“If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring” goes the song. Lovely song, nice sentiments, but confounded by history and experience. In reality, all those who had world domination in their sights became bloody tyrants. Their legacy is a trail of genocide, torture, slavery and destruction. The desire for absolute power is invariably corrupting.
A group of 15-year-old boys were asked what they would do if they were God. Not for one moment did they entertain a gentle fantasy about the first day of spring. Each in turn said they would rid the world of evil by crushing all opposition. For them, there was a deficiency in the human condition which could only be put right by force.
This adolescent attitude persists for many adults. When they complain that God appears to be either absent or impotent in the face of evil, what they really mean is they would have liked him to play the dictator by annihilating the culprits. But would they really prefer a repeat of the biblical scenario of a worldwide flood when all but a few people and animals perished?
The release of the movie Noah should prompt us to check out the story in Genesis, Chapters 6-8. Apparently online searches for the narrative have dramatically risen since the film came out. The conclusion of that Old Testament story is that God’s desire is to bless us.
Far from being bent on our destruction, his intention towards us is patient and benign. But make no mistake. God’s forbearance is neither a sign of powerlessness nor of a willingness to put up and shut up. We humans have been granted only temporary tenancy of this planet. We will reap what we sow. But not yet.
One of the New Testament writers explains the time lag between our actions and their consequences like this: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
Nowhere is God’s commitment to humanity made clearer than in the crucifixion of his Son. Jesus of Nazareth, in the three temptations in the wilderness rejected the devil’s offers to become Master Baker, Superman and Ruler of earthly Kingdoms. He chose instead to submit to the appalling injustice of those who wielded power. He was arrested and charged. It was an extraordinary scene: the most loving person the world has ever known, now condemned by petty religious leaders and politicians, taunted, tortured and put to death.
The Christian truth that the crucifixion reveals the heart of God is a scandal to those who imagine God as an aloof and implacable Creator, who lacks compassion for our frailty and is hostile towards our disobedience – instead of being merciful.
As for those whose god is an impersonal intelligence, the cross is meaningless – if not absurd.
Terry Eagleton’s book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate is a penetrating critique of the reasoning of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. In passing he considers the incongruity of a Saviour who is crucified: “Messiahs are not born in stables. They are high-born, heroic warriors who will lead the nation in battle against its enemies. They do not reject weapons of destruction, enter the national capital riding on donkeys, or get themselves strung up.”
Thankfully Terry Eagleton offers reasons why believing in a Christlike God is not a delusion – unlike some commentators who have heaped personal insults on Richard Dawkins and demonised him.
Professor Richard Dawkins is entitled to his views and like the rest of us he is not infallible. But personal abuse and anger that some have expressed are not Christian virtues.
In his gripping TV series The Story of the Jews, the great historian Simon Schama explained that Jews cannot accept Jesus as Messiah because the expected reign of peace has not broken out and the world has not changed as a result.
Yet this is precisely what the Apostle Paul, a Jew who encountered the Risen Jesus of Nazareth, came to see as the shattering significance of the first Good Friday. He wrote: “Jews demand signs, Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ nailed to the Cross; and though this is an offence to Jews and folly to Gentiles, yet to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, he is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Attitudes don’t change. St Paul’s contemporaries, Jews, Greeks and Romans of the first century AD could be our contemporaries. The demand that God should prove his presence by forceful conquest is as alive now as it was then, as is the grasping nature of a lot of today’s “spirituality”.
Will we continue to follow these false trails heedlessly in spite of today’s challenges and risks? The astronomer Lord Rees, a former President of the Royal Society, gives us a 50-50 chance of surviving the 21st century.
The recently established Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University also warns that we could be living in humanity’s final century. The unscrupulous use of computer-driven intelligence by some malign or ignorant agency has become a real threat to us all, and to our environment.
When you consider that a robot recently broke the world record for solving Rubik’s cube in 3.253 seconds, faster than the eye could see, it does not take much imagination to realise that our inventions could grab and enslave us. While there is a kind of inevitability about technological progress, there is no guarantee that we will develop ethically to cope with the new developments. The Polish poet Lec presents this as a conundrum: “Is it progress if a cannibal uses a knife and a fork?”
A change of heart by seeking wisdom is now urgently needed. Exhortation or education will not bring it about, though the more information we can gain about the risks we now face, the more we will realise that good intentions will not do the trick. Something far more drastic is needed. The whole Bible, from beginning to end, recognises our need of personal and corporate transformation.
Jesus told a story of a wayward son, who could have been any one of us. You might say his gap-year adventure turned sour and he came home disconsolate and remorseful. The return of the Prodigal Son and the unconditional welcome by his loving father maps the journey home for us all. Every forgiving parent will echo that love is neither painless nor cheap.
With his dying breaths Christ proclaimed God’s amnesty for humanity in these words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The crucifixion which, judged by human standards, looked like failure, was in fact the manifestation of holy love. For Jesus is the face of God in human flesh. Ever going out in love to seek the lost and the unloved.
The end of the Bible gives us a glimpse of the power of the age to come, in which Christ is portrayed as a sacrificial Lamb now worshipped by the whole created order: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!’”
This Good Friday may we all know the love of God poured out for us all in Jesus’s life and death. And at Easter may we know the joy and hope that spring from Jesus Christ’s glorious resurrection.
• Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.