The four articles below were originally given as four talks by Bishop John Baker, formerly Bishop of Salisbury, in a Space in the City series in Winchester in 2004. We are most grateful to Bishop John for allowing us to publish these talks.
First a brief note about this series as a whole. Every faith seeks to understand the world, and so has to change and grow as we learn more about the world, both out there and inside ourselves. This is nothing new – you can see it happening in the Bible. But in the last 400 years what we know or think we know about the world has grown faster and faster; and for many Christians the strain of trying to express their faith in words that take account of all this is simply too much. Some take their stand on trusting that the old words are divinely guaranteed, and find assurance there. Others cling on by their fingernails, unhappy but loyally hoping that one day someone will answer at least some of their questions. Others give up church and worship, and settle for trying to live a decent and kindly life.
We shall not find answers in these to all the hard questions which challenge faith today. But it may help if we look at some of the words and ideas we can no longer in honesty use, and try to think of others which may make better sense of the message we believe is good news for the world. So let us start with the most basic (and most difficult) of all topics for faith, namely GOD.
Many in our society today have given up on the Christian God, some for intellectual reasons, others because there is simply a general feeling that Christianity – which was for so long by far the chief representative of religious belief in this country – has been disproved by advances in science and made unnecessary. When there is a disaster, like the tsunami, that does not turn people back to faith so much as drive them further from it; and if we are honest, we will recognise that there is reason in this. Belief in God no longer seems obviously true. It merely creates new problems people can well do without.
Indeed, people in our technology-based culture often find difficulty with the very idea of belief. We want to ‘know’, by which we mean have certainty built on fact. But knowledge and belief are not really so very different. Both are interpretations of experience. Sound faith systems do not require us, in Lewis Carroll’s phrase, to ‘believe six impossible things before breakfast’, but are always based on reason seeking to understand. The difference between knowledge and belief is that belief concerns itself with questions which, though of fundamental importance, are such that they can never be answered with absolute certainty – not in this life, anyway.
If, then, we live our lives in the light of faith, we do so knowing that we cannot have such certainty. It is in the very nature of religious belief that it cannot escape doubt – hence the title of this series of articles, ‘Between Faith and Doubt’. That is where all believers have to live, even clergy! The Spanish thinker, Miguel de Unamuno, wrote: ‘Those who believe that they believe in God, but without passion in their hearts, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the God idea, not in God himself.’ There is nothing sinful or feeble about this. It is part of the package. To live by faith is always, as Pascal declared it to be, a bet, a wager; but that does not mean it has to be a blind, unreasoning bet.
Which is why people have tried in various ways to prove God’s existence. When we look at the world around us, or explore our own brains and bodies, or if we look out at the whole universe and its extraordinary story, one natural response has always been to say, ‘There must be a mind behind all this’. More recently, since we have reconstructed the earliest moments of our universe, and found that if any one of a score of factors had been different in the tiniest degree, the amazing phenomenon of life could never have emerged we may feel even more strongly, ‘This could not have happened by accident’.
But these are not proofs. They are possible explanations, suggested by experiences that seem to us comparable. Because complex and finely tuned mechanisms are, so far as we know, always designed and made by someone, it is not foolish to think that behind things of the same kind in Nature there may be a Designer and Creator. But that is not a proof; and when we look more closely other explanations seem possible.
When we explore the universe now, what do we find? Something unimaginably vast – 100 million galaxies, they say, each with 100 million stars – and the distance from us to the farthest point we can detect is 90 billion trillion miles. Yet only a minute proportion of all those heavenly bodies could support life; and how many do, we have no idea. Instead of design that might as reasonably suggest that life has been a matter of chance, where some somewhere were bound to get lucky.
Or take the story of life on this planet. There are as yet unsolved problems with the theory of evolution, but it seems the best available account of the development of living beings. How is that development thought to have worked? Living creatures produce mutations, the overwhelming majority of which are abortive and get nowhere. A tiny percentage turns out to have some advantage in the struggle for survival, and establish themselves. But the environment also changes, as ours is changing at this very moment, and on at least six occasions those changes have been so violent that 90% of all creatures living at the time, who were managing perfectly well, were destroyed. A master plan? Or a lottery? Which?
The truth of the matter is that the universe is ambiguous. A Chinese poet put it perfectly in eight lines 750 years ago:
Leaf by leaf as light as a butterfly’s wing,
Speck by speck of scarlet in dots so small;
Some say that God lacks any concern for leaf or flower.
Thy myriad-formed! The skill that fashioned them all!
See the tree-tops laden with leaf at morning,
See the branches stripped by the end of day.
Some say that God undoubtedly cares for leaf and flower.
The rain has swept them, the wind has blown them away!
Neither side in this argument can claim a decisive victory. Indeed it is not so much an argument as a clash of subjective impressions. But there is a genuine argument which moves the whole question on to a different level.
It starts from what we may call ‘the mystery of existence’. This is something far deeper than any puzzle about how the universe works, wonderful though that may be. Even if, as some scientists believe, the universe – or perhaps an infinite number of universes – always has existed, we can still ask ‘Why?’ The question is essentially a spiritual one, prompted by a mystical discernment. It comes naturally to children, who should be encouraged to see their own existence and that of every other creature as miracle, not palmed off with some factually correct answer to quite a different question, ‘How did this or that come to be?’ It is one of the ways children, given the chance, enter the kingdom of heaven; and we would do well to follow them by training ourselves to see and feel everything with the reverence and joy appropriate to a holy mystery. Ultimately it is this from which springs the spirit of love for every neighbour and for the whole world.
We cannot argue straight from this vision to the existence of God. The train of thought goes like this. Everything we know has an explanation, so there must be an explanation for the fact that anything exists. We have no idea what this might be like, because there is no such thing in our experience, but we can, so to speak, lay down a minimum specification for it, which is this: it must be the Source of Being, sustaining everything there is in existence, and it must not need to derive its own existence from anything else.
