God Kills: A Review of "The Character of God Controversy"


(system) #1

It is evident from the beginning to the end of The Character of God Controversy that coauthors Steve Wohlberg and Dr. Chris Lewis hold unswervingly to the conviction that God is love. At the same time, in their effort to combat what they see as an increasingly threatening idea among Adventists that God doesn’t kill, Wohlberg and Lewis conclude with an air of finality, essentially “God is just and God kills. Deal with it.”

Armed with a Bible (King James or New King James will do), the expansive canon of Ellen White’s writings, a Hebrew / Greek concordance, a dictionary of Hebrew and Greek words, and an English Dictionary, the authors set out to firmly refute claims that God’s goodness precludes God’s killing evildoers, that God’s wrath entails handing sinners over to the consequences of their sins (implying that Satan in reality does the punishing, not God), and that mercy trumps justice in the Judgment Day. God’s justice and righteousness demands punishment of sin and God’s wrath against evildoers is active, not passive. God, while abounding in mercy, will by no means clear the guilty.

(Read more about the writing of the book in my interview with co-author Chris Lewis.)

The Character of God Controversy seeks to reconcile seemingly conflicting attributes of God’s character, describing God’s traits as a “perfect blend” of love, mercy, holiness, justice, wrath and violence. Considering a broad range of Scriptural texts and numerous statements from Ellen G. White, Wohlberg and Lewis weave together a carefully crafted depiction of a God whose diverse attributes sometimes stand in tension, but always remain in flawless balance.

Steve Wohlberg, speaker / director of White Horse Media has authored numerous books. His books tackle end-time “delusions”, the dangers of the occult and witchcraft, and his own story of a dramatic conversion from a life of drugs and “wild living” in Hollywood to a television ministry that reaches people around the world.

Dr. Chris Lewis, MD, is a surgeon at Loma Linda University. He and his wife Lela Lewis co-founded Right Arm of Love Ministries and co-host a program on the Loma Linda Broadcasting Network entitled Practical Living.

The Character of God Controversy is written in Steve Wohlberg’s voice; where it says “I,” Wohlberg is speaking. Having been trained in theology at La Sierra College, then Andrews University, Wohlberg’s formal education equips him to write such a theological treatise. However, the book, while grappling with heavy theological content, targets the layperson who is not necessarily theologically sophisticated. As the introduction clearly states, “Dr. Lewis’s and my ultimate goal in coauthoring The Character of God Controversy isn’t theoretical, academic, or cerebral. Far from it.”

In nine chapters with questions for reflection and conversation after each chapter, The Character of God Controversy lays out the case that humanity is desperately wicked, God is infinitely holy, justice demands punishment of sin, and God will actively destroy the wicked. Wohlberg, and presumably Lewis as well, subscribes to a forensic (i.e. legal) view of atonement whereby Jesus’ death on the cross pays the penalty for sin, and Christ’s perfect sacrifice and righteousness is imputed to penitent sinners.

Quoting Fox News, Wohlberg and Lewis state their goal of being “fair and balanced”. They take seriously their opponents’ positions and seek to answer each with what they consider to be fair rebuttals. In that same spirit of evenhandedness I offer what I consider to be six of the book’s fundamental strengths along with six perceived fundamental weaknesses.

Strengths

    1. Takes Scripture seriously Wohlberg and Lewis demonstrate an admirable attempt at dealing honestly and forthrightly with all of Scripture as they read it, not shying away from difficult passages. They clearly regard Scripture as God’s inspired word to humanity, and take it duly seriously.

    2. A consistent picture of God Wohlberg and Lewis carefully make the case that the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament in person and in character. Indeed, as they contend, it was Jesus who gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The most “complete, verbal revelation of God’s character” comes from Exodus 34:5-7, they suggest. All of God’s attributes present in the Hebrews’ story, they suggest, are also present in Jesus throughout the Gospels and Revelation.

    3. Asking and dealing with tough questions How can God be both merciful and wrathful? Can God be both loving and violent? Does God violate His own law? Throughout the book, the authors ask valuable, difficult questions and propose well-crafted answers to the questions raised.

