Is God inside or outside of time?

Q. Do you believe that God is the creator of time and hence outside of it, or that he is in time like the rest of us? If you believe God is outside time, and is its creator, why wouldn’t it be possible for God to simply view all of history, past and future, like a canvas or movie, without infringing on human free will?

I don’t think that “inside” and “outside” are quite the right terms to use when thinking about God’s relationship with time.  Let me explain what I mean by analogy to God’s relationship with space (the physical creation), the other part of the space-time continuum.

God is immanent in creation, that is, God is present in every single part of it.  But that doesn’t mean that God is “inside” creation, in the sense of being contained within it.  That would be pantheism.

Because we know that God is not contained within creation, we also confess that God is transcendent beyond creation.  But that does not mean God is separated or excluded from creation.  That would be gnosticism, with its radical spirit-matter distinction.

To avoid both of these errors, Christians have historically confessed that God is both immanent in creation and transcendent beyond creation, and I think we should understand God’s relationship to time in the same way.  God is immanent in time in the sense of being present at every single moment of time, but God is also transcendent beyond time (as its creator, as you say), not bound or limited by it the way we are.

So does this mean that God can simultaneously view all moments in time and know what is going to happen in the future without infringing on human free will?

Let me answer that question with another question, based again on an analogy to space:  Can God be present in a place that doesn’t exist?  No, that’s not what we understand God’s immanence to mean.  It means that God is present in all places that really do exist within the creation that God made.

Similarly, God cannot be present in a time that does not exist.  And the future does not exist yet.  The existence of the creation that God made unfolds in “real time” (so to speak)—that’s simply its character—so there’s nowhere to be (actually, “nowhen” to be) until time moves forward.

It is possible to view all of a canvas (painting) at the same time.  But it’s not possible to view every single moment in a movie all at the same time.  If a movie has been recorded and we have the capacity to rewind or fast forward, we can view any particular moment in it that we wish.  In that sense we have the same relationship to the characters and events in the movie that God, being transcendent, has in relationship to time.

But we can’t do this with a movie that hasn’t been made yet.  And so it is no limitation on God’s transcendence in relationship to time (one aspect of God’s omnipresence) that God can’t do this with the future that does not yet exist, either.  This is really the same point that I’ve made in several previous posts when discussing God’s omniscience:  it is no defect in omniscience not to know what cannot be known (the “last digit” of pi, for example).

God knows His own plans for the future, how He wants to bring human history to its culmination, and that’s what’s described for us in the Bible in places like the book of Revelation.  But God will actually fulfill His own plans in creative response to the millions and billions of free choices that people will make between now and then.  God can’t jump ahead into a future that does not yet exist in order to know in advance how everything will turn out.  But God can know, and tell us, how everything will turn out in the end because He will shape the destiny of history by His own sovereign power and authority.

Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?

Q. Today in my Quiet Time I read in Genesis about God wrestling with Jacob. I was really puzzled where it says, “When the man saw that he could not overpower him . . .” I don’t understand how God could not overpower a human being. God took on human form, but didn’t He still have the strength God would have? What do you think it means?

Also, I know God and Jesus have taken human form before, and I was wondering, has the Holy Spirit ever done so? I don’t remember any passages where He does, but are there any?

Eugene Delacroix, “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel”

The so-called “man” in this episode who wrestles with Jacob is just like the “angel of the LORD” who appears in other Old Testament passages, though he’s not specifically called that here. He is a “theophany” or manifestation of God on earth. Jacob recognizes this and says, “I have seen God face to face” (in human form, at least).

It’s clear that this “man” has supernatural powers available to him, because to bring the wrestling match to an end, he’s able to wrench Jacob’s hip out of its socket simply by touching it. But he has apparently chosen not to use these powers over the course of the match, in order to demonstrate something. (This is analogous to the way that Jesus, to provide an example and model for us, “emptied himself” of his divine powers such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in order to live a perfect human life through obedience to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.)

So what was God trying to demonstrate in this wrestling match by limiting himself to human powers? When he blesses and renames Jacob he says, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” So he had probably been giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout 20 difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him. (In my Genesis study guide, I show how Jacob was not only reconciled with his brother Esau shortly after this, he also made restitution for much of what he’d stolen from him.)

In his reflections on “The End for Which God Created the World,” the early American theologian Jonathan Edwards observes that since God’s perfections are “in themselves excellent,” it was also “an excellent thing” for them to become known. It seems to me that in the same way, God considers it “an excellent thing” for the character qualities Jacob has developed to become known, and so he arranges (personally!) for a demonstration of them, in the form of this wrestling match. (We might similarly see some of our struggles in life as an opportunity that God is giving us to demonstrate the character we have been developing.)

