It’s not a new question. And at Christmas, the whole question of God’s existence becomes one of the strangest, most complicated issues in our modern world.
Fine. Forget this whole “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini” business and go with “Common Era” and “Before Common Era” instead. You will still be forced to acknowledge the spectre of the historical figure of Jesus Christ by virtue of replacing one rubric with another.
It’s a serious problem. Even for those who claim to believe in Jesus, a quick sweep of religious TV in the Christian world on Christmas day reveals that there is no genuine consensus regarding who and what Jesus really is, and what His coming had – and has – to do with us.
So we have these four gospel records in the New Testament, and they’re supposed to be telling us about this guy Jesus; somehow, He was God and man all at once, and He did all these miracles and healed the dead and stuff…basically, Christians want everyone to believe that Jesus came to make things better. This, of course, presupposes that Jesus was somehow God, and that God actually exists…
If any of this is true, WHY is the world in the state that it is in? Both in the UK and in the USA in the last two months we have situations in which police officers were unwittingly drawn to certain locations for the exclusive purpose of being killed by deranged men who were armed for that purpose. Think about it: imagine that your job is to help and protect the public and solve crime. You go to answer what appears to be a legitimate SOS in the context of your job only to be shot and killed for being in the job that you are in? It is a mercy that in both cases only two officers were killed.
Why is 15% of the world’s population malnourished and starving, when 20% is obese?
Why will the killing not stop in Syria?
Why are the tax breaks in the UK increasingly designed to allow the highest-earners (by whatever legal means) to avoid tax?
And why is the National Rifle Association in the USA still trying to convince people that it is not guns who kill people, it is people who kill people?
Why is the recovery rate for leukaemia only 85%? What do you do if you – or someone you love – is (are) in the 15%?
What was the point of Jesus coming to earth at all?
What is the point of God’s existence in the first place?
There are so many ways that thinking Christians can go about responding to such questions, but in the aftermath of Christmas Day 2012 I have no desire to engage in a full-scale technical theodicy.
Instead, I want to work differently – more homiletically. I want to acknowledge Richard J. Barnett, who wrote an article over 25 years ago on this very subject that has inspired this post – who pointed out that we judge God, our Maker, so easily!
And so quickly!
Christmas is a celebration of the historical fact of the gospel – in which the birth of Jesus (the incarnation) points us towards His life of service and ministry and then his subsequent beyond-horrible death. The four gospel writers don’t just provide narrative biographies. Each one has a unique missiological and theological agenda – and each one points us towards the answer to the question of what God is doing about evil and suffering.
Let me make a philosophically-driven theological statement: Jesus Christ died for humanity’s continued right to free will.
When things work, folk want their own autonomy and will quite happily become god to themselves. But then, when things go in entirely unwanted directions, suddenly God is invoked! And it becomes clear that many people would much rather God existed on their own terms, which may be as seemingly simple as just giving them whatever they want, whenever they want it. So if someone needs healing, or protecting, God is the security and commodity to ensure that what is desired is received.
For over three years, Jesus healed, resurrected, fed, nurtured and ministered to an entire region – whilst also training twelve men to take on the mantle after He had gone. And yet there was not a single voice to stand in His favour other than Pontius Pilate’s own wife, and from what we see in the Bible chances are she never would have made it to the courtroom floor.
Here is the message: we do see Jesus responding to suffering in the world in the Gospels. God cares more deeply about us than we do about ourselves. And in Part Two we will look at how the event we now call ‘Christmas’ just happens to be the exact way in which we know that God HAS done and IS doing something…