The All-Powerful God

Michael Gleghorn examines the important doctrine of the omnipotence of God, and what it means for God to be all-powerful.

Introducing Omnipotence

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would give birth to Israel’s promised Messiah, she was stunned. After all, she was a virgin. How could she possibly give birth to a son? But the angel informed her that God’s power was more than sufficient to accomplish such a thing, “for nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37; NIV).

Download the PodcastA foundational element of a Christian worldview is a proper view of God. This article is about God’s omnipotence. Although the term may sound a bit intimidating, it simply means that God is all-powerful. A number of scriptural passages speak to this issue.

For example, through the prophet Jeremiah God warned the people of Judah that because of their wickedness their land would soon be conquered by the Babylonians (Jer. 32:26-35). Nevertheless, God also promised that he would one day restore his people to their land and bless them with great prosperity (Jer. 32:37-44). As if to make clear that the Lord was completely able to fulfill his promise, the context twice leads us to reflect upon the fact that nothing is too difficult for God (Jer. 32:17, 27). The text, therefore, seems to clearly indicate that God is all-powerful, or omnipotent.

This power is revealed in a number of different ways. For example, the creation of the universe reveals his “eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:20; Heb. 1:3). The resurrection of Jesus reveals his “mighty strength,” which not only raised Christ from the dead, but which seated him at the right hand of God, “far above all . . . power and dominion” (Eph. 1:18-23). Finally, his might is also revealed in the gospel, which the apostle Paul described as “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

In fact, He is often referred to as God Almighty. In the book of Revelation the twenty-four elders who are seated before the throne of God fall on their faces and worship the Lord declaring, “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign” (Rev. 11:17).

The cumulative picture is indeed a grand one—and quite naturally leads to the believer’s affirmation that God is all-powerful, or omnipotent. But how is this attribute to be understood? What exactly does it mean to say that God is omnipotent? These are some of the questions with which we’ll grapple in the remainder of this article.

Omnipotence and Creation

The Apostle’s Creed begins, “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”{1} Not only does this statement affirm a central (and biblical) Christian truth-claim, namely, that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1), it also clearly links this affirmation with God’s attribute of omnipotence by referring to him as “God the Father almighty.” By linking God’s omnipotence with creation in this way, the creed reaffirms what the Apostle Paul had previously taught in his letter to the Romans, that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are “clearly seen in what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).

But why does the Bible, and Christian tradition, link God’s omnipotence with creation in this way? One of the most important reasons is to be found in the Christian doctrine of creation itself. You see, unlike certain pagan doctrines of creation, which taught that the universe was formed out of pre-existent matter, Christianity teaches that God created the universe out of nothing. And when we say that God created the universe “out of nothing,” we are claiming, as the theologian Thomas Torrance reminds us, that the universe “is not created out of anything.” Rather, “it came into being through the absolute fiat of God’s Word in such a way that whereas previously there was nothing, the whole universe came into being.”{2}

Now what’s astonishing about this is that it’s perfectly consistent with today’s standard Big Bang model of the origin of the universe! This is because, as physicist P. C. W. Davies observes, “On this view the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.”{3} Hence, the origin posited by this model is “an absolute origin” out of nothing.{4}

This is why omnipotence and creation are so closely linked in the Christian tradition. It’s one thing to merely form a universe out of pre-existent matter. It is another thing entirely to create a universe out of absolutely nothing! As Christian philosophers Paul Copan and Bill Craig observe, “It is difficult to imagine any more stunning display of God’s almighty power than the world’s springing into being out of nothing, at his mere command.”{5}

Omnipotence and Morality

Now you might be thinking that if God is all-powerful, then he can do absolutely anything. But if we adopt this understanding of omnipotence, we quickly run into conflict with the teaching of Scripture, for Scripture tells us plainly that there are some things God cannot do.

For example, in Numbers 23:19 we read: “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” According to this text, God is not the sort of being to tell a lie. When he makes a promise, we can be confident that he will keep it, because God does not lie (see also 1 Sam. 15:29 and Tit. 1:2).

This is particularly important for New Testament believers, for God has made many wonderful promises to those who have trusted Christ for salvation. Is there any reason to fear that God may not keep some of these promises? No, there is not, for as the author of Hebrews reminds us, “it is impossible for God to lie” by making a promise and then failing to keep it. And because of this, our hope in Christ is “firm and secure” (Heb. 6:18-19).

But if we say that God cannot lie, or break a promise, or do anything else that is morally evil, then haven’t we denied that God is all-powerful? Not necessarily. The vast majority of Christian theologians throughout the history of the church have consistently taught that God’s omnipotence does not include the ability to do that which is logically impossible or contradictory.

Of course, there is no contradiction in saying that an omnipotent being can commit a morally evil act. But there does seem to be a contradiction in saying that a completely good, morally perfect being can perform such an act. As a morally perfect being, God not only has no moral faults, but as James reminds us, he cannot even be tempted by sin and evil (James 1:13). Hence, as one Christian philosopher observes, “for an essentially morally perfect being, doing what is wrong is just a special case of doing what is impossible for that being to do.”{6} And clearly, the inability to do what is morally evil should not be seen as detracting from God’s omnipotence. Instead, it should be viewed as exalting his moral perfection.

Omnipotence and Freedom

We’ve seen that omnipotence cannot mean that God can do absolutely anything. For as a morally perfect being, God is incapable of doing what is morally evil. This might lead us to think that God can do anything that is consistent with his morally perfect nature. But most theologians would still reject such a view. They would insist that some things are just logically impossible and that it can’t count against God’s omnipotence to admit that he cannot do such things.

Let’s consider an example. A square is a geometrical object with four angles. A triangle has only three. This being so, what do you think the chances are of constructing a square triangle? Not very good, right? After all, if something has four angles, then it has more than three. And if it has only three angles, then it has less than four. Regardless of how much power one has, a square triangle is a logical impossibility.

With this in mind, let’s now consider another example. Suppose that John is the kind of person who, if married, would always freely seek his wife’s input before making any major financial decision. If this is true, then it would seem that not even God could create John, place him in such circumstances, and have him freely refrain from seeking his wife’s input—for this is simply not what John would freely do in such circumstances.

Of course, God still has plenty of options. He could always refuse to create John, or refuse to let him get married, or refuse to let him be confronted with a major financial decision. Alternatively, God could put John in the circumstances we’re considering, but make him decide not to seek his wife’s input. But what he cannot do is place John in these circumstances and then make him freely decide not to seek his wife’s input. For to make John freely do something is as logically impossible as creating a square triangle.{7}

Of course, God’s inability to perform a logically impossible task can’t fairly count against his omnipotence. For this would suggest “that a task has been specified, that transcends the capacities . . . of Omnipotence. But no task at all has been specified by uttering a self-contradictory . . . mixture of words.”{8} So we needn’t worry that we’ve abandoned the doctrine of omnipotence by admitting that God cannot perform meaningless tasks! We’ve simply clarified the meaning of omnipotence.

The Importance of Omnipotence

The doctrine that God is omnipotent, or all-powerful, is, as one philosopher has observed, “not a bit of old metaphysical luggage that can be abandoned with relief.” Instead, it’s “indispensable for Christianity.” After all, God has made many wonderful promises to his people. But if he “were not almighty . . . he might . . . sincerely promise, but find fulfillment beyond his power.”{9} So only if God is omnipotent can we confidently bank on his promises. But this is a bit of a two-edged sword.

On the one hand, the doctrine of God’s omnipotence can be very comforting for believers, who are rightly related to God through faith in Jesus Christ. After all, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Whatever problems and difficulties we face in life, our omnipotent God has more than enough power to see us through. If he chooses, he can easily deliver us from fire or water, sword or famine, sickness or disease. And if he lets us go through such things, he can provide all the grace and strength we need to endure. While the suffering of God’s saints can indeed be great, we must also remember that this life is not the end of our story, for “in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:11). A promise our omnipotent God is more than able to fulfill!

On the other hand, however, an omnipotent Deity is a most frightening prospect for anyone who persists in spurning his love and grace. For as the author of Hebrews reminds us, we are each “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (9:27) and “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31)—especially when that God is all-powerful! It’s a sobering thought to remind ourselves that not one of us can ultimately escape God’s power and judgment. If we make the omnipotent God our enemy, then no one can deliver us from his hand.

Thankfully, however, peace with God is available to anyone who wants it. The Bible tells us that God does not want anyone to perish, but for all to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). He pleads with men to be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:16-21). “Whoever is thirsty,” he says, “let him come . . . let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17b). The omnipotent God offers us all good things in Christ—and nothing can prevent him making good on his offer!

Notes

1. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, 3rd ed. (Louisville: John Knox, 1982), 24.
2. Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), 207; cited in Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 14.
3. P. C. W. Davies, “Spacetime Singularities in Cosmology,” in The Study of Time III, ed. J. T. Fraser (New York: Springer Verlag, 1978), 78-79; cited in Copan and Craig, Creation out of Nothing, 222.
4. Copan and Craig, Creation out of Nothing, 223.
5. Ibid., 26.
6. Edward Wierenga, “Omnipotence Defined,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 43, no. 3 (1983): 367.
7. See J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 539.
8. Antony Flew, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy, Rev. 2nd ed. (New York: Gramercy Books, 1999), s.v. “impossibility.”
9. All of these citations are taken from P. T. Geach, “Omnipotence,” Philosophy 48, no. 183 (1973): 8.
© 2011 Probe Ministries




God Wins: A Critique of Rob Bell’s Love Wins

A New Kind of “Christianity”

Download the Podcast Will all people regardless of their belief enter heaven? In a new book, Love Wins, mega church pastor Rob Bell presents his case for universal salvation. Bell states that a Christianity that teaches many will spend eternity in hell while some go to heaven is “misguided and toxic.”{1} Bell asserts that the message Christians have preached for centuries is actually a harmful message.

Bell argues that God loves everyone and desires all people to be saved. However if the majority of people never come to faith in Christ and spend eternity in hell, God fails to accomplish His will. Since this is not an acceptable conclusion, the only logical conclusion left is that in the end, all will eventually receive His love and enter into heaven.

Bell begins by bombarding the reader with hundreds of questions. The questions are meant to challenge and expose the alleged inconsistencies of traditional teachings and prepare you for his case for universal salvation. On page 1 he writes,

Will only a few select people make it to heaven, and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you know? How do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe, or what you say, or what you do, or who you know, or something that happens in your heart, or do you need to be initiated, or baptized, or take a class, or converted, or be born again? How does someone become one of these few? And then there’s a question behind the question—the real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people who were taught that the primary message, this center of the Gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what got subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?{2}

These are good questions and deserve to be asked. “Traditional” beliefs may not always be right, and at times they deserve to be reexamined. Bell then in the final pages of his preface implies that those who oppose his view are judgmental and not open to discussion of vital doctrines of the faith. This is part of his strategy to discourage any criticism of his position. However, Scripture calls us to evaluate all teachings and discern truth from error (1 Thess. 5:21; 1 Jn. 4:1).

In the process of defending his thesis, Bell ends up presenting a new kind of Gospel. Since theological doctrines are connected, when you change the gospel message there is a chain effect that follows. His gospel ends up presenting a distorted understanding of God’s character, a variant view of the atonement, and a heaven and hell foreign to the scriptures.

Bell struggles with a significant question: “Will those without Christ truly spend eternity in hell? Could there be a possibility that they have a chance after death to repent?” The idea that a loved one will spend eternity in hell is a difficult one to accept. Careful study of all the relevant scriptures is necessary when we examine a particular doctrine, especially one regarding our salvation. If in the end we are faced with a conclusion we do not like, we must not compromise biblical truth but accept the words of Christ. Paul warns us in Galatians 1:9 the danger of preaching another gospel. When it comes to essential doctrines of the faith, Christians cannot compromise on the truths taught in Scripture. For this reason we must carefully examine Bell’s teachings and see if it is compatible with, or a compromise of, the gospel of Christ.

Another Kind of Gospel

To support his thesis that all individuals will eventually enter into heaven, Bell must alter the gospel message. He admits that his message departs from traditional Christianity and declares that the message preached for past centuries is misguided and in need of transformation.

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.{3}

The traditional message that salvation comes only to those who accept Christ in their lifetime is rejected by Bell. He believes that all people are reconciled to God through Christ’s death on the cross regardless of whether they choose to put their faith in Christ or not. Those who do not receive Christ in this lifetime will spend some time in hell but no one will remain there forever. Eventually all people will respond to God’s love, even those in hell and enter heaven. Bell states this on several occasions:

At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most “depraved sinners” will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.{4}

To be clear, again, an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts.{5}

At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.{6}

Within this proper, larger understanding of just what the Jesus story even is, we see that Jesus himself, again and again, demonstrates how seriously he takes his role in saving and rescuing and redeeming not just everything but everybody.{7}

Bell points to several Scriptures to support his argument. One passage is 1 Corinthians 13 which states, “Love never fails.” Therefore he concludes, God’s love will reach all lost people even those in hell and they will eventually turn to Him since no one can resist God’s love forever.

However, there are many passages in the Bible that teach the unrighteous are eternally separated from God and the righteous are forever with God. Daniel 12:2 speaks of a future resurrection and eternal destiny for the righteous and unrighteous: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” Daniel states that there will be a resurrection and judgment of all people. Some will inherit eternal life and others will suffer “everlasting contempt.” Daniel teaches in this passage that not all individuals will enter into everlasting life. Those who do not are destined to “everlasting contempt.” The Hebrew word for everlasting is ôlām. The word in this context signifies an indefinite futurity, forever, or always. It refers to an unending future.{8} This is the most likely definition for ôlām used later in verse 7 referring to the eternal nature of God: “And I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the stream; he raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven and swore by him who lives forever…” We know that God is eternal. Therefore, Daniel is using the term “ôlām” to mean everlasting and never ending.

Jude 7 states, “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” The Greek word for eternal is aiṓnios which means “eternal, perpetual, to time in its duration, constant, abiding. When referring to eternal life, it means the life which is God’s and hence it is not affected by the limitations of time.”{9} The word again is used in verse 21 to refer to “eternal” or never ending life with God. So in the context of Jude aiṓnios is used to refer to an eternal state.

In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus invites, “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Jesus taught an exclusive view of salvation. He stated clearly not everyone will inherit eternal life; in fact many will follow the path of destruction. This verse speaks against the doctrine of universal salvation.

Hebrews 9:27 (“it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment”) teaches that there is no second chance for salvation after death. The preceding verses teach that Christ made the perfect sacrifice for sin once and for all. He paid the price once and His sacrifice is for all time. In the same way that Christ’s atonement is final, so all men and women die once and face a judgment which is final and eternal in its sentence.

Bell’s gospel is a departure from biblical teaching. God is love and therefore, He does not impose His will on those who refuse to receive His love. He honors the choice of individuals to receive or reject Him. Those who reject Him in this life will not want to be with Him for all eternity. God honors their choice and places them away from His presence in hell. Thus, God’s character of love honoring one’s choice is upheld. But God’s character of justice in dealing with sin is also upheld.

Are All Reconciled to God?

There are several key passages Bell uses to support his thesis that all individuals will eventually enter heaven. One key verse that deserves attention is Colossians 1:20, a favorite verse used by many universalists: “and through him (Jesus) to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” According to Bell, the entire world is reconciled to God through the death of Christ. Christ’s death has atoned for all sin and places every person in right standing with God. Those who turn to God in this life will enter heaven immediately. Those who reject God’s love in this lifetime will be temporarily separated from God in hell but will eventually receive His love and enter heaven.

Contrary to Bell’s interpretation, this verse does not teach a universal salvation. Rather, it presents the scope, goal, and means of reconciliation. The scope of reconciliation extends not just to human beings but to all of creation which was affected by sin. Romans 8:20-22 says,

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

The physical world was affected by sin, not by its choice but by the choice of Adam. Christ’s victory over sin restored order over creation by bringing it again under His lordship, and full restoration will take place in the future.{10}

Angels and human beings, unlike the material world, have a choice. Reconciliation involves two parties who voluntarily decide to make peace. In this case fallen angels knowingly rebelled against Christ and reconciliation is not possible. Humans also must make a choice to receive God’s invitation through Christ or to reject it. This is made clear in the following verses:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Col. 1:21-23)

Paul states that we were once “alienated” from God and we are reconciled “if indeed you continue in the faith . . . not shifting from the hope of the gospel.” The reconciliation depends on the believer receiving Christ by faith and persevering in that faith. Numerous other verses make faith in Christ necessary for reconciliation (Jn. 3:18, 5:24; Rom. 1:17; 3:21-26).

Those who receive God’s gift of life will attain blessings and salvation. Those who refuse are sentenced to eternal death (Jn. 3:18). In the end all things will be put in their proper place. It is in this context all things will be reconciled to Christ and in submission to His lordship (Phil. 2:5-11).

Another Kind of God

In his effort to defend his thesis that in the end everyone goes to heaven, Rob Bell must alter the message of the gospel. However, in doing so, he also alters the character of God. Among the hundreds of questions with which Bell bombards his readers, he asks the following: “If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate? How does a person end up being one of the few? Chance? Luck? Random selection? . . . God choosing you instead of others? What kind of faith is that? Or, more important: what kind of God is that?”{11} For Bell, a God who would send billions to an eternal hell would not be a God of love. However, in emphasizing God’s character of love he ends up ignoring God’s other attributes, and in the end alters the character of God.

Bell is correct in stating that God is love. However, he commits an error common among universalists. Bell ends up presenting an imbalanced view of God that emphasizes God’s character of love to the neglect of the other character qualities of God. Love is not the only or the most dominant character of God. Along with love, God has other character qualities which exist together in a perfect balance.

Among the numerous qualities of God, the Bible teaches that God is also just (2 Thess. 1:6), He is holy (Isa 6:3), He is righteous (Ps. 7:11), sovereign (Jude 4), wise (1 Cor. 3:19) true (Jn. 14:6), etc. There are many qualities of God that are just as important as love, and they exist in a perfect balance. Thus, emphasizing one trait to the exclusion of others leads to flawed theology.

God is love and God desires that all individuals be saved. However, God is also just and holy and must deal righteously with sin. God’s character of holiness is well emphasized throughout the Bible. This is the theme of Leviticus and, throughout this book, God presents detailed instructions for dealing with sin through the sacrificial system. The Levitical sacrifices are fulfilled in the death of Christ who fulfills the righteousness of God.

The theme in the prophets is that Israel has violated the holiness of God and thus God must judge their sins. Isaiah 5:16 states, “But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness.” God, being a loving God, sent prophets to warn Israel to turn from their idolatry and disobedience and return to Him. However, after generations of refusal by Israel, God finally had to judge the sins of the people. Throughout the New Testament, Christians are exhorted to live holy lives for that reflects the character of God (Eph. 4:24; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 1:15-6).

Those who refuse the gift of Christ’s work on the cross have not been cleansed from their sin and therefore cannot enter the holy presence of God. This is the theme of Hebrews 9, which teaches us that access to God represented in the Holy of Holies at the Temple was not accessible to us. However, the blood of Christ fulfilled the holiness of God and cleansed sinners and made us holy before God. Only through the blood of Christ is this made possible.

Bell emphasizes God’s love but diminishes His holiness and righteousness; therefore, the magnitude of our sin, its effect on our nature, and it offense to God are diminished. God hates sin and judges sin seriously. In Revelation, the wrath of God is poured out upon the world in rebellion. In Revelation 20, those individuals not found in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire. To build a picture of God who is excluded of His holiness, justice and righteousness, who does not judge sin, is to present an imbalanced and false view of God.

Bell argues,

Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, . . . God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would in essence become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony. . . . If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like that could ever be trusted, let alone good.{12}

Bell argues that God changes according to the decision of individuals. However, God is not the one who changes. He is always loving and reaching out to all people, but He is also holy and righteous and and must deal justly with sin. Those who do not want to be with God now will not want to be with Him in eternity. Because He is love, He does not force people to be with Him for eternity but honors their choice. God allows them to exist away from Him in hell. So God does not change; He grants individuals what they desire.

I would also disagree with Bell’s statement that God is the one tormenting individuals. Torment comes from within the person. The torment the person experiences is not inflicted by God but comes from the individual who must live eternally with his or her decision to reject the love of God. Therefore hell honors the free choice of men and fulfills the love of God who does not impose Himself on those who do not want Him. It also fulfills His holiness, removing sin from His presence.

Another Kind of Heaven and Hell

To maintain his thesis that everyone will go to heaven, Rob Bell must alter the gospel message, the character of God, and the teaching on heaven and hell. Bell teaches that hell is not eternal but temporary, and in fact heaven and hell are actually the same place. For those who have accepted God’s love, this place will be heaven. For those who continue to reject God’s love this place will be hell. Hell is created by the individual who resists God’s love. Bell states, “We create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story.”{13} The individual remains in this condition until he is won over by God’s love and eventually turns to God. Then what was once hell will becomes heaven.

Bell derives this from Luke 15, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In this story, after the younger brother returns, the father throws this formerly lost son a big banquet. However, the older brother, jealous and upset over his younger brother’s reception, remains outside and chooses not to enjoy the party. Both brothers are in the same place but for one it is a party, for the other it is miserable.{14} Bell states that it is our choice. “We’re at the party, but we don’t have to join in. Heaven or hell. Both are at the party.”{15} The younger brother who has received his father’s love it is a joyous time, but for the older brother who has the wrong view of his father it is misery.

Bell is really stretching the interpretation of this parable to support his theology. I am not aware of any New Testament scholar that finds this doctrine of heaven and hell in this parable. The parable comes in the context of the Pharisees and teachers of the law questioning Jesus associating with “sinners.” Jesus, in defense of His ministry and displaying the compassion of God for the lost, tells three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The younger brother represents the sinners who repent and turn to God while the older brother represents the Pharisees and teachers of the law who have little compassion for the lost.{16} So the purpose of the parable is God’s heart for the lost and the cold heartedness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. To read into this story Bell’s doctrine of heaven and hell is a stretch. It does not appear Jesus had in mind any teaching on heaven and hell in this parable.

Bell believes that heaven and hell are actually the same place and he also believes that hell is not permanent. He describes it as a “period of pruning” and “an intense experience of correction.”{17} It appears that Bell views hell similar to the Catholic teaching of purgatory. Eventually this will end when the person turns to God because, according to Bell, “No one can resist God’s pursuit forever because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts.”{18}

Another way Bell defends his doctrine of hell is in doing a brief word study. The Old Testament word is sheol. Bell explains that sheol is the place of the grave in the Old Testament and that it speaks generally of the resting place of the departed sprits. Three words are used in the New Testament: gehenna, hades, and tartarus. Gehenna, he says, is the Valley of Hinnon, the garbage dump outside Jerusalem.{19} The word tartarus comes from Greek mythology, referring to the underworld where Greek demigods were judged.{20} Hades, he states, is the equivalent of the Hebrew sheol, an obscure, dark and murky place.{21} He thus concludes from his brief word study on hell that hell is not clearly defined in the Bible and that holding to the belief that it is a place of eternal suffering is unjustified.

Bell correctly states that sheol is the place of the grave and speaks generally of the place where the departed sprits go. There are several occasions where Old Testament saints stated they would go to sheol. However, his word study is incomplete. As revelation progresses, we see there are different fates for the righteous and the wicked. There is indeed a judgment which determines the destiny of individuals.

As mentioned above, Daniel 12:2 speaks of a future resurrection and eternal destiny. “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” Daniel states that there will be a resurrection and a judgment that determines the eternal destiny of individuals. Some will resurrect to eternal life while others to everlasting contempt. As noted earlier, the Hebrew word for everlasting is ôlām. Olām is used more than three hundred times to indicate indefinite continuance into the very distant future. There are times it is used to designate a long period in the past or a designated long period of time in the future.{22} Context determines the definition. In this context it signifies an indefinite future or forever. This is the most likely definition for several reasons. First, the context found in verses 1 and 2 speaks of the resurrection at the end of the age. This is speaking of the final judgment before the righteous enter into eternity. Second, in verse 3 it is used of the righteous shining forever. Third, it is used later in verse 7 referring to the eternal nature of God. “And I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the stream; he raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven and swore by him who lives forever.” Daniel describes an eternal state of reward and life for the righteous but an eternal state of contempt for the unbelievers.

In Isaiah 66:22-24, Isaiah speaks of the Lord establishing His kingdom and restoring Israel. He concludes saying, “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” Here Isaiah refers to state of eternal torment for those who rebel against the Lord.{23} Although sheol is used of the general resting place of departed spirits, as revelation progresses the Old Testament mentions a different eternal destiny of the righteous and unrighteous. The eternal state is further revealed in the New Testament.

In reference to the New Testament words, the most commonly used word is Gehenna. Bell is correct that Gehenna is derived from the Valley of Hinnon outside of Jerusalem, but once again his word study is incomplete. Gehenna is associated with evil, and, in the context of the New Testament, symbolizes more than just a garbage heap. It served as a physical picture of the eternal state of suffering.

In Matthew 18:7-9 Jesus states, “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” The Greek word for “eternal” is aiṓnios. This word means “eternal, perpetual to time in its duration, constant, or abiding.” When referring to eternal life, it means the life which is God’s and hence it is not affected by the limitations of time.{24} The fire described in verse 8 is an eternal and never-ending fire. In the very next verse Christ states that it is better to enter heaven blind in one eye than “be thrown into the hell (Gehenna) of fire.” In just the previous verse, the fire of hell was said to be eternal. From the context then we should conclude Gehenna is an eternal state, not a temporary one.

In Mark 9:47-48 Jesus says, “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'” Jesus states that in Gehenna, the worm lives eternally and the fire is also eternal. Gehenna then is a described as an eternal abode.

Jesus further states that the punishment in hell is eternal and not temporary. In Matthew 25:46, the judgment of the sheep and the goats, Jesus states, “And these (the goats) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Bell attempts to show in Matthew 25:46—the separation of the sheep and the goats—that when Jesus said “eternal punishment,” he did not mean the punishment was eternal. He writes, “Aion, we know, has several meanings. One is ‘age’ or ‘period of time’; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo (punishment) is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming f the branches of a plant so it can flourish. . . . Depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then, the phrase can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming’ or an intense experience or correction.”{25}

However, I find Bell’s explanation unsatisfactory since the verse states that the goats will “go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Here the eternal life of the believer is seen in contrast with the eternal judgment of the unbeliever. If he is to be consistent, we must interpret that the righteous will not enter into an eternal state of life in the presence of God but a temporary state of life. However, this would not make any sense in this verse. Why should we understand that the word “eternal” for the righteous means everlasting but it is taken to be a temporary state for the unrighteous? Since the righteous enter everlasting life, we should take the preceding phrase that the goats will enter a state of eternal punishment.

Paul writes in 2 Thess. 1:8-9, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” The words “everlasting destruction,” when used together, refer to an eternal state of punishment. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament states that Ólethros aiṓnios (destruction everlasting) refers to destruction which is eternal or everlasting. It is destruction or a state which is imposed by God forever. In a similar way the phrase “eternal judgment” used in Heb. 6:2 means an eternal sentence imposed by God. All of these designations of punishment stand in contrast to eternal life as the inherent punishment for those who reject Christ’s salvation in that they will be separated from the life of God which they rejected. As to the duration of what is designated as aiṓnios when it comes to punishment, it is only proper to assign it the same duration or endlessness as to the life which is given by God.{26}

Revelation 14:9-11 states, “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever.'” In this passage the Greek word aiṓnios is repeated at the end of verse 11. The phrase “forever and ever” is used twelve times in Revelation. Each time it refers to an eternal existence. Eight times it is associated with the nature of God or the never ending rule of God. For example Revelation 4:9-10 says, “And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever.” The most consistent interpretation of 14:9-11 is that the suffering of the unbelievers is of an eternal nature.

Jude 7 states, “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” Once again the word here is aiṓnios, signifying an eternal punishment.

It is difficult to interpret passages like these (2 Thess. 1:9; Jude 7; and Rev. 14:9-11) to mean something other than eternal or never-ending punishment. Bell’s interpretations are incorrect and his word studies are incomplete. When you look at several passages in their context, it is very difficult to support Bell’s view.

How Many Stones Cry Out?

Is Jesus the only way to eternal life or are there other ways to salvation besides Christ? Bell makes his case that there are other ways to eternal life. Bell builds his case from Exodus 17 where Moses struck the rock which brought forth water for the Israelites. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul states that Christ was that rock which Moses struck. Thus, Bell makes the leap that if Christ was in that rock, it is very likely He is in numerous rocks. Bell writes,

According to Paul, Jesus was there. Without anybody using his name. Without anybody saying that it was him. Without anybody acknowledging just what–or more precisely, who–it was. Paul’s interpretation that Christ was present in the Exodus raises the question: Where else has Christ been present? When else? Who Else? How else? Paul finds Jesus there, in that rock, because Paul finds Jesus everywhere.{27}

It appears Bell is stating that one need not know the gospel message of Christ as taught in the New Testament. A person can be saved through other means and messages. Bell further states,

As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are crated to contain him, especially the one called Christianity. Within this proper larger understanding of just what the Jesus story even is, we see that Jesus himself, again and again, demonstrates how seriously he takes his role in saving and rescuing and redeeming not just everything, but everybody.{28}

Bell emphasizes that he believes that salvation comes through Jesus and Jesus alone saves all people. He refers to Jesus’ words in John 14:6. However, he believes that Jesus may be found in the numerous other religions but identified by different names, symbols, or teachings for Jesus as the creator is present in all creation. Therefore, Christianity does not have the exclusive message of salvation. Other religions contain the presence of Christ through their teachings. How and where they do, Bell does not explain.

Bell states again that specific knowledge of Jesus and the message of the cross is not necessary for salvation. “What he (Jesus) doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him know they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”{29} So for Bell, salvation is possible without understanding who Jesus is, his atoning work, and the message of the cross.

Bell misunderstands the text of John 14:6 [“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me”]. Jesus states that He is the only way to eternal life. The “mechanism” is faith in Jesus Christ. Truth is found in general revelation, creation, and the conscience. Therefore, truth about God can be found studying nature (Rom. 1) and through the moral law within each one of us (Rom. 2). For this reason, there are teachings that are true in other religions. For example, many ethical systems in the other religions overlap with biblical teachings. So truth that points to God can be found in general revelation, but saving knowledge of Christ is not found in general revelation. Salvation comes through the special revelation of Jesus Christ. For this reason Paul states, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'” (Rom. 10:14-5) Paul states it is only the specific message of the gospel of Jesus Christ that saves (Rom. 1:16).

There are several examples in the New Testament that reveal general revelation was not enough for salvation, but special revelation was needed. In Acts 10, Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman soldier, believes in God and lives a noble life. However, that was not enough. For this reason, God sent Peter to present the message of the gospel to Cornelius. After hearing the gospel message, Cornelius and his family receive the gift of salvation. Therefore, the message of the gospel must be heard and received for salvation.

Jesus further taught that the message of salvation is narrow and exclusive. This is not only the nature of the gospel message but the nature of truth itself. If Jesus is the son of God, any religion that rejects this truth must be false in its salvation message. In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus stated that the way to eternal life is indeed narrow and only a few find it. Peter reinforced that Jesus is the only way in Acts 4:12, and Paul states in 1 Timothy 2:5 that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man. If these statements are true, then salvation comes exclusively through Jesus.

It is also logically unreasonable to assume that salvation is possible through other religions. For example, Islam rejects the deity of Christ, the death of Christ on the cross, the resurrection, and salvation by faith in Christ. Many forms of Buddhism reject the idea of a God. Hinduism teaches that Brahma is an impersonal force and is in a codependent relationship with the universe since Brahma is made up of all things. Since the other religions have significant teachings contradictory to Christianity, it is unreasonable to conclude they contain the salvation message of Christ.

So do the stones cry out? There is truth in general revelation (creation and the conscience) but this truth does not save; it points one to God (Rom. 1:18-32; 2:12-16). Salvation requires the gospel message of Christ as stated by Paul in 1 Cor. 15, that we are sinners, Christ died for our sins and rose triumphing over sin, and we are called to receive Him as our Lord and Savior. Without the gospel message of Christ, one cannot attain salvation.

Conclusion

Paul warns us very strongly in Galatians 1:8 the danger of preaching another gospel. Unfortunately, Bell here presents another gospel and in doing so, presents a false message of hope that has eternal consequences. In Love Wins, Bell argues that in the end everyone will be in heaven because that is God’s will. No one can resist God’s love forever, and if all are not saved, God is not glorified. However, in changing the gospel message Bell changes the character of God and the nature of heaven and hell. God is a God of love, and in His love He honors the decision of individuals to freely choose Him or reject Him. Those who reject Christ, have not had their sins cleansed and cannot enter into the presence of a holy God. In the end, God upholds His love by honoring the choice of all individuals and upholds his righteousness by placing the righteous in His presence and the unrighteous in hell, away from His holy presence. In the end God wins. That is the message of the cross.

Notes

1. Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2011), viii.
2. Ibid., 1.
3. Ibid., viii.
4. Ibid., 107.
5. Ibid., 107.
6. Ibid., 109.
7. Ibid., 150.
8. Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A.). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems electronic ed., 2000), 762.
9. Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.), (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000).
10. Richard Melick, The New American Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 225.
11. Bell, Love Wins, 2.
12. Ibid., 172-3.
13. Ibid., 172.
14. Ibid., 170-76.
15. Ibid., 175.
16. J. B. Green, The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1997), 579.
17. Bell, Love Wins, 91-2.
18. Ibid., 108.
19. Ibid., 68.
20. Ibid., 69.
21. Ibid.
22. A. A. Macrae, “1631 ???,” in R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. & B. K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (electronic ed.) (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 672.
23. John Walvoord, and Roy Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), Is 66:22-24.
24. Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament.
25. Bell, Love Wins, 90-1.
26. Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament.
26. Bell, Love Wins, 143-4.
28. Ibid., 150.
29. Ibid., 153.

© 2011 Probe Ministries




The All-Present God

“As Charles Haddon Spurgeon once observed, there are very few things as uplifting for the heart and the mind as a serious study of the being and attributes of God. Hopefully, this little article on God’s omnipresence will encourage some others to take up such studies for themselves. They won’t be disappointed.” —Michael Gleghorn

Introduction

Download the PodcastWe can never get away from God. To some, this is quite threatening. To others, it is merely irritating or annoying. But for those who know and love God, it is deeply comforting and consoling, for it means that we are never alone.

In this article, I want to discuss an attribute of God that is often referred to as omnipresence. It’s a big word, but all it means is that God is present everywhere. It was while meditating on this attribute that David was led to pen the oft-quoted verses of Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast (vv. 7-10).{1}

Clearly David took comfort in the fact that he could never get away from God, that there was nowhere he could go where God was not.

In a similar manner, King Solomon also spoke of God’s omnipresence in his prayer at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem. He said, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). Here, Solomon recognizes that unlike human beings, God’s presence cannot be localized to merely one place on the earth. Indeed, the universe itself is not sufficient to contain the being of its Creator!

So how is the doctrine that God is everywhere present to be understood? And what practical applications might this have for our lives?

To begin, it is helpful to observe that just as the doctrine of God’s eternity attempts to explain how God is related to time, the doctrine of omnipresence attempts to explain how He is related to space. Does God completely transcend space? That is, might He exist completely “outside” or “beyond” our spatial universe in some sense? Or is it better to think of Him as existing everywhere throughout all space? Then again, could it be the case that He somehow exists both within and beyond the created order? Obviously, these are deep and difficult questions. But since thinking through such things is part of what it means to love God with our minds, let us ponder these matters as carefully as we can (Mark 12:30).

God and Space

Other Scriptures certainly seem to affirm God’s omnipresence. God asks the prophet Jeremiah, “Am I only a God nearby . . . and not a God far away? . . . . Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (23:23-24). Here the Lord affirms that He is present everywhere, that there is nowhere in heaven and earth where He is not. But how should we understand this?

Should we think of God as “spread out” through the universe like an invisible gas? Although this might be the mental image which most naturally suggests itself to our minds, we should carefully avoid embracing it. After all, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). And a spirit, unlike a gas, is a non-physical entity.{2} If we think of God as being spread throughout the universe like an invisible gas, then we might be tempted to think of God as only partially present at any one place. For instance, we might come to believe that there is a small amount of God in our bedroom, even more of Him throughout our house, and more still in the three-mile radius around our house. And this, I’m sure you would agree, is crazy!{3} We don’t want to think of God’s omnipresence in these terms.

Instead, if we want to think of God as existing everywhere in space (and many theologians would caution us against this), then we ought to think of Him as being fully present at every point of space at the same time. Now admittedly, this is a difficult concept to grasp. But an analogy may help to clarify the point.

A number of Christian theologians and philosophers have suggested that we should think of God’s relationship to the world as similar to the soul’s relationship to the body. On one construal of this view, the soul is held to be “spatially present in the body,” but “not extended throughout it.” Instead, it’s thought to be “somehow wholly present at all points in its body.” In a similar way, it is said, we can also think of God as being “spatially located in the universe” and yet “wholly present at every point in it.”{4}

Of course, it must be emphasized that this is only an analogy. I’m certainly not suggesting that the world really is God’s body!{5} The analogy is intended simply to help us understand one way in which God might be thought of as omnipresent. But it’s not the only way.

God and Spacelessness{6}

Many Christian philosophers do not believe that we should think of God as literally present in space. Instead, they believe that God completely transcends space, existing “beyond” or “outside” the spatial universe which we inhabit. But if this is so, then how do they think the doctrine of God’s omnipresence should be understood? Moreover, why do they believe that God is not present in space?

Let’s take the second question first. Why think that God isn’t present in space? Well, say these thinkers, consider the doctrine of creation. God created the universe ex nihilo, or “out of nothing.” Literally nothing existed (except God) “before” He brought the universe into being.{7} In other words, prior to creation, not even space existed. Rather, space is brought into being by God at the moment of creation.{8} But if God does not exist in space prior to creating the universe, then why should we think that He is located in space after bringing the universe into being? According to this view, there just isn’t any good reason for thinking that He is.

But wait a minute! If God isn’t located in space, then how can it still be said that He’s present everywhere? Doesn’t this amount to a denial of God’s omnipresence? According to proponents of this view, we should understand God’s omnipresence to mean that He both knows what is happening everywhere in space and that He is active at every point in space.{9} In other words, God not only knows what is happening everywhere on earth, He also knows what is happening elsewhere in our solar system and in every galaxy of the universe. Moreover, He is continually exercising His power to sustain the universe in being and He is able to act anywhere He desires throughout this vast cosmos which He has created. Hence, even if God is not literally present in space, advocates of this view still insist that He both knows what is happening and is able to exercise His power anywhere in the world at any time He chooses.

Having now considered the two major views regarding how we should understand the doctrine of God’s omnipresence, we’ll briefly look at some of the difficulties that are raised by this doctrine.

Difficulties with Omnipresence

Recall how David in Psalm 139 affirms that there is nowhere he can flee from God’s presence, for God is present everywhere. But this raises a difficulty, for elsewhere in the Bible David says something which seems to directly contradict this sentiment.

Pursued by Saul in the Desert of Ziph, David, who had the opportunity to kill Saul but humbly refused, pleaded with Saul not to shed his blood “far from the presence of the Lord” (1 Sam. 26:20). But wait a minute! If God is present everywhere, as David elsewhere affirms, then what sense does it make to speak of dying far from the presence of the Lord? How can one be far from the presence of the Lord if the Lord is present everywhere?

It seems to me that the best way of handling these difficulties is to make an important distinction regarding the way in which God is everywhere present. What I mean is this. Although God is present everywhere, He is uniquely present at certain times and places when He desires to reveal Himself in some special way.

The best example of this is the unique incarnation of God the Son in the man Christ Jesus. Jesus was one person with two natures, one divine and one human. According to His divine nature, He remained omnipresent even during His time on earth. Yet in his human nature, Jesus was limited (like all other men) to a particular time and place. And it was in this more limited sense that God specially chose to reveal Himself to us. Hence, in the Gospel of John we learn that God’s grace and truth, His love and salvation, His blessing and glory, are all uniquely revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.{10}

In a similar way, concerning the example of David above, we can say that while God was certainly present in the Desert of Ziph, He had chosen to specially reveal Himself to the people of Israel. He was thus present to the people of Israel in a way that He was not present to the other nations. It is in this sense that David pleads with Saul not to shed his blood “far from the presence of the Lord.”

The Importance of Omnipresence

Let’s think about this in terms of a “good news/bad news” approach, beginning with the “bad news” first. Although God’s omnipresence, considered in itself, is really only good news, there is certainly a sense in which sinful men and women, much like you and me, might be tempted to regard this doctrine as bad news. Why is that?

Well, if God is always present, then like it or not, every evil thought, word, or deed that we think, say, or do is always done directly in His presence! That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? There is literally nothing that we can ever do in a hidden or secret way. Whenever we lie or steal, commit adultery or take God’s name in vain, we do so in the presence of the God to whom we are all ultimately accountable. Indeed, Jesus warned that on the day of judgment we will even have to give an account for every “careless word” which we have spoken (Matt. 12:36)! This, at least for sinners like ourselves, is what we might call the bad news of God’s omnipresence.

But as I said previously, the reality is that God’s omnipresence is actually very good news. For it means that no matter what our circumstances, God is always present! When we’re anxious or scared, God is there. When we’re under pressure at work or having difficulties in a relationship, God is there. Yes; even if we’re sick or dying, God is present then, too. David wrote in the Psalms, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). For the one who’s been reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ, the fact that God is always present is very “good news” indeed!

I hope you can see that the doctrine of God’s omnipresence is not just an interesting issue for philosophers and theologians to ponder (although it is certainly that). It’s also an extremely practical doctrine that is highly relevant to almost every aspect of our lives. For wherever we go, whatever joys we encounter or difficulties we face, God is there. And for the Christian, He is present as our Protector, Savior, Counselor, and Friend!

Notes

1. All Scriptural citations are taken from the New International Version of the Bible.
2. See, for example, Jesus’ remarks in Luke 24:39: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
3. I got this insight from William Lane Craig, “Doctrine of God,” Part 8 [Podcast] (accessed August 2010), available from http://bit.ly/9ruR74.
4. These quotations come from the discussion in J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 509-10.
5. Of course, some theologians (e.g., Process theologians) do believe that the universe is God’s body. According to them, God is like the soul of the world (which is His body). This view is usually termed panentheism, which is not the same as pantheism.
6. This section is particularly indebted to the discussion of omnipresence in Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations, 509-11.
7. I put “before” in quotation marks since, if God is timeless without creation, there really isn’t literally any temporal moment “before” God brings the universe into being. The universe, along with time itself, simply has its beginning at the moment of creation. Nevertheless, for the purpose of communicating to our radio audience in the limited amount of time available, it is much easier to simply say “before” creation.
8. Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations, 510.
9. Ibid., 510-11.
10. In this regard, please see John 1:1, 14-18; 3:16-21.

© 2010 Probe Ministries




The Sovereignty of God

This article is also available in Spanish.

Rick Wade helps us understand the full meaning of the sovereignty of God highlighting its immense practical importance. If God is truly sovereign, then what He says He will do, He can and will bring to pass. It is the choice of our sovereign God to endow us with free will and as sovereign He can make it so without limiting His sovereign power. God has promised us a glorious future and He has the power and the resolve to make it happen.

What’s the Issue?

In whom or in what do people place their trust these days? Money? Their social group? Themselves? Some use exercise to improve their physical, mental, and emotional well-being and maybe even add years to their lives. Some look to spiritual practices, or work for a safer environment. Such things have their proper place, but should they be our source or sources of confidence? We all live with a basic insecurity that causes us to look for something stable to hold onto. It is obvious that there are forces in this world stronger than we are, some of which have no concern for our welfare. So we latch on to something that will see us through whatever problems might come our way.

Although Christians are to attend to their financial, physical, and social welfare (among other things), they are look to God ultimately for their security. We’re derided by some for seeking a “crutch” or a “security blanket,” but everyone looks for support in one place or another. The question is, Which crutch or security blanket is true and sufficient for our needs? Christians look to the true God Who has promised to be our “help in times of trouble.”

Because of our different personalities and situations in life, we look for different things in God. What do you want in a God? What do you need in a God? Love? Justice? Mercy? No matter what we might need in a God, if that God lacks one particular thing, the others will do little good. That is the power to “pull it off,” to exercise His love, justice, and mercy, and to do all the things He says He will do without opposition powerful enough to deter Him. We need our God to be sovereign; to be, as Arthur Pink said, “the Almighty, the Possessor of all power in heaven and earth, so that none can defeat His counsels, thwart His purpose, or resist His will.”{1}

Often when the subject of God’s sovereignty comes up among Christians, it’s in the context of the sovereignty/free will debate. Although I will address that matter at a later point, my desire is that we will see the sovereignty of God as a foundation for confidence rather than simply a topic for debate.

God’s sovereignty has immense practical importance. For one thing, it makes Him our proper object of worship. He is the almighty, omnipotent God, the creator and sustainer of all that exists. There is none higher, none more worthy of worship and honor.

For another thing, that God is sovereign means He can be counted on, for nothing can stand against Him. He can be counted on for our salvation. He can be counted on to carry us through times of difficulty such that nothing touches us that is not in keeping with His desires for us. And He can be counted on to keep all the promises He has made to us.

Characteristics of Sovereignty

What does the Bible say about God that causes us to believe He is sovereign? For one thing, God is called by names that convey the meaning of sovereignty. In the Old Testament, He is called Adonay. Second Samuel 7:22 in the NIV reads: “How great you are, O Sovereign Lord! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears.” In the New Testament, God is called despotēs, from which we get our word “despot.” This word “denotes the lord as owner and master in the spheres of family and public life.” The term is usually used over against the word doulos or “slave.”{2} In Rev. 6:10 we read where those slain for their testimony “called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?'”

Another thing we see in Scripture is that God has characteristics that call for ascribing sovereignty to Him.

First, God exercises rightful authority. He has the right to do with the creation what He desires because it is His creation. He also is active in His creation, contrary to the deistic understanding which is that God created the universe but then left it to run according to natural laws with little or no intervention on His part.

Second, God has the power to do what He desires with His universe. “All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing,” Daniel wrote. “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: What have you done?'” (4:35).

Third, God has the knowledge required to rule over all. He knows what’s going on, and exactly what needs to be done. He knows the past, present, and future perfectly.

Fourth, God has the will to do what He desires. He does what He says He will do. (Is. 46:9, 10; 55:11)

Biblical Examples

These attributes are seen in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, for example, God showed His sovereignty in the experience of Moses and the Israelites in the exodus from Egypt. He showed His authority when He simply stepped in and told Moses what He would do for His people and later when He overrode Pharaoh’s ruling and showed who was really in charge. He demonstrated His power by turning Moses’ staff into a serpent; by making Moses’ hand leprous and then healing it; through sending the plagues upon the Egyptians; and then by parting the sea before the fleeing Israelites. “By this you shall know that I am the LORD,” He said (Ex. 7:17). God had perfect knowledge of the plight of the Israelites (3:7, 9), and He knew what He would do with and for them (3:12, 19, 20, 22). Finally, He was faithful to His promises; His will was not thwarted.

God showed His sovereign rule in the New Testament as well in the experience of Mary. He showed His authority over this young woman when He simply stepped into her life and told her what He was going to do (Lk. 1:26ff). He claimed to have the power to do what He desired: “For nothing will be impossible with God,” said the angel (v. 37). God knew Mary (v. 30), and He knew what her future held because He had plans for Her (vv. 31, 35). And He faithfully fulfilled His promises, according to His will, as Mary knew He would (1:42; 2:6, 7; see also her exclamation of praise in 1:49-55).

These are only two of numerous illustrations of the sovereign authority of God in Scripture. We can read about similar demonstrations in the lives of other people such as Job (Job 38-41; 42:2), Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4:31, 32, 34-35), Joseph (Gen. 50:20), and Jesus (Acts 2:23, 24). And that’s just a small sampling.

But God’s sovereign rule didn’t end with the writing of the Bible. The God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever is still sovereignly active in His creation. God is “the only Sovereign, the King of kings and the Lord of lords” who will draw history as we know it to a close with the coming of Christ “at the proper time” (1 Tim. 6:15). He determines the times and boundaries of nations (Acts 17:26). Not only did He create all things, Paul writes that “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 2:17). Notice the present tense in Eph. 1:11 which says that God is the one “who works all things after the counsel of His will.”

Sovereignty and Free Will

The problem of the tension between God’s sovereign control and man’s free will is a perennial one among Christians, especially theology students! While this is an interesting debate (to some), it easily overshadows any discussion of the benefits of God’s sovereignty. Battle lines are drawn and the debate commences, with the result that sovereignty becomes a matter of contention rather than one of comfort. Nonetheless, it seems inappropriate to ignore the issue in a discussion of sovereignty. So I’ll offer just a few comments, not to attempt to settle the issue, but to bring a few points to light for you the reader to consider.

From our previous discussion, we already have a basic understanding of what sovereignty is. What about free will? Note that here we aren’t talking about the freedom that comes when we are released from the power of sin through faith in Christ. According to Scripture, we are enslaved to whichever master we choose to follow. But to be “enslaved” to Christ is to be free to be and do what we were made to be and do.

We’re talking here about freedom of the will, the ability to choose or determine one’s actions without coercion. Because one’s actions are so strongly influenced by one’s upbringing, religious beliefs, circumstances of life, etc., our situation can never be one of complete indeterminacy. {3} Thus, the issue at hand doesn’t pit completely free will against God’s control. It really is over our ability to make uncoerced, significant choices for which we can be held responsible: it is about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

Just as we read of a God in control of the history of His creation throughout Scripture, we also observe people making choices for which they are either rewarded or punished. It seems clear enough in Scripture that we are able to make uncoerced choices. Jesus bewailed the condition of Jerusalem in His day: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings,” He said, “and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37). The Jews are blamed for their choice–or lack of it. We’re even commanded to make choices: “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua commanded (24:15). Jesus told us to “repent and believe the gospel” (Mk. 1:15) as if we could choose to do so. Abraham received what God had promised because he chose to obey God (Gen. 22:15-18).

But if we have this freedom to choose, how can God be truly sovereign over the course of history? What a conundrum!

One principle that absolutely must remain paramount is that Scripture is our final authority, not reason. This isn’t to say the scriptural position is against reason; it’s merely an affirmation that our reason is not up to fully grasping God and His ways. We have to make do with what He tells us; all speculation beyond that is merely–well, speculation.

What do we read in the Bible? We read that both God is in control and that we can be legitimately held responsible for our choices. And we don’t have to find one verse in support of one and another verse in support of the other! In Gen. 50: 20, Joseph said to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Peter rebuked the Jews at Pentecost: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” he said (Acts 2:23). That the executioners bore at least some of the guilt is clear from the fact that Jesus asked for their forgiveness on the cross (Lk. 23:34). In Isaiah we read that it was God who sent the Assyrians to punish Judah, but then punished them for doing it with the wrong attitude (10:5-15)!

This issue typically arises in discussions of the matter of election to salvation. Jesus and the apostles made the offer as though listeners (or readers) could accept it or reject it. God doesn’t play games; it would make the whole call to repentance and salvation a farce if our choice had nothing to do with it. We’re told to “repent and believe in the Gospel,” (Mk. 1:15). But we’re also told that it is God who chooses (cf. Jn. 15:16; Rom. 9:14-22).

This duality is also seen in our prayer life. We’re taught that all things come to pass according to God’s will, but also that our prayers make a difference. Paul said that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). But through Ezekiel God said, “I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none. Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them” (22:30, 31). Someone might say that it is God who inclines us to pray, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that we can be scolded for not praying as though the responsibility were ours to do so (James 4:2).

