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Christian Essays by Webb Mealy
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What Went Wrong?
The usual Christian answer to the question of how evil and suffering came to be in the world is this: The first human beings disobeyed God, and therefore God punished them and subjected them to suffering and death. God can't tolerate or be in the presence of sin, and our ancestors, Adam and Eve, sinned. Therefore they had to be sent out of the Garden of Eden, banned the presence of God.
But according to the Bible, God can tolerate and be in the presence of sin, and in fact does tolerate sin and live in its immediate presence. To take one kind of example, in the book of Revelation Satan is called "the one who accuses our brothers and sisters in front of our God " (12.10; cf. Job 1.6ff, 2.1ff; 1 Kgs 22.19-23). In Psalm 82 we see a picture of God having a face-to-face argument with beings entrusted with judgment in his heavenly court, accusing them of mistreating people and acting unjustly. To take another kind of example, Jesus says, "The person who has seen me has seen the Father." This means, at the least, if you want to know what the Father is like, then look at Jesus and he will show you. Could Jesus tolerate being around sinful people? I think the answer to this is clearly yes, he could tolerate being around sinners, and in fact sought them out in order to reconcile them to God through himself.
We need to stop passing around the same old statements that are very often not questioned or tested, and look deeper into this matter. The root question I would like to begin with is this: What is the essence of "sin," and in what way does sin destroy the relationship between God and the created being that sins?
I propose that the original and most damaging sin is envy. Envy is what happens when created beings decide to take offense at their creator, who has shown them nothing but pure love. The created being that chooses envy towards God also envies every created being. Somehow, turning against your creator automatically involves you in turning against everything that is made by your creator. Envy is baseless hatred. Envy is the embracing of an ill will towards another being who has done nothing to harm you. It often manifests itself in the following symptom (which is the common, weaker, definition of envy in our society): I am offended to discover that another has something good that I don't have myself.
(Now notice that anger at being treated unjustly is not the same thing as envy. For example, suppose you have something I need for my well-being, and I don't have it. And suppose the reason you have it is because you have stolen it from me, or because your people have stolen it from my people. Under those conditions, my self-love and my love for my people is going to make me offended at you or your people, and my offense need not come out of or result in any ill will towards you at all.)
For human beings, the original envy happens in the Garden of Eden. The serpent tells Eve, the fruit of this tree represents something good that God possesses that you don't have. "So what?" she might have replied. "So God has something good that I don't have. If it were good for me, God would have given it to me. After all, I know that God loves me. No doubt it is good for God, but not for me, so that is why God doesn't want
me to take it. Why should I be offended that God has something good that is appropriate for God, but not for me?"
Eve only went along with the serpent because she fell into envy. Envy is irrational. If I have plenty of good things, why should I be offended that another creature has some good thing that I don't happen to possess? The answer is, it needn't. One could just as easily rejoice on another's behalf to find that they have some good thing. Envy resolves to an offense over nothing. It is at root an offense that another has good, not (as we usually mis-perceive it) an offense that I do not have good. But since it is an offense that another has good, that is to say that it is simply ill will towards the other, unhappiness that they should prosper. Ill will wishes the other not to prosper. It is the opposite of agape love (agape is a Greek word from the New Testament, pronounced ah-gah-pay), which is the free desire for the well-being of the other.
Jesus calls envy the "evil eye." The condition of your eye represents the attitude with which you look on another, whether it be God or a created being. Thus to look on another with an "evil eye" is to approach another with a fundamental attitude of enmity. Compare these two teachings:
The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light inside . But if your eye is evil, then your whole body will be dark inside. So if the light in you is darkness, that is some real darkness (Mt. 6.23).
The following comes as the end of the parable of the workers in the vineyard:
The workers who were hired about an hour from the end of the day came and got a standard day's pay. So when those came who were hired at the beginning of the day, they expected to get more. But each one of them got the standard day's pay too. When they got it, they started to complain against the owner. "These men have just worked one hour, and you have made them equal to those of us who did most of the work and endured the hottest part of the day." But he said to them, "Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for the standard wage? Take your pay and go. I want to give the person who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do whatever I choose with my own money? Or is your eye evil because I am good? (Mt. 20.15).
Envy, as I said, is the polar opposite of agape love. In the parable here, the owner shows agape love to those workers who never got a job all day long, by giving them enough pay to feed themselves that evening. This generosity becomes the occasion for bitterness both towards the owner and towards the one-hour workers, but not because either of those parties has done wrong. The problem is that the other workers have an "evil eye," a fundamental attitude of stinginess with good. They are unhappy that free grace has been given to another creature. They don't know what agape love is.
Envy is often at the root of murder. Cain became embittered against Abel and murdered him not because Abel had done anything against him, but simply because Abel had received something good: God's approval (see Genesis 4).
In summary, envy is irrational and baseless hatred, and it is the deepest, most fundamental sin. It created the original tearing of relationship between human beings and God, and thereafter it became the root of all sorts of irrational embitterments between human beings and other human beings, such as racism, classism, nationalism, sexism, and so on.
That's Stage 1 in my answer to the question, "What is sin?"
Stage 2 starts with the assumption that envy breaks relationship with God, and goes on from there to ask, what kinds of destructive living strategies do human beings get into when they try to live outside of relationship with God?
Let me begin Stage 2 by summarizing what has already been said. I outlined my understanding that envy is the primal sin. I called "ordinary envy" a manifestation, or symptom, of a deeper attitude of baseless enmity which breaks relationship first with God, and then with all creatures. I called envy the opposite of agape love.
The way I break it down, are two dimensions of sin. The first and deepest is envy, as discussed, and the other is idolatry. The relationship between these two dimensions is brought out when God says through the prophet Jeremiah,
"My people have committed two sins: They have rejected me, their artesian spring, and they have dug cisterns for themselves, cisterns that can't hold water." (Jer. 2:13)
I will now briefly outline the second dimension of sin: idolatry. (There are some other dimensions, but in my opinion these two are by far the most important to understand.) Idolatry comes into human lives because envy, once it has come in, completely disrupts the flow of relationship
between human beings and God. And that inevitably creates a whole series of knock-on effects. In a state of envy, that is, enmity, towards God, human beings instinctively try to deny themselves the gifts of God's spiritual provision for their needs, and so they get trapped into sick patterns of trying to meet their needs elsewhere. In doing this, they fall desperately short of the plan God has for their wholeness. They continuously hurt themselves, one another, and other living things. This searching for, or trying to create, spiritual nutrition in every direction except for God is the essence of idolatry. Idolatry does not meet the needs of those who embrace it. But because they don't turn to God, they keep trying in vain to satisfy their thirst with things from the creation and from themselves.
In order to understand the various forms of idolatry, one has to understand the kinds of spiritual nutrition that they strive in vain to replace. An idol is a counterfeit, a creature-generated imitation of God or of something good that comes from God. So if we can name the essential needs of human beings, which can only be met in right relationship with God, then we can tear the cover off of the imitations which are unconsciously the source of most
I take my clue from Paul, who says there are three good things that last forever: faith, hope and love (see 1 Cor. 13). These things will remain, he says, even when everything else we know about being human has passed away. These are the permanent divine values, not the incidental or relative values that change from time to time, from place to place, from culture to culture, or from person to person. Human beings will always need these, and they will always have these, forever in God. So what are they, and how do they supply our needs?
To Love is to value the life and well-being of another, and to relate to them on the basis of that value. To love someone is to esteem them, to value them, to be committed to their well-being. Human beings are created with a fundamental need to have a sense of their own esteem, and because they are created as God's own children, they cannot meet that need without receiving and knowing God's love, which is communicated through the Holy Spirit, through the whole creation, and through other human beings.
To have Faith is to trust what is outside one's control. God is the first and foundational recipient of faith, because God is totally outside our control, yet God is faithful and trustworthy. We can put our faith in God precisely because God loves us and esteems us. Human beings are created with a fundamental need for a sense of security (the inner knowledge that I can rest in trust). Because we are created as God's own children, we can never achieve a sense of security without knowing and depending on God's trustworthiness.
To Hope is to embrace the motivation to expend energy and take risks when there is no immediate repayment. Just as whales often fill their lungs with air and descend to do their hunting or traveling, so human beings are designed to be able to expend themselves in the expectation that they will be replenished--that is, that they will receive back more of what they have expended. God is the great hope of all things, and God is the One who teaches all things in creation to hope. Hope is motivation for living in the present that is rooted in future good. Human beings are created with a fundamental capacity and need for hope, and when they reject God, their hope withers.
Without God, all beings starve for faith, hope and love. To describe the second dimension of sin is to describe how human beings try to feed themselves with replacements of these built-in gifts of God.
In my understanding of sin as idolatry, I follow John, who sums up his whole first letter by saying, "Little children, keep yourselves away from idols" (1 Jn 5.21). In one of the key verses of the whole Bible, John in the same letter presents the love of God over against three forms of idolatry:
"Don't love the world or the things in the world. If somebody loves the world, they don't have the father's love in them. Everything in the world--
the lust of the flesh,
the lust of the eyes,
and the pride of life,
is not from the Father but from the world. And the world is disappearing, and so are its obsessions. But the person that does God's will lasts forever." (1 Jn 2.15-17)
John has here named the three idolatries by which the "world," that is, human society in a state of enmity against God, attempts to replace faith, hope and love. (When John says not to love the world, he is not saying that we are not to love and value and be grateful for God's creation, but that we are not to love the God-rejecting value-system of the human "world.")
The "lust of the flesh" is the idol that attempts to replace Hope. Apart from God, a human being is unable to find motivation to invest selflessly in the future. The lust of the flesh despairs of future good, and seeks instant gratification or pleasure:
"Let's eat, drink and indulge ourselves, because tomorrow we're going to die."
Pleasure and gratification are built into the universe by God, so that they shower us with good when we live in harmony with God and our fellow created beings. When we relate rightly to our fellow beings, good feelings come. But the lust of the flesh short-circuits the gifts of God and seeks pleasure directly, while avoiding the building of right relationship. Empty of love, lust unconsciously objectifies:
"I'd like a piece of that."
Lust of the flesh is the seeking of pleasure for its own sake, rather than seeking the good thing which brings pleasure along with it as a free gift. Most of what we call "addiction" can be understood as slavery to the lust of the flesh.
The "lust of the eyes" attempts to replace Faith. The person of faith continuously trusts God and what they can't control in God's creation to meet their needs ("Give us this day our day's food," the Lord's Prayer). The person without faith in God tries to achieve a sense of security by hoarding resources and controlling things outside themselves (see Mt. 6:19-21, 24-34). This, like the lust of the flesh, is false nutrition, and leaves the person hungry all the time. People who are addicted to the lust of the eyes are constantly "shopping," whether in fantasy or in reality. They are constantly "on the lookout" (remember, lust of the eyes) for new possessions, new things, new people, and new "territories" that they can bring under their control. "Getting" something or someone doesn't achieve any sense of peace and security, so such people leave a trail of broken and abandoned things, territories and people behind them. (See the story of Amnon and Tamar in 2 Sam. 13 for a classic example of the "lust of the eyes" and its effects.)
