God Is Not A Monster

The_Torment_of_Saint_Anthony (1)

God Is Not A Monster
Brian Zahnd

There are monsters in this world, but the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not one of them.

Yes, Virginia, there are monsters. We have an imagination for monsters because we know of their existence. Venomous and vicious beasts were a daily peril for our earliest ancestors. Volcanoes and tsunamis can swallow whole cities. Hurricanes and tornados roar from the heavens, leaving hell in their wake. Epidemics of disease are lethal predators taking their pitiless toll. Worst of all, there are monstrosities of men — conquerors and warlords, tyrants and despots — galloping across history like ringwraiths bringing conquest, war, famine, and death. We can imagine monsters because we have met them.

But the living God is not one of them. Not the God who Jesus called Abba.

Oh, the gods are monstrous, of course they are. They are mercurial and merciless, petty and vengeful. They have to be mollified by a virgin flung into a volcano or a victim sacrificed on a stone altar. They always demand a violent and bloody appeasement…or else! But we know about these gods now, we know what they really are. They are personifications of those beasts and disasters and epidemics and wars and tyrants that frighten us so. They are deified projections of our own rage and fear. They are the desperate attempt to deal with our own sin, suffering, and shame.

The good news is that the God revealed in Christ does not belong to the category of Mars and Moloch, of Ares and Zeus. These are the false gods of our frightened and shame-laden imaginations. The Creator God, the One True God, is not vengeful and retributive like those gods of the primitive pantheon. In his triumph Jesus put these petty and vindictive gods out of business. It’s only their fading ghosts that haunt us today.

In the dread of night we may be tempted to think that the true God shares the fearsome attributes of the vanquished monster gods. In our horror we imagine how Scripture confirms our nightmares. In our terror we may use the Bible as a pallet to paint a macabre and monstrous image of God. But then the day dawns and we hear Jesus say, “It is I. Be not afraid.” (John 6:20) With the dayspring of Christ the terrors of night fade away. Jesus is perfect theology. And Jesus saves us from our primeval nightmares about the divine. The hands of God are not hurling thunderbolts. The hands of God have scars — they were nailed to a tree as he forgave monstrous evil.

“I no longer fear God, but I love him. For love casts out fear.”
–Saint Anthony the Great (251–356)

I agree with Saint Anthony. I am also well aware that some will vehemently protest Saint Anthony’s words and my agreement with them. (Beware the comment section!) Nevertheless, I agree with the great saint because this has been my experience as well. For many of us, a dread fear of God may be the only place we can begin our journey. It’s how we first take God seriously. But it’s only the starting point and we must not stay there. So, yes, I understand the Bible commends the fear of God, and I do too…but only as a preliminary beginning. God desires us to grow beyond the rudimentary beginning of fear.

“God is love. And all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. … Such love has no fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” –The Apostle John (1 John 4:16–18)

What I fear is not God, but the suffering my sin can inflict on myself and those around me. The malevolent consequences of sin are very real. But I’m not afraid of God. I used to be, but I am no longer. I am no longer afraid of God because I have come to know God as he is revealed in Christ. I have come to know that God’s single disposition toward me is one of unconditional, unwavering love. The knowledge of God’s love has made it impossible for me to be afraid of God.

You may think such language is reckless. It is not. The peace of no longer being afraid of God has been hard won. It has come from relentlessly seeking to know God as he is revealed in Christ. It is not the result of a liberal, sloppy, pick-and-choose theology. Rather, it is the result of pushing through the dark outer courts of the fear of God into the holy of holies where the love of God shines eternally and dispels all darkness. After years of praying, meditating on the Gospels, and sitting with Jesus in contemplation, I am simply no longer afraid of God. Maturing love is driving out fear.

God is not a monster. There are monster god theologies, but they are mistaken.

