For listeners: Listen on Anchor FM.
What follows is a layman’s attempt at a theological argument, which I suppose makes it a shot in the dark. By taking this shot, I risk the assumption that no stray dart will cause harm. But I think my assumption is low-risk for the following reasons:
- I will only be read by a few people.
- These same people are confident in their faith but not so arrogant as to avoid a challenge.
- Metaphorical arrows fired into a metaphorical abyss don’t usually derail someone’s life-size relationship with their Creator.
As for the writing itself, I share ideas I’ve wrestled with for many years. In the contest, I’ve come to such a point of mental and physical exhaustion that I feel the only way to find rest is to publish the work in its current, incomplete form and allow more educated people to obliterate it. The gnawing reminder that I am not a studied, credentialed theologian has kept me from my writing desk, and perhaps that is not terrible. Like any sober person, I am persuaded that shooting anything in the dark is unwise.
A few years ago, I ultimately abandoned the material. I told myself I didn’t know what I was doing. The Samwise Gamgee in me decided it was best to let the Gandalfs of the world do their job. Meanwhile, I would go back to gardening in the Shire. This, I told myself, would please both God and man. And I knew I was bound to get most of it wrong, anyway.
After a prolonged but not uneventful hiatus, I returned to analyze the first draft. What I found confirmed my suspicions: I could not remain true to a theme, my ideas were chaotic, and a sequence of poorly founded theological affirmations blurred into what, I was sure, must be the prosaic equivalent of a Michael Bay film. Even for careless prose, this was not to be borne. So, I returned to the work to seek out that elusive theme that I hoped, by some spiritual guidance, lay hidden like a diamond in the rough despite my whirlwind of creative but imprecise ideas.
Sifting through a series of claims that might be viewed as controversial, liberal, or even heretical, I found a familiar story in the eye of the storm. It was so familiar that I wondered whether the real problem with the material was not that it was unfocused, misguided, or heretical but rather that it was unoriginal. Or, to quote Chesterton: “I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”
At the core of it all, I found a story about God’s self-denying love in the person of Jesus, his everlasting life, and his redemptive power to overcome what the apostle Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians as the last enemy to be defeated, death (15:26). Big deal, I thought. Everyone knows this story.
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. After all, there is an unsettling trend in our American religious culture characterized by a lack of critical thought and investigation of the scriptures. And by investigation, I don’t mean textual vivisection, where the aim is to pick scripture apart piece by piece and have it turn on itself while it writhes and screams on the floor. The sorts of people who engage in that reading style are anything but exegetical in their approach, and what they produce can hardly be called hermeneutics. There is no need to present examples of them here other than to say that if you’ve ever seen a fragment of scripture reduced to a sociopolitical meme on social media, you’ve encountered both the fruit and dead-end limits of their critique. Ignore them if you can.
No, when I speak of the lack of critical thought, I speak in the context of what I reluctantly label the median Christendom of the present age, a culture where few talk about immortality, the physicality of the resurrected Christ, or the power of the Holy Spirit opposite suffering. Likewise, we find a culture either oblivious to the philosophical problem of evil or, if not oblivious, afraid to get too close to its shadow. And lastly, we find a culture uninterested in the Resurrection and with no urgency for repenting from dead works.
We find too much obstinate loyalty to ideas that, when investigated, remain tenuous if not unproven. Conversely, we see too much avoidance, confusion, and indifference toward those scriptural tenets that seem to me most self-evident.
Indeed, what once was self-evident is now mostly forgotten.
Note: If you have made it this far, wonderful. Please read and enjoy the first part of what I hope will be a larger, four-part series on what I have gathered from reading and interpreting the Bible with as few cultural lenses as I can manage. Granted, it’s no easy task. But let’s make an effort, shall we?
Part I – The Body
1. The lie: the body (flesh and blood) is of the material world and therefore evil.
2. The truth: the body (flesh and blood) is of the material world and therefore fallen.
What’s the difference? Only one word, and yet the difference is remarkable. According to Christian eschatology, whatever is evil must be destroyed at the end of the age. But that which is fallen can, by self-evident implication, be raised again to its original stature. It can be redeemed. As I said, what a remarkable difference one word makes.