So how do you get from there to God? St Thomas Aquinas gave the only possible answer to that nearly 800 years ago: ‘this,’ he wrote, ‘is one thing that everyone means by the word “God”.’ In other words the only way to prove that God exists is to identify him with something which you can show must exist; or, to put it the other way round, if there is a God, he has to be the Source of Being.
I am glad to say that this title for God, the ‘Source of Being and Life’ has found its way into the new Anglican service book, Common Worship. It may seem very abstract, but it’s not. In fact it brings God right into the heart of the life of each one of us, holding us in existence in everything we do. God, if you like, is the partner who enables us, and without whom our own unique identity and those of all around us just would not be there.
But that of course, raises a problem. This world may be wonderful but it is also very dangerous. It produces life, but that means there also has to be death, for otherwise there would be too many creatures for it to support. It produces sentient and intelligent life, but that means there has to be pain and sorrow. And when hearts crushed by tragedy cry ‘Why does God allow this? Where is he?’, the Source of Being does not intervene to stop these things. On the contrary, while the tectonic plates grind and the tsunami rages, it keeps them going.
Human beings have asked these questions from as far back as we can tell. The earliest writing we have on the subject is 4,000 years old. But in a way it was worse for them than it is for us today, because they believed that the gods micro-managed the earth, manipulating every event. We know, or ought to know, that that is not the way things are.
The churches, like Judaism before them, and Islam as well, come to that, have always taught that God is ‘almighty’. It’s still one of the commonest ways of beginning a prayer: ‘Almighty God’. But does it mean anything to say that? If it means that God has the power to do anything he chooses, the question that matters is ‘What does he choose?’ Already in the Old Testament they were saying that though God could do anything, there were things he wouldn’t do, and one of them was to overthrow the order of Nature. In Genesis, at the end of the story of the Flood, God makes this solemn covenant with the world: ‘While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall never cease.’
This remarkable insight foreshadows a truth of which we are well aware, that God cannot be constantly intervening in the universe without bringing it to an end. The cosmos works only because, above the smallest levels of matter and energy, it is ordered and regular, and in all probability that will be true of any universe there could ever be. What is more, our own life as thinking, moral beings would be impossible if this were not so. How could we ever plan or understand or take decisions, unless we could rely on A leading to B as it did last time? But the price we have to pay for this is tragedy. Our ancestors saw this life as ‘a vale of tears’, and they were right; but it is also a place of wonder and beauty, of adventures of the mind and artistic creation, of good lives and heroic self-sacrifice, of community and communion, of joy and love. And what about all the other creatures and their lives? Do they not have any value in themselves, apart from us?
Such things might, of course, be accidental by-products of the cosmic process, our way of making the best of a rough deal, and the Source of Being might be simply a cosmic machine, functioning blindly, while universes come and go. But it is at least possible that such a God holds these values dear, that the universe was designed to make itself along these lines and with these possibilities, and that God is not Something but Someone with whom we can enter into a relationship of co-operation and love – even that such relationships already have their pattern in himself. But to say that we need more evidence.
What some of that evidence might be, and how we should interpret it, will be the subject of the next part, which focuses on Jesus and what we can with integrity say about him, what we should not say, and a number of things which it would be very good if we did say but we don’t! Now, to conclude, let me sum up the main areas in which we need to be more careful what we say about God as God, God in himself.
Quite a few of the problem ways of talking raise special difficulties because they come in the Bible. It is, for instance a constant theme in Scripture, especially in the Psalms, that God intervenes to rescue or safeguard those who trust in him and to destroy the wicked. From Scripture this has passed into many traditional hymns. It is so manifestly untrue that it is as well that elsewhere the Bible itself contradicts this – for instance in Ecclesiastes and Daniel and above all in the words of Jesus from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ We need to sift the material we use in public worship – God is not honoured by telling lies about him.
Linked with this is the question of what we say about prayer. I plan to come back to this in a later article but clearly there is a huge question mark over the belief that whatever we ask in faith God will provide. There is a Christian in-joke about people who claim that God, if asked, always comes up with a parking space, but the matter is much more serious than that. Had none of those drowned in the Indian Ocean prayed regularly to be kept safe, or had no one prayed for them? If we think God took some special action to rescue those who made it against all the odds, why was he so unfair to all the rest? If we say that God does not interfere with Nature but guides the human heart and mind, why did he disregard millions of prayers to turn the hearts of the killers in Rwanda or during the Holocaust? We have to be very careful indeed what we say both in our prayer for human need and about it.
When tragedy strikes, we must never hide behind some pious pretence that what is obviously an evil is in some way good. Phrases like, ‘God knows best’ or ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away’ just will not do. Nor will the suggestion that God sends suffering for our spiritual benefit. Which of us would subject our children to pain and loss and sorrow to do them good? The very idea is sick, and anyway it doesn’t work. These things are wounds which can take a lifetime to heal, if they ever do. Equally perverted is the idea that God sends catastrophes as punishment. Punishment, to be just, has to be in proportion to the crime, and to fall only on the guilty. Natural disasters – especially those which, like the tsunami, kill or orphan thousands of innocent children – plainly do neither. One of the unhappy legacies of a mixture of mission preaching and tribal religion in Africa is that, when war or famine or disease strikes, the reaction of many believers is too often that ‘God is angry with us’.
In these articles I make no claim to speak as a dispassionate outside observer but rather to share as honestly as I can some convictions from my own pilgrimage ‘between faith and doubt’ which life as a minister of the Gospel has given me. If anything I have said has made faith more difficult for anyone, I can only express my sincere regret, and say that I think the story ends happily!
In the first part of this series I wrote that we could give good reasons for believing in some Being we could call ‘God’, and to some extent work out what we could and could not say about him. But to answer the really important questions - is he good or evil or just a blind force? Can we have a personal relationship with him? – we needed more evidence than the universe can supply. The Christian faith claims that the truest source of just such evidence is Jesus. So today we begin asking, ‘What can we, and what can we not say about him?’ – though we shall continue to do so in the remaining parts as well.
