All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
Who is God, ultimately? Throughout the Scriptures, we see many different identities and traits attributed to God through both literal and metaphorical discourse. God is love, God is a rock, God is a warrior, etc. All of these words say something about God, but that doesn’t mean each of these things represents the deepest, most intrinsic character of God. God is a warrior, but he doesn’t have a thirst for blood and would be more inclined to offer His life than to take life. God can be our Rock, but sometimes God leads us into the uncertain, shaky grounds of life where He allows us to face the turbulence of life. God is very loving, but the Psalms occasionally make reference to God’s hatred for those who love violence and deceit.
There is one thing Scripture says in such a way that it is taken to be always true of God. “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1.5) Yet, unless we want to insist that God is the packets of energy that allow us to see the environment around us (which means that God created Himself), then we need to see this attribution as a metaphor. Consequently, this metaphor of God being light doesn’t tell us who God is ultimately in a direct way but rather describes what happens to us when we have fellowship with God: we begin to see, understand, and perceive as God gives us light. God enlightens us.
Unfortunately, the idea of enlightenment has been taken in a subtly Gnostic direction throughout the history of the Church, including even today. We may think to be enlightened is to have come to some sudden knowledge, some particular insight, some specific truth that we take and go out to others to accept. It is taken that enlightenment gives people access to some specific truth or knowledge that is then their mission to declare to the world to believe and accept.
It is this implicit understanding of enlightenment that seems to undergird much evangelism today. We believe in Jesus and are forgiven by Him because we believe in Him, so it is our job to then go tell others that Jesus died for their sins so that they can then believe the same thing we came to believe. The central mechanism of salvation in this soteriology and evangelistic model is that of people coming to be enlightened to a particular belief that is declared to them. Yet, this is ultimately a subtly Gnostic form of evangelism.
Undergirding the portrayal of God in this model of enlightenment is that God is the ultimate fact of the universe and our lives and that we need to accept this fact in our lives, particularly with Jesus and His death as the fact of God. Why should we accept this fact? Because God is going to punish us for our sins, but if we accept this fact, then God will forgive us of our sins. Ultimately, this model of enlightenment is motivated and maintained by the belief that God is a punitive God who demands to be recognized. A slightly different version of this portrayal would suggest that God is going to punish us for our sins unless we decide to change the direction of our lives, so we need to accept the truth of God in order to right the ship of our lives.
We need a new model of evangelism and enlightenment, and ultimately a new portrayal of God. It is a subtly Gnostic vision of salvation and faith that is maintained by relying upon the wrath and anger of God as the motivating factor. Even if the message of wrath and judgment is not explicitly expressed, this idea can often be implicit by both the preacher’s and even the audience, given what they have heard throughout the years from Christians.
A new model can begin by paying attention to the Scripture, looking for a different type of light. What does Jesus tell His disciples after the resurrection at the end of the Gospel of Matthew?
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28.19-20)
Jesus does not instruct His disciples to get others to “believe” in Jesus. He doesn’t call for a program of enlightening people through the acquisition of knowledge, truth, etc. Rather, he calls them to get other people “to obey everything that I commanded you.” The disciples are invited to pass along what they have learned from Jesus and call people to endorse Jesus’ words in their life. Certainly, a belief in Jesus is implicit in this, but a belief that Jesus is someone we should listen to, that He has the words of life according to the Gospel of John. So, the model of evangelism, and thus soteriology, that is built on the foundation of epistemic enlightenment that relies upon declaring the truth to others is ultimately misguided. Perhaps the enlightenment that comes from God comes from having God’s Word, God’s instruction.
Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your decrees are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way,
in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away from your ordinances,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
to observe your righteous ordinances.
I am severely afflicted;
give me life, O Lord, according to your word
Here, we see a different picture of enlightenment. God’s Word, God’s instruction doesn’t lead the Psalmist to accept a particular truth, idea, or knowledge that they accept as true. Certainly, there are particular truths they would implicitly accept, such as God exist, God gave this word, etc., but that are simply precursors that make them accept the word and instruction of God. Instead of giving light to the mind of the Psalmist, the word of God gives light to His feet and the path that he is walking. This is a metaphor, as 1 John 1.5, that points towards how the Psalmist directs their actions. God’s word directs the way the Psalmist life, which culminates with the plea that God gives the person life through the word.
If we were to create a model of enlightenment here, it would perhaps be as follows: acceptance of God’s word and instruction -> obedience in course of one’s actions -> The emergence of life. At first blush, this might look like what Protestant has sought to reject: justification by works. Yet, beyond perhaps a misreading of Paul’s understanding of faith and salvation, there is another potential misreading here. Life is not about avoiding God’s judgment and the penalty of death for his sin. Nor is life about the mere continuation of biological activity. Life is about the emergence of well-being for the Psalmist, away from the painful struggles and afflictions they are facing. Perhaps, God’s word is light that when accepted and obeyed leads to a life of well-being, not simply as a reward from the outside for doing the right thing, but as something that happens internally to the Psalmist as He learns and experiences a new way to live in the world through accepting and putting into practice God’s Word.
What if God’s light is the light of life, that directs people to experience new life? What if God’s Word is Life, as the Gospel of John speaks of? What if at the heart of God’s Word is a desire to see the well-being of life amongst His creation?