We can only speculate about how the match ever got started. Perhaps the man blocked the route that Jacob wanted to take and Jacob had to try to wrestle him out of the way. Or perhaps Jacob sensed who he was from the start and grappled with him in order to obtain a blessing (just as he says at the end, “I won’t let you go until you bless me”).

But however the match began, it’s probably more significant to ask exactly what the man means when he tells Jacob, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” How can a person “overcome” God? I don’t think it just means, “You wrestled God to a draw when God decided to use only human powers.”

Rather, I think it means that Jacob, in a desire to get back home from exile (something only God could make possible), determinedly worked through everything in his life that would have kept God from letting him to go back. When he was finally heading home, he testified to Laban about the honesty and integrity he had developed: “I bore the loss myself,” he said, if any of Laban’s flocks were torn by wild beasts or stolen. So we might say that Jacob was “wrestling” with God all those 20 years in exile, striving to become the kind of person God could safely send back to Canaan to continue the line of covenant promise. The wrestling match just before he got back home was a dramatic demonstration of what had been going on all along. God took on human form and limited powers in order to make that demonstration.

I’ll answer the second part of your question, about whether the Holy Spirit ever took on human form, in my next post.

Does God command particular actions because they are morally right, or are actions morally right because God commands them?

Q. How would you answer the “Euthyphro Dilemma,” that is, the question that asks, “Does God command particular actions because they are morally right, or are they morally right because God commands them?” If you accept the first option, it would seem that God is not the basis of morality, but is simply a “recognizer” of morally right things. On the other hand, if an action is morally right because God says so, it means that it could be potentially morally right and obligatory to inflict pain and suffering on others. There is more to the discussion than just that, obviously, but I was just wondering which (if either) path you tend to favor and how you answer this “dilemma”?

(This question was asked in a comment on my recent post on the topic “Why does the Bible say it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage?” because I said both that God had set apart sex as holy and that sex was intrinsically holy.)

The “Euthyphro Dilemma” (so called because it is first raised in Western literature and philosophy in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro) is a truly vast question that has received much consideration over the whole history of Christian moral theological reflection. I won’t be able to do much justice in a short blog post, but let me say briefly that I’m among those who consider this actually to be a false dilemma.  I believe that the inherent moral structure of the universe reflects the character of the God who created it, and that God’s own assessment of actions (whether they should be commanded or forbidden) similarly reflects His own character, so we don’t have to choose between where we think the rightness or wrongness of an action should be grounded.

From this perspective of mine, there’s no problem of God being subject to a moral authority outside himself. There’s also no problem of anything morally questionable that God might command (such as lying, killing, etc.) being “good,” because we have things like conscience and natural law, built into the moral fabric of the universe, to help us recognize that when God does tell people to do such troubling things, this must be under exceptional circumstances and for exceptional reasons that are somehow justifiable.

However, there still are a couple aspects of the question that remain something of a “dilemma” for me.  First, exactly what is going on in those “exceptional” circumstances?  How could a good God command lying or killing at all?  I’ve discussed this in some other posts on this blog; for example, for lying or deception, see the series of posts that begins here; for killing or “holy war,” see this post.  I say in these posts that these “exceptional” cases are among the most difficult and troubling passages in the entire Bible for thoughtful readers, and so in saying that I consider the Euthyphro Dilemma to be a false dilemma, I don’t want to minimize that at all.

The second aspect of the question that remains a dilemma is that there is no outside standard by which to determine whether what God has generally commanded and built into the moral fabric of the universe as an expression of His own character is objectively good on any other basis.  We are, in effect, “trapped” within the creation of this God, and as His creatures we can only flourish within it by conforming ourselves more and more to His character.  Now personally I have no problem with this!  But for those who might want to be able to hold God accountable to some objective standard, that actually isn’t possible.  (This is one of the main issues raised and debated in the book of Job, as I show in my study guide to that book.)

Nietzsche argued that the Christian ethic of love, compassion, humility, and forgiveness bred “weaklings” who failed to assert themselves, as they should, in acts of power against other creatures.  Nietzsche didn’t believe in God, but if he did, he would no doubt have said that the wrong kind of God had made our world and given us the wrong kind of guidance in our tender consciences and innate sense of fair play.