The first and crucial point to make is that we would never have heard of Jesus, were it not for one thing: the Resurrection. He would have been just another Jew put to death on some flimsy pretext, another of that tragic people’s army of martyrs. Those who find miracles hard to accept – both Christians and others – say that surely what is important about Jesus is his teaching. But not only was it because of his resurrection that his teaching was recorded, but that event, if true, gives immense significance to him as a person, in addition to what he said.
We do not have time to go into the credibility of the Easter stories. All I can do is offer my own conclusions. They seem to me not credible as ghost stories, nor as telling of Jesus’ original body healed and brought back to life, nor as tales made up to express some inner feeling on the part of his disciples that his soul went marching on. They are credible, I believe, as attempts, some years after the event, to put into words people’s recollections of something absolutely unique and unprecedented: the man they had known so well present in an entirely new kind of life in which he could relate to others anywhere, at any time, and in any way he wished. His visible and tangible presence was wholly at the bidding of his Spirit and its purposes. This also meant, of course, that death and its normal effects, such as the dissolution of the person, had been overcome. What we have here is, as St Paul put it, a ‘new creation’ the coming of a new world, with its own laws, interlocking with this one; and this calls for the action of that Source of Being and Life who alone can hold both worlds in existence. No Easter without God.
At that first Easter God put his tick in the Jesus box. What God was saying was that this man, this Jesus, was of unique significance. What he said, what he did, what he was were all ratified by God as the supreme message to the world, and the earliest Christians were boiling over with ideas on how to express this. There was, in fact, a theological nuclear explosion, and you can read the fall-out in passages like Philippians 2 or the opening verses of Hebrews or the first two chapters of Colossians or the Prologue to St John’s Gospel. It took the Church centuries to work out the formal dogmatic definition of all this; but the gist of it was already there.
How, though, did they get from God’s seal of approval on the man Jesus to Jesus as God? I believe that what in the end forced them to this conclusion was the Crucifixion. The Christian story was that someone who had been God’s uniquely accredited agent of truth and love, holiness and deliverance in the world, ended up rejected and on a cross. There is a mystery here, which cannot be resolved by glibly saying, ‘Oh well, that wasn’t the end of the story – there was Easter.’ The Gospels make it clear that, though Jesus had foreseen his execution, he saw it as a necessary part of his work on God’s behalf. The very last night before he suffered he had given his friends an acted parable of his death, which they were to repeat regularly as a pledge of their own loyalty to the same cause. The cross, terrible though it was, had therefore had God-given meaning for Jesus, and, as we can see from the Gethsemane story, he trusted in God to see him through it. What happened between then and that heart-breaking cry from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ Was it a swarming, crushing darkness in which all sense of communication with his heavenly Father was cut off, and his whole life seemed to have been utterly futile? Luke and John make no mention of that cry, but draw on a tradition in which Jesus dies trusting and at peace. Both could be true; but that there was a time of total dereliction is supremely important, because that is part of the reality of human life as we know it.
What the Resurrection proclaims is the vindication of the one who did the will of God perfectly by doing it in God-forsakenness. This is what it means to do the will of God in a flawed and random universe. God, as we were thinking in the previous part, has said to us, ‘I cannot be the world’s puppet-master on your behalf. You have to find your way to the goodness and truth, the courage and love, which are eternal by staking your life on these things for their own sake. But I have given you a sign that this is so in the Forsaken One whom I raised from the dead.’
But this is no help at all. If anything it does away with any worthwhile God altogether. Is not the one who has endured God-forsakenness rather than abandon the way of love which God requires greater than the One who endorses him, perhaps even sorrows over him, but does this from within the security of godhead? In a word, is not Jesus better than God? If so, then whether God exists or not, he cannot be God for us. The one way out of this dilemma is if God himself was the Forsaken One, who lived the human life of Jesus and died his human death. Faith in the Incarnation is, as 1 see it, the only thing that makes belief in a good God possible. Without it, there is in effect no God. With it we, can start believing in a God we can respect and trust, a God who is genuinely alongside us, who has shared life in this universe with us.
But how can we talk about a God who is forsaken by God? How can God be cut off from himself? The Church worked at this question from early on, which is why we find developing alongside the doctrine of the Incarnation (God as a human being) that of the Trinity (God not as single and alone but as a being whose essential nature is communion). In the stories of Jesus’ life on earth Christians found clues to a new picture of God. Jesus had this intimate relationship with One he called Father; and he was also empowered and guided by the Spirit of God, which he passed on to his followers and which was seen as the Giver of the new and vibrant life of the first Christian community. So when the Church had taken the further step of believing that Jesus must himself be divine, they had to think of God – no, not as a committee of three individuals, for they held faithfully to their Jewish inheritance that God is One – but as a single Being which was none the less threefold in its inward reality.
It is important to be precise about what belief in Jesus as God incarnate is saying. It is not talking about a man enabled by the Spirit of God to live a perfect human life. The Church looked at this one early on and rejected it as inadequate. Nor is it talking about a divine being who walks the earth in the outward appearance of a man. This is still very much a live issue, because many Christians, today, if asked ‘Was Jesus aware that he was God?’ would say ‘Yes, of course.’ But that would make nonsense of any idea that in Jesus God could be truly identifying with our human condition. To take just one example, how could his death be a death like ours, if he were conscious of being God and so immortal?
This does, of course, raise an important question about the Gospels, which is the big difference between the picture of Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke and that in John. On the point at issue, there is nothing in the words of Jesus in the first three Gospels which demands to be taken as showing that Jesus thought of himself as divine; but in John there are four or five such passages. Which do we believe? The best answer, I believe, is that St John throughout his Gospel is concerned to bring out the hidden meaning behind words and events in the general tradition and in his own recollection. This is why he makes such play with the theme of Jesus’ hearers always getting the wrong end of the stick. It is also why his Gospel has always been devotionally so precious, because it makes explicit the Christ of faith behind the Jesus of history.
