This talk was given in Downing College Chapel on 6 February 2012 as part of the Theology for Beginners series.
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Last week I sought to answer the question ‘What is theology?’ I defended theology against Richard Dawkins’ allegation that it isn’t really a subject at all. And I boldly suggested that theology can put all other areas of knowledge in their true contexts.
I described what I called the central idea of theology. The theory is that there is a loving, intelligent power which has created the universe and holds it in existence, sustaining all its physical processes. And that this God has configured the cosmos so that it brings forth conscious, intelligent life. That this one rational mind which underlies the whole of reality has provided an environment in which other rational, conscious beings can arise.
I said that the reason for creation is that God is loving. God wants there to be other conscious beings who can experience love. He wants us to have the opportunity to develop relationships of love with him and with each other. But no one can be forced to love. And so, within this divine purpose, there’s a genuine degree of freedom for us. We’re able to grow as authentic, individual people. And to make real choices. To choose to join in with God’s creative purposes, or not to. To choose to be loving and courageous, or selfish and fearful. To seek to be close to God, or to ignore him. But God seeks to inspire us to grow in love and in virtue, and to take delight in knowing and loving him and each other.
I suggested that this central idea can make sense of the mathematical structures of the universe uncovered by scientists. And that it shows the importance of human consciousness, the nature of good and evil, the significance of beauty, love, relationships, history, ethics and literature.
So I described theology as a kind of top level of knowledge. Setting other subjects in context and showing their significance. I claimed that there are very good reasons for believing in God on the basis of what we can observe about reality. But those observations don’t tell us much about the nature of God himself, which I left as something of a mystery last week. There were quite a few questions last week which I answered by saying: ‘That’s what I’m going to talk about next week.’ So there’s a lot for me to say this time.
Because the main task of theology is indeed to talk about God. This week, I’m tackling the question of ‘What is God like and how could we ever know?’ And I’d like to start by pointing out quite how astonishing it is that anyone could claim to know about God in any detail. It reminds me of the start of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent is introduced as a man who ‘no more knows his destiny than a tea-leaf knows the history of the East India Company’. For us even to suggest we might know exactly what God is like is more surprising than to think that the squirrels living in the trees outside might know all about Sir George Downing. We may well get a sense that there’s a beauty and a purpose and a coherent structure to reality which speaks of a creator. But that doesn’t put us in a position to claim to be experts about that creator.
And, while we’re more intelligent that squirrels, our intellects do have their limits. Even in Cambridge. It’s surprising to suggest that we might be able to comprehend a mind which is greater than the universe. It’s surprising to suggest that our ordinary human words might be up to the task of talking about God. And it’s surprising to assume that our thoughts might be able to get any kind of grip on the awesome vastness of God. However great our achievements, God is, by definition, far beyond us. And the difference between God and us is far greater than the difference between us and a squirrel.
Theology ought therefore to be nearly impossible. It can only operate at all if we can reasonably believe that there is some kind of way in which God has acted to make himself known to us. It’s only possible if God has, in some way, bridged the gap between him and us. It can only work if God has arranged reality in such a way as to allow him to reveal himself to us and to allow us to understand something of him.
Christianity has a very bold and dramatic answer to that problem, an answer which many other people find scandalous or baffling. At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God himself became a human being in order to bridge the gap between him and us, so that he could develop a relationship between him and us. He became a human being so that we could see him and know him and know what he is like. And he became a human being so that he could sort out in person the problems caused by the human tendency towards selfishness and sinfulness. Christian theology therefore believes both that God is transcendent, greater than the universe, far beyond our understanding, and that God has acted in the most dramatic and loving way in order to make himself known. It’s a bold and surprising claim. Almost as if William Wilkins, architect of Downing College, had been reborn as a squirrel in order to form a relationship with squirrels.
