NT Wright made a statement on Justin Brierley’s new podcast recently, Ask NT Wright Anything, that is worth repeating. He says that people read John 3:16 (“That God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….”) this way: “that God so hated the world that he killed his only son.”
People, especially today, view God as an angry bully. They interpret the story of Jesus, Wright says, “as if God was looking for someone on whom to take out his vengeance, and His son got in the way – so that somehow makes it right”. But it doesn’t seem right to many people who interpret the story in this way. We recoil from a view of God, the cosmic bully.
Of course, many people who moralize about God are simply refusing to acknowledge God as God. They sit in judgment of God, or at least “the God of the Bible” that they as they perceive Him. At many who hold this view don’t even believe God exists. But, I don’t think that Wright is only talking about a skeptical view of God, though skeptics certainly make interpretation errors. Even believers wrestle with a muddled view of the story.
There is something to the natural reaction against a vengeful, bullying God, not that we could do anything about it if God was vengeful and bullying. It just “doesn’t seem right”. It isn’t so much that we dare to sit in judgment: rather, we who have been made in the image of God sense that a vengeful, bullying God is somehow not right.
As image bearers of God, our intuition is right, but our heads are filled with ideas that may conflict with our instincts. We may feel that we somehow must reconcile what seems like a vengeful, bullying God with the idea that “God is love” and that we are love our neighbors. It doesn’t add up well. A vengeful, bullying God does not seem right precisely because we are made in the image of God, and we can sense that it’s not right.
NT Wright says we need to rethink our views of God. God is who the apostle John claims he is. God is love. There is no love in vengeful killing, but there is love at the core of sacrificing oneself for others. This is what God did in the death of Christ.
God wasn’t vengefully looking for atonement. God sacrificed Himself. This is what Paul is getting at when he said:
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped [asserted], but emptied Himself [laid aside his privileges], taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
This is the Christmas story.
God shed all of his glory, privilege and position to enter his own creation humbly as a baby, born in humble estate to humble God-fearing people, and he lived a humble obedient life, obedient to his own purpose and character. In the form of his own creation, God submitted himself as a self-sacrifice for the entire world.
This is love. This is a loving God, not a bullying vengeful God.
The difference, obviously, is in how we view Jesus. If we think of Jesus as “just a man”, we miss the whole point. When we view Jesus as God who emptied Himself of his power, glory and privilege to sacrifice Himself for our sake, the story makes sense – even to the modern moralist.
There is no greater love than this: that a man lay down his life for another. (John 15:13) These were the words of Jesus to His followers in obvious contemplation of His own life that He would soon lay down willingly for the world.
This is the story of a baby in a manger – Immanuel, which means “God with us”. This is life story of Jesus who claimed to be “I am” (the very identity of God – “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58)). Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh, and for that reason His followers were confused when He spoke about His future mistreatment and death. (See Mark 8:31; Matthew 16:21 and 20:17; and Luke 9:22).
But that was the plan all along. God became Jesus with the intention of submitting Himself willingly to bodily death in human form as the supreme act of self-sacrifice for our sake. This is love.
God is not bullying and vengeful. God is love. God is the supreme example of love, which is His very character. If we don’t see God’s self-sacrificial love in the story of Jesus, we don’t understand the story of Jesus.