January 16, 2008

The God of the Prophets

2008 1502 page15 capN HIS (BLASPHEMOUS) BOOK THE GAY Science (1882), German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (who died insane in 1900) tells the story of a madman who runs into the public square shouting, “God is dead!”1 And sometime between 1908 and 1910, the English poet Thomas Hardy followed with a poem in which he imagined himself attending God’s funeral.2
But if the normalness of modern atheism seems to prove the “death of God,” it is equally true that many millions still believe in Him. A 1998 Harris poll, for example, revealed that 94 percent of adult Americans believe in God. Which begs the question: Is God really dead? Or to put it differently, is the God declared dead by the philosophers the same as the God of the prophets?
The question is important. Because one of the crucial points overlooked in the existence of God debate is that our views of God have been shaped by two distinct traditions: Hebrew prophecy and Greek philosophy. And the mixture of these traditions derived from attempts by Christians to answer the attacks on Christianity by pagan philosophers in the second and third centuries A.D. To blunt these attacks and make Christianity intellectually respectable, some of the Church Fathers (as they have come to be known)—men such as Origen, Augustine, and others—adopted Neoplatonic concepts to defend the reality of God. God was described as an immaterial, timeless, impassible Being, who could be known only intellectually. Essentially, they argued that the God of the Bible was identical to the Supreme Being of Neoplatonic philosophers.3
One can understand why these theologians would accede to such language—after all, they were responding to the issues of their time. But one of the problems of equating God with the “Supreme Being” of the philosophers is that the latter was an abstract idea adopted by the Greeks in their attempts to explain the origin and working of the universe. Baffled by the power of natural forces, they described as god any power or force at work in the world that had been “born” before us and that will continue after we’re gone.4 Thus natural forces such as the sun, the stars, the mountains—as well as realities such as love, death, and war—were considered as gods.
2008 1502 page15And all these forces were organically linked to the Supreme Being or “the One” (according to Neoplatonists) or the “Unmoved Mover” (according to Aristotle). The crucial flaw here is in the thinking of such defenders.
God was inseparably linked to nature—a part of it, rather than its cause. Not without significance, Cicero (106-43 B.C.), an eminent pagan philosopher, after trying to reconcile the various philosophical ideas about nature and the gods, concluded that “these opinions, taken separately, are apparently false; and, together, are directly inconsistent with each other.”5
Yet, ironically, these “false and inconsistent opinions” were integrated into the Christian understanding of God. In my view, the most pernicious effect of Greek thought on the biblical view of God was to shift the main theater of divine activity from history to nature. This point is highly significant, because the God of Israel was not found primarily in the facts of nature, but through events in history. He was first and foremost the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of the Exodus and Sinai. As Thorleif Boman rightly pointed out, “God revealed Himself to the Israelites in history and not in ideas, He revealed Himself when He acted and created. His being was not learned through propositions but known in actions.”6
Indeed, the Bible is primarily a historical, rather than a theological, discourse of God’s dealings with humanity—a phenomenon that sets it apart from all other religious books. It tells how God intervened in history to save and lead His people. “In all their affliction He was afflicted” (Isa. 63:9, NKJV);* He “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8, NKJV); and He has promised: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
We’re Heading Somewhere
The idea of the end of the age suggests that history is under divine direction, moving toward the day when “every eye will see Him” (Rev. 1:7, NKJV) and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11). Peter admonished Christians to “pay attention” to this prophetic hope, “as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in [our] hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).
If the prophetic hope of the Second Coming is the light that illuminates God’s presence in human affairs, it is not surprising that doubts about God’s existence increased with a loss of faith in that event. And it’s not without significance that the aforementioned Church Fathers (Origen and Augustine), who did most to adorn God in Greek concepts, were also chiefly responsible for spiritualizing away the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation and the hope of the Second Coming. Augustine, for example, saw the victory of the church over the Roman Empire as the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth.7
But as Christians turned toward building a kingdom of God on earth, they lost sight of the prophetic beacons of God’s activity in history. Alternatively, they sought evidence of God’s presence in abstract concepts and in nature.
Thus in the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) asserted that God’s existence could be proved irrefutably from His effects in nature. Using Aristotelian ideas, he represented the universe as a giant ladder projecting into heaven, with God at the top holding everything together—a foundational concept of medieval Christianity.