Revelation and mystery
I shall return to a detailed look at Jesus Christ soon. But I want to say some more about what seems to me to be the central difficulty and danger of all religious faith and theology. It’s almost impossible for us to talk about God without diminishing him in some way. Every time we say that God has acted in a specific way to make himself known to us in a form that we can understand, we’re taking a risk. And the risk is that we’ll simply grab hold of a small set of ideas about God and think that we’ve fully understood him. Every time we represent God by a neat and tidy set of statements, or instructions, or rituals, we’re in danger of worshipping an idol, or trying to domesticate God. We’re in danger of focussing on something which is far too small. We’re in danger of losing a sense of the grandeur, the wonder, the mystery and the infinity of God.
But there’s a risk in the opposite direction. For if we don’t see that God has acted in order to make himself known in ways we can understand, then we diminish him in another way. We make him seem distant, uninvolved, dormant and passive. And if we don’t talk about God at all, then we’re failing to pay attention to the most important aspect of our existence.
Good theology, like good spirituality, needs somehow to celebrate very loudly the positive ways in which we really have glimpsed God. At the same time as humbly recognising that there’s a lot more that we still have to learn. It needs to see that God has made himself known, and that God also remains far beyond us. Theology’s very different from studying, say, fruit flies. The object of study in theology isn’t something smaller than us that we can dissect or do experiments on. We can’t scan God, weigh him or sequence his DNA. And theology’s very different from studying, say, multiplication. It doesn’t concern a process which is bound by a set of rules and axioms which we’ve defined. Theology concerns God, who is far beyond us, and yet has made himself in some ways accessible to us.
There should, therefore, always be a healthy sense of mystery and paradox about theology. It’s likely that there should always be multiple perspectives on the same complex truth. We should expect theology to be glorious, bold and exciting. And yet also to contain puzzles we can’t solve yet, and paradoxes which still baffle us. Theology will never be something we can perfectly master. Although God has made himself known to us, the full truth about him is still too big to fit in our heads.
Christianity’s personal and paradoxical view of God
And so I’m fascinated by the fact that Christianity describes God in ways which are both personal and paradoxical. I think that’s a very helpful combination, an account which reflects the greatness of God. It doesn’t reduce God to something small and simple. It suggests that God has in some ways made himself knowable and accessible to us, while also remaining far beyond us and mysterious. It suggests that God is in some sense personal and relational, but not quite in the way that we’re used to persons and relationships working.
The description of God given by Christian theology contains two great paradoxes: the Trinity and the Incarnation. The first paradox is that God is both a single unity and yet is simultaneously also the three persons of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is one, and yet also three. The second paradox is that Jesus Christ has always been fully divine, and has also become fully human. Don’t worry if those both went straight over your head, as I shall take some time to explore what they mean.
God is the single mind which underlies the whole of reality. He is the one creator of the universe who is made known to the people of Israel in the Old Testament. And yet, a Christian belief in God as Trinity indicates that he also exists from outside time and from beyond the universe as a network of loving relationships. He is, from all eternity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So God is one but, paradoxically, God is also three. That sounds at first as if it’s just something which will give us a headache. A way of saying that God is incomprehensible. Or three incomprehensibles.
But, rather wonderfully, it indicates that consciousness, love and community are part of the complex nature of God himself. That’s why, as creator, he seeks to bring forth within the universe more and more examples of consciousness, love and community. The love of the eternal Trinity seeks to overflow in the creation of life. And God seeks then to draw conscious beings into the life of the community which exists within God himself. God is not a single, selfish, ruthless, supreme power seeking his own will. But he is, by nature, love. He is, even within himself, a network of relationships. Within which there is mutuality, self-giving and delight.
Christians believe that we have glimpsed something of that divine love and community because God has sought to extend that love outwards to us and to welcome us in. And the central way in which he has done that has involved one of those three persons of the Trinity taking on our human nature and dwelling among us.
And so the central Christian claim is that God went to extraordinary lengths to make it possible for us creatures to relate to our creator. In order to make himself known to us in a form we could understand, God was born among us as one of us. In order to make a deep connection between humanity and divinity and to enable real relationships between people and God, the divine became human. This is called the Incarnation, the event in which the eternal Son of God took human flesh and lived among us. And so the second paradox is that Jesus, who exists from all eternity as the Son of God and the Word of God, also became a human being in the womb of Mary. He is and always has been fully divine, and yet 2000 years ago he also became simultaneously fully human.
