Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today magazine, discusses a question millions of people wonder about: how can I trust that there is a God and that this God is good? The wondering comes out in a sentence repeated countless times daily. “I could never believe in a God who would _____” and you fill in the blank.[i]
“I could never believe in a God who would allow children to die.” We know children die by the hundreds of thousands every day.
“I could never believe in a God who creates gay people then declares gay relationships a sin.” Every one of us knows someone, probably someone we love, who is gay. I recently in a sermon offered what I think are two Biblically sanctioned forms of holy sexuality – a heterosexual marriage and celibacy.
“I could never believe in a God who stands by idly while innocent people suffer.” We know from Hurricane Katrina to the Indian Ocean Tsunami to the Haiti Earthquake to Japan where there was an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant meltdown that suffering hits people with full force – people who did nothing to deserve such suffering.
You could make your own version of the sentence: “I could never believe in a God who ______” and you name an injustice of particular interest to you. Galli in the Christianity Today article points out the obvious. God’s existence is not dependent on us believing. Nor is God’s existence on our sense of justice.
So, the children die, people have urges and impulses and deep desires that lead to lifestyles the Bible says are sinful, and the innocent suffer through no fault of their own. The follow-up proclamation is “well, I’d rather spend an eternity in Hell than worship a God who stands with his hands in his pockets while children die or a God who imposes misery by not letting people marry who they want to marry or who a God does nothing while innocents suffer.” It’s another version of the same frustration. “I’d rather go to Hell than worship the God who does that” whatever “that” is.
It sounds tough when Han Solo or Dirty Harry or one of the X-men brazenly says to his foe, “I’ll see you in Hell.” I can just hear Charlton Heston saying, “They can take my gun when they pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.” I remember the t-shirt from my basic training days. “God said, ‘Let there be infantry,’ and the gates of Hell opened.
Really? It sounds fine from Charles Bronson or the Rock or the Marlboro man, but let’s be thinking people for a moment. If we don’t like what God does, we’ll just do without him? If we get mad at God and say, “to Hell with you,” it’s an exclamation. If he says back, “To Hell with you,” well, then we’ve got a problem.
We either believe in God or we don’t, I don’t think goodness is a sufficient reason to believe in God and I don’t think pain is a sufficient argument to reject the notion of God. Do we believe there is a God? If yes, what do we believe about that God?
In his magisterial work Institutes, the great 16th century reformer John Calvin writes, “God has sown a seed of religion in all men.” Furthermore writes Calvin, God has “revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe.”[ii] The way God made us, we are inherently disposed to belief in Him. So any atheism is a direct rebellion in how we were created. We’re made to believe in God.
Because of the Fall – Adam and Eve’s original disobedience and fall from innocence – we do rebel against God’s creative intentions. But even when we do, Calvin says that because God is so clearly seen in nature, “[we] cannot open [our] eyes without being compelled to see Him.” This point comes from the New Testament, Romans chapter 1. “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things He has made” (v.20). We are created to believe in God’s existence. The creation around us is evidence of God’s existence.
Some continue to hold to atheism, that there is no God, but if we accept that God exists then we still have to deal with some painful truths. Children starve to death. Disasters happen and millions suffer, including good people. Young adults in their prime come down with cancer and other deadly diseases. Cruel dictators inflict persecution and death on people in their own nations and other nations.
Mark Galli points out that such non sequiturs, horrible happenings occurring in a world ruled by an all-powerful, all-good God lead to the Gospel of Job. This is the opposite of “I’d rather go to Hell than worship a God who allows ___ suffering of some kind.” In Job’s gospel, Job, the virtuous man of the Old Testament suffers tremendously and unjustly. If anyone had reason to gripe to God, it was Job. He loses his kids and is afflicted with disease and he did nothing to deserve such misfortune.
So, he expresses every emotion under the sun. He complains, wishes for death, wishes he was never born, and then demands an audience with God. God finally grants that meeting, but in it, Job never speaks. He meekly listens as God recounts his creative, omnipotent, omnipresent glory. That means God can do whatever God must do, and Job is too small to understand.
Job accepts that conclusion. Even though Job suffered unjustly, after God speaks, Job says, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6). Many who go through the paces of (a) belief in God, (b) refusal to believe because of evil and suffering in the world, and then (c) resolution to reject God because God is bad. Of those who go through these steps of faith, many end up here. We end up where Job is. “I cannot understand things, so I just blindly worship God and say that God is good and God is love.” If I look around and see pain and see suffering, I stop looking around because God is good and God is love and I have to hold to that no matter how much the reality of the world demands another story. I’ll deny that reality so I can God is good and God is love.
Fortunately, there is more to the story because that blind faith is a sure fire way to drive unbelievers away from God in droves. It’s not that the Gospel of Job is not true. It is true that people sometimes – often? – suffer unjustly. It is true that next to God, each one of us is impossibly small and cannot understand God’s ways. But, this story, by itself, is not Gospel. Gospel means good news. This isn’t good news. It’s fatalism. It’s resignation. It’s the surrender that says, we just want to survive this world, as bad as it can be. Survive and make it to Heaven.
