Tuesday 31 December 2013

God as Judge or Father?


I generally find it sorts out most problems to think of God as a Father rather than a Judge.

A Father judges in the context of Love, and He is always judging his beloved children - but a Judge (qua Judge) just applies laws in a proper societal context, objectively, and consistently.

This explains my immoveable rejection of 'legalistic' Protestant explanations - for example of Christ's Atonement; which assume that God is primarily a Judge, rather than a Father.

(I mean explanations along the lines that God - as judge - had to punish somebody for the sins of Man, and Christ took the punishment that Man deserved. This explanation does not resemble the behaviour of a loving Father in relation to his children - therefore it is wrong.)

However, Christian theology (Atonement, Salvation and Damnation etc.) is explained, and there is not fully adequate explicit explanation, the explanation must be based fundamentally in Love, not justice; in God as Father, not judge.



Matthew C. said...

Yesterday, I read a comment on a religious forum, and it really clarified this question for me.

I am convinced that God allows us to sin so that we may know what it is like to be forgiven for our sins. A God who loves those who do His Will is beautiful. A God who loves those who turn against Him, and always stands there loving, ready to forgive and assist them, that is infinitely more beautiful.

Once I read and understood that inside of my heart, I realized that all of the harshness and legalistic attempts on my part to justify myself before God and my actions, are unneeded and unhelpful. And I see that I do not need to look at others in that harsh and judgmental way, either.

He is our father, He loves us unconditionally, He forgives us all of our sins, He is there for us at all times and under all conditions, we never need to earn His love.

God allows us to go astray, because God wishes us to know the joy of returning home to Him.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Matthew C - I don't think I quite agree!

"I am convinced that God allows us to sin so that we may know what it is like to be forgiven for our sins."

I think God does not 'allow', but ultimately could not prevent us from sinning - because we are free agents.

"He forgives us all of our sins, "

Only those sins we repent are forgiven, surely? (Allowing that we may repent them after this mortal life.)

"God allows us to go astray, because God wishes us to know the joy of returning home to Him."

Fundamentally God cannot prevent us going astray, any more than he could prevent Satan from going astray - so that 'allow' does not really apply.

And I'm not sure about the business of going astray then joyfully returning; it sounds a bit too much like those pathological marriages in which violent fights are followed by make-up sex.

To my mind, going astray really is a tragedy. God really can heal us afterwards, but (like any loving Father) I am sure he would prefer if his children did not get hurt, and hurt each other, so very badly in the first place.

George said...

Without faith, it's certainly hard to comprehend. We know God is loving to sacrifice Himself for us. To also answer prayers, to provide miracles... yet not always.

It is not catholic to say God is limited, yet He seems to limit His actions. He allowed Himself to be tortured for our sake, but perhaps also a sign that we may also have to suffer terribly? To make something right, or perhaps something which must be made right in the afterlife?

Commodore said...

As ever, which primary aspect of God you see is very much a part of which side of Him you are on. His Judge aspect is terrible indeed; the blood-soaked imagery in the Bible should not and cannot be dismissed, and fear of a perfect and righteous Judgement is good and healthy...

...but He is first and foremost a Father to His own. Not that it means He's going to have us live painlessly, obviously, because He spared not His own son. But "all things" are promised to work out for the good of His children. Which is a comfort.

Bruce Charlton said...

@George - I find it does not work to say that God limits his actions as a final explanation.

This works for some things, but other things happen in the world which no Father would allow to happen to his children if it were possible to stop them - at the very least he would want to limit the intensity and duration of pain

As well as what I have read about, I have seen and sat with patients suffering severe endogenous depression, which is about as extreme a level of suffering as I can comprehend.

There is no *good* reason for it. Any good could be accomplished by a lesser degree or briefer duration of suffering. Any god that made this happen (which is to say any wholly omnipotent god) would be a torturer: a gratuitous torturer of his own children; which is about the worst thing I can imagine.

