Thursday, May 24, 2012

The ”Gospel” of a Defeated God


          The “gospel” is believed to be a known quantity in North American society.  Friend and foe alike would agree that what follows is the “default” for “gospel” in our culture.
          God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
          However, you are a sinner and your sin has separated you from God.
          But Jesus came and died on the cross for your sins.
If you accept his death for you, you can be reconciled (forgiven and accepted) to God.
Thus you are assured that you will spend eternity with God in heaven.

          This is the “gospel” Billy Graham preached.  It’s the “gospel” of the well-known “Four Spiritual Laws” from Campus Crusade for Christ.  The widely used “Evangelism Explosion” program of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church is based on it as is the “Romans Road to Salvation” approach to evangelism.  And this is the “gospel” that riles those unsympathetic to its theology.  Make no mistake, when push comes to shove in our culture, this set of ideas IS the “gospel.”
 
          But is it really?  “Gospel” means “good news.”  It celebrates a victory.  It is a triumphant cry that Jesus is Victor and through him God has accomplished all he purposed in creating humanity and the world.  My claim is that the “gospel” as outlined above, when assessed by the gospel we actually find in the Bible, is not the “good news” of a God victorious in all his ways.  Rather, this “gospel” is, in truth, the bad news of a defeated deity!  Little wonder that our world finds such a “gospel” uninteresting and irrelevant and the church finds such little “oomph” for witness and mission in it!

          This outrageous claim can only be justified by a comparison of the biblical gospel (BG) with our default “gospel” (DG). 

-In the BG God intends to have a worldwide community of humans living in union and communion with him, themselves, each other, and the creation itself.  We will have perfected bodies suited to the “new creation.”[1]

In the DG God intends for humanity to live eternally with him in heaven in a spiritual (immaterial) existence.[2] 

-In the BG God acts to rescue sinful humanity, reclaim them for their original dignity and vocation of serving as God’s royal representatives in creation protecting and nurturing creation to its full flourishing, and renew the creation, the world to come, as our eternal habitation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the DG God rescues sinful humanity through the death of Jesus Christ so that God and humanity may enjoy eternal union and communion in heaven.  Our vocation here is to “save as many souls” as possible for this heavenly life for which we wait.

-In the BG God will throughout eternity come to live in and with us on the new creation and we will “reign”[3] with him forever fulfilling our vocation to be God’s image-bearers[4] and stewards of creation[5] (Genesis 2:15), thus experiencing finally and in full life as God intends.

In the DG God will live with us in “spiritual” union and communion in the heavenly realm after the earth and all things material are done away with.

Note well: when compared with the BG, the DG presents a God whose ultimate purpose is defeated, whose power is limited, and who cannot finally win the victory over death.  This is why I claim the DG is actually the “bad news” of a defeated deity.  And this is what we have proclaimed as God’s “good news” for the last couple of centuries!
         
In comparison with the BG, the DG portrays a God whose ultimate purpose is defeated.  The picture of the end in Revelation 21-22 is about as far removed from that of an eternal, immaterial existence in heaven forever as it could be. Instead of an embodied life with the forever incarnate Jesus on a perfected creation serving God by caring for and nurturing creation and each other, we end up with an “angel-like” existence in a non-material realm with God forever.  If you are bored with the latter picture, as I am, you should be. This is a diminished picture of the best a defeated deity could do.  Why should that interest anyone?   

Somehow God has failed to bring the fullness of life he created to its intended end – to be the eternal habitation of God and his people.  Neither the creation nor human life maintains their created unity.  Both lose the material dimensions of their reality in the end envisioned by the DG. This is the triumph of Plato over the Bible.  Matter matters to the Bible’s God.  And it matters eternally.  This is a corollary to the Christian doctrine of creation.

Further, in the Apostles’ Creed we affirm “the resurrection of the body” which includes us as well as Jesus. After all, it would be strange if Jesus was the only bit of the first creation that makes it into the world to come.  The idea of an immaterial, “spiritual” existence is utterly foreign to the BG.  Life after death, however, a disembodied life with God in heaven, is what most Christians envision will be the last chapter of their lives. If so, if the DG is right about this, then the Bible’s God is a defeated deity.  He cannot bring what he has made to the end he envisions for it.

In comparison with the BG, the DG presents a God whose power is limited.  Not only does God not bring his creation project to completion, he is apparently unable to do it. If God intends what we see pictured in Revelation 21-22 and yet we end up with a disembodied existence in heaven, then somewhere along the line God has been forced to change his plans and scale back the scope of his creation project.  Rather than human and creational flourishing, we have a salvage operation!

Or perhaps God simply changed his mind. Maybe he started out with the plan we find in BG but decided to change horses in midstream and adjust the goal for humanity to what we find in DG.  In this case, it’s not God’s power to accomplish his will that is limited but rather his power to plan and implement a coherent program!  Either way, this hardly seems a deity who is trustworthy.  In short, this deity is a defeated deity who seems far from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Finally, and most critically, this God cannot defeat his creatures’ greatest foe – death.  Think about it:  as Christians we define death as the loss of bodily life in which our “souls,” that inner, “spiritual” part of us, the “real” us (as we think) goes to heaven to be with God forever.  If this version of “life after death” is the best God can offer us, however, then he has acquiesced to the power of death!  It’s the final, ultimate sundering of what God has put together in creation and wants to finally keep together in the new creation.