People who spend much time thinking about this matter tend to lean more heavily to one side than to the other. It’s important to note, however, that we do not lose a bit of tension by emphasizing one over the other–either God’s sovereignty or man’s free will. If we overemphasize God’s sovereignty, there is the difficulty of understanding the judgment of God of those who weren’t elected.{4} How does this mesh with the scriptural teaching that God doesn’t show favoritism, or to the command to love all people, even our enemies? On the other hand, if we overemphasize man’s free will, how can a man ever be saved? “An excessively narrow Arminianism,” says Mark Hanna, “lapses into synergism (the union of human effort or will with divine grace).” It diminishes the enslaving power of sin, and it gives us the power to limit God. {5}

Because of these tensions, I’m inclined to agree with Donald Carson who says that “the sovereignty-responsibility tension is not a problem to be solved; rather it is a framework to be explored.”{6} It is an issue that I personally have had to let stand without any real hopes for final resolution. Some might consider this an “easy out,” but I’m content to see this as one of the “secret things” spoken of in Dt. 29:29.

However, that doesn’t mean the matter of God’s sovereignty isn’t important. As I see it, the important question is, How shall I live with both biblical truths in view: that God is sovereign over all, and that I will be held responsible for my choices? I think the old hymn “Trust and Obey” sums it up. I have been given the responsibility to obey God. But I’m thankful that the final burden of accomplishing His will doesn’t rest on me! For that, I am to trust Him. This is the crux of the sovereignty-responsibility issue as far as I’m concerned. While we have the ability and responsibility to choose, we can have confidence that God’s plan will be accomplished, that His promises will be fulfilled, and that in the end, everything is going to turn out just right.

The Significance of Sovereignty for Our Lives

Let’s wind up this brief overview with a look at some applications of God’s sovereignty in our lives.

First, that God is sovereign makes clear who is to be the focus of our worship. All glory goes to Him. To Jesus “be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen,” John said (Rev. 1:6). “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (5:12) the angels sang. When we worship individually and corporately, our eyes should be on the sovereign God rather than on ourselves. Although we will share in the glories of Christ (Rom. 8:17; 2 Thes. 2:14; 1 Pet. 5:1), God will not give His glory away to another (Is. 42:8; 48:11). He is the One who should get all the credit.

That God is sovereign means that God’s redemptive purposes will not be thwarted. He will build His church (Matt. 16:18), and we can know we are part of it. Nothing can separate us from His love (Rom. 8:38-39).

It also means that all God has foretold will surely come to pass. He is working out His plans (Is. 42:5-9), and nothing will take away what God has for us. No one can hold back His hand (Dan. 4:35). He is able to keep His promises, and because He is true to His word, He can be counted on to keep them (Is. 55:11; 2 Tim. 2:13; cf. Rev. 3:14; 21:5; 22:6).

In addition to that, because the sovereign God is also the God of love, He can be trusted in the fullest sense. The awesome power of God is a fearful thing to His enemies (Matt. 10:28; Heb. 10:31). But to those who love Him, the combination of His sovereignty and love makes it possible for us to truly rest, to live without fear. This is in stark contrast to gods of other religions who constantly have to be appeased to avert their anger, or even to the gods of our secular society, such as money, power, health, and prestige, all of which can let us down.

Finally, that God is sovereign means He will ultimately triumph over evil. We’re told that in the end the great enemy death will be done away with (1 Cor. 15:26, 54, 55). “He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” John writes. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4).

Earlier I noted that the topic of God’s sovereignty easily becomes a matter of contention rather than one of comfort. Just as the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints should serve to bring comfort to those who sometimes doubt their ability to hold on to God, the doctrine of sovereignty should serve to comfort those who fear, to encourage those who understand clearly their own limitations, and to provide a counter to the pessimism of our day. While being fully aware of the futility of the course of this world, we should still be optimistic people, because God has promised us a glorious future, and He has the power and resolve to make it happen.

Notes

1. A.W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 19.
2. Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), s.v. “Lord, Master,” by H. Bietenhard.
3. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. “free will.” See also Dagobert D. Runes, ed. Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Philosophical Library, 1983), s.v. “Free-will,” by Ledger Wood.
4. Mark M. Hanna, Crucial Questions in Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 60.
5. Hanna, 59.
6. D.A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1994), 2.

© 2004 Probe Ministries




God and the Future: Examining The Open View of God

Introducing Open Theism

What does it mean to be free? It at least means that one is able to make significant decisions. What if you discovered that all the choices you thought you made freely were mapped out in advance?

Here’s another question. Does God know everything that is going to happen in the future? This has been the teaching of orthodox Christianity from early on.

But let’s put these two together. If God knows everything that is going to happen, is there real freedom? Or, if we are truly free, can God really know the future entirely?

In recent years some evangelical scholars have rejected the view that God knows everything about the future. They say this idea is based more on Greek philosophy than Scripture. What they see in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, is a God who “flexes” with the actions and decisions of people, who even expresses surprise at what people do.

The view is called open theism. A number of articles and a few books have been written on the subject. For our discussion in this article I’ll focus on a book by Dr. Greg Boyd, a pastor and professor of theology in the Baptist General Conference. The title is God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God.{1}

Boyd asks the question: “Does God ever change His mind?” He believes God does, not only because of a change of heart and behavior on the part of people, but because God doesn’t know everything that is going to happen in the future. As a result He modifies His plans in keeping with our decisions and actions. Open theists thus go further than Arminians who affirm that God didn’t foreordain everything; they say He doesn’t even know everything that will happen in the future. Boyd has two basic reasons for believing this. First, he believes this is the testimony of Scripture. Second, Boyd believes that complete foreknowledge is incompatible with free will. If the future is settled in God’s mind, then it is fixed, and our freedom is only apparent.

But this doesn’t mean God doesn’t know anything about the future. He knows for certain those things which He plans to accomplish. “The future is settled to whatever extent the sovereign Creator decides to settle it,” says Boyd.{2}

What is at stake in this debate? For Boyd it fosters a renewed understanding of the importance and significance of prayer, it helps resolve the problem of evil, and it keeps us from feeling resigned to difficult circumstances. For traditionalists, it means a diminished view of God, a loss of confidence in the future, and a general loss of security.

In this article, then, we’ll consider Boyd’s ideas. In doing so, even if we disagree with him in the end, at least we’ll have had the opportunity to think once again about the nature of our God.

The Classical View of God’s Foreknowledge

Christian doctrine was developed in a culture imbued with Greek thought. It was thus a product of revealed truths shaped by Greek forms of thought.

What did the Greeks believe about God? A fundamental belief was that God was perfect and unchanging, that change of any kind was a weakness. Proponents of open theism say that this idea was taken into Christian theology, so that God came to be seen as being distant from and unaffected by His creation. It meant, for example, that He could not experience passions or deep emotional desires as we do, for that indicates a deficiency and the possibility of being controlled by outside forces. Likewise, God’s knowledge was fixed; any change such as obtaining new knowledge or changing His mind would indicate an imperfection. This, open theists say, is a quite different picture than what we get of God in the Old Testament, a God who was seen as closely involved with His people, who was genuinely responsive to the circumstances of their lives.

The view of God as unchanging has remained the orthodox view since the early church.{3} However, it is overstating the case to suggest that Christian theology has been simply “Christianizing” Greek philosophy. There are numerous biblical passages which lend support to this idea as well.

In Exodus we read that God presented Himself to Moses as “I am who I am” (3:14). Although open theists say this refers to God’s consistent faithfulness to His people, traditionally it has been held to refer to God’s nature as well. He has His being in Himself; He is independent of His creation (see also John 5:26). Furthermore, there are verses which are understood to refer to God’s unchangeableness. Malachi 3:6 says “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” He is the one “with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (Jas. 1:17). He is also said to know the end from the beginning (Is. 46:10). 1 John 3:20 says God “knows all things.” Psalm 139 has several verses referring to God’s knowledge of the writer’s life from birth to death (vv. 2,4,16). Finally, Scripture presents a God who is sovereign over the course of history. Isaiah 48 speaks of the things God had “declared long ago,” and which He now was bringing about (vv. 3-5).

These Scriptures and others have been held to support the traditional view of God’s foreknowledge.

Open Theism’s Response to the Classical View

How does Boyd interpret passages that are held to support the traditional or classical view?

We should first note that Boyd believes God does know a lot about the future, specifically what He has planned to happen. What God does not know is the future free decisions of individuals. “The future is partly open and partly settled,” he says.{4}

Boyd says some passages which are taken to teach that God knows everything about the future really only tell us God’s intentions for the future. One passage is Isaiah 46:9-10 in which God says “I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.'” Classical theists say this passage not only declares God’s knowledge of the future, but that He knows the future because He planned it.{5} Boyd says, however, that God is only speaking of those things He intends to do. It doesn’t say God knows everything about the future, but only those things which He has ordained will take place.

Other prophecies can be explained by the fact that God can perfectly predict our behavior in certain circumstances. God knows us perfectly, and He knows all the possibilities which lie ahead.{6} Boyd says God can predict a person’s behavior because of His knowledge of the person’s character combined with all future possibilities.{7} So regarding Jesus’ foreknowledge that Peter would deny him, Boyd says that God “knew the effect Jesus’ arrest would have on him.” He used the circumstances to let Peter see how weak he really was.{8}

The interpretations Boyd gives to these passages raise questions, however. While the Isaiah passage doesn’t say God knows everything about everything, it’s hard to see how God could know for certain that His plans would work out if free individuals making free decisions along the way were involved, which surely they would be. The prophecy about Peter’s denial seems strained. Jesus could certainly make predictions based upon Peter’s character. But how could He know there would be three denials before the rooster crowed twice simply on the basis of Peter’s character and the circumstances?

In his book Boyd gives an open interpretation of a number of other Scriptures typically taken to support the classical view. I’d invite you to buy the book and read his arguments first hand.

The Open View of God

It’s time now to take a brief look at Boyd’s defense for the open view of God.

First, Boyd points to times that it appears that God regrets something He has done. Could God really regret having made man in the first place, as Gen. 6:6 says, if He knew all along what would happen? Similarly, how could God truly regret having made Saul king (1 Sam. 15:35) if He knew all along the direction Saul’s life would take?

Second, we see God confronting the unexpected, Boyd says. In Isaiah 5 we read where God expected Israel, His vineyard, “to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (vv. 2,4). Boyd wonders how God could “expect” something that He knew eternally wouldn’t happen.

Similarly, in Jeremiah we read where God “thought” Israel would return to Him, when in fact she didn’t (3:6-7, 19-20). If He knew all along that Israel wouldn’t return, isn’t this a lie?

Boyd gives several other examples from Scripture in his book. He then concludes that the biblical witness is that God knows all of reality, but doesn’t know the future free decisions of individuals. This means that “Future free decisions do not exist (except as possibilities) for God to know until free agents make them.”{9} Thus, he says, “Scripture teaches us that God literally finds out how people will choose when they choose.”{10} If God did know everything in advance, then our decisions wouldn’t truly be free. “The notion of a ‘pre-settled’ free action is . . . a logical contradiction,” Boyd says.{11}

Does this mean God isn’t omniscient? No, says Boyd. We aren’t limiting omniscience just because we differ on what can be known. If something is unknowable in principle, God isn’t limited if He doesn’t know it. “The issue is not about God’s knowledge at all,” he says. “Everyone agrees he knows reality perfectly. The issue is the content of the reality God perfectly knows.”{12}

Boyd explains further. A statement is true if it corresponds with something real. “But unless you assume that the future already exists, there is nothing for definitive statements about future free acts to correspond to.”{13} Thus, there is nothing for God to know. To say that this means God is limited would be like saying God is limited because He can’t make a square circle. It’s an impossibility.

One response to this is that God knows all the possibilities available to us in any given situation, and He knows how particular individuals will respond to certain influences. Another is that the events of time exist in their totality in the mind of God, who has foreordained everything.

A Brief Critique

A basic complaint open theists have against the classical view of God is that it makes God very remote; He is the cold, unfeeling God of the Greeks who is unaffected by our decisions and actions. The open view sees God as truly interacting with His creation, as engaging in give-and-take with us. This closer, person-to-person relating is an important aspect of God’s character, and we should take it seriously.

On the negative side, however, there are aspects of Boyd’s open view which make it difficult to accept.

First, Boyd never explains how the future events which God has foreordained can be certain since the free decisions of individuals are always a factor (unless we’re talking about events in nature or in the animal kingdom). He speaks of “predestined events with non-predestined players.”{14} If God doesn’t know the future free acts of individuals, how does He know that what He has predicted will happen?

Second, and perhaps most importantly, open theism has a serious problem with prophecy. Did Jesus really only make a prediction about Peter denying him based upon Peter’s character? But the prophecy was so specific: three denials before the rooster crowed twice (Mark 14:30-72). When Ezekiel prophesied about the destruction of the city of Tyre, was that just a really good guess? It was too accurate a prophecy for that.{15}

Third, we need to question whether free will requires the open view of God. Can God know in advance the free decisions of individuals?

