Why God Had to Die
by Mark B. Johnson | 3 June 2021 |
The Academy Award winning movie City Slickers (1991) tells the story of three friends in New York City who are struggling with middle-age. Their work is unrewarding and each of them, to a varying degree, is having problems in his marriage. To get away from their trouble and find renewal and purpose in their lives they decide to go on a two-week wild west cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. Subsequently, each finds himself flummoxed by the presence of a beautiful young woman, Bonnie (Helen Slater), who accompanies them on the drive.
In one scene, Ed Furillo (Bruno Kirby), a self-indulgent womanizer, makes some crass comments about Bonnie. Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal), who has been caught ogling Bonnie himself, chides Ed for his juvenile language and behavior. Ed scoffs at him, and sets up a hypothetical situation, in an attempt to highlight the level of Mitch’s hypocrisy.
Ed: A spaceship lands and the most beautiful woman you ever saw gets out. All she wants to do is have the greatest sex in the universe with you.
Mitch: Could happen.
Ed: When it’s over, she flies away forever. No one will ever know. You’re telling me you wouldn’t do it?
Mitch: No. What you are describing actually happened to my cousin Ronald. And his wife did find out about it at the beauty parlor. They know everything there.
Ed: Forget about it.
Mitch: I’m saying it wouldn’t make it alright if [my wife] didn’t know. I’d know, and I wouldn’t like myself. That’s all.
With all due respect and reverence, I believe God faced a somewhat analogous ethical situation when the angel Lucifer first began to harbor thoughts of rebellion in the heavenly throne room. God had options that would have apparently been the easy way to respond, and no one would ever have known of the deception. Except God Himself. It would have revealed a defect in His character. He wouldn’t have liked Himself. He also knew those options would destroy freedom, and He would rather die than govern over a universe of unthinking, unloving, robotic creatures.
Historic Adventist theology was built, in large part, on the Great Controversy narrative of a war of rebellion led by the angel Lucifer, who claimed God could not be trusted, had lied about sin and death, and did not have His creatures’ best interests at heart. These charges struck at the very heart of God’s character. In recent years, however, the idea of a war between supernatural powers over character and principles of government is passé. It’s embarrassing. It’s too much like Star Wars. Perhaps, though, there is still something to be learned from the “old” story.
God faced a momentous quandary.
I use the word “quandary” purposefully and anthropomorphically. It implies a confusing condition that is entangled with perplexity and doubt. While this type of language seems to limit God’s omniscience, the Bible occasionally uses it, so I tread into the arena carefully, but with some reassurance.
In response to the rebellion of Lucifer (now called Satan) and the fall of humankind, God apparently had some important decisions to make. Ellen White also uses anthropomorphic language to describe this:
Sorrow filled heaven as it was realized that man was lost and that the world which God had created was to be filled with mortals doomed to misery, sickness, and death, and that there was no way of escape for the offender. The whole family of Adam must die…. The anxiety of the angels seemed to be intense while Jesus was communing with His Father. Three times He was shut in by the glorious light about the Father, and the third time He came from the Father we could see His person. His countenance was calm, free from all perplexity and trouble, and shone with a loveliness which words cannot describe….
It was even a struggle with the God of heaven, whether to let guilty man perish, or to give His…Son to die for them (Early Writings, p.127).
Human language is imperfect, but evidently the Father and the Son struggled over whether the salvation of mankind was worth the death and humiliation of Christ.
But Jesus didn’t die for just the human race.
When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me (John 12:32, TEV).
To the angels and the unfallen worlds, the cry, ‘It is finished,’ had a deep significance. It was for them as well as for us that the great work of redemption had been accomplished…. Not until the death of Christ was the character of Satan clearly revealed to the angels or to the unfallen worlds (The Desire of Ages, p. 758).
The angels ascribe honor and glory to Christ, for even they are not secure except by looking to the sufferings of the Son of God…. Without the cross they would be no more secure against evil than were the angels before the fall of Satan (The Signs of the Times, December 30, 1889).
Something far more important than forgiveness or the salvation of you and me was at stake. God Himself was on trial before the universe.
God must prove true, though every man be false; as the Scripture says, “That you may be shown to be upright in what you say, and win your case when you go into court” (Romans 3:4, Goodspeed).
The throne of Justice must be eternally and forever made secure, even tho the race be wiped out, and another creation populate the earth. (The Signs of the Times, July 12, 1899).
Inspiration does not mention God’s options as He and His Son struggled to form a plan, but with a bit of sanctified imagination, I believe we can list a few. We might also consider some of the possible consequences of the options left unchosen.
