Removing the linchpin of Christian hate

People hate each other for all kinds of sinful reasons. In my life, I’ve hated people unfairly before, usually out of some sort of envy or paranoid presumption about what somebody else thought of me. It’s different when people hate out of devotion to God. Two nights ago, when I took a look at Way of the Master evangelist guru Ray Comfort’s account of his airplane evangelism, it was jaw-dropping to see the contempt he held for the people he was witnessing to. I don’t think that Comfort is an evil person; I think he genuinely believes that God wants him to hate ungodly people. His hate, like the hate of the Pharisees who crucified Jesus, is a genuine solidarity with a God he has misunderstood. The linchpin of Christian hate, insofar as it has a theological root, is the assumption that God’s holiness amounts to a nihilistic, ruthlessly unsympathetic perfectionism. This assumption is largely derived from a distorted inheritance of the medieval satisfaction atonement theory of Anselm of Canterbury and a ubiquitous misinterpretation of Romans 3.

I’ve told the story several times about the misfortune of 11th century monk Anselm who was just trying to come up with a logical explanation for why Jesus had to be God and man and had no intention of laying the groundwork for the most toxic feature of contemporary American evangelical theology. Living in a feudal context, Anselm’s audience understood that the honor of the king was the foundation of their social order. His word was the law; if his honor was compromised, there was no law. If the king were dishonored publicly without public satisfaction, then it would have been no less disruptive to every member of his society than if today in our market-grounded social order, the dollar suddenly ceased to be legal currency. The king’s honor was the security of every peasant (at least in theory).

So Anselm’s explanation of sin was to say that even the slightest deviation from the will of God dishonors the king of the universe as though we publicly walked up to his throne and slapped him with everyone else watching. Because this dishonor crumbles the peace and security of the universe, it must be satisfied. Instead of challenging us to a duel and crushing us with his pinky toenail, God sends His Word to Earth as a divine man to publicly satisfy the dishonor through His death on the cross. Because God is infinite, Anselm reasoned, the worth of the blood shed to satisfy the dishonor must be infinite, hence Jesus had to be divine. Because humans were the ones who dishonored God, Jesus had to be human to act as our champion.

Since we don’t live in a medieval world, the interconnectedness of their social order gets lost in the thousand year game of telephone between Anselm and us. We do not understand that a king defends his honor out of solidarity with those under his protection. All that we retain is the infinite scale of the infraction. Instead of being a composite dishonor that threatens the entire created order which God is charged with protecting, our sin is simply an abstract violation of “the Law,” which God is a nihilistic unsympathetic perfectionist with infinitely high standards about enforcing.

And going beyond Anselm’s assertion that Jesus had to die to clear the air of our sin’s dishonor is the further claim that God longs to glorify His name by torturing us forever for the slightest transgression against Him. Because He’s holy (so we’re told). And that is how holiness comes to be defined as misanthropy, which causes some Christians to think that hating ungodly people is an appropriate expression of fidelity to their misanthropic God. It is an ugly caricature to speak as though God’s love and holiness are opposites that must be “held in tension,” and yet this is what famous Christian pastors do all the time.

In addition to Anselm, this ugly definition of holiness gets a lot of support from references to this passage from Romans 3:10-18:

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness,
there is not even one.”
“Their throats are opened graves;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of vipers is under their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery are in their paths,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

The way that this passage gets deployed is to say that God’s moral standards are infinitely higher than ours. There is no such thing as a pretty good, decent person. We may not see how monstrously evil everyone around us is, but that’s because we’re completely corrupt and evil ourselves. Everyone is infinitely evil in the eyes of God (because He is not infinitely understanding or sympathetic, only infinitely exacting in His demands for retribution). And taken out of context, this seems like a reasonable conclusion to make from this passage.

In this passage, Paul is drawing quotes from several different psalms and prophetic passages from the Old Testament that cry out in anguish to God about the injustice of the prosperity of the wicked. The question is: who are the psalmists and prophets talking about? To be a 1st century Jew meant that you believed all these things about Gentiles as a matter of your religious identity. Otherwise there was no purpose to being a set-aside, circumcised people. Gentiles were utterly filthy, godless people to be avoided unless you were going out to convert them to Judaism (c.f. Matthew 23:15).