Clearly, a loving Father would not let things like that happen if they could be prevented; therefore I infer they cannot be prevented.

I really do not understand why Christian theologians have so inflexibly insisted that God is responsible for, that He *wills*, absolutely everything that happens or can happen in the universe; when it leads to the unacceptable conclusion of god-as-torturer-of-his-own-children - and that is where it does lead.

And this is not-at-all the impression we get from the descriptions of God's behaviour and interactions with humans as described in the Old Testament.

I have said this before several times, but if God is Love then he is not omnipotent. We just have to let go of this fetish about the absolute omnipotence of God; because it really does kill Christianity for so many people who see its incompatibility with a loving God and are not taken-in by the sophistry that purports to explain it away.

This is so important a perspective to hold onto, that we just have to put-up-with any theological problems it generates and to which we cannot see a solution.

Matthew C. said...

Well Bruce I think God is the Author of all existence, and you think God is just a very powerful entity inside a universe He did not create.

So I have a burden that you do not - to explain why God allows evil.

I think God allows sin / evil because a universe where He forgives sin is more beautiful than a universe where no one sins at all.

I think Jesus makes reference to this in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32)

There does seem to be a special depth of spiritual understanding in being lost, and then found, versus being righteous all along.

1 Corinthians 1:25-31 also addresses this same reality - that it is the sinners and the broken people who love God more than the always righteous, and allow Him to work through them in their hearts.

I think God forgives all our sins, but we only receive that forgiveness when we understand that they are, in fact, sins, ways we have turned away from God's love for us.

In the end, I think we have to obey God out of love rather than out of fear.

"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love." 1 John 4:18

Of course along the way, fear is an important motivator that can keep us from hurting ourselves and others, but fear does not take us into God's Kingdom of love.

Matthew C. said...

"There is no *good* reason for it. Any good could be accomplished by a lesser degree or briefer duration of suffering. Any god that made this happen (which is to say any wholly omnipotent god) would be a torturer: a gratuitous torturer of his own children; which is about the worst thing I can imagine. "

Imagine, for a moment that God IS in fact Omnipotent.

And also Omniscient.

If God is Omniscient, then God knows EXACTLY what it is like to be us. In fact I would suggest that it is the light of God's consciousness that is living "our" lives - that is, our awareness is a product of God's awareness.

In that case, it is God who is experiencing endogenous depression, being molested, tortured, as well as (obviously!) what it was like to be hung on a cross.

The question is, can all this evil, GENUINE evil, be redeemed, or not? Is there any redemption for the evil in the world?

I have faith that there is. I have seen redemption in my own life for my own failures and sins, and I trust God will redeem His Creation even with all its evils.

I am curious how you feel about Genesis 1, and Job 38? I imagine you must have an interpretation of them that does not lead to an Omnipotent God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Matthew C: "God is just a very powerful entity inside a universe He did not create"

I hate that 'just'.

"In that case, it is God who is experiencing endogenous depression, being molested, tortured, as well as (obviously!) what it was like to be hung on a cross."

Yes, that is Charles Williams point in "What the Cross means to me" -


But the immediate problem is that if God is omnipotent, how come he couldn't organize things better. To which the only answer is that God is incomprehensible.

But to a Christian God is not supposed to be incomprehensible - we are made in his image and ought to be able to understand His most basic characteristics and aims.

If God is incomprehensible about this matter, which is so vital - then we are in the position of merely submitting. How can we Love such an incomprehensible entity? We can only submit.

George said...

@Matthew - Do you propose that all suffering is caused by sin?

I think Dr. Charlton's example with endogenous depression assumes that there is no sin involved (that we can comprehend, at least), and that the person can't simply stop sinning and stop suffering... the suffering is beyond their power to stop...

So even if you do say "It's Adam's fault", why does the loving Father allow it to persist in this particular case more intensely and terribly without intervening by miracle?

David said...

