“The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God” is the title of a book by prolific author D. A. Carson, professor of New Testament studies at Trinity Evangelical Seminary. I will summarize the direction and purpose of the book and then point out some startling statements made by Carson himself in relation to his perspective on the love of God.
Why is the doctrine of the love of God deemed “difficult” by Carson? His title definitely evokes our curiosity. What could be easier to understand than the concept of “God loves you”?
Carson begins the book by reminding us just how confused the world has been over the concept of divine love. But, he admits, so has the Church. God’s love has been “abstracted” from His sovereignty, holiness, wrath, providence and personhood to form a god who is nothing more than a sentimental mirror of our own emotions.
Next he laments post-modernism as the cause of a pluralistic image of divine love that accepts all no matter what, watering down the potency of true authentic love and blurring the definition of God as love. In addition Carson shows how the problem of evil (theodicy) exposes the “love of God” as a difficult doctrine to swallow since we all might ask: how can God be loving and just when He permits so much evil? Finally he concludes this introduction to his first main point by saying that the Church has been responding to these difficulties by portraying the love of God as easy and obvious when it is not. (pg 15-16)
We would have to agree with all that Carson has had to say thus far although we would disagree as to the reasons for why it has been so difficult for the world and the Church to grasp. We would contend that the reason the concepts of God’s “sovereignty,” “wrath” and “holiness” have been abstracted from His love is because the traditional view of the Church has loaded these concepts with unbiblical freight. Rather than these words representing a sovereign holy God who is also our Father committed to restoring us to His image by “destroying the works of the Devil” and “making all things new” they have come to represent the threat of judgment as hopeless eternal torture by a “Consuming Fire.”
But we assert that a Consuming Fire who refines and makes “all things new” is very different from a Consuming Fire whose purpose is to retaliate with his fire of eternal conscious torment with no redemptive purpose.
The first view of God as a Consuming Fire can be held in holy reverence and awe while the latter must be edited or blocked from the psyche so as to preserve sanity. This blocking from one’s mind is the reason we believe that the healthy warnings of judgment in Scripture, poisoned with eternal conscious torment, have been dismissed leading to the embracing of a god of no judgment. It has come down to a matter of survival. It’s the natural human response to protect one’s psyche and mind from exposure to a reality that has the potential of pushing one over the edge from sanity. No one has the ability to dwell on the concept of eternal conscious torment and remain stable. That is why most do not. But this has resulted in the unconscious dismissal of any passages alluding to judgment, accountability, or the “fire” because they have become synonymous in our minds with eternal conscious torment.
And there you have a very good reason why we think the world (and the Church) seldom take the warnings about judgment very seriously and gravitate to a more nebulous and vague sense of love. If Biblical judgment equals eternal conscious torment then we dare not entertain ANY notion of judgment. Psychologically we just can’t.
Eternal conscious torment is not a good motivator.
Do you not find it puzzling how the members (and leaders) of the Church, the purveyors of this doctrine, have failed to find eternal conscious torment a sufficient “deterrent” against sin? If this doctrine is such a necessary doctrine to preserve a sense of God’s holiness and give Christians a holy incentive to not sin then why does the Church have such a blemished reputation for hypocrisy instead of authentic holiness, love and grace? We believe it is because they really can’t believe in an eternal hell of torment and therefore don’t think about it and when the Bible actually warns us,”The Lord will judge HIS PEOPLE,” it is disregarded as not really applying to them since we are “saved” from judgment and eternal hell.
We believe that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment has led the world and the church into a general reactionary state against any reference to “judgment” or “God’s justice.” To illustrate how this plays out let us compare this with the image of an abused child. The child, accustomed to the threat of abuse, flinches whenever anyone tries to reach out to him. This is much like the reaction by the world and the Church towards any reference to judgment interpreting it as synonymous with eternal conscious torment. It is so off the charts of reality and our ability to psychologically assimilate that we must “put up our hands” and block any reference to judgment in order to cope. One reaction has been to demand a grace-centered message where references to judgment are not tolerated and “legalism” is the accusation for any mention of obedience to God. But mostly people flinch, duck and eventually run…far from the Church and its adherents.
Next, on to the heart of the book as we address and interact with D. A. Carson’s actual statements regarding the “difficult doctrine of the love of God” in D. A. Carson: Making God Two. We will display how Carson, when you put his statements and arguments together, actually forms a stunning panorama of the universal redemptive purposes of God!