So, should I then insult my Creator by believing the lie? Should I tell him that my body, formed of earth, is that part of me least like him? If you are reading this, you likely know the story: when he took the red dirt and forged humankind in his image, he looked at what he had made, breathed into it, and called it good. For no one is good but him, and what he creates must, by extension, reflect that goodness.
And, of the unaccountable ways in which God might have revealed himself to the world, he chose flesh and bone, body and blood; not the present dissociated body that you and I inhabit, but a bodily existence nonetheless—that first flesh unified with his Spirit and vivified by it. One could almost imagine a beating heart being secondary to the Spirit’s life-giving power before the Fall, a backup engine in the event of sin (God forbid).
But from the moment of this body’s alienation in Adam, the God of Heaven sought to renew flesh and make it good again through not merely Man as such, but rather the Son of Man and the only begotten of God. The plan began immediately, almost as if it had been the real plan.
Skipping over the narrative of that plan (you can find it in the Old Testament), we come to our midpoint protagonist: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. According to the story, did Christ abandon his body in the tomb? It’s not a trick question. The answer is no. He ascended to the eternal realm not as a disembodied spirit but as a man, in a human body and marked by his wounds: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness” (Colossians 2:9-10, NIV).
Bodily form. We can debate its meaning and arrive at varied interpretations. But whatever your belief, “supernatural” is the word for this event, for it is more natural than anything we can yet comprehend, a physicality and a power that defies both expectation and experience. Even so, I must drive home the point: the God of Heaven needed a body of his own to lead our bodies free from the captivity of death. If God is not man, man is not saved.
This is the original design restored. But what design can we study amid the indifferent chaos of our cosmos? We do not see order, only coincidence. Can we not conclude that design, if intelligent, would envision a different or better universe? This assumes that life as we know it is a less-than-optimal system. And so, it is. In isolation, separate from the realm of God, life is less than optimal and has existed in that fractured state as far back as we can remember.
If the world we know is the byproduct of sin rather than union with God, then perhaps our atheist brothers and sisters are not far off the mark: we are not in our present state the result of intelligent design but of a cosmic train-wreck. After all, what is so intelligent about an unpredictable world, one moment receptive to life and the next hostile toward it? Are we not at the mercy of those forces of nature subject only to the laws of time and chance?
We are asking the wrong questions (and for now, we’ll overlook that presupposing such things as the laws of time and chance demands we acknowledge an older source or configuration of laws, farther back than we can yet reach).
Before I get to what I think the right questions might be, allow me a detour. For all practical purposes, I am a theist. However, I think of atheism as a sensible worldview relative to the common, low-resolution image of who and what “God” is in history. Relative to how God’s nature and character have been portrayed in the modern world, I might even be an atheist for all impractical purposes. The general idea of God has gotten so out of hand that I would go as far as to say that if we intend to go on referring to him as “God,” then I think atheism may be the better way forward.
Now, assuming I have not lost my Christian readers at this sudden turn, let me see if I can explain myself with what I think is the right sort of questions (or, at least, the right sort of tangents).
When consciousness awakens, finding itself endued with free will, it starts upon a universe with the potential to err. This is the risk inherent in the construct and the challenge of divine sovereignty. Divine and sovereign: these are two old words the modern world despises or, at the very least, dislikes. But we should appraise them fairly, for it is through divine sovereignty that we encounter grace. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” says the Sovereign One (Hosea 6:6). Truly, to be holy and sovereign is to flood humanity with mercy, unlike anything it has ever known. And according to Hebrews 10:10, Christ, as the last sacrifice, ushered in the age of mercy to end all sacrifices.
Yet divine sovereignty as a misconceived idea leads us to assume the following: if a righteous God did exist, he would not permit evil. And, if he does allow evil, he is an unrighteous God. But here, we ignore the element of free will, the god-image within man that in communion with the Father will produce the fruit of righteousness and in rebellion against him will cease to bear the divine image, leading to sin and its inescapable consequence, death. In this reality, it is now sin that takes on the sovereign image of humankind and propagates the cosmos with its terrifying likeness.
