Saturday, 24 February 2007

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

This was the title of a cover story in TIME magazine a few years ago. I was disappointed that neither the article nor any of the letters to the editor gave any satisfactory answers to the question.

"If God really is Love, how can he send people to hell? Surely God wouldn't condemn a good person, a truth-seeker, etc." This is the major recurring theme amongst arguments against the existence of God. The magical fairyland grandfather God we like to imagine certainly wouldn't do such a thing. There's only one problem with that soft-hearted, white-bearded God - on this, the question-askers will agree - he doesn't exist.

The God presented by the Bible is vastly different from our candyfloss version. There is a simple reason why he doesn't just hand out free tickets to heaven to everyone who has "some good in their heart": he can't.

What?!!! God unable to do something?! I can hear the gasps. The God of popular imagination can do anything - anything!
Ask yourself this: If God were really able to wave his magic wand and let you into heaven, scot-free, what kind of a sick-o pathetic God would he be to let his own son be killed for absolutely no reason? Or what kind of a God, when designing the rules of the universe, would say, "Okay, I could make this easy and just forgive everybody, but I'm going to make the rule that first, I have to kill my son and then everybody has to believe in him"...?

I'm going to be a little bit harsh here. Your God is a psycho. Lucky for us he doesn't exist.

Let me tell you about the God who is. He is logical. He is Love. But he is not magic. He can't, as you imagine, always get what he wants. He cannot be, even for a moment, what he is not.

"Wait a minute," I hear you saying. "Isn't God omipotent - all-powerful?"

Yes. He is. That means that his power is not limited by anything outside himself. But it is limited by who he is. To smug-grinned middleschoolers everywhere who ask, "Can God make a rock so big that he can't lift it?", the answer is, quite simply, "No. He can't." The fact is, reality limits everything. Being real limits God. In your dreams, he can do anything because he doesn't have to make sense. The God who is has to make sense.
The Bible says that God doesn't want anyone to go to hell. (2Peter 3:9) Then it goes on to tell about at least one man who has already gone there (Luke 16:23), and about many more who will.

Quite simply, God isn't getting what he wants. Why?

As human beings, we may take on traits and then supercede them. A person who is normally truthful may tell a lie to save someone they love from trouble. God is different. He is immutable, which means that he cannot change. (Hebrews 6:17) He can't be loving at the expense of being truthful. What he is he must be equally and absolutely. This is what makes him God. A person who tells a little lie may still be judged, overall, to be truthful. A God who tells a little lie must be judged by different standards - such a God would be weak, untrustworthy.

The Bible says it is impossible for God to lie. (Hebrews 6:18) As a child, I refused to believe this. I reconciled it this way: "If God wanted to, he could lie, but he doesn't want to. After all, can't God do anything?" I didn't know God. He can't lie.
Being holy, God can't ignore sin. Being God, he is in the position of having to enforce punishment for sin. Even when he doesn't want to, he has to, because of who he is. The truth is, it's not God who condemns you to hell. It's sin. God, being God, is the one who must enforce the universal laws.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Didn't he MAKE the universal laws?' That's what you wanted to say, wasn't it?

God didn't choose the laws of the universe the way we choose things. They came into being as a result of WHO GOD IS. God can't change himself, and he can't change the laws of the universe that result from who he is. He tells us what the laws are in relation to sin:
Sin, when it is finished, brings forth death. (James 1:15)
Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin. (Hebrews 9:22)

God became bound by these rules when he made human beings, because we are not like the rest of his creation. We are like God. (Genesis 1:27) We are like God because we are able to choose, and able to love. One necessitates the other. The ability to love makes us like God. The power of choice that allows us to love limits the God who is Love.

God tells us how he is limited in the book of Ezekiel. He sees the injustice and lies that have polluted the land of Israel (his chosen people, remember - he loves them dearly for Abraham's sake) and he knows that it is his responsibility to judge their sinfulness. He looks for a way out. So powerful is the choice he has given, that had even one made it against herself and for the God who is Love, she could have offered that choice to God as a way to satisfy his love and his justice. But no one did. "I looked in vain for anyone who would build again the wall of righteousness that guards the land, who could stand in the gap and defend you from my just attacks, but I found not one." (Ezekiel 22:30)

Think about it: our power to choose means that we have the power to oppose God. God gave us this power because it means that we are able to choose God, who is Love. We are able to love, as God loves. This is not a creature-power; it is a God-power. In us, God has re-created himself. But in giving us this kind of power, he has allowed us to affect the natural creation; each other; and himself. In allowing us to make choices, God has done something dangerous - he has allowed us to supercede what he wants for us. Why?
Because, with this power, we can also choose him, who is Love.
Love shares. Love gives. Love accepts hurt. Love is not afraid of danger.
That's what God did. That's what God is.
That's why Jesus had to die.

