Note to readers: This is the third of a three-part essay on “Axiomatic Christianity,” first published on the FacultyLinc website and written by University of Minnesota Professor Bryan Dowd. As we wrote in the introduction to the first in this essay series, Professor Dowd is both humble and honest, and wants everyone to know that “As far as I know, nothing in this paper is original.” Part Two discussed the four axioms. With this final part of the essay, Professor Dowd explains the corollaries that go with the axioms, and the data that support the corollaries. These essays take work, but the reader so disposed will be richly rewarded!
If we accept these axioms, where do they lead us? If God exists and is perfect and we aren’t perfect, and that is a problem for both us and God, what should we expect to happen next? It seems to me that there are five corollaries of the four axioms:
- The problem of our imperfection versus God’s perfection will be addressed.
- The solution to the problem cannot be engineered by us.
- The solution, if implemented, will necessarily annihilate my imperfection, not merely accommodate it.
- The solution will be engineered and offered by God.
- The solution will involve death.
The entire discussion of these points revolves around the simple definition of perfection. Perfection, like pregnancy, does not come in degrees. Either something is perfect or it is not. If God exists and is perfect, and our imperfection is a source of loving concern for Him, then allowing the problem to go unaddressed would be a “loose end.” Perfection has no loose ends. Regardless of who we injure by our imperfection, the ultimate offense is against God. (“Against thee and thee only have I sinned …” Psalm 51:4.) That is not an acceptable situation for a perfectly just God whose concern for us is based on love and mercy. The problem will be addressed.
Can we provide the solution to our own imperfection? I think not. To use a popular analogy, if you rob someone, then by definition, you are a robber. No number of good deeds, including giving the property back to the person you robbed, will change the fact that at some point you robbed the person, and therefore are a robber. There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Once we become imperfect, the solution to our imperfection cannot be engineered by us.
What sort of a solution is possible? If our primary offense is against God, couldn’t God just look the other way, or give us a nod and a wink? Again, I think not. God is perfect, not near perfect, and perfection cannot accommodate imperfection and remain perfect. Our imperfection is intolerable to a just and perfect God. If we are to reach the point at which our imperfection is no longer a problem for us or for God, our imperfection cannot be accommodated, it must be annihilated in the eyes of God, the perfect judge, even though the consequences of that behavior may remain.
So at this point things look a bit bleak. We are imperfect, our imperfection separates us from the perfection for which we long, and we can do nothing to fix the problem. But if God is perfect, then He is perfectly capable of engineering a solution to this seemingly intractable problem. This is point where Christianity parts ways with all other world religions. Every other monotheistic religion that believes the first four axioms also believes that our imperfection can be reconciled to God’s perfection if we just try a little harder to be good. This is as hopeless as attempting to alter the fact that a person who engaged in theft is a thief by having him or her return the stolen goods. It’s not only logically incoherent, but in the case of our countless transgressions, technically impossible. Christianity asserts that God has solved the problem of our imperfection in a way that does not accommodate our imperfection, but annihilates it. That is grace. That is Good News.
The fourth corollary is that because God chose not to prevent our imperfection, and He cannot ignore our imperfection and remain perfectly just, His perfect solution to the problem of our imperfection requires that He remain perfect, while offering annihilation of our imperfection. This brings us to perhaps the great mystery of Christianity – the Incarnation and the Trinity – God, Three in One. God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The idea of two things that appear to be different but really are one may seem farfetched, but fortunately, science comes to the rescue with a helpful example. Light can be proven conclusively to be either a wave or a particle, depending on the nature of the experiment, and yet it cannot be both. As difficult as the Trinity is to comprehend, the perfection of God, coupled with the simultaneous annihilation of our imperfection by God (because we cannot do it ourselves) suggests that in some sense, it must be that way.
What sort of act would we expect from the part of God that annihilates our imperfection? Annihilation means that our imperfection no longer exits. In our physical human experience, the most graphic act of annihilation is death. I would expect that annihilation of my imperfection would be represented in the space-time continuum with which we are familiar by death in some form. That is the fifth corollary.
Thus far, the corollaries are just results that seem to follow from the axioms. We have not asked whether there is any empirical evidence to support them. That is the topic of the next section.
How do the corollaries match up with observable data? In fact, there are historical events that seem to coincide with the five corollaries. Those events are extremely well documented, given the odds against such careful documentation at the time and place at which they occurred, and the circumstances that surrounded them. They also are at least as well documented as other historical events that we treat as entirely credible.
The New Testament contains an account of an historical person, Jesus, who lived on earth, performed feats that defy natural explanation, claimed to be one with God, maintained that through his death, human beings could be reconciled to God, was executed, and after having died, was observed by more than 500 people to be alive again (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). As one of C.S. Lewis’s tutors (surprisingly an atheist) once remarked, “Rum thing about this dying god. It seems that it actually happened.”
If the historical events I’m describing did, in fact, represent God’s solution to the problem of our imperfection and His perfection, then we should expect to see some significant impact of those events. I’ve already noted the fact that Christianity grew from a handful of followers of a convicted and executed felon, to be the world’s largest religion. In addition, unlike other religions, Christianity’s spread has been remarkably cross-cultural, sweeping across countries as diverse as Sweden and South Africa with approximately the same velocity.