Accusation and scapegoating, the ravages of war and the wages of sin, these are monsters. The cruel vagaries of chance — until they are tamed by Christ in the age to come — may fall upon us as monsters. But God is not a monster. God is love. Jesus reveals this to us. If we move against the grain of love we will suffer the shards of self-inflicted suffering — and we can call this the wrath of God if we like — but the deeper truth remains: God is love.

So don’t sit in the dark with the tormenting idea that God somehow harbors malice and ill-will toward you. It’s all a cruel fiction. Turn on the light of Christ and realize that the monster you imagined does not exist. Who exists is Jesus. And he is the one who says to you, “It is I, be not afraid.”

BZ

(The artwork is The Torment of Saint Anthony by Michelangelo, 1488.)

st-anthony-the-great-3

  • Jesse Ireland

    It blows my mind that we would want to continue to worship a God who has our violent, vengeful, and retributive tendencies rather than a God who looks just like Jesus. Thanks for the post and the reminder that Jesus is indeed perfect theology.

  • Thanks, Brian. “God is not a monster. God is love. Jesus reveals this to us.” Yes! Jesus lies at the heart of God’s self-revelation.

  • “Oh, the gods are monstrous, of course they are. They are mercurial and
    merciless, petty and vengeful. They have to be mollified by a virgin
    flung into a volcano or a victim sacrificed on a stone altar. They
    always demand a violent and bloody appeasement…or else!”

    It’s amazing to me that I was every able to simultaneously believe this about God while also believing he was loving and good.

  • Aaron Kunce

    Wonderful.

  • If there something I’ve noticed about ‘monster god theologies’; is that they cannot stare blindingly in the light of the Son…Jesus the Messiah. There MUST be an appeal to the “God behind God”; to the shadow and not the light source. I think this “shadow gazing” can often take the form of flat readings of Scripture that fail to submit to light revealed in Christ. I regrettably see it all the time. It brings a sadness to my soul whenever the shadows rear their ugly heads under the guise of their “ism’s”.

    Yet, the moment we begin to read Jesus as the definitive revelation of what God is like, the shadows can scarcely exist. And in this I hope…. that those who are willing to stare into the blinding light of the Son will experience the end to all their shadows & all monsters.

  • Ryan Flanigan

    This reminds me of a beautiful poem recently penned by a retired priest in our parish reflecting on Psalm 2:

    (verse 1)
    The lordly ones who seem to rule the seen and unseen realm
    Hold goodness, truth and beauty as constraints to be erased,
    So they, unhindered by any other will, may take the helm
    And be the gods of all that they would grow or see abased.

    (verse 2)
    You, dear Son, were my darling One long before creation.
    Through you I made rule and ruler both, stood them in the light.
    Your almighty sway is bounded only by your holy mission
    To cleanse from sin, give life, and be my image in plain sight.

    (verse 3)
    Your scepter shall be gentle kindness to the lowly and meek,
    But to the loud and proud you dole frustration and defeat.
    Your rule shall be invisible, seemingly absent, even weak
    Until you come again to place all things at your Father’s feet.

  • Wes

    I am in total agreement that we must not fear God as a monster who will destroy us but we must balance this with the importance of a healthy fear and reverence of God.
    Solomon said in Prov 9:10
    The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
    and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
    That is a holy awe and reverence of Almighty God.

    As you have indicated, we need to stay away from sin because there are consequences to sin.
    Jesus said in Luke 12:5
    But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

    I appreciated your post and completely agree that God is love and perfect love casts out fear. The important thing is that we balance this with a holy reverence of His supremacy.

  • Wes, I’m no fan of lobbing individual and isolated bible verses like doctrine grenades, but in this case, why not extend your Luke reference 2 more verses?

    “Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. Indeed, the hairs of your head are all counted. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows!”
    ‭‭Luke‬ ‭12:6-7‬ ‭HCSB‬‬

    It’s as if the text says – fear the one who COULD throw you into Gehenna. But he’s not like that. This is one who cares for sparrows, so don’t be afraid.

