AUTHOR’S NOTE: This series of articles reflects an “atonement theory” of Christianity that I now reject. I’ve kept this series to show where I come from.
For better or worse, I’m prone to criticize modern Christianity. Read this blog or spend much time around me and you’ll hear me complain about an ever-growing variety of things that seem to saturate the modern church: neglecting the poor to finance extravagant church buildings, judging people outside the church more harshly than we judge ourselves, using the Bible to push political agendas, belittling scientific professionals when their work contradicts our already questionable scriptural interpretations, the very real racial segregation among churches, petitioning our government to suppress religious minorities, and our American martyr complex. On no shortage of issues, I find myself a distinct minority among church people—even siding with nonbelievers. If you are a nonbeliever who criticizes what you see among Christians, believe me, I’m often right with you.
This article, however, is less for Christians and mostly for the rest of you. Whatever you think about churches, you need Jesus badly, and I’m going to spend the next four days telling you why. Merry Christmas.
Only, before I can talk about Jesus, I have to talk about a whole bunch of other stuff. Power. Control. Jealousy. Love. Science. Death. Sub-Atomic Particles. Invisible things.
Yeah. Invisible things.
Then, once you know where to look for Jesus, we’ll talk about Jesus.
Today, we begin with power—by which I mean all the ways humans attempt to control their surroundings. I’m going to argue that you care a lot more about power than you think you do. The desire for power comes in many varieties, but it is the universal desire among the human race. I start here because your desire for power is basically why Jesus.
In 1944, about 4 to 5% of the U.S. adult population held a degree from a four-year college. 1944 was the year that FDR signed the GI Bill, and more or less created our modern-day middle class. The most recent census numbers put the percentage of college graduates at 30% (but don’t be too impressed: Canada leads the world at 56%). It’s no secret why more people are going to college. Education gives your life more options, and we like options because they empower us. They give us more control over what we do in the future. And your desire to control your future doesn’t end there. To preserve future options, you keep your resumé up to date, you work overtime hours, visit your financial advisor, open up savings accounts, and purchase assets that build equity. Each of these are examples of stockpiling, and they give you remarkable ability to make choices. Take these away and your life will dictated on someone else’s terms. Ask anyone living in poverty.
You’re tempted to lie sometimes. Sometimes you do lie. Or you just tell some of the truth, but neglect important details. You lie to defend, you lie to advance, you lie when you are trapped. Lies, too, are about power.
When you move to a new city, you find the nearest and soonest networking opportunity. It doesn’t matter whether it’s yoga, a college fraternity, a softball league, the glee club, the chess club, the country club, or Rotary. If you have the luxury, you will invest in people who benefit you and avoid people who take from you. And researchers have found virtually no limit to the ideas you will pretend to agree with if everyone else at a party is doing so. Being alone makes you vulnerable.
And speaking of vulnerability, you generally keep the embarrassing details of your life to yourself. You hide the mistakes, amplify the accomplishments, and downplay your failures. Being in control requires that other people believe you’re in control.
You’re also vulnerable when you find yourself in unfamiliar circumstances—when you’re engaged in something and can’t know the outcome. You feel this vulnerability when you move to a new city, so you ask everyone what they know about the city. You feel it when you start a new job or business, so you talk to everyone you know who has run a business. You feel it each time you go on a first date, so you engage in the timeless act of Facebook stalking. The desire for predictive power is what keeps fortune tellers and economists in business.
However, when you are out of control, when you feel uncomfortably powerless, your body triggers a powerful control mechanism called fear. If you’ve ever asked someone out, you know this feeling acutely. Your anxiety is an acute realization that you are vulnerable. You’ve given someone else control that you once had.
(Let me be clear, some people suffer from anxiety for other reasons—namely neurological disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. These require professional help and certainly are not what I’m talking about here.)
Virtually everything people fear has this in common. Take public speaking. You can’t control the everyone’s reaction, so your body goes into overdrive, and the nervous rush of adrenaline makes your body focus intensely. Fear is your body’s way of of making up for the control you lack around you, and it can paralyze you. Most anxiety comes in the form of “don’t screw this up.” The things you fear are the things you can’t control or predict.
You are obsessed with power.
It’s no wonder that General Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—which was written simply as a war treatise for the Chinese Kingdom of Wu—is both widely read and applicable to virtually every human endeavor. You treat your body as if it were an army, and your life as if it were a war. You stockpile, form alliances, break alliances avoid uncertainty, hide your weaknesses, project your strengths, and sometimes go on the offense to manipulate the things or people you can control—those less powerful than you—all for the purpose of becoming more powerful.
When you boil it down, your life is little more than a daily attempt to control what you can. And the Bible was written for you.
The book of Genesis records a story about a civilization in Mesopotamia that, lead by a ruthless warrior named Nimrod, decided to build a huge tower “into the Heavens”. This “Tower of Babel” was meant to strike fear in their neighbors and consolidate control of the region. The Mesopotamians projected power the same way you do. Each time you’ve falsely told people “I’m fine”, or turned your head to see if people noticed your new car, or worked on your body in the gym, or worked all weekend to have a front yard in step with the yard across the street, or spent ten minutes taking, re-taking, and refining your Instagram picture—you were projecting power like the builders of Babel. You were displaying: “I’ve got it together, and I’m in control.”
