How the Modern Church Helped to Create a God that People Hate

By Joel Furches

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January 19, 2018

On July 8, 1741 the famed revivalist Jonathan Edwards preached his legendary “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon wherein he metaphorically raked his audience across the coals as he terrified them with the vision of a God whose attitude toward sin was so scornful, it was the stuff of nightmares. Here’s a brief sample:

“They are now the Objects of that very same Anger & Wrath of God that is expressed in the Torments of Hell: and the Reason why they don’t go down to Hell at each Moment, is not because God, in whose Power they are, is not then very angry with them; as angry as he is with many of those miserable Creatures that he is now tormenting in Hell, and do there feel and bear the fierceness of his Wrath. Yea God is a great deal more angry with great Numbers that are now on Earth, yea doubtless with many that are now in this Congregation, that it may be are at Ease and Quiet, than he is with many of those that are now in the Flames of Hell. So that it is not because God is unmindful of their Wickedness, and don’t resent it, that he don’t let loose his Hand and cut them off. God is not altogether such an one as themselves, tho’ they may imagine him to be so. The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hath opened her Mouth under them. The Devil stands ready to fall upon them and seize them as his own, at what Moment God shall permit him. They belong to him; he has their Souls in his Possession, and under his Dominion.”

On May 18, 2014, the famed televangelist and megachurch pastor Joel Osteen preached a sermon titled “It’s Already Yours”. Here are a few highlights from the sermon:

The good news is God already approved you.
Quit working for something you already have.
When He created you he looked at you and said that was good.
Don’t be insecure and intimidated.
If people don’t want to be your friend let them go.
There’s freedom when you realize you’re not waiting for it – you’re already approved.
The Creator of the universe has already blessed me.
You may not feel blessed.
Your checking account may not look blessed.
You’ve got to believe it then you’ll see it.
Declare I am blessed.
I am prosperous.
I am the head and not the tail.
That activates the blessing.
Hold your head up high.
Walk with confidence.
You’re royalty.
Destined to reign.
Go get your healing, dreams, abundance, and victory with your name on it.
You don’t have to pray for what you already have.
Just start acting like it’s true.

Now one might possibly say that the two don’t merit a fair comparison. However, as a traveling evangelist whose sermons were widely published and read, whose preaching was influential in the Great Awakenings, and whose method was to invoke an emotional reaction in his audience, one might rightly say that if there was anything like a “megachurch” leader or a “televangelist” in the days of the late colonial period and the old west, Jonathan Edwards would probably qualify.

Moreover, while one would never hear a sermon remotely like Joel Osteen’s in the period of the 1700’s, such things are relatively common in the modern day. So to what does history owe this progression of theology from fear in light of a God who cannot abide the proud to pride in light of a God who cannot abide fear?

Well, one might partially place the blame at the feet of Freud. While Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis has largely been obviated by modern psychology, a surprising amount of it remains in the field of therapy. Because what therapists do, and what Freud did, was largely just to listen. The distraught person is brought in before the psychologist laid on the couch, and encouraged to talk about their fears and frustrations and worries and neuroses. And while it never really solves anything in the long term, just talking about one’s problems has a – well – therapeutic effect.

As the 1900’s rolled around, psychiatrists and psychiatry began to make a rapid rise in popular culture as something of a phenomenal trend. All of the various mysteries of human behavior were being unraveled by these unrivaled geniuses, and soon psychiatrists were the heroes of film and literature, and by the 1980’s, everyone had a therapist.

While psychology is not inherently incompatible with Christianity, there was one extreme difficulty that arose between Christian theology and modern therapy: sin.

While the Bible teaches that humans misbehave because they are sinful and in need of a savior, psychology postulates that humans misbehave because they are sick and in need of drugs and therapy; the ultimate therapy, of course, being the boosting of self-esteem. Make people feel better about themselves and they will be more self-confident, better able to achieve, get the girl, demand that raise, pursue their dreams, and come out on top. The very last thing one wants to tell them is that they are – ahem – “sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

In his book, A Nation of VictimsCharles J. Sykes, a former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal and editor of Milwaukee Magazine, gives his summation of the modern American mindset:

“As it becomes increasingly clear that misbehavior can be redefined as disease, growing numbers of the newly diseased have flocked to groups like Gamblers Anonymous, Pill Addicts Anonymous, S-Anon (“relatives and friends of sex addicts”), Nicotine Anonymous, Youth Emotions Anonymous, Unwed Parents Anonymous, Emotional Health Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Dual Disorders Anonymous, Batterers Anonymous, Victims Anonymous, and Families of Sex Offenders Anonymous….

“In place of evil, therapeutic society has substituted “illness”; in place of consequence, it urges therapy and understanding; in place of responsibility, it argues for a personality driven by impulses….

“Celebrities vie with one another in confessing graphic stories of abuse they suffered as children, while television talk shows feature a parade of victims ranging from overweight incest victims to handicapped sex addicts.

“Dysfunction is, in every respect, a growth industry…. From the addicts of the South Bronx to the self-styled emotional road-kills of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the mantra of the victims is the same: I am not responsible; it’s not my fault” (1992, pp. 9,13,12, 11, emp. in orig.).