What the doctrine of the Incarnation does say is that, at a known time and place in human history, there was one unique individual, Jesus, who was conceived and carried in a girl’s womb, was born, lived an authentic human life, and died a human death, and that the personal subject of those human actions and experiences was in fact God. Let us now take a look at what the Church has made, and what it might have made, of this central faith.
If we really believe in the Incarnation, then we have to accept that the whole human race is God’s family. This is not poetic metaphor. It is simple concrete fact. We all have God as one of our relatives, because every member of the human species is, however distantly, related to every other. By his own unilateral act God chose to become one of this family, and in so doing turned us all into his kith and kin.
If Christians talk of the Church alone as the family or household of God, that is not only untrue, it denies the very heart of our faith. On this planet God’s family is humankind. It is, I think, highly significant that when God became incarnate he did so in a society that had nothing corresponding to what we mean by a ‘church’. In all the four Gospels there are just two verses where Jesus is said to have mentioned the ‘church’, and it is highly unlikely for other reasons that either of them is an authentic saying of Jesus. (Equally significant in a different way is the fact that in the rest of the New Testament the word for ‘church’ occurs 150 times!) For Israel God’s dealings were always with the people, the nation. Religion was not something just for religious people, which they practised in their own time. It was part of the daily life of everyone, and concerned as much with things like commerce and finance as with psalms and sacrifices. It is also significant that by far the greater part of the teaching of Jesus that has come down to us is nothing to do with piety but is about human relationships.
The lesson is unmistakable. God’s focus is on all life, global and local and personal, and that must be the prime concern of our spirituality. Our prayers, our reflection, our worship, individual and corporate, are the time we give to our love affair with God, and that love is expressed in furthering his will for this Earth and all its creatures – what the New Testament calls ‘the Kingdom of God’.
What else does the Incarnation imply? What, for instance, does it tell us about our human nature? We get understandably depressed about ourselves, when we think how our priorities seem most of the time to be those of hurting and destroying our fellow humans, the planet and all its other inhabitants. This is the ‘slavery of sin’ from which, so the Church teaches, God will liberate us if we acknowledge our worthlessness and guilt, and accept forgiveness and the power of his Spirit to do better. But might it not be more helpful psychologically to start from the Incarnation as God’s vote of confidence in us, and so encourage people to believe in and develop their capacity for goodness and love? For incredibly enough, what God is saying is that human nature is something in which even God can be himself – not (or not yet) human nature as seen in you or me, but human nature in its full potential.
Incarnation faith should, then, bring us to look with new eyes on every other human being. We should expect to find truth, goodness and love in any quarter. Those who build the Kingdom of God are not just the card-carrying Christians.
Christ-likeness, which is what theologians call ‘the image of God’ in us, ‘godliness’ in human terms, is an endowment of humanity as such. It is not knowledge or power but integrity of mind and heart, dedication to the good for its own sake, and love for all creatures, all things. In any given individual or society it may be savagely disfigured and fall far short of its full glory; but the potential is still there, realised perhaps in everyone to some degree, however small. Our task as Christians is to seek that out, encourage it by working humbly with it, so far as we are allowed, and so develop it further in ourselves.
This has consequences also for our approach to other faiths. The old idea that their adherents were in the grip of Satan, and would go to hell, must surely itself have been one of the Devil’s most successful manoeuvres. The Incarnation, so far from discrediting faiths other than the Christian, should lead us to approach all serious spiritual traditions with expectation. This is not to endorse nonsense about all faiths being essentially the same. The God of Hinduism is not the same as the God of Islam; reality as seen by the Buddhist is not the same as that of the Christian. Yet wherever human souls have known the authentic anguish of the search for truth, of their own inward life, and of the complexity of relationships, there will be insight into good and evil, into the adventure of living together in peace and justice with nature and humankind, into the mystery of the spiritual. All faiths and philosophies are linked to a strategy for the common good; and it is this concern which creates common ground on which dialogue and mutual learning are possible.
In conclusion, a word or two on how we think and speak about the Church. The Church, using that term in the sense of that wonderful phrase from the old Church of England Prayer Book, ‘the blessed company of all faithful people,’ must always be a vital and precious part of every Christian’s life, because there we share with and are strengthened by others who love and follow the Lord Jesus. In using the idea of ‘family’ as my key concept I have intended no competition for our loyalty between humankind as a whole and the Church. If the Church is being what it should, then it will equip us for that critical solidarity with the world which we need in order to advance the Kingdom of God. But we should never measure the Church’s success in its vocation by mere growth in its own membership. Jesus called people, not because it would be good for them to be with him but to proclaim and work for the Kingdom; and so it should be today. Christians should invite others to join them, not because Christianity is good for them, even less so that the Church as an institution may be respected and influential, but to take part in fostering goodness, integrity and love in the life of their community and of the world. Something of what that means we shall try to consider in the next part. Meanwhile let us remember that that work will always be largely a hidden work, just as God in Jesus was, and to many remains, a hidden God.
In the preceding part we explored some basic questions about Jesus. How did the Christian community come to make the leap from seeing him as a man marked out by God to believing in him as God living a human life? Does this mean there can be a God who is truly good, because he has shared our limitations and our suffering? What difference does such an Incarnation make to our vision of human potential? What does it tell us about the calling of the Church in the world?
In this part I want to start from another, rather different question about Jesus, but one that has been central for Christians from the start. What do we mean when we call him ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’? From the New Testament onwards the Church has always claimed that in Jesus God somehow dealt with, solved the huge problem of moral evil. But has it been solved? Has it been dealt with? As we look around the world and think of something like the liberation of Auschwitz, need we even ask?
The saying about Jesus as the Lamb of God comes from the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. The word translated ‘take away’ is the common everyday term for picking up and carrying something. In the Gospels it renders Jesus’ call to his disciples to take up their own cross and follow him as he carries his. The word can also be used for carrying something away, removing it, even in the sense of killing. So the crowd screaming for Jesus’ death shout to Pilate, ‘Get rid of him! Get rid of him!’