So the Christian view of the personal nature of God is not a neat and tidy definition; it involves holding together several different ideas simultaneously which do not obviously fit together. God is three and God is one; and Jesus is both fully divine and fully human.
God is greater than us, and any way in which we compare him to people and to created things is always an over-simplification. So those two interconnected paradoxes are a complex pattern of ideas. They refuse to make sense in the kind of terms that we are used to. But they give a profound set of insights into the nature of God.
Some people would just laugh and give up at this point, dismissing this understanding of God as being obviously absurd. But you can find paradoxes like that even within the theories of modern science. Quantum mechanics is full of ideas which defy common sense. And physicists have long accepted the idea electron is both a particle and a wave at the same time, even though a ball of matter and a ripple seem like utterly different things. From our perspective, even the properties of matter can be complex, surprising and paradoxical. It shouldn’t surprise us if God is even more surprising.
So there are paradoxes here, but also a very dramatic way in which God has chosen to make himself knowable, enabling us to relate to him. Jesus Christ has in his own person united divinity and humanity. He has created a real, personal connection between us and God. And so St Paul describes him as the ‘image of the invisible God,’ while also being the one ‘in whom all things hold together.’ He shows us, in human form, the character of God. To see him is to see God, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel. Yet, at the same time, he is also truly human. Jesus Christ shows what human beings can become, and what God intends us to become. He shows what human beings, raised to our full potential, can be. And he shows that we are at the heart of God’s plans for the universe.
So, in one sense, Jesus is God who has come among us to introduce himself. In another sense, he’s a man who pioneers a new and exalted form of humanity. He leads the way to show what we can become, and leads us in our response to God. In one sense, he is himself God. In another sense, he relates to God as we do. In one sense, he shares an identity and a unity with the divine mind which sustains the cosmos. In another sense, he exists within the cosmos as one who experiences the life of a mortal creature. Through him, God knows what it’s like to be human, and we see what God looks like as a person. And so he’s the mediator between God and humanity, the one who represents God to us and us to God. He is, as he said, the light of the world, the one who gives light to all people.
Inadequate views of Jesus and the Trinity
These are complicated ideas to believe all at once. It’s normal for people to find them puzzling and frustrating at first. But many gradually learn to love the wealth of insights they give into the nature of God, and to realise that anything less just wouldn’t be good enough. It’s interesting to look at the discussions which people had in the early church in the first few centuries of Christian history. Because you can see people trying out all the more obvious, simpler ways of understanding God one by one. And then realising that they’re all incomplete and inadequate.
For example, it would be much more straightforward to believe that Jesus was a very good man who became very close to God. A holy person and a great prophet. And that God is just God, and that talking about the Holy Spirit is really just another way of talking about God. No Trinity. No humanity and divinity of Christ, and no paradoxes. That would be much easier to understand and would make perfect sense to everyone immediately. But that approach loses a large set of Christian insights into the character of God and the way he has chosen to relate to us. We’d lose the sense that God loved us so much that he became one of us. The sense that he understands human life from within. We’d lose the sense that God has been willing to get his hands dirty by stepping into the mess of human life in order to sort things out from within. We’d lose the sense that Jesus Christ has the divine power to change human beings. And we’d lose the sense that God in himself is complex, paradoxical and is a community of love.
Seeing Jesus as human and God as a unity is the obvious set of oversimplifications, and it’s cropped up many times through history with various different names. But Christians have always rejected it, because it’s just not big enough to contain the ways in which we believe God has made himself known.
There are other ways in which people have attempted to simplify the astonishing mystery of the incarnation. One of the main competitors to orthodox Christianity in the early church was the idea that Jesus Christ was a sort of hybrid, half-way between God and people. The idea was that he was the created being whom God created first, rather like the most senior angel. Again, it would be easier to understand, and much more straightforward. But the Church, at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, insisted that Jesus Christ is fully divine at the same time as being as fully human. Not half divine and half human. They chose to stay with the paradox. If you’re familiar with the Nicene Creed that’s used in most churches, you’ll recognise these words about Jesus: ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.’
