How Rejecting a Psychopathic God Turned Me into a Bleeding-Heart, Heretic-Universalist

The first big chunk of my childhood belief-system that got blasted away when I rejected a psychopathic God was the bit about God torturing people (or ordering them to be tortured, which I felt was the same thing) for all eternity.

That's what I meant in that last post when I referred to a massive can of worms. See, I was trained to believe that Penal Substitutionary Atonement was the lynch-pin of the entire Christian faith. As in, if they could pin a rejection of it on me, I'd be lynched.

For the uninitiated, Penal Substitutionary Atonement goes something like this: 

God is perfect, and can't come into contact with imperfection (spatially? causally? huh?) or a black hole will form and the universe will implode. So all imperfection (a.k.a. "sin") has to be atoned for with violence (again... huh?).

This principle was established in the "Old Testament," wherein God informed the Israelites of the virtue of killing babies; and also of chopping up and burning sheep, goats, oxen, and doves, as a way of paying for the rotten things they kept doing, on account of they were so wicked and depraved.

This was expensive, gory, and time-consuming, so God sent... himself, in the person of Jesus, and took all that violence onto himself, once and for all. BAM! Done. No more bloody sacrifices. No more smashing babies onto rocks. Now all you had to do was "accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior" (and really, really mean it) and, PRESTO-BANGO! that Divine Blood would wash all over you in a (sorta-kinda) metaphorical way.

God would be able to look at you without feeling his unchanging, undying fury building up in your direction, and when you died you had a free pass into heaven, where everything was awesome and you got to eat as much lemon-meringue pie as you wanted.

That was pretty much what I was taught, growing up (except maybe the bit about the pie).

But once I'd rejected the existence of the capricious, unjust God I'd come to view as a psychopath, there were certain aspects of this bible-interpretation with which I began to take umbrage. Like, say, all those people who were precluded from saying the Magic Salvation-Words by the fact that they were born and died before Jesus even got the chance to do his thing on the cross. Or all the people who lived after that but still couldn't say them because they'd never heard of Jesus. Or the ones who had only ever encountered a caricature-Jesus painted onto a crusade-banner, or etched onto the side of a machine gun.

What about all those people, I wondered?

I'm kind of a turd-bucket, but even I would never treat my own child the way this God apparently treats his kids (which is to say, us humans). Where's the love? Would a non-psychopathic God set up preconditions making it nearly impossible for someone to "ask Jesus into their heart" and then torture them forever because of it -- all while giving ME pretty much a free pass for having been born into a loving, Christian family?

Don't get me wrong: I'm as pissed as anybody by the injustices of this world. I would love for all the donkey-dimples out there who seem to be "getting away with it" to get what's coming to them, and for the decent, loving, amazing people (those more like myself, of course) to win the Divine Lottery.

But the more I looked at the villains and at myself, the more we seemed a lot alike; and the less this talk of a Divine Torturer / Capricious Lemon-Meringue-Pie-Distributor seemed to make any sense.

I should point out that what I've been describing here is a parody of what I truly believe Jesus was really all about. Nonetheless, it is a parody espoused by many, many people; and although a lot of Christians are careful to avoid or ignore the Hell-question inherent in such a worldview, I had to address it if I wanted to stay in the Jesus-camp.

So I started asking what it really meant to believe that Jesus came to save us all, and I learned that the whole "ask Jesus into your heart" thing was a recent fabrication -- gibberish invented by people who were more interested in a good marketing strategy than what the Bible actually said. Did I really exist merely for the purpose of offering my ongoing intellectual assent to the principles that'd nab me a "Get-Out-of-Jail-Free" Card? I didn't think so.

I needed a new interpretation. A more creative one. A more beautiful one.

I went looking. Along the way, I learned that there were a lot of people out there who, like me, found that the picture of God we'd been handed was not just nonsensical, but also morally repugnant. I learned that there were those who, like me, loved Jesus; but thought that an interpretation of the Bible so obviously at odds with Love just had to be misguided. These people wrote books. They blogged. They were smart, and didn't sound like the Evil-Crazies I'd always heard them made out to be.

This was not just an intellectual exercise for me, though. I was reading theology to try and understand how thinking people were reconciling a biblical God with their intellect, but I was coming at it from a holistic place -- a place that refused to accept any narrative that didn't jive with Love, regardless of how sweetly it was spoken.

Thus far in my search, I've landed (as much as I'll ever "land" anywhere) on the continuing belief that Jesus is the MAN (slash God). I'm not entirely sure why I believe this, but I do.

I believe he came to explain/embody/reveal the upside-down kingdom that (as he himself said) is already here, among us.