There’s no way to answer such a perspective, which is really an expression of faith in a way of life opposite to the one the Christian faith teaches, except by faith itself.  We can’t prove that we love and serve the best possible God from within a beautifully ordered moral universe of His creation.  We can only say that as we are getting to know Him and serve Him better and better, this certainly seems to be the case.  We have to take all the rest on faith.

The meaning of Daniel’s seventy weeks

Q.  . . . Which elements of dispensationalism do you most find fault with? Perhaps you could touch on your understanding of Daniel’s seventy weeks, the “great” tribulation, and the status of the nation of Israel in regards to the promises God had made specifically to it in the Old Testament.

I answered the first part of this question more generally in my last post. Let me address here some of the specifics you’ve asked about.

Daniel’s “seventy weeks” are literally “seventy sevens.”  Dispensational interpreters take this to mean seventy periods of seven years each, and they understand the “great tribulation” described in Revelation to be the last of these periods. The events that will take place over this whole period of time are described at the end of Daniel’s third vision.  There the angel Gabriel explains:

The archangel Gabriel, depicted in a fresco in a church in Tsalnjikha, Republic of Georgia

“Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place. Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”

As I explained last time, John Nelson Darby, who developed dispensationalism as we know it today, believed that the Jewish nation would replace the multinational community of Jesus’ followers as the people of God on earth at the end of history.  And so he was inclined to apply these words to the Jews and to believe that they would be fulfilled in the “end times,” as world history reached its culmination.

But expecting a future fulfillment of biblical words like these inevitably involves much speculation, and continual revision as world events overtake whatever scenario is originally conceived.  That is why you are probably familiar with numerous timetables for how these “seventy sevens” play out and various versions of the “great tribulation” or last “seven” at the end.

I think it is more responsible, and more in keeping with the way we interpret the rest of the Bible, to ask first whether Gabriel’s words in Daniel’s third vision might not already have had their specific historical fulfillment, so that anything we can anticipate in the future will be something analogous, not something directly predicted.  Here’s what I say about this in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

– – – – –

Biblical scholars have discussed and debated Gabriel’s words extensively, but they haven’t reached any consensus about how to interpret them.  It’s not obvious how they line up with events in later history, and attempts to explain them can quickly become speculative and fanciful.  One observation we can make, however, is that many of the details Gabriel provides seem to correspond with events in the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes:

– “The anointed one will be put to death” may describe the murder of the Jewish high priest Onias by his rival Jason in 171 B.C.;
– “He will make a covenant with many” may refer to the agreement Antiochus made with the Jewish nation once Jason seized power;
– “In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering” may describe how Antiochus suppressed Jewish worship three and a half years after making this agreement;
– “He will set up an abomination that causes desolation” may indicate how Antiochus desecrated the temple;
– “The end that is decreed is poured out on him” could describe Antiochus’s sudden death from disease in 164 B.C.

The explanation of what Daniel found “beyond understanding” in the previous vision, therefore, is that the temple, desolate in his day, will be rebuilt, but then desolated again by an evil ruler who will ultimately be judged by God. This is a further warning to God’s people that they need to be faithful, even to death, and refuse any compromise.  It’s still not evident, however, how the “seventy sevens” get the reader down to the time of Antiochus from Daniel’s day.  So, much remains to be understood in this fascinating but cryptic prophecy.

– – – – –

You can see that I take quite a different view from the one that characterizes dispensationalism.  But it’s because my interpretive presuppositions are so different.  In the same study guide I explain the four ways that the book of Revelation is interpreted, and the same approaches can be taken to the book of Daniel:

– – – – –

The book of Revelation is interpreted in four major ways.  The futurist approach understands it to be a description of the events of the “end times,” at the end of human history.  (Works like the novels and movies in the Left Behind series follow this approach.)  The historicist view sees the book as a prediction of the whole course of history, from Jesus and the apostles down through the present to the end of the world.  The idealist interpretation is that Revelation depicts the struggles and triumphs that followers of Jesus will experience everywhere, but it doesn’t have any particular place or time in view.  The preterist approach is to try to understand the book by reference to the time and place it was written in–western Asia Minor towards the close of the first century.

– – – – –

After this review of approaches I explain, “This study guide will consistently pursue a preterist interpretation.  If this is new for you, and you’re much more used to hearing the book treated differently, just try to keep an open mind and look for the potential benefits of this approach as you and your group do the following sessions together.”  I should say the same thing about the posts on this blog!