The word used in the Gospel for ‘lamb’ is a deliberate echo of a verse in Isaiah (53.7). The prophet is speaking of a mysterious figure, the Suffering Servant, who by silently enduring unjust rejection and condemnation makes himself an atoning sacrifice for the sin of the nation, and so enables them to be freed from exile and restored to their own land. He says of the Servant that ‘as a lamb faced with the shearer is dumb, so he did not open his mouth.’ There have been endless attempts by scholars down the centuries to work out whom exactly the prophet had in mind, or whether the Servant is a symbolic figure, say, for the righteous in Israel, who suffered with the rest even though they did not deserve to; but no one suggestion has carried the day. The earliest Church naturally, saw it as a prediction of Jesus; and as such it has had an immense influence on Christian thinking about the way God deals with moral evil.
What, then, did St John mean by the phrase ‘the sin of the world’? In his Gospel ‘the world’ is an ambiguous term. Sometimes it means just what you would imagine, this earth and its people, as in ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.’ But at other times John seems to use it as a symbol for a reality which is anti-God, creation in revolt. So he makes Jesus describe Satan as ‘the prince of this world’, or tells his disciples that ‘the world’ will hate them as it has hated him, because he has tried to make it face the truth about itself.
It looks, therefore, as if the phrase ‘the sin of the world’ may mean rather more than just the lump sum of all our faults and failures, even the three-o’clock in the morning things we hate to think about or, for some, the dark spectres that pursue them to the grave. It is the built-in bias toward the dark, the negative, the unloving, which is not the fault of any individual – indeed, as individuals we are all the victims of it – but which constantly drags us all down to be morally less than we could be.
The experience of the 20th century has done something to open our eyes to this reality. We look back at Stalin’s liquidation of the Kulaks, at Pol Pot, at Rwanda, and supremely at the Holocaust, and we ask ‘How could ordinary decent people have closed their eyes, passed by on the other side, found excuses for such things, even co-operated?’ Armed with this loss of innocence, we now look around at our own society, and we begin to be aware here too of what we are learning to call ‘structural’ or ‘institutional’ evil, the unvoiced ethos which engulfs newcomers before they are aware of it, so that injustice and intimidation and prejudice, racist or sexist or whatever are no longer given their real names but just accepted as professional skill, the way the job is done by those who know. In Christian history down to the present day you can find examples of the same malign, mysterious forces, when the words of Scripture or a person’s sacred calling are held somehow to justify very unsacred behaviour, or when institutional power and tradition are unconsciously equated with the ‘will of God’.
Where this destructive, corrupting force comes from is a question worth pursuing, though it need not keep us now. For myself, I think there may be, coded in our genes, ways of behaving which once served some useful evolutionary purpose, but which now are a real threat to our survival. But whatever the root cause, and despite the fact that human beings have also inherited and developed great gifts of justice, compassion and altruism, there is this dark side of the race as a corporate whole. It is this which turns crowds into mobs, friends into gangs, soldiers into torturers. By exploiting psychological fault-lines it can sweep us away to obscene and monstrous deeds.
People say that the most urgent and critical problem facing us today is what we are doing to the planet on which we depend for life, but that is only half the story. The full problem is the alliance between our technological brilliance and this ‘sin of the world’. Until we learn to face this and unite to deal with it, you can teach individuals about right and wrong till you drop, but when this sin has them in its grip, they will be as straw. This it is for which we should reserve the word ‘evil’, because it is this which deludes people into thinking that their mean and cruel and lustful actions are somehow noble and justified. Hardly anyone does evil for evil’s sake. They all persuade themselves it is good. In 1943 Heinrich Himmler, addressing SS leaders said: ‘Most of you know what it means to have 100 corpses lying side by side, or 500 or 1000. To have endured this ... and remained decent men ... this is a glorious page in our history.’ In Goethe’s Faust Mephistopheles declares ‘I am the spirit that denies’; and Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, was inspired by this to invent a term for absolute evil which means roughly ‘Anti-being’ or the ‘principle of negation’. For all the wicked things we do are in the end twistings of what is real and good – the world around us, power, wealth, sex, knowledge – but absolute evil wants to put an end to the very existence of anything good. In the old myths about Satan the motive of all his actions is that he wants to be God; but he is thwarted by the fact that he depends for his own existence on God, the Source of all being and life. So in revenge he tries to bring to nothing the other works of the Creator. Translate that into our language, and evil is the pervading influence which blinds us to the fact that the way we behave will in the end destroy all that is beautiful and good.
This is the Enemy which God in Jesus is meant to get rid of. Has this happened? Not to your eyes or mine. How was he supposed to get rid of it? Christian theology has been fertile in suggested answers. Rather than go through them all, let us try if we can see the basic ideas behind them.
The first point to note is that Christian theology shifted the focus away from the ‘sin of the world’, evil in its deepest sense, to the sum total of our personal sins, in the plural. In the eucharistic rites of the Western churches we pray, ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.’ We ask for the guilt of our sins to be removed, so that we can be accepted by God in this world and the next. How is Jesus supposed to have done this?
The traditional answer has always been ‘through his death on the Cross.’ If we look at the Holy Communion services in most English language churches, we find that when we come to tell the story of how Jesus started this service we use the version in St Matthew’s Gospel. Here Jesus’ words about the cup of wine are, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many in order that sins may be let go’ or, more technically, ‘for the remission of sins’. Mark and Luke in their Gospels and St Paul in his first Letter to the Corinthian Church don’t mention this matter of forgiving sins, only the covenant. And indeed, it is very strange if Jesus did say that his death was needed to secure forgiveness for us, when he had repeatedly taught that if we forgive each other God will forgive us, and if we don’t, he won’t.