    Nevertheless, there are plenty of places where such a neat and tidy resolution is elusive. Where a sense of fear as FEAR (and not a pious reverence) is what is presented. I can’t pretend otherwise.

    Without Jesus I’d be inclined to think that God is a monster. Even WITH Jesus, there are texts that seem to confirm my worst nightmares. Trying to harmonize or explain such things away is exhausting, often intellectually dishonest, and/or can be ethically dangerous rendering words like “love” and “justice” as meaningless.

    Brian Z, I’m grateful for the way that you stand boldly in defiance of the monster god in full confidence that God is good…and that good really does mean “good”. I need to hear it. Gives me hope that the same could happen for me. Because it hasn’t happened, save a few rare and fleeting moments. Perhaps you’ll write in depth someday about what that journey was like.

  • Thank you, Mike. And I have written in depth on my journey — a book called Water To Wine. It should be out early next year. More information very soon. Blessings! -BZ

  • Excellent! Look forward to it.

  • Nita Steiner

    So beautiful! Thank you, thank you!

  • Hugh D. Young

    Me neither……..After 7 years of ‘killing myself to drop any and all rights to my own ideas,views,hopes,dreams,and just grow up,get over myself,quit fussing with God,quit asking questions,and just OBEY’ as I repeatedly heard in the church…..I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to hell,and walked away./

  • Ben

    Brian,

    How can you get to that point? I feel like I’ve been trained and taught to fear. I appreciate you challenging me to think different, I just don’t get how to actually get to that point. I’ve been on a journey trying to see how this is true and practical. But my circumstances and life give proof to a God who should be feared, or else it’s Hell that i will have to pay. I believe that scripture is truth, but the evidence I continue to see proves otherwise. I guess I’m at a point where I feel God is circumstantial; he loves me when I’m good and do good things, but when I’m not I’m cursed and bad things happen. I’m stuck…

  • Daniel Otto Jack Petersen

    Hi, Brian. Thanks for this really great article. I wrote something of a response to it on my blog, mostly a suggestive little case for ‘holy monsters’.

    http://theophilustheologue.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/is-god-monster-no-and-yes.html

    I feel our perspectives are not mutually exclusive. I wonder if you’d agree. Thanks again for this wise and helpful article. Take care.

  • Chadlh

    I’ve been in your shoes. That way of thinking has been so ingrained in us. Unfortunately it’s been “the accusers” (Satan) best way to trick us. To love out of fear is not to really love at all. It took me a while as well. Once that weight was lifted off shoulder my shoulder I felt a closeness that I had never felt before. I knew He was holding my hand through the difficult times

  • Amen.

  • Concourse D

    Here’s verse 17 of John 4;16-18, the part contained in the “…” of the quote above:

    “And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.” (NLT)

    and in the NASB, which is a little more literal:

    “By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world.”

    Any thoughts on the “day of judgement”?

  • This may be of no help, but it did help me a lot.

    There was a fundamental shift in how I saw and related to God when I stopped seeing God as the one who causes the trauma. Rather God is the one who can redeem the trauma. I think of scriptural ideas like God being with us as we walk through he valley of the shadow of death or though it was meant for evil God uses it for good.

    All of those make it really clear that terrible things will happen. Death will come to my life and evil will be done to me. But it wasn’t done by God. Instead God will be there with me and in some way, if I lean into the way of Jesus, draw beauty out of my brokenness. He will take my scars and use them for healing others and as I help others I get to participate in the redemption of my brokenness with God, in partnership.

    God doesn’t punish us with hell so much as we choose to live there and experience it’s consequence in our life when we choose not to love, not to be Christ like. Rather than worrying about running from hell or this monstrous side of God and doing just good enough to earn love, we do better to simply run to Christ. To mediate and practice being more like him and in so doing, we leave whatever hell is there farther and farther behind as we get close and closer to Christ.

