Frames of Reference
“Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset, Swiftly fly the years, One season following another. Laden with happiness and tears.” So go the lyrics of a song from the Broadway Musical Fiddler on the Roof. And in spite of our modern-day understanding of planetary motions, the words still seem to fit. That’s because from where we are, from our vantage point, the Sun does appear to rise in the eastern sky and set in the west.
Claudius Ptolemy lived shortly after the time of the New Testament apostles. Building on the centuries-old work of Aristotle, Plato and Pythagoras, Ptolemy devised a detailed, Earth-centered model of the Solar system to fit the observational evidence of planetary motion. This model had the planets looping in sub-orbits called epicycles as they traveled in their circular, primary orbits around the Earth. And as far as models go, it did a reasonably good job of predicting where the planets would be at any time — a reasonably good job.
As time went on, planetary observations became more accurate, requiring complicating modifications to Ptolemy’s model in order for its predictions to still agree with the evidence. By the 13th century, the model had become extremely complex with dozens of epicycles. It was then that King Alfonso X of Castile remarked that had he been present at the Creation, he might have given some excellent advice.1 In spite of its growing complexity, Ptolemy’s Earth-centered model was still considered unquestionable to thought leaders and medieval church officials because of the cosmic self-importance it placed on humanity.
At the start of the 16th century, Nicholas Copernicus reintroduced a Sun-centered model proposed by Aristarchus over 17 centuries earlier. Johannes Kepler tweaked this model by adding oval-shaped orbits to the planets, empowering it to agree precisely with the observational evidence in spite of its relative simplicity. Isaac Newton followed Kepler by providing the mathematical foundation for describing how this Sun-centered model worked. Allowing the Sun to be the frame of reference for the planets’ motions, instead of the Earth, made all the difference for how the evidential pieces of the puzzle fit in place.
This relatively simplistic Sun-centered perspective was met with resistance by the established church, due in part to the lack of tactfulness of its proponents.2 As with any established authority, the mere thought of having been mistaken for centuries was more than their pride could bear.
Good theologians are really not much different from good scientists. They both want to gain a better understanding of reality through investigating the available evidence. They both want to distinguish that which will bear up under scrutiny from that founded on mere claims. They both want to construct models of the reality they perceive which will stand the test of time.
Since the evidence about how God interacts with humanity has been increasing over the centuries, the theological models describing God might also show some kind of progression. In theology as in astronomy, the more complete the evidence is, the better the emerging model should be.
So after thousands of years of seeing how God interacts with humans, what is our model of God like? What kind of person does He seem to be? Does our understanding show any improvements on views held by earlier generations? Should it?
One of the first impressions we get about God from the Bible is that it may have been routine for Him to take evening strolls with Earth’s first residents, talking informally about present matters of interest.3 Later, we read of Enoch, then Noah, enjoying similar relationships with God.4 God visits Abraham several times during his lifetime.5 God appears to Abraham’s son, Isaac, and also appears several times to his grandson, Jacob.6 If the Biblical record stops here, we are left with the impression that God is personable, enjoying direct contact with humanity.
Four hundred years later, during which Jacob’s descendants are enslaved in Egypt, God reestablishes visible contact with them as they are led out of bondage.7 But their maturity level after slavery, their capacity for friendship with God in the same way that He was friends with Abraham, is sorely lacking.8 So God meets them where they are. He meets their need. God reveals Himself to them as a strong, parental figure.9
After the years Israel spends in the Sinai desert, operating under a detailed code of conduct, time passes during which they grow to know God very little.10 God’s frustration with Israel’s retarded growth comes through about seven centuries later with Him saying, “I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them! …Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry.”11
Not only does Israel’s relationship with God fail to grow, it regresses. Israel seeks to appease the many imagined deities, a lifestyle similar to what is common among the surrounding nations. God continues, “’Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings for forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god– which you made for yourselves. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,’ says the LORD, whose name is God Almighty.”12
Once again, God meets Israel where they are, giving them some much-needed parental discipline. He sends them into exile, where they might possibly develop a teachable attitude in the school of hard knocks. It seems that all God is wanting from the Israelites is their devotion, their companionship, their trust, like He had had centuries before with Abraham. Only in this way can Israel communicate to the other nations the truth about God and His desire to befriend humanity. But under the circumstances, all any observer can see is Israel, the wayward child, being taken out to the woodshed.13
After the captivity, Israel returns to Palestine with injured pride and renewed determination to never get spanked again. About 400 years go by as they build a monumental structure of rules aimed at controlling the minutiae of everyday life. Into this setting arrives Jesus, where fear of an exacting God is the reigning paradigm.
If the Biblical record stops here, we are left with what seems like conflicting messages: God the personable creator vs. God the rigid authoritarian. Of course, any parent who has lovingly created a child and who struggles with teaching self-discipline to that child understands quite well how all of this can fit together — without contradiction. A parent’s actions might occasionally appear to be at odds with compassion as viewed from the child’s self-centered perspective, but the far-reaching vision of the parent sees a harmony in all this that leads to a self-controlled adult.
Luckily for us, the Bible says much more about God. In the person of Jesus Christ, God comes and lives among us. He shows us in the clearest possible way what God is like. Through Jesus, God reveals Himself to humanity. God unmistakably discloses His character to us through the life, the words, and the death of Emanuel, God With Us.14
When the teachers of the Law bring to Jesus a woman who has been caught in adultery, He tactfully disperses the crowd and says, “I don’t condemn you. Go and don’t sin again.”17 It’s interesting to note that the woman never asks for forgiveness. Jesus assures her that she is forgiven, urges her not to hurt herself anymore and sends her on her way.
When some friends bring a paralytic to Jesus, He assures him that his sins are forgiven, heals him of his paralysis and sends him on his way.18 The paralytic never asks for forgiveness. He simply comes. Jesus assures his forgiveness and his troubled mind is put at ease.
When Jesus is hanging on the cross, he says, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”19 Again, it’s interesting to note that none of Jesus’ tormenters are asking for forgiveness. Yet Jesus is making it clear that He is forgiving them, independent of any request for forgiveness.
The God who is revealed to humanity through the life and actions of Jesus is personable, caring, and wants the best things for us. Jesus tells us that it is sin we need to be afraid of; it is sin that will do us in, not our loving God.20 Paul is trying to say the same thing in his letter to the Romans: “For sin pays its wage — death.”21
The cause and effect relationship between sin and death seems rather clear when viewed through John’s eyes. Jesus leaves him with the impression that sin is an attitude of lawlessness, a hell-bent mindset of rebellion.22 John’s opinion stands in stark contrast with today’s commonplace view of sin being the breaking of some arbitrarily imposed mandate from God.
Jesus the God-man experiences the same toxic effects of sin, the life-crushing shame and guilt that we feel when we choose sin’s irrational behavior.23 He dies the death of a sinner to demonstrate what these toxic effects will do to a human’s psyche if left untreated by the Divine Physician.24 “…He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.”25
So as you consider your frame of reference for viewing God’s fix for the problem of human rebellion, does your model still include a few “epicycles and circular orbits?” Does your model view Christ’s death on the cross as something that changes The Father’s opinion of us, making The Father like us better? If so, the evidence suggests otherwise.26 It’s our opinions of Him, which Jesus came to change.27 Does your model view the attitude of sin as being something that really isn’t that harmful to us, as something that merely upsets God? Once again, the evidence suggests otherwise. It’s the natural effects of our rebellious attitudes that threaten our well-beings, not God.28
From the first book in the Bible to the last, we get snippets of evidence saying that God’s been the victim of a controversial smear campaign that portrays Him as not being trustworthy, as not having our best interests in mind.29 And for the most part, we buy into this lie. Whenever tragedy strikes, Christians and non-Christians alike refer to the event as “an act of God,” as if He doesn’t have anything better to do than to sit around and inflict misery on us humans. This kind of thinking clashes with the evidence.
The evidence in the Bible can be viewed to support the picture of God that Jesus comes to show us, this Son-centered frame of reference.30 Jesus says that He and the Father are the same kind of guys.31 I believe the weight of evidence — the view that God is on my side and that I have nothing to fear except my own poor choices — and it makes all the difference in the attitude of this former rebel.
1 For a more detailed discussion of epicycles, go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicycle#Epicycles_on_epicycles
2 For a brief description of Galileo’s falling out with the church, go here: http://scienceworld.wolfram.com/biography/Galileo.html
3 see Genesis 3:8
4 see Genesis 5:22-24; 6:8,9
5 see Genesis 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-21; 18:1-33; 22:1-2
6 see Genesis 26:2-5; 28:11-15; 31:10-13; 32:24-30; 35:1, 9-12; 46:2-4
7 see Exodus 13:21-22
8 see Genesis 14:11-12; 16:2-3; 17:3
9 see Exodus, chapters 19-23
10 see the book of Leviticus for a detailed description of various ceremonial, civil and health laws
11 Amos 5:21-24 TEV
12 Amos 5:25-27 NIV
13 see Hosea, chapters 11-14
14 see John 14:8-10, where Jesus assures that He and The Father are the same kind of fellows.
15 see John 17:6, where Jesus says that he has revealed the Father to His followers.
16 see John 1:1-3, where John confirms the eternal existence of Jesus along beside the Father.
17 see John 8:1-11
18 see Mark 2:1-12
19 see Luke 23:34
20 Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” John 8:34
21 Romans 6:23 TEV
22 “…sin is lawlessness” 1 John 3:4 NRSV
23 “…the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Isaiah 53:6 NRSV
24 “Say to them, As I live, says the LORD GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” Ezekiel 33:11 NRSV; “Return, O faithless children, I will heal your faithlessness.” Jeremiah 3:22 NRSV
25 Isaiah 53:9, 10 NRSV
26 “I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you” John 16:26,27
27 See Romans 5:11; 2 Corinthians 5:19; Colossians 1:20
28 Compare Matthew 1:21; John 3:16; Romans 6:23
29 See Genesis 3:4,5; Revelation 12:7-9
30 “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” John 14:8
31 see John 14:9