By Brendan Knudson
For many years, there has been a teaching which has taken a hold of Adventism which is called by moderate proponents the “Character of God” message, by extreme proponents the “non-violent God” teaching and by many the “God does not kill/destroy” doctrine. There is very little harmony across the board within the ranks of its advocates, yet it holds an allure which attracts many an honest seeker.
My involvement with this teaching began when a close friend of mine asked me a few times to “set straight” another mutual friend who was advocating it. As I spoke with him, I could never sympathize with his position and found all conversation about it extremely frustrating. I was shocked, however, to see my close friend one day announce that she had become a believer in the message. From then I decided to look more closely at it.
I have examined the writings of Elliot O'Douglin, M. M. Campbell, Fred Wright and others who have taken a more moderate approach to the subject which actually seeks to harmonize all the Scripture testimony on the subject. For a time, I was very sympathetic to these, what I thought to be “middle of the road” proponents. However, there were still some points that I didn't believe they harmonized, and I was determined to harmonize everything. However, as I began looking at other truths in the light of this, I began to see how narrow my vision was becoming and how this view left out some major considerations. I also saw the fruits of this doctrine, and how some proponents became pantheistic or even moved into Universalism.
As the clouds moved from my thinking, I saw that this doctrine was one of the most seductive ever to come to Adventism, for it touches the heart that longs to know more about the God that the Bible says “is love”. However, this doctrine, in every form I have so far seen it, is nothing but Satan, who transforms himself into an “angel of light” in a last ditch effort to deceive. Any truth must not just touch the heart, but the mind also. It must be based on reason which takes into account all of the evidence.
Because of the many and varied takes on this teaching, this will not be an in-depth review of all the tenets of these teachings. I will be addressing some of the missing “big picture” principles, base assumptions, logical fallacies, and diversionary tactics that are a large part of this teaching, whether it is from the moderate proponents or the more radical advocates. I hope that this can help qualify things for those who have in anyway found themselves dazzled by this seductive delusion.
It may sound peculiar that I begin with addressing something under this name. Unfortunately, before much discussion occurs on this subject, there emanates both an active and passive prejudice from the very terms used by people in this movement.
Let's first consider the moderate group. They call their teaching the “Character of God” message. By this very name, they imply that those who reject this teaching do not have a clear understanding of the Character of God. Coupled with quotes which say that the Character of God is the last message that is to go to the world, they claim that their understanding is that last message and that to reject it is to walk away from knowing God. This causes subconscious fear and anxiety and does not create an objective environment for discussion.
The more radical elements are guiltier of such things. They say that they worship a “non-violent God”, implying that those who do not believe as they do worship some cruel, evil god in some form. This is just a sophisticated form of name calling and is offensive to those who do not believe like them. This causes rifts and polarizes the field of discussion from the onset, albeit mostly without people being aware of it. I will deal with more name calling as it comes up in later points.
As a person who rejects these teachings, and accepts all of what is written in Scripture, I can with confidence say that I worship a God of immense love. I have no fear of Him, and I know He thinks only beautiful and wonderful thoughts towards me and every person ever born on this earth. Whatever actions He has had to take, He is a God of unchanging love and this principle of love directs all those actions. However, and this is the important thing, how we define such things as love, good, etc. will have a large bearing upon this discussion.
Even more than the last, this section causes the biggest ruts when this subject comes up. I have seen people fall into these ruts and try and drag people down with them and you can't talk logically to them as long as they are there. People become blinded to their preconceived definitions.
It is like this: Instead of starting with a Biblical definition of what “love” or “good” is, they define it according to their human wisdom and experience and then apply that definition throughout the subject. For instance, if someone has had a painful past, they might equate pain = bad . Therefore God would never cause pain, because good = not pain . But a surgeon sometimes has to cause pain to heal, and sometimes to pull someone up on something, pain (either physical or emotional) often occurs. Even in nature, there is an indicator of this; a seed needs to die to bring life, a baby is a joyful thing, but there is pain for it to be born. Sure, pain is a result of sin, not of God, but pain ? sin . Just as a surgeon who needs to remove shrapnel needs to cut it out, so God has had to use methods He would not have needed to use to excise sin. This does not mean that He stoops to the level of evil. It means that while evil exists, the playing field is different. That is why we read of a “strange act” of punishment when God removes sin or deals with it.
There is a subtle form of pantheistic logic in this, which goes: “Everything is God, therefore it is just as evil to kill a cancer as it is a person”. They start out with an assumed definition, therefore they can only reach their intended conclusion. This is extremely flawed reasoning.
If one reads of what God says of Himself, Who is love, we note many beautiful characteristics followed often by a side note which explains how this operates in the context of a sinful world, as with the following:
Exodus 34:6-7 “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.”
