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God Is Not In Control

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Well, of course, God is in control. He’s the supreme being, the maker and ruler of the cosmos. How could he not be in control of what he has made? It depends somewhat on what you mean by “control.” Does God determine everything that happens? Is he responsible for earthquakes and tsunamis, witch hunts and revolutions, murders and rapes? Does he get some kind of twisted delight out of tragic accidents or childhood cancer or Covid-19 deaths? If he does not cause disaster and evil, then does he permit it? And if he permits it, isn’t that the moral equivalent of causing it?

These are deep questions, and I am ill-qualified to answer them, but like many others, I can’t help trying to come to terms with them. As a Christian who trusts God and believes he is all good all the time, it does not sit well with me to imagine he created terrible evils or permits them. Perhaps, then, he allows evil because he can’t put a stop to it. In other words, God is not in control.

I’ve written already about who rules the world. Here I would like to introduce another bit of evidence, this time from the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Your name: be hallowed; your kingdom: come; your will: be done. As in heaven, so on earth.” Yet who prays for what they already have? If God’s name is already highly esteemed, if his kingdom is already manifest throughout the world, if his will is already being done, then why make a petition of it? Christians pray for God’s will to be done because it’s not being done. How is it that omnipotence cannot do whatever it pleases whenever it pleases?

One conclusion that many people come to is simply that there is no God. This view has several advantages—a simplified morality where nothing is Good or Evil in some universal, cosmic sense but merely good or bad to or for particular outcomes in particular situations; a sense of intellectual superiority to the vast majority of mankind who throughout history has believed in some kind of god; freedom from arbitrary rules about how to live and behave; and the seductive promise that the pain and despair of existence can’t last forever.

It has disadvantages, too. Without God, there is no ultimate justice. The uncaught murderer will forever go unpunished. Without God, the longing we all have to be fully comprehended and to be loved can never be satisfied. Without God, we each and also collectively face the daunting task of deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil. Without God, there is no lasting life, no meaning to everything. We can only look forward to the heat death of the universe and perhaps—if some models are correct—an endless cycle of new universes that come into being, grow old, and die over unimaginably vast stretches of time and space.

At this point, I think it is helpful to introduce a distinction between power and authority. Power is the ability to act in a situation or context. Authority is the right to act in a situation or context. To act in a way that is good and right requires both power and authority. For example, a police officer might respond to a call about a domestic dispute and discovers that one of the participants is an undocumented immigrant. However, her city is a sanctuary city, and the police are specifically prohibited from detaining undocumented immigrants unless they are in violation of a city ordinance. The police officer has the power to act but not the authority.

The opening chapters of Genesis reveal a God who, in the act of creating, made creatures enough like himself that he could commune with them and love them. He subjected the world he had made to their authority, and when they rebelled against his good governance, they ceded that authority to God’s enemy. Thus Satan became the ruler of this world, and by his schemes and deceptions he has brought much evil into the world.

If God were like us, his judgment would have been swift and severe. He would have overpowered and immediately crushed the serpent, slain Adam and Eve for their disobedience, and restarted the whole project afresh. But God is not like us. He responded with love like a parent with disobedient children. He gave them consequences for their actions and waited to see what they would do. Would they repent and seek to re-establish the communion they had had with him? Or would they continue in rebellion? Throughout history, some have chosen repentance and some have chosen rebellion1Of course, the Christian understanding is that everyone defaults to rebellion, but some choose repentance and life. In his efforts to persuade rebellious humanity, God even sent his own son as an emissary, not with violence and threats, but with gentleness and love, to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms and surrender. He commissioned his church to the same task, calling them out from their accustomed lives to live a new life in obedience to God by displaying his own loving character in their words and deeds.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

For this reason, those who claim to be Christians but act with judgment and condemnation toward others have not rightly understood the mission of the church. The church has not been tasked with making society righteous by advocating for laws that reflect Bronze Age values from the Law of Moses. Indeed, Paul taught that the Law no longer held sway over those who commit themselves to Christ2Read just about any of Paul’s letters but especially those to the Romans and the Galatians. Therefore, when Christians spew forth vituperation and anger toward those whose political views differ from their own, they are revealing how much their own hearts and minds are still in bondage to the sinful nature. They are still in rebellion against God, who is patient with everyone but especially with those who have never known his goodness and love. Just as parents are gentle with young children who have not yet learned how to behave but harsher with older children who certainly know better, so God has more patience with sinners who have not known him but has less patience with those who have tasted his mercy and forgiveness.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

Brennan Manning, attributed
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jesus law religion righteousness salvation sin spiritual life

Fulfilling the Law

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“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Matthew 5:17-18

One of the charges leveled at the early church—and indeed at Jesus himself—was that they taught people to ignore the demands of the Torah, referred to here as the Law and the Prophets. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts the behavior expected of his followers with the behavior demanded by the Law. He makes it clear at the outset that his intention is not to get rid of the Law or supersede it. Instead, he is going to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.

What does it mean to fulfill the Law and the Prophets?

