The other day a friend wrote me with a potent and difficult question. Actually, it was a lot of questions, glued together with a little bit of honest doubt. Honest doubt I can respect, and honest doubt I can work with.
The questions essentially took these shapes:
It seems like in the Old Testament, often, God just kills people, or groups of people, including kids. And it seems almost arbitrary. Is God like that?
Is God primarily a God of love and grace, or justice? It seems like you have to lean one way or the other. And even then, killing all those kids…was that justice, or something less noble?
What do we do with people who do good things, groups who gather to do justice and to promote peace and connectedness – but who do so with no referent to God whatsoever? And what does God do with them?
I have been in the Jesus Way for a while now – long enough to have grown dissatisfied with pat answers to questions like these. I have found that what I need is a focal point – a single thing that can provide the interpretive lens for everything else – and the good news is that we have one.
I had an apologetics professor who was able to demonstrate the relative historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. This is significant and deserves some explanation. His name was Gary Habermas, and if you were willing to admit that the New Testament was ancient literature (and really, who can contest that a very old book is ancient literature) he could show you that it is totally reasonable to believe that Jesus really rose from the dead. I won’t take the time here to do it, but google him sometime and I’m sure you’ll find something like the demonstration I’m referring to.
But for us and for now, I’m comfortable starting with this claim: it is reasonable to believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, and it is unreasonable (in light of best historical praxis) to believe he did not. This is really good news for us, because this gives us our focal point.
Well, really, Jesus himself gives us his resurrection as our focal point. One day, religious leaders asked him about his authorization. Where did he get the authority to say what he said, to do what he did, and to claim what he claimed? And his answer was to reference Jonah – he said that just like Jonah was in the fish 3 days, he would be killed and placed in the belly of the earth for three days, and then he would get up again. Essentially, he said, â€œKill me, and in 3 days God will raise me up as evidence that he is with me and I am with him.â€
If he hadn’t said that, and had risen, that would have been supernatural and weird. But not evidence that he’s right. If he had said that, but had not risen, then he’d just be another starry-eyed kook. But he said it AND he did it, or rather, God did it. And that says it all.
In other words, the resurrection of Jesus is God proving that God thinks Jesus is uniquely right about God.
This means everything. This fact allows us, with all the intellectual honesty in the world, to believe Jesus is right about God. Practically, we can permit ourselves to believe what he says, even when that contradicts what we think about God. We can trust him as our teacher in all-things-God.
So, for my friend’s questions – we have an excellent starting place.
What is God really like? Well, Jesus said that if we have seen Jesus, we have seen God; and God thinks Jesus is right. So, we can look at Jesus and see everything we need to know about God. And then, with that image fully entrenched in our imaginations (and divested of much of the emotional confusion we had before we latched on to Jesus-as-divine-image) we can look back into the Old Testament and try to make sense of things.
What of people who do good things, make peace, build community – all without God? And what does God think of that? Well, whatever Jesus says is what God thinks. And Jesus says, “If they’re not against us, they’re for us.” And he also says, “Without me you can do nothing.” So, it sort of seems like he appreciates their effort, but without the Source it will amount to nothing. And they shouldn’t be surprised by that, because a) he said it, and b) he sent His Spirit to fill the witnessing church and to inspire the Scriptures.
Both questions are a little twistier than that (though not much), and all good questions usually are. My goal in this post is not to answer the questions. I don’t do that often. My goal is to give us some good news – we have a Jesus-Way of asking these kinds of questions, and we have a Way to get at the answers, if there are answers to be had. The life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus provide the focal point through which the whole of the Scriptures and the whole of human experience should be interpreted. And we know that’s the case because when Jesus dared God to prove him right by raising him from the dead, God took him up on it.
God thinks Jesus is – among other things – right.