When I was a kid, there were only two things I knew with absolute certainty: pain and love.
Suffering defined my existence. Horrors haunted our little home: the horrors of rage and drug abuse and, worst of all, the horror of violence regularly inflicted upon my mother. But then, in
the midst of it all, there was a contrary mystery.
There was love.
I loved my mom, and I knew she loved me. I loved my younger brothers and my little sister. Growing up, I struggled mightily over the contrast between suffering and love.
Fast-forward a few years, and my mother came home one day announcing that she had become a “born-again Seventh-day Adventist Christian,” whatever that was. She declared with a smile, “All of you are henceforth vegetarians, and you will never watch TV again.” What had happened to Mom? Was she going to be OK? Would we be OK? Or would we all die for want of cartoons and what she was now calling “flesh foods”? Well, we soon learned what had happened to her. A strange person called an “evangelist” had rolled into our city and filled her “gullible” head with a bunch of weird new ideas.
God had never been mentioned in our home before, but mom had heard of the Bible as “the Word of God.” All he had to do was quote Bible verses, frequently saying with an air of authority, “The Bible says,” with the strongly implied “Therefore, you ought.” Mom accepted what the Bible man told her, got baptized, and immediately deployed the evangelist to me. But much to his frustration when he quoted the Bible to me, I just stared straight through him with a look of “So what?”
No disrespect was intended. To my mind, the Bible was just more “literature,” like Shakespeare and Dickens. The evangelist, who was known to baptize anyone who gave him a hearing, told the church members, “If I’ve ever met a lost soul beyond hope, it’s that Ty Gibson kid.” He had given up.
Mom never did. Soon a youth pastor showed up at our house to “befriend” me. He kept trying to act “cool.” It was awkward. But he was different than the other guy. He didn’t come at me with authoritative religious declarations. Still, I found the idea of “God” ridiculous. To end his efforts to “win” my soul I decided to unload my unbelief on him.
“Listen, dude, you apparently find the idea of ‘God’ believable, but I don’t. Just look at this world. I don’t love everybody like you say God does, but if I saw little kids starving to death, I’d feed them. I’m not all-powerful like you say God is, but if I saw a man beating his wife, I’d stop the monster. So don’t tell me about God, because 2 + 2 = 4, not 56, and this God idea does not match up with reality.”
“Yeah, this world is pretty messed up,” he said, “and I don’t understand why God lets it go on for another day.” In that moment I felt a little bit of respect for the guy. At least he could see the world I saw and feel the feelings I felt. He promised to stop bothering me if I would simply read the first chapter of a book my mom had acquired from one of the church people. Wow, what a deal.
Later that evening I reluctantly opened the book and read the first sentence: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). I rolled my eyes and sighed, “Here we go.” But by the time I had finished the chapter, a simple deduction with massive explanatory power had formed in my mind: Love—>Freedom—>Risk.
Love requires freedom in order to exist, but freedom carries the risk that things might go against love. I sat there in a flooded state of “wow.” Suddenly things began to make sense. The emotional weight I’d been feeling my entire life began to float above my heart. Within the space of an hour a whole new way of viewing reality was dawning upon my mind: “God is love.”
Those were the first theological words I ever read. Adventism gave me those words and the expansive perception of reality to which they grant access. What I needed was a way to make sense of the diametrically opposed forces of selfishness and love so obviously waging war within human beings. What I needed was a way to comprehend what’s going on in this world of ours so drenched in blood and tears. What I needed, in other words, was a worldview. And that’s precisely what Adventism gave me.
Everybody has a worldview-—a lens through which they try to make sense of life. But while there are 7.3 billion people on the planet, and hundreds of religions and philosophies, there are only five basic belief systems.
Naturalism—the atheist worldview—says that there is no such thing as evil as a moral category. All there is is natural process. Suffering is part of that process and is necessary for the evolution of the strong and the elimination of the weak. Human beings are evolving animals governed by natural forces and therefore possess no actual free will. All notions of right and wrong, love and hate, mercy and justice, and accountability to a higher power are cultural constructs with no intrinsic basis in reality itself.
Pantheism—the all-is-god worldview—says that there is no personal God that exists distinct from the material world. Rather, nature itself constitutes a collective consciousness of divine proportions. Evil is a balancing force in nature, and suffering is part of the eternal cycle of life. Pantheism is basically a spiritualized version of naturalism.
Deterministic theism—the control worldview—says that God’s main characteristic is power and His primary objective is control. God predetermines all events, both good and bad, including each person’s eternal destiny, whether that be heaven or hell. Human beings are the subjects upon which God’s sovereign will acts, and do not possess free will. Evil and suffering are ordained by God for His inscrutable purposes.
Appeasement theism—the merit worldview—says that God’s main characteristic is wrath. If we try hard enough, our deeds of obedience can earn His favor and avert His anger. Suffering is orchestrated by God for the satisfaction of His will.
Benevolent theism—the love-and-liberty worldview—says that God’s defining characteristic is love and His main objective is that we would be voluntary reciprocators of His love. Evil and suffering proceed from the misuse of free will for anti-love purposes, and the plan of salvation is the means by which God eradicates evil from the world while preserving free will.
