I saw a video called Jesus Loves You at Things on Bryan’s Mind and Inhabitatio Dei. Basically, you see this sloven ogre-looking fellow with an urbane British accent asking questions about Christian doctrines.
The ogre reported that he received an e-mail saying, “Jesus loves you, but if you don’t accept him you will go to hell.” The ogre thought that this kind of love appeared to be conditional. He said that he could understand conditional love, since he loved his wife when she looked like a super-model, but he left her when she was picking up weight and getting to be a slob. But he confessed that he was shallow. For him, Jesus should be a cut above him.
The ogre asked the Christian these questions and received a response, which said that Jesus wants him to go to heaven, but that he’d have to send him to hell if he did not accept him. The ogre was puzzled. Who says that Jesus has to do anything? If Jesus wants him to go to heaven, and Jesus can do whatever he wants, then why can’t Jesus let him in?
The Christian then sent the ogre an e-mail saying that Jesus actually loved him, but his Father thought he was bad. Then, the Christian compounded the ogre’s confusion by saying that Jesus equals his Father.
The video was taking on a variety of issues. First, he was trying to get an understanding of the substitutionary atonement, the doctrine that Jesus died in our place to pay the penalty for our sins. To many critics, that doctrine is problematic because it presents Jesus as having to appease a wrathful, bloodthirsty deity.
Second, he was seeking to grasp the Trinity, which includes the idea that Jesus and the Father are one God.
I remember once trying to explain Christianity to an atheist friend of mine. I was presenting him the picture that I always got: You have God the Father sitting on his throne. Satan is continually accusing Christians by pointing out their bad behavior, while Jesus pleads with God to have mercy on them. Jesus points to the wounds on his hands (or, more precisely, his wrists) to convince God that their penalty has been paid.
That didn’t make much sense to my atheist friend. “And you’re saying Jesus and the Father are one God?” he asked. “So does God have a split personality? Part of him wants to whip us, while another part prefers mercy?”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon may have heard the same kind of question in his day. In a sermon that he preached, he tried to dispel the notion that Jesus is merciful while his Father is full of wrath. After all, Spurgeon noted, John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. The God who loved the world had to be the God the Father, since he was sending his Son.
I’ll admit that I don’t understand a lot of this, and that the picture of the atonement that I was presenting to my atheist friend looks rather bizarre. After all, does God need Jesus to remind him that he died for their sins? In that scenario, you have the Father, getting up to smite his children. Then, Jesus steps in and says to him, “Wait! Don’t do this! I already died for their sins.” “Oh yeah,” the Father responds.
But Christians are getting this scenario from the Bible, in some way, shape, or form. Hebrews 7:25 says that Jesus makes intercession for the saints. Revelation 12:10 states that Satan accuses the brethren before God day and night. And Christians can find “types” in the Old Testament of Jesus’ intercession. There is the Golden Calf incident, in which God is about to destroy Israel for her big sin, but Moses intercedes for his people and offers his own life in their place (Exodus 32). The Book of Job talks about an umpire between humans and God, as well as a ransom from death (Job 9:33; 33:24). In both pictures, God is a strict or inaccessible being, while the intercessor is kind, merciful, and understanding.
Of course, God is the one who established the office of prophet, which includes an intercessory role. And Ezekiel 22:30 says that God actually looks for someone to stand in the breach and intercede for his people. So there is a sense in which God does love the world and wants it to have an intercessor. Intercession does not take place apart from his will, at least not always (see Jeremiah 7:16).
I’m not sure how literally we should take the scenario of Jesus interceding on our behalf before his Father, who is a God of justice. I’m hesitant to say “That’s just a metaphor,” for that is often a dismissal. If we are to say it’s a metaphor, then we should at least specify what all of its components mean. Overall, the scenario is trying to say that God has mercy on us, even if we do not deserve it. And the mercy is not only a one time event that took place when we accepted Christ and became justified. We need continual forgiveness through the blood of Jesus, for we sin every day. And God assures us that his mercy is an endless stream. Plus, we can take comfort that someone in the Godhead experienced the human condition for himself, meaning that he can sympathize with us.
I have some other comments on what the ogre said, but I’ll save them for later.