Of course, the immediately obvious answer is that the Old Testament contains numerous references to a coming Messiah, so Jesus could be proclaiming himself to be that Messiah. But Jesus doesn’t refer only to prophecy. He refers also to Law, to the rules God gave through Moses for governing human behavior. He claims that he has come to fulfill those rules. What can it mean to fulfill the Law?

One of the repeated themes of the Old Testament is that no one is righteous. Paul summarizes it in Romans 3 where he quotes eight Old Testament passages about the universal depravity of human beings. No one, Paul claims, keeps the Law. Is it because the demands of the Law are too difficult to be kept? Is it because, as many of the poor in Jesus’ day apparently believed, only the wealthy can afford to meet the Law’s demands? Regardless the reasons, the Torah is clear that everyone is guilty of not keeping the Law.

Despite these warnings from the Torah, the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus’ day thought of themselves as keeping the Law. They were confident that by keeping the commandments and doing pious acts, they were meeting the requirements of the Law and would be saved. Jesus again and again exposed their hypocrisy and pointed out that they were deluding themselves. In fact, far from being righteous enough on their own merits, they were actually in worse shape than the “sinners” they so despised.

Jesus fulfilled the Law by keeping it, not as the Pharisees kept it by assiduously following the rules to the letter while gratifying their own lust and greed and desire for power. No, he kept it as it was intended: as a guide to loving God and other people. He kept it by doing good. In the end, he fulfilled the Law by meeting its demands for justice in his own body, a blameless, unblemished Lamb sacrificed for human beings’ inability to fulfill the Law on their own. To those who by trusting in him accept his sacrifice, he gives the ability by his Spirit to see him as he is and become like him, doing good wherever they go.

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complacency hell jesus life punishment religion sin spiritual life theology

Fear of Hell

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Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man”

To me this sounds more like hell than home, but that could be because I grew up in a loving home where I almost always found comfort and security. Still, for those who believe in heaven and hell, heaven has entrance requirements; hell has none. Hell accepts all comers. Maybe that’s why Jesus said the way to hell was broad, but the way to heaven narrow. It takes no special effort to get into hell. It’s the landfill of the universe. You end up there unless you take care not to.

The word Jesus used for hell, Gehenna, was a valley near Jerusalem where certain Israelite Kings had practiced child sacrifice, burning their own sons on altars to Molech or even to Yahweh. It was associated with fire, judgment, death, and apostasy. Several times in the synoptic gospels, Jesus commented on the extravagance of efforts one needs to make to avoid Gehenna. If your hand or foot or eye hinders you from entering the kingdom of God, cut it off and discard it. It is better to enter life maimed than to be whole and cast into hell. He may have had a more literal meaning in mind given how imminent the destruction of Jerusalem was and how strongly he urged his followers to avoid lingering in the city when invading forces were marching against it. It could be that Christian doctrines about hell rest on instructions to first-century followers to flee the coming destruction and to join not the resistance.

Jesus spoke of that destruction as a judgment upon the Jews. After all, their long-awaited Messiah came to them, but they did not recognize him, and instead trumped up charges of blasphemy against him and had him executed by the Romans. In the same vein, he inveighed against the Pharisees and religious leaders, implying that they were children of hell and that they could not escape being condemned to hell for they’re utter indifference toward the suffering of their own people. None of the passages that mention hell represent it as a place of eternal damnation for sinners. They represent it as a place of judgment for the complacent and self-righteous.

Of course, there are other passages that do not mention hell but nevertheless imply judgment or condemnation. There are the parables of the ten virgins, the talents, and the sheep and goats—all found in Matthew 25. Each of these ends with some person or groups of persons left out. The door keeper tells the five foolish virgins he doesn’t know them. The master takes the money from the wicked servant and gives it to the servant who has ten bags, then he tells those standing by to throw out the worthless servant into the darkness where there will be frustrated anger and regret. Those sorted to the Lord’s left go away to eternal punishment. Even in these stories, however, Jesus seems to be critical of complacency rather than sin. The five foolish virgins are not fornicators. The servant with the one bag of gold is no thief. The people sorted to the left claim not to have neglected their duty; they just never saw it.

It’s interesting to think about hell as punishment. We use punishment in two ways: as discipline and as retribution. As discipline, the aim is instruction. As retribution the aim is justice. Hell, conceived as a place of eternal punishment, can only be retributive. It has no disciplinary purpose. Surely an eternity of torment cannot be justified for just going with the flow! What is so bad about complacency, about not making an effort?

I think the disciplinary aspect of punishment offers a clue. We punish children so they will not experience the natural consequences of their bad actions. For example, the natural consequence of playing with fire is getting burned. We do not want our children to get burned or to burn someone else, so we punish them for playing with fire. The punishment is not as bad as the natural consequence. It is light and temporary and meant to instruct.

What if hell is the natural consequence of complacency? What if going with the flow is something only dead fish do? What if spiritual laziness leads to spiritual death as surely as physical laziness leads to poverty? Maybe God, rather than actively chastising the damned forever—and without reason, merely stops impeding their headlong rush toward self-destruction. Maybe, as C. S. Lewis once noted, there really are only two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.”

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