Misunderstanding God (Part 1)

Richard Dawkins is one of the most prominent and bombastic “New Atheists”. I’m sure he is a brilliant man, though in my mind, he does lose a lot of debates and I am not aware of any real contributions he has made to science. He has nonetheless made a name for himself by writing books that criticize Christianity and God. One of his more famous quotes is this:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

I know what he means. Rather I think I know where he gets his criticisms. God’s actions, particularly in the Old Testament are misunderstood, especially by the casual reader. For the next few entries in this blog, I would like to take you to the story or stories where Dawkins gets his venom, and try to explain actions of God that are misunderstood.

We start with “jealous and proud of it”. That’s an easy one. Here it is:

 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Exodus 20:4-6 ESV

God declares himself to be jealous. In context it means that God is not willing to allow people to ascribe God’s creative and sustaining work to some fictional product of their imagination. It also means that God wants people to know Him and be with Him forever. There is love and there is justice colliding in an environment where people don’t really want to know God, but rather to have a superhuman being that they can control.

Jealousy is normally considered a bad trait. It reveals a selfish, competitive, and untrusting nature. Is that the case in this statement? Is it wrong for God to want credit for His work? Would Dawkins like me to attribute his work to Spongebob? God is not threatened by the pagan gods people create. They are fictional. At best they are empowered by demons. This too is robbery. For demons are beings in rebellion to God. They do not and should not have God’s praise.

It is also important to note the God’s jealousy is a sign of caring. God Law’s will exclude the unrepentant idolater (we will talk about God’s unbending Law later). He doesn’t want people to run afoul of the Law and be lost. Nothing wrong with that. “Jealous” is an English word assigned to this translation. It carries a connotation that is negative. What God says “proudly” here is a warning, but it fair and it conveys how He values us.

Another claim is that God is a “petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak”. There might be multiple stories that Dawkins judges as such. Is God a control-freak? I wish. God has created and maintains this universe to have extremely finely tuned laws. Without such control, we would not exist. The fact that God has loosened his control of things in response to human rebellion gives us what we ask for. We want to be God. We want control. The result has been that nature has proved to be out of our control.

God could be a control-freak if He wanted to be. He could have created the cherubim/seraphim to be perfectly obedient robots. Instead He gave them freewill and one rebelled (Satan – see Ezekiel 28:14-19). God could have done the same for angels, but a large minority of them did the same. He could have created humans to be perfectly loyal, but we too have a will and a choice and we exercise it.

Perhaps Dawkins is complaining that God has a will. So do I. God’s will is to bring about ultimate God for His creation. I’m not so sure that is true of the rest of us.

Unforgiving. Richard Dawkins has said and written some real bone-headed things in his day, this is up there with the worst. What Dawkins wants is for God to have no standards–to call evil “good”. God does bring judgment on nations and clans and individuals, but always with pre-warning of what is evil, always with long-suffering patience.

One thing that sometimes gets lost we you read a history like in the Old Testament is a sense of time. Time seems compressed, giving the impression that God is zapping people left and right. You need to see that God normally reacts very slowly. Before the Babylonian exile, the Jews had been breaking God’s Laws and had become a perverse society. God gives them 70 years of exile in response to 490 years of deserving it. During that long period, prophet after prophet was ignored.

God’s major desire is to forgive. This is why Jesus came into the world and why He gave Himself on the cross. God insists that the Law be fulfilled, but has Jesus do it for all mankind, so that anyone who can be brought to faith in God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus will receive it. In the mean time God waits. He could have brought Judgment Day a long time ago, but He waits because He is forgiving.

Petty and unjust. Not sure what Dawkins considers petty and unjust. Most likely it comes from not understanding the full implications of what happened in the story. For instance, the Ark of the Covenant, (like in the first Indiana Jones) was a place where the special and holy presence of God existed. Nobody could touch it. This was not just because of God’s choice, but also the physics of getting close to the power of God. On one occasion, while it was being moved, the oxen stumbled and the ark tipped and a man put out his hand to steady it. (2 Samuel 6:5-8) It was a well-meaning gut reaction, but it says God struck him dead in anger. Even David did not understand the consequence. We do not fully appreciate what God is and how our sinfulness removes us from being able to come near to Him. Petty? Tell your kid not to touch the stove but they do it anyway and get burned. Are you petty?

The same could be said about eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Genesis 3) It seems more like something deserving a slap on the wrist, but this is not an ordinary tree with ordinary consequence. This is more like playing catch with vials of viruses in the lab in Wuhan, only much worse. It was not pettiness but awareness that made the rule.

Of course, Dawkins regards God to be a fictional character that is badly written. Understanding the gravity of the situations described in the Bible paints a very different picture of the character of God. Understanding the reality of God’s existence brings you into a relationship that is complex but very patient and loving. I will show you a few more situations like these in response to Dawkins tirade next time.

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