It has long seemed to me that it is one thing to believe that God exists and quite another to believe that He is good. Indeed, to believe that God exists simply begs the question. That question is: Who is God, and what can be said of Him? Is He good? This goes to the heart of the proclamation of the Christian faith. We believe that God has revealed Himself definitively in the God/Man, Jesus Christ, and preeminently in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Years ago, a friend of mine was speaking with an Orthodox priest about certain matters of conscience. In the course of the conversation, my friend mentioned concerns with the judgment of God, expressing a certain dread. The priest responded by turning around a small icon of Christ that was on his desk so that my friend could see it. It was the icon of Christ, “Extreme Humility,” that pictures Him in the depth of His humiliation and suffering. “Which God are we talking about?” was the priest’s question. My friend’s concerns were answered in that moment. Whatever our concerns might be, the goodness of God is revealed in that icon without qualification.
It is possible to use the entire Jesus story as a way of proving the existence of God, only to then proceed to think of God in terms that are somehow removed from Christ Himself. I’m not sure whether we imagine this “God” to be the “Father” or something else. These conversations (and thoughts) are often expressed in terms of, “I believe that God…” and on from there. I think of this as the God of the blackboard. Jesus is used in order to prove the blackboard but then we begin to fill in that large, blank wall with our own imaginings (or various passages of Scripture that we might use as a counterweight to the story of Jesus).
Sometimes those imaginings are extrapolations from Scripture (this story or that). Sometimes they are the productions of opinion. Many times our imaginings were handed down to us or written in our minds long before we ever thought about the matter.
If the stories of Scripture “prior” to Christ were sufficient for the knowledge of God, Christ would not have spoken in correction of the conclusions falsely drawn from them. There is a Greek word for an interpretation of the Scriptures: exegesis. It is most informative to note that St. John (in the Greek) says:
The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has exegeted Him. (Joh 1:18)
Christ is how we “read” God. We cannot get behind Christ to speak about God as though we knew anything of God apart from Christ. We do not know God “prior” to Christ. When Christ declares that He is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” and that “no one comes to the Father except by Me,” He is not merely describing the path of salvation, He is making it clear that it is through Him alone that we know God. This is also affirmed in St. Matthew’s gospel:
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. (Matt. 11:27 NKJ)
Christ not only reveals God, but He reveals the goodness of God. He is what goodness looks like. Throughout His ministry, every word and action is a revelation of goodness. That goodness is supremely made manifest in His voluntary self-emptying on the Cross. This revelation is definitive and must be always borne in mind when we consider who God is and what kind of God He is. He is the kind of God who empties Himself for our sake, unites Himself to our shame and suffering, and endures all things that He might reconcile us to Himself and lead us into the fullness of life in Him.
This is the proper “exegesis” of the Scriptures. Anything that imagines God in a manner that is not consistent with this presentation is a deviant reading (for a Christian). This calls for an inner discipline. When reading even the most disturbing imprecatory passages within the Scriptures, we should search for the image of the Crucified Christ within them. There are frequent paradoxes in such an approach. This is particularly true in the language of hell (and its synonyms).
God has no need for punishment. He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He cannot will our destruction and punishment while at the same time not willing that we should perish. Even the language of the fires of hell as a self-inflicted reality can be misleading. We know by experience that we are capable of inflicting great suffering on ourselves and we can easily imagine that stretching into eternity. What is being described, however, are the inner dynamics of a relationship with Divine Love: compassionate, forgiving, gentle, self-emptying in the extreme. The language and imagery of Scripture can be graphic, at times repulsive, particularly in the confusion of modern literalism.
These matters must be read within the heart (for that is where they were written). The singular commitment of the heart must be grounded in the goodness of God. We are not asked to look at something that is repugnant or horrible and say that it is good. That would do damage to the soul. What we know in Christ tells us that God is good. It is this that we look for as we search the depths of our world for understanding.
An element of God’s goodness that is frequently overlooked is found in our freedom (even when we misuse it). Nothing else in all creation is given the freedom that marks human existence. Everything else around us expresses its nature. A dog always acts as a dog. Human beings have the capacity in our freedom to act contrary to our nature. Sometimes our own sanity is insane. Some of the Fathers describe this capacity as “godlike.” We have been given a freedom that transcends our nature. It is this freedom that, potentially, finds expression in the fullness of personal existence.
We are created with the capacity to see God “face-to-face,” to interact as an equal, regardless of how absurd that might seem. It is an existence that is not confined to nature or circumstance but finally is above both. It is an existence that is constituted solely by love. I have seen this freedom exercised as love, even within the depths of protracted, life-long suffering. The goodness manifested in such examples is staggering.
I do not think there is a calculus that can be brought into this reality. Is the freedom we are given worth the price? No calculus is possible because we cannot measure the things involved. I cannot measure the suffering of an innocent child (as did Ivan Karamazov) just as I cannot measure the full joy of the freedom of love. What we have in Christ, however, is an example of both.
Here, we profess, is the most Innocent of the innocent, who, “for the joy that was set before Him, endured the Cross, disregarding the shame” (Heb. 12:2). The “joy that was set before Him,” is not some sort of private bliss. It is the joy of love, in freeing those who are held in bondage so that they might see Him face-to-face (as an equal) in all of the fullness of a true personal existence.
I cannot imagine this, nor measure this. But I can say that I see this. I see One who is utterly good, compassionate and self-emptying, walking the path of the unimaginable because He is good and thinks we are worth it. My faith (trust, loyalty) says, “I want to walk that path – help me!” I take His death and resurrection as the revelation of God and of the world as well.