    It’s in some way a question of motives. Do I follow Christ to avoid helll or do I follow Christ because His way brings life and beauty and depth in a way nothing else does?

  • Mike E

    I agree that God is love and revealed himself to use in his life and death on earth. I’m 63 and have been a Christian since childhood, but the accidental death of my toddler son in 1989. I went through a period of bitterness that was only made more confusing by the God-ordered slaughter of children recorded in the Old Testament. I finally reached a point where I concluded that, perhaps, the Old Testament prophets and authors had mistakenly attributed some things to God when the Old Testament was written. But that brings me to this question: does that make one who rejects the portions of the Old Testament that, some might say, portray God as a vengeful, child-killing Monster, does that make one a practitioner of “New Marcionism?” N.T. Wright, whom I discovered on this blog, was interviewed and the resulting article is entitled: “Tom Wright Skewers the New Marcionism.” I love, and want to love, a God who revealed Himself in Jesus, and a Jesus who died for me. But there is annoying confusion lingering in the background; a voice warning, “Careful now, you don’t want to be a heretic.” When I found this blog, I bought the book, A Farewell to Mars… and I had gone through many of the same things as Brian. I loved the book so much I gave away copies to friends. But, but, but … is there a danger of being a New Marcionist, Brian?

  • Steve Perrins

    Brian has touched on this several times. Here for example;
    http://brianzahnd.com/2014/05/jesus-trumps-biblicism-tale-sticks-stones/
    I think its much more a case of what was understood at the time and how our revelation of who God is, is made complete in Christ. That is not to criticise people in OT times for getting it wrong! How would we understand who God is without Christ? We often make a mess of understanding who God is even with the lens of Christ to look through, what would WE be like without that lens?

  • Jim Moore

    Ah yes the “day of judgement.” Here we see a much better translation from the NASB. When I took the bar exam I decided that pass or fail I would commit to doing enough that I could be confident that I was bringing my best to that “day of Judgement.” There was no fear, only a growing sense of confidence.

    The ellipsis-ed section of the verse only under-girds and reinforces the idea that as we are subsumed in God’s love we grow in confidence that at the end we will find a God that we recognize on that “day of judgement.” I love that last bit that you quoted because it is the essence of the incarnation in the Body of Jesus, the Church. “Because as he is so also are we in this world.” God is love. When we live in that we are love here.

    Finally, I would point you to the comments of the wicked servant in the parables of the talents. That servant said, in essence, I knew how bad you were master reaping what you had not sowed and I was afraid so I hid what you had given me to preserve it and return it to you.

    When we fear God and his “day of judgement,” when we hide the blessings we have in hopes of presenting a “balanced” view of God we are acting like that wicked servant.

    And really finally, the day of judgement is not the end of it all. It is the re-appropriation of all good things to the faithful. Some get a lot. Some get little. It is the start of the new heaven and earth under new management. Think of it that way. It’s not incorrect to think of it as an Olympian awards ceremony.

  • Simon B

    What a load of complete twaddle, it is true that your god is not a monster in the same way that all fictional creations from Dragons to Orks to Godzilla are not Monsters but concepts of the imagination, to dismiss all other peoples gods past and present as monsters except your own is disingenuous. Taking quotes from the bible, a work of fiction itself, cannot give any validity to your argument. The answer to the question of what happens after we die is unknowable and any attempt by the world religions to solve this is pure speculation and fantasy.

  • Simon B

    So you delete any post that disagrees with your warped world view, fascinating,you wouldn’t want any of your flock exposed to the truth, that might remove your power base. Immeasurably sad.
    Grow some balls and allow them a different insight to the world, it might lose you some followers but it would enrich their sad lives for the better. It’s all about control for you isn’t it.

  • Simon, my friend, I haven’t deleted anything.

  • Simon B

    What are you so afraid of Brian? Aren’t you man enough to enter into a rational discussion. You ‘should’ be deeply deeply ashamed of yourself. But I suspect you are just smug.