What all agree, is that Jesus’ death is to be understood as a sacrifice to God, like the sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple, and in fact making these unnecessary. Matthew saw it as an atonement sacrifice, which people brought to be cleansed from the guilt of something they had done. The other accounts treat it as a sacrifice like the one Moses was said to have offered on Mount Sinai, when God entered into a covenant with Israel giving them a law and adopting them as his special people. On this model Jesus’ death was a sacrifice to institute a new relationship between God and Israel.
I think it most unlikely that when speaking of a new covenant Jesus meant one between God and the whole human race. All through he had seen his primary mission as to Israel, though in the story there are instances of his help and compassion toward Gentiles, and he does say at one point that many will come from all over the world to sit down at table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, when the Kingdom of God is finally set up.
By Jesus’ time Israel had already reached a high level of moral and spiritual development, which was admired by many serious people in the Gentile world. But Jesus had a new vision of human relationships which went a huge leap beyond what Israel had so far achieved. It would revolutionise attitudes within the community, putting an end to legalistic self-righteousness and bringing sinners and the outcast into a fellowship of love; and it would also put an end to nationalist dreams which hoped to win freedom and power for Israel by force, but which Jesus knew only too clearly would bring disaster. What he saw as Israel’s true vocation was to be a light to the nations by virtue of this new moral quality of its own life; and this was the new covenant which God wanted to make with his people, and which he had been called to inaugurate. He had come to Jerusalem at the Passover, the festival of the first covenant, to challenge the rulers of his people to listen to what he had to say; and when he knew that instead they were planning to get rid of him, he wanted his closest followers to understand the meaning of his death, and to pledge themselves to continue his work for the Kingdom of God. For where the powers of this world are obdurate in their blindness and resistance to true good, readiness to die in defying them is the only way lo break the tyranny of the world’s sin, because people’s fear of death is what keeps them, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘subject to bondage’. Jesus had said, ‘Fear not those who kill the body, and after that have no more they can do’. This is what St Paul called ‘the foolishness of God’ and it is ‘wiser than men’.
The Kingdom of God, as Jesus pictured it, is one where ordinary human pragmatism and self-interest are overturned, and bad means are no longer used even for the best ends. It is one where sinners are accepted on equal terms and, as the earliest Church quickly saw, where those of all races and cultures are equally welcome. It is one where the giving and receiving of help from anyone and by anyone and in every need is the simple law of life. In short, it is one where the power of the ‘sin of the world’ is finally broken, as it was broken in Jesus’ own life. Working for that Kingdom to come is the calling of every human soul, and the special vocation of Jesus’ followers is by example first and explanatory word second, to encourage all people to do the same.
Was Jesus sinless? The Church has always said so, apparently knowing better than Jesus, who (like all really good people) said that he wasn’t: ‘Why do you call me good?’ he asked the rich young man, ‘No one is good except God.’ In any case, what does the question mean? Are we so sure as we used to be that we can always tell whether something is a sin in the eyes of God? And how could one possibly judge? The Gospels relate only a tiny fraction of Jesus’ life, and never tell us enough for us to pass judgment on any given situation. Go through what they say with a fine-tooth comb, searching for nits to pick, and what is the most you can come up with? A few cases of seemingly intemperate language, one or two harsh replies, one case where he was less than frank to his brothers (who didn’t believe in him anyway) as to his plans. Certainly some of the scribes and Pharisees deplored his eating and drinking with tax-collectors and prostitutes, and his claim to override the rules about what you could do on the Sabbath when there was human need to be met, but we would not want nowadays to classify those as sins, any more than a great many Jewish rabbis would. But, of course, the whole exercise is futile, because the whole New Testament warns us to leave judgment to God; and if you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, then whatever you might think about this or that detail of Jesus’ life, God obviously was satisfied with it. Jesus was good because day by day his life was directed by what God wanted for the world and by the urgent need to show and communicate that to others.
The meaning of forgiveness and judgment, so far as we are concerned, is something we shall look at in the last of these articles. As for the centuries of anguished argument theologians have devoted to the doctrine of atonement, that is, how did Jesus’ life and death remove the barrier which our sins had built between God and ourselves, most of it has been a tragic waste of time. Jesus did not need to do anything to enable his Father to reach out to us in love, for God has always been doing that. What Jesus did was to show by his own life and spell out in his teaching that this was so, and that all we had to do to respond was to acknowledge our sinfulness and to grant to others the same free pardon and reconciliation that we ourselves need.
A word should be said, however, about one particular kind of atonement theory, simply because this is widely supposed, by those who use it as an argument for rejecting Christianity, to be the essential heart of what Christians believe. This says that because God is just he had to exact from humanity a sufficient penalty for all the sins that ever have been or ever will be committed, but that because he is also merciful he sent his divine Son to live as one of us and to endure that punishment on behalf of the rest of us. This Jesus did by suffering and dying on the Cross and, in particular, during the time when he felt what it was to be abandoned by his heavenly Father.
Even accepting that the one who suffers here is God himself, this still seems to say that it does not matter who suffers for any wrongdoing, so long as someone does. Do we really need an explanation which presents God as logically and morally confused? Surely, if we believe that Jesus is our window on to God, then we know already that God suffers for the sin of the world, but he does that not because he is just but because he is Love, and wants only and always what is best for us. His remedy for our past, as we have seen, is simple. The remedy for our future is to live in the Spirit and by the vision which we have seen in Jesus, and which grows stronger in us day by day as we learn to love him more.
I was once asked, ‘If, when you come to die, it could be proved to you that there was no God, would you wish you had lived your life differently?’ Behind the question, of course, was the idea that believers behave well out of fear of hell or punishment of some sort, or in hope of ultimate reward; and therefore the right answer is ‘No’, because good done from those motives is not real goodness. If we have tried to do what we believed best for its own sake, then, though we might well be sad for all sorts of reasons, for instance that there was to be no future for love and beauty and goodness, no reunions for all who have loved, we would surely not regret our basic approach to life.