That’s the most famous and significant statement of the paradoxical Christian belief about God. Jesus is fully divine, of one Being with the Father. He’s God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. He’s not a created being, but he’s the one through whom all was created. And yet he became incarnate. He was made flesh. In the womb of Mary, he received our human nature and was made man.
There are other possible over-simplifications in the other direction. It would be much simpler just to say that Jesus was God in disguise. Some kind of divinely generated hologram through which God was able to have a conversation with us. But without actually sharing in our humanity. Again, much tidier and simpler, but that theory loses so much. For God, again, remains remote and untouched by our human condition.
A related oversimplification is the idea that God is spirit and that anything spiritual is good. And that this nasty world of matter, with all its change and decay, illness and pain, is bad. And that our goal should be to focus on being pure and spiritual, giving no thought for our bodily appetites. But a good Christian understanding of God says that God made this universe of matter with good intentions. And that God then chose to make our physical humanity a part of himself. So there’s something about being both spiritual and physical which is the way we’re meant to be. There’s a good potential in this world of matter which God is committed to.
But the Trinity remains baffling, and most intelligent Christians go through phases of wondering if it really helps. So another widespread oversimplification is the idea that there is one God who has acted in three different modes at different times. He has acted as the Father in creating the world. And then as Jesus in coming to redeem it. And then as the Holy Spirit in seeking to be inspire and guide us. But that oversimplification loses all of the sense of relationship and love within the godhead. It can’t deal with the ways that the Gospels show Jesus relating to his father and being filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s neat and tidy, but it’s not good enough.
So the paradoxes of the Trinity and the Incarnation offer a rich set of insights into the nature of God. But it’s important to realise that God hasn’t intended to reveal himself as a philosophical statement. He hasn’t intended to make himself known as a set of authorised doctrines. He’s revealed himself in a way which is personal, which is relational. And just as there’s no human being whose character and personality could be condensed into a set of perfect definitions, the same is even more true of God. The paradoxes of the Trinity and the Incarnation don’t allow us to replace God with a neat and tidy set of concepts. But they rule out ways of thinking of God which are inadequate. And they open the way for us to encounter God both as a person and as a mystery.
I’ve been talking about ways in which God has made himself known. And I’ve focussed especially on Jesus Christ, the full, personal revelation of God. Christians understand Jesus’ incarnation to be set within a longer history of events on earth. It’s a history which includes the events described in the Old Testament, such as the calling of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Law to Moses, the settlement of the land of Israel, and the hope of a promised Messiah. It’s a history which includes the events described in the New Testament, such as the ministry of the apostles and the growth of the early church. It’s a long history, which is described in the Bible.
But I’ve taken my time in arriving at a mention of the Bible, which is where some people might have expected me to start. Christianity is primarily about a person, and a history, and a set of relationships, rather than being about a book. What we have in the library of texts we call the Bible is a set of human documents which bear witness to that person and that history. They show how God called and prepared a nation of people; and how God became incarnate, and how that affected those who met Jesus Christ.
The Bible contains many different genres of texts. But the bulk of it is narrative. It’s describing a history and portraying a person through narrative. And the narrative is complex. It has many authors and it contains many different perspectives. There are two very different accounts of creation in Genesis, as I mentioned last week. And there are four Gospels, four very different portrayals of Jesus Christ. Even the main narrative of the history of Israel is told twice in different ways, with the books of Chronicles retelling the story from a different angle. Among all these ingredients, there are details which really don’t fit together at all easily. And even some themes which seem to be arguing with each other.
And so in the Bible itself, there again seems to me to be something which speaks both of revelation and of mystery. There’s a very compelling and exciting set of accounts of God’s dealings with the human race. But it’s impossible to reduce it down to a simple set of statements. However well you know the Bible, there’s always something there to baffle you, to inspire you, to challenge you, to outrage you, to upset you, to reassure you and to make you think again. It works because it testifies to a person, a person who has walked among us, but who is ultimately more complex than any of our ideas. The paradoxes of the Trinity and the humanity and divinity of Christ are ways of pointing towards the different perspectives on God offered by the Bible.