If we exclude this detail from our evaluation, we commit the logical fallacy of drawing inferences about the puzzle from only a few of its pieces. For an all-powerful God to erase humanity’s faults in one swift stroke, that same God must break his covenant of trust with humanity and negate his omnipotence. To end human sovereignty, that self-government that has ever been the fruit of humankind living in perfect relationship with the sovereign Lord, would be tyranny worse than death.
Here, some might say that the cross erased our faults, but I think that is to degrade the cross. It would be more accurate and would pack more punch to say that Christ began the project of remaking the cosmos through the cross. And in that project, we now find ourselves wrestling not against flesh and blood but rather against principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12). You know, the forces of evil.
Am I justifying the reality of evil, of death? No. I could say that evil and death are present because we live in a fallen world, and then I could base that conclusion on the authority of scripture. But this oversimplifies a problem that demands every ounce of our God-given intellect, humility, and patience. The Genesis story vaguely accounts for natural evil by suggesting that Adam forfeited his dominion over the earth (natural evil refers to tornadoes, floods, diseases, unlucky circumstances, and the many other random acts of nature with an unsettling proclivity for decimating our lives).
As for willful evil, to say that the early Genesis narrative of Adam’s sin presents us with the best possible explanation for darkness and injustice is to misinterpret a story that was written not to hand us a contrived answer for the problem of evil but to engender in our hearts a mystery and a hope which points beyond the problem toward what is unseen and yet fulfilled in the risen Christ.
As N.T. Wright puts it,
“The various accounts of evil functioned, not as scientific ‘explanations’, but as signposts to dark and puzzling realities. Human rebellion, idolatry, and arrogance, mingled with shadowy forces from beyond the present world, had infected the world, humans and Israel itself” (740).
In the wake of so much death and injustice in the world, people of the post-Enlightenment, post-modern era could no longer stomach the idea of an all-powerful and good God who permitted and even willed evil. It’s not that their logic is unsound, but rather that it is applied to a fictitious, low-resolution caricature of an absentee God, one unlikely to reduce himself to the confines of time and space to be brutally beaten and humiliated, and ultimately to expire on a Roman cross (never mind how clear the Gospel makes that point).
And I say, “willed evil,” not only to again draw attention to our faulty understanding of sovereignty but to steer us back to my previous, radical claim:
The general idea of God has gotten so out of hand that I would go as far to say that if we intend to go on referring to him as “God,” then I think atheism may be the better way forward.
As I was writing this, I decided to pause and check my email. Among other notifications, I received an automated email from a church inviting me to start my Sunday morning with a song from Elevation Worship; embedded within the email was a link to the song on YouTube. So, curious as ever, I clicked the link to the video. Within one minute, I encountered the following lyrics (sang beautifully by artists who know what they’re doing, I might add): “You would cross an ocean so I wouldn’t drown.” In this context, the “You” is meant to be Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, or God, whichever one prefers. But what most struck me about the lyrics was not the ambiguity as to which member of the Trinity it might be sung, but rather that it implied something about Jesus that I’m not sure is biblical in its final rendering. Allow me to explain what I mean.
You may recall the following remark from my prologue:
Likewise, we find a culture either oblivious to the philosophical problem of evil or, if not oblivious, afraid to get too close to its shadow.
As to what I mean by this, I think the lyric about God crossing an ocean to save us from drowning presents a perfect example. But before elaborating further, let me establish two nonnegotiable tenets of my personal belief.
- The first is that God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believed in the same Son would have eternal life (John 3:16).
- The second is that God’s love, expressed through the person and body of Jesus, is both macro and micro in its infinite scope—macro because it envelops the infinite cosmos, time, and space, and micro because it reaches me, a nobody outside my own social circle and a blip alongside the vastness of humanity.