From which, strange thoughts branch out. In all the books of the Bible save two it is taken for granted that God either does reward the good and punish the evil in this life or will reward and punish them in the next. The odd books out are Ecclesiastes and Job. Ecclesiastes simply says (a) that if you look honestly at the world there is no evidence of divine reward and punishment in this life, and (b) no proof of a life to come. Job raises a more profound question. Right at the start of the book, when God is boasting about Job as a unique example of goodness, Satan stops him in his tracks. ‘Does Job serve God for nothing?’ he asks, and goes on to point out that because of Job’s goodness God has showered him with every blessing a man can have. ‘Take all that away’, says Satan, ‘and he will curse you to your face’; and we read on, biting our nails, to see whether Satan will be proved right.
Satan’s question has some claim to be considered the most important verse in the Bible after the Creation story and the Gospels. It is one thing to say that we learn by often painful experience. Of course we do, and it is the way we learn wisdom. It is quite another matter to say that if we do what is morally right God will send us some other, unrelated kind of blessing, and if we sin, misfortune. The laws of his own creation rule this out for God anyway; but we also have the collective experience of the whole human race, our own commonsense, and the story of Jesus himself to tell us that this just doesn’t happen. And thank God it doesn’t, for if it did, it would mean that God never wanted us to become people who are truly good of their own free choice, but simply to keep us at the level of animals that have to be trained by pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
And yet there are Christians who go on saying this kind of thing, talking of disaster and personal tragedy as ‘sent’ by God for punishment or warning. Why? Because it is widespread in the Bible; and far too many Christians have still not grasped that the writers in the Bible itself are constantly moving on beyond what their predecessors have said, and are led into new truth. If we really accepted the authority of the Bible – the whole Bible, not just parts we pick and choose – we would see that one thing God does do throughout is to authorise us to move on; and our present subject is a prime candidate for such movement.
For all that I have been saying applies even more strongly to life after death. For most of its history Christianity has been dominated by the image of judgment, the promise of heaven to those who live well and believe, and of hell for those who are sinners or unbelievers. This picture of God’s dealings with us means that never, not even in eternity, are we to have the joy and privilege of growing into mature humans, free moral beings; and everything the critics of Christianity have said about it on this score is right. If heaven and hell in their traditional guise represent the reality of, God’s dealings with us, then for our human development we are better off without him.
But it need not come to that. Let me try to paint an alternative picture, but one which also has its roots in the Gospel.
What did the Father say to Jesus at one minute past three on the first Good Friday? I know what I would have been tempted to say: ‘Son, I’ve had these humans up to here. They’re a rotten lot, even those so-called friends of yours, so let them rot. From now on you’re staying here.’ But, of course, he didn’t. On Easter Day Jesus came back to his friends with the greeting of ‘Peace!’ The Cross by itself means nothing but another item of senseless cruelty and waste. But the Cross plus the Resurrection mean that whatever we do to God, he will always come back with the offer of love and forgiveness; and the response of Jesus’ friends that first Easter was not just faith in a miracle, it was acceptance of that offer. It was reconciliation.
If God is as he is in the story of Jesus, then that is how he is going to be after we die. ‘Wait a minute,’ you say, ‘isn’t that making it all too easy? Not too easy for someone like me, of course, but what about Hitler or Stalin? How can one forgive people like that?’ Well, it depends what you think real forgiveness is like.
If I am to say to you, ‘I forgive you for what you did’, then I must set you before your own face, making you see what you did as it was for me, and telling you quite plainly that it was wrong and hurtful, and that I am right to feel as I do. True forgiveness does not by-pass judgment, it always includes it. But I am also saying that I want us to be friends, and that to make that possible I am prepared to accept the results of what you did, however disastrous, and to try to make those the basis of a new life for myself and those whose lives are bound up with mine. To be able to enter into this new relationship, you have to accept the truth of what I tell you, and to admit and repent of whatever it was that led you to behave in that way. When God, like the father of the Prodigal, welcomes us with the greeting of peace, that is what it is, an offer, and it needs this response if a new relationship is to be possible. What Easter says is that the offer is always there, but so is the need for our response.
I see judgment as God in Christ going through our lives with us, showing us in love the real truth of them, good as well as bad, and so opening the way for us to make the appropriate response. In the verse of G A Studdert-Kennedy, the First World War padre who was known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ because he always had packets of Woodbine cigarettes to hand out, he movingly imagines just this encounter. In the poem, which is entitled simply ‘Well?’ a soldier tells of a dream he has had, brought on by a sermon from his chaplain about the Day of Judgment and God on his great white throne. But in his dream it wasn’t like that. He found himself standing on a sea shore, and the lapping of the waves brought back his whole life.
‘A throng o’ faces came and went, afore me on that shore,
My wife, and mother, kiddies, pals, and the face of a London whore.
And some was sweet, and some was sad, and some put me to shame,
For the dirty things I’d done to ’em, when I ’adn’t played the game.
And there before me someone stood, just looking down at me,
And still be’ind ’im moaned and moaned that everlastin’ sea.
And ’E said nowt, ’E just stood still, for I dunno ’ow long.
It seemed to me like years and years, but time out there’s all wrong.
It seemed to me as though ’Is face were millions rolled in one;
It never changed, yet always changed, like the sea beneath the sun.
All eyes was in ’Is eyes – all eyes, my wife’s and a million more;
And once I thought as those two eyes were the eyes of the London whore.
And they was sad – my Gawd ’ow sad, with tears that seemed to shine,
And quivering bright with the speech of light they said, “’er soul was mine.”
And then at last ’E said one word, ’E just said one word, “Well?”
And I said in a funny voice, “Please can I go to ’ell?” ’
In the dream he is then told to go and live by what he has seen, and the poem
ends with these lines:
For I daren’t face in the land of grace the sorrow of those eyes.
There ain’t no throne, and there ain’t no books, it’s ‘Im you’ve got to see.
And boys, I’d sooner frizzle up in the flames of a burnin’ ’ell
Than stand and look into ’Is face, and ’ear ’Is voice say: “Well?”