I believe that God was/is at work as an inconceivable Master-Artist, shaping all-new, beautiful things out of the atomic-dust we keep making of God's beautiful creation.

I believe that to enter into that kingdom all I have to do is shut up, humble myself, and listen to the still, small voice of Love.

I don't need to go around inventing a hell out of three-or-four ambiguous clobber-verses -- there's plenty enough hell right now to go around. But there is also plenty enough Grace and Love in the world to heal that hell. If I'm willing, I can be the instrument of that Grace and Love. I hope for some sort of ultimate justice to be meted out (with, y'know, the stipulation that the punishment oughtta fit the temporal, finite crime), but I don't think it does me much good to worry about that.

I don't have to wait for pie-in-the-sky-when-I-die-bye-and-bye. I can work for justice in the here-and-now.

Suddenly, I realized that I'd quit being scared for my soul and the souls of everybody else, because I'd stopped believing that God was gonna fry most of us forever. Or any of us. Heck, I didn't really even know what a soul was, so why was I spending so much time being afraid for it?

And sure, yeah... this is the kind of thinking that got me fired from a teaching job I loved at a school still pretty dedicated to smashed babies and eternal torture. But I got to live! I got to make stuff! I've written a short story collection (Coming soon to an internets near you!), four feature-length film scripts, two more feature-length film treatments, a bunch of poems, and this blog post! I've got two short films in pre-production for sometime this year, and I'm "guardedly optimistic" about my prospects as a long-term, professional writer. Oh, and my son really, really loves me, and called me in the middle of writing this thing to tell me that his doctor visit went well, but that he gave a really good yell when they  poked him with needles.

My call to you, then, is to quit accepting psychopathy as normal.

Let's stop fearing and start living.


  1. I've been thinking these exact thoughts lately. It's so confusing to me...I'd always thought of God one way and now people seem to want me to think I'm wrong. I really liked this, you're a really great writer.

  2. Thanks, Lily. And it's okay to be confused... if you've got it all figured out, there's probably something really, really wrong with your approach.

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  4. Hey Josh - I really hate to keep chiming in on your blog posts and saying "Yeah!", but ... "yeah." I'm really feeling you on what you've been saying here - this cognitive dissonance between OT angry God and Jesus has been something I've been aware of for some time, but in the last few years I've started to land (as you said "as much as I'll ever "land" anywhere") in a place where I know I will always err, but as much as possible, I want to err on the side of love. "Too much love-talk" would be the criticism I'd most like to hear leveled against me. "That guy is altogether too caught up in grace and love to be taken for a serious thinker". I'll take that.

    1. Keep it up, Darren, and we'll BOTH get kicked out of the family :)

  5. Hey Josh, it seems that a lot has changed in your worldview since the last time I saw you. I couldn't help but notice that you have now adopted a view of God which is not the God of the Bible. From reading your post, it appears you see this as a personal liberation. Granted, I am sure you have come across many odd Christian practices (not the least to mention the "just accept Jesus in your heart" mantra which is not said in the NT) and have been hurt by a lot of people who have professed Christ and who have lived lives which are no different than anyone else. It always hurts more when those closest to us sin against us.

    Something I noticed is that in your post, you are not prepared to do away with Jesus. The God of the Old Testament yes, but certainly not Jesus. He is too loving, too kind, too exemplary to bash. Well on this point, you are really saying nothing new in your viewpoint. You are simply rehashing the old Marcionite heresy that divides the God of the Old Testament as a God of wrath from the God of the New Testament in Jesus as Love. The problem with Marcion's view though is that from Genesis to Revelation, God's character is loving, gracious, merciful, just, righteous, and holy. God is not divided. For example, your portrayal of hell and substitutionary atonement as pit against Jesus as Love, not wrath doesn't follow from Jesus teaching and mission.

    No single person in the whole Bible talks about hell more than Jesus, not even Paul. Jesus describes hell as a place of outer darkness in which there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:11-12), a place of unquenchable fire for unrepentant sinners (Mark 9:42-48), and in Matt 25:31-46, Jesus describes himself as King who will judge all of us, separating all either to eternal punishment or eternal life. Your attempt to separate Jesus from the "righteous wrath of God revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who supress the truth of God" (Rom 1:18) does not work. Furthermore, Jesus mission was to get to the root of the problem in me and all of our hearts- our love and worship of created things rather than our Creator which is sin. He did not come to be merely a moral example, he came to "seek and save the lost" (Luke 19:10) and give his life as a "ransom for many" (Matt 20:28). You can't understand Jesus' life and mission if you ignore his teaching on sin, judgment, hell and ignore Jesus as the "Lamb of God" who was prophesied to fulfill the OT sacrifical system to atone for our sins, to make us acceptable before God and have new life.

