An Uncomfortable God

“Christ with Thorns”, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1865-1879.

I was listening to an old teaching series by R.C. Sproul on “The Psychology of Atheism“, where he mentioned briefly that the God of Christianity was not a “comfortable god”, and I thought that insight worth pointing out here. Skeptics may like to believe that the Christian’s God is simply make-believe like the gods of ancient Greece or Rome, or the animistic gods of primitive cultures, but there’s a problem. God isn’t like any of the gods of every other religion. Look at any of those “gods” and you find very flawed, finite, humanesque creatures – “supermen” and “superwomen”, perhaps, but still no better than the humans they ruled over. One glaring example is that they could be bribed, but not so with God. While we might very much want justice against those who have harmed us, we tend to like a god that we can convince to “let us slide” when we are the guilty party. But the Bible is clear that there is no partiality with God [Deut 10:17, Rom 2:11, Eph 6:9], as much as we might prefer it at times.  Indeed, God will hold us accountable for every word and thought [Matt 12:36-37, Rom 14:12], even if we go through all the motions of fulfilling our obligations to Him [1Sam 15:22]. That’s a sobering thought for anyone. There’s no faking it with God, for He sees through our masks to the real us, the part of us we dare not reveal to our closest friend. That perfect, penetrating vision of us is what made philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre shudder, but that makes for an uncomfortably odd creation of our imagination if that’s all God is. But it gets stranger. Christianity alone teaches this concept of grace, that it is “by grace you have been saved,” that it is not because of anything we could do that we might be able to brag about [Eph 2:8-9]. As if God seeing through our facades and judging the ulterior motives of even our “good deeds” with perfect justice wasn’t frightening enough, there is no possibility of bribery or earning favor with God: it’s all on His discretion. Salvation is His free gift. Why make up a deity that puts us in the awkward position of being helpless to save ourselves, puts our best efforts to “be good” to shame, and holds us to a standard we could never meet? What would we gain from inventing a god like that?

On the other hand, what if the very existence of a physical universe required a first cause that existed outside of space and time in order for the effect of the universe to occur? This is simply applying the law of causality – that every effect requires an antecedent cause beyond itself. But if time and space had a beginning and are an effect, then their cause must exist beyond those dimensions. And that cause must be eternally self-existent. So then this cause would be eternal and ontologically necessary. But in that case, if there is ever to be a change in conditions, that first cause can’t be simply a physical force like gravity (note that there wouldn’t have been anything for a force to act on prior to anything existing…); rather, it has to be an agent that can choose to act, to create a beginning.  What if the design of our universe required an intelligent agent of power, genius, and foresight to the Nth degree? Would it not be appropriate to call that agent omnipotent and omniscient? What if that agent that brings everything into existence therefore has the rightful claim of ownership of everything He made? Would we not say He was “sovereign”? But then, what if this Supreme Being wasn’t simply some powerful universal tyrant, but was loving, the very source of love, in fact [1Jn 4:8,10,19, Rom 5:8]? And what if, in creating creatures “in His own image” who chose to rebel against Him and make a mess out of things, He still loved us? Could He not reach out to us, and communicate to us, and work to redeem us from our brokenness, and reconcile us to Him [2Cor 5:19-21]? But if He were perfectly just, as well, the crimes of mankind must still be paid for, no matter how much He loved us. We can easily see that granting a serial killer a pardon would be a great offense to the families of his victims desiring justice. But under God’s perfect standard, we are all guilty [Rom 3:10,23, 6:23]. How would He demonstrate perfect love and perfect justice without compromising either? What if He, out of His unfathomable love, paid the penalty for our transgressions, and offered us the reward: new life for the death row inmate!? [Rom 5:6,8-10]

I know that’s a lot of “what ifs” there, and covers a whole lot of ground in one paragraph, but if those are actually the way things are, then Christianity has unparalleled explanatory power for what we find when we try to investigate where we came from, where we’re going, and everything in between. And when we do start doing the serious digging, we do find those to be the case. We see philosophically the need for an uncaused first cause and that it has to be independent of the time-space framework. And so far as cosmologists have been able to verify with scientific observation, space and time really do appear to have a definite beginning, confirming what we deduce through philosophy. The more we learn of the workings of our universe, the more mind-bogglingly complex designs we discover – ones that put anything humans have ever invented to shame. And we see this from the macroscopic systems of our universe to the microscopic systems of our cells and every level in between. We have an innate sense that things are broken in our world; it seems like we were meant for more, but things have been twisted and corrupted, and that things are not as they should be. We feel a tension between humanity’s call to greatness on the one hand, and our abysmal wretchedness and inability to fulfill that purpose on our own on the other hand.

The Christian God would not be a very comfortable, soothing figment of our imagination if that’s all He were. Not only does He tower over us, but He also stoops to pick us up, yet not of any merit of ours, but only out of His own love, and mercy, and grace. He destroys all our pretensions, turns our world upside-down, and actually changes us from the inside out. And that’s the uncomfortable truth that we could never invent.

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