At our house, the winds blew at speeds approaching 120 miles per hour and sustained that rate for more than half an hour, breaking trees off like matchsticks and laying one venerable mulberry tree on our kitchen roof. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a mere 30 minutes away, the National Weather Service estimated winds exceeded 100 miles per hour.1 It was, everyone agreed, an “act of God.” Interesting term, that. Looking up the definition of the term act of God, one finds a horrific list of catastrophic events, including lightning strikes, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Such a list brings to mind Mark Twain’s comment about the “ghastly compliments” we often pay God.
And surely these disasters can be appalling. On December 26, 2004, more than four miles beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean, the Burma plate, a gigantic piece of the earth’s crust and uppermost mantle, shuddered, scraped, and slipped about 80 feet to the southwest, tilting upward perhaps as much as 60 feet. Compared to the earth’s diameter of 8,000 miles and circumference of 25,000 miles, these were minuscule movements, but they unleashed a tsunami that reached as high as 100 feet, and within the space of an hour, nearly a quarter of a million people died as a result. Calling this an act of God leads many to ask, “If God is a loving Father, why does He allow such things? Or does God even exist?”
acts of God
It’s tempting to simply say, “These aren’t really acts of God.” But that won’t eliminate the problem. Because, as frightful as that event was, the Bible speaks of a universal flood, for which God Himself took responsibility: “I am going to put an end to all people. . . . I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth” (Genesis 6:13). In fact, the Old Testament records many acts of violence committed or commanded by God.
A few more examples from the Bible: God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone; devastated Egypt with numerous plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn sons; commanded execution for violation of many of His laws; and had bears attack boys who made fun of Elisha, and there are more. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that many are repulsed by this portrait of God—the same God who is called “Father.”
In contrast, many who are horrified by the God of the Old Testament find Jesus, as pictured in the Gospels, irresistible. Jesus heals the sick repeatedly, feeds the hungry, restores sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the mute. On more than one occasion, He raises the dead, and He even rescues a poor anonymous couple from embarrassment at their wedding feast in the tiny town of Cana. Even as He is being tortured to death and mocked by his enemies, He says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The Bible points out that Christ died for us while we were still His enemies (Romans 5:8).
In fact, speaking of the Cross only appears to heighten the contrast between Jesus and the God of the Old Testament. The Bible makes it clear that Jesus, the Son, died for us—for our sins. And many describe this—what theologians call “the atonement”—as God taking out His anger at sinners on His own Son. “What kind of father would do that?” they ask. “If the Father wants to forgive sinners,” they ask, “why doesn’t He just do that? And why would He demand that His own Son die?”
Jesus and the Father
It appears that the contrast could not be more marked between the authoritarian and wrathful Father God of the Old Testament and the kind, loving, and forgiving Jesus of the New Testament. Yet Jesus Himself, on the night before His crucifixion, tells His disciples, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Really? How can that be? They seem so different.
This apparent contradiction concerning the nature of God causes many to reject the Bible—and the God of the Bible—without bothering to investigate further.
In his book How to Think About God, the late philosopher Mortimer Adler proposes a framework for understanding God. And by this he means the concept of a supreme being, not the God of the Bible. He does not define God because he says that a definition is a limitation, and he wants to leave open the idea that God is infinite. Since to define is to limit, that would be a contradiction in terms when applied to an infinite God. To overcome this difficulty, Adler provides what he calls a “definite description” of God. While not limiting God, this definite description can only apply to God. His definite description? “That which nothing greater can be thought of.”
Adler acknowledges that some people think of God as a force, something like gravity or electricity, and not as a personal entity. But then he points out that a person is greater than a mere force, and therefore God must be in some sense personal. I mention this because persons are complex beings. And this complexity seldom manifests itself more completely than in parent-child relationships. And that is precisely how God describes Himself: as our Father.
a good parent
Good parents love their children, but that doesn’t mean they always act in ways that the child understands or perceives as good. Parents do this not because they are attempting to be cruel to their children; they do it because they want the children to remain safe, become self-reliant, and mature into healthy adults. The New Testament—leaving Jesus’ own statements regarding His Father completely aside—testifies that God is a faithful parent. In Hebrews, we learn that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son” (Hebrews 12:6). In Revelation, the One described as “The Faithful and True Witness”—a title attributed to Jesus Himself—declares, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (Revelation 3:19).
This shouldn’t surprise us because Jesus continually claims that He is just like His Father. He even says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Perhaps even more unexpected, Jesus says that, in doing all of those loving and gracious acts we find so attractive, He is simply emulating His Father. “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in the same way” (John 5:19, NASB2). Look at that closely. Jesus says not only that the Father does wonderful things but also that He
(Jesus) does them in the same way.
This certainly sounds good, but we should find some evidence of this gracious God in the Old Testament. As it turns out, there’s plenty.
In the book of Hosea, God tells the prophet to marry a prostitute. Despite Hosea’s loving intentions, his wife continually falls back into her old ways. God says that this is what His relationship with Israel is like. Israel keeps committing adultery and keeps going after other gods. Does this make God angry, wanting to punish Israel for unfaithfulness? Quite the contrary. He yearns for reconciliation:
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused” (Hosea 11:8).
The prophet Zephaniah says of God, “He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17, NKJV).
Jesus volunteered for the cross
“Wait a minute,” you might say. “What about all the passages about God’s anger?” Fair question. But when you look into it, God is angry at sin. Aren’t we all? When we see the innocent suffer or see evil causing misery and death, aren’t we outraged? And if God loves us, how could He not be angry when we suffer needlessly? If He stoically watched the horrors sin brings on us, would we think that evidence of His goodness? I know I wouldn’t.
Still, in the end, there’s the Cross and the question of the atonement. Why did a loving Father demand His Son’s painful death? As it turns out, that’s not what happened at all. Jesus left no doubt about it. “I lay down my life for the sheep. . . . No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:15–18). Jesus volunteered for the cross. The Father was not taking out His anger at us on His Son. Rather, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19, NKJV).
Notice that God was not reconciling Himself to us. He has always loved us, but we have listened too long to Lucifer’s lies, and we doubt God. On the cross, Father and Son demonstrated that God would rather die than let us go. When we recognize that love, we can be reconciled to Him.
John, the beloved disciple, begins his Gospel by telling us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind” (John 1:1–4).
In his commentary on this passage, William Barclay tells us, “Sometimes we tend to think of God as just and holy and stern and avenging; and we tend to think that something that Jesus did changed God’s anger into love, and altered God’s attitude to men. The whole New Testament tells us, and this passage of John especially tells us, that God has always been like Jesus.”3
a loving Father
In all of the New Testament, only one parable depicts God as our Father, and it’s found in Luke 15. The father in the parable of the prodigal son represents God the Father. In that parable, the rebellious son who has run away from home and squandered his inheritance comes trudging back, hoping, as he tells us, to be received as a servant. The father, the parable tells us, sees this ungrateful and rebellious son returning from a great distance. And the father’s response? He runs out to embrace the penitent son.
This is the loving Father that Jesus always knew. It was this Father He came to reveal to the world—to you and me—so that we might be reconciled to Him. And He made it clear that this Father wants to be our Father as well. On Resurrection morning, He said to Mary Magdalene, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father” (John 20:17). Barclay sums it up well: “What Jesus did was to open a window in time that we might see the eternal and unchanging love of God”4—our Father’s love.
1. “August 10, 2020 Derecho,” National Weather Service, last updated March 30, 2022, https://www.weather.gov/dmx/2020derecho.
2. Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible®, copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.
3. William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), 15.
4. Barclay, 15.
Ed Dickerson writes from Iowa.