    Just like Marcion, you also ignore the loving & gracious purposes and works of God in the OT, in instituting a plan of redemption starting in Genesis to restore our world from its sin and brokenness through God's choosing and redeeming of Israel to be a light unto the nations. Time and time again God shows patience and extends lovingkindness to Israel even though they deserve God's righteous judgment against their idolatry and ingratitude to Him. Instead you focus in on some passages in the Old Testament (ie. slaughter, war) which I agree our hard to understand and wrestle with, but you ignore the context of these passages in God's righteous judgment and preservation of Israel. When Abraham appealed to God about Sodom, asking if he would sweep away the righteous with the unrighteous, God's response was always that he would not. Abraham presses more "What about if there are 50 righteous? 45? 30? 20? 10? God's answer remained the same, that he would not destroy the city if there were any righteous in it. The same Just and loving God of the OT is the same God who has made himself known in Jesus, displaying his supreme love and justice in the cross of Christ.

    This is the true meaning of Easter worthy of our celebration and praise to God.

    1. Hey, Eric. Thanks for responding.

      Truth is, I've not really been hurt too much by too many. I've felt a lot of love from the "People of the Book" I've known in my life, for sure, so I don't write this kinda stuff out of pain for myself.

      You can believe me when I say that I've thought extensively about each of the points you've brought up. I've also written about a number of them (which you can see in the side-bar by looking in the label cloud for "hell" and so on), so I won't bother re-hashing my thoughts, here.

      You say I've "now adopted a view of God which is not the God of the Bible," and I assume that what you're saying is that my interpretation of what the Bible says is incorrect and yours is not. Since I obviously think that YOU are the one whose view is inconsistent with the Bible; and since you've read my arguments and not been swayed by them (and I've heard yours my whole life and not been swayed), then I suppose the best thing to do is to agree to disagree.

      I'll just add that I've never thought it mattered too much what I said I believed, or whether I had all my theological ducks lined up in a row. What mattered is how I treated people... whether I loved them as well as I could. I'm pretty much completely done with worrying about being right all the time.

      So while I register your concern... I'm just not bothered by it.

      I love you, dude. You were a loving, kind man and a solid planter when we were working together, and my guess is you're even wiser and kinder, now (when you're not throwing shovels onto my head :)

      Have a great Easter!

  6. Josh,

    You might be interested in a talk I did related to this topic at University of Toronto to a non-Christian and Christian audience: "Is God a War Criminal?":

    Nick Hill

    1. Thanks for the link, Nick. I'll check it out.

    2. Great source, thanks for the reference!

  7. Two books that have been helpful reading on this subject are:

    1. God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? by David T. Lamb

    2. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan

  8. Senor Barkey! Awesome post. As a former student of yours at that awesome school, I must say you are on to a good path of inquiry here. My personal biggest beef with said education methods is the way certain things were unquestionable, that you simply had to eat all the vegetables and suffer quietly if you did not understand.
    One of my personal struggles in understanding relates to the idea of the Trinity, and how such a being, human or deity, could possibly exist without having severe Multiple Personality Disorder. There does seem to be a difference in the way God acts in the Old Testament and the message Jesus preaches in the New Testament. I think coming to grips with this and understanding this would allow me, and others with the same questions, to be more devout Christians.
    After all, it's supposed to be a relationship not a list of rules to be followed. We should understand who God is to have a relationship with him.
    My basic idea is that there will always be different parts of someone described and emphasized by others. I could emphasize Mr. Barkey's talent as an artist and his patience as a teacher, while someone else could talk about his skill as a writer. We're both right, and we're both describing the same person.

    1. Thanks, Joey.

      You make a good point or two, there. Although, I tend to think that coming to grips with things and being a more devout Christian should maybe be a little lower on your priority list. That's an awfully large burden for ANYBODY to try and lift.

      It's your life to do with as you please, though, and I know that at your age I really, really wanted to make things make sense. If you can find a way to let it go, though, I say do it.

      My thought is that Christ didn't want the "devout," which sounds to me like it might include a lot of stupid stuff like walking barefoot on hot coals, and always being first in Bible Sword Drills. Jesus strikes me as kind of a party guy, who knew that the best parties happen when you're willing to lay down your life and love others. No hangovers, you see?

      And I don't think he was too interested in hanging out with the people who had it all figured out, either. Usually he just made fun of those people and yelled at them, choosing instead to hang out with honest doofuses.

      I don't know much, but I do know that if you gotta wait until you get it figured out before you can start enjoying life with the best party in town, you're gonna be waiting a looong time.

      As to the Trinity... durned if I know. Seems complicated. Mysterious. Beautiful, even. But I do like the idea of Divinity being about community, not loneliness.

      Who knows? Not me.


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