What we don’t get taught in Sunday school is that Jewish missionaries were already going out to convert people to the Jewish faith before Jesus came along. Their message to the Gentiles was you are drowning in a sea of wickedness, but we have a Torah that will teach you how to live clean, holy lives that are pleasing to God. In the book of Romans, Paul starts off by impersonating the standard altar call speech for 1st century Torah evangelists. The text for Romans 1:18-32 is thought to be lifted from one of these altar call speeches since several have been found that are almost identical. Except that Paul’s fire and brimstone sermon is a smokescreen for a more radical agenda.

When Paul quotes the psalmists and prophets in Romans 3, they’re not talking about Gentiles like the Torah evangelists did; they’re talking about their own people. In other words, the words Paul quoted in Romans 3 would have been a tremendous embarrassment to those who were trying to claim that the Torah could provide hopelessly wicked Gentiles with the basis for a clean, holy life.

Let’s look at the question with which Paul introduces the passage: “What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9). The rhetorical purpose of the hyperbolic categorical condemnations cited by Paul in Romans 3 is not to inform us 21st century readers that God is a nihilistic unsympathetic perfectionist with infinitely high standards who wants to burn billions of people in hell, but to dismantle the notion that the Torah makes the Jews any different from the Gentiles they judge by giving embarrassing counter-testimony from the Hebrew scriptures.

Paul not only says that the law doesn’t make his fellow Jews “any better off.” He also says that God can make people good apart from the law (which should be as infuriating for Christians today to read as it would have been for Paul’s fellow Jews at the time, because the analogous implication is that God can make people Christlike if He chooses even if they haven’t fulfilled our standards of “circumcision”):

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse themon the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. [Romans 2:14-16]

If those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. [Romans 2:26-29]

Many interpreters have tried to dismiss these two passages about virtuous Gentiles who are a “law unto themselves” and “receive praise from God” by claiming that Romans 3:10-18 “trumps” them with its sweeping condemnations. They try to claim that these two passages are just describing hypothetical situations that have never occurred, which would give them an uncharacteristically awkward purposelessness to the argument of one of the most brilliant persuasive writers in world history in the very opus of his writing.

Paul’s rhetorical agenda throughout Romans is to demolish the argument of the Torah evangelists by demonstrating both that the Torah doesn’t make people righteous and that people can be made righteous without it. This serves the purpose of dismantling the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles not on the basis of Gentile submission to Torah and conversion to Judaism but on the basis of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice whose consummation of the Jewish temple cult in His body fulfills the sacrificial needs of all, so that future discernment of holy living is not a matter of following hundreds of mitzvot regulations, but living in the spirit that Christ gives to those who trust Him.

In any case, there is no reason to conclude from Romans 3 or from Anselm’s atonement theory (which is legitimate according to medieval logic) that God is a nihilistic unsympathetic perfectionist who hates godless people that we should hate too. If non-Christians seem to our perception to be pretty good, decent folks, it’s not because we aren’t looking hard enough for their flaws; it’s because they have a perfectly holy God who can make them pretty good and decent even if they don’t know who He is.

I don’t see any reason not to agree with Paul that there will be people in eternal communion with God who were “inwardly circumcised” and “a law unto themselves” without consciously getting the whole Jesus thing. It’s not inconceivable that Jesus could mysteriously be the way, truth, and life of people who do not know Him by name. I won’t make absolute claims, but Romans 2 does not allow it to be less than an open question.

What I can say is that God’s holiness is neither ugly nor cruel; it is not His intolerance for us, though its perfect beauty would be intolerable to us without the grace of Christ (like it was intolerable to the older brother of the prodigal son). God’s holiness is the perfect hospitality of a prodigal father who longs for us to be holy servants of even our most virulent enemies. If we choose instead to be hateful bigots, then we may end up on the wrong side of God’s hospitality because God protects those under His mercy from all who attack and accuse them.

42 thoughts on “Removing the linchpin of Christian hate

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  10. “His hate, like the hate of the Pharisees who crucified Jesus(…)”

    Um, if I recall my Bible correctly it was the *Romans* who crucified Jesus. The Romans certainly had encouragement from the “Temple priests and scribes”; but, IIRC, the Temple priests *weren’t* Pharisees, they were a different faction. (Whose formal name escapes me at the moment.) Yes, the Pharisees were usually cast as villains in their encounters with Jesus; but more as rhetorical “semi-worthy adversaries*” than as actual mortal enemies.

    *”Semi-worthy” insofar as they try their best but always seem to come out losers in the end.

    • Fair enough. I tend to use Pharisee and a lot of other words as short-hand. I think my postmodern ethos causes me to think in literary terms about most words rather than historical ones.

