Who is this “God” person, anyway?

god2-sistine_chapel

If you asked the average American on the street (or perhaps on the couch, the more natural habitat of the American) what God looks like, they would probably say a dude with a white robe, a white beard, and long white hair. It’s the stock image of God found in every corner of our culture, from The Simpsons to Existential Comics to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (pictured).

Unfortunately, this picture is profoundly misleading.

Now, granted, there is some biblical basis for this imagery; the prophet Daniel, for instance, said that the “Ancient of days” of his vision was dressed in “clothing … as white as snow,” and that “the hair of his head was white like wool” (Daniel 7:9). On the other hand, the Bible consistently warns against taking such imagery literally and forbids making any images of God (e.g. Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 4:15-20). This is because making a physical object to represent God presents him as finite, local, comprehensible, controllable. And God is none of those things. The problem is not so much an inaccurate view of God’s hairstyle as a fundamental category error about the kind of entity God is.

We tend to imagine God as a kind of superhero – basically like us, but with superpowers. This Superhero God can do all kinds of amazing, miraculous things, altering the physical world at will. But Superhero God’s powers, however great, are not essential to his being in any way. He can interfere with the world or not, as he chooses, or even, as in the movie Bruce Almighty, hand them over to someone else – a familiar superhero trope. In this view, being “God” is more of a job than an identity. Sure, it’s a really important job; as Jim Carrey’s character discovered, someone with unlimited power needs unlimited wisdom to know how to use his power for the good of everyone. (As Peter Parker might say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”) But the most this does is make Superhero God the caretaker of the universe. He is not its Sovereign or Lord, and we naturally rebel against the notion that must obey such a being just because he is more powerful than we are.

It needs to be said that this notion of God is very different from the one taught by historic, biblical Christianity. The God of the Bible is not merely the most powerful being in the universe; he is the foundation on which the universe depends for its existence. This does not merely mean that God existed before the universe and got it going; rather, it is only by the will and power of God that any particle of the universe continues to exist.

This version of God appears throughout the Christian Bible. So we find the prophet Isaiah declaring that it is God’s power that keeps the stars appearing night after night after night (Isaiah 40:26). In the final heavenly vision of Revelation, God is declared worthy of worship because he both created and sustains “all things” (Revelation 4:11). And then there is the Apostle Paul, who defines God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” in a speech to the religious police in Greece (Acts 17:28) and as the one who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” in a letter to believers in Asia Minor (Ephesians 1:11). Even more emphatically, he declares that “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). This is paralleled by the statement in Hebrews 1:3 that God’s Son “upholds the universe by the word of his power.”

The God of the Bible does not stand apart from the world, observing and occasionally interfering. He upholds it, sustains it, contains it. If he were to step aside or let go or allow his mind to wander, the universe would cease to exist. We need God for each moment of our continued existence. But God does not need us. He existed in eternal joy before creating the world, and he will one day bring this world to an end.

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you will remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,

but you are the same, and your years have no end. (Psalm 102:25-27)

Classic Christian theology thus includes in the definition of God the fact that he is “necessary,” while all other being is contingent upon him. This is not pantheism; creation is real and distinct from God. But it cannot exist apart from him, any more than a shadow can exist without something solid.

Set against this biblical backdrop, the Superhero God flexing his muscles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a ridiculously inadequate caricature. God is not like a man. He has no limitations, no weaknesses, no needs. He is the foundation on which all our contingent existence rests. The idea of God taking a break or handing over the management of the universe to someone else has all the absurdity of Elmer Fudd picking up the planks of the bridge he is walking across until he realizes his unsupported predicament and plummets to his doom.

Every moment is a gift from God. He not only planned it and created the laws and processes that would lead to it, but his direct action sustains and continues what his direct action began. Every move you make, every breath you take, every particle of your being is the outflow of the gracious power of a merciful and unfathomable Sustainer.

This is the answer to our objections to the biblical picture of God’s commands and judgments. When we think of God as just a more powerful version of ourselves, it is only natural that we would view his attempts to tell us what to do as arrogant bullying. Who does he think he is? Why doesn’t he mind his own business? But when we recognize the true nature of God, we cannot escape the conclusion that we are and must be his business if we are to be anything at all.

Asking God to leave us alone is like complaining that the air keeps pushing its way into our lungs or that the earth keeps holding us up. If God left us to our own devices, he would consign us to instant annihilation. And the miracle is that he does not. Even as we ignore him, deny him, reject his commands, misuse his gifts, abuse and harm his good creations, and mock his love, it is his long-suffering and merciful will that makes it possible for us to do so.

But there is more. God not only endures our rebellion and continually provides us with the existence we continually use to reject him; he offers us forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with him by taking the consequences of our sin on himself, dying on the cross in our place. And, as with all of God’s actions toward us, this incredible sacrifice was prompted not by necessity, but by love. The God who does not need us still wants us. The necessity which we reject in vain invites us to embrace him willingly and find in him an eternal and unquenchable source of life and joy.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary,

and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall,

but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

 

Image Credit: Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGod2-Sistine_Chapel.png)

 

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Star Wars and Seeds of Doubt

Jordan_Peters_Star_WarsA few weeks ago, before the rolling yellow opening credits of the latest Star Wars movie appeared in theaters across the land, the crazy theories began to fill my Facebook newsfeed.

