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Jesus & the Best of All Possible Worlds
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Trinity XXIV - 11/014/10
Malachi 3:13-4:3; Psalm 28; Col. 1:3-12; Mt. 9:18-26
[Note: this has been slightly edited from the original.]
I have occasionally said that God is giving us "the best of all possible worlds", and even that we are living right now in the best of all possible worlds. Can Christians, with any intellectual, moral, or spiritual credibility maintain that Jesus offers us that? Is that what Jesus died and rose again for?
What possible sense can one make of that in a world that is so obviously out of touch with reality, in some substantial sense, insane, and able to do nothing about it? That is a fair question, and needs an answer, which I will try to give.
If we are going to understand the best of all possible worlds, we would do well to see how God goes about it. Jesus being God would not aim at anything less. In what sense could God offer us salvation with assurance if His offer were not the best of all possible? If He is not, is that because He is not able, or does not want to?
God knows precisely what He wants, and how to produce that result. We Christians need to say that out loud, and know how to defend it. Christians must learn to discuss the reality of Jesus, and what He has done for us. Anything less than the best of all possible worlds would be unworthy of the Son of God.
As I just suggested, there are two senses for "best of all possible".
First, there is the ultimate sense where all things are resolved, all sin forgiven and all brokenness healed, where all sinners are repentant, and set in their course of loving God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and their neighbors just like they love themselves. And those who disagree would be shipped off to other realms.
That would be what St. Paul had in mind in 1 Corinthians 13, which ends with: "So faith, hope, love abide...." By that he means that things like prophecy will pass away, because there will be no more need for it. And our present knowledge will pass away because the perfect knowledge will evident before us. But faith, love, and hope will abide. Those in the Kingdom will be always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful.
How can it get any better than that?
The fact that hope "abides" tells us something -- that there will be a continuing future in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom will not be a static freeze frame, as it is in some Eastern religions where we lose our individuality by melting like a drop into the oceanic consciousness of the cosmos. Without individuality, nothing can move. Love, such as it could be, would be only a feeling, not a relationship, as in the Biblical world. But even that would never change.
But in God’s heaven, there is continual hope, meaning expectation of continuing good and continuing joy, as in our heavenly relationships we continue to do things together. We are still individuals with a continuing future.
That is the ultimate "best of all possible..."
But then, there is the secondary sense..., our present circumstances. If the final goal is as I just described, what about the present chaos? In what possible sense could this be called "the best of all possible worlds"? We cannot know the answer to this secondary sense until we clear up the primary and ultimate sense.
God’s choice for a community of living personal relationship means that God takes freewill choice very seriously. God knows that with a freewill, we can turn on each other with an appalling viciousness. We can, and do, turn on Him in that same way.
But God is willing to take that chance, even knowing what it will cost Himself if man chooses to rebel. God values freedom and rational choice very highly, and is not willing to give them up for the sake of peace and quiet.
Samuel Adams said in a speech in 1776 at the State House in Philadelphia as they were hearing the sounds of warfare blowing in the wind from Boston:
If ye love wealth better than liberty, [if ye love] the tranquility of servitude [better] than the animated contest of freedom — go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms.
I think God agrees. There is something about freedom that requires alertness, that is animating and invigorating. The price of freedom, we say, is eternal vigilance. That is even more true of spiritual freedom than of political freedom. Political freedom rests on the base of spiritual freedom. There is something about freedom that requires a severe discipline. Freedom is not just "getting my way", the freedom of a pampered child. The kind of freedom God wants for us is the kind which can indeed love Him and our neighbor -- in the face of any circumstances which make that difficult. That kind of freedom does not come easily, it does not come by being self-willed, it does not come to the pampered among us. It comes only to those who will be obedient to God -- who will be truth-seekers and truth speakers at any cost to themselves, who will stand with God at any cost to themselves.
Christians have vacillated regarding how salvation is accomplished -- between God doing everything (because we thought that honored God more, and that our freely doing anything detracted from the sovereignty and honor of God) versus man doing everything (because we thought that the activity of God somehow diminished or even eradicated our freedom).