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  14. Now, not that I want to turn into a guy who just throws links at you all, but this set of links pretty much falls into the category of “Why didn’t I think of that before?” I have these links bookmarked, because I found them to be such a fine exercise to read and contemplate. So, if you’ll pardon the effort to burden the already voluminous reading being undertaken with something more:

    The article, by Panayiotis Nellas, addresses some of the questions being proposed here, beginning indeed with Anselm’s Cur Deus homo? When I came across it, I was quite happy, since back in the day I had read some of Nicholas Cabasilas, who is a Greek Father who dealt with this question and the Western post-Anselm predilections for overly juridical or penal views of the Atonement, and, in searching through some of my things just a few days ago, I found one of my Cabasilas books that I feared had been lost.

    The Orthodox take a view of these things that would, say, make a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist’s hair turn white, as we do not have much truck with this business of the Father pouring His wrath out upon the Son or any other such severe penal notions that eventually claimed some connection to the Anselm’s work.

    So, for what it’s worth, when you’re finished digging through the numerous other materials, those three links directly deal with Anselm, so you all might find them worth looking at. 🙂

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  16. I’m curious, Morgan, how you answer Anselm’s motivating question in writing his book: Why did God have to become man? Why did the incarnation occur as opposed to doing something else? (I’ve just started reading Anselm’s work, in part, to see if it is as ugly and misanthropic as you describe it, so I am not yet equipped with my own answer to his question.)

    • I’m not claiming Anselm is ugly and misanthropic. It’s the caricature that we make when we take Anselm’s feudal metaphor out of context and strip God’s office of kingship of its solidarity with his creatures.

      • I was just reminded of this post and comment thread this morning, as I looked at another in a series of Father Aidan Kimel’s now ongoing posts about St. Athanasios’s view of the Incarnation and Atonement. Speaking of dense (as Anselm was above characterized in a comment), Athanasios is not always the easiest read, but he offers a worthy perspective. I haven’t read all of Fr. Aidan’s posts closely, so I won’t speak to the quality of his commentary on Athanasios (although the Father’s posts contain massive quotations from his sources, so his own commentary often falls in the background), but some readers here might find the perspective on the Atonement edifying. Sometimes, by the way, we Orthodox can come across as a bit nebulous or pretentious, and readers might encounter a touch of that in the comments sections to those posts, but I think the Orthodox view of the Atonement has some thoughts that all should find worth thinking about. The latest post in the series is here:

      • Sorry I missed the rhetorical move. I’ve been reading Anselm’s work the last 24 hours, and I must admit I am not seeing in it all the things you see. The word “honor” is there, but I don’t see all the stuff about the king being slapped in public and the entire social order falling apart. Anselm appears to me to be writing much more about an eschatalogical imperative that if God will accomplish what God set out to do in creation, a way was necessary to satisfy the damage done by sin without resorting to punishment or (to use a non-Anselm term) cheap grace. That is why Jesus Christ had to be the God-Man and had to die. Anselm has a really interesting bit on how Jesus could be following his own will and the Father’s will at the same time. I need to spend more time with him and some careful commentators to figure him out, but I appreciate the spur to learn more.

        • My thing about medieval honor is about medieval culture in general. I didn’t attribute it to Anselm. Why are “damage done by sin” and “eschatological imperative” not different ways of articulating God’s love and solidarity with His creation? My claim is that God’s holiness is not detachable from His solidarity. What creates the misanthropic God is when we try to define His holiness in a way that it has nothing to do with concern for His creatures. What is your investment here?

          • I’m trying to understand your argument, so I can form a judgment as to whether I find it persuasive. I think I keep mistaking your polemical comments for descriptive ones, which might be why I keep misunderstanding.

          • I’m starting with a symptom and trying to find the source. I see a connection between theologically justified misanthropy and the idea that God hates us unless we fulfill infinite and impossibly high moral standards which makes the cross about Jesus rescuing us from His Father’s perfectionism. That’s the way the Four Spiritual Laws explain things; that’s the gospel I was indoctrinated with for my first twenty years and the one I basically reluctantly believed in until I encountered the idea that the cross’s justification actually fixes something that’s screwed up about us rather than convincing God to let imperfect people into His presence.

            I’m not an investigative journalist; I’m a postmodern literary theorist; so it doesn’t bother me to speculate my way to understanding when I don’t have time to do an exhaustive historical study. I think we inherit the concept of holiness as nihilistic infinite moral standard from Anselm’s feudal metaphor about honor or at least Anselm is the one figure I’ve encountered who problematizes specifically the gap between our finity and God’s infinity. Whatever else he has to say about eschatology, God fulfilling His will, etc, is not problematic because it doesn’t contribute to the claim that the cross exists because God is impossible to please.