If there is, in the worst of sinners, even the faintest residual wish or hope that the world and their own selves need not be as they have made them – perhaps no more than the echo of something good and happy of which in childhood they once had dreamed – encounter with Jesus will mean at least a chance of starting out on the long, long task of re-growing their whole personalities from those tiny, withered seeds. But in that task they will need the help of all those against whom they have sinned, and with whom they need to be reconciled. God cannot forgive on my behalf or yours; he can forgive only what he himself has suffered, though what that is in his infinite love for all creatures we cannot begin to imagine. So the life of heaven, as I see it, will be, among other things, this immeasurable process of healing the souls broken by sin and bringing about true communion; and in this all of us will be involved. And perhaps – who knows? – God himself, in the humility of Christ, will seek our forgiveness for the unavoidable pain which all his creatures have had to endure as the price of an existence in which they could learn to bring good out of evil and so to be perfected in love. I leave that thought for you to pursue.
As for what we ourselves might be in that new world with God, it will not, I think, be us as we are at the end of our lives – certainly not as victims of the various heartbreaking forms of dementia or paralysis. When we remember those we have known well, who have gone, we do not think of them that way, but in some strange fashion we bring together the whole of their lives – childhood, youth, maturity and old age – to form an organic unity. That unity, we would want to say, is the person we are talking about. And perhaps moving out of Time into Eternity frees us from the limitations of sequence, as from those of the earthly body, so that we are sustained as a new creation, the whole person till now only potential in our story, but which God knows and which he now endows with existence.
In some concluding thoughts I look back, and first, set out in bald summary my suggestions as to what we can and cannot say with integrity about our four topics. There is so much more that could have been said. But here are some brief reminders.
On God, we can reasonably say that there is a Source of Being and Life which endows this universe and any others there may be with existence. But we do not need a God to explain why things happen within the universe. Strictly speaking, we should not sing, ‘All things bright and beautiful ... the Lord God made them all.’ He holds the universe in existence while it makes them.
Nor ought we to use about God the word, ‘Almighty’, because it suggests that God can do anything. He can’t. Once God has endowed a particular universe with existence, he has to work within its rules. He cannot intervene to stop each imminent catastrophe. We have been too timid to break with past pictures of God which now are plainly false. Likewise, when lives are struck by tragedy none of us should ever say, ‘God knows best’ or ‘One day, we shall understand’, implying that he caused the cancer or the car crash for some good reason of his own.
For insight into God’s character, however, we needed more evidence, and we found it in Jesus, because in his Cross and Resurrection there was a good case for seeing in him God living a human life. This may be a world of tragedy as well as blessing, but God is in it with us. So far, so traditional, but from it follow things we ought to say but never do. God’s family is not the Church but the whole human race. We don’t have to do anything to become a member; we already are by being born. Faith is not the way in but the joyful realisation that we are in. Human nature is to be reverenced because in it even God could be himself, and so, the heart of being God and of being human must be one and the same, it cannot be power or knowledge but only love. We must therefore expect to find godliness, Christ-likeness, in any human being, and look to meet them. Christian or not, when we get to heaven.
Following up the thread put into our hands in Jesus, we looked at ‘the sin of the world’, the dark, compulsive force that leads us into institutional or structural or social evil, and blinds us to the real character of much that we do. We saw how the Church had concentrated on individual sins, and looked to Jesus to atone for these by his Cross, and so enable God to forgive us. But this was a wrong turning. Jesus did not need to die for our sins to be forgiven, for God will always forgive, he said, if we repent and also forgive others. Most theories of the atonement, as elaborated by theologians down the centuries, have thus been a waste of time. Jesus’ death, as he made clear at the Last Supper, was a sacrifice to hallow a new covenant between God and Israel in which Israel would commit herself to the values and way of life of the Kingdom, as he had shown and taught them, and so be a ‘light to the nations’. The Church early on extended this covenant to the Gentiles, but, alas, lost sight of her mission to combat the sin of the world in the way Jesus had done in his life, death and resurrection.
I want to end by keeping a promise I made early on, and saying a brief word on how prayer fits into the picture I have drawn.
Prayer, as I see it, is the way we carry on our love affair with God.
With the coming of Jesus, and the realisation that here God had taken our nature upon him to be with us in the best and worst of life, a new dimension was added to prayer:
‘Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ should, I not love thee well? Not for the sake of winning heaven, nor of escaping hell; not from the hope of gaining aught, not seeking a reward; but as thyself hast loved me, O ever-loving Lord.’
This is the heart of contemplation, meditation, adoration, thanksgiving and penitence.
But what are we to make of the way most of us use prayer most of the time: asking help for others or for ourselves? Is there any point in these anyway, if God is so limited in what he is free to do?
There are two kinds of prayer: those in which we look at God, and those in which we stand alongside him in love, looking where he is looking, out at the world. When we do the second, we ask to be filled with his universal love, so that we feel with him for every soul, every creature, and then specially for those on our hearts. Thus we put our love at his disposal, so that through it he can have a more effective way into the souls of those with whom we are most closely bound up in the bundle of life. But in however small a way we can also be channels of his loving strength and wisdom to others all over the world with whom we are linked only by our common humanity in the whole family of God.
This, as I see it, is prayer. Not asking God to do what seems best but helping him to do it, so that when we pray things do happen for good which would not happen otherwise. Certainly these things will usually be at the level of enabling others to cope with illness or difficulties, or to bring good out of evil; but, where the resources of the body are not already too far gone, also to help healing. There are indeed other kinds of miracle which God can do, because they do not disrupt the ordered working of the world – the Incarnation was one. But these are necessarily rare events. The results of the prayer I have tried to describe are not rare at all, and the prayer itself is simple. It is simply to love.
Thank you all for allowing me to share my vision of our faith with you. God bless you all.
This page was originally created for the Kingdom Living web-site, by Graham Guest and Derek Hiscocks. We are grateful for their permission to reproduce it here, as well as to Bishop John Baker, whose material this is, for his continuing permission to publish it.