Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cruciform Apologetics

I believe that, along with a powerful understanding and presentation of the resurrection, we must have a firm grip on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Some current evangelical writers find this teaching to be out of sync with post-modern times. The concept of God needing sacrifice is abhorrent to them as it was to the fathers of liberalism in the 19th century. However, for the apologist, substitutionary atonement speaks to the following objections to the Christian message.

First, substitutionary atonement speaks to the objection that it is a logical contradiction that a loving God who is infinite would create a world in which there is suffering.

The doctrine of substitutionary atonement teaches us that evil is not an inherent trait in creation. God did create a world that is good. Evil arises within creation by free choice.

The presence of evil is abhorrent to God. However,the elimination of evil requires a very deep response from God. Here the depth and complexity of Christianity must be grasped, for it is so easy to retreat into what Lewis, in his drinking analogy, called “Christianity and water”. No, Lewis is saying, you must take your Christianity straight.

Evil produces actions that violate God’s holiness, righteousness and justice, that is, God’s core nature. Evil actions harm people, the creation and the evil person himself. To overcome evil God himself had to become involved in the fullness of his Trinitarian life. This involvement went to the length of joining with humanity in the Incarnation, and satisfying the justice of God in death.

Second, substitutionary atonement speaks to the objection that we suffer and God could help but doesn’t. Substitutionary atonement removes the god who somehow is distant from our suffering, unable or unwilling to intervene to stop it. I believe God is grieved, that when Jesus wept he showed the sorrow and suffering of God for all our suffering. But God the Father did not stand by somewhere out there and watch disease and famine spread and wars be waged.

The LORD said, I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them…” Exodus 3:7, 8

Christ came to rescue us. Christ took on himself our grief and our sin so that it might in the end be swallowed up in his victory. I would propose that the concept of Christus Victor is totally empty, simply a metaphor (for what?) without substitutionary atonement. But,Christus Victor is a powerful reality as we see Jesus our Pascal Lamb, who was on the cross in my place, who overcame the grave so that I also might participate in his life, and be given everlasting life. Truly, Christ meets me in my suffering and overcomes it.

Finally, substitutionary atonement speaks to the re-definition of evil and guilt. The sacrifice of Christ Jesus is the reason our guilt is removed. This culture has listened to Freud and believed him when he taught that there is no real guilt. If there is no God, then it does follow that there is no guilt. And, if there is no guilt there is also no evil. But people know better. The category of evil inserts itself into every morning newspaper, and sociopaths are the only ones who do not groan under the weight of wrongs done to others. The forgiveness of God does not come simply because “that is his job.” No,to overcome evil sin must be dealt with, and sin can only be dealt with by God himself taking sin on himself, which he has done in the sacrificial death of Christ at the cross. Because this sacrifice is final and complete we can truly come to the throne of grace for help in time of need.

This is why many, and I think rightly so, consider John 3:16 to be the key verse of the Bible: for God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whosoever believes on him might not perish but have everlasting life.

God responded to our plight because he loves us, and he did not respond with a metaphor. He responded by entering our pain, taking the guilt of our sin upon himself, and by washing our guilt away with his blood in a sea of mercy, forever. Because of the cross we can understand and experience, as Malcome Muggeridge somewhere said, that the universe is awash in love.

Ultimately then, we must not think for one moment that an effective 21st century apology to Canada will hide the cross, or come to the cross later, after many warm things are said. Rather, we must understand that a 21st century apology to Canada must be cruciform, shaped by the cross and cross centered.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Resurrection as Theodicy and Plausibility Structure

As mentioned before, Karl Barth famously attacked the natural theology project by saying that it came up with a god, but not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What he meant by that was that one can propose an argument that nothing comes from nothing, and therefore if there is something – i.e., the universe -- the universe must have been brought forth by something other than itself, and that we would call God. Barth agrees that this argument could lead a person to affirm a creator.

However, there is no way to continue the argument in order to demonstrate that this creator holds us morally responsible, sees our misery, makes promises and covenants. Barth robustly asserts that the god of natural theology, or, if you will, the god of the philosophers, is not the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob.

C. S. Lewis and others recognize this issue and shifted their apologetics from creation to those attacks which specifically sought to deny the historicity of Jesus, his divinity, and his resurrection. It is somewhere in the middle between the proofs for the existence of God and the defense of the historicity of Jesus that I sense a weakness. And the spot is, as Lewis puts it, in the problem of pain.

To bring this out let us turn our attention to a recent review by Douglas Groothuis of William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's "God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist" in the summer issue of Books and Culture. Groothuis, in his review, points out that Craig’s theodicy fails to convince the atheist, but does convince him, the Christian reviewer.

"The nub of the argument over evil seems to boil down to Craig's argument: (1) If God exists, gratuitous suffering does not exist. (2) God exists. (3) Therefore, gratuitous suffering does not exist.11 Craig's strategies for God's possible justification of evils are merely speculative unless one has previously made a strong argument for a metaphysically and morally thick theism through natural theology. That is, background knowledge weighs crucially here. Since Sinnott-Armstrong denies the success of Craig's arguments for God, Craig's explanation for evil rings hollow and desperate to him. But if one takes Craig's overall, fivefold case for God to be strong (as I do), this defangs Sinnott-Armstrong's objections."
Douglas Groothuis “The Great Debate” Books and Culture July August 2008.

One is forced to ask, what good is an apologetic that only convinces Christians? Groothuis adds:

"Since Craig argues forcefully—if briefly—for the resurrection of Jesus as part of the cumulative case for God's existence, it might have served him well to invoke Jesus' resurrection as part of the solution to the problem of evil as well. If Jesus has been raised victorious over death and sin, the world is not without hope. Evil does not have the last word."

Indeed! I would go so far as to say that there is absolutely no theodicy without the resurrection. In fact, I would disagree with Craig and say that suffering that arises from evil is gratuitous, that it is without cause, for if it had a cause it could be justified, and it is not justified if it is evil. However, there is pain that is not in itself evil. But let us stay focused on suffering that arises from evil. This is what the cross and resurrection are all about. Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, and that is how he did it. I truly believe that this needs to be tirelessly presented as our apology in the 21st century. We need to be aggressive in proclaiming and defending the truth that God has seen our misery and taken it upon himself at the cross and overcome it at the empty tomb. And further, that he intends to restructure the world itself and the world order, and that preparing for that is the duty of the Christian community, the church.

In so presenting this core teaching we establish the Christian plausibility structure that Newbigin points us to. True, we cannot, in an enlightenment way, prove that Jesus rose from the dead with logic, and even less, prove the meaning of the resurrection as the overcoming of evil. But, the resurrection as a fact can be defended, and its meaning taught as a structure by which the world may be understood.

C. S. Lewis clearly understood this. In his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed” he speaks of being in a tool shed where light streams in from a crack in the roof. One does not sit and seek to see the light, rather, one should stand in the light and by it see everything else. I would propose that this is Lewis’ way of speaking of Newbigin’s “plausibility structure” built by the knowledge of God and the Christian teaching about God.

Thus, for Lewis the resurrection is not something one proves. One can defend the historical existence of an historical person, namely Jesus. But, one accepts the resurrection (the act of faith) and in so accepting it all other parts of life are understood.