As we look to find an enduring hope there are many questions that human beings must face in order to build a foundation in a relationship with God. First, we must know that God is real; this is the metaphysical question. Second, we must know how we might be in relationship with God and to know God in our own experience; this is the existential question. Finally, we must face a massive problem in our own nature. Even if we know that God exists and that he loves and desires relationship with us we still resist and turn away. This is the anthropological question. Human beings by nature are rebels and sinners; we do what we want with our lives rather than that which for God has made us. This is reflected by either active rebellion or passive indifference towards God in our attitudes in actions. In today’s essay we will wrestle with these three questions and marvel together how God has graciously answered them all in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.
The Metaphysical Question
From the beginning of history until now, human beings have been asking about the nature and reality of the universe. We probe the outer world and the inner world of our own souls searching for what is good, right, true, just and ultimate. Various cultures and peoples seem to all be called towards some transcendent reality as a cacophony of voices echo the names of various goddesses and gods throughout the ages. Yet our search seems to prove futile for many and some retreat into a blasé agnosticism being content to only say “I don’t know what is out there.” Such frustration is warranted for to be able to ascend the heights to look upon the face of God seems to be a daunting task. I once remember hearing one teacher describe the difficulty of describing God when someone posed to him a rather strange challenge: “define God and give two examples.” God is utterly unique so there simply are no examples of what God is—there is only God. So in order for us to wrestle with the metaphysical question we must ask if there is any help given from above. As such many traditions have held that we need God to self-define or self-reveal in order for us to know him.
Our Scriptures teach that God has been kind to human beings to do just this, to reveal himself to us in many ways. The first way God reveals himself is what we call general revelation. In some simple ways we can all know that God exists from looking at nature and conscience. The apostle Paul in the book of Romans teaches us that God can be clearly seen from what has been made (Romans 1:18-24) and that we know our moral responsibility to God from the moral law written on the heart (Romans 2:12-16). The skeptical German philosopher Immanuel Kant even realized nature and conscience as a place of profound reflection in describing his awe at the starry hosts above and the moral law within.1
Furthermore, both the every day person and philosophers have inferred from our world and conscience that there is indeed a God. Over the years I have done informal surveys with college students and other adults as to why they believe in God. The answers usually fall along these lines:
- We are here—there must be an explanation for the existence of the universe
- We are unique—the universe and human life gives evidence of design
- We are moral creatures—the universe and ourselves have a moral nature
- There must be justice—many seem to believe that there is a higher court of appeals
- I just know—personal religious experience of God
Interesting enough philosophers for years have developed intellectual arguments along many of the same lines.2 God reveals his existence and our moral responsibility to him to all through what he has made and by impressing his law on our hearts. Yet this sort of general revelation3 only gives us a knowledge that God is real, but many still suppress this knowledge. Though all can know something of God through nature and conscience this is still not enough to definitively answer the metaphysical question.
The Existential Question
Even when we come to the conclusion that there is a God, there is still the question as to how we relate to God. Is God personal? Is God loving? Does God relate to people at all or is God a distant deity or force lurking behind the curtains in the universe. We long for there to be a path shown to us, a way demonstrated and a connection with God made. The existential question is ultimately related to how we might know God personally, rather than simply know about him.
In our experience we find life to be a mixture of good times and bad, joys and pains, struggling to find meaning and purpose. Many times life can just leave us numb, longing to be more alive than our current experiences. Most of the time we just medicate our emptiness with shopping, substances, relationships, food, drinks and toys. In doing so we place things other than God at the center of our lives and build the foundation of our hope on things which do not last.
In the ancient world, the Hebrew King Solomon had more money, power, women and influence than anyone. He would make the finances of a Bill Gates and the activities of Hugh Heffner look smallish. He had tried everything in life and all that money and power could afford. Yet his conclusion after doing it all was that life was quite empty, quite meaningless all together. The book of Ecclesiastes in our Old Testament records his meditations and reflections on the emptiness and vanities of life lived apart from our creator.
Our modern world is filled with example after example of the very rich and very successful making it “to the top” only to realize emptiness still pervaded life. The existential question longs for meaning and relationship that is stable; it reveals the longing of the human heart for a connection with the divine. Whereas the metaphysical question wrestles with the question of God’s existence and identify, the existential question is the soul begging to be connected to God in meaningfully, loving relationship.