What’s missing? Jesus! Jesus is the completion of Job’s gospel. Job’s defeated submission before God is not good news until we read the Gospel of Jesus Christ – God come earth in human flesh. Galli points that “I could never believe in a God who ____” is a sentence missing something. So too is “God is good and God is love and I’ll believe that and ignore any evidence that suggests the world is falling apart.” Both sentences talk of God, but neither mentions Jesus, and Galli feels and I agree that Jesus is the key.
First John 5:5 – “Who is that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” The very next verse states that Jesus came by water and blood. It makes me think of His baptism. Like all people who want to trust in God, he was immersed in the water. But he’s the only who, when he came up from the water, elicited a remark from Heaven. “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). God spoke when Jesus was baptized. God was there, a proud father honoring His son.
To say Jesus came by water and blood also calls to mind communion. When we take the juice and are reminded that he said, “My blood that is poured out is the blood of the New Covenant. Take and drink.” Water and blood – Jesus truly is God, and he came for us. In Jesus, God came for all people.
At the same time, 1st John’s declaration that Jesus came by water and blood is a declaration of Jesus’ 100% humanity. When he died on the cross, one of the Roman soldiers thrust spear into him, and water and blood gushed from his side (John 19:34). This was a human being nailed to a real cross on a specific day in history, dying a real death. In 1st John, the confidence of this telling depends on the witness of the Holy Spirit. Verse 9, hearkening to Jesus’ baptism and the other moments when God spoke in the gospels adds that God the Father also testifies to that Jesus is the Beloved Son and the Anointed one. The flow reaches a climax in verse 12. “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
It’s all about Jesus. When children die, we turn to Jesus. When we feel we are imprisoned in a life that isn’t fair and imposes on us impossible expectations, we turn to Jesus. When disaster strikes, evil lurks, pain rises, and we feel like hope is quickly running out, in prayer, with other believers, in scripture, and in a panicked cry from the depths of our hearts, we turn to Jesus.
This is not another version of simplistic surrender to fate. “I just hope Jesus gets me to Heaven.” Of course we hope Jesus paves the way for us after death. In fact, we don’t hope that; we confidently declare that he will go and prepare a place for us as he has promised. But this mantra, turn to Jesus, is for living today. First John says, “Whoever has the Son has life.”
In turning to Him, we see the cross, the flow of water and blood, and we see that he has suffered. He was betrayed. He was mocked and abandoned. Physically, he was tortured and killed. He knows suffering.
His love is perfect and His vision is expansive. We read statistic that so many thousands of children die of preventable causes. In turning to Jesus, we discover he knows every one of those children by name. He knows which ones are good soccer player. He know which ones laugh loudly, which are talented musicians, and which have scientific genius that would have made discoveries for the good of all humankind had they not succumbed to malnutrition. We lament the fate of the children. Jesus eternally weeps with a sadness deeper than we could realize, but we see it when we turn to Jesus.
When someone is stuck in life, we recall people Jesus met – the woman with the blood flow; blind Bartimaeus; Zaccheus the tax collector; the woman by the well. These people turned to Jesus and their lives were unstuck. In turning to Him, we come into a life of joy, laughter, and fulfillment that completes us the way nothing else possibly could.
And there are still unanswered questions. Why did the tornado hit my house? And sometimes God still overwhelms people from the whirlwind as he did Job. But’s that not the only way God speaks. In Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, God brings grace, mercy, peace, hope, and love to all of us. When a question is unanswered, we look to the character of Jesus. That has not changed. His character was loving and merciful and it still is. He loved children, weak people, fragile people, the rejected, and the lost. He still does. We can cite all kinds of rules about who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell, but a better approach is to turn to Jesus. We trust His character and His wisdom about the afterlife. We turn to Him today because we have to make it through today and we don’t want to do that alone.
Pain guts us – Jesus help me with this.
Injustice frustrates – Jesus, what I do?
Loss devastates us – Jesus, I need you. And he’s there. We ask Him to walk with us, and He does!
My whole case here rests on Jesus’ character. First John is the same way. The letter’s entire argument rests on the belief Jesus really is the Son of God, really loves us, and really can and will help and be with us. Life is only truly lived when Jesus is at the center of it.
As we conclude five weeks in 1st John, each of us is welcomed to bring our lives right to the Word, right to the cross of water and blood, and right to God’s throne room. All our hopes, all our disappointments, our frustrations and anxieties – we bring it all because he loves us and will guide us in life so that His joy is in us and our joy is complete.
The final word is similar to what we see in John’s gospel. This is written to us so that we who believe in the name of the Son of God may know, absolutely, confidently know that we have eternal life with Him (1 John 5:13, paraphrased). Turn to Jesus and receive eternal life and eternal joy.