One last item you asked about was “the status of the nation of Israel in regards to the promises God had made specifically to it in the Old Testament.”  Let me refer you to this post for my thoughts on that.  And yes, that post, too, is written from a preterist perspective.

 

Are we saved simply by believing, or are there works we need to demonstrate?

Q.  Jesus says near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

The point of the passage seems to be that those who are rejected were trusting in their works since the justifications they bring to Jesus are the things they did in His name—they weren’t trusting in what He did for them. If that is truly the point, is it enough to simply understand intellectually what Jesus did and believe that we are saved by grace as an unearned gift ? It seems that the Bible kind of says that one is saved solely on an intellectual basis, but at the same time that one isn’t truly saved unless one demonstrates works as well. How do you read that?

That passage from the Sermon on the Mount might not be the best one to use in order to address your question, because at least as I see it, the issue there isn’t believing vs. works.  The issue is trying to use Jesus’ name in exorcisms or prophecies as if it were some kind of magic word, without being a committed follower of Jesus personally–like the sons of Sceva we read about in Acts who were trying to cast out demons by saying, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.”  (Note that the statement you quote comes in the section of the Sermon on the Mount that begins with Jesus saying, “Watch out for false prophets.”)

I think a better way to address your concern would be to compare and contrast the biblical perspectives you summarized at the end of your question:  either that salvation comes by grace through faith, apart from works, or else that some kind of works are needed.  For example, Paul writes in Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”  But James writes, seemingly contradictorily, that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

However, we can tell that Paul and James really aren’t contradicting one another by the way they both appeal to the biblical statement that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

In Romans Paul appeals to the fact that this was said of Abraham before he was circumcised.  Thus he didn’t have to do any kind of works (such as being circumcised or anything else) in order to earn righteousness.  His salvation was a gift that came by faith.

But James appeals to the very same statement to argue that we would never know that Abraham had genuinely saving faith unless he did something to demonstrate it.  That’s why James says that “Abraham was justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar”–not justified in the sense of being made righteous, but in the sense of being shown to be righteous.  Only a person who was truly trusting God in faith would have obeyed such a difficult command.

And so if we claim to have been saved by trusting and believing in what Jesus did for us, we should reasonably expect that salvation to manifest itself in “works,” not things we do to earn or secure our salvation, but things that flow naturally from it:  deeds of obedience, consecration, sacrifice, and service.  These, both Paul and James would agree, are the signs of true faith.

 

 

 

 

 

Why does a serpent represent what Jesus did on the cross?

Q.  In the gospel of John, when Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, why does he liken Himself to the serpent that was lifted up in the desert in the Old Testament, considering that serpents are usually associated with Satan? Why was a serpent chosen as a type/foreshadowing of what Jesus would do on the cross, especially in light of the Bible always emphasizing the “lamb” that was slain? I’ve thought that perhaps in a sense sin/evil was on the cross since Jesus “became sin” to put an end to it, but other than that it just seems weird to me.

Sebastien Bourdon, “Moses and the Brazen Serpent”

Jesus refers to the way Moses made a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole in order to make one specific point to Nicodemus.  Jesus has just told him that he needs to be “born again” in order to enter the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus has misunderstood this and thinks that Jesus is describing something physical rather than something spiritual.  (This happens often in Jesus’ conversations with people in this gospel, as I explain in my study guide to John.)  “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asks.

Jesus tries to explain that he’s talking about being “born of the Spirit,” but Nicodemus still asks, “How can this be?”  So Jesus uses the episode of the bronze serpent to explain more precisely what he means by being “born again.”

This episode is related in the book of Numbers.  The Israelites are traveling through the wilderness and they start complaining about the very manna that God has been providing miraculously to feed them in the desert.  (They say, “We detest this miserable food!”)  As a punishment for their ingratitude, God sends poisonous snakes among them and many of the Israelites start dying from snake bites.  So they come to Moses and admit, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.”  They ask him to “pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.”  God forgives the people and tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole.”  God promises, “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”

In other words, an admission of sin and a response of hopeful faith, looking to the means God provided for deliverance, was how the Israelites could be rescued from physical death in this instance.  Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the same thing will be true, on a much grander scale in the spiritual realm, when he is “lifted up” onto the cross.  Anyone who is sincerely sorry for the way they’ve disobeyed and offended God, and who looks in hopeful faith to Jesus’ death on the cross for their sake, will be rescued spiritually and given the chance to live anew.  This is what it means to be “born again.”

