Who is this ‘Monster God’ of (Im)Pure Will? – Brad Jersak

A Quick History of the ‘Monster God’

The term “Monster God” became ‘a thing’ in 2014 through a series of sermons, debates and blogs, and while I can’t be sure of its earliest use, one will note that its popular usage is typically tagged to Pastor Brian Zahnd (Word of Life Church and a CWR columnist). It came onto my radar through a sermon in early May entitled “Death of the Monster God,” a lenten sermon on Luke 23:34, 46 (Jesus’ prayers to the Father) asking, “What is God like?”    

The central point of the sermon is summarized by Brian in these words:

When we look at the death of Jesus on the cross in the light of the resurrection, we are looking at our salvation. But, what do we really see when we look at the cross? Are we looking at the appeasement of a monster god through barbaric child sacrifice? Or are we seeing something else? Is the cross vengeance or love? When Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he is not asking God to act contrary to his nature. He is, in fact, revealing the very heart of God! The cross is not about the satisfaction of a vengeful monster god, the cross is the full revelation of a supremely merciful God! In Christ we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. Once we know that God is revealed in Christ, we know what we are seeing when we look at the cross: The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The crucifixion is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive, but what God endures in Christ as he forgives.

Somehow, the sermon also led to the formal “Monster God Debate” between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown at the Kansas City IHOP. He contrasted the cruciform God who became incarnate to save us from ourselves with the monster God from whom Jesus needed to save us. Much of this is clarified in his article on “How does ‘Dying For Our Sins’ Work?” and Rob Grayson’s review of the debate.

Zach Hoag’s Critique of the Monster God: 

1. God of Absolute Power

Minister and blogger Zach Hoag has picked up on this terminology and begun to apply it to contemporary issues in American Evangelicalism. I’m less interested in how he uses the Monster God motif in his critiques than in how he describes the Monster God’s nature. Thus, I’ve mined two of his articles for clarity and definitions:

In his article, “Divorcing Josh Duggar’s Monster God,” Hoag says,

The Monster God … is a God for whom absolute power is the ultimate good – power that is uniquely delegated to men, to be especially wielded over women. … God is one that exercises power with no accountability (not even to his own character or nature) and may just as soon hate, torture, and murder as love and forgive. His unpredictable whim is divine law. In fact, this God’s “forgiveness” is less about love and more about submission to his power. To submit without any concern for oneself is to be forgiven. Likewise, forgiving others (like cheaters or abusers or molesters) while blaming oneself is the logical requirement of this “forgiving” God. 

… God is one that has lifted a man … above women to represent his power (goodness). The superficial moral restraint of courtship merely encodes this power from the start … Real morality matters little.

[emphases are Hoag’s, except for the underlining, which is mine]

So for Hoag, the nature of the Monster God has to do with the primacy of God’s absolute power, even prior to ‘the ultimate good,’ his character or nature. He does as he pleases and that makes it good, irrespective even of morality as God himself has defined it. Hoag continues,

The opportunity for the church, for followers of Jesus, for all of us, is to divorce this Monster God once and for all. An unaccountable God whose unpredictable whim is the omnipotent law and the ultimate good that we worship, pray to, and promote should be promptly served divorce papers, because our freedom and true goodness is to be found beyond the bonds of that unholy marriage. 

And in his place, let us join ourselves again to the One True God who is completely accountable to his own character, which is really and truly good, defined by the very character of Jesus and the fruit of Jesus’s Spirit

Let us put away the Monster God who harms, molests, and enslaves with his power (even the ones to whom his power is granted), and marry again the God who looks like Jesus, whose law is always love and whose gospel is always peace.

Here Hoag has taken the next step: he is not just about divorcing the Monster God of Power, but promoting marriage to ‘the One True God,’ who he sees in Jesus, and whose nature he describes in terms of the law of love (James 2:8) and gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15), citing the beautiful carol, ‘O Holy Night.’

2. God of Violent Power

For Hoag, the Monster God is not merely ultimate power–he is specifically violent and destructive power. In a review article of Zahnd’s Farewell to Mars, entitled “Of Monsters and Mars,” Hoag adds the following to his portrait of this Monster God:

Is God is the kind of Monster that demands sacrifice above all else – including the sacrifice of his son – in order to not torture the entire human race in hell for eternity? Is he the one who predestines only a select few for mercy, and predestines the vast majority for fiery torture? Is God the one who sanctions wars for the righteous nations, slaughtering his scapegoated enemies? Is God like Mars, the one soldiers might worship in temples shaped like fighter jets, filled with icons that sacramentalize weapons of war? 

. . .  At the core of the gospel and atonement, in the expectations of eschatology, on the subject of God’s very character, there has been a clinging to violent power that we know, deep down, is only and ultimately destructive

Hoag contrasts this lethal deity to the Christlike God, once known as ‘the Prince of Peace,’ whose essence and nature is infinite love. He recalls Zahnd’s famous saying:   

God is like Jesus; God has always been like Jesus; there was never a time when he was not like Jesus; we haven’t always known this; but now we do. Our evangelical faith must begin to look like Jesus again. It must be the faith of that Preacher of peace, or else it will not be saved. 

A More Christlike God than the God of ‘(Im)Pure Will’

To Zahnd and Hoag’s image of the Monster God, I would propose that at its core, these competing images of God can be reduced to their elemental forms: the God of pure will versus the God of infinite love. When the ancients used to speak of will, it was something quite positive, connecting will to desire for the good (and thus, willingness-for-love). But in recent centuries, ‘free will’ or ‘freedom’ has been perverted into willfulness, self-will or will-to-power … absolute autonomy to do as one please … even a self-determination to turn from love or defining MY willful freedom as the ultimate good. 

