When I was younger, I knew a lot about God. From the time I was a child I knew God all too well!
God was that all-seeing eye that watched my every move and slapped me into shape when I messed up. If I failed to avoid sin, God was the one who would cast me, without hesitation, into eternal burning hell when I died.
Hey! Let Me Tell You about God!
I loved him and served him, but my God was angry and demanding. He was also holy and good, but that was my problem—I could never be holy and good enough to satisfy him. I accepted Jesus as a child but was always concerned I had violated some rule, so I ‘got saved’ again just in case. And I did it repeatedly. It was sort of like backing up my salvation computer frequently in hopes that when I crashed (died or was raptured) it would be right after my last back-up.
My fear and insecurity about God and my thinking he was angry was partly because the preachers told me so. But even more than that it was because, as a child, I read the Bible constantly. I mean I read the Bible a lot! I took my Bible to school and read it whenever I had a few minutes. In fact, I hurried through tests so I could have time to read the Bible.
The Image of Angry, Violent, Vindictive Old Testament God
Since the Old Testament is longer than the New Testament, I did most of my reading in the Old Testament. I don’t have to tell you that the Old Testament presents a very scary God, and man is he ever angry, violent, and vindictive! In addition to drowning the entire human population, here are just a few other clues.
1 Samuel 15 states:
This is what the Lord Almighty says…’Attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’
Leviticus 20 requires death for a number of offenses including:
- Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death
- Both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death
- A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death
Exodus 20 says:
I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.
The Judgmental New Testament God who Sends Us to Hell
The preachers and Sunday school teachers also told me that God would send most people to hell. This included people who never heard of Jesus, people who refused to be ‘saved’, and even ‘saved’ people who didn’t measure up.
Even Jesus was said to speak about the fires of hell. For example, in Mark 9 he warned people that:
It is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. [KJV]
I understood this to describe the fires of hell where the flames never go out. I thought the worm was the soul of the damned that would never cease to exist in this eternal burning hell. Several times I considered getting rid of body parts in order to avoid this terrible fate God had in store for me.
Learning the Truth about God
After high school I went to a Christian college. They taught me the same thing: God is angry, violent, and vindictive, and he will torment us all in hell if we don’t accept Jesus and measure up. It was not until I finished college that I really began to understand things differently. By focusing on the gospels and questioning the reasons for my beliefs I realized God is not angry, violent, or vindictive.
Being raised and educated an inerrantist, I thought everything the Old Testament said about God was 100% factual. But I came to realize that God did not write those things about himself. The writers of the Old Testament were people talking about God as they understood him; and their understanding of God was incomplete and often misinformed.
Then I discovered the Bible doesn’t even teach eternal punishment in burning fire. Jesus uses two words often translated as ‘hell’. ‘Hades’ is simply a word for death or the grave. Jesus also employs imagery from ‘Gehenna’, which is translated ‘hell’. This is the word he uses in Mark 9 above.
Mark incorporates the imagery of the worms and fires of Gehenna from Isaiah 66, which simply refers to death and destruction. What I used to think was a description of eternal punishment in burning flames was nothing of the sort.
The Isaiah passage is a picture of the defeated rebels who are dead, unburied, heaped together, and set ablaze outside Jerusalem. The worm is not the soul of the deceased but the maggots that thrive in such an environment of death. I think Jesus used the familiar imagery from Isaiah to draw a graphic contrast between entering life with the Father and death and decay without the Father’s gift of eternal life.
By placing unrelated passages together, we constructed a picture of eternal punishment in a burning hell supported neither individually nor collectively by the passages themselves.
Jesus Tells Us about God
Believing God to be angry and vindictive created fear within me and distorted my understanding of God’s loving character. But I find that Jesus gives the clearest understanding of God—that God is the loving, inclusive, and supportive Father. Both in his descriptions of the Father, and in his own actions as the Father’s representative, Jesus shows the Father is not angry with us; instead he wishes to have a relationship with each of us.
Previously, I shared with you 6 Religious Beliefs that Cause Tremendous Harm. Belief in Angry God is the most harmful one of all; we will talk about how it harms us next time.
In this series:
6 Religious Beliefs that Cause Tremendous Harm
The #1 Most Harmful Belief Among Christians—Angry God (Today’s post)
4 Ways that Believing God is Angry and Harsh Hurts People
The #2 Most Harmful Religious Belief—the Inerrant Bible
A More Realistic Alternative to Inerrancy of the Bible
4 Huge Ways Believing the Bible Inerrant is Tremendously Harmful
How Legalism Stunts Our Spiritual Growth
How Should We Respond to Those who Teach Harmful Beliefs?
Photo Credit 1: dirtymouse via Compfight cc [modified]
Photo Credit 2: Christian Evolution
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Have a great day! ~Tim