Atonement

On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.3)

The Death of Evil and the Birth of New Life

If the incarnation and identifying death of Christ were all we could say about God’s response to evil, one may wonder if he had responded to it at all. I mean, it’s one thing to suffer alongside the bereaved, as God did on the cross; quite another to actually do something about the source of that, and every other, form of suffering. But that is what the cross is: God’s ultimate “no” to evil’s reign, and in this third and final post, I shall outline the significance of the cross (and its sequel). By allowing sin to apparently crush him, Jesus not only experienced the horrors of a sinful world; nor did he simply do this as a way of demonstrating his radical identification with humanity and its plight. Rather, on the cross, God in Christ defeated evil. Through the very act of going to Calvary and dying at the hands of evil men, Jesus won a paradoxical victory over the malevolent forces that had captured God’s good world and warped his image-bearers.

Several passages help throw light on this mystery. Take Paul’s words in Romans 8:3, which we have already touched upon. Christ came in the likeness of sinful humanity, precisely to take upon himself the unimaginable burdens of sin and its companion, death. Incarnation leads inexorably to Atonement, where God’s representative freed the world from evil’s grip. And he did this via two, complementary, ways. First, he allowed himself to be the bearer of sin; here, the full significance of Paul’s words in Rom. 8:3 emerges. I said before that sin was drawn to this one point – Jesus’ body – whereby God condemned it for good. Sin was defeated, even as Jesus apparently was, and its rule brought to an end. The representative man stood in place of humanity in order that we would not have to bear the brunt of God’s just condemnation of sin. Second, Jesus eschewed the use of violence to win a victory over the various powers arrayed against him. Instead, he submitted himself to evil and its manifestations, giving us a remarkable picture of “evil doing its worst and being exhausted” (N.T. Wright). Evil had nowhere else to go, for its terrible cycle had been broken and its legitimacy stripped. Nowhere is this better expressed than in one of Paul’s latter letters, where he writes that the crucified Jesus “…disarmed the powers and authorities…ma(king) a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). It was precisely through Jesus’ apparent defeat and humiliation that through him, God passed sentence on the powers that oppressed his image-bearers and his creation, and condemned for good that to which those same image-bearers had given themselves.

And so, we come back to Isaiah 53 to find confirmation of much of what has been said. The verses from Isaiah, which I quoted in my previous post, indicate that Jesus, the longed-for servant of the Isaianic prophecies, went beyond mere identification with the suffering and bereaved. Elsewhere in Isaiah 53, we read this:

“But he was pierced for our

transgressions,

  he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace

            was upon him… (Isaiah 53:5).

Jesus actually took the sin of others upon his own shoulders in order to deal with it. And deal with it he did, as he underwent the pain and the consequences of sin – abandonment, divine disfavor, death – in order that those made in God’s image might be set free from its pernicious effects (see, too, Mark 10:45, which consciously alludes to Isaiah). Many have gone through life suffering at the hands of a pervasive evil – victims of oppression and unrighteous men. But all of us, in our own way, have been caught in the maelstrom of chaos. The sin of which Paul spoke of in Romans 1 is something in which we have all participated, and from which we all need redemption. On the cross (in tandem with the resurrection), we see God’s upside-down solution to the question of its existence and our desperate need.

Indeed, the crucifixion of Jesus stands as the paradoxical liberation of those who have been crushed and enslaved by the encroaching chaos (whether their own or that of others). The seminal event in the Old Testament is the Exodus, where God led his peopleIsraelout of slavery and into freedom. Well, the New Testament speaks of the positive results of Christ’s crucifixion in those terms. John 1:14, for example, looking back at Jesus’ life from the vantage-point of a post-resurrection world, remarks that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us”, with the assumption that this indwelling would somehow lead to the defeat of evil. Here, the evangelist deliberately uses language that evokes images of God dwelling in the midst of his people after their flight fromEgypt, all in an effort to describe the incarnation of Christ. The radical identification of God with humanity thus dovetails with the “exodus” from sin and evil that has been accomplished through Christ walking the road toCalvaryduring Passover – the time when his kin celebrated their own flight from oppression. Humanity has been facing a deeper kind of slavery than any mere earthly form of bondage, and we witness it everyday. The cross was one half of God’s double-sided plan to finally, decisively, put a stop to sin and release the captives.

