Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Living God?

I found myself wondering about the nature of God the other day. Specifically, what does it mean when the Bible (e.g. Deut 5:26, Josh 3:10, 1 Sam 17:26, 2 Kings 19:4, Psalm 42:2, Isaiah 37:4, Jer 10:10, Dan 6:20, and elsewhere) describes God/YHWH as 'The Living God'?

One of the problems here is that it is actually really hard to define 'life'. Dictionary.com offers a huge list of definitions, the first two of which are:
  1. the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally. 
  2. the sum of the distinguishing phenomena of organisms, especially metabolism, growth, reproduction, and adaptation to environment.
Other definitions are a bit woolier than those. Basically, when we apply the word 'life' to an animal or plant we are talking about something which is growing, adapting, consuming, excreting, changing, etc.

But what happens when we apply that same word to God? Is God growing? Does he adapt? Does he consume and excrete? Fundamentally, does he change? The book of Hebrews suggests that he does not. So if he never changes, in what sense can we claim that he is alive?

Growing up in church I heard sermons claiming that the emphasis here was to contrast our God, who is real and alive, with the gods of the surrounding nations, who are dead or imaginary.  But, of course, I eventually realised that nobody believes their own gods are dead or imaginary, surely everyone believes that their own gods are real and alive? It really wouldn't surprise me to discover that worshipers of Dagon (or whoever) back in OT times made jokes about worshipers of YHWH following an imaginary or dead god. If that's the point, it's just propaganda.

But suppose that's not it. Suppose the point is not to say our God is alive and yours is dead. What would the meaning be then? If a god is worth worshiping, surely we can assume that he's alive, we don't have to keep repeating it? One possible meaning, that I've heard discussed on podcasts, but have not found much about in written form, is perhaps that there was a dying-and-rising-god mythology about Yahweh long before anyone told stories about Jesus dying and rising. The story goes that the dying-and-rising myth was a common trope in many cultures and religions, and it's possible that it was part of the pre-exilic Hebrew religion as well. Yahweh was considered 'the Living God' because for a time he was believed not to have been living at all, but came back from that, and that is something worthy of worship. It's not just 'our God is alive, your god is dead', but rather 'our God has power over death, can you god do that?' Of course, this is all speculation, but it is interesting.

Beyond the question of 'in what sense is God alive?' lies the opposite question of 'in what sense was Jesus dead between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?'

I think most Christians have never really thought this through - I certainly didn't when I was a Christian. If they'd stop and think about it, I think most believers probably would come up with something like this: The man Jesus, before crucifixion, was made up of a living body and some form of indwelling soul or spirit. When he was crucified, the indwelling soul or spirit left the body and the body died, but the indwelling soul or spirit didn't die and went somewhere else for a few days. When the resurrection happened, the indwelling soul or spirit was put into a renewed (and improved)  reanimated version of the human body and Jesus became a walking, talking, living being once more. I guess for most believers in that sort of thing, the indwelling soul or spirit is the real person of Jesus and the body was just a body. So in this picture of things, the real Jesus didn't die on the cross. The real Jesus just went somewhere else for a few days. Either to harrow hell, as some would have it, or to go to paradise as Luke's Jesus says from the cross, maybe both, I don't know how long it takes to harrow hell. But if he didn't really die on the cross, then how can his death atone for anything?

The more I dig into it, the less sense concepts of living and dying make in the Christian worldview. Maybe I need to read some Thomas Altizer and get to grips with the idea of what would happen if God really died on the cross, and stayed dead! But that's something to think of some other time.

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