  • Bill Brown

    No, God is not a monster! But like a good coach, he’s sometimes tougher on his players than we’d like to think — not to harm, but to bring out their best.

  • Simon, what are you going on about?

  • Simon B

    So it appears that Brian doesn’t agree with the First Amendment to allow Freedom of Speech, he prefers to suppress any dissenters with arbitrary censorship if anyone has the temerity to disagree with him. Bravo Brian.

  • Simon! One more time. I’ve not censored or deleted any of your comments. They’re all right here. Seek and ye shall find.

  • I love the thoughts around not fearing God. I listen to your podcast and found it refreshing!

  • Gerald Lewis

    Simon B, You speak of Brian as if he is some sort of “Pied Piper” but he is simply presenting old ideas with a fresh perspective. One thing I know for sure, no human being can embrace what Brian offers unless he or she is prompted by the Holy Spirit. A person cannot break from the “World’s Script” unless they are looking for something new. Abraham, by the help of God, searched for a new city. We have all become like Nicodemus and Abraham. We are rethinking everything and joining Abraham in search of a new city. I love you Simon and hope you receive my words in love.

  • Simon B

    I am curious, is it Brian reading and deleting my posts or some subservient lackey with no imagination. It says ” Join the Discussion” in this box. This comments page is not a discussion it is one sided self congratulatory diatribe. ( There are some long words here so you might have to get out the dictionary to find out what they mean). I now know that you are not brave enough to communicate openly with someone who disagrees with you but you do have my email address.

  • No one has deleted anything, Simon. Every post you’ve ever made is right here for the whole world to see.

  • Janice Brantner

    We can see all your posts. Nothing has disappeared, as Brian keeps telling you.

  • Janice Brantner

    That really is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  • Janice Brantner

    Definitely read everything you can find by Brian Zahnd, and also you might like this new book which does a beautiful job of explaining away anything unloving about our Abba.

    http://www.amazon.com/All-Set-Free-Revealed-Really/dp/1498234585

  • Thanks Janice.

  • Brian Zahnd, I am unsure what could be more monstrous than eternal punishment.

    Or the phrase, “He who does not believe is damned already.” John 3

    Also, does the devil threaten to toss bowls of wrath upon the earth soon? Does the devil toss people into a lake of fire? No, apparently that’s what God/Jesus says He will do.

    Jesus also speaks about dividing families, and his teachings led to the literal demonization of anyone who believed differently throughout the whole Roman Empire and well through the Middle Ages until the dawn of the Enlightenment.

    I am also unsure you understand the in-group thinking of the early Jesus movement or the fanaticism of apocalpytic minded leaders like Paul. See these posts for instance…

    Heavenly Extortion. According to the author of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warned the world that they had better show charity to Jesus’s missionary disciples, or else. http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2015/01/heavenly-extortion-according-to-author.html

    The Gospel of John consists of “anti-language” say Social Scientists. It is not a Gospel about “loving one’s neighbor/enemies,” but about indoctrination, or in the idiom of cults, “love bombing,” and maintaining in-group thinking http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-gospel-of-john-consists-of-anti.html

    The apostle Paul, fanaticus extremus, all the symptoms of your typical religious fanatic rolled into one (Part 1 of a 2 Part Series) http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-apostle-paul-fanaticus-extremus-all.html

    The apostle Paul, fanaticus extremus, all the symptoms of your typical religious fanatic rolled into one (Part 2 of a 2 Part Series) http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-apostle-paul-fanaticus-extremus-all_11.html

  • Evan Wickham

    Great piece, both of you.

    I am reminded of the the way church of our first fathers grew:

    “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” – Acts 9:31

    Peace. Strength. Fear. Comfort. Increase.

  • Daniel Otto Jack Petersen

    Yeah, excellent point and reference, Evan. Thanks.