    4. Clear answers from scripture People who appreciate clear-cut Bible answers to tough questions will appreciate this book. “Our safety,” the authors aver, “lies only in a plain ‘Thus saith the Lord’” (pg. 71). Some Adventists claim that wrath is only God’s allowing people to be “handed over” to the consequences of their sins or that in the Judgment God, not humanity stands on trial. The authors correctly point out that such claims fly in the face of many Scriptural passages to the contrary, and that one must account for all of Scripture, not only parts.

    5. Takes sin very seriously The authors rightly recognize the hideous nature of sin, and from it, draw their conclusions about God: “To the extent that we fail to discern the seriousness, evil, horror, and malignity of sin…to that exact extent will we fail to discern the justice of God in punishing it" (pg. 76, emphasis original).

    6. Comprehensive The Character of God Controversy surveys the key texts that deal with God’s character—justice, mercy, love, wrath, and righteousness—both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. While the book is by no means exhaustive (and is not meant to be), it covers its topic very thoroughly.

Weaknesses

    1. Oversimplification of Scripture The book shows no awareness of or attention to volumes of helpful scholarly information on biblical hermeneutics, literary genres, or biblical criticism (where criticism means careful analysis, not censure). As an example of the gravity of this omission, consider chapter 8, “When Mercy Ceases”. The chapter examines the plagues of Revelation 16, but ignores the fact that Revelation is both apocalyptic and prophetic, and that understanding those literary genres makes a tremendous difference in explaining their content and imagery. The authors employ a proof-text hermeneutic that few, if any biblical scholars would find compelling.

    2. Oversimplification of justice Wohlberg and Lewis describe justice as “How [God] relates to the guilty” (pg. 37). They go on to note throughout the book that justice demands punishment for sin. While biblical judgment certainly includes the idea of punishing guilt, the authors overlook an overwhelming number of biblical texts in which judgment has to do with defending the innocent. Throughout the Old Testament and on into the New Testament, judgment means protection for widows and orphans—help for the helpless, and defense for the defenseless, not merely punishment for the guilty.

    3. Black or white worldview The Character of God Controversy sees the world in terms of black and white, good and evil. There are those who love God and keep God’s commandments and those who hate God and break Gods commandments. One unfortunate result of this either / or thinking is the attribution of demonic influence to those who disagree with the authors. Satanic delusions (not different ways of interpreting Scripture) lie behind the idea that God does not kill.

    4. Biased response questions At the end of each chapter, the authors ask a series of questions to further the conversation. Perhaps as a result of thinking in terms of black and white, the questions presuppose the correctness of the authors’ premises and the falsehood in opponents’ views. “Why is it so important that we correctly understand [God’s] justice?” “What are some popular misconceptions about God’s wrath?” This seems least “fair and balanced”.

    5. Reliance on deuterocanonical material Throughout the book, and particularly in chapter 3, “Loyal Levites and the Golden Calf,” extra-biblical material supplements scriptural accounts to “fill in the gaps” left by Scripture. Ellen White’s writings on the story of the Golden Calf reveal that God gave all the Israelites a chance to repent, and only the ones that did not repent were killed at the hands of the Levites. The problem? It is simply not biblical.

    6. Circular logic The book relies on a line of reasoning that goes something like this: God is just and good. It is not unjust for God to kill because if it were unjust, God would be unjust, but God is just. Therefore, God is justified in killing. Or again, “‘Thou shalt not kill’ does not mean ‘Thou shalt never put anyone to death under any circumstances.’” God obviously killed, and God does not break God’s own law. “Thus, the sixth commandment cannot mean ‘You shall never take life.’” (See page 81)

For all its strengths and weaknesses, The Character of God Controversy is a valuable addition to the Adventist conversation on the character of God. For those who want to read the best Adventist arguments against the idea that God does not kill, this book is it. The authors painstakingly offer their best insights into such monumental topics as God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s wrath, and of course, God’s character. I recommend buying a copy of this book and reading it carefully with an open mind, whether you would tend to agree with the authors’ assertions or disagree.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1087