit on the subject, and I don’t think your example of inflation is at all relevant. If it is, you haven’t explained how. (As far as I understand it, the bit about expanding faster than the speed of light isn’t anomalous, as nothing actually moves that fast, abstract space just expands.)

    3. Macroevolution as a scientific theory doesn’t include the supernatural, but neither does it preclude it. Many christians accept it without seeing any problem.

    So I see lots of anomalies in the position you are arguing. I presume you believe the main purpose of the Bible is to reveal God (and Jesus), yet you think Moses got complex science exactly right while getting God seriously wrong. You assume the early chapters of the Bible try to present accurate science when the internal evidence is that they are not. On that assumption you dismiss all the evidence and all the science and try to present other ideas as if they were facts.

    I honestly can’t see that it is true, nor that it is worth the effort. Why fight that battle, especially when on your own admission you are out of your depth? And why do it when it leads to many people who are brought up on simple creationism give up their faith when they discover that it’s a house of cards.

    As you say, you are my brother, I have no wish to hurt you or attack you. I don’t make a habit of arguing with creationists, or other fellow believers for that matter. But if you comment on my blog, I feel I should reply, and explain why I think your views lack evidence, are mistaken and are harmful to God’s kingdom.

    Let me finish with a question. If it could be shown beyond any doubt, to you own satisfaction, that evolution really did occur and the earth is old (I don’t know how it could be so totally proven, but it’s a hypothetical), would this change your faith in God? Would it destroy your faith, would you just adjust that part of your belief, or what? I’m really interested to know.

    Thanks.

    Like

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