The cards must be laid upon the table at this point. Up until now, this article has focused on the state of the human individual. However, the human individual and their various difficulties are very much the secondary focus of the actual scripture. The primary focus is God. When one focuses upon God as the ultimate; the highest, greatest, most supreme being, one who has always existed and will always exist, then value of the human individual seems somewhat diminished. However, if a church wishes to appeal to a society in which individuals are increasingly encouraged to think of themselves as the center of their own universe, they must remove the focus somewhat from God. And this is exactly what has happened.

In their 2005 book, National Study of Youth and Religion, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton published their findings from thousands of interviews conducted among teenagers regarding their religious reviews. Here is a summary of their findings as quoted from the book:

“A significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” as defined by Smith and Denton, is the idea that:

  • God exists, created and ordered the world, and watches over humanity
  • That he wants people to be good, fair, and nice to one another
  • That the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself
  • That God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to solve a problem and
  • That good people go to heaven when they die.

In this respect, then, Christianity in its most popular contemporary form has become only another flavor of self-help, not unlike the work of Deepak Chopra or Oprah.

Now on the face of it, this might be an astounding success. The church has the capacity to attract a large crowd, administer mass therapy, and back this feel-good message with the full authority of God. However a needling problem keeps the story from ending happily at this point: God.

Like it or not, there are things about the Christian God that remain uncomfortably out-of-joint with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and it is the Atheists of all people, who are throwing this in the face of the modern Christian.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do your prayers go unanswered? If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world? How could a good God drown the world in a flood or command the slaughter of the Canaanites or condemn anyone to Hell?

While ‘Problem of Evil’ type questions have doubtless been around since the idea of God has existed, the use of these questions to casually dismiss God entirely is a surprisingly new technique.

When a missionary wanders his way into a jungle tribe whose inhabitants fall in fearful supplication to their angry gods, that missionary needs to do very little work to convince this tribe that God is a high and mighty being, so far removed from humanity that mortals are less than worms before his majesty. This groundwork has already been laid. The challenge for the missionary is to convince these people that this High and Holy God, despite his elevated station, has looked at mortals in their wretched and pitiable state and has loved the unlovely. That God has offered them forgiveness that they did not deserve, and immortal life far greater than they could imagine.

It is God’s love, not his holiness, which is the challenge to convey to these people who live in fear. Not so in the Western world. Many Americans have no need to be told that God loves them. They assume it. Some assume that God owes them and exists to serve them; and they are offended and scandalized by any picture of God that might suggest that he has any right to hold authority over them.

And so the “Old Testament God” is swept under the rug. Stories of God raining fiery judgment down upon those whose wickedness had reached a boiling point – who freely defied him and refused to repent – are ignored, explained away, or denied entirely. The modern man cannot abide the idea that the God who created the universe might have absolute authority over the goings-on within it; that the one who manufactures life has every right to take it away; that the source of moral authority might enforce moral law. If such a thing is suggested, the blame is turned right back around on God: “Well if God knew people were going to be bad, why did he create them? Couldn’t he have created a world where everyone was always good?” And here the culture of victimization rears its head. One cannot be held responsible for one’s own actions. One is a victim of forces beyond one’s control. Never mind that the God of the Bible specifically offers freedom and forgiveness to all who ask it: I shouldn’t have to ask! No repentance should be required! He shouldn’t have allowed me to choose to perform the deed in the first place!

And so humans refuse a God who stands in judgment over them, standing in judgment over God instead. They either create a soft and comfortable God, or they injure this cosmic authority figure in the only way they know how: insults and unbelief.

Yet the so-called “problem of evil” stands greatly diminished if one allows for a Holy God who cannot countenance evil, and holds humans personally responsible for their every decision. Better still, the Love of God gains much greater potency when one realizes that this love is entirely undeserved, and that they who should rightly be judged were forgiven and adopted as children instead – all for the mere cost of repentance and humbling oneself before this great and awesome God. In this world, one’s motivation to do good is no longer a vague sense of obligation or promise of heavenly reward; it is the much more potent motivation of absolute gratitude towards a God who forgave them of a debt that they could never pay, and the desire to share this unconditional love and pass it along to others.

However, in declaring everyone a winner, the modern person has become a tragic loser. Although God is omnibenevolent, when the modern church attempts to re-manufacture God into a being who is nothing but love we only manufacture hatred and indifference toward this God.

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About the Author

By Joel Furches

As a writer and artist, Joel Furches has primarily served the Christian Community by engaging in Apologetics and Christian ministry. Joel is an accomplished journalist, author and editor, having written for both Christian publications - like Christian Media Magazine - and journalistic organizations - like CBS. Joel also edits academic research papers for universities. Joel does professional editing and reviews for all communities, including the science community. Joel currently has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a Master's degree in Education. Joel has worked for a number of years with neglected, abused and troubled youth. This has given him some uncomfortable but valuable insights into the human condition. Joel is on The Mentionables speaking team.