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Everything Else You Always Wanted to Know About God (But Were Afraid to Ask)
By Eric Metaxas
WaterBrook PressCopyright © 2007 Eric Metaxas
All right reserved.
Who Exactly Is God?
Where God Came from; What to Call Him; How He Differs from Us (and Barry Manilow)
The world-famous New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says that when he was a young man he served as the chaplain at a university. He often encountered students who would tell him right off the bat that they didn’t believe in God, hoping to be rid of him for the next four years. But Wright wouldn’t let them off the hook so easily. “Which God don’t you believe in?” he would ask. This usually took them by surprise and got them to think for a minute. Most of them then described the God they didn’t believe in. Almost always this non-God was something of a dyspeptic, white-bearded curmudgeon who sat on a cloud and hurled thunderbolts at anyone who seemed to be having fun. Wright would listen to their description and then respond that he didn’t believe in that God either. A conversation often ensued in which the idea of who God really is–and who God isn’t–was more deeply explored.
Q: Before I ask you who God is, could I ask you another question first?
A: Of course! You can ask anything you want, remember? That’s the whole point of the book!
Q: Okay. Where did God comefrom?
A: Um, actually, I meant to say you can ask any question except that one.
Q: Why? If we assume God exists, it shouldn’t be hard to explain where he came from.
A: Well, no one knows for sure, but we’re looking into it. Okay?
Q: Already with the joking?
A: What if I told you we suspect he came from Canada?
Q: Can you be serious?
A: Sorry. But this is one of those frustrating questions that elude an easy answer. Even to try answering it, I have to get into some heavy concepts. I just feel it’s a little early in the book to get so heavy.
Q: If it gets too heavy, I can always skip ahead to the next section, can’t I?
A: I suppose so.
A: Okay, here goes. The first thing we have to understand when we ask a question like where did God come from is that God exists outside of time and space.2 In fact, in case you hadn’t heard, he created time and space.
Q: Yes, I’d heard that.
A: And of course we exist inside time and space. So if God is outside time and space, and we are inside them, then trying to figure out where God came from gets pretty complicated. It’s certainly more complicated than trying to figure out where, say, Barry Manilow was born.
Q: Then I’ll assume Barry Manilow is not God?
A: Not that Barry Manilow is not an amazing performer! But, no, he’s not God. And so when we’re talking about God and where he came from, we can’t just say Canada or Paramus. It’s not that simple. However, there is one thing we can say, and that is that God always existed. He existed before time existed and before the universe existed. He had to, since he’s the one who created time and space. He’s eternal, and he exists in eternity, which is a completely different dimension, if not several other dimensions.
Q: Okay, so what kind of a world was it before time and space existed?
A: I’m not sure there was a world. But whatever it was like, we know there were no watches.
Q: Because there was no time.
A: Bingo. And no closets, because there was no space. Ha. But beyond that, we’re kind of stumped. On this question, we face almost exactly the same difficulty that scientists face in trying to understand what existed before the so-called Big Bang, which is when they say time and space began.
Q: And who or what do they say was behind the Big Bang?
A: They can be very touchy on that subject. Let’s just say it happened, okay?
Q: But what were you saying about scientists being stumped by what happened before time and space existed?
A: I was saying that scientists can theoretically look back to the very first fraction of a fraction of a second when the Big Bang happened–and can describe what the universe was
like in its first few moments. But they can’t go back before then. They hit a wall, so to speak. It’s what scientists call a “singularity,” a point beyond which it’s impossible to go. And to get back to your question about where God came from, when we look for an answer to that question, we hit a similar wall.
Q: So we’re stuck.
A: Yes. You and I can’t see before the beginning of time and space any more than a scientist can. But we can know that, according to the Bible, God existed before then because he exists outside time and space.
Q: You were right. This is kind of heavy for the beginning of the book.
A: Well, you could have skipped ahead.
Q: Okay, now that we got that out of the way, who exactly is God?
A: In one sense, this is an odd question. God is God. But so many people mean different things when they say “God” that it’s important to clarify his identity if we can.