So that is the single point of comparison:  just as the Israelites needed to look in hopeful faith to God’s provision for their physical deliverance in the wilderness, so Nicodemus (and anyone else, ever since, who hears about Jesus’ conversation with him) needs to look in hopeful faith to God’s provision for their spiritual deliverance in the form of Jesus’ death on the cross.

We should not make any further points of comparison, such as “Jesus must be like a serpent in some way, rather than a lamb, because he said he had to be lifted up just as the serpent was lifted up.”

However, we should keep in mind that in the gospel of John, there are always multiple levels of meaning at work.  Behind physical references there is often spiritual significance.  We’ve already seen that this is true when Jesus speaks about being “born,” and it’s also true when he speaks of himself being “lifted up.”  This can mean simply being raised onto the cross, but as a footnote in the NIV explains each time this phrase occurs in John, “The Greek for lifted up also means exalted.”  We need to recognize that this spiritual meaning is also in view when Jesus says things like, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

Does God punish the same sins twice? (Part 2)

If Jesus took the punishment for all the sins of the world on the cross, why does God also punish people in hell?  Isn’t God punishing the same sins twice?  It reminds me of the master in Jesus’ parable who forgave his servant a large debt, but then made him pay it anyway.

Detail from The Unforgiving Servant, stained glass, Scots’ Church, Melbourne

I discussed the parable in my last post. To address the other part of your question, I wouldn’t say that people in hell are being punished a second time for sins that Jesus already took the punishment for on the cross. Jesus’ work on the cross is sufficient to atone for all of the sins of the world.  But in order to receive the benefits of that atonement, people need to respond in faith and trust to what Jesus did.

It’s as if someone announced a huge relief fund for the victims of a natural disaster, a fund that would be sufficient to cover all of their losses.  People would still need to apply to the fund to get benefits.  If they didn’t apply, perhaps because they didn’t want to be beholding to anyone, or because they wrongly suspected the motives of the benefactors, they shouldn’t think that they were still suffering their losses because the fund wasn’t sufficient to cover them, or because the losses had to be paid for twice–once by the fund and then again by themselves.  The explanation is that they didn’t apply.

In the same way, if people experience separation from God in hell, this is not because Jesus’ death wasn’t sufficient to pay for their sins, and not because God is making them pay for these sins a second time, but rather because they haven’t chosen to trust in Jesus’ work for their salvation.

I would add that the essential character of hell is separation from God.  In effect, those who choose not to enter into relationship with God through Jesus’ work on the cross are choosing to live out of relationship with God.  A holy God cannot have sin in His presence, and that’s why there’s a place where people who do not embrace God’s provision for the forgiveness of their sins live apart from God.  Hell is also described as a place of suffering, but I don’t think its essential purpose is punishment.  Rather, it’s separation.  People who choose not to be restored to relationship with God are given what they have chosen–an existence apart from God.

I hope these thoughts are helpful in addressing your excellent and thoughtful question.

Does God punish the same sins twice? (Part 1)

If Jesus took the punishment for all the sins of the world on the cross, why does God also punish people in hell?  Isn’t God punishing the same sins twice?  It reminds me of the master in Jesus’ parable who forgave his servant a large debt, but then made him pay it anyway.

These are excellent questions.  Let me start with the parable, which is found in the gospel of Matthew.  We need to understand it in light of its original context.

The ancient servant-master relationship was one in which servants would be entrusted with resources to accomplish the master’s work.  The king or master in this parable is said to be “settling accounts” with his servants, that is, having them account for what they’ve done with the resources he’s entrusted to them.  The first servant can’t account for a huge amount of money and the master is ready to sell him and his family into slavery to collect what he can.  But when the servant begs for mercy, the master says he doesn’t have to repay the money.

However, when this servant refuses to show the same kind of mercy to one of his fellow servants who owes him only a small amount, the master realizes that he wasn’t worthy of this generosity.  And so, still within the ongoing master-servant relationship, the master says that the servant will have to pay the debt, and sends him to debtors’ prison, exactly where the servant sent the one who owed him a small amount.

In other words, this was not a commercial loan that was cancelled through a legal transaction, which the master then tried to renege on.  Rather, these were the arrangements that the master was prepared to make within his ongoing relationship with this servant.  When the servant insisted that he was operating in good faith and would repay everything, the master was willing to make a fresh start in their relationship.  But when the master discovered that the servant really wasn’t operating in good faith, as evidenced by his ingratitude (if he’d really been grateful, he would have shown the same mercy to his fellow servant), the master realized that he would have to conduct the relationship along different lines, and insist on repayment of the misappropriated resources.