But I do think that many Christians have often ended up saying some rather unrealistic things about the Bible. I feel disappointed when some Christians try to describe the Bible as infallible. Or when people end up treating it as if it consisted of scientific definitions, or legal statements or lines from a computer program. Such people often seem to me to miss something of the richness of the narrative of the Bible in their haste to derive a tidy set of doctrines from it. And well-intentioned, faithful Christians who take the Bible very seriously do still end up interpreting it in significantly different ways. I’ll be saying more about that in my fifth and sixth talks. Different people see different meanings in the same library of texts. So it seems to me to be an oversimplification to call the Bible infallible, when it is open to such a range of interpretations. And I worry that those who do so are actually missing some of the diversity, variety and richness of meaning which really is meant to be there.
But God revealed himself as a person, and the record of that revelation is a complex and varied collection of texts which are mostly narratives. He didn’t reveal himself as a neat and tidy set of definitions. And there’s a richness and a complexity about the nature of a person which I think the Bible reflects very well. If we looked at any one of you and asked your friends and relatives to write about you, we’d get a wide variety of responses. People would identify with different aspects of your character and would know you in different ways. The same is true of God, I’d say. He’s personal and complex, and different people have understood different things about him. The Bible shows God through the eyes of many different people at many different times. And it shows people encountering him in the midst of all the messy realities of human life. That’s where its power lies. And that’s why it works so well.
So, it’s about time that I said some more about the narrative itself and the details of the Bible’s accounts of Jesus Christ.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ
The Old Testament shows that God has created us and made room for us to exist as real people with real choices. As a result we may choose to seek after God or to go in our own directions. It’s entirely possible to ignore God completely. And it’s entirely possible to live with very little thought for anyone else. As a result, there is evil in the world. Evil, selfishness, suffering and conflict.
But Jesus Christ came to inaugurate in this world a deeper form of human life, a better way of relating to God and to other people. He called this the Kingdom of God, which is the form of life that develops when the guiding rule of divine goodness is fully acknowledged and embraced. Jesus therefore began his ministry with this announcement: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.’
The Kingdom of God has come near, which means that it’s within our reach and we can accept an invitation to become part of if we wish. It’s a different way of life which is offered to us, a life which is lived in a relationship with God. It involves harmony between people and God where there was previously alienation. Becoming part of the Kingdom of God requires a change of heart, a process of repentance which changes our lives. And so the Kingdom of God is a transformation of people, of relationships, and of the world around us. In the fourth talk, I’ll look at how the Kingdom of God connects with eternal life and God’s purposes for the world. But to begin with, I need to describe the events which followed the proclamation of the Kingdom by Jesus Christ.
As God’s promised Messiah, Jesus Christ was establishing God’s rule on Earth. When people responded to him, he was able to set them free from their addiction to sin, so that they could live lives of hope and love, in harmony with God, unleashing their true potential. The Gospels are full of accounts of surprising encounters between Jesus and troubled people. When he unexpectedly came to stay with a corrupt tax-collector called Zacchaeus, his host then gave half his possessions to the poor and returned to all his victims four times the amount he had stolen. Jesus rescued a woman who was about to be stoned to death for adultery, by calmly suggesting that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone. He called ordinary, uneducated fishermen to be his disciples, and trained them up to take his message to the world.
Wherever he went, the tangled interactions of good and evil which shape our lives and our world became painfully, wonderfully obvious. His transforming presence pulled the fabric of reality into full alignment with the loving purposes of God. As a result, the sicknesses and frailties of our mortal human condition fell away from those whom he helped. The blind regained their sight, lepers were healed, the lame walked, and those with troubled minds and tormented souls gained peace and wholeness. The hidden potential of the world to leap forward into something greater was revealed.
Jesus showed love to people who were outcasts. He gave forgiveness to those who were tormented by guilt. He was not afraid to rebuke the rich and the powerful when their ways were evil. And through all his actions and words, he showed what God is like. And he showed the way that human beings should live.
