What Kind of a God Would Do This?

A parent would rather die than lose a child; to die themselves rather than to suffer the loss of their child.  This hit home for me early in my teaching career when one of my students died tragically in a car crash.  I will never forget going to the wake and looking into his parents’ eyes.  It was as if they had died.  Even though they were going through the motions, doing what people do at wakes, when I looked into their eyes, they were utterly lifeless.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose your child.  It’s hard enough when someone dies in the natural course of things.  Like when a parent dies of old age, after living a long, healthy, full life.  It’s hard enough to grieve a loss like this.  But a child?  It’s so unnatural.  And that’s what magnifies the grief—to an incomprehensible level.  

One of the most notorious stories in all the Bible is the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac.  Here’s the context: After the Fall, after things went off the rails with Adam and Eve, God initiated the plan of salvation to reconcile humanity to Himself.  Abraham, the father of faith, stands at the very beginning of this plan.  In Genesis 22, where this story is found, God had just made a covenant with him.  As part of initiating this covenant, God had Abraham look up at the night sky and count the stars.  There were thousands—this is before light pollution!  God told Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  God will make of them—of him—a great nation.  God will start His great rescue plan with his heirs.

There was only one “tiny”, “little” problem: At the time, Abraham was an old man, in his nineties or so.  So was his wife Sarah.  To make matters worse, they had never been able to have a child, even when they were younger.  Sarah was thought to be barren.  So, it was doubly impossible for Abraham to now have a male heir; it was doubly impossible for him to have any descendants.  He was perplexed.  But he trusted God.  And lo and behold, a few years later, Sarah miraculously conceived a child, Isaac.  Now Abraham is beginning to see how God will bring His promise to fruition.  It’s all starting—wonderfully and miraculously—to make sense. 

But just a few years after this, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his miracle child.  Now Abraham is really perplexed.  How can this be?  Isaac is the only way the promise can be fulfilled.  The covenant, God’s great rescue plan, depends on him and his descendants.  Unimaginably more agonizing, obviously, this—as the text in Genesis 22 emphasizes several times—is Abraham’s one and only son, the one he loves and adores above all else.  Sacrificing him won’t just mean giving up all the wonderful things that have been promised by God.  It will mean losing the son who is the most precious thing in the world to him.

But Abraham trusts and obeys.  Even though it seems completely irrational to him, even though he can’t understand what God is doing, he makes the preparations to sacrifice Isaac.  Just as he’s about to slaughter Isaac, God stops him.  Then God delivers a message to him that is one of the most stunning lines (as will be evident in a moment) in all of scripture: “Since you did not even withhold your one and only, beloved son from me , I now see how devoted you are to me.” 

Commentators often mention that the pagan nations surrounding Abraham routinely engaged in infanticide, child sacrifice.  It was often just a matter of course that a first-born, usually male, infant or sometimes young child was sacrificed to appease the gods.  Commentators go on to note that far from endorsing such abominable behavior, this passage actually is making it clear to Israel that Yahweh is not like these other gods.  He doesn’t want them to make such sacrifices to Him.  In fact, they suggest that the reason this story found its way into the Hebrew canon of scripture, the reason God put Abraham to the test this way, is to make this very point.  To reveal the kind of God Yahweh is.  That’s why He doesn’t let Abraham sacrifice Isaac.   

But this doesn’t make it much better.  The sheer agony God puts Abraham through to make this point, or to test his faith, or whatever else God might be up to here, is horrifying.  There is no good justification for it.  It makes us want to cry out: “What kind of a God would do this?”

As we look around, at everything from COVID to parents we know who’ve lost a child, it also makes us want to cry out: “What kind of a God would do this?”  Of course, we know God doesn’t directly inflict suffering.  God doesn’t cause suffering.  But He does allow it.  He does create a world in which it is routine.  And that makes us want to ask: “What kind of God allows these things?”

In Romans 8, Paul, in part, is dealing with this question when he harkens back to the Abraham and Isaac story.  In an unmistakable allusion, he poses the most poignant question presented in the history of salvation: “If God did not spare his only beloved son—the one and only son He adores more than anything else—will He not give us everything else besides?” 

Don’t miss the seismic reversal this question raises up.  What God doesn’t have Abraham follow through with, to sacrifice his one and only beloved son, to give up the most precious thing in the world for God, God does do for us.  God does sacrifice His one and only beloved son, what is most precious to Him, for us.  Or, more accurately, God sacrifices His very own life for us.  That’s how devoted He is to us.  In fact, this proves He couldn’t be more devoted. 

And this is what makes His comment to Abraham so stunning: This is the kind of God we have.  Pagans sacrificed to appease their idols, hoping merely to stave off calamity.  We sacrifice our time, money, and devotion to the idols of modern culture—comfort, convenience, entertainment—never experiencing life in all its fullness but merely dulling our pain or boredom for the moment.  These gods suck the life out of us without giving us much in return. 

But the God of Abraham, the God who comes in Jesus, sacrifices everything for us.  And in the process, He gives us life in all its fullness.

We may not understand the mind of God.  We may find it incomprehensible that He allows children to die.  We may be perplexed by what He allows to happen to us.  We may find it completely irrational.  But we know that if He didn’t spare his own son, if He didn’t withhold His own life, He must be totally devoted to us.  We have His undying love and—as if this isn’t enough—He will give us everything else besides.   

We don’t know the mind of God; but we know His heart.  We don’t know the mind of God; but we don’t need to.  We know He is totally devoted to us.  We know that, ultimately, He will give us everything else besides.  We know that the promise we have in Him is better than life itself. 

And this, this is the kind of God He is.    

Have you ever heard, read, or encountered this story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac before?  If you have, especially if you’re a believer, I’d love to hear how you reconcile it with your understanding of God.  You can go to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave your comments, along with any other questions or feedback, there.  I look forward to hearing from you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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