Whatever the specific arrangements (and it might not be possible to reconstruct them exactly from our historical and cultural distance), they must have been understandable to the original hearers, and I don’t think the master’s change of attitude towards his servant is meant to be the shocking or puzzling aspect of the parable.  (Most of Jesus’ parables, by design, have some such aspect.)  Rather, I think it’s the servant’s hypocritical and ungrateful response, even after being shown such mercy, that’s meant to shock us.  That’s what Jesus specifically calls attention to at the end of the parable:  Each person who has been forgiven by God needs to forgive their brother or sister from their heart.

I’ll address your question about hell in my next post.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, stained glass, Scots’ Church, Melbourne

Did ancient cultures worship the true God under a different name?

Q. I’m homeschooling my daughters and we’ve been learning about ancient Greek civilization.  When they heard about its highly developed religion, my daughters asked me whether the Greeks were worshipping the true God under a different name.  What do you think I should tell them?

The Bible says that something about the true God can be known through creation and conscience.  Paul wrote to the Romans, for example, that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (See the Paul’s Journey Letters study guide, Session 24.)  And Luke records in Acts that Paul explained to the people of Lystra, “God has not left himself without testimony:  he has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons.”  Paul also told the Athenians that God created the nations and made them finite in duration and territory so that “they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Luke-Acts study guide, Sessions 21 and 22).  So there is a natural seeking after God, and people are able to find out some things about Him that way.

I would not conclude from this, however, that ancient cultures were actually worshiping the true God under a different name.  In addition to the testimony to God in creation, there is the witness of the covenant community through time about its encounter with the God who has entered human history to redeem people and restore them to relationship with himself.  I believe that people need to connect with that work by hearing and believing this witness.  Thus the witness needs to be offered all over the world.

So I would encourage your daughters to understand that these ancient cultures were in a position to learn something about God, and that some of what they believed about God was therefore true and correct, but that we need God’s self-revelation in order to know Him in the way that we should.  In other words, I don’t believe that the Greeks who worshiped Zeus were actually worshiping the covenant God of redemptive history without knowing it.  But they may have taken some steps toward this that enabled many of them to understand and believe the good news about Jesus when they heard it.

Was Jesus really forsaken on the cross?

Q. I often hear people say that when Jesus cried out on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” this was a poignant expression of his suffering and abandonment. But given how well Jesus knew the Scriptures, and how strongly the whole of Psalm 22 describes him and his situation, didn’t he likely have the whole psalm in mind? If so, you could equally see his cry as conveying triumph through suffering. When I thought of this it changed my whole view of the crucifixion.

Guido Reni, Christ Crowned With Thorns

There’s an extensive discussion in Session 8 of the Psalms study guide (pages 52-53) of how Jesus appealed on the cross to Psalm 22.

In my view, the best understanding of what was happening when Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” recognizes both the sense of abandonment he was expressing immediately through these words and the sense of faith and trust that’s articulated over the course of Psalm 22, to which he was indeed alluding in its entirety.

In other words, in our interpretations we need to honor what Jesus was experiencing in the moment, but we also need to recognize that he was giving voice to that experience through the words of an ancient inspired song of faith. Jesus was taking his place in the long line of Israelites who used the psalms, written centuries earlier for other occasions, to express what was happening in his own relationship with God.  The Psalms were gathered into a collection and made part of the Bible precisely because people had been using them in this way for so long.

Psalm 22 was probably originally written by someone who had a deadly illness.  However, the uncanny resemblance between what the psalmist describes and the experience of crucifixion, unknown at the time the psalm was written, has convinced many that the inspired writer was given an advance glimpse of Jesus’ sufferings on the cross. In that case this would be a Messianic psalm that speaks as much about the coming Messiah as about the original circumstances of the author.

What we can say for certain is that just as the people of Israel looked back to earlier songs (the psalms) to express their own spiritual experiences, the psalmists themselves also looked forward, as authors like this one express the hope that their words will be used by later generations.  Psalm 22 is a classic psalm of supplication that moves from a cry for help to a statement of trust, and after a description of troubles and petition makes a vow of praise that envisions people in the future all over the world hearing about God and worshiping him.  Jesus fulfilled this vision by creating a worldwide community of followers through his life and ministry, his death on the cross, and his resurrection and ascension.  So the psalmist gave Jesus some words through which to express his most vital spiritual experience, and Jesus in turn gave those words the most marvelous fulfillment that could be imagined.