Q: Right. So who is he?
A: Well, I assume we’re talking about the God of the Bible, and the God of the Bible actually has many names. Usually he’s called Jehovah, which is just another way of saying Yahweh.
Q: But can’t I use whatever name I like? And why do I even have to use the word God? What about Energy or The Force or something like that?
A: First of all, if we’re talking about the God of the Bible, we’re talking about a God for whom names are extremely important. In fact, in a few places in the Bible, when something significant happens to a person, God gives that person a new name. In the book of Genesis, after God reveals himself to Abram, he changes Abram’s name to Abraham. And in the New Testament, Jesus tells Simon that his new name will be Peter, which means “rock.”3 Those are just two examples. Names have a lot of meaning in the Bible, so we’d have to assume that God wants us to take his name seriously too.
Q: If you say so.
A: In fact, many Jewish people take God’s name so seriously that they won’t even write or say the word Yahweh, because for them the name of God is holy. They can write it without the vowels, using just the four consonants, but they will never write out the whole word.
Q: But Christians are free to say it and write it?
A: Yes, but for Christians too, God’s name is holy. In the Lord’s Prayer, when Jesus prays to God the Father, he says, “Hallowed be thy name.” Hallowed is another word for “holy,” so Jesus himself is pointing out that God’s name is holy and that we should acknowledge that when we pray. We’ll come back to what holiness means later, but the point is that we are supposed to take God’s name very seriously. There is power in every name, and especially in God’s name. In the Old Testament, it was said that the one who comes “in the name of the LORD” is blessed, and when Jesus entered Jerusalem before he was crucified, the people lining the streets identified him as “he who comes in the name of the Lord!” If you’re around Christians, you will often hear them pray “in Jesus’ name.” The name itself has power and authority. If you were in a country that had a monarchy and someone said, “I come in the name of the king!” his words would have the same effect as if the king himself were standing there. His authority would be present in an emissary who comes in the king’s name. It’s just like that when we use the name of God. God’s authority is somehow present in his name, which is another reason the Ten Commandments forbid taking God’s name in vain. God’s name is too holy and too important to throw around lightly.
Q: While we’re on the subject, what exactly does it mean to “take God’s name in vain”?
A: Most folks think it means swearing, but taking God’s name in vain means using God’s name lightly–whether you say “Jesus!” when you slam your finger in a car door or whether you simply say “God!” when you are horrified at something. If we really understood how holy and powerful God’s name is, we would never use it lightly, or “take his name in vain,” to use the old-fashioned term. As I said, this goes far beyond swearing. We are supposed to revere God’s name, but most people in our culture have completely lost sight of what that means. The Bible makes it very clear that there is power in God’s name. Demons tremble and cower at God’s name. You have to wonder what they know that we don’t.
Q: I understand the idea that God’s name is important. But I’m still not sure why he can’t be called whatever we want to call him.
A: One reason is that God can’t be whoever we want him to be. We have to know who we’re talking about when we’re talking about God. He can’t be some entity that we’ve made up, a God created in our own image, so to speak. He’s real; he’s not just an idea. But let’s try something. Tell me who you have in mind when you’re talking about God, and maybe we can figure out who you mean.
Q: Well, I know that if he’s God, he has to be good. And loving. And he has to be fair.
A: That rules out calling him Satan, right? Or Lucifer or Mephistopheles or Beelzebub. Just in case you wondered if any of those names might qualify. You see how names are important? Okay, what else would you say to describe God?
Q: He’s kind, and he cares deeply about the poor and the suffering.
A: Okay, that rules out most Hindu gods.
A: Yes, absolutely. It also rules out the ancient Greek and Roman gods and the Egyptian gods. In fact, it rules out all the pagan gods. Zeus and Thoth and Ra and Neptune and Mars and Venus and that whole gang are not on any level interested in the poor and the suffering. What else?
Q: When I say “God,” I’m thinking about someone who cares about me–and keeps his eye on me.
