Last weekend, Scot McKnight shared a guest post from Jeff Cook entitled “They Don’t Believe Because Your God Isn’t Desirable,” which argued that Christian apologetics should pay attention to beauty in addition to logic in making a case for God. Cook quoted Pascal who said, “Make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.” Some comments were thoughtful but others took the line that we shouldn’t “try to make God pretty” because that means we’re compromising our theology and inventing our own god. Fred Clark responded to this mentality on his own blog: “They believe that God’s actual character is, in fact, distasteful — that God is exclusive, condemning and oppressive. And that any attempt to portray God as otherwise is a liberal lie.” Some might say that Clark is flogging a straw man, but I think he’s put his finger on something legitimate. Certain Christians have a stake in God’s ugliness, not because of a reluctant commitment to “objective truth,” but because a hard God is actually more attractive to them.
Now before I go into the reasons that a hard God can be more attractive, let me say upfront that I am not questioning the sincerity of Christians who have come to a “hard theology” through years of loving God and wrestling long and hard with theological questions in their quest to follow Jesus any more than I would question the sincerity of Christians who have come to a “soft theology” through a similarly earnest process of discipleship. But in the dominant strands of evangelical discourse, it is generally assumed that Christians who have a cross that isn’t bloody enough or a Jesus who’s too meek and mild have come to their conclusions because they don’t want to offend other people or they have let their flawed personal (usually feminine) sensibilities get in the way of an uncompromising commitment to “the truth” (c.f. Doug Wilson on “effeminate worship”). I’m sure this is the case sometimes, but there are also people on the opposite side who are attracted to a “hard God” for un-Biblical, worldly reasons. While I do not claim to offer an all-encompassing deconstruction of everyone who subscribes to a “hard theology,” I do think it’s legitimate to name some of the worldly attitudes that might be part of the mix when Christians prefer a hard God to a soft one.
Jesus’ parable of the talents offers an important illustration of why it’s easier to serve a God who’s a jerk than a God whose beauty compels our passionate obedience. The last servant who hides his talent in the ground is not so much an example of someone who rejects God outright as much as someone who fears God but has no respect for Him because he doesn’t see anything generous or merciful about God. The last servant wants to do the bare minimum of guarding God’s talent and returning it so that his hard God can have no claim against him. What the last servant offers as the explanation for his deeds is instructive: “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you” (Mt 25:24-25). Believing in a hard God is actually safer and less challenging than believing in a merciful, generous God, because a hard God validates my nihilism, my selfishness, and my preference for easy black and white thinking. Here are some of the ways I see this playing out in the popular consciousness of the parts of suburban America where the hard God is most popular.
I. A hard God draws a clear line between good guys and bad guys
A hard God doesn’t get wallowed in moral complexity because He doesn’t have time for it. He doesn’t believe in mitigating circumstances. He doesn’t believe that kids who misbehave are acting out because they’re misunderstood. Nor does He believe that moral behavior can be categorized into psychiatric disorders that pills work better to cure than a good leather belt. A hard God knows that many people are just evil, and trying to reason with them is dangerous because then you can fall under the spell of their evil. A hard God might expect His followers to treat their enemies politely as an act of discipline, but He recognizes that it’s ludicrous to expect Christians to empathize with their enemies or try to understand their point of view, particularly if they belong to a different religion. Christians (the born-again kind) are good guys; everyone else is a bad guy; and some bad guys cannot possibly become good guys because God’s purpose in creating them was to have objects of wrath on which to showcase His glory when He tortures them eternally.
II. A hard God knows that damnation is the result of choices, not circumstances
A hard God doesn’t believe in disadvantages. Nor does He believe in social injustice. When people find themselves in difficult circumstances, it is always the result of their poor choices and cannot be blamed on anyone except themselves. It is the same way with heaven and hell. People get into heaven after they have prayed Jesus into their hearts with perfect sincerity (which is demonstrated by the fact that they never once doubt their salvation or waver in their zeal for God after that moment). People who don’t pray Jesus into their hearts have made a poor choice which means that they go to hell. If someone in an unreached people group really wants to choose God, then God will send them a missionary just like He did for Cornelius. The reason some people groups have not yet received missionaries is because they didn’t really want to choose God, which is why they’re all in hell.
III. A hard God believes in gated communities
A hard God knows that people are mostly evil. Therefore gated communities makes sense. After all, that’s what heaven most fundamentally is — a gated community. The hard God expects for Christians to focus on raising their nuclear families in an environment that is “family safe and kid friendly.” He understands that the world is a scary, sinful place, and strongly encourages homeschooling or private Christian school. The hard God expects His followers to make enough money and budget it wisely so that they can avoid the corrupting influence of public schools. The hard God does want His followers to leave their gated communities periodically to tell other people (who they don’t have to get to know personally) why they don’t deserve to be in the gated community and what they need to do to get in. But He doesn’t expect Christians to spend too much time with people outside their gated communities because that would be spiritually unsafe.
IV. A hard God has zero tolerance for unpaid debt
The most important thing about the hard God is that He is committed above all to making sure that no debt remains unpaid. The hard God’s message from the cross is that every debt must be accounted for (and not that the concept of debt has been overthrown by mercy). The crucifixion proves that the hard God cannot forgive sin without being repaid for it. Because the hard God cares about people getting paid back what they’re owed more than anything else, He provides the glue that holds capitalism together and He gives me financial security as a property owner, consumer, and investor. That’s why He sent Jesus to die: so that everyone would know that He has zero tolerance for unpaid debt.
V. A hard God doesn’t expect me to change the world that He plans to destroy
A hard God hates the world on account of its saturation with sin. The hard God strongly discourages His followers from trying to do things to improve the world other than tell other people to get out of it so they can wait for the rapture in their gated communities. The hard God considers it an affront to His leadership and control of the universe when people talk about things like global warming and the need to recycle plastic. Of course, global warming is happening, because the hard God is heating up the atmosphere slowly just like when you put a frog in a pot of water that you’re slowly bringing to a boil. The hard God doesn’t want His followers to waste their time worrying about the world’s problems. They need to focus on bonding with their nuclear families at places like Disney World (as long as it’s not the weekend when the sodomites go). The hard God believes that the solution to poverty is personal responsibility which is why mission trips to poor countries are important for teaching poor people how to be responsible.