God, who is Love, created human beings who are like him, and able to choose love.
When the first humans, against God's warning, chose sin and allowed it to rule over all of humanity, God, who couldn't go against the laws of the universe and the laws of his character, had to punish sin.
But God, who is Love, became a human, and accepted his own punishment. As Jesus, he stood "in the gap" to accept the attacks that justice had to give.
The choice he gave is still ours. It is ours because we are made like God.

Just before Jesus was taken to be crucified, he prayed to God alone in the garden at Gethsemane. He prayed, "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but Yours be done." (Luke 22:42)
He didn't want to accept God's punishment for sin. It was no easy thing, even for God. But because of Love, he became a human. He exerted his power of choice, and chose Love, against his own wants. That's what love is.

That's why Jesus had to die. He is God, who is Love.

Monday, 19 February 2007

"No Scar?" Amy Carmichael on love and pain

Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail thy bright ascendent star
Hast thou no scar?

Hast thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers, spent,
Leaned me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that encompassed me, I swooned;
Hast thou no wound?

No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the master shall the servant be
And pierced are the feet that follow Me;
But thine are whole: can he have followed far
Who has nor wound nor scar?

Amy Carmichael,

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Love: a working definition

For a few weeks, shiny red hearts have grown lushly out of every corner of every store; foil-wrapped flowers and red plastic lips and pink and white and purple fuzzy, twinkly, satin-y hearts quickly and thoroughly invaded the last bastion of public space and ruled the known world. But as Valentine's Day fades to make room for lilliput eggs and stuffed bunnies, I have been mulling this question: What is love, really? Here is, as promised, my working definition:
Love happens when i make the choice to serve another at my own expense.
Who among you has felt the rush of consolation that comes to one who stands with open arms when he most wants to hold on tight? Who knows the strange pleasure that underlies the bitterness of losing what he desperately wants for the sake of the one he loves; or the rising joy in the heart of the one who takes the difficult road to give rest to the one he loves? This is the strange paradox of love: he who seeks his own pleasure loses it, becoming more and more trapped; while he who seeks another's pleasure finds joy at the heart of pain.
The Bible says that though I give my body to be burned, having not love, it gets me nowhere. Only love is enough for God. Only love. Let us love deeply, without thought for the tender self whose death knell rings as love takes flight. Let us love, unafraid of the cost!

Friday, 9 February 2007


I have sought beauty in the dusts of strife
I have sought meaning for the ancient ache
And music in the grinding wheels of life;
Long have I sought, and little found as yet
Outside this truth, that Love alone can make
Earth beautiful, and life without regret.
-Arthur Stringer

Friday, 2 February 2007

How God is limited

When I was younger, I thought of God as a kind of magician – the most powerful magician there was. As such, he could do anything – anything! – he wanted to do. What he didn’t do, he didn’t want to do. Absolutely nothing limited him. He could perform any magic at all, and he was good and kind so of course he always used his powers for good. My imagination was fully satisfied with the awesomeness of such a hero – I wasn’t at all perturbed by the fact that as a God, he was completely unreasonable.
I have come to understand a few things about reality. It is not the shifting, shadowy thing we think it. Francis Schaeffer describes it this way: A is not non-A. In other words, God is limited, not as we are, by what is greater; but by himself. He can only be what he is; he cannot be what he is not. He is no less powerful because he cannot sin, nor because he cannot change what he is. He is no magician, because his power lies not in art, but within himself. Because it lies within, it can never be used outside the parameters set by who God is. This is why God CAN’T sin. He CAN’T ignore my sin. He CAN’T erase what has been done. My God had been, at times, non-God. He was outside reality. The God of the Bible dwells fully in reality.
Jesus, on his way to the cross, stopped alone in the garden of Gethsemane to cry to his father. What he prayed was this, “If there is ANY other way, let me have it. Take this away from me…nevertheless, I will do what you want, not what I want.” Could God have wanted his son to die and be punished by him?
There was NO other way. Not for God, the most powerful being in the universe. The great imperative of sin is death; blood. The Bible says, “…without the shedding of blood, there is no remission for sin.” “Sin, when it is finished, brings forth death.” It had to be satisfied, at our cost or his.
Love meant that it had to be at his cost. The God who is love had to choose death, not because he just stupidly and unreasonably loved me SO much; but because he is both just and love. He couldn’t erase sin. He couldn’t ignore it. He couldn’t stop loving. He had to die to satisfy the claims of sin. God HAD to.
But God can’t choose for me. He has already given me that privilege and that responsibility. He can’t force me to choose him with a wave of his wand. He is far too reasonable. He can’t be unreasonable. He can't be non-God.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Eve's choice and mine

I asked the kids in my Korean/English Bible class last Friday night who the first person was. As always, Grace put up her hand, leaning my way and panting earnestly. I knew what her answer would be – what it always is. I looked her way and she strained harder, wiggling her fingers and whispering, “Teacher! Teacher!”
I nodded at her.
She smiled broadly and contentedly. I had to laugh. Grace has taught me an important lesson. She knows that no matter what the question, Jesus is always the answer!