And that uncompromising goodness put Jesus onto a collision course with all that is wrong with our world. With all our selfishness, our vested interests, our complacency and our failure to love. With all the corruption of human society. The four Gospels therefore tell a story of a confrontation which developed between Jesus and all the forces of evil within human beings and within the world.
This confrontation reached its climax in the betrayal, arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. He was betrayed to the Roman authorities by one of his disciples and abandoned by the others. He was subjected to unfair trials and futile interrogations. Crowds of people began to enjoy crying out for his death, although he’d never done any wrong. A great outpouring of evil from the foulest depths of the human heart called out for his destruction.
The soldiers stripped him naked, whipped him, mocked him, spat at him, hammered nails through his flesh, and lifted him up on a wooden cross to die. But throughout this time Jesus refused to resist. He refused to argue. He refused to condemn. He refused to return in any way evil for evil. Even amidst his own agony, he spoke words of forgiveness, understanding and compassion.
Alongside the terrible physical pain of a viciously prolonged form of execution, Jesus was abandoned and betrayed by friends, and mocked by those he had come to help. He entered the very lowest depths of human experience, overwhelmed by darkness. He lost even his sense of unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And he screamed with the anguished horror of one who feels utterly alone. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He shouldered the full, terrifying burden of human sin, the experience of being separated from God.
But his tormentors couldn’t make him hate. They did their very worst against him, and they couldn’t make him hate. In all the triumph of their evil, they couldn’t make him become like them. They couldn’t make him despise them in return for all their violence, or cry out for vengeance. ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,’ was his prayer for the soldiers who killed him. They broke his body, but his love remained strong. Although he died, he won the first part of a great victory over evil.
In this great confrontation between the goodness of God and the evils of the world, God himself suffered the consequences of human sin. It’s hard to take in how surprising that is. Not only did God descend to our level in order to make himself known; not only did he share in all the limitations and trials of human existence; but he allowed himself to suffer the full consequences of human evil. He allowed human beings to know him, to touch him, to kiss him, to betray him, to arrest him, to convict him, to torture him and to execute him.
But the narratives of the New Testament do not end there. They describe an astonishing bodily resurrection of Jesus two days after his death and burial. The New Testament authors present Jesus’ death and resurrection as a great victory over sin and over death, the overcoming of all the forces which had previously held back human beings. This is the triumph of goodness over evil, the victory of love over hatred, the inauguration of a new form of life which overcomes normal human limitations. The resurrection is far more than just the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus is now someone who has gone through death himself, conquered it, and come out the other side as something greater, never to die again. This risen Christ blazes a trail for a whole new kind of humanity, the start of God’s new creation, the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. Like the first spring flower to break the surface of the cold winter soil, he reveals what can one day happen to countless others.
Multiple insights into the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection
The crucifixion and resurrection are an extraordinary series of events which need to be encountered first of all as a dramatic narrative rather than a tidy theory. If you’d like to experience this in more depth than through my summary above, try reading one of the four Gospels. The Gospels primarily show Jesus through his actions and words, rather than giving long theoretical speculations about him. But Christians quickly came to regard these tumultuous events as God’s dramatic response to the problem of the sin which keeps us at a distance from him. They saw them as God’s answer to the addiction to evil which keeps us from reaching our true potential. Various different descriptions in the New Testament and in later Christian theology attempt to express the different aspects of this truth. The crucifixion and resurrection are, as I’ve described, the great victory of good over evil. They’re an act of reconciliation, the ending of a conflict between people and God. They’re the formation of a new relationship, a new covenant between God and his people. They’re a demonstration of love, which endures violence and overcomes hatred, moving us and changing our hearts. They’re an act of liberation, in which Jesus allows himself to be overpowered by evil so that we might be set free from it. And they’re an act of forgiveness, in which the innocent Jesus takes the place of guilty humanity to receive the punishment of crucifixion, while we are acquitted. All these partial images express the idea that Jesus made a great sacrifice in order to make possible a new future for human beings
There’s a lot to be said about all of those images, and I could talk at length about any of them if I had time. They all have advantages and limitations. They’re all, in different ways, important. They’re all part of the richness and complexity of the way in which God has revealed himself to us and acted to save us. It always troubles me, therefore, when Christians grab hold of one insight into the meaning of the crucifixion and try to repackage it as a perfect and complete definition of the true essence of Christianity.
