“God is light and in him there is no darkness at all,” (1 John 1:5).

This is the starting place for good theology.  Everyone has a theology. Most people, even evangelical Christians, have a practical theology that starts with something different: God is mostly good, mostly light, but there is darkness too: anger, retributive violence, a willingness to harm those who do not meet certain conditions of a contractual relationship.  Belief in a God with some darkness creates a gospel something like this:

Balancing the Scales of Justice: The Holy Requirement of a Retributive, yet Loving God.

“Because we are guilty sinners, we are under God’s wrath and must receive the deserved punishment of physical death for our (really Adam’s) disobedience.  Physical death is then followed by divine judgment and a sentence of eternal death. This is what all humanity deserves.  Death is separation. In physical death, the soul/spirit is separated from the body. Because of sin, we are not permitted to live in our wretched mortal bodies forever. In the second death, the post-mortem soul/spirit is then separated eternally from God. As corrupt sinners, we are not permitted to live in God’s holy presence where our sin would defile heaven.

“But because God is both a mixture of justice and love, this is a problem for God.  He doesn’t want to punish us, but he has to, or so the theory goes.  Because he is not only good and loving but also smart, God has thought up a way to overcome the problem of our guilt and deserved punishment by arranging for his Son to be murdered as our substitute.  A loving God, so the theory goes, is able to redirect his anger towards our sin and accept Jesus’ death as a suitable punishment for our sin.  God’s otherwise insatiable wrath is now satisfied. Justice is served and if that is not enough, all of Jesus’ righteousness is transferred to the sinner’s account. If we accept this limited, conditional offer, we can be forgiven. We can be saved from certain death in hell where those who do not accept this contractual arrangement of things will experience eternal conscious torment.” 

The gospel is really good news for those who “believe,” but it is incredibly bad news for those who don’t.  It becomes incredibly important to not only to be sure that one is a believer and once assured, that one spends every reasonable amount of energy trying to convince those who do not believe, to believe.  If people don’t accept Jesus by repenting of their sin–and it has to meaningful, heartfelt repentance, not just mental consent–they will experience the full expression of God’s wrath.  And how can one be truly assured that they have repented and believed enough?  I guess we’ll find out on judgment day!

Of course, those who believe this theory do not call wrath, vengeance and retributive violence by what I refer to them as: “darkness.”  They are somehow twisted into a strange concept of justice.  “It is light,” they claim.  It is darkness, of course, if as humans we murder our own children by actively or passively handing them over to evildoers who torture and kill them, but if God does these kinds of things then they must be light, love, good and fair.  “Just live with the tension,” we are told.  “It is beyond our fallen nature to comprehend the high ways of the Almighty. We simply have to accept it and trust that God knows what he is doing.”

We thus worship a God who is both light and darkness.  God is both light and love. He is darkness and vengeance.  This is the foundational theology most people live by, whether consciously or unconsciously. We have either created god in our own image, or we have changed to become like the object of our worship.  Either way, God is like us and we are like God, a mixture of darkness and light. God is more light than dark, while we are more dark than light (if there is, in fact, any light at all within us).

Such a view of God justifies our practice of retributive justice upon one another. We create laws and punishments, we arrest and condemn and even kill so that our wrath and anger can be assuaged.  We fill our brutal prisons to overflowing. The cycle of harm, blame, condemnation and punishment spins on and on, and yet the darkness is ever present within us and around us.  Darkness continues to grow and our fear grows along with it.  Fight darkness with darkness and in the end, you only have more darkness.

If we really step back and think about the big picture, we desperately need to return to light somehow, but having formed God in our own darkened image, the only good news we can come up with is a mixed gospel of darkness and light.  And that is what we have done in the above gospel presentation. 

But John tells us that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all,” (1 John 1:5).  This raises a few questions for me…

  • What if retributive violence is not in God’s nature at all?
  • What if there is nothing in God’s nature that needs to be “satisfied” in order for him to forgive us for our sins?
  • What if the horrific stories in the Bible about God ordering genocide and infanticide, and regulating human behavior through stringent rules with harsh consequences, offering remedy only through bloody sacrifice and exclusionary rejection of outsiders actually reveal what is within us, and not within God?
  • What if the Bible is a mirror to show us the darkness within us, while ultimately revealing God in Jesus as pure light?
  • What if man-made rules for biblical inerrancy and literalism have chained us to distorted images and ideas that are incapable of doing nothing but binding us further to darkness?
  • What if a conditional, contractual gospel is what we have created because God is not pure light after all?
  • What if, in fact, the gospel is good news for all, not just those who fulfill the contract?
  • What if the God of pure light, willing to show us his unconditional love for us, entered the world as one of us and fed us, healed us, taught us the way of trust, peace and non-violence, and then allowed us to unjustly condemn and kill him, only to overcome death by rising again and reiterating his message of peace and forgiveness?
  • What if we are saved by Christ’s faithfulness and not our own faith?
  • What if the good news is really that God’s love for us is not contractual at all?
  • What if Jesus really did defeat all that Adam allowed to hold sway over humanity: sin and death and the satanic?
  • What if the rescue is completely universal and already effectively accomplished in the cross and resurrection?
  • What if we have all been included in Christ as we were all included in Adam?
  • What if we inherited mortality from Adam and not guilt?
  • What if God loves us now, has always loved us, and nothing can ever separate us from the love that is in Christ?
  • What if there is no condemnation for any of us because we are all in Christ?
  • What if Jesus truly did ascend into heaven where all authority has been given to him and he will reign until every last ounce of darkness is eradicated from existence?
  • What if this is what justice really looks like?
  • What if God loves us so much that he has committed to the destruction of everything that is false and untrue within us and creation?
  • What if God is light and in him there really is no darkness at all?

If God really is light, and him is no darkness at all, then we cab be sure that we are loved, forgiven, safe, and secure.  Period.  We have not been abandoned and we never will be. Never.  There is no condemnation. None. There is no wrath other than the tragic, painful consequences for going against the flow of love and trust. There is no second death except the death and destruction of all that is false, unholy and evil in us and the world.

There is no contract either. Our faith doesn’t effect or affect the transaction of salvation and forgiveness.  God did for us what we could not do for ourselves.  Our faith merely allows us to see things as they really are, and participate in the love, peace, and joy of the kingdom of God, now and always. Our faith in this age allows us to begin living now as things will be forever.  We can receive unconditional love and forgiveness for our sins, and we can offer that love and forgiveness to others. We can follow the way of peace and lay down our arms. We can begin to love and correct those who are “guilty” and work toward their restoration and recovery, not their deserved punishment.  We can stop labeling people who are different from us as “others.” There is no us and them, only we.

What if God is light and in him there is no darkness at all?  Now that would be good news indeed!