You might be thinking: so, what does this have to do with the problem of evil or song lyrics about God crossing an ocean?
Well, let’s try statistics. In Florida alone, ninety-eight children drowned in 2021 (Saeidi). Now, imagine being the parent of one of those children. And as the parent of one of those children, imagine being in a worship service, surrounded by hipster Christian millennials with their eyes closed and their hands held out in front of them as if waiting to be handed a slice of cake, singing about the God who crosses oceans (so they won’t drown)—metaphorically speaking. And that’s just the problem. Our Americanized Christendom has reduced Jesus, the Incarnate Uncreated One, to an emotional crutch, a disembodied construct capable of little more than making us feel loved and babied while we soak in his “presence.”
Forgive me for what I say next, but I feel compelled: To Hell with that nonsense.
Meanwhile, in the land of the living, Jesus is calling his true followers to plunge headfirst into a corrupt, broken, suffering world and (God help them) purify it, reset its shattered bones, and when all else fails, suffer with it.
Now, do you see what I mean about “the Church” being oblivious to the philosophical problem of evil? If he is the God who can cross oceans, what agency prevents him from crossing the street to prevent horror and tragedy? Well, none, if he is truly all-powerful. But if no agency exists that can prevent an omnipotent Creator from doing anything he wants, then we must conclude that the same Creator witnesses the tragedy and allows it to unfold. And these are just accidents. I’ve left out examples of willful evil like human trafficking, rape, and murder, among a list without end. Thus, the atheist is right to disavow such a God. But more importantly, Christianity is to blame for reducing God to the kind of caricature the atheist has every right to disavow. So, you might ask at this stage, how exactly should a good God be conceived in relation to a world subject to horror, tragedy, and despair?
When in doubt, look to the Gospel—God becomes a man and then suffers horror, tragedy, and despair. In other words, and for some reason beyond my capacity to comprehend, God does not erase evil in the person of Jesus. Rather, he confronts it, and then—and this is where the going gets tough—he calls us to do the same. Nowhere in scripture has God promised us that he will cross oceans to save us. Rather, what he promises is something far less warm and fuzzy: The world hates you? Good. But remember that it hated me first (John 15:18).
So, my fellow Christians, forgive me if the only valid response I feel to a song about God crossing oceans to save me from drowning is to float both middle fingers over my head like bull horns while beelining for the nearest exit. We all have thorns in our sides; I suppose this one is mine.
In the same vein as the Church side-stepping the problem of evil is its insistence on a disembodied eternity. Note the following by one of the foremost intellectuals (and atheists) of our time, Sam Harris:
“The whole point of Christianity, or so it is imagined, is to safeguard the eternal wellbeing of human souls.”(00:59:01)
To give Mr. Harris credit, he knows from his careful study of religion that this is not the biblical point of Christianity and has said so publicly. But the key phrase in his statement is “or so it is imagined,” to which I would ask, or so it is imagined by whom, exactly? If Sam Harris had made this claim to convey the biblical view of things accurately, he would have been guilty of a common hermeneutical mistake. But perhaps he made this mistake in jest to draw attention to a more disconcerting truth: it’s the same mistake that millions of Christians in the West make every day when trying to explain their own religion and interpret their own Bibles.
But if believers know anything, they ought to know this: the point of Christianity is Christ, the Incarnate Ancient of Days, which is now officially and without any valid contention, not just the new way of being human, but the only way of being human. To be anything else is not to fall short of deity but to fall short of humanity. Paraphrasing T.F. Torrance, Robert T. Walker put it like this:
“There is no spaceless and timeless knowledge of God. We cannot therefore think of a static eternal God apart from the living God who actively makes himself known to us in time and space in the history of Israel and above all in Christ. Abstract western or eastern philosophical views of God are very different from the God who makes himself personally known in word and action in biblical history.”(Torrance, xli)
To this, I would add: to go on casting this story in the light of whether a postmortem, disembodied soul finds itself in either Heaven or Hell is to make a caricature of God and his Christ. So, if people of the post-modern world can no longer stomach the idea of an omnipotent and good God, perhaps it is because the Christian world has misapprehended him. And by that, I mean that we in the Christian world have done much to disembody the God who chose embodiment as the final means of remaking the cosmos and restoring humankind to the Adamic status of image-bearers.