Significantly, it is the medieval church’s blind defense of this model that opened the chasm between science and religion. To be sure, there was no place for God in the Newtonian universe, regulated as it was by impersonal mechanical laws. Inevitably, the inability to account for God in the Newtonian universe led to deism, which saw the universe as a giant clock designed by God, but left to run independently.
Christian scholars also adopted the argument from design as proof of God’s existence. But then came Darwin, who, in the eyes of many, exploded the whole idea of the need for a Designer, thereby opening the floodgates for modern atheism.8 It was in this general atmosphere, prevailing toward the end of the nineteenth century, that Nietzsche could make the scandalous declaration that “God is dead!”
A Different Way of Seeing
Earlier in the century, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, decrying attempts to prove the existence of God, made the following profound observation: If God does not exist, it is impossible to demonstrate it. But if He does exist, then it is foolishness to want to demonstrate it.9 Instead, Kierkegaard called for a revival of primitive Christianity so as to bring people face-to-face with the Jesus of the Gospels.10
2008 1502 page15In my view, Kierkegaard was correct. A revival of true godliness will reveal to the world a God who is not only alive but too overwhelmingly real and too shatteringly present to be reduced to an object of thought.
When Moses asked God to “show me your glory,” he was told, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Ex. 33:18, 20). Job “was blameless and upright” (Job 1:1). Yet after his encounter with God, he said: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5, 6). Daniel’s reaction was identical: “My comeliness was turned in me into corruption” (Dan. 10:8, KJV). So was Isaiah’s: “‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty’” (Isa. 6:5).
Such was the response of the prophets after encountering the living God of Israel, “the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:15, 16). Overwhelmed by a deep sense of the purity and holiness of God, they were struck by the absolute difference between themselves and Him. And turning their gaze earthward to themselves, they saw sin everywhere—inside and outside themselves, permeating, infecting, corrupting.
The Good News of God
This brings us to the Israelite sanctuary, whose key lesson was that the barrier to face-to-face communication between us and God lies in our sinfulness. And this, in turn, brings us to Jesus. Says the prophet, “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins” (Isa. 59:20). And in the words of Jesus Himself, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8). In Jesus, God has provided the all-sufficient sacrifice to cleanse and purify us from all sin, enabling us to come into His very presence (Heb. 4:16; 10:19-22). The message at the heart of the book of Hebrews is that Christ’s death and high priestly ministry have opened to us “a new and living way” into God’s very presence (see Heb. 10:20).11
So there is no need to speculate about God’s existence. Access to Him is free and direct. All can come and verify for themselves. It’s the heart of the Adventist message. And it points the skeptical and wavering to “a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:19, 20, NASB).
It’s only by following Jesus into the heavenly sanctuary that we can meet the living God “who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Rev. 14:7). To look for Him anywhere else is to search in vain. For the Bible is clear: the sanctuary is God’s dwelling place (Ps. 11:4; 29:9; Isa. 6:1; Micah 1:2, 3; Hab. 2:20).
Accordingly, the books of Daniel and Revelation portray demonic attacks concentrated on the sanctuary (see Dan. 8:11, 12; Rev. 13:6). The sanctuary message, embedded as it is in the time prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, tells of God’s deep yearning to dwell among us. But it also reminds us that the time is not far off when the proclamation will be made: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3).
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
†Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
1Cited in Friedrich Nietzsche, Hammer of the Gods: Selected Writings, edited and translated by Stephen Metcalf (Creation Books, 1996), pp. 31-33.
2Thomas Hardy, The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan, 1974), p. 307.
3Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale University Press, 1984), p. 151.
4Cited in W.K.C. Guthrie, The Greek Philosophers: From Thales to Aristotle (Harper & Row, 1975), p. 11.
5Marcus Cicero, The Nature of the Gods and on Divination, translated by C. D. Yonge (Prometheus Books, 1997), p. 13.
6Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared With Greek (W. W. Norton & Company, 1970), p. 171.
7See LeRoy E. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1 (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1950), pp. 309-491.
8See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 404.
9Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments: Johannes Climacus, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 46, 47.
10Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 62-66.
11See William G. Johnsson, In Absolute Confidence: The Book of Hebrews Speaks to Our Day (Southern Publishing Association, 1979).
Elijah Mvundura is a former history and sociology lecturer at Solusi University in Zimbabwe. He writes from Indianapolis, Indiana.