What’s interesting is that not long after construction began, construction stopped. The story says that God came down and caused what was once a linguistically unified civilization to speak different languages. God more or less zapped them, and construction stopped. To summarize thousands of years of Biblical history—from Abraham, to Moses, to Joseph, to Gideon, to Samson, to David, to Elijah, to Daniel, to Jesus—God continues to go around with this zapping act. Anytime humans amass power for themselves, God unflinchingly tears them down. Even today.
Ever been humbled? Is it not almost always right after your moment of euphoria? When you reached the top and felt invincible? Yep. God humbled the proud then, and does so today.
And this is the God I worship.
But why? From what you’ve seen so far, it probably just seems like the Bible portrays a bearded man in the sky with an ego trip. And you’re probably not too thrilled with such a God. In fact, let’s be real. God has a big ego. A REALLY big one. Here’s a dandy from the book of Job:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
“Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?
God is mocking. And mocking well.
If you spend much time in psychiatric wards, you’re bound to hear similar delusional bravado. But God does not simply proclaim his power. God even insists that we acknowledge his greatness too. God wants us to revere him. He wants us to be raving mad about him. On one occasion, God says to Moses:
Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
God actually names himself Jealous. I mean, who does that? Anyone who believes in God has to become comfortable with the fact that jealousy is God’s nature; he has nothing short of a passionate, burning, searing desire to be the center of attention.
Have you ever dated someone like this? Wasn’t it miserable?! No one likes a narcissist. And a God like this can be very hard to warm up to.
Let me just say this: With what you know at this point, I’m actually pleased if you do not immediately want to worship this God. So, to understand why I love this God, we need to conduct a thought experiment. In this thought experiment simply assume that the following statements are true, and we’ll see where that takes us.
Everything God has said about himself actually is true.
God actually is perfect.
God lives in a world outside of time. He sees the entire history and future of the universe in one sight.
God created the universe. And let me expand on this. The observable universe currently boasts a diameter of about 93 billion light years. God created everything in that expanse.
God created everything in you. And all the billions of other people with the same things that compose you. Except not exactly you. And different from every other person. And when the Bible says “the very hairs of your head are all numbered”, that is actually true (When this phrase was first written, the Jews had no concept of cells, atoms, and sub-atomic particles, so to describe big quantities that only God could count, they used images like “hairs on your head” and “sand on the seashore”).
God is aware of every sub-atomic particle. There are about 100 trillion atoms in a single human cell. And there are about 40 trillion cells in your body. And there have been about 100 billion humans who have ever lived on planet Earth. God in one moment is not only aware of the entire history of all 93 billion light years, but also the entire history of every sub-atomic particle of all 100 billion humans.
In this thought experiment, would this god be justified in bragging about himself? The answer is yes.
But the jealousy? Why would such a God care about the opinions of beings such as this petty bunch of homo sapiens? After all, we don’t occupy the smallest speck of the smallest speck of the mighty universe. If you’re asking this question, it turn out that 3,000 years ago, King David—quite the biblical hero—asked the same question in a poem:
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
The mystery of God’s searing jealousy for humans goes to the perhaps the most profound question of all: Why did God create humans in the first place?
There’s this image of Heaven in a book of the Bible called Revelation. In this scene, God is surrounded by 24 “elders” who worship him all day, every day (remember the megalomaniacal unfettered jealousy thing?). And here’s what they say when they worship him:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”
We translate the word “will” from the Greek word “thelema” (if you can believe it, Shakespeare didn’t write the Bible, nor was it written in English). Thelema means a desire derived purely from pleasure. This means that the answer is the theological equivalent of God created humans because he wanted to. Paul, a very prominent man who lived at the tail end of the biblical narrative, said this to a group of philosophers in Athens:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
God doesn’t need us.
He wants us.
I don’t know why he wants us, and the Bible doesn’t say why. God’s desire for humans is not comprehensible to this universe. It is beyond our finite minds. I expand on this thought in Part III, but for right now I want to apologize for every time that Christians have had an answer and explanation for everything. The truth is, there are so many questions that the Bible doesn’t answer, and we need to do a better job of throwing our hands in the air sometimes. Really, our lack of knowledge shouldn’t be surprising in the context of this God who’s portrayed as powerful as he is.
So God wants us to love him, and he wants us to know our place in the universe. And this is why God sabotaged the great plans of the Mesopotamians. The power they thought they had was simply way out of whack with what they actually had.
The religion I affirm is a recognition that the power we want and the power we often believe we have is not even close to what’s real. When God tells us to believe in him, he is mostly telling us to give up our lust for control, and rely on his power and the promises he has made about his power. In so doing, we transform our lives on Earth from masters of all to servants of all. We substitute our wants for the wants of others. We make ourselves very, very vulnerable. Here’s a sampling from the “Sermon on the Mount”:
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
“Love your enemies.”
“Do good to those who mistreat you.”
The religion I affirm is about relying on God. God commands us to give rather than to stockpile, associate with those who have nothing to give, lower defenses when attacked, be honest about weaknesses, and build up rather than manipulate. These commands are scary because all of them require making yourself vulnerable. They require trusting in the good promises of an invisible God. They require faith.
So, tomorrow and the next day, I’m going to talk about the invisible. It’s going to get a bit weird.