“Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning. 18 The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. 19 It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. 20 Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. 22 Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called–both Jews and Greeks–Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. 25 This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1Cor 1 CEB)
In the ancient worlds gods were all powerful. They could do almost anything they wanted. If something good occurred then it was perceived as a blessing from the gods, when something ill fated happened, then the gods must be angry. Sacrifice was the means by which the will of God was discerned (sorting through the entrails of a goat for an omen) or the means by which the gods were appeased and blessing sought.
When the ancient Greeks staged a play in which a hero or heroine needed rescuing, the gods also made an appearance. The person ‘playing’ the role of the god was lowered from a basket (the god coming from the sky) to the stage to thus effect whatever liberation was necessary. “God being lowered in a basket to rescue the day” is what the Latin phrase ‘deus ex machina’ refers to.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his cell in Tegel prison, wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge (letter of July 16, 1944). In this letter he addresses the problem of Christian belief in this kind of a god.
“God would have us know that we must live as humans who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mk. 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Human religiosity makes one look in one’s distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 360-361)
Bonhoeffer has placed his finger on a major problem of Christian theology and faith. Is it not the case that rather than acknowledge that revelation occurs in the cross where God is beat, bruised and broken by a relentless humanity determined to victimize and scapegoat God that we would prefer a God who is all powerful, who comes to ‘fix’ things? Is this not found in all manner of Christianities? Is this not the god of the Reformed tradition and its emphasis on the sovereignty of God? Can we not see it in the way Evangelicals and Teavangelicals understand history with their ‘manifest destiny?’ Do we not see it everywhere in the over-realized eschatology of modern day Pentecostalism and all of its offshoots and promises of miracles, gold dust and angels’ wings?
“God save me.” “God come fix this.” “God help me.” “God rescue me.”
These are the cries of a person who believes in a power based god. But what if the God who made all things is not like we think? What if the God who is ‘real’ is a God of weakness, who is revealed and who reveals God’s self as weak, broken, as a criminal? What if God is not to be found among the wealthy, the mighty, the powerful but among the hungry, the poor, the blind and the lame? Is this not the burden of Paul’s proclamation of the cross of Jesus?
What makes the cross of Jesus so offensive to the Greeks was God’s powerlessness; what made the cross of Jesus so offensive to ancient Jews was God’s morality. The Greeks simply could not wrap their heads around the fact that God could suffer, could die. Sure, in myths their gods occasionally died, but that was just a glitch; soon they would be ‘raised’ and back to creating all manner of havoc and mischief. The big gun gods never die though. The god of the philosophers could not die. So it is that for Greeks, the gods, who had all power, used that power in the world to aid this one and harm that one. When a good person was in trouble all that was necessary was for the ‘basket to be lowered.’
The powerlessness of God has always been a problem for those who start their theology from this perspective.
On the other side of the coin is the question of God’s morality. How could a HOLY god have anything to do with a crucified criminal? Isn’t it the case that “everyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God?” Surely Jesus deserved what he got, for if he was innocent, God would not let him die this way. A dying criminal, hung out to dry, naked and bloody on a Roman cross was not a very Jewish way of conceiving of the redemption of the world. The morality of God has always been a problem for those who start their theology from this perspective.
So it is that we morph Jesus’ death as a social scapegoat into that of a religious sacrifice. We turn the revelation of anti-sacrifice into sacrifice and thus mute all of its power and logic. We revert to the interpretation of the persecutors not that of the victim.
If you listen carefully to people like Benny Hinn or John Piper, for all of their differences, one can discern the same deus ex machina underlying their theologies. They so easily confuse themselves and others quoting bible verses hither and yon to ‘prove’ God can do anything God wants (Piper) or that God is about the business of micro managing the planet (Hinn). These men have what Luther called a ‘theology of glory.’ Their focus is out of focus. If you buy into a god who can do anything and who micro manages the world you live with illusion of a deus ex machina and not the Living God revealed in powerlessness.
Don’t jump too quickly to the resurrection; this is especially the mistake of all forms of Pentecostalism and charismatic movements. The cross is viewed as a ‘past transaction’, Christ’s work is finished, and now one can go on living in some new reality. However, until we have been completely immersed in God’s powerlessness, until we have learned to see through the eyes of the Crucified, until we have experienced ourselves as self-deceived persecutors, we have no right to so quickly turn the resurrection of Jesus into a deus ex machina event. Jesus’ resurrection is not to be conceived in these categories
Does this cause a problem for you? It certainly did for many in the ancient world for whom this was all folly and immorality. The hardest people on the planet to proclaim the Gospel to are Christians for they have allowed their vision of God to be occluded with pollutants of power, wealth, fame, fortune and MIRACLES
As I noted not long ago, this god died at Calvary. If we didn’t get the message then, we can turn to the Jewish Shoah and Auschwitz. If we didn’t get it after World War II, we can profitably look to the starving children, the victims of war, abuse, rape and domestic violence. Where is God in all of this? Why does God seem to help some and not others? The arbitrary God of much of Christendom (the Janus-faced god) is not the God of the Gospel of Jesus. Can you hear this? Or will you continue to ‘kick against the goads?’