That, of course, is a false dilemma. It is not a case of either/or between God and man. It is a case of both/and. There are things which only God can do to save us, and there are things which only we can do to cooperate with God. That is the consequence of maintaining our freewill. We are necessarily participants in our own salvation. We must hear the offer of God for salvation, we must understand it, we must accept it. We must repent of our sins, and work toward no more sinning. God can aid us in those things, but He cannot do them for us.
Heaven is not a place, for which you can buy an entry ticket. Heaven is a relationship between God and man, and among ourselves. Relationships cannot be purchased. They must be built by both parties. God builds from His side with truth, faithfulness, and His law. So God builds with truth, we with truth-seeking; God builds with faithfulness, we with trust in His faithfulness; God builds with the law of love, we with loving obedience.
That necessary participation of our freedom is not a slight against the sovereignty and authority of God. The only offense against God is our misuse of freedom. God wants our free cooperation because He wants a living relationship. What meaning has sovereignty over a robot? God means to be sovereign over persons with freewill, whom He can persuade by His own truth, faithfulness, and love to be obedient to Him -- in producing that best of all possible worlds. The "best" requires us as well as God. No deity outside the Bible offers anything like that.
So what is God wanting to produce? He has told us, over and over. He wants the kind of people who will obey His commandments -- the Decalogue, and the Two Great Commandments. The commandments are His statement of the kind of world He wants, the kind of community He wants. God has simplified all that for us -- summarizing all the commandments into two: to love Him and our neighbor. We call it the summary of the law. But it is more than just the summary -- it is the highest statement of the law.
To put it simply, the best of all possible worlds is a world where the Creator of all things loves His people as shown in Jesus Christ, and in which people are both able and willing to love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love their neighbors like themselves.
Our over-bloated civil government has shelves and shelves, thousands and thousands of pages of laws. Any one person knows only a tiny portion of them, and no one has ever read all of them. God has two laws. All the rest of Biblical law are simply examples of how to carry out the first two.
So the best of all possible worlds would have a readily understandable and communicable statement of law. God’s world does that -- which no human government has even begun to approach. As some early Church fathers said, "Love, and do whatever you wish." If you are really loving, you will always be in conformity with the law of God. You might have to do some study to find out what is the loving thing in a particular circumstance, but the two basic principles are clear and precise.
So, in what sense is our present state in the midst of a fallen world anything remotely like "the best..."?
The answer is simple: It is best (1) because our freewill is substantially maintained -- other than where we have ourselves destroyed it - by the wrongful and self-destructive exercise of that freewill.
And it is "best" (2) because God has provided a clear and effective way back to Himself and to wholeness and holiness for those who have fallen, who repent, and who wish to make that return back out of insanity and self-destruction.
It is "best" (3) because there is coming a time when the sheep will be separated from the goats. Those who want what God is offering will be separated from those who do not. And each will be getting what they want. They will have made their own choice. The damned will have chosen, despite all attempts by God and His people to persuade them from pursuing their trip to hell.
Read C. S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, for a clear picture of this choosing of heaven or the willful descent into hell. Lewis describes the narrator in the story complaining to an angel -- about a man trudging off back to hell from his visit to the outskirts of heaven. In paraphrase: "Does not his going to hell give the lie to all the joy in heaven? How can heaven rejoice when even one man is going to hell???" To which the angel replies, "Listen to what you are suggesting -- that the self-condemned man, the man who of his own free will chooses to go to hell, the man who does not want heaven, that he should be given a veto over the joy in heaven."
There are authors who have clearly stated in bold print that they do not want God to exist because He would get in the way of their sexual and political aspirations. They are focussed on pleasure and power, not on truth or love.
God might not need to send persons to hell, one needs only to refuse to build a love relationship with God and fellow man -- to find out that his only other choice is to build hell all by himself. John 3:19: "This is the judgement, that the Light has come into the world, and men preferred darkness rather than Light because their deeds were evil." And God lets us do that. Heaven, for the unrepentant sinner, would be hell. Hell, as someone has said, is thus God’s mercy on the unrepentant sinner.