Of course, none of what I have claimed for the cross would be the case if it weren’t for its sequel, the resurrection. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are indissolubly linked, and without the latter, the former would have been the failure of yet another would-be Messiah (of which there were many at the time). I said before that God, through Christ, held the powers up to contempt and triumphed over them (Col. 2:15). This is true and indeed happened at the point at which Christ himself was held up and crucified. But that act would have been incomplete – nay, meaningless – without the resurrection. God’s victory over evil and sin through the work of Christ needed the promise, and the reality, of new life, if a new world free from these forces could come into being. Let us return to Romans 8 for a moment. We saw that Paul began by talking about God himself doing what humanity could not – hatching an escape from the clutches of sin. Those who were formerly slaves are now free because of what the Creator-Redeemer has done through Jesus. But, more than that, Paul speaks of the wider, creational transformation that will take place as a result of the epochal work of God (8:19-22). This is the promise of the resurrection: that those made in God’s image should not be gripped any more by the manifold examples of evil in this world. He has dealt with it decisively on the cross, allowing it to do its worst, before condemning it in the person of Jesus. The worst possible manifestation of sin is death, the complete negation of life and creation. Thus, the resurrection stands as the permanent sign that sin and death have been truly defeated. Jesus’ resurrection was a vindication of his sacrifice at Calvary in addition to being the first step in God’s new world: a world beyond pain, chaos, suffering, misery, angst, hatred, evil. A world beyond sin.

We should not forget that, in the midst of the efforts of God to redeem his world, those made in his image stand at the centre of this project. It is no different with the resurrection, for it is humanity that will be the beneficiaries of what God, through Christ, accomplished at Easter. Once more, I shall turn to Paul, and his letter to the Corinthians. He speaks about death’s end, of sin’s final condemnation – of the ultimate defeat of evil (1 Corinthians 15) – which hinges upon the reality of the resurrection, the birth of new creation. In assuring his audience of the resurrection and their own participation in everything that it stands for, Paul writes, “…Death has been swallowed up in victory” (15:55). Those who share in this resurrection will gain new, imperishable life, untouched by the corruption of the present world. This is the ultimate Christian hope, and the grounding for our belief that evil will be vanquished. As Paul writes, we who are “in Christ” will participate in new creation, given that he has taken upon himself the evil and the sin in this world (2 Corinthians 5:17, 21). A divine exchange, if you like, has occurred, by which those God has created have the chance to be free from evil – this world’s and their own – finally and permanently.

*          *          *

So, we reach the conclusion (almost): God has spoken against evil’s reign, and decisively so. He has borne the brunt of evil in himself, through the incarnational work of Jesus, identifying radically with those who have suffered and continue to suffer. But through that work, he has also condemned evil through the apparently bizarre act of submitting to it. However, as we have seen, it was via that sacrifice that God exposed and condemned sin in sinful man, liberating victims, bringing his wrath to bear upon evil, and doing so graciously yet justly. Finally, he has given us a concrete sign that evil will see its end. The empty tomb means that sin and death no longer have mastery over God’s world. Of course, we can ask why that new world has not yet arrived. That would require another piece entirely. Nevertheless, the resurrection functions simultaneously as the provisional fulfillment of a plan God began with the calling of Abraham and a glimpse of new, uncorrupted life – the firstfruits of a redeemed creation. This is what people can hold onto when the world seems to be crashing down around them – that the God who has himself suffered, and who has defeated evil, will bring about the promised new world for which so many long.

The End?

