The Question and the First Attempt
A few years ago, I was talking to an agnostic. Though he is skeptical of Christianity, he is searching. During our conversation, he asked me:
“Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Why did he have to come at all?” He leaned on the counter and waited for my response.
So I launched into an explanation of the Biblical story and the themes of sin, sacrifice, forgiveness, new creation, etc. I was just picking up steam and feeling satisfied about how it was going when he cut me off.
Pulling the Curtains Aside
“I get that stuff. But why did God want to do it that way at all? Couldn’t he have done it another way?”
I was explaining the Incarnation and the Crucifixion within the Christian framework. He was asking me to pull back those curtains and help him peer inside. Why did God decide to do any of that at all? Why would he want to put himself through the pain and humiliation of the Crucifixion?
What was God’s decision-making process? We have all seen (and probably filled out) the chart where you list the pros and cons of a decision in two separate columns. Then you compare the two columns and your decision is supposed to be obvious.
My friend wanted me to help him see God’s pros-and-cons list.
So I spent the first part of the next week thinking about this question, trying to come up with a good answer or a vivid analogy to explain the Incarnation and Crucifixion. I then decided to read a bunch of books that dealt with the question (that means you, St. Anselm of Canterbury). I was going to bring my formidable intellect and voracious reading to bear on the subject. I would dazzle my skeptical friend. (Upon hearing my answer, he would undoubtably fall on his face and worship the true God!)
And my blog readers were going to be blessed enough to get to read my answer in a future post.
Accepting the Mystery
But then I realized I was stupid. I woke a few mornings later with this verse in my head:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
As bad as we want to understand the reasons why God has acted in the ways that he is, this is not something that can be known by us outside of what He has revealed to us. We are not God. We are creatures, and our stance toward God must always be as creatures approaching their Creator. We cannot demand that his ways be understandable to our minds.
There is no doubt that God could have devised another plan to save the world. So why this one? I don’t know. Though that answer is not going to satisfy the unspiritual person, it’s still true. Besides, we shouldn’t expect it to satisfy the unspiritual man, for he hasn’t encountered the transcendent God.
Dangers of Explaining Away the Mystery
If I tried to explain God’s reasons for the Incarnation and Crucifixion, there would have been two undesirable consequences:
- God would become less god-like. Stop and consider this question. Would you expect the ways of a transcendent, all-knowing God to be beyond our abilities to understand them? I think even an honest atheist would admit that we shouldn’t expect to understand fully the ways of such a God.
- My skeptical friend would have learned to approach God’s as fully understandable by us. I would be encouraging my friend to believe that God can be fully understood, which isn’t the Biblical view of God. We know about God because He has revealed Himself. I cannot pretend –– and I shouldn’t teach others to pretend –– that I can understand things about God that He didn’t reveal.
God did not explain the Incarnation outside of the concepts and beliefs of the Christian worldview. I don’t know why God chose to save the world the way He did. But as a creature I have to recognize that there are many things about God that I cannot explain unless He has revealed that to me.
In this case, He hasn’t. So there’s nothing I could do to help my agnostic friend.
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