            It seems to me that Christians become impossible to please Pharisees when they believe in and are attracted by an impossible to please God. I would say a Pharisee is someone who sees no connection between holiness and love, which often results in pursuing a form of holiness to the exclusion of love. There is certainly plenty in the Old Testament that suggests that God is more into purity for purity’s sake than compassion. If you look at the way Jesus uses scripture and the way that Pharisees do, you could argue that the Pharisees were more faithful exegetes of the Old Testament than Jesus was. In any case, the question of whether God’s holiness supersedes and has nothing to do with His love seems to be precisely the theological fault-line between Jesus and the Pharisees. A lot of why the incarnation happened can be explained by looking at the arguments between the Pharisees and Jesus, because the Pharisees were the best that faithful students of Torah could do without the direct intervention of God’s Word made flesh.

          • I appreciate your willingness to explain your thinking/process. It is a lot to sort through for someone whose brain works the way mine does, but it is helpful.

  17. Nice commentary on Romans 3.

    It seems to my memory that Ray Comfort despises (apparently among many things and persons) the Roman Catholic Church. I caught one or two street preaching videos with him that seemed to confirm that. He at times exudes a disturbing confidence about who’s going to Hell, and apparently being Catholic is virtually an assurance of it in his eyes (you’d have to be some kind of secret rebel Catholic to avoid that fate). I’m Eastern Orthodox myself, so I’m all in favor of a spirited discussion of where Rome may have gone wrong, but I certainly don’t think that being a believing Catholic means certain eternal Hellfire. Your collection of quotes in the linked article further indicates some odd tendencies and even just a broad disdain for everyone by Mr. Comfort: it is as though he longs for the very punishment he says his version of God has in store for depraved humanity, and he therefore sees the need for it in every little detail. He takes a distracted or casual greeting of “Hey” from another passenger on an airplane and transforms it into the proof of a comprehensively sinful man. It’s hard to take Mr. Comfort or anyone like him seriously, except to the extent that one should be seriously concerned about how he may lead others astray.

    I am reminded that that third chapter of the Epistle to the Romans begins by pointing out that there is a salient advantage for the Jews in having the Law: namely, the extensive instruction. One is reminded of a passage elsewhere about “unto whomsoever much is given.” Surely preachers who misconstrue and behave deplorably run the risk of a greater judgment on that account.

  18. A lot of great stuff here that I can’t comment on. I would just, as always push back a bit and raise two points:

    1. The break the law in one place, you’ve broken it everywhere, attitude isn’t only found in Romans:
    If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. -James 2:8-13

    James kinda displays some of that strain of thought. Any thoughts on that?

    2. Is Paul only pulling a rhetorical move, or is his rhetorical move grounded in something true about God’s character? I totally agree with the overall thrust of the article in terms of cutting off reasons for Christian hate, but I just wonder if there still might be a weakening of God’s absolute holy character, (that isn’t just nitpicky) but is concerned with righteousness on a scale that still is hard to fathom? Of course, that only means his grace in the Cross is that much greater, so it’s not a matter of leaving anybody out.

    Thoughts, buddy?

    • Notice the way the James passage closes. His sovereignty is established by the fact that none of us make it without His mercy. If His standard were possible for us to fulfill, then we would be corrupted by the resulting pride. Romans 3:19 makes the telos of the impossible law “so that every mouth may be silenced,” which says to me that He makes it impossible specifically to keep us from holding our piety over each other and not because He’s oblivious to and unsympathetic of our frailty. I think what He hates is pride and contempt for His mercy, but not our imperfection as such, though of course He wants to make us holy. There is of course a cavalier attitude about sin that becomes presumptuous and prideful. I think He mostly just wants to be our loving daddy who puts us in our place and accomplishes amazing things through us when we let Him reign over us.

  19. Morgan, I made it over from r/Christianity and I just wanted to say that this post comes at an especially striking time. There are actually Christians who believe God hates us and we should hate unbelievers. Friends constantly send me scriptural justification for this every time I disagree. Here is a part of my story if you’re interested, and how this toxic belief can actually manifest itself in horrifying ways.

      • Yeah, my black friend asked me what this had to do with slavery and lynchings. It was an interesting article, but he couldn’t figure out why you made the reference at the beginning. It may be one of those rare occasions that it is worth deleting and re-posting.

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