What is God Like?

Right back many weeks ago, we opened up the question about “Who is God?” We saw that people can either believe the truth about God or lies about God. It is when we believe lies about God that we end up in a mess. Believing lies leads to sin and idolatry; believing lies about God means that we cannot make sense of the World that we live in or of our own lives. Lies lead to meaningless.

The lies we believe about God can be summed up under two errors. The first is to believe that God is weak; that he lacks strength, that he lacks the power to act. The second is to believe that God is not good; he permits evil because he lacks love, kindness and mercy. These two errors often come up when we try to explain evil and suffering.

Some people believe that suffering exists because God is not good. Now, it is unusual for someone to explicitly believe in a personal, almighty, creator God who is evil as a consistent intellectual position. However, this belief can express itself in the following ways:

  1. Ancient religious myths described gods who were constantly at war with each other. Creation and humanity were simply accidental by-products of these wars. Humans were made as slaves to serve the gods. The gods therefore had to be appeased in order to keep them on side. Sacrificial systems and religious ceremonies were designed for this very purpose of keeping the gods at bay.
  2. Some religious and philosophical systems do not have a personal creator God but there is the sense that there is some form of ultimate power behind the universe. This ultimate power may be described as “fate” or “chance.” Now, fate may on the one hand be described as ethically neutral – it is neither bad nor good – but I would suggest that the very absence of love, kindness and goodness from such a power means that if it is not good, then it is bad: it is evil. Some people may describe themselves as atheists, but eventually they must acknowledge that there is something fundamental and foundational that is greater than the Universe or the Universe itself is ultimate. If the Universe itself is ultimate, then it is God: this is usually described as Pantheism. However, if the Universe is not ultimate and eternal, then it too had a beginning, which means that there must have been something before time began, before the big bang: something to explode into life. So many people are in fact materialists: they believe that matter is eternal. Impersonal matter operates a little like fate and a little like those warring gods of ancient folklore. Richard Dawkins describes evolution in terms of the gene which keeps on seeking to preserve itself through replication and mutation. Just as the ancients saw themselves as the accidental by-products of selfish gods, so modern people see themselves as accidental by-products of selfish genes.[1]
  3. Some people in practice believe in a bad god. This is an emotional response to life’s circumstances. It’s not necessarily a thought out position, but it is how they live and how they feel. They see God as capricious and vindictive against them. They believe that God is just waiting to punish them and harm them. They may even talk in terms of the need to forgive God. Their God is not good.

Some people want to believe that God is good, that he is loving and kind, that he wants the best for them, that he does not want them to suffer. So they reason that if suffering exists and if God does not want it, then God is powerless to stop it. After all, if God wanted to end all the evil, suffering and heartache, then he would. So they reason that God must in some way be limited. Usually, it is assumed that, in some way, human free will must trump God’s sovereignty.

One particularly extreme version of this view is called Open Theism. Open Theism is associated with a group of professing evangelical theologians including Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd and John Sanders. Their basic argument was that God’s most essential characteristic is Love. God is in his very essence love. From there, they reasoned that true love’s greatest gift is freedom: it never imposes itself. God gives us freedom and so forfeits control. How can we have real freedom to act if God knows what is going to happen in advance? So, the end logic is not only that God does not predestine the future, but he also does not foreknow it. The Open Theist God is limited by time: he can only operate in the present. He has finite knowledge; He can make mistakes and He even changes His mind.[2]

Now when we come to the God of the Bible, we find both these lies refuted. God is not weak and God is not bad: God is Love, He is Good, He is kind and gracious, but God is also all powerful, eternal, all knowing and infinite. Over the next few articles, we are going to be finding out more about His character and what He is like. We will find that the truth about God’s character is good news; it will help us to make sense of our lives and of the world we will live in. It will also help us to answer those big questions that we struggle with including “Why is there suffering and evil?”

[1] See Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford, OUP, 1976, revised 1989), 12-20.

[2] See e.g. Clark H Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids MI.: Baker Academic, 2001), 4-5).