In a world characterised by so much brutality and suffering, it is a bold person who still asserts that human beings are ‘made in the image’ of a loving God. If there are marks of divinity in human beings, the deity in question appears to be terrifyingly cruel. In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that scientists had uncovered what they described as ‘evidence of the earliest known murder among our ancestors’, with the implication that ‘interpersonal violence may be baked into the human experience’. It came in the form of a grisly skull belonging to a hominid species much older than Neanderthals. The cranium showed signs of two repeated blows with the same implement, suggesting an ‘intent to kill’. These pre-historic remains hint at the dark possibility that the murder of Abel by Cain is emblematic of the human condition. As the wars and genocides of the twentieth century conclusively proved, even with all our technology and education, we are frequently no better than that frightened ape that clubbed his enemy to death (although so much deadlier). As Sigmund Freud noted grimly in his essay Civilisation and Its Discontents (1929):
Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus.
Yet, if “man is a wolf to man” (surely a slur on wolves?) how can that be reconciled with the human-positive language of the Gospel? Are Freud’s ravenous apes the same creatures worthy of having their hairs counted by God (Matt. 10:30)? Are these monsters the same creatures of which God says, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters” (2 Corinthians 6:18). Are these designers of bombs and missiles really the meek sheep which Christ will gather back (Matt. 18:12–14)? When we peer into ourselves the darkness can sometimes seem overwhelming. Often we feel trapped by our egotism and although we know what we should do, we often shudder at the prospect of doing it. We rather others died before we died to our own selves. As Paul put it: ‘For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it’ (Romans 7:15-20). In Paul’s painful honesty, we readily see the processes of natural selection which have made us. We perceive the outworking of millions of years of biting, tearing and clawing.
In the face of this shattering reality, it is hard to believe that anything so vicious could be cherished by any Supreme Being worth its salt. Yet this is precisely what the Gospel tells us about ourselves. When God sees us, he does not perceive a violent primate, but sons and daughters, heirs, and princes. He does not see our sins, but rather the Spirit of Christ at work in us. In other words, God always sees us through the eyes of mercy. In the face of all the wrong we commit (or ever will commit) God declares in grace: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). The promise of Jesus is that God will not be pushed away. The Cross and the Resurrection are signs of God’s ultimate refusal to give up on his creatures. Even when confronted with the roving spirit of Cain, God is not deterred by our coldness. He continues to wait and he continues to give. This is exciting and it is frankly scary. We are invited into a love we cannot earn, we cannot control and do not deserve by any human metric. This is the ‘ocean of light and love’ experienced by George Fox at his convincement, and it is the true reality of which Paul said, ‘neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers’ can bar us. Believing this promise of grace is the most radical act we can undertake. For once we hear and believe in that love which persists we can see beyond “fight and flight”, and all the ancient forces which keep us trapped in the past (both personal and collective).
What does such a graceful affirmation offer us? We can lift a sense of judgment from ourselves and by extension lift the burden of judgement from others. We can declare along with the Songs of Songs: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16). In articulating this new status, we can begin to act like the cherished one we know we are. Through the love freely offered us, we become capable of sharing love more abundantly with others. Once we recognise our identities as sons and daughters of a loving Father, we can be open to the riches of our inheritance. As Martin Luther once put it: “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his”. But as the story of the Cross illustrates it takes guts to believe that God is love, because to do so calls into question the punitive behaviour which characterises our species- all our weapons, all our prisons and detention centres become shadows. God’s loving judgement, puts human judgements to shame. But such a gift of escape may be too much for some to bear. Paul puts the challenge of this new nature provocatively when he tells the Church at Corinth: “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). Putting the issue more pointedly still, Athanasius said that, the Son of God became man so that we might become God. We are earth-bound creatures of mud and blood, meant for eternity- a destiny we share with the whole of creation (Rev. 21).
What utterly scandalous suggestions! How could such weak and spiteful beings have sway over the powers of the invisible world? How can we become mirrors reflecting the nature of God? It is surely more realistic to return to the savage safety of the rules which made us: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). It is this ethic of struggle that we hear in the voice of the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple who fears what Jesus might do to his ordered world: “You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). Or it put it another way, it is better that unruly love should be snuffed out than allow the anarchy of a perpetually giving God to recast the world. It is much easier to put this ceaseless love on trial and nail it to a cross than hear it and feel open to change. It is easier to follow the script of our evolution than concede the possibility that we nasty bipeds are meant to be a mirror of the Eternal, to be vessels for a reality that is just not like us.
Sometimes this refusal to accept the radical nature of grace becomes manifest in the way some Christians talk about God on the Cross. Instead of understanding the crucifixion as an outpouring of God’s love in the face of the wretchedness of the human situation, an emphasis is placed on stilling the anger of a righteous God, who must have satisfaction in blood. This theological reading is surely built on our ancient Reptilian brain; that part of ourselves which controls our aggressive instincts. Here, God, the bloodthirsty judge serves as a projection of our fears for survival. Someone must die so that we must live. In some theories of atonement, God’s Law is simply a refined version of our own longings for retribution against those who or put us in danger. But the Gospel repeatedly tries to push us beyond this reptilian apparatus by telling us that we must not return evil for evil and that peacemakers will be blessed. The Deity Christians worship is the arch offender against notions of natural justice. In his community, the first will be last and the last will be first, where rain is sent on ‘the just and the unjust alike’ (Matt. 5:45). The God of Jesus Christ is not a capricious sky Father filled with all our instinctual aggressions. The One loved by Israel, whom Jesus calls Father has come to save the world and not to condemn it. Yet there has been much copious theologising trying to blunt this fact. Grace perfects nature as the old Catholic theologians tell us, but invariably nature resists. We still want to believe that God plays by our rules of vindication and punishment, something the logic of grace denies. Our challenge is this. Are we prepared to see ourselves as God sees us or continue to be defined by our past? Grace is the key but will we open the door?