The Anthropological Question
If we think for a minute about the human struggle, we will realize something quite strange. If someone knows God is real and knows it is possible to relate to God in loving communion and worship, why doesn’t everyone jump in. Why are people still resistant to the idea of God?
The Scriptures teach that we are not honest seekers of God and his goodness and truth. In fact, human beings rebel against God’s rule in their lives and choose to live apart from him. Even if intellectual answers to God’s reality are given to solve the metaphysical question people still will not love God. Even if a person hears of God’s love for them they may not drawn near to him. The most massive problem that needs to be overcome is the problem of our own sinful resistance to God. The anthropological problem demands that forgiveness for sin and reconciliation must happen before someone really becomes a follower of the living god.
Jesus Christ—Revelation, Relationship and Reconciliation
I have always found it fascinating that in the incarnation of Jesus, God answers deeply the longings of the human heart and overcomes our deepest problem of sin. Let me explain.
Jesus—The Revelation of God
As we wrestle with the existence of God, he chose to give very specific evidence of his nature by becoming one of us. God gives a special and detailed revelation of himself by becoming a human being and actually showing us what he is like. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), God become a human (John 1:1-14) and the imprint of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3). His apostles and prophets have told his story, conveyed his teaching and explained his message to us in authoritative Scripture. God could have written in lasers across the heavens “I am like this and I am like that” but instead he became one of us to show us his love for us in a form we most easily understand. His portrait is painted for us in the gospels of the New Testament.
Jesus—The Way to Relationship with the Father
The gospel according to John tells us that God is actually seeking out worshippers and desires to be known by them. John 17:3 declares And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Jesus came to show to us the Father (John 14:9) and to connect us in a real relationship with our creator. Our longing for significance and purpose is fulfilled in a love relationship with God. God himself, in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, becomes the answer to all our existential longings.
Jesus—Reconciliation and Pardon with Him
Finally, and most importantly, Jesus over comes our sin by dying for us so that we can find peace and reconciliation with God. Whereas the metaphysical question is answered by the revelation of God in Christ and the existential questions is answer in knowing him, Jesus death actually makes it all possible. In Christ’s death on the cross God reconciles us with him providing full pardon and forgiveness for our sin. Our resistance to God is removed and we are given a deep desire for God that only finds culmination in worship. Former archbishop of Canterbury William Temple described the fulfillment of the human soul in worship as follows:
Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, nourishment of mind by His truth, purifying of imagination by His beauty, opening of the heart to His love, and submission of will to His purpose. And all this gathered up in adoration is the greatest of human expressions of which we are capable.
So it is in the incarnation that God became human so that we might see a revelation of God. It is also in the incarnation that we come to know God face to face. Finally, it is through the work of the incarnate Son that we are reconciled to the Father. The late British journalist Malcom Muggeridge so eloquently described the marvelous effects of the incarnation of Jesus:
Thereby [by the incarnation], He set a window into the tiny dark dungeon of the ego in which we all languish, letting in a light, providing a vista, and offering a way of release from the servitude of the flesh and the fury of the will into what St. Paul called the glorious liberty of the children of God.4
The question of God’s existence was answered fully when God put his feet on planet earth. The knowability of God was established fully when God stretched out hands and feet to die for us. As Scripture teaches us, God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
I will close with a small stanza of a hymn written by the 18th century song writer Charles Wesley.5 It’s words describe the amazing depth of the gospel whereby God would reveal himself, lovingly encounter us and set us free into a relationship of joy and worship.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Following with you,
Reid S. Monaghan
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788. This was also the phrase inscribed on his tombstone.
- For those interested see “The Five Ways” of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity and the modern philosophical arguments of Alvin Plantinga—Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Proofs found here—http://bit.ly/14bimm and William Lane Craig in Reasonable Faith-Christian Truth and Apologetics 3rd Edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008)
- J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence Publishing, 2004)
- Malcolm Muggeridge and Cecil Kuhne, Seeing through the Eye : Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 5-6. Emphasis in original.
- Charles Wesley, Psalms and Hymns, 1738.