On Sunday we began a new class at my congregation on the most important subject any person could study – God. Toward the end of class we discussed three very popular misconceptions of who God is. Here they are:
The Absent Landlord
Some of you may live in an apartment or a rental house that does not have a very responsive owner. He owns the property, but rarely checks on its condition, and if you reach out to ask for maintenance, he responds rarely – if at all. That’s the way many people look at God. They believe he created the universe, but having made the world, God basically takes a hands-off approach. There’s actually a technical term for this belief – deism, which was widely accepted in the 18th century.
On such a view, after the initial work of creation, God doesn’t really do very much. He certainly doesn’t respond to prayers. And according to this deistic outlook, we should only ascribe to divine intervention that which cannot be explained by science and the “laws of nature.” In this view, God is merely the “God of the gaps,” the gaps in our current scientific knowledge of the world.
But as that knowledge expands, the “gaps” get smaller, and so does the deistic picture of God. That’s why from a historical point of view deism was merely a milepost to atheism. It is a very short set of steps from “God is the landlord” to “God is the absent landlord” to “God is absent.”
The problem with this view of God is that it completely misses the point of what it means to say that God is the creator. According to Scripture, God is not simply the initiator of creation; he is also its sustainer. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Every moment of the continued existence of the universe is radically dependent on God. “In him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). And what we call on our end the “laws of nature” are just descriptions of this ongoing work of God.
The deistic view of God gets God wrong from the very beginning. If you’ve ever made a wrong turn at the start of a long trip, you know that such a mistake leads you far from your destination. And deism’s wrong-headed concept of God as creator steers its adherents far from the true knowledge of God. And this fundamentally inadequate view of God is the basis of an even more insidious misconception…
The Doting Grandfather
I was raised by my mom and her parents. My granddad – “Pop” – was my buddy. One time when I was a child, I did something wrong, and Mom sent me to bed without supper (a form of punishment she obviously chose very rarely!). Not long after I was sent to the bedroom, I heard the door open and looked up to see Pop sneaking in with a plate of food!
This is how a lot of people conceive of God. He is like a grandpa who dotes on his grandchildren. The last thing he would ever do is discipline us for any mistakes we make. In his eyes, we can do no wrong!
This view of God is widespread. In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, two social scientists surveyed the religious beliefs of American teens. The authors coined a term to encapsulate what they found to be the predominant religious outlook – Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Deism because it assumes that God isn’t really interested in how we live. Moralistic because it holds that people should try to be nice to each other. And therapeutic because it affirms that what God wants us for us to feel good about ourselves.
You may have never heard the phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but I bet you have heard someone say – in an effort to justify something they want to do that is flatly contradicted by Scripture – “but God wants me to be happy!” THAT is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The problem with this dogma is not that it declares that God wants us to be happy. The problem is how it defines happiness. Scripture promises us “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8) – but that joy is found through self-denying devotion to God, not through self-indulgent disregard for God.
This sort of joy is only possible if we have a a view of God that is compelling. But there is third inadequate view of God that undermines this gripping vision.
The Cosmic Superhero
Have you ever heard someone refer to God as “the man upstairs”? I have. And while this phrase is usually spoken out of recognition of the need for God’s help, it suggests a view of God that is far too much like us. This sort of anthropomorphic picture of God, in which he is depicted as a bigger/stronger/smarter version of human beings, turns God into a super-hero character like Thor or Spider-Man. Now, I happen to love Spider-Man. But there’s nothing about him that inspires me to life-long self-denial in order to be with him forever!
The God described in the Bible is not merely a powerful human being, or even an amazing angel. No, God is the ultimate ground of all created reality, “who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). His ways and thoughts are infinitely greater than ours, “as the heavens are higher than the earth” (Isaiah 55:9). God is beyond all comparison.
To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
and because he is strong in power,
not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable. (Isaiah 40:25-28)
God is not Superman. Superman came from somewhere and can be contained by kryptonite. God did not come to be – he IS, and nothing can contain him. He is incomparable!
In his classic book The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer wrote:
“I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.” (p. 2)
I believe Tozer was exactly right. The most urgent need of modern Christianity is a recovery of the true knowledge of God.