I’m not just talking about theories about Episode VII. Before the movie came out, those were pretty much all just speculation, and could have been true. (Although – spoiler alert! – it turns out Kylo Ren is not actually Luke Skywalker.)

I’m talking about theories about the movies we had all already seen, particularly the original trilogy. Crazy, loopy, ridiculous theories seriously advanced on major news sites.  There were claims that the Empire were the good guys, or that Luke actually turned to the dark side in the climactic encounter with Vader and the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi. I even encountered the outrageous, meticulously-defended assertion that Revenge of the Sith (in case you’ve forgotten, that’s the name of Episode III) is a better movie than any of the original trilogy.

Like I said, crazy stuff. The Empire were the good guys? Tell that to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Luke turned to the dark side? Both he and the Emperor explicitly agreed that he remained a Jedi. Episode III was better than IV and V? Check out their relative ratings on RottenTomatoes.com.

The thing is, as all these articles started popping up on our collective newsfeeds, you could see the seeds of doubt taking root in people’s minds. Like me, most of my Facebook friends (and friends-of-friends) grew up with Star Wars. We’ve loved it all our lives. But as people encountered these new theories, some would start to question their previous beliefs and interpretations. What if the Empire wasn’t as bad as we’d thought? What if Luke didn’t actually overcome the lure of the dark side? Most insidiously of all, what if the original movies weren’t actually all that good? What if we all just got hooked on them when we were kids, and that early exposure has biased us so much that we see greatness where there really isn’t any?

As I watched these seeds of doubt taking root in my social network, I had the weirdest sense of deja vu.

You see, I’m a Christian. Not only that, I grew up in a Christian home. So did my parents. And their parents. I don’t know how far back you would have to go to find my most recent non-Christian ancestor, but it’s a long ways. Suffice it to say, I grew up steeped in Christianity, church, and the Bible. From the schools my parents sacrificed to send me to, to the camp I attended every summer, to the books I read and the songs I listened to, I was thoroughly immersed in a context that taught me to believe that Jesus loves me (the Bible tells me so), and that I should love him too. And so I did.

And then I grew up and left home and encountered ideas and theories that regarded the claims of the Bible as completely unreliable. I came across perspectives that offered complex and sophisticated alternative explanations for how the Bible came to be written and how people came to believe the crazy idea that Jesus was anything more than an unusually gifted religious leader, explanations that claimed to explain away the Jesus I had always loved. And so I watched as friends who came from backgrounds like my own began to question and doubt what they had always accepted as good and true.

Fast forward a few years, and here I am watching the same doubts crop up, this time around a beloved movie franchise: “Is my love for this just an irrational bias that comes from being immersed in it as a child?”

As a matter of fact, I think the bias actually runs the other way. Take the case of Star Wars. I would argue that our familiarity with these movies is actually what makes it possible for us to forget just how good they really are. Because we grew up with these movies, watched them so many times, and know them so well, they don’t hit us with the full impact that they would if we were seeing them for the first time. The reality is that Star Wars: A New Hope didn’t just mesmerize a bunch of impressionable youngsters; it took the Hollywood establishment by storm, earning six Oscars, as well as nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role. (Revenge of the Sith, by contrast, was nominated for “Best Achievement in Makeup.”) And despite all the special-effects advances of subsequent decades, it continues to charm unbiased first-time viewers.

Star Wars is the real deal. And, as it turns out, so is Jesus. Despite a multi-generational campaign to discredit it, the evidence for the historical reliability of the New Testament really remains unparalleled in the ancient world. While reasonable scholars may continue to debate many details, that doesn’t affect the overall picture any more than Star Wars is ruined by Luke whining about power converters. The reason the gospel spread across the ancient world so quickly is that it was backed up by credible evidence. And to this day, the message of Christianity continues to amaze, convince, and convert more people around the world than any other idea or philosophy in the history of humanity.

And yet, not everyone believes. Not even everyone who grew up in a Christian home like mine holds onto the faith they apparently embraced as a child. Some even become active opponents of the gospel, attacking the Bible and Christianity publicly and doing their best to plant seeds of doubt in the hearts of those who still believe what they have abandoned. And sometimes they succeed in making some believers question their ability to evaluate the claims of the Bible objectively.

Let’s make this personal. Perhaps you grew up in a Christian context and are now questioning whether the gospel is really true. Or maybe you’re way past questioning; you simply don’t believe any more in the Jesus they told you about when you were a kid. Of course you believed in Jesus when Christianity was the only thing you knew. You accepted it because it was familiar, but now you know better.

May I suggest that it may actually be the other way around? That it is precisely because the gospel is familiar to you that you no longer believe it the way you did when it was fresh and new? That you no longer see the goodness of the good news because it is no longer news to you? That if you could somehow lay aside the baggage of your assumptions and associations and open up the Bible like any other book, you would be blown away all over again by the message of God responding to your rebellion by sending his Son as a real man in real history to save you and bring you back into relationship with him?

Before The Force Awakens came out, I sat down and watched the original trilogy with my wife. I hadn’t seen them in a while, and it was great to see them again with fresh eyes, to remember how funny and exciting and moving and powerful they really are.

Maybe it’s time you did the same thing with Jesus. Give him a fresh look; you might find yourself surprised by just how amazing his grace really is.

 

Image Credit: “Jordan Peters Star Wars” by Huỳnh Kim Chí – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jordan_Peters_Star_Wars.jpg#/media/File:Jordan_Peters_Star_Wars.jpg