God could have stood aloof and let sin take its course
With some clear exceptions, it almost seems that this is what God did before the Flood.
For centuries God bore with the inhabitants of the old world. But at last guilt reached its limit. “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that He had made man…, and it grieved Him at His heart” (Genesis 6:5, 6, KJV). Satan seemed to have taken control of the world. The time came that a change must be made, or the image of God would be wholly obliterated from the hearts of the beings He had created (Manuscript 22, January 10, 1890).
The sinful world and its inhabitants would eventually have destroyed themselves if God had not intervened. Additionally, if God had completely withdrawn His life-giving presence, His creatures, including Satan and his angels, would have died. But the issues raised in the rebellion would not have been addressed. It would have appeared that God had destroyed His creatures. If anything, it would seem that the charges against the character and government of God had been confirmed.
Instead, God stepped into human history.
The heavenly universe was amazed at God’s patience and love. To save fallen humanity the Son of God took humanity upon himself (Review and Herald, July 17, 1900).
God could have annihilated the sinful rebels
Destruction could have been accomplished with a great show of might and power. There is some evidence that such a move would have been popular with the unfallen creatures:
The heavenly intelligences were prepared for a fearful manifestation of Almighty power. Every move was watched with intense anxiety. The exercise of justice was expected. The angels looked for God to punish the inhabitants of the earth… (Review and Herald, July 17, 1900).
All heaven awaited the bidding of their Commander to pour out the vials of wrath upon a rebellious world. One word from Him, one sign, and the world would have been destroyed. The worlds unfallen would have said, “Amen. Thou art righteous, O God, because Thou hast exterminated rebellion” (The Signs of the Times, August 27, 1902).
Such a move might have looked like a victory. But, again, the questions Satan had raised about the character and government of God would not have been adequately answered. The appearance would have been even greater that God had lied about sin leading to death, and that He, not sin, had killed those who rebelled. Doubts about God’s character would have persisted and festered in the minds of those remaining. Obedience might have continued for a time, but obedience that springs from fear and obligation eventually leads to open rebellion.
The man who attempts to keep the commandments of God from a sense of obligation merely – because he is required to so do – will never enter into the joy of obedience. He does not obey (Christ’s Object Lessons, pp. 97, 98).
A sullen submission to the will of the Father will develop the character of a rebel (The Signs of the Times, July 22, 1897).
They could have just “disappeared”
This is similar to the option above, but the annihilation could have been accomplished surreptitiously. One moment the rebels are there, and the next moment they are gone. A creative step in this option would be to wipe away all memory of those who disappeared in the minds of those who survived. God could have done this an infinite number of times if rebellion continued to arise.
As Ed said to Mitch, “No one would ever know.”
And God replies, “I’d know. And I wouldn’t like Myself. That’s all.”
Deception shatters love and reveals a perverse character.
Mitch showed that he had a less corrupted character than Ed, but even more than this, Mitch defended the very essence of love in his answer to Ed. Ed had based his life on the hedonistic, self-seeking philosophy of “if it feels good, do it.” Mitch, even in a troubled marriage, realized he desired love, not lust, and that love must be based on mutual trust and transparency. While he may “get away” with cheating on his wife, the foundation of trust and transparency would crumble in his marriage, and he would know it. Love would die.
God is love personified.
His response to the lies and misrepresentations that have been spread abroad regarding His character reveals total transparency and His acceptance of responsibility. This required Him to address the questions about His character in the court of the Universe (Romans 3:4). He had to prove that He Himself is trustworthy, even when no one is watching. In response, He wants nothing more than friends who trust Him and whom He can trust eternally with infinite freedom. He can, and will, save all who trust (“have faith in”) Him.
When rebellion arose in His government, God severely limited His options for response by setting certain nonnegotiable parameters within which He would operate: He would always remain true to Himself and His character, consistently exhibiting truth, righteousness and love; His sentient creatures would have autonomy, dignity and individuality; and, the ultimate solution to rebellion would eternally preserve the freedom, the security and the openness of God’s government.
To satisfy those requisites, God, Himself, had to die. There was no other way to both prove His love for His creatures and answer the questions that had been raised about His character.
Mark Johnson is a graduate of Pacific Union College and Loma Linda University, with a medical residency at Johns Hopkins University in Preventive Medicine and Public Health. He is the local public health officer in the Denver metropolitan region. He’s an adult Sabbath School class teacher and church board chair at the Boulder Adventist church.