Thus we rightly live in “slavery by the fear of death”[6] to the one who has ”the power of death . . . the devil.”[7]  For this one, it seems, is the real arbiter of our final destiny.

In BG, however, “life after death” is not the final chapter in our existence but only the next to last chapter.  The final chapter is what N. T. Wright has helpfully called “life after life after death,” the resurrection of the dead.  Here God exerts his power to undo all that division, destruction, and death sought to spread.  Here all things are fully and finally reconciled, set right, brought together, body and “soul” are reunited, and creation is made new and perfect.  The bride (the people of God) is ready for her beloved, the Lamb and the new heavens and the new earth are resplendent in beauty and glory for their nuptials. And it will be evident then what we claim in faith now, that in Christ ”everyone of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’”[8]

Now, I am not claiming that the adherents of DG consciously make these negative claims or are even aware of them.  Clearly they are not.  However, it seems inescapable to me that if BG is something like I sketched it, the implications outlined above hold. These claims about a “defeated God” are the joker in the deck of DG.  They impact the way we present the gospel and the way it is received by those we seek to reach.

Three questions, at least, haunt human life, every human life.

                             Who am I?
                             What is my purpose in life?
                             What can I hope for?

DG answers these questions this way.

          -I am a sinner in need of rescue.
-The purpose of my life is to find a way out of it safely through Jesus Christ.
-My hope lies in a completely different kind of life in a completely different place beyond death than we experience on earth.
         
BG, on the other hand, answers:

-I am a good creation of God graced with dignity and the vocation to be God’s royal representative and steward of his creation.
-I have gone terribly wrong.  That, however, does not expunge the dignity and vocation God has given me.  The purpose of my life lies in rediscovering and embracing both my rescue from sin and my restoration to the dignity of my stewardly vocation that I can begin to live that vocation out in my daily life. 
-My hope lies in God’s promise that he will defeat death and all other enemies of his good purposes and bring me and all the rest of creation to the full experience of the life he intends for me. 
         
I suspect that nearly all of us harbor somewhere deep inside us a sense, a glimmer, or a longing to believe that we are connected to the source of all that is.  And whatever we may call this source, connection to it makes us loved and valued.[9]  Further, we sense as well that life in the body is or least could be a good thing, something to be affirmed and nourished.  And finally, we hope, in spite of all the evil, tragedy, and suffering we experience, for the fulfillment of the promise of our life as a physico-spiritual being and a setting right of all that has gone wrong and hindered a flourishing of life’s potential.

          All this comes to expression, of course, in a multitude of different ways.  It comes in bits and pieces, in contradictory and only partly coherent  beliefs and longings, and even in their violent denial and repression.  But they are there.  Any presentation of the gospel that fails to honor these longings and intuitions is not likely to seem plausible.

          It is my contention that DG fails spectacularly at this point!  If our primary identity is a sinner in need of rescue, if our purpose is to find deliverance from the conditions of our creation, and our hope lies in final escape to “a better place,” our world is not likely to hear or experience this in a way that coheres with these longings for dignity, goodness, beauty, fulfillment, and justice that seem to drive human being.  BG, on the other hand, offers a vision that affirms those longings and identifies their true source and fulfillment in the mighty acts of the triune God, preeminently and climactically in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ!

          Our culture has been snookered by Plato for a long time now.  His division of reality into two separate realms of the “spiritual” and the material, with the former being good and desirable and the latter not, gave an air of plausibility to and was a major influence in shaping the development of DG.  In our day, though, many of us realize that we’ve been had by this divided view of reality and are working hard to overcome it. That inevitably means a fresh re-reading of the Bible and re-thinking of its message as if Plato didn’t matter (so to speak). What we find when we do this is something like what I have called BG.  And we have seen that the differences between DG and BG are profound and the consequences substantial    

          My hope in this analysis of “the ‘good news’ of a defeated God” is to awaken us to the powerful implications of DG if BG is correct.  We need a God who is truly and fully victorious in all of life, a God who can make and keep his promises, and one for whom death is no match as we move forward into the 21st century.  I hope God’s people will be roused to reconsider and reframe their message and manner of life in accord with BG.  And most of all, I hope we gratefully receive anew the gift of life God has given us and live it for all it is worth for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the glory of God!   
      


[1]         See Revelation 21-22 which pictures for us how the biblical story ends, i.e. what the victory of God and the fulfillment of all God’s purposes for creation looks like.       
[2]         This is the pervasive influence of the Greek philosopher Plato who divided reality into two realms, the spiritual (the soul, inner, invisible) realm of the good, the right, and the beautiful and the material (the body, physical, earthly, visible) realm of decay and darkness that weighs down the soul and hinders its journey back the realm of the spiritual, its proper home.
[3]         Revelation 22:5.
[4]              Genesis 1:26-28.
[5]              Genesis 2:15.
[6]         Hebrews 2:15.
[7]              Hebrews 2:14.
[8]              2 Corinthians 1;20.
[9]              This is what John Calvin called the “seed of religion” in every human being.

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