Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Picture of God

While we are traveling in the car, my wife and I like to listen to audiobooks.  We recently listened to Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.  We enjoyed the book so much that I looked for other audiobooks by L. M. Montgomery. I found and purchased the book, The Story Girl, and we are currently listening to it.

The Story Girl was published in 1911 and tells of the adventures of a group of young cousins and their friends who live on Prince Edward Island.  The book is narrated by Beverley, who with his brother Felix, has come to live with his Aunt and Uncle on their farm while their father travels for business.  The Story Girl is their cousin Sara Stanley, whose many stories fill the book.

One story in the book really caught my attention.  On their way home from school, Felix has some interesting news.  "Jerry Cowan told me at recess this afternoon that he had seen a picture of God–that he has it at home in an old, red-covered history of the world, and has looked at it often."

This bit of news caused a lot of discussion from the little group.  They all wanted to know what God looked like.  The next day they asked Jerry to bring the book to school so they could see the picture.  He told them that he couldn't bring the book to school, but if they wanted to buy the picture outright he would tear it out of the book and sell it to them for fifty cents.

They wanted the picture so much that they pooled their resources and came up with the fifty cents.   Jerry met up with the group after school and brought the page from the book wrapped in newspaper. They paid him the money, but did not open the packet until he had gone.

This is the way L. M. Montgomery described the scene.  "Cecily," said Felicity in a hushed tone. "You are the best of us all. You open the parcel."

"Oh, I'm no gooder than the rest of you," breathed Cecily, "but I'll open it if you like."

With trembling fingers Cecily opened the parcel. We stood around, hardly breathing. She unfolded it and held it up. We saw it.

Suddenly Sara began to cry. "Oh, oh, oh, does God look like that? " she wailed.

Felix and I spoke not. Disappointment and something worse, sealed our speech. Did God look like that–like that stern, angrily frowning old man with the tossing hair and beard of the wood-cut Cecily held?

"I suppose He must, since that is His picture," said Dan miserably.

"He looks awful cross," said Peter simply.

"Oh, I wish we'd never, never seen it," cried Cecily.

We all wished that–too late. Our curiosity had led us into some Holy of Holies, not to be profaned by human eyes, and this was our punishment.

When they showed the picture to the Story Girl, she said, "Surely you don't believe God looks like that. He doesn't–He couldn't. He is wonderful and beautiful. I'm surprised at you. That is nothing but the picture of a cross old man."

Hope sprang up in our hearts, although we were not wholly convinced.

"I don't know," said Dan dubiously. "It says under the picture 'God in the Garden of Eden.' It's printed."

"Well, I suppose that's what the man who drew it thought God was like," answered the Story Girl carelessly. "But he couldn't have known any more than you do. He had never seen Him."

"It's all very well for you to say so," said Felicity, "but you don't know either. I wish I could believe that isn't like God–but I don't know what to believe."

Just like these children, far too many of us don’t know what to believe. There are so many pictures of God that we see every day. God’s own professed followers often paint horrific pictures of God; Pictures of hatred toward other races and religions, pictures of intolerance. Pictures of an unjust God who burns and tortures people for an eternity.

The children decided to ask their minister about this disturbing picture.  Felix was sent to ask him while the rest of them remained in the background but within hearing.

"Well, Felix, what is it?" asked Mr. Marwood kindly.

"Please, sir, does God really look like this?" asked Felix, holding out the picture. "We hope He doesn't–but we want to know the truth, and that is why I'm bothering you. Please excuse us and tell me."

The minister looked at the picture. A stern expression came into his gentle blue eyes and he got as near to frowning as it was possible for him to get.

"Where did you get that thing?" he asked.

Thing! We began to breathe easier.

"We bought it from Jerry Cowan. He found it in a red-covered history of the world. It says it's God's picture," said Felix.

"It is nothing of the sort," said Mr. Marwood indignantly. "There is no such thing as a picture of God, Felix. No human being knows what he looks like–no human being can know. We should not even try to think what He looks like. But, Felix, you may be sure that God is infinitely more beautiful and loving and tender and kind than anything we can imagine of Him. Never believe anything else, my boy.

I believe that Mr. Marwood got it right.  God is infinitely more beautiful and loving and tender and kind than anything we can imagine of Him.

We need to be very careful of the picture of God that we paint.  For some people, the only picture of God that they can see is the one that we paint.  Psalms 86:15 says, “But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, Longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth”.  Is that the God in your picture?

