Why God’s Love Isn’t Enough
Let me begin this one by noting that of late, for reasons not entirely clear to me, a greater percentage of my blog posts have been straight up religious, Christian or theological.
I realize that at least some, perhaps many of you, dear readers, are not religious or Christian or maybe much interested in theology. I’m interested in other things too and often write about them. Maybe that’s why you are here.
So if I’m pushing too hard on the religion/ theology thing for you, I get it. Probably things will balance out over time. But even if these aren’t your main thing, maybe you will still find my efforts to untangle them of interest. So for now, onward . . .
Every now and again I quote Richard Beck, author and psychologist, who writes a blog called “Experimental Theology.” In a four-part series just concluding he works on some important questions about what the cross/ crucifixion are about. Here’s a link to the concluding post in Beck’s series, but I encourage you to go back and read the whole series, which has seemed to me both helpful and important.
Probably the most dominant understanding of the crucifixion, one generally held by conservatives and evangelicals, is called “substitutionary atonement.” The way it goes is this. God is really, really pissed at you and all of us. Someone or something has to make it right by way of appeasing God’s anger with a sacrifice. Jesus is that sacrifice. By suffering and dying, Jesus solves our God problem. Everything is forgiven! Hallelujah! Be happy!
Fundamentally, I think this is wrong. The crucifixion isn’t about getting an angry God off our backs. Rather, it shows how completely God loves us and how costly such love is. The world, our world, rejects such love, turns its back on such goodness and attempts to kill it. Love like this, poured out, ends up crucified in this world.
If conservatives/ evangelicals argue that the cross fixes our God problem, liberals/ progressives argue that we haven’t got a God problem because, really, God loves us all, without distinction, world without end. Okay, but if that’s all it is, why bother with God at all? Here’s Beck on the problems both sides have:
“The gospel of progressive Christianity is that no one has a God problem and, therefore, no one need mind God at all. Nothing to see here! As far as God is concerned, I’m okay and you’re okay, so carry on everyone. This is how progressive Christianity becomes functionally atheistic, by making God irrelevant.
“Evangelicals keep insisting you have a God problem when you don’t. And progressive Christians, while correct that you don’t have God problem, can’t figure out what God is for if he’s not your problem.”
Beck goes on to argue, following Fleming Rutledge (and I believe the Bible) that a big part of the problem here stems from the assumption that there are just two actors in the drama of salvation, God and humanity. But there is a third actor, the dark lord who rules the world through the twin powers of Sin and Death. More Beck:
“Both groups miss the point . . . that there is a ‘third power’ at work in the drama of salvation. The reason we are drowning is due to the power of Sin, Death and the Devil. This is why the gospel message is more than a proclamation of God’s affection . . . [It is] the invasion of God’s power into our lives. Salvation is more than forgiveness, the solution to your God problem. Salvation is rescue, emancipation, freedom and liberation from dark cosmic powers. God loves you, yes, and He’s trying to save you.”
Since I tend to be more in the progressive/ liberal camp (and have never been persuaded by the idea that Jesus buys off an angry God on our behalf), I am more interested in Beck’s critique of my tribe. He likens us to people who seeing someone who is drowning, shout from the shore, “God loves you.” Assurances of affection aren’t, however, what is needed at that moment. We need rescue. We need saving. We need power. We need rescue/ saving from the powers of Sin and Chaos that are trying to destroy us.
So, argues Beck, “God loves you” (endlessly and sweetly repeated in liberal/ progressive church circles) is right but not enough. We need rescue, deliverance, power to, with Christ, overcome the powers that disfigure, distort and diminish us all and which do the same to the world God created and loves. So Jesus’ acts of healing, as one example, aren’t so much because he’s a really caring guy, as they are God’s anointed One taking on Satan’s rule, the bondage which Sin exerts, crippling and disfiguring people’s lives.
Conservative/ evangelicals seem to think our problem is an angry God. Progressives think we got no problem. But then there’s the cross. It says God loves us all the way, world without end. But such love is contested, resisted, crucified. We live on that battlefield, the battle where good and evil meet, sin and salvation engage. Salvation means being rescued from drowning in the seas of chaos and sin to be warriors in the army of Life.
Beck probably said it better. Read his posts.