I would be remiss if I did not tell the whole story. I may have given the impression that all will be saved, and that all will leave behind this world, with all its points of suffering, and participate in a new world that is free from the attendant consequences of evil. But I would not be true to the witness of Scripture, and the reality of sin. By no means is one’s entry into this resurrection life a joyous fait accompli. One must accept it and receive it. Moreover, one must ground oneself in the work of another – Jesus Christ. Yes, we have all been victims of sin and evil throughout our lives; some more so than others. But, as I said earlier in this piece, we have all participated in that corruption in various ways. God has not only called us out of this place, he has made a way for us to be rescued – not just from our own pains and hurts and misery, but from the very presence of sin itself. The embrace of Christ as the One who stood as our representative; redemption from the decaying consequences of sin; and reconciliation with God in a creation restored and renewed – these are of a piece. But the question is: will we respond?

On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.2)

The Word Made Flesh

In my last post, I spoke of God entering into time and space in a new way through the person of Jesus, which constituted his answer to the problem of evil. Here, I want to delve into that some more. Passages such as John 1:14, Philippians 2:7, Romans 8:3 and even Hebrews 2:14, 17, all speak of Jesus coming in the flesh. Christians often emphasize Christ’s deity. And so we should. But let us not forget the remarkable message that confronts us in these verses: that the Word, the divine logos, became flesh. And this was not just some divine experiment. No; it was instead the beginning of the process by which God would defeat evil.  The Creator entered the chaotic flow of creation and history to experience it for himself – not just its highs, but its lows, it joys, and its pain. From the simplest feelings of thirst to the most agonizing cries of distress in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus underwent the full range of human emotions and appetites and experiences. As F.F. Bruce once wrote, this was “no impassable visitant from another realm, untouched by our ordinary infirmities”. The passages that I have cited all claim that God has revealed himself most completely, most supremely – most uniquely – in a fully-rounded person: Jesus Christ. The book of Hebrews is especially clear. It speaks of Jesus sharing in our nature, “being made like his brothers” (2:17). He did not just “dip his toe into the water” of humanity, so to speak. He immersed himself in it fully. Incarnation meant inhabitation, and through the person of Jesus, God himself was dwelling fully within human nature.

This in itself ought to be a comfort to those suffering, for those who are Christ’s disciples follow a god who is not absent, or whose transcendence means that he is simply removed from this world. No; we pursue a god who knows what it is to suffer. It is easy for me, in the comfort of my study, to write about evil and suffering. I can argue for the existence of God in light of the terrible, unimaginable horrors that confront people every day from a position of safety. But God himself knows first-hand what it means to be crushed under the weight of evil. In responding to the power of sin in this world, God has so radically identified with the brokenness of his creation that he became a part of it. And thus, he is able to identify with all those who have been touched by the scourge of sin and evil. It is one thing for another to come alongside a person who is grieving; quite another for the Creator God, the One who has brought this world into being to then participate (voluntarily, no less) in its pain.

And of course, the most pristine image of that participation was the cross. It was there that the worst of sin’s power was drawn to one point – the body of Jesus (Romans 8:3), and he experienced the torment of pain – physical pain, distress, and the agony of abandonment. Thus, to the person who is battling with cancer, or who has lost his or her spouse in a flood, we can truly say that God, too, has experienced suffering. To those who weep over abandonment, we can honestly say that God knows of that intimately. Jesus’ cry when he was on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) – emerged from the depths of his being. He was not simply quoting Scripture; he was undergoing the consequences of divine abandonment, and thus enduring the loneliness of a broken world (about which I will say more). The triune God elected to experience that process, in part in order to identify with his suffering creation. Indeed, Isaiah 53 – that great prophetic ode to the suffering servant, sent to deal with his people’s sins, and who was revealed as the incarnate Son, Jesus – speaks of this:

“He was despised and rejected by others,

            a man of suffering, and familiar with 

                        pain…”

“Surely he took up our pain

            and bore our suffering…”

“He was oppressed and afflicted,

            yet he did not open his mouth;

he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,

            and as a sheep before its shearers is

                        silent,

so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:3,4,7).

Through the cross, God in Christ experienced sin’s consequences for himself, standing with the lowly and the burdened in the midst of the maelstrom. Indeed, the invisible God has become visible – concrete – in Jesus. His care for humanity has now become incarnate in the person of his Son. To those who, like Job, wonder where God is in the middle of their misery, we can say that he is truly there.

More must be said, but I shall leave that for the ultimate post in this series.