You may well hear, for example, some Christians explaining the Gospel entirely in terms of a theory called penal substitution. This is the claim that God the Father is compelled by his own just and holy nature to punish all evil. But because God is also loving, the theory says, he chooses to punish Jesus for our sins. And this thereby enables him to forgive all those who have faith in Jesus. And that’s a widely-used way of explaining the Gospel. It’s main advantage is its simplicity, but it does have some major limitations.
You can certainly find some of the building blocks of penal substitution in the Bible, but it’s never explicitly stated in those terms. So it’s not actually as biblical as many people think it is. And it’s a way of interpreting the Bible which didn’t really catch on until the sixteenth century. Penal substitution was a very powerful idea at that time, because many people then did tend to believe that any just ruler should seek to punish every evil deed. But there’s nothing in the Bible which says that God cannot forgive a sin without transferring its punishment to someone else. And, indeed, there are plenty of biblical examples of God just simply forgiving people. And it’s an idea which seems quite strange to most people today. It’s commendably simple, but it runs the risk of making God the Father sound like a rather vindictive bureaucrat. It loses the strong biblical sense that crucifixion is an act carried out by human beings and by the powers of evil in the world, not by God. It makes the resurrection seem like a bit of an afterthought, and doesn’t allow a prominent place for much of Jesus’ life and teaching. And it can make salvation seem like a kind of legal transaction which occurs within the Trinity, in which God deals with his own internal contradiction between his love and his justice.
If people find penal substitution helpful, it can be a useful introduction to Christianity. But I always feel sad when people are made to think that being a Christian is all about believing this one somewhat eccentric theory about the cross. There really is a lot more than that going on in the Bible.
On the whole, the Bible presents the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as a victory over sin and death. An event which brings reconciliation between people and God. That’s how it was primarily understood in the early Church. And that’s what makes the most sense to me.
I think of Jesus’ victory as being a decisive undermining of evil from within, cutting it off at its roots. Jesus made himself vulnerable, shared in our human nature, and suffered the full onslaught of the evil of the world, the darkness of human hatred. Evil usually breeds more evil, so that acts of cruelty lead to hatred, retribution and further violence. But Jesus confronted evil and refused to be transformed by it. His love was stronger than the murderous chaos which assaulted him. It was a surprising, decisive humiliation of the powers of darkness, whose customary hold over the human heart was unexpectedly shattered. They were unable to make him become like them. It is an event which still astonishes people, moves them to tears, and brings people back to God. And so Jesus described his death as something glorious, in which he would be lifted up on the cross in order to draw all people to himself. Countless people have experienced the wonder of the cross as something which brings them close to God. And the resurrection completes Jesus’ triumph, overcoming death and restoring him to his rightful place of honour, showing that the benefits of his victory are open to all.
Jesus’ victory is a decisive undermining of evil from within, but the world remains for now a tangled mixture of good and evil. A way to God has been opened up for people, and it’s possible to share in the benefits of Jesus victory over sin and death. But this still requires a response from us, and a journey of patient discipleship. Next week, I shall talk about how Christians understand the various ways in which we encounter God today. And how we may be transformed and made more like Jesus Christ.
And this transformation of individuals is linked with God’s aim for the whole world, the full coming of the Kingdom of God, the transformation of the earth and the resurrection of the dead. That will be the subject of my fourth talk.
But today’s question was: ‘What is God like, and how could we ever know?’ And my answer is that Jesus Christ shows us in human form what God is like. That Jesus Christ came to bridge the gap between God and people, to overcome sin and death, and to make it possible for us to relate to God in a personal way. That, of course, leaves open a great many questions. And I’d be delighted to have a go at answering any that you have.
 Colossians 1.15-17
 John 1.9
 Mark 1.14
 John 12.32