There are many undefined terms that come into play with this teaching. One would do well to examine each step of logic, for God is not just a God of love, but of reason and wisdom. We now move into another assumption which drastically alters the playing field.
This is one which really boils my blood. In reality, those who believe the extreme side of these teachings are casting judgment about God. They have arrogantly trudged onto holy ground with muddy boots. If you read their writings, you cannot but come to this conclusion. “When God says ____ He really means ____”. “God could not have done ____, could not have commanded ____”. Who are we to put God in a box? This is deadly!
One of the common cries is that “God doesn't change”, such verses as “I am the Lord I change not” and “in Whom is no variableness neither shadow of turning” and “Jesus the same yesterday, today and tomorrow”. These statements are over applied in a way that is very narrow and judgmental.
When God says He doesn't change, what does He mean? Does it mean that He always acts in the same way? Does it mean His attributes, His character, His roles or His actions? Any of the above? The short answer is that it is His Character doesn't change, not these other things. If you look at Christ, He never healed a blind person the same way twice. God's actions are subject to change, He takes on different roles at different times, but the principles that underlie His actions and roles never changes.
Coupled with this is that while God doesn't change, the environment He works in and the people He works with do. He deals with people at the level they are on, constantly drawing them to Him. The logical result of over-extending these things about God is legalism. God said “such and such” therefore it always must be. While we must be careful not to throw out something that is eternal (principles), we must not insist that something must always be applied in the same way in every circumstance.
I have mentioned the “moderate” and “extreme” views a number of times, but I want to make clear that I have not seen a moderate view that does not logically lead to the extreme views. The extreme views of this teaching are just taking the next logical steps that are demanded by the “moderate” advocates. Neither side can make much progress without either reinterpreting or throwing out some Scriptures.
Now I have had discussions with some who hold to the extreme positions and tried to establish a workable foundation. Those in extreme positions tend to use parts of the Bible to cast doubt on other parts of the Bible. If only we could have one stable platform to work from, we could have a profitable discussion. I have been first of all directed to the “teachings and example of Christ”. At first I didn't point out that this is FOUND in the Bible, which is under question, but I went ahead anyway. After pointing out things that were in these teachings and examples that were contrary to their ideas, I was told that all that must be tested by the Ten Commandments (which is a transcript of God's character), after showing them internal and implied evidence regarding law which also undermined their position I was told that, “well it just doesn't seem right to me to …”
And this is where the crux of the matter lies. This doctrine is built upon what seems right to a person. Now I will say this. The people who have said this are quite moral, well-meaning people. However, they are not on a foundation that they can reason intelligently from. I told this person that I cannot reason from what “seems right to him”, since that is completely subjective.
If the situation weren't so serious, it would almost be laughable that people would use the Bible to undermine the Bible only to draw their ultimate conclusions from that which they have just uprooted.
There is also some name calling that comes from these people regarding this matter. They will say that they do not “worship the Bible” and that those who insist on taking their doctrine from the whole of Scripture deify the Bible, or even people like Moses.
The moderates, as far as I am aware do not resort to this sort of thing. Nor do they throw out statements that they cannot explain. I have seen that they tend to just shrug and say, “well there is more study to be done” or “those things are mystery”, or speculate as to how a certain judgment could have occurred in a naturalistic way. This detracts from God's power. It is inconsistent to defend Miraculous events like the creation of the earth, God's healing works, Christ's resurrection, etc while attributing a naturalistic cause to such things as the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah and judgments on Nadab, Abihu, Dathan, Abiram and Korah, etc. This teaching subconsciously gives weight to evolutionary speculations.
Misunderstanding of Sin
While I say “misunderstanding” of sin, it is often that sin is totally left out of the equation in these considerations. Sin is personified almost to the point of a dualistic force opposing God. However, in nature, we have much to tell us about sin's nature. You can measure light, but not darkness, heat but not cold. Darkness is just an absence of light, cold an absence of heat. They are nothing in themselves. Sin is the absence of love, and God is love. God is also life. Therefore, to be absent of God is to be absent of life. Sin does not actively destroy, it just makes one absent of life.
As soon as sin entered, or someone separated from God, they by rights should have ceased to exist. However, God knew that with free choice, there would need to be room for a choice. He sustains those who commit sin, through mercy, that they might have room to choose Him. He sustains those who lead others to sin, for a time, so that the choices may be based on reason and love, and not fear. There is some truth to the tenet of the people who advocate these beliefs that God finally allows the consequences to meet up with them, but that involves a direct action. Sin has no power to actively destroy, as only God can create or uncreate. Logically, this leads to dualism, personifying sin to an “anti-God” rather than what it is, an absence of Him.