  • jrenee

    Brian,
    Thank you for your article. It is probably the enemy’s greatest tool to try to separate us from God’s love (by making us doubt it, not by actually doing so). I often struggle with understanding/accepting His love for me. When I think of Christ, I do see it, though; it shines through Him.
    I have a bit of a different take on the fear of God, however. I think that when we get a view of the magnificent holiness of God, his greatness and power, his self-existent being, his sovereign will, and see that he is a Consuming Fire, then we can’t help but have such an awe of him that it may look like fear. But this is not a cowering fear, or a fear that would make us withdraw. It is a fear/awe that stills and quiets the soul, erasing self-love and self-importance in light of God’s majesty. It is a loving awe when we see that he is also humble and lowly in heart, full of mercy and love for the lowly and invisible. The depths he comes down to magnifies his height. I would not move past that awe into love, The fear of God is the place where I can love him and understand his love magnificently.

  • Renee Roll

    Mike, thank you so much for being real and raw about your doubts and fears. You expressed everything I’ve felt so often! My heart goes out to you, because I know the attrition that can come from endlessly cyclical doubt and unanswered questions that strip away trust in God’s very character. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. However, I too am now convinced of that God is thoroughly good, with real, true “goodness.” The exact same thing is possible for you!! I would love to share my story with you sometime! In the meantime, here’s a couple helpful things I’ve found.

    Quote by Fyodor Doestovsky (this sounds similar to your experience, and the last line is quoted by Mr. Zahnd in another article): “I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.”

    Spoken Word called “A Shadow of A Doubt” by Joseph Solomon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeY8lndPsdE

    But there is no remedy for broken trust like encountering God and experiencing His goodness through prayer or worship. I will be lifting you up in prayer tomorrow. Keep hope alive, Mike! God is good! 🙂

  • Thanks Renee.

  • Nimblewill

    I listened to the Monster God yesterday on youtube and this is a poem I wrote several years ago.

    The Cross

    It was ugly yet beautiful.

    It was horrible yet necessary.

    It was bloody yet healing.

    It was dirty yet cleansing.

    It was vile yet pure.

    It was sinful yet holy.

    It was then yet now.

    It was them yet me.

    It was Him.

  • Tommy Li

    The god of the Old Testament, with all his psychopathic manifestations, is the fulfillment of the deep fantasy of religious conservatives (evangelicals, fundamentalists) who believe that the world is intrinsically evil, disordered and need a powerful deity to violently re-establish order through force. This is how they read the narrative of the crucifixion: the act of a violent God who demands a blood sacrifice to restore creation to its original perfection.

    When these people read the Old Testament, they get the nightmare they ask for. That’s why, any time a fundamentalist or evangelical Christian appears on any sort of news they instantly remind you of the absolute worst of humanity. That’s what that sort of religion does to someone’s soul. These people miss the radical message of Jesus. The Bible was not written by people who wanted a restoration of order, but by people who were suffering under oppression and longed and hoped for the apocalypse- the collapse of society leading to liberation. Jesus shows us that it is possible, through peaceful means, to destabilize power.

  • Stace

    Wow this is incredible. I have to admit that I been afraid, not of Jesus, and Jesus has helped me understand that God is a loving father that wants us to love him. He has shown us on many occasions in the bible the lengths he’ll go to keep the people he loves safe. The biggest sacrifice or show of love is of course is Jesus. But I didn’t fear God, except his wrath. I can’t help but fear the unseen spiritual things or ( spooky) stuff.
    I know I am protected by the Holy Spirit. My only thought on this is that, I don’t need to know. I’m sorry if this sounds strange. It maybe my imagination that is creating the fear. Does anyone have thoughts on this.

  • Tom Torbeyns

    “we know what they really are” I think they are demons. As does Justin Martyr, if I remember correctly. 🙂

  • Tom Torbeyns

    God has wrath towards unrepentant sinners. Hell is real. But He also has love and wants to save them, as can be seen in the glorious cross. 🙂