The "pride of life" attempts to replace Love. When we accept it, God's love gives us a deep-rooted sense of our own loveableness, esteem and value. But when we refuse to let God love us, we are constantly desperate to fill an inner void in self-esteem. The person who serves the idol of the pride of life tries to achieve esteem by comparing his or her value to another created being, at the expense of that being. Pride competes. Pride seeks a sense of value and status by stepping on the heads of others. The Pharisee in Jesus' story is indulging in the idolatry of pride when he prays, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people. . ." That is, he takes his sense of personal value from the illusion that he is worth more, that he is "more worthy," than others. Paul speaks in various places of "boasting," which is typified by the claim, "I am or have such-and-such, therefore I am better than you [or him, or her, or them]." Pride, like the other two forms of idolatry, does not satisfy. I get in a cycle of trying harder and harder to get validity points, or to become better than others, but I never find that the void is filled. Pride, in despising others, cannot escape despising itself. There is no cure for pride except to come before God with nothing but oneself, and accept God's total, free esteem.
Here is a little table that encapsulates what I have just been saying:
sense of security
ability to expend oneself
sense of acceptance
lust of eyes
lust of flesh
pride of life
chronic insecurity, obsession with controlling people and getting more "things"
despair, addiction, lack of energy
chronic self-rejection, empty relationships
First the Bad News . . . Then the Good News
In the essay, What Went Wrong, it was argued that the deepest, most serious "sin" of human beings is envy, or baseless hatred. Envy, when it is taken into oneself, is a poison that destroys relationship with God, with others, and ultimately with self. The creature that turns away from God to envy also turns sinks into envy towards all that God has made. Such a being cannot help but be destructive, because it unconsciously looks at all things outside itself as opponents to be conquered, enslaved, and/or destroyed. In the long run, humanity at enmity with God is both murderous and suicidal.
Perhaps this will seem to be an exaggeration of human sinfulness. Jesus, however, calls Satan, the one credited with introducing envy into the world in the Garden of Eden, "A murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44). He also says that the Jewish leaders who wish to kill him are acting out of a "family likeness" to Satan: "You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father" [the context is, they are looking for a way to kill Jesus]. Jesus is not saying that some people are created by God to be God's children, and that others are created by Satan to be Satan's children. He is saying that those human beings who follow the devil's example of envy demonstrate a spiritual likeness to him. Envious human beings share the devil's fundamental characteristic of baseless hostility. For this reason, it is worth realizing that the sin of the devil and of demonic beings is no more sinful than that of human beings. If you buy into envy, you are responsible for your part in it. No one has the excuse that "The devil made me do it," nor "My parents made me do it," nor "The oppressors made me do it." Jesus says,
You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'. But I say to you, don't resist the evil person. Instead, if someone wants to slap you on the right cheek, offer him the other cheek too. And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat too. . . .I say to you, love your enemies and pray for people who persecute you, in order that you may show yourselves children of your Father who is in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust. For if you only love those who love you, what reward will you get? Don't the tax-collectors do that much? Or if you are only friendly to your own people, how is that more than normal? Doesn't the whole world do that? Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:38-48).
So the fundamental problem for human beings is not that they stepped outside a line that God drew in the sand, and God rejected them and subjected them to suffering and death because of God's offense at being disobeyed. God's nature is not easily turned into enmity. Just the opposite. God is "compassionate and gracious, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining loyalty to thousands, and forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin" (Exodus 34:6-7).
If God is so inclined to forgive, then why did God not wish humanity to have access to the tree of life and live forever, after the discovery of good and evil (see Gen. 3:22-24)? Because, I submit, in learning about evil in addition to good, human beings became aware of their power, and that power was in danger of being used to do endless harm. I assert that unless God had introduced human mortality, the whole human race would have descended
into an endless hell of war and violence and torment. As it is, a Hitler does not live forever, nor do those whom he would like to torment or enslave. Mortality sets a limit on human power both to do, and to suffer, injustice. Thus, in the Book of Revelation, John hears the words, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on--yes, says the Spirit, it is in order for them to rest from their labors" (Rev. 14:13). Even Satan himself, who has "great wrath" (Rev. 12:12) and desires to
harm, cannot torment the faithful forever, nor can he himself continue on forever. Both of these limitations are a blessing.
I have said that the fundamental problem with humanity is that it has chosen a place of enmity with God--not that God has chosen a place of enmity with humanity. Consider Paul's words in Colossians:
It was the Father's good pleasure for all his fullness to dwell in Christ, and through him to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross--not only things on earth, but things in the heavens also. And although you once were strangers and enemies in your attitude, with evil ways, Christ has now drawn you into reconciliation by the death of his physical body, in order to present you before God holy and guiltless and free from accusation (Col. 1:19-22).
Here we see the fundamental problem addressed by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is not the problem of God being at enmity with humanity, but humanity being at enmity with God. It is not God that needs to be warmed up to accepting us, but we who need to be reconciled to God. Christ's loving, self-giving visit to the human race ended up in the unimaginable pain of death by crucifixion. Consider this: Christ did not die because God was the enemy and needed to be appeased in order to accept an imperfect humanity desirous of acceptance. No, Christ died because humanity was the enemy and needed to be reconciled to a loving and forgiving God. And the only way the reconciliation could take place was for the parties to meet face to face. When we faced God in Christ, we showed how deadly our enmity was. "They shall look on Me, whom they pierced" (Zech. 12:10; Rev. 1:7).
Here is Paul again, in 2 Corinthians.
God. . . reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave over to us the ministry of reconciliation. For just as God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding their disobedient acts against them, so God has also placed in us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are like ambassadors for Christ, and he is appealing to you through us. On behalf of Christ we plead with you--Be reconciled to God!
Human sin is destructive--not because God gets destructive when God's favorite ways of doing things are ignored, but because at the core of sin is a hostility that is destructive by nature. Humanity out of reconciliation with God is out of reconciliation with all of creation, and is in danger of destroying its world and itself. Does that sound strong? Consider the story of Genesis. The first murder in Genesis happens in the very next chapter after humanity's turn into enmity. Cain, the first born of the second generation kills Abel, the second born of the second generation (Gen. 4:8). Noah represents the tenth generation of the fledgling human race. By his time, the text says,
The LORD saw that the wickedness of humanity was great on the earth, and that every human intention and inner thought was nothing but evil, all the time. And the LORD was sorry for having made humanity on the earth, and was grieved down to the heart. . . . Now the earth was rotten in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked on the earth, and saw that it was rotten, for everyone on earth had become rotten in their behavior. Then God said to Noah, "The end of every living thing has come before my face, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. Now look--I am going to destroy them from the earth."
According to this account, within ten generations, the human race went from envious, to inherently murderous, to globally, corporately suicidal. The text says that God couldn't bear to watch the human race destroy itself and all of life ("the end of all flesh has come before my face, for the earth is filled with violence because of them," Gen. 6:13). As a prudent gardener trims a rose bush 'way back in the winter, or a grape arbor
after the harvest, so God trimmed the human race 'way back to the root. In the same way, says Jesus, looking to the future, "If those days hadn't been shortened, no flesh would have been saved." (Matt. 24:22). The last thing the author of Genesis or Jesus means is that if God didn't quit taking God's aggravation out by hitting humanity God would kill it. To the contrary. In each case it is being said that, without God's intervention, the human race would proceed to destroy not only itself, but also
all living things on the earth. That is how desperate the human condition is according to the Bible.
Now someone may scoff when we try to explain that things are this dangerous with the human race. But consider this question. When was the first automobile invented, and why? The answer is, the automobile was invented in 1770 by a Frenchman named Nicolas Joseph Cugnot. Cugnot was looking for a new way to transport artillery. He used the newly invented steam engine technology to power a kind of tractor that rolled along at about 3 miles per hour. This vehicle qualifies as the first automobile, because it is the very first self-propelled wheeled vehicle. As with very many breakthroughs in human technology, the first self-propelled vehicle came into existence as an aid to killing people.
In 1945, 175 years, or about six generations, later, the two most powerful inventions ever made were tested, by the United States of America. These inventions, the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb, were also tools for killing people. In this case the object was not to kill soldiers, but civilians. In two experimental blasts, three days apart, over 100,000 ordinary civilians were instantly killed in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over the next 17 years after that, less than one generation, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics raced one another to produce as many of these devices as possible. Between the invention of the very first self-propelled vehicle in 1770 and the year 1962, there were 192 years, or roughly eight generations. In October of 1962, the two most powerful leaders on earth were seriously threatening to unleash new self-propelled vehicles called ICBMs, Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. These weapons had been produced in such numbers in those short 17 years, that they now had the power to wipe out or poison nearly every living thing on the planet. According to some estimates, the present world nuclear capability is up to 2,500 times the destructive force used during the entire Second World War, or enough to kill every person on the planet fifty times over.
The skeptic may say that the story of the fall and the flood are old religious stories that come from a negative attitude towards human nature. The progress of the human race from the very first self-propelled vehicle to capability of utterly destroying itself--and seriously threatening to do it--within eight generations is an undisputed historical process. Humanity's capacity for and tendency towards self-harm is objectively real. In this context,
the imposition of mortality by God (Gen. 3:22) is recognizable as a "grave and necessary blessing."
God, Love, Justice and Anger: Some Theological Reflections
If someone asks me to give a one-sentence answer to the question, "What is God like?" I might just turn to the famous words of John the Apostle: "God is love" (Greek, agape, 1 John 4.8). In my opinion, just about everything essential to know about God and our relationship with God can be traced back to this one statement. (Notice that I say "everything essential to know," not "everything.") Let me explain.
What is "Love" (Agape)?
Love properly understood is the desire for the well-being of a person. Love is thus a motivation, a good will, not an emotional sensation. God is the creator whose every action is motivated by the desire for the well-being, the flourishing, the wholeness, of the created ones, individually and collectively.
How does God's Justice Relate to God's Love?
The answer is, God's justice flows directly out of God's love. So what is "justice"? Justice describes patterns of relationship in which all the participants relate to one another on the basis of agape love. Because of this, justice is better evoked by the open-ended notion of mutual service than by the limiting notion of equality. An illustration of this can be seen in the preaching of John the Baptist. In warning people that divine judgment (i.e. God's public testing of human justice) was coming, John described a perfect micro-example of justice: "Let the person with two shirts share with the person with none, and let the person with food do likewise" (Lk 3.11). The biblical command to "love your neighbor as yourself" is behind this advice by the Baptist, implying that I should act out of the same motivation to see the well-being of another person as I have to ensure my own well-being.
How does God's Anger Relate to God's Love?
Again the answer is, God's anger flows directly out of God's love. A lot of people would flatly deny that a loving God could indulge in anger. Even people who firmly believe that God gets angry may have an uneasy feeling that these two attitudes (love and anger) are incompatible. Remember, I said that agape love is a motivation towards acting on behalf of the well being of the loved one. Love is not a passive feeling or an emotional sensation. The key to straightening out our confusion about anger is to recognize that anger, as it applies to God, is also a motivation, not an attitude of ill will or a desire for someone's harm. In the final analysis anger will become recognizable as a direct manifestation of God's love, provided that it is understood wisely. Consider this definition of anger:
Anger is Akin to Pain
Anger is a kind of pain or discomfort that drives the one who loves to protect the beloved from unjust suffering. Bear with me as I unpack this statement.