A: Well, that definitely rules out The Force or any impersonal deities along those lines, which are closer to a kind of Eastern or New Age version of God. Eastern religions and New Age religions don’t have in mind a God who is a person and who created us in his image. Their idea of God isn’t a deity who knows you and knows what you’re going through and cares about your difficulties. So far the God you’re describing is definitely the God of the Bible. No other God meets your description. And as I said earlier, his name is Jehovah and Yahweh. He has a lot of other names, but the bottom line is that now we know who we are talking about and who we’re not talking about.
Q: What does Jehovah mean? Or Yahweh?
A: In the book of Exodus when Moses encounters the burning bush and talks to God, Moses asks God who he is. In giving his name, God speaks the Hebrew word Yahweh–what we sometimes call Jehovah. It is best translated as “I AM” or “I AM WHO I AM.”
Q: That’s not much of a translation. In fact it sounds more like a riddle than a name.
A: It really is hard to translate, but Yahweh means something like “I am who I am” or “he who will always be.”
Q: That doesn’t do much to clear this up.
A: Well, all these phrases carry the superimportant idea that God is self-existent and eternal, which takes us back to where we started. He’s the God who is outside time and space and who has always existed. But he communicates with us, who are inside time and space. That right there is really at the core of who God is. He’s the God who leaves eternity and enters time because he wants to connect with us–whom he loves. It’s all through the Bible. We see it happening when he tells Abram to leave his home and set out on a journey to who knows where. And we see it when Moses encounters God at the burning bush. Of course, we see it most obviously and most dramatically when Jesus came into the world. When Jesus entered time and space, he changed human history forever. It’s all pretty heavy, the more you think about it.
Q: Heavier than I thought, that’s for sure.
A: It’s crucial to know that God is real and that he can’t and won’t be just whoever we want him to be. It’s up to each of us to find out who he is and what he’s like. The idea is that we are supposed to get to know him and become more and more like him. But instead of doing that, we sometimes try to make God more like us. That’s backward. He is who he is, and what we want him to be or not be isn’t going to change him. Unlike, say, Mr. Potato Head.
Q: Okay, how exactly is God not like Mr. Potato Head?
A: With Mr. Potato Head, we accept the basic shape, but the rest is up to us. And of course we make him look the way we want by putting on whichever hat and glasses and eyebrows we like best.
Q: I always use the little pipe.
A: Whatever. The point is that we’re supposed to do that with Mr. Potato Head, but if we try it with God, it won’t work. We can’t say, “I like the part about his being good and just and loving, so I’ll start there. But I’ll change the part about his telling me what to do with my body or telling me that all religions aren’t equal.” With God, we have to take the whole package. If he truly is God, and if he loves us and knows us, then we can trust him with the things that might puzzle us or rub us the wrong way. If he’s God, we have to deal with him as he is, not as we want him to be.
Q: But just handing over control to a God you can’t even see can be a bit frightening.
A: Right, but if we don’t, we are effectively saying that we’re in control, which is like putting ourselves in God’s place. If we want to know who God is, we have to understand that we’re not him. We answer to God, not vice versa. But the good news is that he really is God. So we can relax and trust him. He is the source of all beauty and joy and goodness and truth and justice. So even if there is something about the God of the Bible that makes us uncomfortable, we can still trust him with the things we’re not sure about. If he’s really God, we can let him challenge us and change us, and we can know that we’ll be moving in the right direction, toward being more like God, becoming more full of love and truth and justice.
Q: So we’ve determined that I’m not God.
A: Yes. And of course we’ve also determined that Barry Manilow–great as he is–is not God. Knowing who God is not can be the most important step toward understanding who God really is. Many of us spend years feeling resentful or indifferent toward a God who, in the end, never existed at all. If not for the joy of eventually discovering who God really is, it could all be very embarrassing.
Excerpted from Everything Else You Always Wanted to Know About God (But Were Afraid to Ask) by Eric Metaxas Copyright © 2007 by Eric Metaxas. Excerpted by permission.
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