If God then What? 3 (Andrew Wilson)


This is the third of three brief posts I’ve done based on my book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud About Truth, Origins and Redemption. I’ve talked a fair bit about the importance of asking questions, and given some examples of what I think are some good ones. But eventually, you have to put your cards on the table. So (spoiler alert) here’s a section of the final chapter.

To me, the really shocking claim the early Christians made was that the Creator of the world had become human in Jesus. The early Christians were not just saying that this man was divine in some mysterious way, because of his inspired work of teaching and healing people. They were saying that there was only one God, and that he had revealed himself in this man, so if you wanted to know what God was like, you needed to look at Jesus. They were saying that the universe’s Creator was best understood through a human being who loved people and made friends, who ate meals and went to parties, who told jokes and cried when sad things happened, who built community, told stories, hated arrogance, welcomed losers and criminals and children, got betrayed, confronted hypocrites, healed sick people, forgave sins, died on behalf of his enemies, and conquered death.

How would you describe the impact of Jesus, to somebody who didn’t follow him? What would your answer be to the question, ‘If God, then what?’

No other monotheists, either then or today, had ever said anything even remotely like this. They were saying that Jesus was, among other things, repainting God for us. He was showing humans, with all our muddled conceptions of deity, what the true God was really like.

The uniqueness of that claim is matched only by its impact.

Writing this book has been something of a journey for me, literally as well as metaphorically. I first got the idea of doing something like this in the depths of winter in Atlantic Canada, when someone asked me how I had come to believe what I believed. I came face to face with religious fundamentalism in Kano, and saw some of its consequences at Ground Zero in New York, though I also saw some of its secular equivalents on my travels. I met with pastors in eastern Ukraine who had been forced underground by the militant atheists who ran the Soviet Union, and saw the industrial wasteland that their secular utopia had produced. I wandered around the streets of Paris before anyone was awake one autumn morning, and stared up at Notre Dame, remembering how the atheist revolutionaries had worshipped their new world order by naming it the Temple of Reason, and how Madame Roland had marvelled at the crimes committed in the name of the goddess Liberty, right before they chopped her head off. I peered into glass cases in Dublin, read academic tomes on first-century history in Oxford and Cambridge, reflected on what was wrong with the world in Zimbabwe, and daydreamed about what a redeemed earth might look like in Samoa, Tuscany and New Zealand. And in between times, I sat in coffee shops in Brighton and London, and wondered aloud about truth, origins and redemption.

Wherever I went, though, I couldn’t get away from the impact of Jesus. I discovered it was very difficult to find places on earth where he was irrelevant. Wherever I travelled, there were people who had heard of him, people who laughed at him, people who loved him, people who wanted to destroy anyone who followed him, people who swore by him, people who built exquisite buildings in which to worship him, people who said he was alive, and (pretty much everywhere) people who divided human history into the bits before and after him. It seemed strange that this man, who wrote nothing down, rejected violence and had just 120 disciples when he died – disciples who, for the first several centuries, were widely regarded as blasphemous, politically subversive oddballs – should have had such a global impact. Especially when you consider he told people that, if they wanted to be his followers, they had to give up their rights to money, sex, power, idol-worship and everything else they had. It doesn’t sound like a winning sales pitch to me.

Yet Jesus was successful in repainting God. He completely changed theology. I mean, you can travel to pretty much any country on earth, and you’ll find people there who use the word ‘God’ in the singular, to refer to a being who is loving, a kind of father, someone to whom people pray in expectation of an answer, who cares about creation and wants to fix it, who is high and exalted and yet can be known by human beings. You even find this use of the word ‘God’ shared by people who don’t believe in one. And it’s highly unlikely that, without Jesus, anybody other than Jewish people would think the word ‘God’ meant anything like that. Were it not for Jesus, we might all still be worshipping the gods of the sun and the moon, dancing around phallic symbols and offering sacrifices, like those disturbing islanders from The Wicker Man.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Kaleb

    I agree that God is cleared of misconceptions through Jesus being the incarnate word. I think the point that is easily missed though is what N.T Wright has spoken- that through Jesus God became King here and now. Everything that the author saw through his own journey was the world wrestling with this fact. I wonder if this should be shared more when talking about the impact of Jesus because it helps to further articulate the whole story of scripture through creation, fall, Israel, redemption, and new creation.

    This lecture by N.T Wright was great at articulating this idea. http://www.calvin.edu/january/2012/NTWright.htm

  • RJS

    Nice post Andrew. I like the way you wrap it up here concentrating on Jesus and the way this impacts our understanding of God. Describe the impact of Jesus is a real key – and a distinguishing factor.

    There is much to think about here.

  • Luke Allison

    I’ve often wondered where some of the very pluralistic conceptions of God stem from. The idea of a personal, loving, Father/Mother-like God is not plain in nature (quite the opposite, actually!), is not to be found in any major world religion, and is pretty offensive to a great many of those world religions! So where does this idea that “if there is a God, he MUST be THIS way” come from?

    I’m convinced it comes from Jesus, or at least the haunting memory of Jesus. Was it Flannery O’ Connor who said that the South wasn’t Christian, but it was certainly “Christ-haunted”?

    The tendency to downplay Christ’s uniqueness and sheer, gutsy, divisive message seems to pervade progressive evangelical circles. Heck, even Rob Bell did it in one of his videos (all that stuff about MIthras and mystery cults, which is highly disputable, and frankly, laughable to some of the scholars of that time period). Are we really at the point where we see all conflict, particularly of an ideological or religious nature, as negative? Isn’t the point to “agree to disagree” and then stay in relationship, rather than going our separate ways?

    Frankly, I was a little bit disappointed by the tendency on fellow posters to lambaste this author, when we tend to be so gracious towards the most “out there” of ideas. I think we could get a book post describing how Jesus’ parable of the sower was actually a disguised metaphor for the oppression of organic farmers, and the general mood of the blog would be one of chin-stroking intrigue. But evangelism? I for one will most likely purchase this book. I’m not nearly interactive enough with those who don’t believe about my absolute trust and belief in the Way of Jesus. Not everybody’s a Phd. Some people have genuinely never heard about him. Anything we can do to make those conversations happen is important.

  • Sean LeRoy

    Not convinced “repaint” is the best word for what Jesus did in relation to showing us who God was/is. Don’t like that word at all and don’t think it squares with the Biblical witness.

  • Annie Law

    Overall, I liked your post, “If God Then What?
    The one thing that that grabbed my attention was the following:
    In reference to God…”who cares about creation and wants to fix it,” (This made me wonder if you are a dominonist?)

    I thought this should have read God cares about people and wants to redeem them through His Son, Christ Jesus.
    The creation will be renewed when He returns as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Other than this, it was well written. :)

  • Paul Berentsen

    I find Scot McKnight’s commentary a refreshing one, but after reading the subsequent comments, I had to add my own two bits. 2000+ years have given us a distorted lens through which to view Christ. We must remind ourselves that the Bible use use today
    was first put together by a group of men–religious as though they were–who were driven by an agenda nearly 10 centuries after Jesus walked in the desert. We are left primarily by a version published for an English King who, by all accounts, did some pretty terrible things.

    It saddens me to witness a large growing community of so-called Christian zealots among us who would place their agenda in the political arena in the attempt to force us to conform. We should be all concerned–in our hearts–about this. Weigh what is happening today against the scale of history.

    Let us sit, for a moment, at the feet of Jesus. Listen to HIS words (what we have left of them) and not to those spoken about him. I believe that doing just that will get us closer to the truth.