Open theists hold to what is called an incompatibilist position. That is, truly free choice is incompatible with God’s foreknowledge. Many classical theologians, however, have held to a compatibilist position: free will and foreknowledge can go together. Those of a Reformed persuasion believe that “freedom” doesn’t mean pure arbitrariness or spontaneity. There are a number of influences on our behavior about which we are rarely conscious, and God can use such influences Himself.{16} Others might hold to what’s called “middle knowledge”: God knows all the possibilities the future holds and how we’ll freely respond in each possible circumstance.{17}

While the open view of God is helpful in reminding us of God’s nearness and responsiveness to us, the nature of prophecy, if nothing else, seems sufficient to render open theism implausible. While there clearly is interaction between persons when God meets man, this cannot take away from God’s sure knowledge of future events. There must be some way that we can be free in a real sense while God knows what we will do. And because He does know the future, we can have confidence that what He has promised will come about.

Notes

1. Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000).

2. Ibid., 31.

3. Pelikan provides a brief sketch of the ideas of church fathers on this matter to show how thoroughly infused with Greek thought they were. Emergence, 52-55.

4. Boyd, 32.

5. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985), 348,353. See also Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology: A Compendium (Valley Forge, PA: The Judson Press, 1907), 282, 355.

6. Boyd, 127.

7. Ibid., 35.

8. Ibid., 36.

9. Ibid., 120.

10. Ibid., 65.

11. Ibid., 126.

12. Ibid., 125.

13. Ibid., 124.

14. Ibid., 44.

15. Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? (Minneapolis, MN : Bethany House, 1997), 150-51. See Appendix One for several prophecies like this one which were too precise to be just good guesses.

16. Erickson, 206-209.

17. For a brief study of a Reformed compatibilist position see Millard Erickson, God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 203-09. For a middle-knowledge view, see William Lane Craig, “Divine Foreknowledge and Future Contingency,” in Ronald H. Nash, Process Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 95-115.

©2000 Probe Ministries.




What Difference Does the Trinity Make?

How much do you love the Trinity? Strange question, isn’t it? Well, it certainly struck me as strange the first time I read it. But James R. White, in his article Loving the Trinity,{1} both asks the question and then addresses why it’s so important.

On the issue of the Trinity in the contemporary church, he writes, “For many Christians, the Trinity is an abstract principle, a confusing and difficult doctrine that they believe, although they are not really sure why in their honest moments. They know it is important, and they hear people saying it is ‘definitional’ of the Christian faith. Yet the fact of the matter is . . . little is taught about the relationship of the divine Persons and the Triune nature of God. It is the great forgotten doctrine.”{2}

When I hear that, it prompts me to ask two questions. First of all, to what extent as Christians are we consciously Trinitarian? Well, that softens the question. Perhaps I should ask more accurately, To what extent as Christians are we relentlessly, doggedly, and fervently Trinitarian? Secondly, why should we be?

In this article I’ll examine why the Trinity is important. And hopefully we’ll lay some groundwork so that we may happily realize that to be truly Christian is to be consciously Trinitarian.

Why the Trinity is Important: An Overview

Perhaps some find it easier to think that the Trinity is the “secret handshake” of Christian theologians. Or maybe some may consider the Trinity of value only so we can sing the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy. At the root of these notions is the idea that the Trinity serves no place in the real life of one who holds a Christian worldview. But that’s a mistake. A. W. Tozer begins his book The Knowledge of the Holy saying, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”{3} This statement follows his comment in the preface that reads, “It is impossible to keep our moral practices sound and our inward attitudes right while our idea of God is erroneous or inadequate. If we would bring back spiritual power to our lives, we must begin to think of God more nearly as He is.”{4}

Before moving on in our discussion, though, it may be helpful to give a brief explanation of what I mean when I refer to the Trinity. Of course, we could borrow a short phrase from Holy, Holy, Holy, “God in three persons, Blessed Trinity.” Another handy definition is this, “Although not itself a biblical term, ‘the Trinity’ has been found a convenient designation for the one God self-revealed in Scripture as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It signifies that within the one essence of the Godhead we have to distinguish three ‘persons’ who are neither three gods on the one side, nor three parts or modes of God on the other, but coequally and coeternally God.”{5}

Even though it’s short, this definition is both a mouthful and a mind full. But let’s settle on four basic concepts before we move on to the implications. At the heart of the definition of the Blessed Trinity we have: one God, three Persons, who are coequal and coeternal. With this sketch in place, then, we are ready to move out and survey the importance of the Trinity with respect to the Christian worldview and its practical aspects for the Christian life. At the end of our discussion I truly hope that we can affirm together our love for the Trinity.

The Trinity and the Christian Worldview

Having established a short, working definition of the Trinity–one God, three Persons, who are coequal and coeternal–let’s look at the implications of the Trinity on your worldview.

When it comes to discussing worldviews the starting point is the question, Why is there something rather than nothing?{6} As you may already know, there are three basic answers to this question. The pantheist would generally answer that all is one, all is god, and this “god with a small g” has always existed. Second, the naturalist would say that something, namely matter, has always existed. Third, the theist holds that a personal, Creator-God is eternal and out of nothing He created all that there is.

When we look around at what exists, we see an amazing collection of seemingly disparate elements such as gasses, liquids, and solids, planets and stars, horses, flowers, rocks, and trees. And seeing all of these things we notice that they all exist in some sort of equilibrium or unity. How is it that such diversity exists in such apparent unity? And are we as human beings any more important than gasses or ants?

Because the pantheist believes that everything melds into a gigantic oneness, he ultimately has no place for individual things or people. As Scott Horrell argues, “When a worldview begins with an all-inclusive, apersonal deity, there is no final place for the human being or for ethics on either an individual or a social level.”{7}

The pantheist’s commitment to an all-inclusive oneness leaves no room for the real world in which people live, where I am not you and neither of us is one with a tree or a mountain. The naturalist has no problem accepting the reality of the physical world and the diversity present in it. However, there is no solid ground for understanding why it is all held together. In short, there is no infinite reference point so we are left with the circular argument: everything holds together because everything holds together; if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here to see it. What a coincidence! In fact, coincidence, or chance, is the only basis for anything. As a result human beings are left with an absurd existence. “Without a unifying absolute, everything exists by chance and chance alone. . . . The human being is reduced to either a cog in a cosmic machine or an astronaut adrift in space. . . . If there is no infinite, absolute reference in the universe, then all of the particulars . . . have absolutely no meaning.”{8}

Trinitarian theism is the only option that contains within itself an explanation of both the one and the many while saying that people are important. In the Trinity, God has revealed Himself as the eternal, infinite reference point for His creation. Moreover, the Trinity provides the only adequate basis for understanding the problem of unity and diversity since God has revealed Himself to be one God who exists in a plural unity. Ultimately then, as Horrell concludes, “Every thing and every person has real significance because each is created by and finally exists in relationship to the Triune God.”{9}

The Trinity and Salvation

In reference to the Christian worldview I used the term Trinitarian theism. I used that term because the doctrine of the Trinity separates Christianity from any other type of theism. And, most importantly, it’s the only view that adequately describes God’s work in salvation.

There are other religions beside Trinitarian theism that believe in one God. Judaism, Islam, and so-called Unitarian Christianity (an oxymoron to be sure) all hold to a mono-personal God. This understanding of “God in one person” suffers in two important respects.

First of all, if we understand God to be self-existent, eternal, and personal, characterized by such an action as love, then a mono-personal God cannot be adequate, for love demands an object. Consider Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The first part of this passage is one of the great texts affirming the essential unity of God. And love is the proper human response to Him. This love is not some squishy feeling, but rather an expression of devotion from someone to someone. Love has a source and love has an object. Since human beings are created in the image of God, then He must be capable of love in His very self. So, when we hear, “God is love,” (1 John 4:16) we must realize that in Himself God must be at least two. Scott Horrell writes, “In short, it seems from every vantage that for God to be infinitely personal and to be love, he must exist as at least two persons. A mono-personal God is not ‘big enough’ to be God.”{10}

The other area in which a strictly mono-personal God is inadequate is in the relationship between God’s mercy and His justice. In Romans 3:25-26 we read of Jesus Christ, “a sacrifice of atonement” (NIV) and God the Father who is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Simply stated, a mono-personal God cannot be both just and the justifier. Horrell argues, “[I]f God, as Moral Absolute of the universe, shows mercy and forgives the sinner, then he has violated his righteous justice. And if God exercises justice against the sinner, then he has denied his mercy. For a mono-personal God, compassion contradicts holiness, forgiveness is finally contrary to justice. God’s judgment and mercy are arbitrary, if not capricious.”{11}

So far we have seen the work of God the Father, the righteous judge, and God the Son, the only One who can satisfy the judgment of God the Father, and therefore the only worthy object of saving faith. The Trinity is complete as we understand that the Holy Spirit is the One who, in Jesus’ words, “when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). The Holy Spirit is the active agent in the hearts of men and women, and He “works in the fallen world convicting and leading sinners to salvation. With God’s absolute holiness satisfied at the cross, true forgiveness can be freely offered to all who believe.”{12}

So we see that the gospel, the story of the God who saves His people, is Trinitarian at its very core. Otherwise God would not be truly just, in which case grace would be far less than amazing.

The Trinity and the “Everydayness” of Everyday

What greater reality can be contained within the Christian confession of the Trinity than that of a God who is able to exercise perfect justice and perfect mercy perfectly? Such a self-revelation from God regarding His activity in salvation should encourage confessing Christians to focus on and revel in the Trinity rather than ignoring or dismissing it as though it were some eccentric, old uncle at a family reunion. And according to James R. White, this is what is happening in parts of the church.

Entire sections of the modern church are functionally “non-Trinitarian.” I did not say “anti-Trinitarian,” for that would involve a positive denial of the doctrine. Instead, while maintaining the confession that the Trinity is true, many today function as if the Trinity did not exist. It has no impact on their theology, their proclamation, prayer, or worship.{13}

This observation leads us into the final section of our discussion. Since we covered the importance of the Trinity with regard to the Christian worldview and the gospel, let’s not leave it on the shelf or in the text book. Let’s dress the doctrine of the Trinity in some work clothes and allow this blessed truth to change our lives where we live them, in the everydayness of everyday.

Trinitarianism impacts three important areas: worship, prayer, and the local church.

Worship

Worship is a debated topic these days. But in the midst of the opinions and preferences about drums, organs, guitars, hymns, praise choruses, and seeker sensitivity, how often does someone declare that our worship is not Trinitarian enough?

Though it seems like a dry, academic issue this is an important question in two ways. First of all, if our worship is not Trinitarian enough, then we fail to worship the God of the Bible. And in biblical terms worshiping anything other than the Most High God is idolatry. As Isaiah records, “Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me” (Isa. 46:9).

Would a visitor to a typical worship service realize that a Christian church confesses and worships the Triune God? Most certainly someone would realize that we worship Jesus. That person might even hear Him called God’s Son. But would this person hear prayers addressed to the Father, in the name of the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit? Would this visitor hear songs to the different Persons of the Trinity, about the different Persons of the Trinity?

Good examples of this type of song are the classic hymn Holy, Holy, Holy and the chorus There is a Redeemer, with the refrain, “Thank you, O my Father, for giving us Your Son; And leaving Your Spirit ’til the work on earth is done.” That last example is not foggy theology, but an expression of gratitude to the Living God for who He is and what He has done, is doing, and will do.

I am not arguing that all Christian worshipers must hold doctorates in theology, but simply that we exercise care in the content of our worship so that we truly worship the one true God in three Persons. We can focus on Jesus, and indeed we ought to for He is our Savior. But we must not exclude confession and adoration of the Father and the Holy Spirit, much less the blessed Trinity.

Prayer

In his book, God: Who He Is, What He Does, How to Know Him Better, J. Carl Laney includes a helpful section on prayer. He writes, “Although God is one divine essence, He is also three persons. Which of these should we address in our prayers?”{14} Though this question may seem like an unnecessary trifle, we must be informed by Scripture. We are taught by Jesus to address God the Father, “Pray, then, in this way: Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your Name” (Matt. 6:9). In another statement on prayer Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you” (John 16:23). We see that, in Laney’s words, “Christian prayer involves requesting the Father on the basis of the Son’s merits, influence, and reputation”{15}–that is to say, ask of the Father in the name of the Son. We can also address our prayers to Jesus, who says, “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:14).{16}

The Spirit is also active when we pray. Paul writes, “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). So then we pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, by the power of the Spirit who assists us in our weakness. What a wonderful provision from the Triune God who not only desires us to ask of Him, but also enables us to do it.

The Local Church

As we seek to apply the Trinity in the everydayness of everyday, let’s consider life in the local church. And here we encounter an important application of Trinitarian theology.

The Trinity serves as a model for the local church. For as there are three Persons united in the Godhead, all of whom are equally God, so also those who are children of God, united in Christ, and members of the church universal are all equally sons and daughters of God and coheirs of His promises. As Scott Horrell writes, “Believers are to be given real value and dignity by the local church, not left as anonymous spectators amidst professional performances.”{17} The foundation of the value and dignity of believers, regardless of gender or training, rests in the Trinity.

