Every culture in history has had its own problems with the Bible and Christian teaching. Ours struggles especially with the violent judgments of the Old Testament, including broad application of the death penalty and Israel’s conquests of Canaan (a topic I’ve written on recently). Unfortunately, for an increasing number of Christians these days, the solution to these tough texts is to discard them. How is this justified? Here’s the argument (which, for reasons which I will make clear by the end of the post, I am labeling the love-mascot argument):
Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God.
Jesus showed in His life that He would never kill, harm, or otherwise violently judge anyone.
Therefore any portrayal of God as doing such things in the Old Testament is at best revelation made imperfect by humans.
The love-mascot argument starts from a true premise, but the second point is, well, simply not Biblical. Jesus may not have harmed or killed anyone in His earthly ministry, but that’s certainly not because He was opposed to such judgments. Consider these words of our Lord:
Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness. They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But if that wicked slave says in his heart, “My master is delayed,” and starts to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But I will show you the One to fear: Fear Him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the One to fear!
So Jesus preaches that God will very harshly judge unbelievers, even condemning them to a Hell of eternal suffering. He even uses the analogy of cutting someone to pieces. And this is the God Jesus Himself worshiped, served, prayed to, and loved. Jesus Himself believed that these acts are right and just. Also note that in the second text, Jesus—not the Father—is the one who commands this tough judgment.
Of course, none of this even counts Revelation. The book of Revelation tells of many plagues and harsh, violent destruction. This is not just the wrath of some pagan deity. This is “the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16) who was slaughtered (Rev. 5:6). The same Jesus who said “Neither do I condemn you” also “judges and makes war with righteousness” (Rev. 19:11) at the conclusion of the age.
With these terrifying pictures of the wrath of Jesus Christ, we can’t apply the love-mascot logic. It breaks down if Jesus is allowed to judge violently, which He clearly is willing to do. If Jesus is like this, we cannot simply scratch out the OT revelation of God’s painful dealings with people, because they are indeed in line with the eternal Word (John 1:1).
So on to the word “mascot.” Why do I call this argument the love-mascot argument? Because of the way progressive Christianity (a movement which generally encompasses people who use this argument) handles Jesus. Progressive Christianity, albeit with decent intentions, refuses to let Jesus be who He is. Instead, they start with a modern, Western conception of love as something which cannot involve harshness or violent judgment. Then they take the Biblical statement “God is love,” load it with such a niceness-shaped love, and apply it to Jesus in the Gospels. This culturally conditioned Jesus is then used to cut up the OT. But in all this Jesus serves the role as only a mascot of love, and “love” strictly in a very uniquely American sense.
There is more evidence for this throughout the writings of progressive Christians (I do not wish to name any in particular right now, but if you are familiar with them at all this might make sense anyway). If you read much of their stuff, you will find that they treat Christianity as simply one religion out of many. All the religions are spoken of on equal terms, with Christianity seeming to just the preference of the authors. What people do in and for Christ is often equated with what people do in the name of Mohammed or Buddha. A Christian life is given no priority or advantage over a devout Hindu life. Only some of them would be willing to say that Christianity and other religions are basically equal, but they mostly all speak that way.
This does not merely degrade a system of belief. This pulls down Jesus Christ. He is not treated as the only way to the Father, the only name by which we may be saved, or the One Mediator who is Himself God and Man. Instead, when Christianity is spoken of as though it were merely one way among many to lead a life of “love,” Jesus Himself becomes little more than a mascot of love. Instead of being our life, salvation, sanctification, and only hope, He is mostly our example, and good name to cling to in the pursuit of a loving life. Indeed, the more radical end of progressivism, which barely even deserves to be included, would even be willing to say that Christianity is nothing more than living a life of love and compassion. In this, the Son of God becomes a mere mascot.
So what do we do and say? We refuse to let modern, Western ideals of what love should be like be the last word. Instead, if Jesus is God, and God is love, we should let the actual Jesus dictate what we understand of love. The actual Jesus as we see Him through Scripture is not a mascot, but instead lives simultaneously as our Redemption and our Judgment. He is filled both with love for all people and wrath for all people. This is the kind of love which confronts us unapologetically in Jesus, and this Jesus is the means by which we have to interpret the Old Testament. Of course, in that case we should be able to accept the harsh realities of God’s judgments there, because even the Exodus plagues pale in comparison to the end of the age at which the wrath of the Lamb will be unleashed on the world. The Lamb who was slaughtered does love unto death, but those who do not join in His death will find their own much worse. This Jesus is no mere mascot of culturally restricted ideas of love. He is the one and only I AM, the uniquely exclusive path to the Father, who was and is and will be.
With this in mind, let us pray that our hearts and minds will be conformed to the image of Jesus. Let us ask the Father through His Spirit to mold our ideas of love and justice to those He Himself performs in His Son. For who has known the mind of the Lord to be His counselor? But we have the mind of Christ. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!