He will not be forced to live with God. But in alienating himself from God, he is alienating himself from his own source of life. His life must continue to erode and disintegrate -- possibly to the point of extinction.
But for those who choose truth, trust, and obedience, that narrow but straight road to the Kingdom, that road is open and free. The cost is only in the continual effect of the growing Light in exposing one’s sin -- but that is precisely what allows one to repent more and more deeply, and thus to grow in one’s openness to the Light and to Godly relationship. Travelers on the road to the Kingdom want the growing Light to expose their sins so that no sin remains hidden and unrepented. They want to live in the Light of Christ -- in the community of the Church.
Malachi lived in the 4th century BC, about the time of Nehemiah. God says through him to the people: "Your words have been stout against me..., Yet you say ‘How have we spoken against thee?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God.... Henceforth, we deem the arrogant blessed...." There were Hebrews who openly mocked God. God replies that a day is coming burning like an oven, when the evil doers will be like stubble.
But for the righteous, the faithful, "The sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in his wings." The disintegrating evil ones will be as ashes under their feet. Evil produces its own self-destruction. It all depends on the direction one takes, toward God or away from God.
Paul writes to the Colossians, encouraging them on their journey down that road to the Kingdom, "...that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God...."
These are people who have chosen the path into the Light, who will often encounter fierce resistance from those still on the dark side.
Jesus "Good News" was that "the Kingdom is among you!" He demonstrates that with two healings in today’s Gospel, a woman with a flow of blood that would not heal, and a girl who had died. The forces of evil were being reversed, because the King was among them, now among us by the Holy Spirit.
All this illustrates the "best of all possible worlds". Even in the midst of sin and degradation, the process of sorting out those of the Light from those of the Dark goes on. No one goes to hell by accident, no one gets into heaven who should not be there. God has an infallible way of judging between the righteous and the evil-minded, and an infallible way of getting the righteous into the Kingdom relationship with Himself. Much of that is accomplished by forcing each of us into situations in which we must make choices either for or against God. So we create our own judgement. John 3:19 again: "The Light has come into the world and men chose darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil." They could have chosen the Light, but they preferred darkness to protect their evil ways. They had no intention of repenting. So they run from God - into hell.
Consider the discussion you might have with a family member or a friend, or someone sitting next to you on an airplane -- that you are offering to him access in Jesus to the best of all possible worlds, beginning right here and now. You would almost for sure find a huge skepticism -- yet a strong spark of interest.
But if you could show how God gives us
(1) a clear and precise law of love which, with just a little bit of explanation, is understandable by almost anyone,
(2) that He guarantees our freewill choice, & heaven requires our active participation;
(3) how He judges us by forcing us to make our own choices (which choice we make is ours to make, but we cannot make no choice); and
(4) that even with the fall, and terrible tragedy every day, God has an infallible way of drawing us back to Himself into those two stabilities which undergird and direct our lives -- personal stability and moral stability -- which is our salvation.
And then ask, "How would you improve on such a creation?" There are many ways to challenge what I have just said, so you might get some tough questions to answer. But that provides you with incentive to search more deeply into the issue. God will not fail to give us good answers to those who have honest questions.
There is, for example, the innocent suffering, the innocent being tortured and killed. We are all vulnerable to the outrages of one another in sometimes horrific ways. There is perhaps no problem more difficult to deal with than that. But God has been there Himself, and God is not incapable of ministering to those being abused, and of rescuing them into His heaven. We see through a glass darkly. But there is no other possible better answer to the problem of pain than that offered by God. Leaving God out of the cosmos only guarantees the continuation of pain and suffering, with no possibility of resolution. There is a best of all possible worlds, and only God can produce it -- with our cooperation, our willingness to suffer, to love, to be truth-seekers, by His grace and mercy.
Pray daily that God will show us ways to communicate to the world around us -- His word, His Good News, the living presence of the King and the Kingdom among us -- with grace and truth.
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