Jun 2 2009

Atheists: Forget the Old Testament

In response to a recent post, Jeff Carter comments that atheists like Bart Ehrman and Creationists are alike in that they are both literalists.  He’s right – many atheists love to quote the Bible literally; (except when they are arguing it is not literal).  Fundamentalists, too, are literalists, and are suspicious of anyone who even thinks of using the word “metaphor” in connection with the Bible.  Another similarity is that both fundamentalists and many atheists are quite fond of quoting the OT.  I was actually shocked when I drifted from my Lutheran roots into what was then the “Jesus Movement” and then evangelicalism, because of the focus on the Old Testament.  I, of course, was taught all of the classic OT stories and Messianic prophecies, but most of Lutheran teaching is based on the New Testament, especially the Gospels.   I believe the Lutherans had it right; in fact, I would encourage both atheists and Christians to simply forget the Old Testament – at least for a while – when it comes to understanding God.

The author of Hebrews starts his letter so:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

Let’s unpack this: In the past – in the OT – God revealed himself through prophets, and so on.  However, God has now revealed himself through Jesus, who is “the exact representation of his being.”  The implication here is that Jesus revealed the character of God much better than the prophets and authors of the Old Testament. The OT, then, presents an imperfect picture of God.

Shocking as this thought might be, this is what the writer of Hebrews is saying.  The Old Testament revelation of God was imperfect.  The prophets may have gotten the message right, but did they really understand God?  (Have you ever read the Old Testament?)  If not inaccurate, the revelation of God was at least incomplete.  But now, finally, we have Jesus, who is the perfect, complete revelation of God.

But, Hebrews is 2nd hand info from an unknown author, and some of you may be wondering if perhaps Hebrews really belongs in the canon, after all…  So, let’s look at some of Jesus’ statements on this issue:

“You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” John 8:19

“I and the Father are one.” John 10:30

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” John 14:9

“He who hates me hates my Father as well.” John 15:23

In the Gospel of John, we find a number of places where Jesus states quite clearly that he is essentially equivalent of God the Father (although he was clear that he was not the Father). To know Jesus is equivalent of knowing the Father; they are one, presumably in character and purpose.  He even goes so far to say that seeing Jesus is seeing God.  These statements make it clear that the writer of Hebrews didn’t just make stuff up; Jesus, too, understood that he was the perfect representation (the icon) of the Father.

Christianity, then, believes Jesus to be “everything you ever wanted to know about God, but were afraid to ask.”  But, what about the Hebrews author’s claim that Jesus is a better source for knowledge about God than the revelation in the Old Testament?  Jesus made a couple of rather startling comments, if you read them closely:

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” John 14:6, 7

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Matthew 11:27

No one comes to the Father, and no one knows the Father, except through Jesus.  If you want to know God, or know what God is like, who is your best source?  Abraham? Moses?  Jeremiah?  According to Jesus and Hebrews, none of the patriarchs or prophets had a direct revelation of the Father.  They had some revelation, to be sure.  But who do you think had a better revelation of God, Moses who saw God’s glory, or Peter?  Does the book of Isaiah paint a better picture of God, or the Gospel of John?   Did the Pharisees, who had nearly memorized the Old Testament, have a clear picture of God?  Obviously not.  If they didn’t, what makes you think you can have a clear picture of God by focusing on the Old Testament?

Atheists, like fundamentalists, love to focus on the Old Testament. In fact, I believe the reason for this is because the revelation of God in the OT is unclear.  But, hear this: forget the Old Testament. Leave it alone.  Ignore the laws, the prophecies, the violence – ignore all of it. Not because it’s ugly or embarrassing, but because it’s not a full picture of God.  Focus instead on Jesus.  If you have a problem with Christianity, it’s got to be with Jesus. I don’t care what you think of Genesis or the historicity of the Exodus.  I don’t care what you think of the laws or the violence.  If you want to understand who God is, read the Gospels.  If you have a problem with Jesus, fine.  If not, then do some reevaluating.

After you understand who God is, then and only then read the Old Testament. There’s lots of great stuff in there!  In fact, if you understand the character of God, you can find grace and mercy throughout the Old Testament.  Only then will it make sense.   When researching any topic, you always look first at your best source, to what is clear. Then, you can sort through what is unclear and put it in context.

Jesus, you see, is not the perfect representation of the God who has turned over a new leaf.  He’s not the image of the “good” God.  Jesus is the “spitting” image of the God of the Old Testament.  The thing is, none of the people in the Old Testament had that full revelation. In a very real sense, the Old Testament is incomplete; it’s a sketch, a caricature, an impressionist portrait of God.  Jesus, as revealed in the Gospels, is the full-color photo. Bottom-line: If you want to find God, you’ve got a choice: you can rely on an artist’s rendering or a photo.  You take your pick.