Interacting with a god is a tricky thing. Not least of all because by definition a being outside of our dimensional constraints would be incomprehensible to us. Our minds simply cannot conceive of a god. Imagine that a drawing was truly two dimensional (it is not, really, because the thin layer of ink constitutes height, no matter how insignificant). A line that existed in two dimensions only – breadth and length – could never conceive of a three dimensional cube. The very concept would be unimaginable to it because it would have no experience nor language with which to begin engaging. It might have a faint notion of something more, but because the idea would have to be filtered through its limited understanding, it would only ever know the cube in a problematic and severely limited way. To the line, it would seem like the cube was invisible, even if that cube was hovering just above it. And the only time that the line could engage at all with the cube, or even know of the cube’s existence, would be if the cube chose to touch the surface of the two-dimensional world. Even then, the line would only understand the cube in two dimensions, seeing only a point. Likewise, we are utterly incapable of knowing God. The only way we could engage with God at all would be if He chose to touch the surface of our world. Even then, we would only see in part.
So, as I have said before, for me, any philosophising about the existence or non-existence of God is pointless, or at least – at best – a meaningless albeit stimulating exercise. If a God exists, we can never know Him. We might – if said God chose to step into our world and give us a limited glimpse – come to see the outermost tip of the corner of the cube that is God. Otherwise, nothing.
So if you are searching for God, it must entail an assessment of incarnation claims. I like Christmas, because I believe Jesus’ claims to be God. And I know that this does not give me anything even closely resembling a comprehensive knowledge of God, who must remain – from my pathetically finite perspective, anyway – fundamentally unknowable. But it does give me a glimpse, which in turn brings hope. Hope that this sorry world can be redeemed.
And I phrase it like that deliberately. I do not speak of individual redemption, but the restoration of a world – a fundamental change in the nature of our existence, of which individuals are only a small part. You see, I believe that our understanding of why God would choose to give us a glimpse shapes how we think of Him, and therefore how we behave. And I think we are getting a lot of it wrong.
My church upbringing held constantly before me an image of God, who was both absolutely just and absolutely loving. In sermon after sermon, a court-room drama played out before me. I heard about how God’s sense of absolute justice had to be satisfied and how Jesus, satisfying God’s sense of absolute love, willingly took the punishment that was rightfully mine. Thus both God’s justice and love were expressed absolutely. I bought it. I don’t anymore.
To explain why not, let me take you on a bit of a theological journey. I will unpack the key ideas in future posts, but for now a broad overview will suffice.
It starts in the 11th century with Anselm, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until his death in 1109. I need to point out that in terms of theological history, this is relatively recent – a full millennium after Jesus. It is Anselm who is the originator of what is termed the Satisfaction model of Atonement, which I outlined above. It is a significant departure from the views predominating in the early church, which ought to prompt anyone genuinely seeking to investigate the claims of Jesus to raise an eyebrow.
There are several problems and inconsistencies with the Satisfaction model. Apart from the fact that if Jesus was punished instead of us, then absolute justice was not served (the real perpetrators are let off scot-free), the model just doesn’t hold up to logical scrutiny. It makes a number of erroneous assumptions.
The first one that I wish to emphasise, is that the Satisfaction model is predicated on the assumption that God operates from a retributive justice paradigm. That is that each crime must be punished with a level of violence commensurate to the crime. It assumes that the sole purpose of a judicial system is to meet the wronged person’s need for compensation. I should not need to point out that this is an extremely narrow and problematic view. Justice, in its truest sense, recognises that there is never only one victim in a crime. A good judicial system must protect not only the rights of the victims, but the rights of the perpetrators and, indeed, of the whole of society. For crime (or, for that matter, sin), is never an issue that affects only the victim. Restorative justice recognises that the ramifications of criminal activity reach far beyond the incident that prompted the trial. Pre-existing problems in society created an environment in which the crime could take place, and many who were not direct participants in the incident will be affected adversely, whether or not they deserve to be. Justice means considering all of that. It cannot limit itself to one incident, but ought constantly to seek out ways to reconstruct society so that criminal inclinations are not afforded a breeding ground, and to diminish the impact of crime on ‘innocents’. It is not only about the judge, but about the law-makers and the police force and their relationships to their communities. Justice is more than an event. It is a state of being. I do not accept that God – if He does hold absolute justice sacred – would endorse a retributive justice system, let alone participate in one.
Indeed, if we look at the life of Jesus, and accept that he is a picture of God, we see this to be true:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5: 38-39, 43-45).
That is radical! It speaks to me of a God who scorns retributive justice; of a God who recognises that the only way to overcome an evil world is to live a life of love. It is a powerful reminder that retribution only perpetuates the cycle of suffering, as victims seek tit for tat. It compels us to the recognition that love is more effective than pain in driving changes in people’s hearts, and thus in transforming society into a more just one. Consider how Jesus handles his arrest (Matthew 26:47 – 56):
47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.
50 Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
55 In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
The version that Luke records (Luke 22) has Jesus healing the servant’s ear. Nothing in this account speaks to me of a God who demands retribution. So why do we insist that he does?
To answer that, we need to understand the extent to which Anselm’s theology was shaped by the dominant worldview of Christian medieval Europe, where piety and virtue were prized above all, underpinned by the notion that the primary purpose of Jesus’ incarnation was to procure salvation from sin for individuals and to push them towards a life of holiness. The emphasis was on being pure so as to be acceptable to God. In such a context, where the justice model was brutal and retributive, but where it must have been clear that nobody could be absolutely pure all of the time, despite God seeming to demand it, it would be easy to imagine God as an austere judge and Jesus as a wily but gentle lawyer. It is a belief still prevalent in most western evangelical churches today.
But when I reflect on what how Jesus spoke about his purpose on earth, I don’t see any trace of a theology centred on personal salvation and being rescued from hell. I do see a lot of talk about restoring the “Kingdom of God”. I see promises of restoration and healing, expressed in action in the many miracles Jesus performed. But it seems to me that Jesus’ fight was not with individual sinners so much as with a world system where the power of sin continued to oppress and enslave people. His mission seems to me to be not so much about rescuing sinful people from hell as it is about restoring a world broken by sin. Consider this extract from Luke 4:
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Later in that chapter, Luke records this:
42 At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. 43 But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” 44 And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.
The response all of this demands from us is not intellectual assent to magical belief that somehow Jesus has subverted cosmic justice. If that is all that ‘belief in Jesus’ requires, then it is no wonder that so much of the church is indistinguishable from the world. No! Rather, Jesus demands that we join him in rejecting an oppressive world through foolish acts of love: eat with the sinners and tax collectors; forgive those who persecute you so that the cycle can be broken; stand up for those marginalised by sinful society by rejecting the conventions that keep people oppressed (Jesus spoke to women, touched lepers, made a Samaritan the hero in a parable, for example).
So if you are Christian, my challenge to you is this: after all the celebrations, once you have prayed and sung your choruses, when the sermons are over, when the gifts have been given and received, could anything you have done be considered counter-culture? Will the light of your radical and subversive love shine as a beacon to illuminate the injustices of an oppressive world? Will your celebrations of Jesus’ life be anything more than an intellectual assent to an outworn creed?