Growing up evangelical, you’ve probably heard this answer to the question, “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”
“Well, Johnny or Susie, it’s because God can’t be in the presence of sin.”
They will often go on to explain how sin is so intolerable to God, that he can’t be anywhere near it. To be able to pull close to God, somehow we must be completely free and cleansed of sin first. It’s also why we’re often told that we can’t go to heaven if our sins have not been forgiven: because– here it is again– God can’t be in the presence of sin. One website describes it this way, which is quite similar to the answer I received growing up:
“[T]he God of the Bible requires cleansing for the purpose of relationship, because He wants to be with us. Much like a parent welcoming home a child after a summer’s day at the park—a child who is probably hot, sweaty and dirty—God wants us to be clean because He wants to enjoy our company. Our impurity is not something God permits in His presence. And so, He says to us much the same thing a parent would say to that child—go wash up before you come to the table to eat because I want a person who is clean at my table.”
(Side note: I don’t need my kids to shower before I’m willing to be close to them, so this is messed up on multiple levels.)
This notion that God cannot be in the presence of sin is a classic case of what I have come to call “generational theology.” Generational theology encompasses a host of things we believe and repeat without ever deeply questioning them. They get passed on to generation to generation not because they’re true, but because that’s what our well-meaning but uninformed Sunday School teacher, grandparents, or parents taught us. Reader’s digest version: Generational theology is crap we believe about God and mindlessly repeat without even thinking about whether or not it’s true.
But let me be clear: The idea that God cannot be in the presence of sin is unbiblical nonsense.
Where did this belief come from? My best guess is that it comes from Habakkuk 1:13 where the prophet writes, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil.” What people miss, however, is the rest of the passage. As soon as he writes this he essentially goes on to ask, “So why do you do it all the time????” It’s as if he’s questioning and trying to work out his own understanding of God– he’s trying to develop his theology, but like most of us, doesn’t have it all worked out cleanly. On one hand, he believes God cannot look upon evil. On the other, he recognize that he does it. Thus, he’s trying to work out tension in his beliefs.
However, the complete narrative of Scripture answers his question and proves this generational theology to be misguided and false: When people say it’s impossible for God to be in the presence of sin, such a statement is totally false.
Just think about the biblical narrative for a minute…
The Bible only has two chapters before sin becomes part of the deal. The Adam and Eve figures sin, become ashamed, and flee from God. They hide from God’s presence because of sin, but God doesn’t– God’s response is to pull close to them, to clothe them, and to help them feel restored. The Bible opens not with God fleeing from the presence of sin, but running to be present in it.
Then, of course, there is the rest of the Old Testament narrative which is a long story of Israel trying to get to know God. And, good grief, do they commit a lot of sins along the way. Their relationship with God is a rocky one– at times he allows them to go off into captivity, at one point God gets pissed and says he’s divorcing them (but yet he keeps hanging around), and then he sends a bunch of prophets to tell them how much they need to change.
God repeatedly shows Israel that while he certainly doesn’t like sin, he doesn’t have to run away every time he sees it.
And then, of course, there’s the ultimate evidence that God is not afraid to be in the presence of sin: Jesus himself.
To hold the belief that God cannot be in the presence of sin, one would have to first deny trinitarian theology and the divinity of Jesus– there’s no legitimate way around that.
One of the reasons Jesus was so unpopular with the religious elite was because of his preference to build his inner circle with those considered the worst, most unclean sinners of society. Jesus took this so far that the Bible tells us during his ministry he had the public reputation of being an alcoholic (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34). In fact, one of the nicknames Jesus eared was Friend of Sinners.
Thus, if it is impossible for God to be in the presence of sin, it is not possible that Jesus was God-incarnate– because Jesus spent the majority of his time in the presence of sin.
In fact, the New Testament goes on to say that Jesus actually became sin on our behalf– that’s about as an extreme opposite statement as the premise that God can’t be near sin.
On this one you’ll have to pick between believing in the divinity of Jesus, or believing what your childhood pastor told you about God’s inability or refusal to be in the presence of sin– because you can’t have both.
Does God like or approve of sin? Of course not. But is sin some magical kryptonite where God is blinded and has to run the other way?
Not at all.
The fact that when God became flesh he became know as the “Friend of Sinners” should be enough to remind us of this truth. God doesn’t run from us in the midst of our flaws and brokenness, or even our sin. Instead, God is a friend who sits down beside us and offers to help us get our shit back together.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.