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.
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 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.’
(from AMCG 280)
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.