In addition to historical data, one simply can talk to Christians about the experiences that followed their acceptance of the historical evidence and the solution to their imperfection offered to them by God. Generations of Christians have provided personal testimonies about the transforming effect that acceptance of Christianity has had in their lives. Of course, these data largely will be “private data,” e.g., self-reported accounts of personal experiences, and thus difficult to verify externally, but as I noted earlier, we treat similar self-reported data as perfectly valid every day without batting an eyelash.
However one evaluates the evidence, it is vital to remember that the only important claim about Christianity is that it is true. That is the claim that from which all else follows and the claim which our postmodern society frequently finds most offensive.
If we think that the theory of Christianity is internally consistent and makes predictions that seem to coincide with the available data, what of it? I suggest that the first reaction for many people should be one of profound relief. The claims of Christianity are not just Good News (“Gospel”), they are the best news ever to hit the planet. We do not need to spend countless hours wondering why we do things we later regret, or why we suffer at the hands of others. The answer is that we, and others, are consciously choosing wrong over right, i.e., imperfection over perfection. Similarly, we do not need to wonder why our own regrettable behavior concerns us. The answer is that we are imperfect beings with a “hard-wired” call to perfection. Nor do we need to devise clever and complex solutions to that fundamental source of personal angst. Self-engineered solutions are impossible. Finally, we do not need to despair over the seemingly intractable nature of the problem. The solution has been engineered and is within our grasp.
To put all this in familiar Christian terms, the part of God that solved the problem of our imperfection versus God’s perfection was Jesus. Jesus was God becoming two while remaining one. Jesus was referred to as “the Light of the world” long before quantum physics drew the analogy for us. Our choice of imperfection and separation from God is sin. The death of God was the ultimate act of annihilation and is inextricably linked to the annihilation of our imperfection.
The death of Jesus on the Cross did not accommodate our sin. Jesus’ death annihilated our sin for those who accept God’s solution to the problem. What really happened at the point of Jesus’ death, precisely which risks were taken, in precisely which dimensions beyond time, space and probability, remain a mystery to us. Jesus’ contemporaries were given one vital glimpse of the reality-warping nature of His death — the Resurrection. For Christians today, the presence and power of Christ in their lives provides real-time glimpses.
What impact should Christianity have on our lives? If we have a sense of our own imperfection, and an accompanying sense that our imperfection is separating us from something that we greatly desire, but that is just beyond our grasp, what can we do about it? How can we convert the assertions of Christianity into practice?
Suppose you acknowledge the truth of the following statements, “I am imperfect, I know it, I don’t like it, and I realize I can’t fix it.” That would make you a “realist” – a person who merely acknowledges the reality of the human condition. Suppose further, you could acknowledge that the reason you don’t like being imperfect is that it is contrary to your hard-wired call to God’s perfection. That probably would make you a “theist” of some sort.
Next, suppose you acknowledge that the corollaries discussed above imply that God, through the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus, has provided the solution to the problem of your imperfection. That would indicate that your intellectual grasp of the fundamental principles of Christianity, but that intellectual grasp would not make you a Christian. Only the following statement does that: “I want God’s solution to the problem to apply personally to me and my sins.” At that point, the solution is in effect. This “free grace” that is costless to us, but was infinitely costly to God is what many non-Christians find so abhorrent about Christianity. To Christians, however, it is Life. “For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).”
J. B. Phillips wrote a famous book entitled Your God is Too Small. A God that tolerates or accommodates our sin rather than demanding its annihilation is a God whose justice and willingness to demonstrate self-sacrificial love for us is too small. The perfect God of Christianity is not small. He is the creative intelligence who flung the stars and planets into the farthest reaches of the universe, created black holes, twisted the first chains of DNA, and dreamed up electrons that somehow are aware of the movement of other electrons in distant parts of the universe. The perfect God of Christianity also devised and implemented, at infinite personal cost, a perfect solution to the seemingly intractable problem of our imperfection. It will indeed be a “fearful thing” when someday we all fall into the hands of the Almighty God. However, Christians believe that beyond the fear lies the unimaginable joy of being forever reconciled to the perfection we are hard-wired to seek. The alternative is an eternity spent reflecting on our choice of separation over reconciliation. Surely, that would be Hell.
Christians also live in confidence that each day brings us closer to the end of this remarkable story of our creation, our failure and our redemption, and closer to the time when our superficial and often pretentious understanding of ourselves and our universe is replaced by searing reality, explained in eternal detail by its Creator and Sustainer. Surely, for intelligent beings, that will be Heaven.
Reason is a wonderful gift, and for most people, an essential ingredient to finding meaning in their lives. I find reason to be an attractive feature of Christianity, but there are times when God reaches out to us in other ways. Saul of Tarsus, later re-christened Paul, arguably was the greatest intellectual in the history of Christianity. But Paul gained his initial insight into Christianity not through any rational thought process, but through a personalized, blinding, blast of Divine presence and revelation on the road to Damascus. That’s the sort of irony that should help us keep our perspective (and sense of humor) when it comes to weighing our own reasoning abilities versus the will of Almighty God.