But what of sin being ignored? Well, in speaking of God's character, after assuming that God is all good and not at all bad according to their own definitions, the next step to think that God can't hate. It is true that He hates no person, but what of His thoughts about sin? God even loves Lucifer, but He hates sin with perfect hatred. He has given everyone ample opportunity to separate themselves from sin, but in the end, sin is something God will actively and decidedly remove from existence. He will wipe it out, never to return. Those who cling to it at this appointed time will be destroyed with it.
I probably should deal with something that comes up in these discussions. There are quotes which say similar to this: “God destroys no man, man destroys himself”. We have to consider, “what point of view is this coming from?” Is it from the point of view of the cause, or the action that is being spoken of here? These are two completely different perspectives. The answer, taking everything in harmony, is that God does not cause people to be destroyed, they are destroyed on the basis of their own decisions and choices. But when He destroys sin, those who have so identified themselves with it will be destroyed with it.
The Nature of Law
Much of the debate in the extreme positions revolves around the issue of whether a loving God could command people to kill. This is something the moderate's largely ignore, partly because they do not have much explanation for it, and partly because they seem to be somewhat torn between the consistency of the radical positions (which claims all Bible records God's dealings in war and capital punishment are uninspired) and a desire to still hold to the Bible. This question centers on the Law.
Firstly, the same ignorance is shown in defining the 6 th commandment as was used in defining love. The word in that commandment speaks of willful murder and must exclude capital punishment because in the explanation of those Ten Commandments, in Exodus 21-23, death was often mentioned as the punishment for their breaking.
Law, by its very nature, implies punishment for it's breaking. Otherwise, we would call them the 10 Suggestions, or the 10 Pieces-of-Advice. In the end, those who misunderstand the Law are as guilty as the Pharisees of interpreting it according to their own wisdom and they diminish its ultimate value as the transcript of God's character.
Those who are shocked that God would bring judgment to take the life of a person, or even command that nations be killed have missed something very important. There shouldn't be a first and then second death. There should have only been one, permanent death for sin. The probationary time each person has to choose between life or death is a gift from God that is undeserved. In His mercy, He allows us this time, and since it is undeserved in the first place, how dare we question Him for ending it.
To deny this is arrogance. This life is not a right. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Again, this is passing judgment upon God. One thing which bothers me a lot about this is that we presume, maybe even without knowing, omniscience. God knows all hearts and when we only have a small record of things such as the Bible, and we cast doubt even on that, how are we to say that such-and-such an action was not just? Do we know more than God?
Protection of His People
God's love is minimized by those who believe God doesn't bring judgments to people, because they take away that part of Him which protects His people. The Bible shows clearly that we each have a cup, which, when filled with iniquity, brings the punishments of God upon us. God's forbearance does not always extend past this time. If we are openly attacking His people after we have moved beyond repentance we can expect Him to protect His children by whatever means necessary.
To claim that some of the judgments came from Satan or natural causes they must resort to extreme speculations, especially when there are statements saying that they came direct from the hand of God. Why would Satan destroy his best agents in the early Church (Ananias and Sapphira), or bring down nations which were strongholds of his power (Egypt, Assyria)?
Very few have a concept of Corporate Accountability today. When God gave man responsibility for this earth, it wasn't a play-act. The truth is solemn: Leaders are responsible for those they lead; Fathers are responsible for their families, etc. God knows the hearts of individuals, and we need to trust Him on that (questioning Him in these things is lack of faith in His love). If God has determined in the past to wipe out an idolatrous nation which Satan may have roused to harm God's faithful, Corporate Accountability comes in, but God still knows the heart. It is presumption to cast judgment on events of thousands of years ago from the vantage point of today. All this shows a lack of faith in God, His love, His word and His mission to save.
By Their Fruits.
Many other considerations could be given regarding this teaching, but some of them are specific to the varying differences between proponents. After examining the differences in teachings, I have found the following:
All that I have personally had anything to do with do not discuss this matter with an attitude of love that you would expect, given their beliefs, but come across hostile, divisive and even arrogant.
Some major proponents have gone into Universalism (God is so loving He'll save everyone), these include Mike Clute and Lorraine Day.
Some have thrown out the sacrifices, circumcision and other things they deem “barbaric” and compile “evidence” that they came from Paganism, rather than Paganism being a perversion of the truth. The result of this is that the sacrifice of Christ was made of none effect.
I have heard one go on to claim that the reason there have been martyrs is that they didn't have faith in this understanding of God's love and that if they had, they wouldn't have died.
Some have advanced pantheistic ideas.
Yet this teaching is a seductive and alluring one, purely because it appeals to a heart that wants to know God, or which has been hurt by the painful results of living in the last generation of a cursed, sin-filled world. Perhaps the quotes best suited to attach to this doctrine are those which highlight Satan's final deceptions… And No Marvel! For Satan Himself is transformed into an angel of light!