“God is love” is a comforting idea. I rather like it. But it’s more wishful than sensible. In fact, as to the Biblical God, the notion is downright bizarre.
The idea of an all-loving God arises in part because the Jehovah of the Bible says he is a god of love. If a person has already decided there is a monotheistic god and that the Hebrews’ Jehovah is that god, then the mere God-endorsed scriptural claim is all the “evidence” needed. (Without exception, religions have a low bar as to what constitutes evidence.) An additional motivation for saying God is love is that our self-preservation compels us to pacify powerful forces. With enormous consequences riding on a Godly report card, we are prone to overkill; believers understandably want to take no chances. Hence praise figures prominently in Christian theology and practice.
There is no inherent reason that gods must be loving. As I pointed out in “Atheism in tragedy and in thought” (posted July 26, 2013), a person who becomes an atheist because of a horrid personal loss is, in effect, assuming foolishly that a god must be—or should be—a fair and loving god, otherwise the loss would have been averted. But even if a real god is a monster, he, she, or it is still a god regardless of human appraisal. Indeed, whether a god is authentic has nothing to do with whether he, she, or it is good or bad. Frankly, the God of the Bible clearly does not pass the love test given any definition of the word that hasn’t been stretched into meaninglessness.
The only meaning of adjectives like loving, heartless, good, and bad are the meanings we give them. These are words of human invention that by necessity require human judgment. So if I read in the very book many Christians say is God’s word that God committed the most vindictive of deeds and plans to commit still more, I’ve no choice but to recognize God as a horrible being, not worthy of common respect, much less worship. Of course, stating that judgment aloud, however many examples can be shown in its support, is scandalizing. That conspiracy of silence is appeasement overkill; we are, indeed, frightened supplicants.
Christians, if not completely aghast at such blasphemy, are likely to argue that I’ve neither the right nor sufficient understanding to make a judgment of God. After all, God is not subject to my lowly human assessment. Good point. However, if God is far too elevated for me to render an independent assessment that he is brutal, it is equally true that God is too elevated for me to render an independent assessment that he is good or loving.
Consider that few Christians would judge the malicious acts of God with the same vigor they’d judge human mass murderers and torturers. They are quick to quote “God’s ways are not our ways” to avoid the blasphemy reason would otherwise inspire. (Interestingly, the phrase “acts of God” always refers to calamities in which people and assets of importance are destroyed.) But if human definitions of horrendous acts cannot be applied to God, what sophistry convinces Christians they can render meaningful judgments that God is good and even the personification of love?
“God is love” is thus but a mantra. Like cheers at a sporting event (”we’re number one!; we are the best!”), there is no intrinsic meaning. Its only utility is to arouse the fans, not to describe a fact.
I have to admire Christians’ perseverance in trying to demonstrate their God to be good. As if in proof, they may point out a good harvest, Uncle Jack’s miraculous recovery, their child’s surviving a wreck, the beauty of a sunset, their flood of good feelings when engaged in praise, or any fortunate event. These “proofs,” of course, prove nothing except the lack of integrity in the language of Christian practice. This post is dated right between the Canadian and American Thanksgiving Days, a time when Christians profusely, even obsequiously, shower their God with gratitude—the same God who will cast some or even most of them into eternal hell for offenses that wouldn’t even qualify as misdemeanors.
Citing instances of godly goodness while failing to mention instances of godly badness may be a good debating tactic or PR campaign, but in no way is it the mark of a seeker after truth. There is a studied exclusion of illness, pestilence, floods, and accidents for which God, given Christian logic, is also responsible. Where is that responsibility included in the theological calculation? A more honest approach would be for Christians to introduce the idea of balance, that is, the net good God has done when all his injurious and malicious parts are subtracted from the beneficial parts (unless that yields a net negative!). Even the thought of such an even-handed calculus, however, does not sit well with believers, given their need to ignore all the negatives of their God.
Frequently, Christians raise what I’ll call the matter of “God 1 vs. God 2”. Most scriptural instances of godly cruelty are in the Old Testament, enabling Christians to dismiss them as out-of-date and not relevant given the advent and sacrifice of Christ. God’s sending his son transformed Heaven’s nasty behavior into the gentleness of Jesus, the paragon of both love and good. (There’s a clever sacrilegious quip that the rough edges of many men are softened by fatherhood.) But Jesus—he of the acts of love and miracles of compassion—introduced a Holocaust far greater than Hitler, Pol Pot, or Stalin ever imposed. Punishment beyond imagination await otherwise good people whose crime is to find the bizarre and plagiarized Christian story less than believable.
No, Jesus is not good, not without stretching the meaning of the word beyond recognition. So excusing the horrid Jehovah because he repented and sent a gentler emissary does not compute. Was there an apology or even a recognition of the cruelty imposed by Jehovah before Jesus’s coming? Can the evil torture of everlasting fire be excused by saying it is proportioned punishment for our alleged crimes? Would we allow human parents to get away with far less abusive punishment of their child? How can a god who perpetrates even immeasurably worse cruelty be seen to be good?
Christians can talk love while persecuting, damning, killing, excluding, demeaning, and shaming in the jumble of illogic, in the twists and turns of theology, and in a use of words befitting Humpty Dumpty. Few Christians, I am sure, can see themselves in that harsh characterization; they believe themselves as individuals to be very loving, fair, and charitable. Many of them are exactly that, but individual humaneness does not negate group behavior. My extended family is almost entirely Christian, yet I know them as kind, generous, and ethical. (In America Christians by and large believe atheists to be untrustworthy, uncharitable, and unloving, so perhaps my personal behavior and ethics are similarly confusing to them.)
The contradiction can be unsettling. For now, my only resolution is that they, along with many others, are good people caught up in the widespread fantasy of a cruel god whom they must see as loving and good. In short, they are far better persons than their God, ensnared by a dogma in which love does not mean love any more than good means good or truth means truth.