@Bruce - I have reflected a great deal on this point over the Christmas period and, I feel it has allowed me to progress considerably. I have previously found myself caught in the circular argument described above regarding the omnipotence of God. Indeed I have often found myself unable to reconcile the inherent contradiction that you describe between a loving father and the obvious sufferings of human beings in this world. A suffering which, if deliberately allowed is more the handiwork of a torturer than a loving father. This observations has historically 'forced my hand' to reconcile myself with existentialism: it seems easier or better somehow to accept suffering as impersonal compared to a willed supernatural torture of some kind by a draconian judge. But if, as you describe, God is somehow unable to prevent mortal suffering, well this is a position with which I can relate to much more comfortably. In a way this mirrors human life somehow. A young child idolises its parents unrealistically when very young, but part of the process of growing up is to see a parent more objectively and with limitations. A realisation that, for me, makes me spontaneously love my parents even more as an adult *because* of the limitations. I realise this is perhaps a limited/clumsy analogy but from this perspective I find myself feeling more spontaneous desire to love God more and to help him bring goodness and love to earthly life and no longer feel too bitter/lost with regard to the obvious problem of pain/suffering. I therefore wonder why there is a reluctance to concede the necessity of limitations to God's omnipotence within certain Christian communities. It stopped me going back to my childhood religious beliefs for years, this fatal stumbling block. Thanks for helping to move it :-)

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I am delighted to hear this!

However, in this I am *mostly* acting as a conduit for Mormon theology as I understand it from the likes of Terryl Givens, Blake Ostler and Sterling M McMurrin.

MC said...


You will probably find this article interesting:


Matthew C. said...


I don't think we are going to fully understand everything until we die.

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

Our lives seem long, but they are shorter than the blink of an eye in the context of eternity.

I would suggest that we are learning something while we are here, and that what we experience in this brief blip of time will serve us as both as individuals and collectively once we leave behind the world of flesh and blood and put on our spiritual body, as St. Paul described.

David said...

@Bruce - I will investigate further the people and sources that you mention. I have to admit that I have found your posts about Mormonism have totally reversed my formally dismissive attitude of this group. A culturally enforced attitude that on closer honest, open-minded, curious investigation, appears to be totally unjustified that this group of good people are so often the centre of ridicule and suspicion. I especially like the notion that I may have chosen my human incarnation to partake as a volunteer to live a life that will deliberately fight the good fight of combating evil and doing good in a fallen world. Although I must confess I do not recall making such a difficult/perilous choice and I wonder why? Whether I can sufficiently rise to this challenge is being written with my daily life.

What is clear though is that languishing in uncertainty does not lead to any benefit for anybody. Except perhaps dark forces. And so...
I agree that there is inevitable uncertainty about what lies behind the curtain of mortal life, but to boomerang existentialism back at itself, I choose to emulate the position of Viktor Frankel and exult the primacy of my belief in free will, that I can choose to believe and, on these metaphysical assumptions, everything else hinges. I am amazed daily at how blinkered people are about this. The fact that all proofs depend on unproven premises is completely off the radar in secular scientific society. If you can choose your own assumption (in the end one must) then it seems that fundamentally,whatever happens to a human, this choice is one of the profoundest powers for such a feeble creature as man.

David said...