However, this does not negate the need for order in the church. For, though each member of the Trinity is equally God, we see that there is a functional order within the Trinity. The Father sends the Son, the Son glorifies the Father, the Father and the Son together send the Spirit, and the Spirit bears witness of the Son. So also we have a functional order in the local church. There are those who are responsible to exercise authority, elders and deacons, and those who are responsible to submit to authority. But it’s important that we realize that submission does not imply inferiority. The Trinity models this truth. “Whether in the church, family, or society, submission to another does not admit inferiority any more than the Son, by his obedience, is inferior to the Father.”{18}

Though brief in some respects, I hope this discussion has been profitable for you. It’s only a beginning point, and I encourage you to press on, for the deep well of the greatness of our Triune God can never run dry. May we then remove the concept of the Trinity from our dusty shelves and proudly display it as the jewel of God’s revelation that it is.

Notes

1. James R. White, “Loving the Trinity,” Christian Research Journal, Volume 21, Number 4.
2. Ibid., 22.
3. A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961), 1.
4. Ibid., viii.
5. G. W. Bromily, “Trinity” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984), 1112.
6. For a fuller discussion on worldviews see Worldviews by Jerry Solomon at www.probe.org.
7. J. Scott Horrell, In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Constructing a Trinitarian Worldview (1998), 1.
8. Ibid., 8.
9. Ibid., 8.
10. Ibid., 11.
11. Ibid., 11.
12. Ibid., 12.
13. White, 22.
14. J. Carl Laney, God: Who He Is, What He Does, How to Know Him Better (Nashville, TN: Word, 1999), 122.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. J. Scott Horrell, The Self-Giving Triune God, The Imago Dei and the Nature of the Local Church: An Ontology of Mission, 13.
18. Ibid.

©2000 Probe Ministries




Why We Should Believe in the Trinity

How the Doctrine of the Trinity Developed

The doctrine of the Trinity separates orthodox Christian teaching from heresy. This essential teaching of Christianity states that we believe in one God who exists in three separate and distinct persons–God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Each member is equal in nature and substance. (For a biblical defense of the Trinity, see Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Trinity.)

A common question raised by heretical groups is, When and how did this doctrine develop? According to the Watchtower tract Should You Believe in the Trinity? this doctrine was not held by the church fathers. Rather, it was imposed on the church by the pagan emperors who had “converted” to Christianity at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. The bishops in attendance were overawed by the emperor and signed the creed against their inclination. Let’s take a careful look at what really happened at these two key church councils.

The Council of Nicea was the first church council ever called. Until this time, the church was under severe persecution from the Roman Empire. Early in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine showed an interest in Christianity and was tutored by Hosius of Cordova who held to the doctrine of the Trinity. With peace in the empire, Christianity spread all across the world. However, in Alexandria a presbyter named Arius gathered a significant following around his teaching that Jesus was a created being and not God. As his teachings spread, the controversy grew and Constantine realized it needed to be addressed. He thus called for the first universal church council at Nicea to debate the matter.

Although the doctrine of the Trinity itself was not discussed, the doctrine of the deity of Christ was confirmed. In attendance were approximately 300 bishops, many of whom were divided over the issue. Arius with his supporters, Theonas, Secundus, and Eusebius of Nicomedia, held the view that Jesus was an inferior creature to God the Father. The orthodox camp was led by Bishops Hosius, Alexander of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Athanasius who argued that Jesus is God.

After hours of debate, the council concluded the following in their creed:

“We believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father. . . .”

While the deity of Christ–a crucial aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity–was affirmed, Arius nevertheless continued to teach his doctrine of Christ’s inferiority, and Arianism came back into favor for a short time. Fifty years later, in 381 A.D., the Council of Constantinople was called by Emperor Theodosius. Here the Nicene Creed was reaffirmed and further clarified. It is at this council that the Holy Spirit was declared equal in divinity with the Father and the Son.

The councils of Nicea and Constantinople did not establish a new creed. The councils clarified and formalized the belief in the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, views already held by the apostles and church fathers. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses contest this point. Let’s see if the church fathers who lived before the Council of Nicea, the ante-Nicene fathers, held to the deity of Christ.

What Did the Church Fathers Say About the Trinity?

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity were never a part of the theology of the church fathers. In the article Should You Believe in the Trinity? several church fathers are cited as denying the orthodox view of Jesus. They include Justin Martyr who died in 165 A.D., Irenaeus 200 A.D., Clement of Alexandria 215 A.D., Tertullian 230 A.D., Hippolytus 235 A.D., and Origen who died in 250 A.D. The Watchtower list quotes from each theologian, claiming that they believed the inferiority of the Son to the Father. But the article contains no footnotes citing the source of these quotations.

Did these significant figures in church history really deny the divine nature of Christ? Let us take a careful (and referenced) look at what the ante-Nicene fathers stated in their original writings.


Justin Martyr: “…the Father of the universe has a Son; who being the logos and First-begotten is also God” (First Apology 63:15).


Irenaeus: (referencing Jesus) “…in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, . . .” (Against Heresies I, x, 1).


Clement of Alexandria: “Both as God and as man, the Lord renders us every kind of help and service. As God He forgives sin, as man He educates us to avoid sin completely” (Christ the Educator, chapter 3.1). In addition, “Our educator, O children, resembles His Father, God, whose son He is. He is without sin, without blame, without passion of soul, God immaculate in form of man accomplishing His Father’s will” (Christ the Educator Chapter 2:4).


Tertullian: “…the only God has also a Son, his Word who has proceeded from himself, by whom all things were made and without whom nothing has been made: that this was sent by the Father into the virgin and was born of her both man and God. Son of Man, Son of God, …” (Against Praxeas, 2).


Hippolytus: “And the blessed John in the testimony of his gospel, gives us an account of this economy and acknowledges this word as God, when he says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’ If then the Word was with God and was also God, what follows? Would one say that he speaks of two Gods? I shall not indeed speak of two Gods, but of one; of two persons however, and of a third economy, the grace of the Holy Ghost” (Against the Heresy of One Noetus. 14).


Origen: (with regard to John 1:1) “…the arrangement of the sentences might be thought to indicate an order; we have first, ‘in the beginning was the Word,’ then ‘And the Word was with God,’ and thirdly, ‘and the Word was God,’ so that it might be seen that the Word being with God makes Him God” (Commentary on John, Book 2, Chapter 1).

Not only in these instances, but also throughout their writings the ante-Nicene fathers strongly defend the deity of Christ.

What Did the Apostle John Say?

To summarize our argument thus far, we discovered that the doctrine of the Trinity was formally adopted as the official teaching of Christianity after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. I argued against opponents who state that the doctrine was imposed on the church by Constantine in a political move. Rather, the Nicene Creed was a formal statement of a doctrine already articulated by the church fathers even before Nicea. Now, let us take a look and see what the apostle John teaches.

John opens his Gospel with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the beginning was the Word shows that the Word was eternally with the Father and not a created being. The second phrase, and the Word was with God, shows that the Word is a distinct person from the Father. Thirdly, and the Word was God reveals that although separate and distinct, the Word in nature and substance is fully God.

Throughout his Gospel, John demonstrates that Jesus possesses the attributes which qualify Him to be God. Jesus displays power over nature, over disease, and even death. He has a grasp of the Law of God which He, though not formally trained, teaches with such authority as had never been seen before (7:14-16). Testimony from John the Baptist (1:29; 3:26-36) shows His authority to be God. Jesus also accepted the worship of men (9:38).

Jesus also makes several statements revealing His divinity. In John 5:22-23 Jesus says, “Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.” Here, Jesus commands followers to honor Him as they honor the Father. To do this, one must acknowledge Jesus as being equal in nature to God.

John 8:58 states, “‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am.'” The term I am is the term God used when He spoke to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Here is a clear statement of Christ declaring His divinity.

In John 10:30 Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” Jesus did not mean “I am one in purpose with God.” He was claiming to be God. The verses that follow His declaration make that clear: “Again the Jews picked up stones to stone Him, but Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’ ‘We are not stoning you for any of these,’ replied the Jews, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (vv. 31-33). The Jews clearly understood His statement and Jesus does not deny their accusation.

The culmination of John’s testimony of Jesus’ deity is in 20:28, which is the conclusion he desires all his readers to come to. “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!'” John argues throughout his entire Gospel for the purpose that all who read it might come to believe that Jesus is God incarnate.

John 1:1

In spite of the overwhelming testimony throughout the entire Gospel of John, there are some who argue about the translation of John 1:1. The New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reads, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was a god,” which makes Jesus to be an inferior being to God. In refutation of this translation, I will explain the Greek rules behind the proper translation and argue that the Greek word God (theos) in John 1:1c must be translated in the definite or qualitative sense–written God with a capital G–rather than indefinitely–a god–as the NWT has done. This discussion will get a little technical, but the importance of the subject deserves careful attention.

Let me first define some key terms of Greek grammar. An anarthrous noun is a noun without the definite article, the English equivalent of the word the. A noun in the nominative case in Greek often signifies that this is the subject of the sentence. A predicate nominative noun is a noun in the same case and is equivalent to the subject. The Greek construction of John1:1c looks like this, theos e^n ho logos, and is literally translated “God was the Word.”

The subject of this phrase is the Word (ho logos). We know this because it is in the Greek nominative case and it possesses the definite article ho. God (theos) is in the nominative case and does not have an article. It precedes the equative verb “was” (e^n), and therefore is the predicate nominative.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that since God (theos) does not have the article before it, it must be translated indefinitely. So we get their translation, “a god.” However, there are other possibilities available for translation.

According to a Greek grammar rule called Colwell’s rule, the construction in John 1:1c–anarthrous predicate nominative (theos)equative verb (e^n)articular noun (ho logos)does not automatically mean that the predicate nominative must be indefinite. Colwell’s rule, in summary, states that an anarthrous predicate nominative preceeding an equative verb can be translated as either (1) definite, (2) qualitative, or (3) indefinite. Thus, (1) as a definite noun the Word equals God, (2) as a qualitative the Word has the attributes and qualities of God, or (3) as an indefinite noun the Word is a god. Context determines which one it will be.

In the vast majority of cases in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of John, this construction is translated as a qualitative or definite noun. Greek Scholar Dan Wallace writes, “an anarthrous pre verbal PN [predicate nominative] is normally qualitative, sometimes definite and only rarely indefinite. . . . We believe there may be some in the NT, but this is nevertheless the most poorly attested semantic force for such a construction.”{1}

Furthermore, the translators of the New World Translation are not even consistent with their own rule of translation. Throughout John we find instances of an anarthrous God (theos) not translated as “a god,” but as “God.” John 1:6 and 1:18 are clear examples of this. Therefore, to argue that God (theos) in John 1:1c must be translated as indefinite solely because it has no article is clearly incorrect.

In an effort to insure that our decision agrees with the overall context of John’s Gospel, we must see if the Gospel of John argues that Christ is inferior to God. As I showed previously, this is certainly not the case.

We must conclude that grammar and context argue against an indefinite translation that makes the Word an inferior being to God. The noun God (theos) should be translated “God,” as a definite or qualitative, thus upholding the fact that Jesus is 100 percent God and 100 percent man.

Alleged Objections from the Gospel of John

To close this discussion, I will address several problem verses in the Gospel of John that are used in attempts to deny the deity of Christ.

In some translations like the King James Version and New American Standard, John 1:14 reads that Jesus is “the only begotten from the Father.” Some cults understand the Greek word translated only begotten to mean “to procreate as the Father.”{2} In other words, God created Jesus. However, this definition would be inconsistent with John 1:1a, 17:5, and 17:24 which declare the eternal nature of the Word.

The term, translated in some versions as “only begotten,” may sound to English ears like a metaphysical relationship. However, in Greek it means no more than unique or only. Elsewhere in the New Testament it is used of the Widow of Nain’s “only” son and Jairus’ “only” daughter (Luke 7:12, 9:38 and 8:42). Its use in Hebrews 11:17 with reference to Isaac is particularly insightful. Isaac, we know, was not Abraham’s only son. According to Genesis 16 and 25:1, Abraham fathered several other sons. Isaac is the “only begotten” in that he was unique; he was the only son given to Abraham by God’s promise. Therefore, when only begotten is used of Jesus, He is the only begotten in the sense that He is unique. No other is or can be the Son of God. The unique relationship the Son has with His Father is one of the great themes in the Gospel of John.

The next controversial verse is John 14:28. Jesus states, “…I am going to the Father for the Father is greater than I.” Here the Jehovah’s Witnesses understand the term greater to mean “superior in nature.” Thus they assert that Jesus is stating His inferiority to God. Once again, however, this would argue against John’s consistent theme of the deity of Christ. Greater here refers to position, not to nature. For example, we would agree with the statement that the President of the United States is greater than you or I. As the chief executive of the country he is greater due to his position. However, we would disagree with a statement that says the President is by nature better than you or I. In other words, is he a superior being to the rest of the citizens of the United States? No, we are all human and equal in nature. Greater refers to position, not to nature.