Annie, another little girl in the same class, has taught me another important lesson. For her, the answers aren’t nearly as important as the questions – and the most important question is always “why?” That’s why she was the first to put up her hand when I was telling the group what the book of Genesis tells us about Adam and Eve and the beginning of trouble in the world.
“Why did God make such a terrible tree?”
“It wasn’t the tree that was terrible, Annie. It was Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God that was terrible.”
“Why did God put it there if He didn’t want them to eat the fruit?”

Have you ever dared ask God such a question?

For a split second, I panicked. I had twenty-four kids listening intently – which alone was a miracle of proportions sizeable enough to drive all reason from my head – and I didn’t know what to say. I prayed, well, kind of prayed – it was more like an “Aaagh!” in God’s direction – and he told me what to say. (Don’t ask me how he told me so fast, I just know that the lights were turning on in my brain a nanosecond before the words were coming out of my mouth. This was God’s answer, in my words:
Annie, nice question. Keep thinking like that and you’ll know me someday. I put that tree there in the garden on purpose. I did that not because I wanted Adam or Eve to sin –ever! I did it because I gave Adam and Eve a gift I didn’t give to any other creatures, and that tree would let them use it.
The gift I gave Adam and Eve is the same one I gave you and every human being. You are all very, very special, because you are like me in a way no other creature can be. I have given you the gift of CHOICE. Choice involves having two things: a will, and the ability to supercede your own will. Sometimes people think that doing what you want is the same as having a choice – it isn’t! The animals do what they want, but they can never overcome their own wants.
Remember when Noah built that great ark? I told the animals to go to Noah and get on the ark. He didn’t have to trap them or lure them on – they just obeyed me. They obeyed me because they are my creatures, and I am God. Ah, obedience is a beautiful thing, and it resulted in a beautiful variety of animals being saved through the flood. The animals did what I made them to do. But how many people obeyed me? Only eight. Only eight people in the world got on that ark. The others made a choice. I gave them that choice and I can never take it back.
I suppose your next question is another “why?”, like “Why is choice so important?” Annie, only humans can love as I love. If I made Adam and Eve without the ability to sin, they would have obeyed me, followed me – but they could never love me or each other. Because I made them like me, they (and you!) are part of the deepest, most beautiful thing in the universe – love. I have shown you what love is in the way I created the trees, the mountains, the oceans, the stars…but none of my other creations can join me in loving.
Love hurts. It does! It hurts me, too! In fact, love means choosing to accept hurt in order to give good to someone else. If it doesn’t cost anything, it isn’t really love.
Eve didn’t want to give up the fruit I told her not to eat. She chose her own will instead of choosing me. Adam did, too. This was the beginning of trouble in the world. When they chose sin, they became sinners. It was a great tragedy. My beautiful creation – ruined because I gave choice! Was it a mistake? Never. I hate the sin that Adam and Eve allowed in, because it destroys all that is beautiful and clean and unselfish. But the choice – that is the door for love.
Now all human beings have become sinners. They are sinners because their parents are sinners. Just as dogs have baby dogs and cats have baby cats, sinners always have baby sinners! You didn’t make a choice to be one, you were just born that way. So what about YOUR choice? Yes, yes. Adam and Eve made a choice, but what about you? Just as their choice landed my whole creation in trouble, my Son, Jesus, has made a choice that will rescue it. Adam took away your choice, but Jesus gave it back. Now, you can choose your way – or me. This is the same choice that Adam had.
When I chose to love you, I had to choose against myself. I had to choose to punish my own, dear, innocent son. It wasn’t easy, but it was love. When you choose me, against yourself, you will finally be free from the slavery of sin. You will be able to do what my other creatures can’t do; you will be like me, able to give even what costs… You will love as I love!
Yes, Annie, that tree I put in the garden was a door. It was a door that let sin and death enter my perfect creation. But if I didn’t put it there, there would be no love. You have a great gift, because you can love, like God. But remember that a great gift comes with a great responsibility. With your choice you can go against me.
But choosing me, you have love and life.