Folk rock star turned theologian, Aaron Riches, describes the turn this way:

No longer defined as an attraction toward the good exercised in love and desire for the infinite, the will is now the site of a “radical indifference” from which proceeds the idea of “pure will”… this is the core of the modern understanding of will, and it leads to the Nietzschean issue of the will-to-power where willing is “no longer characterized by love but by the relationship of command (befehlen ) and obedience (gehorchen).”  (Aaron Riches, “Christology and Anti-humanism,” Modern Theology 29:3 July 2013, 334-5).

This is exactly the disaster of the fall … but then imagine how the catastrophe is amplified when religion projects the sin of Adamic self-will onto God himself! God becomes the mirror image (but now infinitely powerful) of our own will-to-power. And if you work it right, the Monster God can then come into the service of our own rebellion against Divine Love. 

This is exactly where Christ stepped in: the Incarnation and especially the Cross become God’s great repudiation of this Monster God of (im)pure will. Now I can hear (and have heard) cries of ‘caricature’ or ‘straw manning,’ but of what or whom? I will only say that if the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it (in which case, bravo!), because I’m describing religion at large as a historical phenomena. The monster gods of the pagans were all about absolute and untethered will-to-power and the justified violence of just war, just deserts and just hell. If that’s not your religion, then you’ll resonate with the cruciform God revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ as infinite love and grace.

A More Christlike God

With that, I’ll leave readers with two excerpts from A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel that further unpack this distinction between ‘pure will’ and ‘self-giving love.’

Competing images (from AMCG 49)

This chapter will be our first step to understanding the two principal competing images of God throughout the history of religion: the God of pure will (or freedom) and the God of pure love (or goodness). This divide effects virtually every faith tradition and cuts through the heart of most of them. These two images clash within the ‘biblical religions’ of Judaism and Christianity and even collide on the pages of our Bible! 
God’s essence: freedom or will? (from AMCG 61-62)

What do our ethics of freedom or love—willfulness or willingness—have to do with competing images of God? Only everything! Our highest moral values are ultimately an echo of the God we believe in (or once believed in).1 We can trace our ethics to our understanding of God’s essential nature. Namely, if your highest value is freedom (as self-will), the God you know (and may have received or rejected) is one whose nature is pure freedom or pure will. If your highest value is love, the God you know (and are most likely to love), is probably the God who is pure love or pure good. This crucial distinction impacts our worship, our theology, our faith-practice—indeed, our every decision—so it deserves a clear explanation. 

Those who see God’s essence as his freedom or will say, “God is God, so he is free to do or say or require whatever he wills, and that makes it good.” This God determines, governs and commands absolutely everything. Because he is omnipotent (that is, all-powerful), nothing happens unless he ordains it. He is almighty. Sovereign. He is ‘in control.’ 

The strongest version of this theology, still very popular, says that God foresees everything and whatever he foresees, he also ‘foreordains.’ In other words, he appoints and determines every event ahead of time, to the finest detail. Even before he created the world, God decreed everything, including the fall of humanity. He chose and predestined a specific class of people (the ‘elect’) to be his beloved children and decided that others would be left to defy him and be consigned to an eternity in hell—even before they were born! Why would he do that? “To the praise of his glory!”
In other words, because he can. This God is free to do anything he wills, and if he does, because he is God, that makes it good. God’s will, in this picture, determines what is good. 
If God, in his anger, wills to enslave or annihilate a nation, he can and will do it. It is God’s right to command his armies to massacre whole nations—including their women, children and animals. To obey this command is righteousness; and to disobey is rebellion. … a God who is pure freedom is also utterly willful. Add to this willfulness the fact that God is all-powerful, and you get a triumphalistic deity who can be dangerously violent. This God is an irresistible force to be feared and obeyed, worshiped and loved, or else! 

(from AMCG 280)

For those who get impatient with (or too spiritual for) a little sound doctrine, consider the monstrosities conjured by those who abandon it. Think of the blasphemous ways we’ve slandered God in explaining to our children and others’ children around the globe why Jesus died. Blasphemous monstrosities? Too strong? 
As I wrote this chapter, a new cinematic remake of Godzilla was released in American theatres. Someone tweeted this comment: “Next time someone tells me ‘my theology doesn’t turn God into a monster,’ I’m sending them this.” She attached a link to a blog article entitled, “Godzilla and the Salvific Destruction of God,” the moral (?) of which was that “just like the God of Israel, Godzilla brings destruction in order to save.” The author continued, “the God of Israel will not hesitate to wreak a little havoc in order to open the eyes of his people to their need.” 
Or as John Piper explains without flinching, “It’s right for God to slaughter women and children any time he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. … everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.”
Competing Images cont’d (from AMCG 50)

We are imitators of the God we worship, for good or ill. These primary images of God contend for our allegiance. And they define the highest moral calling of each of their followers. So thinking about moral values is a good first step toward comprehending these competing versions of God.
A completely free God who is pure will produces worshipers who reflect him by championing freedom at all costs. This God does whatever he pleases, even beyond good or evil. I would argue that a willful God produces willful people who ultimately do whatever they please. They will see themselves either as God’s agents or, in their willfulness, reject God to become his rivals. 
On the other hand, a completely good God, whose nature is pure love, produces people who imitate him by exemplifying love. That God, who willingly laid down his life for others, inspires loving followers who truly are free—free to move beyond the slavery of self-seeking into self-giving, sacrificial love. 
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