Pain Protects from Harm
In an almost uncountable variety of ways, pain subtly guides me and keeps me out of trouble. For example, if I reach for something hot enough to burn me, I am immediately and forcefully motivated to draw my hand away by pain. If I respond to pain's motivating power rather than ignoring it, I am in nearly all cases protected from injury. Thus, as I adjust my position or activity so as to remove the threat of injury, the pain goes away, signaling me that I am safe again. The wonderful nature of pain is thus its wisdom. You don"t have to think about what to do when you experience pain: in most cases your body knows exactly what needs to be done and you do it. Sometimes this is so subtle that you don"t even notice it. For example, you will continuously but unconsciously adjust the way you walk on a long hike, and this will protect you from blisters and from ankle, knee or hip strain. (A deeply helpful book on this subject of pain as a positive thing is Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, by the famous Christian surgeon and Hanson's disease expert Paul Brand.) Some pain, of course, seems not to be helpful, but that issue cannot be addressed here.
Anger is a Form of Social Pain—Distinguishable from Aggravation
The difficulty here is that so much other stuff goes under the name of anger, and that obscures the picture. For example, suppose someone inconveniences me by mistake by spilling a cup of warm coffee down my front. I may get irritated or aggravated at them, and say that I am angry, but being irritated and unhappy at some inconvenience (and perhaps even finding a way of "blaming" the person who has inconvenienced me) is not anger in the sense that is useful for theological purposes. Again, suppose I am trying to fix some appliance, and I can"t find the tool I need. I will possibly get totally upset and agitated, but that is aggravation or exasperation that grows out of frustrated effort or powerlessness, and not anger.
Genuine, positive anger, which is attributable to God as well as to human beings, is the pain that arises when someone I love is hurt, or is under threat of being hurt, unjustly. For example, suppose I see my two children arguing, and I realize that one is putting the other down or tormenting her over and over. If I love my children, then I will get angry. When I experience this pain, I say I am angry "at" the one who is doing or threatening the injury to the other. This pain, rather than motivating me to remove myself from the threat of injury, instead motivates me to intervene towards a person in such a way as to stop them from continuing a process that leads to the injury of another. Just as our bodies often know exactly what action is necessary to avoid injury to ourselves (I called this "the wisdom of pain"), so anger based on love has its wisdom. Now unhappily, so much unloving and self-centered stuff gets mixed into everyone's experience of people's anger that we don't normally associate anger with love.
The God-given wisdom of our social pain is much undermined by unwise responses of various kinds, just as the wisdom of our bodily pain often gets obscured by harmful addictions and chronic self-destructive behaviors. Nonetheless, the wisdom of loving anger is that it motivates me to intervene in such a way as to stop the hurtful process without in turn harming the perpetrator. In other words, in the scene mentioned above, my love for both my children is equal, and my anger does not in any way change my love towards the one who is doing some injustice against the other. I oppose the one I love, but I do so by instinct in such a way as to bring their harmful behavior to a stop without injuring them. For example, I may say "stop that!" in a sharp voice, or I may even shout or grab my child by the arm and pull her away from her sister, depending on the level of danger I sense in the confrontation that I am intervening into. What I won"t do is call my child a name that tears down her self-esteem, nor will I physically injure her—that would be to join in the process of harm rather than stopping it.
Love, says the apostle Paul, "endures all in patience" (1 Corinthians 13.7), and wise anger does the same because it is a direct manifestation of love. Note the counter-example: suppose I don"t love my children, and I see one tormenting the other. Unless this inconveniences me in some way (such as being too loud or distracting) or offends my ego (I don"t want to think of myself as a person with badly behaved children), I might not get angry at all. I might be totally unconcerned and tune it out, or I might even laugh at it. People actually watch animals and humans injuring one another for entertainment—as in dog fights and cockfights, boxing, fantasy "wrestling," and even violent police arrests and shoot-outs as a prime-time television product. I should add here media spectacles such as "Temptation Island" and certain daytime "talk shows," which are covertly designed to entertain by offering views of people doing one another emotional injury. That such things should be presented for entertainment is only possible because the neither the presenters nor the audience have love for the ones attempting to injure one another. To love human beings or other created beings is to experience anger and grief when one encounters such unnecessary injury being encouraged.
A Loving God is an Angry God
Given the understanding that I have just expressed, I must believe that God is angry, since I know very well that this world is full of injustices. I assert the complementary principle no less: a God who was not angry in our unjust world would not be a loving God, and would not deserve my worship. If we don't believe that God is motivated in his deepest nature to act against injustice on behalf of the oppressed, then it is surely empty to say that God loves the poor. But this assertion immediately raises "the problem of evil," which is expressed in the question, "Why, if God loves all people, and is angry about injustice, is so much injustice allowed to go on?"
The Harmfulness of Injustice is Inescapable
If human perversity and human interdependence are both facts of life, then there is literally no solution to the problem of injustice that avoids injury to all parties. Allow me to return to the simplified model of my two children fighting. In my experience, one or both of my children can get so hostile towards one another that there is no convincing them in the moment to stop attacking. In that situation the only response available is to separate them. For example, I may send the one I perceive to be the perpetrator to her room. Perversity, or the persistence of unjust motivation, is a fact of human life. But so is the interdependence of humans with one another. Sooner or later, in other words, a loving parent has to let the offending sister out of her room, even if there is every chance that a fresh offense will occur. For to leave her isolated indefinitely would be to give up on her and rule out even the possibility of a positive breakthrough. If you think about it, this would amount to a kind of earthly model of hell. If God is going to allow freedom even among creatures that have chosen to live without love, then God's relationship with the world cannot simply be protective, it also has to be restorative. Harm is inescapable if you assume both sin and freedom.
What is the Wrath of God?
I think that "rage" would be a more recognized synonym for this obsolescent word in contemporary English. Wrath/rage is more than intensified anger. In human terms, wrath/rage is what happens when an angry or aggravated person "loses their temper," and becomes dangerous and potentially destructive. The concept of "temper" comes from the fact that steel has a certain resiliency, called temper, which allows it to bend and spring back without breaking. When a person loses their temper, what is bent beyond the breaking point is their patience, their ability or willingness to negotiate in a non-harmful way with whatever is angering or aggravating them. The wrathful or enraged person lashes out to strike what is angering or aggravating them.
I have argued that aggravation is a human response and that God does not share. Nonetheless, there is very definitely a point at which God's anger, truly defined as a manifestation of love, can become wrathful. By this, of course, I don't mean selfishly out of control and converted from reasonableness to an irrational desire to do harm. On the contrary, I mean anger made dangerous to the perpetrator of harm despite and even because of its basis in love. For although anger seeks to protect all the beloved, not just the beloved being harmed, it is not at always possible to protect the one being harmed without harming the one doing the injury. For example, when Hitler began in earnest to take over Europe in 1939, was it any more possible time to respond appropriately in love toward all parties, and, at the same, to protect the German people—including their soldiers—from harm? The answer is no, despite all one's love goodwill towards the German people. Similarly, consider a hostage situation, where a gunman has made it clear through action that he intends to kill each hostage one by one. The gunman might be the police chief's own son, yet the only possible course could still resolve to sending in a SWAT team. The concept of wrath exposes the grievous truth that love is not always able to avoid harming the beloved. Such is the cost to God of bringing truly personal and free beings into the world.
The Problem of Evil—Some Meditations
To the above statements one may want to reply, "Yes, but surely God can do better at protecting the victims of injustice than the present world shows evidence of." I reply by suggesting that one agree, as a thought experiment, with the notion that the present world is so unjust that it rules out the possibility that a loving God exists. In that case, no God is on hand to accept the blame for mismanagement of the world, and no other source can be found for all the human evil we see beyond simple human perversity. Take a hard look at the level of perversity that is in evidence in the world, with no God to blame, but only ourselves. If you assume that no God exists, then what you see is that the human race as we experience it on earth at this moment in history is of such a powerful destructiveness that it is capable (and threatens to continue acting out of that capability) not only of horrendous exploitation and injustice, but of making its very own environment unlivable for itself within less than five generations. If there is no God, then it is safe to say that human beings have proven themselves to be almost inconceivably volatile and perverse agents of harm to themselves and other living creatures.
Faith Senses the Presence of Hidden Protective Factors in the World
Suppose, then, that we entertain the thought that there exists, within or behind the overall pattern of human history, a certain unknown "protective factor X," which is an invisible counter-force that serves to minimize the potential for mutual harm as much as possible. Suppose we choose to trust that God has indeed put countless systems in place to protect human beings from their intense destructiveness. Indeed, I hope and believe
that all possible factor X's are already in place, having been engineered into the life system all along by the creator and sustainer of the cosmos. The question that remains is therefore this: "If human beings are so perverse, then why did God create us at all, or why, having created us, does God not simply wipe us out and start over with something more promising?" To this I answer, from a faith stance: God loves the human race so much that God is willing to go to great lengths to continue offering
us the chance to experience the joy of life and of mutually beneficial relationship, even if the major portion of us are ultimately insistent on turning it down. There are two more factors to add in here: first, the divine power of forgiveness and reclamation, which implies that human beings, even in their perversity, are redeemable, and second, the divine power of restoration and resurrection, which implies that no amount or kind suffering is irredeemable. For me, faith names a search for the God who has the
great love to seek and reconcile the perverse, and who brings to that pursuit the power of creation, forgiveness, reclamation and restoration. This, in broad outline, is the direction I would go to develop a response to the problem of evil.
Who Killed Jesus? A Closer Look at the Biblical Pictures of Christ's Atonement
Who Killed Jesus? Part 1: Introduction
For those of us who have committed ourselves to the Christian faith, the death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth on a cross stands as the single most important event of all human history. The New Testament over and over characterizes Jesus' sufferings on the cross as the critical moment in God's work of salvation for humanity. For example, according to the apostle Paul, the cross was the central content of his preaching. Similarly, from the way the Gospels are written, it is clear that Jesus himself, and those who first wrote about the life of Jesus, interpreted his death on the cross as the key event towards which his whole life moved. If this event is as important as those closest to it thought, then no one is going to be able to understand it in a final, once-for-all way. But it is possible to grow in understanding in a way that enhances your relationship with God and yourself and others. In this paper I share some thoughts about the death of Jesus and what it means for God to help us through that event. I will use a certain "way in" to talking about this topic, which is to pose the awkward question, "Who killed Jesus?"
I'm not talking here about the Roman soldiers, of course. They were acting under orders. I'm not even talking about Pilate (who gave the orders) or the Jewish religious leaders and the crowd that supposedly manipulated Pilate into giving the orders. I'm talking in bigger terms, world-sized terms, if you like. What I mean by talking in world-sized terms is discussing realities that are beyond ordinary experience and so are too profound to talk about in an ordinary way. The "suspects" I want to question are thus not normal murder suspects, but the major characters in the overall story of the world according to Christianity. Someone else may have some other candidates, but I will only consider three, three that have been proposed a lot in the history of Christian theology: Satan, God, and Us (the human race). By the way, I am going to restrict my discussion to the Bible in this essay, rather than drawing in what various traditional Christian or other sources say, for the sake of brevity.
Satan has been implicitly blamed for killing Jesus by some people. Certain preachers (such as E.W. Kenyon, father of the "Word of Faith" movement) say Jesus was subjected to Satan's power on the cross so that we would be released from Satan's power. Their explanation of the death of Jesus goes something like this: Satan's forces reigned over Jesus (and killed him) so that we could reign over Satan. Thus, for example, they picture demons gleefully mobbing Jesus when they read of wild beasts attacking the suffering person of Psalm 22. Some go on to say that Jesus then turned the tables on Satan and "whipped him" in the netherworld (so says Kenneth Copeland). There is a simple and foolproof way to test whether these sorts of ideas stem from the Bible: look in a Bible concordance under Satan and the Devil and so on, and see whether he is ever said to have killed Jesus. But you won't find any such thing. It does say, for example, in John 13:2 that the devil put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus. But that is Satan in his classic role as tempter. As always, he suggests the idea of sin to human beings, and they either tell him to get lost or they accept his suggestion and do the sin because they have the same destructive nature as he has. John 8:44 says Satan has been a murderer from the beginning, and that those who join him in that murderousness are showing a family likeness—a family likeness to his hatred for other creatures and for God, for which they are no less responsible than he is. So Satan may be imagined as partner to the conspiracy to kill Jesus, for that would only be true to his biblical character. But that doesn't in itself make him the key perpetrator. For that, we'd need a statement that Satan killed Jesus, which we never once get.