OK, but why does a person’s worldview matter? Quite frankly, because what a person believes about the basic content and configuration of reality will be the primary factor that shapes their character, behavior patterns, and relational dynamics. Worldviews are not irrelevant. Rather, each worldview constitutes a psychological template that drives quality of life. In the words of Ellen White: “The whole spiritual life is molded by our conceptions of God; and if we cherish erroneous views of His character, our souls will sustain injury.”*
As a theological system, Adventism falls into the benevolent theism category. I suggest, in fact, that Adventism has the unrealized capacity to articulate for the world the most compelling, coherent, and consistent rendering of benevolent theism conceivable.
But allow me to qualify. This article is intended to cast a vision of the potential that lies within Adventism’s theological portfolio. It is not an examination of how we have failed to steward that potential. There will be those who will respond by saying something like “What! That’s not the Adventism I know.” To you I would say that the first step toward changing any situation is to articulate positively what it can be and to begin acting as if what we want to be true were true.
So what might that theological vision look like?
Well, for starters, if we begin with the premise that “God is love,” we are face to face with the most beautiful core belief imaginable. To say that “God is love” is to say that God is essentially other-centered and self-giving. The idea is, quite frankly, breathtaking. From this foundation the doctrine of the Trinity is logically deduced. What we mean here is that God as God is love apart from the existence of any created beings; that God is love within the parameters of the divine reality itself, before and beyond the existence of any contingent beings; that God has never existed in an ontological state or isolation, in which no other-centeredness was flowing. Hence, the Trinity is a doctrine that informs us that God as God has always been more than one and yet one. Knowing God in this light is both rationally compelling and emotionally satisfying.
Because God is love, God was impelled from within His own other-centered nature to create others with whom to share the bliss of love-actuated existence. We believe then that creation is God’s love actualized in material form. In order for love to exist within creation, free will was necessarily built into the system. By definition, love is voluntary. When Scripture says that God made humanity “in His own image,” this means that human beings were psychologically, emotionally, volitionally engineered for other-centeredness.
The Sabbath is a weekly commemoration of God’s benevolent character, reminding us each seventh day that we are creatures who rest in His unearned love.
But right here it becomes immediately evident that there is a potential upside and a potential downside to free will. If we are free to love one another, then we are also free to live for ourselves, to the hurt of one another.
Because God is love, it follows that God does not exert exhaustive control over His creation. Tragically, the risk inherent in free will was realized in the fall of both humans and angels. As a result, we find ourselves living in the throes of a great controversy between good and evil, a war of wills, a conflict between other-centeredness and self-centeredness. Two diametrically opposed modes of existence are vying for our allegiance.
Sin is not merely the breaking of rules imposed by a God of sovereign power, but the violation of relational integrity that was engineered into reality by a God of sovereign love. The fact that evil and pain exist is evidence, not of God’s sovereign will being exerted upon the world, but of free will gone bad in a world capable of noble moral splendor.
Again, because God is love, God could not, would not, abandon us to deception and destruction. God knew that the moment He brought us into existence, He would love us above Himself. He knew, also, that if we were to turn from love to selfishness, He would keep on loving us at any cost to Himself and pursue us to the complete end of Himself.
We see, then, that the the cross was in God’s view from the start. And He still created us! Sin is anti-love. As such, sin is also an anti-creational force that throws everything it enslaves into chaos, suffering, and death. Salvation is God’s plan for restoring love to humanity as our only mode of existence.
Because God is love, He has revealed to us the essence of His character in the form of His law, the Ten Commandments. The law is not a list of arbitrary rules that have no grounding in reality, but rather a description of what love looks like in action. As such, the law is not a means of salvation, but a revelation, by contrast, of our fallen condition, awakening in us a sense of need for a Savior.
Because God is love, we are Sabbatarians. The Sabbath is embedded within reality, in the very cycle of time and in the very makeup of humanity. The Sabbath tells us who God is, and who we are in relation to God. He is the Creator, and we are the created. He is the Redeemer, and we are the redeemed. In both Creation and redemption God accomplishes the work, and we are dependent recipients of His gifts. The Sabbath is a weekly commemoration of God’s benevolent character, reminding us each seventh day that we are creatures who rest in His unearned love. The Sabbath truth is, therefore, the antithesis of legalism and self-dependence, when rightly understood.
Because God is love, our entire eschatology centers on the difference between force and freedom in matters of worship. The crucial point of Daniel and Revelation is that religious systems that resort to coercion are diametrically opposed to the character of God. Love alone is the basis for all true worship.
You get the picture. Of course I’m just scratching the surface here, but along with the sanctuary and the judgment, death and hell, the Second Coming, the millennium, and the earth made new, Adventism possesses the raw theological materials from which to construct a worldview so rationally convincing and emotionally attractive that it very well could illuminate the whole earth with God’s glory (Rev. 18:1).
Our total theology is simply and profoundly this: “God is love.” Then, operating from that premise, we can formulate an understanding of the world and our place in it, the nature of evil and suffering, and the principles by which God has embarked upon the glorious enterprise of human salvation.
God is love in the most beautiful, meaningful, and liberating sense imaginable. That’s all. And that’s a lot.
* Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Jan. 14, 1890.
Ty Gibson is director/speaker for Light Bearers.