After all, it’s so much easier to aim at nothing than to aim at something. Just ask the servant who buried his talent (Matt. 25:14-30).
Biblically speaking, where we end up when we die is of no immediate consequence. If it was, the Bible would have more to say about it—but it does not. Hate me or love me when I tell you: the Bible says nothing about loved ones being reunited in an afterlife, nor does it say much about an afterlife, period (if you are paying attention). What the Bible does tell us is more mysterious and intriguing: “the Kingdom of God is already among you” (Luke 17:21).
Rather, who we become while we are here is of the highest consequence. As to my eternal reward, my hope is found in Christ alone. And the point of Christ is that he is still very much alive despite any cynical opinions to the contrary. Did not Paul say that we would be fools in the world’s eyes because of this belief? We believe in a man conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, who as an adult claimed to be both the Son of Man and the Son of God, who was subsequently accused of blasphemy, then tortured and crucified, and three days later—came back to life after being dead.
If at my death I am carried into God’s presence and redeemed from the pit of eternal torment, it will only be so because of the Incarnation. It will only be so because the “whole point” is and always has been Jesus, the one who makes all things new, and thus once and for all lays low the strong arm of death. Tragedy may beset us for a time, but we believe in the One who met tragedy head-on, who took all of it upon and into himself, and who with his last words on the cross echoed the despairing cry of Psalm 22 (My God, my God) knowing well that the same scripture ends with the following affirmation: “They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” (v. 31).
So, if I haven’t yet, I must drive home the point that when we refer to “God,” we should be as specific as possible. We should be so precise as to remember the Gospel: if God is not man, man is not saved. If God is not Jesus of Nazareth, then no lamb has been slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8), and death still holds dominion over all things. Soak in that for a change.
As I said earlier, I am an atheist for all impractical purposes, just as the first and second-century Christians were atheists for rejecting the godhead of Caesar and proclaiming instead with vivid precision that God had decided to become one of us, die, and then come back—a trick Caesar could have only imagined pulling off in his wildest dreams.
So, with any luck, we are back to where we began:
- The lie: the body (flesh and blood) is of the material world, therefore evil.
- The truth: the body (flesh and blood) is of the material world, therefore fallen.
- The truer truth: the body (flesh, blood, and soul) is remade in the image of God’s only begotten Son and is now perfected through the Incarnation.
As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God” (145). First, God created man and called him good. Second, God became man to keep his word. And third of all, God filled humankind with himself so that, among other things, humanity could bear witness to the truth that Jesus is the man God became. Thus, Christ’s embodiment is so essentially Gospel that to go on ignoring it in the light of what the New Testament insists, I feel, would be an error of devastating consequence.
To be continued Part II – Disembodiment: The Great Lie. I know you can’t wait.
Chesterton, G. Orthodoxy. Independently published, 2020.
Elevation Worship. “Jireh | Elevation Worship & Maverick City.” YouTube, uploaded by Elevation Worship, 26 Mar. 2021, https://youtu.be/mC-zw0zCCtg?t=57.
Harris, Sam. “The God Debate II: Harris vs. Craig.” YouTube, uploaded by University of Notre Dame, 12 Apr. 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqaHXKLRKzg&t=3541s.
Lewis, C. S. “Mere Christianity.” The C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York, HarperCollins, 2017.
Saeidi, Mahsa. “98 children drowned in Florida in 2021, a record number, according to state data.” WFLA, https://www.wfla.com/8-on-your-side/98-children-drowned-in-florida-in-2021-a-record-number-according-to-state-data/. Accessed 24 Apr. 2022.
The Bible. New International Version. Bible Gateway, 1993, https://www.biblegateway.com/, Accessed 24 Apr. 2022.
Torrance, T.F., and Robert T. Walker. Incarnation: the Person and Life of Christ. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2013.