There is an established economy in the Trinity. The Father is the head who sends the Son. The Son sends the Spirit. All three are equal in nature, but different in position. This is called “functional subordination.” We see the same principle in 1 Corinthians 11:3, “…and the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” The husband is greater than his wife, her head by position. However, he is not a superior being to his wife. The same applies to Jesus. The Father is greater by position, not by nature.

It is essential that we defend the doctrine of the Trinity, the foundation of Christian theology. Many of the great church fathers courageously defended this truth. Let us follow in their footsteps.

Notes

1. Dan Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 262.

2. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Should You Believe in the Trinity? (Brooklyn:Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989), 15.

©1999 Probe Ministries.




Learning About God

The God Who Would Be Known

Recently my wife and I took a few hours off to visit a local nature preserve. You know how quiet and peaceful that can be. Imagine you’re out there in nature enjoying your walk, and talking with . . . God. That’s what Adam and Eve did, wasn’t it?

We don’t walk and talk with God the same way Adam and Eve did, but the God of the universe Who holds our very existence in His hand wants to show Himself to us as well; He wants us to know Him. He not only wants us to know Him, though; He wants us to know about Him.

Sometimes Christians will say they don’t need a lot of doctrine; they just want to know God personally, to just experience Him, without complicating things by adding all that theological gobbledy-gook. With a little bit of reflection, however, one can see how important knowing about God is to knowing God.

If my wife were to try to talk to me about her interests or desires or anything about herself, and I were to say, “You know, dear, I hate to get confused with all that information. I just want to experience your presence; I just want to relate to you personally,” you might understand if she experienced some confusion! What does it mean to “know” someone in our experience without knowing things about the person? The most it could mean is that I just want the feelings that come with being near someone I love.

My own joy in her presence, however, rests on certain knowledge about her. How much joy would any of us experience in the presence of, say, a known axe-murderer?! It’s amazing what a little knowledge can do for one’s “experience!”

Resisting any knowledge about my wife would also indicate that I don’t really have much interest in her; I’m only concerned with myself and my experience. What greater way is there to let someone know you really care and are interested than to want to learn about him or her?

Have I convinced you of the need to know about God in order to truly know God? If so, I hope you’ll invest some time in studying theology. You needn’t read a massive work on systematic theology. A writer whose work I’m benefiting from is Alister McGrath. He’s a well-respected theologian who makes theology accessible for the layperson. R.C. Sproul and J. I. Packer are two others from whose writings you would benefit. In fact, Packer’s popular book, Knowing God, would be a great place to start.

You might still be hesitant because you know that it’s possible to substitute the “knowing about” for the “knowing personally.” How can we let what we know about God feed our personal knowledge of Him? Listen to this suggestion from J. I. Packer: “The rule for doing this is demanding but simple. It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.”(1)

In this essay we’ll just touch on a few subjects of importance in knowing about God: revelation; the Trinity; God’s sovereignty; and idolatry. I hope this will be helpful to you as you continue the wonderful journey of knowing God.

The God Who Can Be Known

In a debate on the existence of God between Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland and atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen, Nielsen argued that, for the educated person, “it is irrational to believe in God.”(2) Why? Because there is nothing in our experience to refer to when we say “God” that gives meaning to the word. If we want to argue, for example, that a certain table exists, we can point to the table or we can describe it in terms we understand. Since we can’t point to God and we can’t understand what God is in Himself, we can’t talk about Him meaningfully, Nielsen says.

So, where does this leave Christians? Does it leave us with an irrational faith? Can we know about God? If so, how so?

We are able to know God because of revelation. Revelation means “disclosure.” As New Testament scholar Leon Morris says, “Revelation is not concerned with knowledge we once had but have forgotten for the time being. Nor does it refer to the kind of knowledge that we might attain by diligent research. It is knowledge that comes to us from outside ourselves and beyond our own ability to discover.”(3) The last book of the Bible is called Revelation because it reveals the plans of God which were otherwise unknowable.

Revelation is necessary because of the nature of God. He can’t be seen by us (Jn. 1:18; I Tim. 6:16; I Jn. 4:12); we can’t know his depths or His limits, Zophar told Job (Job 11:7; cf. Rom. 11:33); and no one knows His thoughts except the Spirit (I Cor. 2:11). Jesus said, “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Mt. 11:27). Thus, if God and His ways are to be known, they must be revealed by Him to us. As Deut. 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever. . .”

How has God revealed Himself to us? Rom. 1:20 says that we know God exists through what He has made (i.e., nature). We see the hand of God in the historical events recorded in the Old Testament, such as the Exodus and the establishment of Israel and the regathering of God’s people under Ezra and Nehemiah (cf. Ps. 9:16; 77:14; Eze. 20:9). Our own conscience bears witness through a knowledge of moral law (Rom. 2:15). God has made Himself known specially through Jesus and through the written Word of God (Jn. 15:15; Mt. 11:27). Recall Heb. 1:1,2: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son.”

Through revelation we know of God’s glory (Is. 40:5), His righteousness (Is. 56:1), and His righteous judgment (Rom. 2:5). We know his plans (cf. Dan. 2:28,29; Eph. 3:3-6) and what He desires of us (cf. Micah 6:8). Even the message of the Gospel is referred to as a mystery now made known (Mt. 13:35; Rom. 16:25; I Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:3-6).

If atheists like Prof. Nielsen refuse to acknowledge the reality of God, that doesn’t negate what we know to be true. Our belief in God doesn’t depend upon the confirmation of others. Besides, God has made Himself known in a tangible way in Jesus as well as in nature, history, conscience and Scripture. At the day of judgment, those who rely upon the excuse “Not enough evidence!” will be in for an awful surprise. God has revealed Himself, and we can know Him.

The Trinity

There’s probably no more baffling doctrine taught in Scripture than that of the Trinity. Christians say that God is three in one. How can that be? How can there be one God, and yet we name three persons– Father, Son, and Spirit–as God?

Attempts have been made to find some comparison in our own experience that can make this truth understandable, but they all fail at some point. Some say the Trinity might be like steam, water and ice–three forms which H2O takes. But this analogy fails because the same quantity of H2O doesn’t assume all three forms at one time. The analogy of an egg also fails because the three components–yolk, white and shell–are completely different. God isn’t three separate parts in one unit. The Bible teaches that there is only one God, and that He is unified in His being. It also teaches that there is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, distinct from one another, all existing at the same time. One being, three persons. A mystery, for sure, but not a contradiction.

Theologian Alister McGrath offers a helpful illustration. If a scientist takes a sample of air for some kind of testing, he has real air in his sample but not all of the air. He just has a sample, but he expects that what can be found in the rest of the air can be found in the sample; they are identical in nature. As McGrath says, “Jesus allows us to sample God.”(4) When people saw Jesus, they saw God. This is a better illustration, but it still isn’t perfect.

Is this doctrine important? As McGrath notes, it is the foundational reality underlying our belief that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (II Cor. 5:19). God could reach out to us effectively because He reached out Himself. It was God in Christ who acted on our behalf; it wasn’t some mere human emissary who brought us a good word from God. And it is the Holy Spirit–God again–who continues to minister in us while we wait for the glory which is to come.

The doctrine of the Trinity isn’t only a difficulty for Christians: it’s also a favorite target of critics who seek to undermine our faith by finding flaws in it. Apart from the logical question of how one God can be three persons, critics also point to the fact that it was centuries after Christ that the doctrine was formulated. They say it was an invention of the church.

It shouldn’t seem surprising that there was a delay in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. As noted earlier, it’s the theological explanation of the teaching that was present from the beginning, that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” As the church came under attack and as Christians thought through scriptural teaching, they gradually developed fuller and more sophisticated doctrines. They weren’t making up new beliefs; they were more fully explaining what they already believed.

The doctrine of the Trinity is a necessary component of Christian belief. Any description of God which doesn’t include all that this doctrine includes is inadequate. Far from being theologically burdensome, the doctrine of the Trinity is an essential part of Christianity.

The Sovereignty of God

Along with the doctrine of the Trinity, an issue that is equally baffling is that of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. The Bible indicates that God is fully in control of this universe, yet it also makes clear that we have real freedom. Our decisions are significant. Our prayers, for example, do make a difference. How can we be free and our actions be meaningful while God determines the course of history?

In recent years a view of God called the “open view” has gained a hearing among evangelicals. According to this view, “God does not control everything that happens.”(5) God often changes His plans to meet the changing situation brought about by our decisions and actions. As one writer says, “God’s will is not the ultimate explanation for everything that happens; . . . history is the combined result of what God and his creatures decide to do.”(6) Among other things, this means that God doesn’t know everything that is going to happen in the future; He is learning as we are.(7)

What do we learn from Scripture about this subject? First, we learn that God is unchanging in His being and perfections or attributes. In Malachi 3:6 God says “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” James tells us that in God “there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (Jam. 1:17)

Second, we learn that God is unchanging in His purposes. “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation,” says Ps. 33:11. In Is. 46:9-11 God says clearly that what He has planned from long ago He will bring about.

Third, we learn that God knows the future already. Is. 46:10 says He “[declares] the end from the beginning.”

While acknowledging God’s control of history leading to His own ends, we must also acknowledge that He does respond to our actions and petitions. In Gen. 6 we read that God was “grieved in His heart” that He had made man, so He acted to wipe out everyone except Noah and his family. In Numbers 14 we read of a time when God said He would wipe out the Israelites, but He relented after Moses interceded for the people.

What are we to make of this? As writer Mark Hanna has noted, we tend to make adjustments in our theology to compensate for this tension between God’s sovereignty and our free will. To do this, however, only creates problems elsewhere in our theology. What we must do is leave the tension where the Bible does.(8)

Why is the reality of God’s sovereign control important? It’s because God is unchanging in His being that we can trust Him to be “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). It’s because God has knowledge of the future which is settled that predictive prophecy is possible. It’s because God knows in advance what people will do that he isn’t blind-sided by evil. Thus we can trust Him to know what is ahead of us; our future is ultimately in His hands, not the hands of people.

Although some people have theological problems with this, for others the problem might be personal. In other words, maybe we just don’t like the idea that anyone else–even God–has ultimate control over us. For those who are truly and joyfully submitted to God, however, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and complete foreknowledge is a source of comfort, not of annoyance.

A Jealous God

In Isaiah 44 we read about a man who makes an idol from a tree. Part of the tree he worships; he calls on it to deliver him. The other part he burns for cooking and for warming himself. Isaiah 44:19 shows the ridiculousness of what he is doing with these words:

No one recalls, nor is there knowledge or understanding to say, “I have burned half of it in the fire and also have baked bread over its coals. I roast meat and eat it. Then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!”

Idolatry is setting something up in place of God. Paul sums it up in one simple phrase: “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25). Those things to which we devote ourselves and which end up ruling our lives, thus taking precedence over God, become our idols.

Writer Richard Keyes speaks of nearby idols which give us a sense of control over our lives, things as ordinary as a clean house or even a stamp collection. Keyes also speaks about faraway idols, those things that give a sense of meaning to our lives such as financial security or progress in science. Nearby idols give us an immediate sense of security; they’re substitutes for the immanent activity of God in our lives. Faraway idols give us a sense of purpose and meaning; in them we put our hope. They are substitutes for the transcendent rule of God over our world.(9)

In response to the unfaithfulness of the Israelites, God often revealed Himself to be a jealous God. “They have made Me jealous with what is not God,” He said. “They have provoked Me to anger with their idols” (Deut. 32:21). Why would God respond this way? Because first, God deserves all glory, for all good things come from Him (Jam. 1:17). And second, because created things can’t do what God can and wants to do for us. In Is. 42 we read: “Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it. . . . ‘I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images.'” (42:5-8). He is the creator and life- giver. There is no one and nothing like Him.

In contrast to this, idols are created, they aren’t eternal, and they are incapable of providing what we really need. Theologian Carl Henry brings to mind Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al when he refers to idols as “the false gods who never show.”(10) Ba’al couldn’t respond to his prophets no matter how much they shouted and danced and prayed (I Ki. 18:17-40). As the psalm writer said, “They have mouths, but they cannot speak; They have eyes, but they cannot see” (115:5). The problem is that idols by nature are not gods at all (Jer. 2:11; 5:7; Acts 19:26; Gal. 4:8). Thus it is that when such things as money or power or athletic prowess become our idols, we find that they cannot deliver us from everything that would destroy us.

We began this essay talking about the God Who would be known. To set up an idol in His place is to reject what He has told us about Himself and His desires. Today there are many other gods which call for our allegiance. We must continually recommit ourselves to the One Who won’t share His glory with others.

Notes

1. James I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 18.
2. J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist? The Great Debate (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 48.
3. Leon Morris, I Believe in Revelation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1976), 10.
4. Alister McGrath, Studies in Doctrine,(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997), 205.
5. Pinnock, Clark, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God (Downers Grove, Ill.; InterVarsity Press, 1994), 7.
6. Ibid., 15.
7. Ibid., 16.
8. Mark Hanna, Crucial Questions in Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1981), 59-60.
9. Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory,” in No God But God: Breaking With the Idols of Our Age, ed. Os Guinness and John Seel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 37-48.
10. Carl F. H. Henry, The God Who Shows Himself (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1966), 5.

©1998 Probe Ministries.