For example, Hebrews 2:14 says that Jesus died in order that the devil, who holds the power of death, might be destroyed. But it doesn't say that Satan killed Jesus or that Jesus came under his power. Jesus himself implies something entirely different when he says in John 14:30 that "the ruler of this world is coming, but he has nothing in me—but that the world may know that I love the father and do all that he tells me..." Jesus' statement implies that what is about to happen (his arrest and crucifixion at the hands of human beings) is not because he has fallen under Satan's dominion, but because he is following his Father's instructions.
In another example, the vision of Rev. 12:4-5, a dragon (symbolizing Satan) tries to eat a newborn heavenly child (possibly symbolizing Jesus), but the child is not killed by him, but is caught away to God's throne.
Summary. Throughout the New Testament, there is plenty of language about the death of Jesus, and none of it says that Satan is the one who killed Jesus, or that Jesus came under his power.
God the Father punished Jesus on the cross for our sins. So God is the one who killed Jesus. If this idea sounds familiar, that's because it is perhaps the most common understanding of the cross. The idea is this: God hates for people to disobey, and when they do, they have to be punished in order to quench God's holy wrath. God is so insistent on absolute obedience that in God's terms it is fair punishment to kill and chastise forever any created being that disobeys God. But if God did that to us all, where would the human race be? None of us would stand a chance. For the gap between God's standards of holiness and perfection on the one hand, and our total sinfulness, on the other hand, create a major problem. God wants at least some chosen human beings to come around to a place of worshipping and serving God, so God deals with God's wrath towards us sinners by sending God's own son to stand in for us. God creates a way (the incarnation) for Jesus to become vulnerable to the punishment we deserve (rejection, wrath, death), and God then sends Jesus to experience it on our behalf. The picture being suggested is God throwing all our sins on Jesus, covering him with our unacceptability and leaving him there, destroyed as a human being, like a man smothered beneath a giant pile of toxic, rotting garbage. I encountered this typical explanation on the internet:
And as we know, God is Holy and being Holy He cannot face sin. So when the sin of the world was upon Christ, God for the first and the last time turned His face away from Jesus for He could not see Him. Sin had separated Jesus from God as it had with us. In other words, the presence of God the Father had departed from Him. This proved that Jesus felt like any other mortal man. If we have sin, God cannot be in our presence. So for the first time, being in great pain and being the most lonely man on earth now, He cried out with His last breath," God, God why has thou forsaken me."
I'd like to stop here and say that this person's explanation of Jesus' death on the cross, despite being typical, is unbiblical, and in fact completely ignores the central explanation of Jesus' death that is offered over and over again in the New Testament. As biblical interpreters often point out, it is hazardous to base a whole theology on an obscure or difficult passage. And I suppose that it is fair to say that the words, "My God, my
God, why have you abandoned me?" constitute just about the most difficult single sentence between Genesis 1:1 and Revelation 22:21. So, in our interpretation we have to proceed where possible from the clear to the difficult, from teaching material to story material, and from the New Testament to the Old Testament. And when we look in the teaching materials of the New Testament and their explanations for the death of Jesus Christ, we find a unified and clear pattern. The New Testament, offering a wealth of
references to the death of Jesus Christ and its meaning, never once says that God put Jesus to death for us, or that God punished Jesus in our place, or that God abandoned or shunned Jesus on the cross. Those who are surprised by this should get out pen, paper and a concordance and see for themselves.
In fact, Hebrews 5:7 says the opposite: that Jesus prayed to God the Father to save him from death, and his prayer was heard because of his reverence. Certainly it is said that Jesus died for us, that he took the punishment we deserved on himself. The Bible also says that he did this in obedience to the Father, and in the plan of the Father. But saying these things raises, rather than answers, the question of at whose hands he suffered the punishment he received. Many Christians, including some of the most well-known theologians, read the Scripture with an unhealthy view of God's nature, and they fill in things that are not spoken with their own preconceived ideas. Let's have a fresh look at the Scriptures and see if we can discover the real culprit in the murder of Jesus Christ.
Who Killed Jesus? Part 2: Getting the Story Straight
Where can we find a kernel of clear New Testament teaching about who was responsible for the death of Jesus? I propose that we start with Peter. He says,
. . .For it is a good thing, if, because of mindfulness towards God, one experiences the sorrow of suffering unjustly. For what good is it if you do wrong and are beaten for it, and take it patiently? But when you do right and suffer for it and take it patiently, this is valued by God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, he told no lies, and when he was insulted he did not insult in return, and when he was suffering he didn't threaten. Instead, he kept entrusting himself to the one who judges justly. It was he who took our sins and bore them himself in his own body on the wood [of the cross], in order that we might be dead to sins and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your lives. (1 Pet. 2:19-25)
Who rejects Jesus, attacks Jesus, kills Jesus? Is it God, or is it human beings? On the face of it, the only answer that makes sense is that it is human beings that Peter is talking about. Otherwise (if it is God who causes Christ to suffer unjustly), something goes terribly wrong in the sentences, "But when you do right and suffer for it and take it patiently, this is valued by God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." See the problem? Some people claim that the core of Christ's suffering for us is his experience on the cross of substitutionary punishment and rejection at God's hands. As this logic goes, since Jesus has experienced God's undeserved wrath in our place, we can therefore be freed from suffering God's deserved wrath and punishment. But that way of thinking clashes with the context and makes absurd Peter's statement that Christ suffered "as an example, that we should follow in his steps." Are we now to step forward for wrath and punishment from the Lord too? That makes absolutely no sense. Peter also says in 1 Pet. 4:13, "But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed." And Paul says that he wants to know the fellowship of Christ's sufferings, and to become like him in his death (Php. 3:10), and he also says that in his sufferings at people's hands he helps fill up in his flesh the measure of Christ's sufferings (Col. 1:24). The only way that Peter and Paul can speak of a continuity between their sufferings and the sufferings of Christ is if they understand Christ's sufferings in terms of his being rejected and persecuted by the hostile human race.
Let's now go to the Old Testament and see if this bears out. The two most famous passages that Christians have always understood as prophetic of Jesus' death are Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52-53.
First, the setting. The psalmist prays in an agony of fear and dread to God, asking why God has left him in the hands of murderers. He asks for rescue from enemies who are in the process of attacking him (read together vv. 1, 2, 11, 19, 20, 21). What is his attitude? Does he say, "God, why are you doing this to me"? No, he says, "God, why are you allowing this to happen to me?" Who are the attackers? It is clear that they
are human beings: "I am...scorned by people, and despised by the nation..." (vv. 6-7). His own countrypeople are not the literal killers, but they are cheering on the process, leering and gloating. He calls those who are physically attacking him "bulls," "lions," "dogs," "a band of evil men," "wild oxen." They are the ones who "divide my clothing and throw dice for my clothes." Is God seen as acting against the one who prays, even indirectly,
through the agency of the human attackers? Absolutely not. After having prayed desperately, the psalmist breaks into joy and thanksgiving for being rescued by God:
...I will praise you!...You who fear the LORD, praise him!...for he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one, nor has he hidden his face from him! He has listened to his cry for help! (vv. 22-24).
This is what the author of Hebrews is referring to when he says,
During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard for his reverent submission. (Heb. 5:7)
So, understanding Psalm 22 as a prophecy of the suffering and death of Jesus, the author of Hebrews would say clearly that the Father was not the killer of Jesus when he died on the cross, but his rescuer. Paradoxically, the Father rescues Jesus by being with him through his dying, rather than by keeping him from dying. Isaiah 57:1-2, following on in the context of Isaiah 53 (see below), speaks of this rescue-through-death:
The innocent are dying, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout people are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away in order to be spared from evil. Those who walk in integrity enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.
The same is said of Jesus' followers in the Book of Revelation: "Write, Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on! Yes, says the Spirit, so that they may rest from their labors. . ." (Rev. 14:13). As Jesus himself says from the cross in his dying moments, "Father, I am entrusting my spirit into your hands" (Lk. 23:46). This is a quotation from another psalm that is prophetic of Jesus' sufferings on the cross: Psalm 31. Like Psalm 22, this psalm has moments in which the one praying wrestles in faith with a dread of God's abandonment. But it ends this way: "Praise be to the LORD, for you showed your wonderful love to me when I was in a besieged city. In my alarm I said, 'I am cut off from your sight!'; yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help" (vv. 21-22). God the Father is the loving rescuer here, not the wrathful perpetrator of the violence.
This passage is often called the song of the Suffering Servant. The one who is called "my servant" in this chapter is understood by Christians to be Jesus, who suffered for us on the cross. In this song, who and what is it that causes the servant to suffer? Isaiah says these things: "He was despised and forsaken by people...like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised and we looked down on him." "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth...By oppression and judgment he was taken away." "He was cut off out of the land of the living, his grave assigned to be with wicked men...although he had done no violence, and no dishonesty came from his mouth." "He poured himself out to death, and was counted as a law-breaker, yet he himself bore the sin of many, and interceded against those who were breaking the law." The plain sense of these statements is that the servant experienced rejection, misunderstanding, false accusation, attack and execution as a criminal at the hands of other human beings. Where is God in this scene? Do we discover God as the "behind the scenes" punisher of the servant? Let us read what Isaiah says about the servant:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those
Who bring good news,
Who proclaim peace,
Who bring excellent news,
Who proclaim salvation,
Saying to Zion, "Your God reigns as King!" ...
The Lord has laid bare his holy arm
In the sight of all nations!
All the earth will see the salvation of our God!
See, my servant will act wisely;
He will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him
Who has believed our news?
Who has had the arm of the Lord revealed to them?
He was despised and forsaken by people...
Like one from whom people hide their faces,
He was despised and we looked down on him.
Surely he was bearing our sickness,
And carrying our pains;
Yet we regarded him as one who was struck down,
Punished by God.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
Crushed for our sins:
The punishment that gave us wholeness was on him,
And by the whipping he received we are healed.
All of us have strayed from God like so many sheep;
Each and every one of us has turned away from God;
But the Lord has caused the wrongdoing of all of us to fall on him.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
Yet who of his generation considered
That he was cut off from the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him, putting him to grief,
[or: Yet the Lord was pleased with his wounded one, whom he had made to suffer]
[or, following the LXX, the Greek OT known by the first Christians: Yet the Lord wanted to cleanse him of his wound]
And though you [plural, indicating the readers] make his life a guilt offering,
He will see his offspring and prolong his days,
And the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
As a result of the anguish he experienced,
He will open his eyes and be satisfied.
By his experience the righteous one, my servant,
will declare many human beings innocent,
Having borne their sins.
Therefore I will give him the portion alongside
the greatest kings,
And he will take booty from the strongest.
For he made himself vulnerable to death
And was treated as a criminal;
Yet he was experiencing the violence of the human race
and praying for them-
It was they who were the criminals.