Plato's Soul

Does Greek philosophy affect your thinking?  That’s probably not a question you have thought about.  What do you know about Greek philosophy?  Whether you know it or not, you probably view the world through the eyes of Greek philosophy.

If you are part of what we now call the western world, your brain is Greek.  The ancient Greeks gave us western civilization. The Romans spread Greek philosophy to world.

When we refer to Greek philosophy we are usually talking about the thoughts, teachings and writing of three important Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  They helped to lay the foundations of Western philosophy and science.

Socrates always emphasized the importance of the mind over the relative unimportance of the human body. His teaching inspired Plato’s philosophy of dividing reality into two separate realms, the world of the senses and the world of ideas.

Plato came to the belief that the material world as it seems to us is not the real world, but only an "image" or "copy" of the real world. He called this thinking the theory of forms.  The forms, according to Plato are abstract representations of things, and properties we feel and see around us.  In other words, Plato recognized two worlds: the apparent world, which constantly changes, and an unchanging and unseen world of perfect forms.

Plato noticed that the world was full of imperfections.  You have probably noticed the same thing.  Plato’s question was, how do I know it’s not perfect.  How do I recognize the imperfections?  How do I know what perfection looks like?

Plato said we can sense imperfection because somewhere out there is perfection.    Each imperfect thing in our world has a perfect counterpart in spiritual world.  He taught that our imperfect world is an imperfect image of the spiritual world.

He applied this thought to our physical bodies.  We realize that our physical body is imperfect but to know that there must be a perfect version out there somewhere.  To Plato, that perfect version is the human soul; The spiritual part of you that leaves when you die and goes to a perfect spiritual plane.  This teaching of Plato, had been adopted by mainstream Christianity.  Plato’s concept of an immortal soul creates a problem when we look in Genesis.

Genesis 1:26,27  Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.   Genesis 1:31, "Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day".

There are a couple of points that I want us to understand from this passage.  Number 1 is that we are not an imperfect copy of our immortal soul; we are a copy of God himself.  We are created in his image.  Number 2, Creation wasn't an imperfect copy; God said that it was very good.  According to Genesis, Plato got it wrong.  He was on the right track with some of his ideas.  There does have to be perfection somewhere for us to know that we are seeing imperfection, but according to Genesis, Adam and Eve were not created with immortal souls.  They didn't need them.  They were created in the perfect image of God.

We were never meant to live as bodyless spirits.  Creation was of perfect physical beings.  Adam and Eve lived in a real perfect physical world, a world without death.  There was no reason for a spirit or soul to ever leave the body.  The only hint you can find in Genesis of a possible disembodied spirit is in Genesis 2:7.  The King James version reads, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

I want you to notice something.  Man became a living soul. The soul was not a disembodied spirit.  It was not something that leaves the body.  Man didn't receive a soul, he became a soul.  Modern translations read, man became a living creature, or living being.

How did Greek philosophy become so entrenched in Christian doctrine and thinking?  One of the ways was through the writings of Justin Martyr who lived in the second century.  He wrote extensively to defend Christianity.  He was raised in a pagan home and he was weaned on Greek philosophy.

In his Address To The Greeks  Justin wrote, Plato seems to me to have learnt from the prophets not only the doctrine of the judgment, but also of the resurrection, which the Greeks refuse to believe. For his saying that the soul is judged along with the body, proves that he believed the doctrine of the resurrection.  But Plato, having accepted what they teach concerning the resurrection of the body, teaches that the soul is judged in company with the body.

He also wrote, "while we affirm that the souls of the wicked, being endowed with sensation even after death, are punished, and that those of the good being delivered from punishment spend a blessed existence, we shall seem to say the same things as the poets and philosophers". Do you see how Greek philosophy crept into Christian thinking?

Greek philosophy plants hope in immortality of the soul but Christianity depends on physical resurrection.  We believe in a real physical Jesus coming back for real physical people.  According to the Bible you are a real person,  a living creature.  In the earth made new it will still be true.  Plato was doing the best he could with the information he had, but you have more information, so don’t use Plato to guide your thinking.

In 1 Corinthians 15: 51-53 we read, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

I’m eagerly waiting for the day when this corruptible body puts on incorruption, and this mortal body puts on immortality.  I’m eagerly waiting for the day when I will begin spending eternity in a real physical place with a real physical body.  I hope that you are longing for that day too.