On where we find our hope, and the things we do to ourselves and each other, in its name.
A guest post by Wood Ingham
I have these notebooks; I write in them in no particular order, picking up the nearest one to hand and taking it with me on the off chance. Each entry is dated. I have one of the books in front of me, open at an entry from April last year. I was in church — I do most of my best writing in church sermons — and this guest preacher had taken the pulpit, which isn’t a terribly common occurrence these days. I remember how angry he made me.
His sermon was about the “First Word of the Gospel.” And
for him, the First Word of the Good News… was “Repent”. He spoke for forty-five minutes. It’s all in my notebook, numbered in increasingly fevered points as my hand shook and I beganto dig the pen into the page. He said that Jesus was all about the preaching, and he said that the central pointof Jesus’ preaching was repentance. In Jesus’ footsteps, then, it was our responsibility to speak out against sin.
“Has this happened to you?” The preacher screams, yells out at me, and when the congregation do more than murmur in assent, each time he repeats the question, until they are shouting back, yes, it has happened to me.
I am silent.
He says, “Can we remember a time in our existence where Godly Sorrow has gripped our HEARTS and our LIVES and our MINDS and we see JESUS on the Cross and say, LORD, I am SORRY my SIN HAS PUT YOU THERE?”
See, the hope he sees in the Good News is simple, like monomaniacally simple. We have to be scared of our sin and repent and lay it at once and for all at the foot of that age-old instrument of judicial murder and become Christians like flipping a switch, because if we don’t, we’ll go to Hell. And the Cross — the death, not the Resurrection, because that’s an irrelevance — is the only way our sins can be forgiven. It’s all or nothing. We must be afraid of Hell, and we must find our hope in escaping. That’s what being “saved” means.
Alas, and did my Saviour bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!
I remember being a student and people would say, what’s the attraction of Christianity? And the answer would always be, “It means you get to go to Heaven when you die. And you don’t go to Hell.” And the big trick of evangelism was making people realise that they were sinners and condemned, and then getting them to believe that Hell existed and was something to be scared of. Evangelism for the students I was surrounded with — and me —depended upon getting people to hate themselves, and then getting them to be more scared of dying than they already were.
Hope in that schema depends upon fear and self-loathing, and a contempt for the world.
My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
all other ground is sinking sand;
all other ground is sinking sand.
It’s in the Bible. St. Paul wrote: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (I Corinthians 15: 19).
It troubles me, that. What about life before death? What about valuing the world we have — the world that God made — a fallen world, yes — an imperfect world, yes — a world with love in it, and kids, like the beautiful kids I have, and sunlight and elderly couples who hold hands in the street? Do such things really seduce us from
the Truth? Does God really wish us to look at those people and things and shake our heads and lament their damnation? Is death all we have to look forward to?
Sometimes I want to invent time travel, purely so I can go back in time and give the Apostle a slap.
This is my story, this is my song;
Praising my Saviour all the day long.
The Jesus on whom this view of Christianity, this hope depends is
a) able to damn to hell by default people who through no choice of their own ended up left outside of the elect (in fact, some Calvinists think it’s up to God who gets in and who doesn’t, and His judgement is wholly arbitrary);
b) condemned to die “for the sins of humanity,” which, in terms of soteriology is problematic, because it makes of God a perpetrator — as Steve Chalke famously (almost) said — of cosmic child abuse, a being who would give up the person that he considers, so we are told, his most beloved companion, and punish him, an innocent, for the evils done by others. It’s presented as an act of love. The more I look at that version of the act of the Cross, the more I see an act of supernal emotional blackmail, of passive aggression on a, well, a divine scale.
I cannot bear the idea that a God like that really exists. I hope that God is not like that. I really do. Because if that was what
Jesus really died for, it makes of God a monster. I believe in a Christian God. Everything I have in my life that is worth having began with a single experience I had one night a long time ago, where I understood that God loved me. But surely if God loves me, what am I doing with that love?Otherwise, what is left? If it makes no difference here and now, what hope is that?
Jürgen Moltmann wrote that that a true hope did not rob a Christian of happiness in the present. He wrote that Christian hope depends not on the death of Christ but on the resurrection (however you want to conceive that). And that makes sense to me. Anyone can die, but coming back — that’s a different matter. This is the sort of hope that affirms and builds. A resurrection that works as an act of solidarity and grace — real grace. This hope gives us, as Moltmann says, a “passion for the possible”, a belief that we can do stuff, achieve things here and now.
That’s the kind of hope I’m looking for.