This is where I think we can say what is ultimately true about God. God is ultimately the Giver of life, with all the dynamic activity that comes with life and the experiences that come along with it. God loves and values life, which is the expression of God’s creation. This is why Jesus came: to give life, not simply at some distant point in time with the continuation of life after we die in the future, but the abundance of well-being emerges in present with the abundance of life. When we are truly enlightened by God, we ourselves begin to discover this ourselves: God loves life, including our lives, and so we should too. God takes pleasure in our well-being, so we should then learn to take pleasure in the well-being of life, ourselves, and others.
Yet, the truth is that so many people do not value life in its fullest sense. Certainly, they may value their own life. They may value the lives of those that are most important to them. But they don’t value life for life’s sake. They don’t see life as beautiful, as something that should be experienced as something to be cherished. As a result, they do not love as God loves. Instead, in seeking for the benefit of themselves and those that make them happy, they become unconcerned about the well-being of others who don’t make them happy or who they feel may be in conflict with them. Perhaps they go so far as to find other people as something to exploit for their own advantage and well-being. In these attitudes, they drain and take away the life of others all to fatten themselves.
Because God loves life, He hates any and all who destroys what He loves. God may certainly love the world as a whole, but there are those people who show such a callous lack of concern for love, life, and well-being of others and thus work against God’s will and take away God’s pleasure, that God’s judgment and wrath will come upon them.
To be clear, God still loves and wants life for those of us who are ignorant, those who fall short, those who mess up from time to time, those who don’t have all their life together. We may occasionally hurt others, and we may occasionally go astray from God’s word. While one may not be experiencing the fullness of life, while one may not have followed and obeyed God’s Word diligently, while one may not have even believed in Jesus, God still loves you and wants you to walk in newness of life. The God who loves life has no intention to eternally take away life and well-being from people because they may occasionally act against God’s life-giving and life-sustaining intentions. God’s wrath is focused upon those whose hearts are so hardened to other’s life and well-being, who find people’s weakness, vulnerability, and ignorance as something to exploit and take advantage of rather than a time to care, nourish, and protect.
Unless you are completely hardened to life so that you could care less about the harm you cause and have no concern for the life that God loves, God’s eternal wrath is not directed at you. God may get angry at you in a moment, but it is short-lived anger that isn’t about hell but about the present and what have done to hurt others and to even reject God. If your heart has room for God’s type of love, for life as it should be for yourself and for others, God has not rejected you. God is wanting you to discover something better, to discover the fullest, truest well-being of life. Because God loves life, he is not a God filled with wrath, but a God of grace who wants to gift you in such a way that you can experience the type of well-being that brings life to others around you in addition to yourself. This sometimes means we have to change our notions of what is good and what about life we find to be our source of joys and happiness, but God wants your abundant joy alongside the joy of others.
Jesus as the Word has come to enlighten our perceptions about life so that in the specific moments, in concrete experiences, our hearts and minds are directed towards the actions that sustain and nourish life and well-being for both ourselves and others. Yet, this enlightenment doesn’t come by accepting a specific idea, but you can only see, perceived, and understand the true goodness of life when you listen and accept Jesus’ words and put them into practice with faith. You must practice the goodness of life expressed in God’s Word for you to deeply understand and see the fullness of life for yourselves.
There are many people, including Christian teachers, who will tell you what good is. They will espouse all sorts of ideas and recommendations to improve your life and bring about deeper happiness. There may be some truth in what you are hearing, but these words come from people who do not understand human life like the Creator and Giver of life does. God’s Word is ‘designed’ to bring about life in you. The instruction and prescriptions from other teachers are not gifts that save us from the darkness and pain of sin and death that rules in the present age and world, but it is God’s gift of Jesus Christ that enlightens us as to the good, life-giving works to put into practice in order to bring into the life that comes from right relationships with God, other people, and the world around us. Whatever value, much or little, is to be found in the words of other teachers, our Heavenly Father who teaches us in His Son gives us the Words that allows us to discern the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God for life and peace/shalom.
Additionally, your teachers may know a bit about you as a person, or they may know next to nothing about you, but they can never understand you fully because our knowledge of what brings blessing to others is limited by the degree of our love, the time we can dedicate to knowing others, and the ignorance of all the ways your own genetic nature blended with your past experiences to bring you to where you are today. Consequently, the efficacy of what they may prescribe and suggest for you will be limited, especially if they lack love for life and specific love for your specific life and well-being. Yet, God your Teacher who loves you and knows you and your heart with great detail can lead you by His Holy Spirit to discover the blessings of life for you as an individual when you follow His leading by putting to death all the things you do that actively hinder if not harm life for yourself and others.
God loves life, hence He sent His Son Jesus to die on our behalf so that in Him we can discover the newness of life through His resurrection. That means, however, that we have to bear our cross in following Jesus and die to the present way we try to maintain our own life so that we can be open to the active, living love of God whose Spirit is bringing about the new life of new creation in accordance to the pattern of the Word, His Son Jesus Christ.
All those who value and love life as God’s values and loves life will perceive the goodness of this. May we all wake up from dreams of the mind where we are simply thinking about what we believe and become alert and see the goodness of life around us that God seeks to abundantly provide us in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit.