This summer I learned a lot on Dun Laoghaire Pier.
The very first person I met was a recent graduate from St Andrew’s College in Blackrock. At this tender age he had read virtually all of the Greek philosophers, the 19th century writers like Friedrich Nietzsche and was now on to the philosophy of George Santayana. His careers guidance counsellor suggested that he take up Law. He fell over laughing. A bright boy – but actually with not a very bright outlook on the world.
He was nervous, tense – and that wasn’t just because he was talking to me. Like a lot of his peers he regards the future with some horror. The contrast between his god (that he doesn’t believe in) and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ was immense. It started me thinking about how good the good news is and why it’s good.
So what exactly is good about it? I suggest it is counter-cultural, unexpected and, emotionally, a vast relief. This is because of four issues: the character of God, the nature of man, the intervention of Jesus and the element of personal choice.
The character of God.
God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son. That’s amazing. Because, in the gospel of John neither Jesus nor his disciple John considered the world a friendly place. Four times John says that the world hates Jesus and his disciples. Three times the world is spoken of as Satan’s domain – “the prince of this world”. And yet God goes to the extent of loving the world. We are always safe in telling people, “God loves you”.
Most people are not used to having God love them. The “God” of Gary Larson cartoons hasn’t done very well in creating and controlling the world. He has a “smite” button on his computer. Many people under forty consider the world to be out of control and beyond God’s capacity to maintain it. Forty years ago young people were out to change the world. Now young people regard the world with horror in morbid fascination – witness the proliferation of the horror genre in video games, films, books, TV series and graphic novels. God is considered to maybe have a little bit of evil in him – a form of Hinduism.
Buddhism fares no better in offering a loving God. John Stott wrote about visiting a statue of the smiling Buddha in Asia, despite all the surrounding suffering. It made him conclude, “The crucified one is the God for me!”[i] Oliver Stone the film-maker was asked whether he was concerned that his film “Natural-born Killers” would inspire people to kill. He was neutral to this issue because in Stone’s Buddhism this stuff “happens”. Not much of a loving God there, then.
The nature of man
The recent riots in England were followed by endless analysis. One woman in Ealing whose shop was looted described the rioters as “feral rats”[ii]. She wasn’t the only person among the hundreds of commentators and judges to chose the word “feral” – which is a word only used of animals which have gone wild irreversibly.
The core idea here is that people can be essentially evil and beyond cure. That was the Soviet view of criminals to whom they gave chemicals and then locked them up for good. But in the Biblical worldview evil is external to mankind, being presented to them by Satan (in Genesis chapter three).
We are not separated from God by inherent evil that cannot be dealt with – but by sin. We’re not feral. We are not incurably evil but curably sinful.
The intervention of Jesus
We live in a blame culture and nowhere more so than in Ireland. Journalists (in the “public interest”) want to track down and “name and shame” the bank directors, media moguls and church officers who have cheated us all.
One such culprit is Bishop John Magee who failed to address serious issues of child abuse in his diocese. He took the blame due to him. He apologised. He apologised again. But he is still being hounded by the press and victim organisations.[iii]
The question is “how much is enough?” when it comes to asking for forgiveness? Nobody seems to know. But here’s a show-stopper: when Jesus died for our sins he said, “It is finished”.
The element of personal choice
The marriage of Christianity with Western culture gave us some strange by-products – like millions of people claiming to be Christians who don’t believe a thing. Again, Ireland is a prime example. Ask people over fifty what church they belong to and they tell you that they are Catholics. Ask them who Jesus was and they will parrot, “The Son of God”. Then ask them what Jesus taught and they haven’t clue – no idea whatsoever.
Many people under fifty have cast off the whole institution and consider that they must now be adrift from the church. This urge was so strong that a special website was set up so they could successfully recant their baptismal vows. After a year or so of operation the service was suspended because it was discovered that it was legally impossible to leave.[iv]
Then along comes the Bible and says that Jesus is standing at your own door and knocking to get in. Apparently you can open the door yourself – or not. You choose. Nobody is going to stuff religion down your throat any more. Now that’s radical, that’s lateral thinking. You choose personally.
So it looks like God loves us curable sinners, Jesus has finished the work to fix us and it is up to me to decide what to do about all this. What a relief!