@Bruce - I have been re-reading my childhood bible stories again recently as an adult, in the hope that I might reacquaint myself with so many stories that I have not thought of since Sunday school long ago. It has been nostalgic in a warm way and also thought provoking. I have been reflecting on the notion of a loving God as opposed to a judging God and I must admit I have found some of the old testament stories difficult to make sense of. Specifically the story of Abraham and Isaac, when Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his best loved son and then God tells him not to do it at the last minute, knife in hand. I've found this story floating around in my head for days now and it disturbs me. I cannot understand how this is an act of a loving God rather than of tyrannical cruelty. Perhaps I have misunderstood the story but my conception of a loving God and of love per se must be false in someway or else I am really not getting something here. Can any father that urges faith to the point of breaking a commandment not to kill be loving? What truely worries me though is that such an attitude of unquestioning faith in God's commands, combined with human beings obviously variable ability to varify what is a message from God, and what is not, is a dangerous faith to have indeed if it includes taking life or the belief that God may compel it. There are many Islamic extremist martyrs that have committed themselves to an unquestioning faith in what they perceive what God wants from either personal revelation or another human authority/'prophet' and have caused obscene and terrible suffering as a result in this world. Please understand I am not trying to say that scripture is untrue or be disrespectful to those who understand it better than I perhaps do. I am just trying to understand this story better to a) determine the correct understanding/get to know the character of my personal loving father God better and b) develop discernment, to avoid making the perilous mistake of thinking God would like me personally to follow one path over another; or to mistake another persons claims of truth in knowing a revelation of what God wants individuals or groups of humans to do. History is a litany of humans getting this wrong time and time again so what is a sensible bench mark of validity? Until now I would make my own decision (ultimately free will commands a decision at a personal level) based on whether it the claimed revelation of instruction is consistent with love and loving consequences but the story of Abraham and Isaac just confuses me right now and seems like a dangerous attitude towards God using our limited/unreliable discerning apparatus is the human mind or worse God is a tryant. I increasingly believe God is a loving father so that implies something else is wrong here. Any clarification of this personal impasse would be appreciated.

Bruce Charlton said...


A few comments.

One, it is dangerous to read the Bible in terms of chapter and verse. It is not always, or usually, possible to understand the whole thing, taken a bit at a time.

Two, Abraham actually met with God - implicitly face to face.

Genesis Chapter 17

1 And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I [am] the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.

2 And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.

3 And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying,

This 'God' is (I believe) considered to be God the Son, Jesus Christ, in His pre-mortal form.

So - in terms of what lessons to draw from this, the application is only to the greatest Prophets to whom God has actually revealed Himself face to face and given instructions.

Third, this story while presumably historically true, is also probably a symbolic prefiguring of Christ's willing and *trusting* self-sacrificial crucifixion, and then resurrection by God the Father.

David said...

(I mean explanations along the lines that God - as judge - had to punish somebody for the sins of Man, and Christ took the punishment that Man deserved. This explanation does not resemble the behaviour of a loving Father in relation to his children - therefore it is wrong.)

Just re-reading some of your early posts Bruce and key word searching. This paragraph struck me as important and is *totally* the opposite of the firmly held beliefs about traditional Christian theology held by the protestant evangelical church groups I have been attending. I think it is becoming v clear to me that I cannot simply ignore the feeling of 'rightness' that Mormon theology has for me and that Romantic Christianity is a much better fit for my intuitive understanding of Christianity.

David said...

Incidentally, this post and comments is a bit of a trip down memory lane. When you met me recently you asked how long I have been a Christian for and I couldn't exactly remember the year, just the situation in which it happened and it was 2013. But I suppose, if I am honest, the feeling I have often is that actually I was already a Christian in pre-mortality and I am just remembering what I already knew at a deeper level of awareness or spiritual knowledge, but had lost that connection during mortality. The convinction is of gradually rediscovering my spiritual home and the divine plan for salvation. Can you relate to that experience?

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I don't want to make life more difficult for you unless necessary! Theological explanations don't matter to some people - but unfortunately I'm one to whom they do matter! However, if you want to be part of a church - and there are many reasons why you might - then you will have to compromise somewhere.

David said...

Haha Well I think they do matter to me but it seems possible to perhaps strike the compromise of supporting a local Church and sharing faith in Christ AND privately also being a romantic Christian. I certainly couldn't turn my back on mormanism and call it not Christian or regard certain Traditional Christian doctrines such as omnipotence as true when I know that it doesn't make sense. In a way, I am feeling unburdened in my former need to be identified strictly with a group. Instead, I feel compelled to be an individualist in my personal journey of faith. The intuition I am receiving is that is exactly what heavenly father desires and not just a blind follower of a herd.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Sounds good to me...