The picture here is deeply shocking. The scene opens with the picture of people running over the mountains with wonderful news, news that God is acting in a powerful way to save. We hear that "The Lord has bared his holy arm in the sight of all nations," and we expect that we will now see the creator of the universe coming with sleeves rolled up, dealing crushing blows to the murderers and oppressors of this world. We expect to see a public display of God's direct and awesome power to destroy evil. But the focus changes, and we hear of "my servant," the cherished servant that the Lord loves, with whom the Lord is very pleased. Inexplicably, we hear that the servant has suffered terrible disfigurement and rejection, grief and undeserved punishment. Has the Lord turned against the Servant, attacking him for "our" sins? Not at all! The terrible reversal is that the Servant of the Lord is rejected by the very ones he came to serve and to save. He experiences sorrow, rejection, pain, false accusation at the hands of the human race, and it is he himself, the servant, in his steadfast love and forgiveness and intercession for the attackers, who embodies the powerful and holy arm of the Lord reaching out in salvation. God's Arm is not exposed here in the act of reaching out to strike the rebellious, still less to strike the Servant, since the Arm is a symbol of the Servant himself. "To whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?" The "arm of God," the personal saving power of God, is revealed to those who can recognize his awesome decision to face murder at the hands of humanity, in the person of the Servant. The Lord wounds the Servant, and makes him to suffer (v. 10) precisely by asking the Servant to represent God to us, and not to turn back before the consequences.
If we now recognize Jesus Christ in the Servant prophesied here, it is clear that Jesus saves us, the guilty ones, not by standing between us and the hostility of a wrathful God, but by standing for God before an angry, hostile us. He draws our very worst hostility for the very reason that he fully represents the loving God that we have rejected. In facing and making himself vulnerable to our hatred, he bears our sins, not only metaphorically, but literally, for we sin against him and express our murderous rejection of him towards his very body. He willingly chooses, in obedience to God the Father, to submit to our "man-handling" even to the point of dying at our hands, and in doing so he releases for us, the very perpetrators, an unstoppable power of forgiveness, healing and restoration.
This is the paradox of the cross: it was God's plan and intention that the wounding and the death that Jesus experienced at our hands should be the saving encounter between ourselves and him. The cross is thus the proof of full forgiveness and the promise of healing. For how could we have proved ourselves more guilty? And how could he have gone further to prove his choice to proclaim us not guilty?
Now let's go back again to the New Testament to check our understanding. John says this of the coming of Jesus into the world:
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. (Jn 1:10-11)
This passage isn't just about Jesus being rejected by the Jewish people; it's about his rejection by the human race. This is what Peter and John are getting at when they pray, in the book of Acts,
You spoke through the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: "Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One." Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.
Peter and John perceive behind the events of Good Friday a confrontation not just between God and some Jewish leaders, but with the whole hostile human race. John the author of Revelation sees this too, when he says,
Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him—indeed, those who pierced him!
And all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.
John here sees a universal application of the Old Testament prophecy of Zechariah (Zech. 13), who speaks about the day when God saves the city of Jerusalem (I am paraphrasing):
On that day...I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace, a spirit enabling them to ask for my help. They will look on me, the one they pierced, and they will mourn for me [literally, "him"] like one grieves for a first-born son who has died. That day there will be lots of weeping in Jerusalem.... The land will grieve, each family grieving by itself, husbands and wives by themselves,...all the families, all the men, all the women, each and every one, weeping.
On that day a fountain will be made available to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: a fountain of cleansing from sin and the stain of wrongdoing.
In Christ, we see God the pierced one, the God whose mercy and love drove him to endure being torn by the very ones he loved. That is the good news. The cross itself is the "fountain of cleansing" that God has appointed. It is the place of facing ourselves and the enemies that we have become towards our own creator. It is the place at which God has chosen to meet us, and to release for us God's great power for repentance and reconciliation—not just reconciliation to God, but also to one another (Eph. 2:11-22). John says this:
God is love. This is how God showed God's love among us: God sent God's only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent God's Son to be the reconciling sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:8-10)
The thing that is worth noticing about this passage and all similar passages in the New Testament, is that Jesus is offered by God to us as a reconciling sacrifice ("propitiation"), and does not offer himself to God as a reconciling sacrifice. Various writers say that Jesus offered himself to God (e.g. Hebrews), but they say it in such a way that it is clearly not as someone who offers to undergo vicarious punishment or rejection from the hands of God. Hebrews says he underwent vicarious purification and refinement through suffering, to flesh out and to complete his identification with our need, and his flawlessly loving and forgiving nature as High Priest (Heb. 5:8-10). There is not a word in Hebrews about Jesus vicariously experiencing anger or condemning punishment (except from us—read Heb. 12:2-3). The New Testament writers agree that in his dying Jesus offered up the very life of his body, all of himself as a person, in love to God (as we are also commanded to do, Rom. 12:1). And God was infinitely pleased with that offering (see Eph. 5:2: "Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God").
In obedience, Jesus offered his sufferings at our hands to God as an outpouring of the inmost desire of his heart: that we would be forgiven and saved. In doing this, God called out to God, revealing in shocking public vulnerablity his desire for our wholeness and reconciliation.
Who Killed Jesus? Part 3: Substitutionary Atonement: How Does That Fit In?
Someone will say in response to all of these observations,
Surely the Bible says over and over again that Jesus died for us, that Jesus died in our place. If Jesus didn't die in our place to satisfy God's justice, then what do these kinds of statements mean? Haven't you left out something at the very core of the atonement?
Over and over again we hear preachers insist that God is the sort who can't let sin go unpunished because God is too just and righteous and holy. "We all deserve to die," they shout at us, "and that's why Jesus had to die in our place so the Father could forgive us. Sin demands punishment, according to God's holy nature!"
Let me just say something that some may find a bit frightening. No matter who says it, no matter how often, and with how many implicit threats of eternal damnation, it's not true that God is the sort that demands punishment for all offenses. Here is what the scripture says, when it reports God's intimate and glorious self-revelation to Moses (Exod. 34:6-7, see the context, 33:18–34:8):
The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, overflowing with love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet God certainly does not let the guilty go free, causing the sins of the parents to visit their children and their children's children, to the third and fourth generations.
The first and deepest thing that God chooses to reveal about himself is that God is forgiving and compassionate and loving. God's innermost character is to show mercy and to desire restoration, not vengeance. God adds that sin has its consequences nonetheless, and God accepts responsibility for this. God has made the world a place where personal forgiveness is always available to the repentant, yet each person (the sinner and the sinned-against) must deal for themselves with the temptation to sin. For example, if my father abused me as a child, God can and will forgive him if he asks for forgiveness; yet I will still be responsible to do my work of forgiving my father, otherwise I will pass on that abuse to my children in one form or another. So says Jesus: "Don't judge, or you yourself will be judged. Forgive, and you will be forgiven" (Matt. 7:1-2). God therefore promises to forgive the repentant, but does not promise to release the knock-on consequences of their actions, since this requires the free cooperation of those who have been sinned against. Sin can be like a cascaded fountain that spills over from one generation to another, or from one person or group to another. Yet at all times God is ready to forgive those who repent and who are willing to join him in that forgiveness. Over and over in the New Testament we hear words like those of Jesus:
For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don't forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins (Matt. 6:14).
Unforgiveness traps us in sin and its consequences. But our unforgiveness does not trap those whom God has forgiven. Suppose, for example, that someone has severely injured me in a fight. Suppose also that they repent of having fought with me and injured me. But they cannot restore my health; only God can, whether by healing or resurrection. Perhaps they will pray for me and do what they can to make amends. But suppose, whether now or in the resurrection, I go to God and demand that my enemy (who is only my enemy because I continue to insist on considering him an enemy, not because he is now my enemy in his own heart) be injured just as I was injured by him. "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," I say: it is not fair that he should be healthy, but I should be disabled. God says, let me heal you, let me make it up to you, with the same generosity I showed to him. But I say, no, what I want is for him to suffer, and I won't accept anything else. I want fairness, equal suffering for both of us.
At this point, God says, you can have your equal suffering, if you insist. But you can't have the suffering of the one who injured you, since I forgave him. My Son Jesus has suffered in place of the one you want to take revenge on. If you really want to insist on the full consequences of wrongdoing without mercy, this is my agreement that your demand will be satisfied. But I myself will do the suffering in the person of my beloved Son, so that no one can lay a hand on those I have pardoned.
Do you see the difference between this kind of substitution and the kind often put forward by preachers? They assume that God's holiness and justice consist in God's being fundamentally unforgiving and legalistic. They imply that God at the core of God's nature must insist on taking revenge for wrongdoing, and that therefore God had to punish Jesus in order to forgive us. The Bible (and Jesus in particular) says that God is fundamentally forgiving, willing to relinquish the consequences of wrongdoing, both to forgive the perpetrator and to heal the injured and reconcile both to one another. Jesus therefore suffers not to neutralize God's desire to harm us, but to express to the ultimate degree God's desire to forgive us and help us, in the face of those who would insist on our harm. Jesus is a substitute and suffers in our place not to appease a vengeful God but to silence a vengeful humanity.
Who Killed Jesus? Part 4: A Closer Look at Three Difficult Passages
In the first three parts of this paper I have said the bulk of what I want to say about who really killed Jesus, and what his death accomplished. There are obviously dozens more references to what Jesus did for us on the cross in the New Testament, but it would be tedious to attempt to comment on them all. Instead, if you have found these thoughts helpful, I leave it to you to discover and rediscover other passages in the light of any insights that you have picked up here. I will, however, deal briefly with three passages that most people will probably stumble over.
1. 2 Corinthians 5:21
...God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And therefore God has committed to us the message of reconciliation... We implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God. God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God.
Most of the words of this passage go entirely and obviously with the grain of what has been said above. The movement of God in the death of Christ (see 2 Cor. 5:15), Paul says, was a movement of reaching out to us, the enemies, through Christ, in compassion and reconciliation. It was not a wrathful turning against Christ in substitutionary condemnation. But the words "God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us" seem at first look to be out of character with the rest of the passage. What is going on?
In my understanding, Paul here is playing poetically with the word "sin," in the full knowledge that the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, pronounced Sep-too-uh-jint) uses it on certain key occasions to translate the Hebrew word hatta'at. The word hatta'at is paradoxical because this very same word means "sin" in some contexts, but "a sin offering" in other contexts. (Careful use of a concordance will confirm this.) A sin offering is an animal sacrifice that releases complete forgiveness for a person who has sinned against God. So the person familiar with either the Greek or the Hebrew Old Testament will hear Paul saying, here, "he made him who knew no sin (hatta'at) to be a sin offering (hatta'at) for us..."
In the light of what we have seen, this makes spectacularly good sense. For who is it that is supposed to kill the sin offering? Is it the priest, symbolically representing an angry God who wants to take revenge on you, the sinner, but transfers God's displeasure onto the animal you bring? No! It is you, the one who has sinned, who come before God, bringing the innocent victim, and you personally slay the animal (see Lev. 4). The sin offering has done nothing against you, yet it dies in your place, for your sin, at your hands, and you stand accepted, completely forgiven by God. To me this is a reflection, a parable of the cross, cast into the deepest grain of the sacrificial system of Israel.
2. Galatians 3:13
All who rely on observing the law [in order to be accepted by God] are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is every one who is hung on a tree."
