I found this old drawing in one of my second grade Bible notebooks (you know, normal Christian school stuff) while sorting through boxes of old photos and memories with my family last week. Aside from the unique form of cringy cuteness that can only be found in children’s attempts to put their imagination on paper, this picture has another, much more troubling cringe-factor: this is what I thought God looked like.
Sadly, it’s not surprising that when I imagined God, I drew a man sitting on a throne on top of a cloud with a huge crown on his head and lightning bolts in his hands. It’s tragic, but it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect. I have absolutely no idea how this happened in a culture (allegedly) two thousand years removed from Greek and Roman mythology, but somehow the Biblical God has so often been painted - and drawn by thousands of other second graders - to look more like Zeus than Jesus. And although this cartoonish image might seem silly, I think it has soaked through our cultural and religious subconscious more than we suspect.
The “powerful” God
Maybe it’s because it’s just easier to teach God to kids this way. It’s action-packed and fantastical enough to catch a kid’s attention. Mythology exists to capture the imagination, and sadly we Christians have often lost track of the uniquely profound and beautiful elements of our own “mythology” (such as in the Creation narrative) and swapped them out for more, well… pagan ones.
It’s also easier to teach this kind of God because it’s just more accessible. We don’t need to teach kids what “power” (in its distorted human sense) looks like. Just look around you. We are inundated with pictures and stories of kings and military leaders (and Presidents) from the time we are very young. Because of their "power", each one has the ability and the right to bring down holy hellfire on their enemies by pounding the drums of war. Since we all learn this warped picture of power early on, it’s an easy starting point for a sadly distorted theology: God is powerful, which means God is just like all those kings and military leaders - only more so. Whatever level of punishment they can inflict, God can inflict more. Whatever level of authority they can exercise, God can exercise more. He literally becomes the “king of kings” by looking exactly like an extreme version of all our other kings.
The split-personality God
When Jesus, the actual king of kings, comes into the picture, he usually isn’t presented as a genuine picture of what God looks like, no matter what the Bible repeatedly tells us. Instead, he becomes the one to rescue us from the big, scary, lightning-bolt God. Even though we try really hard to teach and affirm that Jesus is God, you will almost always hear kids talk about Jesus and God as two different entities. Actually, many Christian adults talk that way, too, if they’re not being careful about their words - which just betrays the fact that so many of us still carry this distorted image of the Godhead. In this case, “God” means the Father, which is just the lightning-bolt god’s nickname. Jesus is now the one who steps in front of the lightning bolts and gets zapped for us. Then, and only then, “God” (the Father) becomes loving and gushy, the old man with the white beard that bears a remarkable resemblance to Santa Claus (another mythological conflation).
But based on that logic, here’s what happens: to whatever extent “God” (the Father) is actually loving towards us, it is only because of what Jesus did. “God loves you” becomes a platitude that loses all meaning because, as pastor Mark Driscoll provocatively (and quite seriously) said, God actually hates you because of your sin - he just loves Jesus enough to let him bring you into the family. The theologians and the more spiritually mature will of course qualify this statement with better theology; but sadly, these qualifications aren’t often made clear in much of our fundamental and foundational spiritual education (namely, with children and with the “less mature” in the faith). How else do you explain the fact that pictures like the one I drew are so common?
Now, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. Actually, I’m pretty confident I am. I don’t want to set up a straw man argument here, and I don’t want to paint with such broad brush strokes as to say that we are all deceiving our children and new believers by intentionally setting up a split-personality God in order to drive fear tactics. In fact, I don’t think most Christians, even children, would really put it in the terms I’ve put it here. But the picture speaks for itself: even if the image I’m painting is a caricature, we have to remember that caricatures, even though they exaggerate, are always based on reality.
Just like in conflict resolution, where the offender has to take responsibility for what the other person heard (regardless of what was meant), teachers need to take responsibility for what our students hear. And however much we might laugh at all the cartoonish, Zeus-like depictions of God in the world, the fact is that these caricatures show us something disturbing: this is what is being heard when we talk about God. Maybe we didn’t design the cultural lens that predisposes people to think this way, but it’s there, and we need to do better when it comes to intentionally deconstructing it.
Jesus: the image of God
The solution to this is so simple and so deeply embedded within the Scriptures that it should be a no-brainer. We need to stop dividing Jesus and “God”. We need to acknowledge what the Bible repeatedly tells us (there’s that same link again - go ahead and click it) that Jesus really is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) and “the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). Simply put, we need to remember that Jesus is God (John 1:1).
Jesus doesn’t stand between us and God as some kind of human shield. Instead, he ushers us into the divine fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that has existed from the beginning of all things.
Jesus didn’t sacrifice himself to the lightning-bolt god to appease him. Instead, he revealed the sacrificial love of God, who is willing to stoop to the lowest places to regain fellowship with humanity.
Jesus isn’t the stronger side of God’s split personality. Instead, he is the picture of God’s single-minded commitment to restore a broken world.
We don’t need Jesus to save us from God. We need Jesus - or more accurately, the Spirit he promised us - to save us from ourselves. From our violence, our apathy, our exclusivism, our agendas, and yes, even our comfortable status quo. It’s true, we need Jesus to save us from the lightning-bolt god; but that’s not because he’s real. It’s because he is a distorted image of what the real God is like - the God who actually looks just like Jesus.