More Merciful Than God?
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Matt. 5:7).
I was on my way to preach at church one day during Idaho's snowy season, and I got stuck behind a snowplow. Bored, I decided to turn on Christian radio. An enthusiastic preacher was talking about hell. His basic message was, "God is good, and you have to let your non-believing friends and family know about Him or else they will burn in hell." Troubling right?
I was still thinking about this as I entered the church. This preacher of a mega church was defining "good" as God, and God as "good," and yet he was telling people that if they didn't believe God was good, He would burn them in hell!
Still thinking about this as I got up to preach, I opened my sermon with a popular refrain. "All the time," I said. The congregants shouted back, "God is Good." I returned it, "God is good," and they responded, "All the time."
I told them about the sermon I had just listened to on the way to church. I told them how not all people feel that way about God. I mentioned that some people have legitimate questions, and these questions are worth exploring. If God is good, He wouldn't mind us wrestling with these things, right?
According to research by a neuroscientist named Andrew Newberg, “72% of Christians see God as angry, authoritarian and distant.” We reflect the God we believe in. Timothy Jennings, a psychiatrist and Adventist author, expands on these concepts in his book, The God-Shaped Brain. Jennings points out that prayer and meditation are proven by multiple studies to increase human compassion, when the focus is right. Using research from the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, Jennings reports:
“The greatest improvements occurred when participants meditated specifically on a God of love. Such meditation was associated with growth in the prefrontal cortex (that part of the brain right behind our forehead where we reason, make judgments and experience Godlike love) and subsequent increased capacity for empathy, sympathy, compassion and altruism.”
Jennings goes on to report that the opposite is also true. When religious people fixate on a God who is aloof and unemotional, the benefits are absent, and worse, when people pray to and meditate on a God who is primarily viewed as angry and punishing, fear circuits are activated and can be chronically inflamed, making empathy and compassion more difficult.
We become what we behold (2 Cor. 3:18). It doesn’t matter what religion you claim. If your religious indoctrination has introduced you to any other God than the one Jesus shows us — the God who is Love — then you may be dampening your compassion circuits.
This is why the love of God is always where I start and end every theological conversation.
Before judging someone for not believing in God, we should seek to understand the “god” they don’t believe in. We need to stop arguing for the existence of God until we can understand the true character of God. In many cases we should be affirming people's unbelief rather than arguing against it.
I have friends who are atheists, agnostics and other various eclectic ranges of religions. I enjoy talking to them all about their perception of God. I find it interesting that many of my evangelical friends believe in eternal conscious torment. They believe that God will burn nonbelievers in hell forever. They believe this because they want to be faithful to the Bible. When I tell them I think their interpretation of the Bible may be wrong, they get uncomfortable. They wonder how I can challenge the literal words of God? Doesn’t Revelation 14:11 say, “The smoke of their torment shall ascend forever and ever?"
If this is your belief, here is a question for you. Are you more merciful than God? Would you punish someone in hell forever and ever if that person didn't believe the right theology?
If someone was a thief, and they didn't repent, do you think it would be appropriate to punish them by burning them forever? If someone committed murder, would you torture them perpetually to prove to them that murder is wrong? If someone was burning in hell right now, and you had the power to relieve their suffering, would you? Are you more merciful than God?
I don't believe God burns people in hell forever. I don't believe that is what the Bible teaches. There are many theologians past and present who question eternal torment. If you are curious about an alternative interpretation, check out this website: helltruth.com.
If we decide in advance that, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." We may find that we lack the moral courage to wrestle with interpretations that don’t reflect the true character of God. How we believe reveals our love just as much as, if not more than, what we believe. Knowledge can be a good thing, but "knowledge" devoid of love can be deadly. A theology that expresses belief in God but is not accompanied by loving action counts for nothing. Beware of people who say they are speaking the "truth" in love as an excuse to weaponize religion and share their own opinion.
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love doesn't force. Love doesn't manipulate. Love doesn't torture people in hell or on earth under the banner of heaven and the name of God. We reflect the God we believe in. I rest firmly on the foundation that God is Love. We are called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Everything else is commentary.
If I was to error, I would rather error on the side of mercy, than on the side of harsh dealing and condemnation.
I would rather be merciful, as my Father in heaven is merciful.
If it turns out that I have made a theological error somewhere along the way, I will come boldly before the throne of God and ask for mercy to help in my time of need.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy."
 Newberg, A. B., & Waldman, M. R. (2010). How God changes your brain: Breakthrough findings from a leading neuroscientist. New York: Ballantine Books Trade Paperbacks.
 See Ellen White Letters and Manuscripts Volume 1, p. 901.3
 Luke 6:36
 Hebrews 4:16