Most will agree, I think, that this passage on first look appears to be saying God has cursed Christ instead of us. There is a lot to disentangle here, but I just want to focus on one or two simple things. First, let's look at the Scripture Paul is quoting in the last sentence above:
If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure you bury him the same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is a curse to the LORD. You must not desecrate the land the LORD God is giving you as an inheritance (Deut. 21:22-23).
First, what is a curse? In the Bible, a curse is usually one of two things: (1) something horrible that can happen to a person or group, or (2) a verbal description and/or threat of some form of (1). When meaning (2) is employed, the context often makes it clear that saying the curse or hearing the curse said makes you responsible for understanding that the horrible experience or condition it describes is going to happen to you if you don't act in good faith in regard to some agreement you are undertaking. For example, in the section from Galatians above, Paul quotes the following passage from Deuteronomy:
The Levites shall recite to all the people of Israel in a loud voice: "...Cursed is the person who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out." ("Then all the people shall say...") "Amen!" (Deut. 27:14-15, 26)
Chapter 28 of Deuteronomy lays out a whole selection of "blessings and curses," that is, descriptions of wonderfully good things or horrible things that will happen to people, depending on whether they either uphold or turn against the agreement of loyalty and justice that they have just undertaken with God. Paul says in Galatians that Jesus "redeemed us from the curse of the Law," by which he means precisely this set of curses. In another epistle Paul pictures Christ's victory over the curses—the retributive consequences—of the Law in this way:
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God has made alive together with Jesus, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And God has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, God made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it (Col. 2:13-15).
You can see from this passage that God (or God's wrath) is not the enemy that the cross defeats. On one hand it is true that the Law lays out just retribution for wrongdoing: "the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us." On the other hand, there is not one word in the Law or one principle in God's nature that says God cannot sovereignly determine to forgive instead of imposing the last letter of condemnation. Jesus suffers not to procure God's mercy, but to express it, by silencing every accuser that would argue against God's mercy.
Getting back to Galatians, what does Paul mean when he says that Jesus "became a curse"?
In the terminology of the Bible, "to be cursed" is to be under the verbal threat of horrible things happening to you, or to be experiencing horrible things, especially things that have previously been threatened as curses. On the other hand, "to become a curse" means to be a textbook example of a person who experiences horrible circumstances. To "be a curse," in other words, is to be more or less in the worst possible situation. You become a curse when you embody a human experience so awful that your case immediately comes to mind when someone wants to wish a bad fate on somebody: "May you end up like so-and-so!" (see Isa. 65:15; Jer. 24:9; 25:18; 26:6; 42:18; 44:8, 12, 22; 49:13).
This, I believe, is the sense of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which Paul quotes in Gal. 3:13. According to this text, a criminal is not to be left hanging on a tree overnight, because such a person is "A curse to the LORD." It is vitally important to understand that this is not the same thing as being cursed by the LORD. There is not some mysterious rule that says that you will be cursed by God if ever God should see you hung on a tree. God is not the sort who enjoys adding insult to injury. Moreover, in what way would the alleged cursing by God here make it inappropriate for the person's corpse to remain hanging overnight? All of that kind of thinking has simply gone down the wrong track. The point is that God regards being killed and having your dead body hung up for public ridicule as being the worst possible state of degradation and humiliation. To be in such a state, to the LORD, is to have been made "a curse" in the sense discussed above. It is a horrible fate, a fate beyond all bounds of human decency. God commands, therefore, that no one's corpse should be left hanging overnight, because to do so would be to go beyond the maximum allowable penalty in punishing the person. For such treatment would be an insult to the inherent dignity of the person as a human being, a dignity which is not forfeited and which is not to be denied, even if a person has committed a capital offense. Such an insult to the dignity of an executed individual becomes an insult to God, to the community as a whole, and, indeed, an injury to the dignity of the land itself:
His body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you don't defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is a curse to God (Deut. 21:23).
In view of this background, let us return and have a look at Galatians 3:13 again:
All who rely on observing the law [in order to be accepted by God] are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is every one who is hung on a tree."
What did Jesus Christ experience on the cross? Was it God's displeasure? Was it God's rejection, God's punishment, God's hostility, God's "curse"? Neither Paul nor any other New Testament author ever says these things. In Galatians 3:13 Paul is saying that the treatment Jesus experienced at the hands of the human race was the worst possible treatment that any human being could be given. For the crime of living out God's total, passionate love towards us, he was executed in total disgrace. Stripped naked and nailed to a cross with iron spikes, he was hung up publicly to die amidst insults and sneering (see Matt. 27:39; Mk 15:26). Jesus of Nazareth experienced the ultimate form of degradation that is possible to suffer at the hands of other human beings. The gospel stories tell us that Jesus had sensed all along that he was destined to be rejected, mistreated and killed, yet he went forward and willingly gave up every last ounce of his dignity and power and submitted to the experience of being "a curse" for us. It was not the Father that cursed Jesus and subjected him to "being a curse." It was we ourselves.
3. Matthew 27:46 || Mark 15:34
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"
This cry of agony by Jesus is a word-for-word quotation of the prayer of Ps. 22:1. We saw earlier in this paper that the whole of Psalm 22 is a prayer of passionate faith by a person in desperate distress. Linking Jesus' words with Heb. 5.7 as well, we see him crying out to God to save him from his terrible physical agony, which he is suffering at the hands of hateful human beings (Ps. 22:1-18). Jesus' prayer is both heard and answered (Heb. 5.7; cf. Ps. 22:24) in two senses. First, he has a mercifully swift death after he prays this, which releases him from his sufferings. Secondly, Jesus' prayer is heard because his death admits him to Paradise and the loving arms of his Father (Lk. 23:43-46).
Here is the issue. In the Old Testament and the Jewish world-view, if God is with you, you win in battle, and your enemies cannot hurt you. Conversely, if you lose, or your enemies succeed in harming you, then God has not been with you. According to this old biblical definition, God "forsook" Jesus in the sense that he did not rescue him from the power of the enemies who were persecuting him. Yet in the new reality, which Jesus personally forged as our Pioneer, the Father rescued Jesus not by keeping him away from persecution, but by being with him, perfecting him through persecution and death:
In the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and was heard because of his godly fear, though he was a Son, yet he learned obedience by the things which he suffered. And having been perfected, he became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him, called by God as High Priest "according to the order of Melchizedek" (Heb. 5:7-10)
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you will not become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: "My son, don't despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by God; for whom the Lord loves he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives." (Heb. 12:1-6).
The great paradox, in relation to the Hebrew world-view (and ours), is that God's presence with you may lead you into suffering persecution and having to lay down your life, not "victory," as humanly conceived (see Isa. 57:1-2, following on in the context of Isaiah 53). Jesus has accomplished the forging of a new pattern: to endure persecution because of obedience to God is stronger than "winning" by human might.
Obedience as the Positive Side of Substitutionary Atonement
"Man owes God a debt he can't pay, and Christ's sacrificial death the cross pays that debt." (Jim Ober)
What dawned on me one day is that we do indeed have a debt to God, and that is the debt (i.e. obligation) of fulfilling the gift of life that God has given us. If we have thrown that gift away or abused it, through envy, disobedience and rebellion, then that incurs a debt that can never be repaid. For even if we were to obey God's life-giving Spirit completely after repenting, we would still be owing for the time before, when we were out of harmony with God's life. The creature (e.g. a human being) that is brought to life for the purposes of displaying the glory of God, by rights should do so at every moment of its existence. So if I "sin and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3.23) for a time, then opening myself to God's glory fully doesn't erase that past lack. It is a debt of obedience and fulfillment of being that can never be repaid by me. You can't relive the past.
So the "unrepayable" debt that we all owed is a debt of living fully in God, a debt of obedience. And when you begin to think about that one, the scriptures just spill out one after the other to affirm it. What did Christ's going to the cross achieve? His full obedience, which he offered to God on our behalf, and so atoned for our disobedience and brought in our righteousness.
Rom. 5.17-19: For if in one person's trespass death came to reign because of him, far more will those who have received the overflowing of grace and the gift of acquittal come alive and reign because of the one, Jesus Christ. In summary, just as one person's trespass resulted in all people's being found guilty, so correspondingly one person's innocence results in all people's acquittal and life. For just as because of the disobedience of the one man the many were brought into being sinners, so by the obedience of the one the many will be brought into being righteous.
He was tempted in all things just as we are, yet he lived his bodily life without sin (i.e. in full obedience, Heb. 4.15). By working out the process of obedience on our behalf (Heb. 5.1) through the painful temptations and experiences he suffered, he atoned for our shortcomings, and became our source of "eternal salvation" (Heb. 5.7-10). In his incarnation he chose to take on the role of a servant, and became obedient to death, even death on the cross (Paul, Philippians 2.6-11). What we lacked, and what we could never have restored, even if we had been able to repent (which we were unable to do in any case, Col. 2.13-15), Christ supplied for us, proving out full obedience in the crucible of mortal suffering.
Isaiah says that "by his knowledge, my righteous one will justify many" (Isa. 53.11). And what is his "knowledge" that accomplishes the justification of, i.e. atones for the sins of, the many? Obedience, which he learns through his experience of human temptation, suffering and death:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil--and free those who all their lives were held in slavery through fear of death. . . .For this reason he had to be made like his brethren in all ways, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (2.14-18).
During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a priest, he learned obedience through his sufferings, and, having been perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God to be high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (5.7-10).
This is the substitutionary atonement that positively satisfies God's "just requirements." Scripture nowhere pictures the sacrifice of Jesus as a passive experience of rejection and violence from God. To the contrary, Christ presents a total, active, acceptable self-offering on our behalf. As Paul says, "Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5.2). Think how obedient he proved himself even in Gethsemane, facing the horror of imminent execution: "Not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22.42). And hear his final words, "Father, into your hands I am entrusting my spirit" (Luke 23.46). The creaturely faithfulness that we betrayed and failed under the best of circumstances, he expresses fully and unrestrainedly in the worst of circumstances. At incalculable cost to himself, he pays back our debt of obedience to God.
Questions and Answers about Angels and Spirits :The Good, the Bad, and the Unclean
1. Who is the Devil, and What Influence Does he Have in the World?
According to quite a number of biblical writers, Devil is a powerful angel. What is an angel? Angels are described in scripture as personal, ethically responsible beings like us. They are called "sons of God" in the Scriptures (see below). Like ourselves (see Gen. 1:26-28), God gives them responsibility for the administration of the creation.
[God says to the man Job:] Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements--surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, "Whence have you come?" Satan answered the LORD, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." And the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?" (Job 1:6; see Job 2:1)
God presides in the divine council; in the midst of the gods God holds judgment: "How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? [Selah] Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked." They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince." Arise, O God, judge the earth; for to you belong all the nations! (Ps. 82:1-8)
We see that angels are given the task of serving God by overseeing human affairs in some way. We also see that they don't necessarily do a good job at it (as in Ps. 82 above; cf. also Dan. 10:4-14, where angels are seen as overseeing nations, and opposing God's servant angel). Like us, they can be unjust and rebellious.
