Three Popular Conceptions of God

August 15, 2017
What do we believe about God? It is a question that defines who we are as Christians. It establishes the boundary markers between us and the adherents of other religions and philosophies. It provides a touchstone for our thinking about a wide range of other issues.

Our understanding of God, however, does more than clarify our identity to a watching world or stimulate intellectual debate. It goes a long way towards determining how we relate to God, how we relate to one another, and how we relate to ourselves. In other words, our understanding of God has a direct impact on our social, psychological, and moral health.

The way we think about God is obviously colored by our relationships with parents, grandparents, pastors, and other authority figures. But it can also be deeply impacted by our culture. In the United States, there are at least three ways of thinking about God that are common both inside and outside the church. Each one has elements of truth in it, but each one also has some surprising and unfortunate implications for how we think and live.

The Cosmic Watchmaker

One view of God that has been popular for most of the last three centuries is the cosmic watchmaker perspective. It is associated with the Deism of the Enlightenment, but it is still alive and well today. This view presents God as the designer and builder of an elaborate physical and biological system that we know as the universe. God is thought to have set the universe in motion, guided only by a set of natural laws. This view of God assumes that He has little or no involvement in how the universe functions or in how its operations affect the creatures that inhabit it.

From a Christian perspective, God is certainly the creator of all that is. As such, Christians believe that the universe works on the basis of principles that can be understood. Indeed, Christians believe that, in some cases, our understanding of the laws of nature can be used to manipulate some aspect of the universe’s operation for the benefit of its creatures. The assumptions stand at the very heart of all scientific endeavors (as apologists like Nancy Pearcy have often observed).

Nevertheless, the cosmic watchmaker view of God is quite different from a genuinely Christian view of God. It is common knowledge that the cosmic watchmaker view of God leads to practical atheism. Humans are no longer responsible to God for their actions because God has no concern for what humans (or any other creatures) do. Unfortunately, this also means that humans cannot call upon God when they need wisdom or help. Indeed, they have no meaningful connection with God, and, therefore, they derive no real comfort from God.

It is not surprising to find people outside the church who have this view of God. What is surprising is how many people inside the church also think—or, perhaps more accurately, feel—about God in ways like this. In the midst of their pain, they cry out to God, but they have no real expectation that He will answer them. They look at the world around them, and somewhere deep inside their soul they say, “This is all that there is.”

The Doting Parent

Some people seem to think of God as a doting parent. They emphasize God’s love to the exclusion of all other personal qualities, and they define that love in terms of feelings and actions that are perceived as benevolent from the standpoint of their individual or collective object.

Obviously, God presents himself in Scripture as a parental figure. Nevertheless, the doting parent conception of God has the effect of denying God His essential personhood. It reduces God to something less—not only less than what He is but also less than what any genuine person is. Moreover, it again has the effect of absolving humanity of any responsibility. Why should humans care for one another or for the world which we inhabit? There is no one to hold us accountable for our actions. Indeed, in a perverse twist of fate, this doting parent is prevented from doting on those who need it most—victims of human injustice. After all, the doting parent is a prisoner of the perspective of each individual or group.

The Cosmic Avenger

Perhaps the opposite extreme from the doting parent view of God is the cosmic avenger view. It presents God as an agent of retribution, visiting punishment upon the evil-doers in our world (especially those who happen to have transgressed our particular notions of right and wrong).

This view, too, has roots in Scripture. For example, Isaiah 33:22 (NIV) says, “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; it is He who will save us.” (Notice that the emphasis here is on God’s power to save, not on His vengence.)

Still, the cosmic avenger view of God is, like the others we have discussed, a reductionistic view of God. It, too, denies God any genuine personhood. It presents God as a cosmic moral calculator. Some of us think that the calculator is tilted in our favor; in that case, God becomes nothing more than a proxy for our own desire for revenge. Some of us, however, think that the calculator is tilted against us (or even against everyone). In this case, God becomes the enforcer of an impossible standard and/or the proxy for our own poor self-esteem. We imagine God to be a cruel despot bent on ridding the universe of the filthy vermin that inhabit it, and we may imagine ourselves to be that vermin.

Hearing God’s Voice

It is not hard to imagine how such perspectives wreak havoc on the human mind—and the human heart. Cruelty, self-centeredness, detachment, and despair take root and obscure our view of the true God. That is why it is so important for us to return again and again to God’s revelation of himself. We need to hear again the voice of our Maker and consider its implications for us. We will do that next week when we take a close look at Exodus 34:1-8.

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