The Two Gods of Christianity

Kevin Miller, the film-maker behind Hellbound?, is apparently now a blogger on Patheos. I stumbled across this realization through a link to this particular post which unpacks the two completely different ways of understanding God that exist within Christianity and even within evangelicalism. I appreciate that he even quotes Kevin DeYoung, a staunch Reformed thinker, saying this:

At the very heart of this controversy, and one of the reasons the blogosphere exploded over this book, is that we really do have two different Gods. The stakes are that high. If Bell is right, then historic orthodoxy is toxic and terrible. But if the traditional view of heaven and hell are right, Bell is blaspheming. Both sides cannot be right. As much as some voices in evangelicalism will suggest that we should all get along and learn from each other and listen for the Spirit speaking in our midst, the fact is we have two irreconcilable views of God.

Some days I feel like that is going way too far. But other days I think that this is completely true. Christian theology has diverged in enough different directions that we really have at least two different understandings of God at a very fundamental character level.

The first god is what Miller calls the Sacrificial God, although I’m not convinced that’s the best name, and is most often associated with the “young, restless, Reformed” category (not as much with traditional Reformed theology as you might think although the elements are clearly still there). Here’s how that god is described, and I do think most of those who support this idea would agree and so I don’t think this is a straw man at all:

The primary attribute of this god is holiness or otherness. This god’s will is paramount, and violation of his will puts you in danger potentially for all eternity. The Sacrificial god gives a judicial account of sin, which means violating this infinite god’s holiness incurs an infinite penalty or debt that no human is able to repay. The only way to escape this god’s wrath is to hide behind his Son, Jesus, the sole being capable of making the sacrifice necessary to appease this god’s wrath. Because with this god, forgiveness and reconciliation can only be achieved through sacrifice.

Miller goes on to discuss some of the effects of following this God. To name a few from his list, avoiding Hell becomes a high priority, you’ll think in more binary terms (either with God or against), propositions are more important than experiences, and striving to follow the right rules in order to avoid God’s punishments.

Any regular readers would know that I, like most who claim either the emerging or the Anabaptist label, clearly side with the second understanding of God: the self-sacrificial God. This God is described this way:

This God is also holy, but what makes this God holy is not “otherness”; it’s love, particularly love of enemy:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

This God is also consenting rather than willful. Instead of imposing his will on us, this God makes room for us and only commands or directs those who make room for him. With this God, sin is a relational problem rather than a judicial problem. Sin is anything that gets in the way of perfect love. As a result, the remedy for sin is not punishment and exclusion but healing and reconciliation. And with this God, forgiveness and reconciliation can only be achieved by self-sacrifice, because self-sacrifice is the very definition of love.

That’s how Jesus defined God (himself), through his teachings and example. Who am I to argue?

Some of the consequences of this kind of God are: being more prone to think along trajectories rather than either/or binaries, other-centeredness, a hospitable religious identity, and a relational/experiential understanding of truth instead of propositional.

Finally, he goes why – despite Jesus being so clearly representative of the second type – so many people are still drawn to the first. This question actually came up in our HomeChurch this week, too, and so I’m going to unpack that along with Kevin’s comments in another post.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Arthur Sido

    I am not sure I see the “either-or” here. There is nothing at all incompatible with an emphasis on the holiness and perfect justice of God coupled with God as loving especially toward His enemies. Indeed it makes His love that much more perfect in that He loved His own enemies to the point of sending His Son to die on their behalf, making peace through His shed blood on the cross. The less than subtle suggestion here is that the “young, restless, Reformed”, a group I am familiar with and have many sympathetic position in common, somehow de-emphasize God’s love by focusing on His holiness while in reality it is precisely because of His holiness that His love is so gracious.

    • There’s a lot behind this question and I will probably try to give a more complete answer in another post later, but a quick response for now. For the most part I agree with you, largely because of a subtle shift you made right from the start. You are suggesting that holiness/justice does not need to be opposed to love. I agree, at least by my definitions of holiness/justice. This is probably why Miller chose the labels he did of Sacrificial God vs Self-Sacrificing God. Those are fundamentally opposing modus operandi: is God’s primary concern himself (a top-down acquiring “glory” whatever that takes) or is his primary concern the good of his creation (a bottom-up whatever it takes to be in relationship with us)?

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