Angels can bring help to human beings in need:
Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For God will give God's angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. (Ps. 91:9-12)
Angels also are given the task of representing God to human beings. They are agents, messengers of God, and they can function like prophets. They can cause themselves to appear in many different ways to people:
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Mid'ian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, "I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt." When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here am I." (Exod. 3:1-4; cf. Acts 7:30, 35)
Note how an angel insists that true testimony about Jesus is prophecy whether brought by human being or angel:
Then I fell down at the angel's feet to worship him, but he said to me, "You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." (Rev. 19:10)
Then again, angels as well as human beings can be false prophets too:
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to the Gospel that we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:8)
And Micai'ah said, "Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside God on God's right hand and on God's left; and the LORD said, 'Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?' And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, 'I will entice him.' And the LORD said to him, 'By what means?' And he said, 'I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.' And he said, 'You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so.' (1 Kgs 22:19-22)
"Satan" isn't so much a name as a title, meaning "accuser" or "prosecuting attorney." He's pictured in scripture as an extremely high ranking angel that will someday be kicked out of heaven.
And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to God's throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days. Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world--he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, "Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of God's Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!" And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. (Rev. 12:1-14)
This recalls Isaiah 14, a picture of an angel who decides to try to compete with God, but who is ejected to earth, and even to the underworld, Sheol.
"How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.' But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit. (Isa. 14:12-15)
Jude discusses this idea of angels being confined in the underworld:
. . .the angels that did not keep their own position but left their proper dwelling God has kept in eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgment of the great day. . . .
When the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him, but said, "The Lord rebuke you." (Jude 5-9)
It appears that Satan is not presently one of the imprisoned spirits, since he is regarded throughout the New Testament as being active in the affairs of the world. For example, Peter says, "Be awake and alert, because your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat." (1 Pet. 5:8). In the Revelation 12 passage above, Satan is pictured as kicked out of heaven. He then terrorizes the earth for approximately 3 1/2 years. That is the same time allotted to the "beast," who becomes a kind of "antichrist" in relation to the false god Satan, as Jesus is Christ in relation to God (see Rev. 13:5; 42 months = 12+12+12+6, i.e. 3 1/2 years). At the end of that period, the book of Revelation pictures Satan suffering imprisonment in the underworld as in Isa. 14:12-15 (see also Isa. 24:21-23):
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended. After that he must be loosed for a little while. (Rev. 20:1-3)
In the book of Revelation the final end of Satan comes in this way:
And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, that is, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city; but fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (Rev. 20:7-10).
We see from this sample of biblical portrayals of Satan that he is a very powerful angel—at least in relation to human beings. He has great influence, however, not because he is able to turn faithful people into faithless people. He has great influence because his mentality of hatred and competition against God resonates with the same attitude in the great number of faithless people and angels. He therefore is more the great organizer of evil and rebellion than the generator of it.
Satan is pictured as a master not only of accusation, but of deception. If human beings want to believe lies, Satan will figure out a way to help them with illusions so that they don't have to face the truth. It is possible to see Paul's words below as paralleling those of Revelation. What John sees as a kicking out of heaven to earth, Paul may be seeing as God giving Satan permission to tempt humanity on earth:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. [The "man of lawlessness" is Paul's expression for the "beast" or the "antichrist."] . . . And you know what is restraining him now, so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains it will do so until he gets out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming. The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with counterfeit signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be judged who did not believe the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thess. 2:6-12).
Note the last sentence here. According to Paul, God gives Satan the authority to fool people who are open to being fooled. Paul is picturing a time when great numbers of people in the world will claim to love Jesus, just as the Jews in the time of Isaiah worshipped God "with their lips, but their hearts are far from me" (Isa. 29:13). Those of the great "rebellion" or "apostasy" (2:3 above) are "judged," that is, examined, by God (v. 12) and found not really to love Jesus, because they welcome Satan's counterfeit christ, the "Lawless One."
In conclusion, Satan is viewed in Scripture as a very potent force for evil in the world. But this is not so much because he is able to cause people to do evil, but because he is a catalyst for evil. He tempts people to do what they are open to being tempted to do. Like Adam, he is seen as a key cause of the problems in the world. But also like Adam, he is only a cause for evil because he chose to go into evil before us, not because he is able to draw into evil those who are not willing to go there.
What about Evil Spirits?
Our thinking about "evil spirits" can partly build on what we learned from our inquiries about Satan. One thing to be aware of is that they are not "evil" in the sense of being created evil. God did not design the universe with inherently evil beings in it. I say this because so much of fantasy literature and movies present a dualistic world.
A dualistic world is one in which good and evil are more or less equal, and both are permanent. Think, for example, of vampire, alien and monster movies. In the pretend world created by the writers of such movies, vampires and monsters are a permanent evil feature. There is no question of a monster starting out good, or a vampire starting out good. Evil is their nature. Thus, vampires and alien invaders make other vampires and monsters make other monsters, and aliens keep on making more alien hosts. They don't do this by invitation but by force. If they are smarter or more powerful than you, they get you. You have no choice in the matter. The more harmless and good-natured you are the more likely you are to get captured.
Further, monsters and vampires have no right to life. In the dualistic world, the enemy creature belongs to the class of things that cannot be controlled, and cannot be reasoned with. Therefore they must simply be stamped out. Human beings have a license from the powers that be to kill them, and the appropriate response to them is to exterminate them on sight (if you can). Otherwise, they will "get" you. There is no respect, no rules of fairness. Any tactic will do against a monster or alien or vampire. The principle is, no holds barred—all out war.
Our leaders make hidden use of this kind of view when they want to go to war against another country. The enemy is fundamentally evil, they imply, therefore it is ok to bomb them out of existence. Those people over there don't have a right to live, but we do. They are the monsters. They appear human, but they're not. They're another kind of creature that just looks human. The right thing to do is to wipe them out.
A perfect example of this mentality was given in August 1984 by then president Ronald Reagan. He said "jokingly," into what he thought was an off-air microphone, "My fellow Americans, I"m pleased to tell you today that I"ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." Reagan's comments were recorded by several networks and picked up by papers worldwide. In my frank opinion, this kind of attitude is where ethnic cleansing comes from. It is where genocide comes from. It is where slavery comes from. And most people's imaginations, fed by countless television shows and movies and books, unconsciously agree.
This, however, is not a Christian view of the enemy or of evil. Evil things don't spring up in God's universe without God's being able to predict or control them. Nothing lives in God's universe without the grace and love and patience of God supporting it. Also, everything—whether it chooses to act beneficially or harmfully in the world—remains under God's ultimate authority. Some creatures are made of flesh and blood, and have chosen to live in a harmful way. Some creatures are not made of flesh and blood, and have chosen to live in a harmful way. Each of these are created by God in love and allowed to have their being despite their choice to do harm. Ultimately, just as God will judge human beings that persist in doing evil, God will judge angelic beings that persist in doing evil.
In the mean time, we are called to respect the inherent dignity of all God's creatures. Thus, according to Jude:
Yet in like manner these men in their dreamings defile the flesh, reject authority, and insult the glorious ones. But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce an insulting judgment on him, but said, "May the Lord reprimand you." But these people insult certain things that they don't understand, and by those things that they know by instinct as irrational animals do, they are destroyed. (Jude 8–10)
What I am saying is this: it is a mistake to fall into the habit of taking a horror-movie/alien movie attitude towards demonic beings. Rather, look at them as you would look on a human being that was disturbing you or a friend. You have the right to command them to leave you or other people alone, but it is not appropriate to insult them in your attitude or your words. God has not finished giving God's grace to such creatures, and neither should you.
What about "Unclean Spirits"?
It is significant that, in the New Testament, spirits that disturb or "infest" people are often called "unclean spirits" (about 20 times, the exceptions being Lk. 7:21; 8:2; Acts 19:12-16, which speak of "evil" spirits). Bear with me as I try to unfold some implications of this.
In the deepest sense, what is it that makes something "dirty" (i.e. unclean)? It is not that it is made of earth. Think of the beach. Its sand is composed of silica, the raw materials of the earth, and most of us would find it easy to say the words "clean sand." It's not particularly about making marks on your skin or clothes, either. A grass stain is not unsanitary--it's just a visual blemish. But suppose I am cooking and I want to grate some cheese for the table. I ask you to hand me a cutting board, on which you have earlier seen raw chicken being cut up. There is no visual evidence of contamination on the board. Yet you will say to me, wait, it's dirty—let me wash it first. Why? As I said, not because it has something on it that will stain the cheese, and not because there is literal "dirt," earth, on it. What makes it dirty, unsanitary, unclean, is the fact it is likely to have on it substances that will make people ill.
What makes something unclean or unsanitary in the deepest sense is that contact with it carries the risk of illness. Not only that, but disease that comes from contact with something unsanitary can cause the person who suffers from it to become contagious. The substance—almost always a living substance—that causes disease has now taken up residence in the body of the infected person, and will, if given the opportunity, spread itself to others through contact with that person. The person has become a living host for the illness-causing organism. Roughly speaking, we are talking about a parasitic lifeform. What makes a lifeform parasitic is not that it lives in your body. There are perhaps dozens—maybe even hundreds—of different identifiable lifeforms that benefit from living inside our bodies, and our bodies don't mind most of them; in fact our bodies benefit from and even depend on some of them. This is not disease, but mutualism. God has designed the living world to be full of mutualistic—i.e. mutually beneficial— relationships between different types of living beings.
Parasitism, on the other hand, describes what happens when one living creature takes benefit from the life-energies of another, and, instead of giving benefit in return, tears down that creature's health. Infectious disease—roughly speaking—is parasitism that is aggressive and spreads illness from one organism to another.
Now all this medical information leads to three important insights about "unclean" spirits.
First, to the extent that the term "unclean spirit" names an angelic being, we remind ourselves that God does not create personal beings to be harmful by nature. God did not make good angels, then think, hmm, I think I'll create a few evil ones to balance them out. Everything that God creates has the purpose and potential to live in mutual benefit with the other creatures it lives with. As I said above, if human beings or angels become destructive, it is because they have turned away from the nature of the gift of God's life. It is not because God created them to be negative influences in God's good creation.
Nevertheless, when a creature turns away from the spirit of life and towards destructiveness, it becomes unclean. Other creatures suffer harm from contact with it. Thus it has to be avoided, and it also has the potential to "infect" other creatures. We know, for example, that the world is full of human beings who are open to being tempted towards various evils because they have a hidden ill-will towards others. But what happens when someone comes along and organizes that ill will? You get phenomena like Hitler, or the KKK. The writer to the Hebrews expresses the dynamic like this:
Strive for peace with all people, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God, that no "root of bitterness" springs up and cause trouble, and by it many people become contaminated (Heb. 12:14-15).
All this is to say, angelic beings, no less than human beings, become agents of illness in God's world when they turn away from the love that God has for all creatures. An angel, that is, a spirit, becomes an unclean spirit when it stops living in the love of God. It then turns from serving the creation in love and starts seeking its own selfish interests. When it does this, it becomes a parasite, interfering in the lives of other created beings such as humans, and causing them harm rather than benefit. What is the difference in principle between a selfish angelic spirit that takes over the life of a human being and ruins it, and a selfish human being that enslaves another human being and ruins their life? There is no difference.
