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.
Jesus came to Earth because of the spiritual world. So, yesterday, it was my goal to open you up to the possibility of a spiritual world in the first place. If everything I’ve written after today isn’t true, Jesus would just be a carpenter who was born, had some nice things to say, and then died. But if the spiritual world is real, then you need Jesus.
So, let’s talk about the spiritual world.
First, I’m going to talk about evil. It probably isn’t what you think it is.
My religious upbringing was typical in many ways. I grew up believing that God one day decided to make a list of rules about right and wrong, and that you go to Heaven or Hell based on whether you followed those rules. The world had good people and bad people—good people go to Heaven; bad people go to Hell. If as a nonbeliever this has been your impression of Christianity, it’s probably because that’s what we’ve been telling you all these years. And if you’re not too thrilled with a God like this, well good for you. Neither would I be.
Which is why I’m happy to tell you that God is not a tyrant.
A better explanation for Christianity does begin with evil, but not as an idea that God just thought up one day to keep humans in line. What people too often miss in the Bible is that evil is its own spiritual power. It is an independent power of destruction. Worked by a spiritual being named Satan, its nature is death. Where Satan brings evil, death in every sense will be right there. Everything will fall apart. Everything will end. Everything will die.
And it turns out, this is a major problem for an eternal God, such as the one I proclaim. I’ve already mentioned several qualities of the nature of God, and I’m about to add one more. There’s a scene in the book of Habakkuk in which God tells the prophet Habakkuk that the kingdom of Babylon is about to invade God’s people and destroy their kingdom. Habakkuk, refusing to acknowledge how corrupt the Jews themselves had become, laments to God that he is going to allow an evil to triumph over good. So, while Habakkuk partially demonstrates ignorance, he makes two statements about the nature of God that are dead on:
Lord, are you not from everlasting?
My God, my Holy One, you will never die.
You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment;
you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish.
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
The eternal nature of God and the nature of evil are simply incompatible. Evil, which leads to death, is the opposite of God. It’s as if God and evil are the spiritual equivalent of matter and anti-matter. Habakkuk refers to God as the “Holy One”. The word holy means “set apart.” God not only isn’t evil, but he can’t have anything to do with it.
There has been plenty of evil in our world—plenty even in the last century. Historians estimate that Stalin’s Great Purge, in the name of purifying the communist state, led to the death of about 700,000. Mao’s Cultural Revolution, founded on similar pretenses, was three-year nightmare for urban Chinese—killing about 1.5 million and torturing millions more. In just three months, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed in the 1994 genocide. Every year, 800,000 new children will enter the sex trade. There’s also evil in more subtle things. There’s evil when you lie. There’s evil when you lash out in anger. There’s evil in your greed. There is evil in this world, and so the world—like everything that possesses even the slightest evil—will end.
As if these weren’t horrifying enough, death in the spiritual world is a way bigger deal. These will end with the world. But death in the spiritual world continues forever.
Judaism (the Old Testament) in virtually every sense is a set of rituals that depict in an observable way the “war” between life and death that would otherwise be invisible to mortal humans. The New Testament book of Hebrews describes the law of Moses as a shadow of the spiritual realities. Hebrews states that with virtually every Old Testament Jewish ritual, the observable physical act has a spiritual parallel.
The law illustrates and patterns the holiness of God and the death of evil in two particular ways that overlap: being unclean and the making of animal sacrifices.
First, the law specified a long list of “unclean” things. These included: eating unclean foods such as pork or rabbit, contracting a skin disease, touching mold, touching a carcass, birthing a child, etc. Each time a Jew became unclean, he or she had to engage in a host of rituals to restore their cleanliness, which was a big deal because an unclean person could not enter the temple, which is where God lived. As a matter of fact, such a person had to live outside the camp in solitude. Touch an unclean person? You’re now unclean. An unclean thing came in contact with a fabric? It must be burned. Not surprisingly, being “clean” was and continues to be an obsession for Jewish people.
Today, there is no unclean thing. Instead, the clean-unclean dichotomy was meant to illustrate how sin separates one from God. Any Jew who spent enough time in an unclean state would not fail to get this message.
Second, the law commanded the high priest to make a whole slew of animal sacrifices on an altar. Chapters 1 through 6 of the book of Leviticus provide all the grisly, gruesome details on how and when to make each of the various sacrifices: how to cut open the animal, what to do with each of its internal organs, where to sprinkle blood—all descriptions you love reading before eating Christmas dinner. Why the sacrifices? Because they illustrated in the most appalling way how sin leads to death (by the way, the fact that we’re no longer commanded to make animal sacrifices is God’s way of saying “I think you’ve gotten the point now”).
The problem is that while the system of animal sacrifices too is a good physical model of the spiritual relationship between sin and death, it is just a model, or as Paul’s letter to a church in Galatia refers to it, a “tutor.” Animal sacrifices inform humans of the consequences of sin, but they don’t take away the consequences of our sin. Sin destines you for eternity in—you guessed it—Hell.
By the way, the Bible does describe Hell in terms of the fire and brimstone you’ve probably heard before. What I don’t know is if the fire is literal. There are really smart people on both sides of that one. What is clear is there’s an eternal life with God that is forfeited from just one small sin. And that is a tragic thing regardless of whether there’s fire on the other side.
The worst and most heart-braking thing is that, because the power of Satan is a supernatural power, you will sin on this Earth; the Bible guarantees it. You are no match for Satan. So, you have sin, you are incompatible with the nature of God, and there is no hope for you.
Except that God really loves you, so 2000 years ago he came to Earth as a man and defeated sin.
His name was Jesus.