This line of thinking has crucial implications for how we think about exorcism, the casting out of demons. First, we don"t address a demonic being and command it to leave someone on the basis that it is a sub-form of life that has no rights and whose dignity we can trample. We confront it as a fellow created being that is acting harmfully or unjustly. God has given us the authority to command such creatures to leave people alone, and we should learn to take up and use that authority. But we will lose God's authority—and even open ourselves to attack—to the extent that we deny the created dignity of the beings we confront. Jesus warns us,
don't judge, so that you will not be judged yourselves. With the judgment you use, you yourselves will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. (Mt. 7:1-2)
And Jude says, once again:
Even Michael the archangel did not presume to pronounce an insulting judgment on [the Devil himself]. But these people insult certain things that they don't understand, and by those things that they know by instinct as irrational animals do, they are destroyed. (cf. Jude 8–10)
Some readers will already have begun to realize the second insight I want to bring out from the medical meaning of uncleanness. Let me put it in the form of a question: Why should Christians focus on the idea of demonic spirits enslaving people, but take for granted all sorts of human enslavements? The answer is, it's not right. Furthermore, this raises the very issue of to what extent and in what manner we are called to confront human evil and cast it out. Jesus says, if a person had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could command a mountain to jump into the ocean and it would obey (Mt. 17:20). Are there unconscious reasons why Christians sometimes display passivity in the face of the human injustices, enslavements, parisitisms, that plague our world today? Could it be that those who benefit from such injustices acquire a hidden vested interest in the status quo? What would it cost us to radically break out of such systems? Is that cost any more than Jesus plainly stated as the cost of being his disciples?
don't think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a person's enemies will be those of their own household. The person who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and the person who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. In fact, the person who does not take their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. The one who finds their life will lose it, and the one who loses their life for my sake will find it. (Mt. 10:34-39)
The third and final insight I want to draw from the medical meaning of "dirty" and "unclean" links in with the quotation from Jesus about commanding mountains.
We don't know to what extent a mountain (or a tree—Lk. 17:6 par. Mt. 21:18-22) can "hear" a human being who commands it. However we do know the story of Jesus commanding the wind and the waves, as though that were the most natural thing in the world to do (Mt. 8:36 par. Mk. 4:39; Lk. 8:24). At whatever level the creation understood Jesus, it was able to obey him. And it is crucial to realize that he did not command the creation as its creator (God the Son), but as a human being (the Son of Man). In each case that he did this, Jesus told his disciples off—not for disbelieving in him—but for not considering the authority they had seen him exercise as their natural right as children of God!
This means that we don't have to worry about whether illnesses or diseases we encounter are caused by microbes or by demonic spirits. Given all that we've discussed, it is not an important distinction. If, when we are praying, we sense the presence of a personal entity acting against the person we are praying for, we can confront that personal entity in Christ's name and command it to leave the person alone. On the other hand, if we sense that the person is suffering from unseen microbial attack or virus infection or something of that type, it is still entirely appropriate—in faith, prayer and trust in God—to confront those destructive beings, and tell them to leave the person alone.
The person, to all intents and purposes, is suffering from inhabitation by an unclean spirit. Just as our bodies are made up of trillions of individual cells, so the body of the infection, which is harming the person, may well be made up of billions of individual bacteria, fungi, virus molecules, or whatever. It doesn't matter that the infection does not hear and understand you in exactly the same sense that a human being hears and understands you. Neither, presumably, does the wind, the water, a tree, or a mountain. The point is that in some way established by God, various elements in the creation can hear and obey you. The weight of your authority to command harmful entities in the creation at any moment of time remains no more or less than the weight of the trust you put in God as to your authority as a child of God. Astonishing as it may be, this is what Jesus teaches.
After the Thousand Years: Resurrection and Judgment in Revelation 20
A Brief Presentation of the Topic
John says in Rev. 20.1-3 that the reason for Satan's imprisonment and chaining in prison is that he should not deceive the nations any longer,
until the thousand years are completed.
Did you ever notice that he also says that the rest of the dead did not come to life
until the thousand years are completed,
when the thousand years are completed,
Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive (v. 7, see vv. 1-3) the nations. . .?
Also, Isaiah says that on the Day of the LORD, God will punish the hosts of heaven in the heavens and the kings of earth on the earth (see the last verses of Rev. 19), and they will be gathered together like prisoners in a dungeon,
"and after many days they will be visited" (see Isa. 24.21-22).
And Ezekiel says, speaking of the armies gathered against the land that has been restored from the sword, and has been living peacefully without walls in the Messianic kingdom,
"after many days you will be visited" (Ezek. 38.8, cf. 38.8-14).
The Hebrew words behind Isaiah's and Ezekiel's statements are strikingly similar, virtually identical. In Ezekiel, the crisis pictured in the 38th chapter forms a kind of eschatological "last judgment" on the international hordes of the enemies of God's people, and it has as its setting an unending and well-established age of peace and "resurrection" that is inaugurated by the coming of God's Messiah (see Ezek. 36.22–37.28). The outcome is that the intruders on God's holy and beautiful and peaceful land begin to fight one another (just as in many OT divine rescue stories), and are consumed by fire from heaven (Ezek. 38.21-23).
In Isaiah, the imprisonment of the heavenly and earthly authorities in the underworld gives way to the reign of God in glory before his elders (Isa. 24.23; cf. Rev. 20.4 and compare Rev. 4.4), and a wonderful description of the messianic banquet (Isa. 25.1-8). Isaiah also sees a great crisis in this context of "every tear being wiped away" and the taking away of the great veil between humankind and God (Isa. 25.7). Just like Ezekiel, he foresees the coming of the wicked into the setting of the peaceful age of God's full presence and protection:
If favor is shown to the wicked,
he does not learn righteousness.
In the land of uprightness he acts crookedly
and does not see the majesty of the LORD.
O LORD, your hand is lifted up, yet they don't see it.
They will see your zeal for your people and be totally ashamed;
The fire that is for your adversaries will consume them.
(Isa. 26.10-11; cf. Heb. 10.27, which quotes this passage as a prophecy of the last judgment).
If we look further on in Isa. 26 we find, surprise of surprises, references (literal or figurative makes no difference to the point here) to resurrection for the righteous and denial of resurrection for the unrighteous (see Isa. 26.14-19), a battle set in the context of the resurrection of the righteous and divine protection of them from a final confrontation with the wicked (Isa. 26.20-21), and, of all things, the final slaying of the great serpent, Leviathan (see Isa. 24.20-21 and 27.1 and compare Rev. 20.1-3 and 7-10).
My conclusion from a concordant reading of these passages with Rev. 19–21 (keeping in mind Isa. 26.10-11 and its relationship to Heb. 10.27) is that the last judgment of the unrepentant is what happens to them when they are belatedly granted the gift of resurrection. It is not a courtroom-style examination of their deeds in mortal life, which already has happened at Christ's coming (Rev. 20.4, cf. e.g. Dan. 7, Mt. 25 and 2 Cor. 5.10). At this judgment they were judged unworthy of resurrection and/or participation in the kingdom. Yet, according to the limitless grace of God, after missing but the first divine "day" (= 1000 years) of the new creation, the unrepentant are given amnesty and are invited to come "through the gates into the city" (Rev. 22:14). The great judgment is that although "they are shown favor" (Isa. 26.10), they don't learn righteousness but make attack all over again (a dog returns to its vomit, and a pig returns to wallow in the mire, says Peter, 2 Pet. 2.22), and this time they are irrevocably judged according to their works (Rev. 20.13-15 // Rev. 20.7-10). The grace of God extends to the very, very last second, the very, very last invitation:
I am not angry--
[i.e. angry at those who approach God's lovingly protected vineyard, the new Israel: Isa. 27.2, 6]
But if they come against me with thorns and briars,
[i.e. if they attempt to attack the vineyard and sabotage it by planting fruitless and harmful plants in it]
I will be against them and set them on fire--
So, let them come to me for refuge instead!
Let them make peace with me,
Let them make peace with me.
I believe that John penned Rev. 20:1-15 with the understanding that the last judgment of the unrepentant comes when they effectively choose fire when peace and reconciliation are freely extended to them one last time along with the gift of resurrection. I admit that this "second chance refused" model for the last judgment does not stand entirely without problems and paradoxes. However: (1) as a model for the significance of the "millennium" in Revelation it is by far the most consistent with John's whole style and message throughout Revelation (for this, see my book, After the Thousand Years [JSNTSup, 70; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992]), (2) it stands in harmony with the loving and just and merciful character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, and (3) it listens deeply and concordantly to all the biblical statements about the final disposition of the unrepentant.
"The Fear of the LORD is the Beginning of Wisdom." So What is the End of Wisdom?
I want to suggest that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but that it is not the end of wisdom. To me, the end of wisdom (in other words, wisdom's goal and aim) is not to fear God, but to fear what God fears.
Let me put it this way. For a toddler, the beginning of wisdom is to fear daddy and mommy. Knowledge of their love, and the natural love that comes up in us in response, is good and wholesome. But wisdom, the constructive side of the "knowledge of good and evil," consists in more than the knowledge of love (Col. 1:3-4, 8-10). Wisdom is the ability to discern what is edifying from what is harmful, what is safe from what is dangerous.
There is important knowledge to be had about what is safe and dangerous, and not all of it is best to gather from direct experience. Some such knowledge comes from those who have been around before you and know more. It is certainly possible to find out some quick facts about the dangers of electric sockets by putting a paper clip into one. But when you're too young to understand concepts like electricity and electrocution, the beginning of wisdom is the fear that drenches you when mommy suddenly shouts at you, leaps mightily over the coffee table, and slaps your hand away, saying, all red- faced and intimidating, "Never, never, NEVER DO THAT!!"
Running into the street, climbing up high on the bookshelves, and poking your sister with a rat tailed comb all get something of an equivalent reaction from both mommy and daddy. Exactly why these particular actions should call forth such ferocious responses remains a mystery for a long time--a mystery that preys on your mind, so that mommy will sometimes see you meditating on it in a quiet moment. "Naughty, no, no no!" you'll repeat in a kind of solo role play, lowering your brow, pursing your lips just so, and lightly slapping your own wrist. You're trying to fathom the meaning of this sudden, inexplicable transformation that comes over those great parental powers who are generally so congenial to you.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. God is our father, our mother, the father of our fathers and the mother of our mothers. It may be a major positive step to fear God's disapproval over things that may seem innocuous to us in our biological adulthood and spiritual toddlerhood. But beyond the first step in wisdom is the maturing of wisdom. I come to understand later why God disapproves of many things--and I see that God loves me and wants to protect me from harming myself, harming others, and harming my environment. The end of wisdom is that I come to join God in hating what is harmful, not because I know I will "get in trouble" with God if I do the harmful, but because I learn two things:
first, in accepting God's love, I grow to love my own well-being and the well-being of all that God has made;
second, I grow to discern what kinds of behaviors and attitudes tear down that well-being, and what kinds of behaviors and attitudes build it up.
You can see this pattern in Col. 1:7-10:
Epaphras . . . has made known to us your love in the Spirit. And so, from the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
The Colossians have love, the first and foundational part of wisdom; Paul prays that they may be completed in knowledge of what is best, the second part, so that they may be fully equipped for God's effective service.
Through wisdom I have come to understand that my mother does not have two opposite sides, and that she did not have a habit of suddenly turning against me. For the very reason that she loved her children, she feared for my safety and the safety of my sister, therefore she rescued me from myself and rescued my sister from me. The beginning of wisdom was to fear her reaction; the end of wisdom is to fear what she fears.
Beloved, we are already God's children; it does not yet appear what we will be, but we do know that when God appears we will be like God, for we will see God as God truly is. (1 Jn 3:2)
God is love, and the one who lives in love lives in God. It is in this that love comes to maturity in us, and thus we have confidence for the day of judgment. For as God is, so are we in the world. There is no fear in love, but mature love takes the place of fear. For fear is about punishment, and the person who fears has not yet matured in love. We love because God loved us first. (1 Jn 4:16-19)
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