Although the Bible is made up of 66 separate documents of different lengths and different literary types – from poetry to story to genealogy to oracle to lament to some esoteric kinds we rarely use today – woven through those 66 documents is a storyline which has to be understood to make sense of any of the individual pieces.
The story begins with God making everything good. At the heart of what went wrong is our rebellion against God. The Bible has different words for this – sin, unbelief, rebellion, transgression, falling short of the mark. But whatever it is, we human beings made in the image of God and originally good in a good universe wanted so much to go our own way. To sing with Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” We all became highly original sinners. That is to say that God had to serve us or else we would invent our own gods. We had to find him making us the center because we certainly were not going to make him the center. The heart of all idolatry in the Bible is the de-godding of God. Out of this comes death, decay, war, rape, pillage, and the very upset of nature itself. This is hugely important in understanding how the Bible works – in any religion, from Buddhism, to Hinduism, to Jainism, to Christianity. In any religion there is some kind of understanding of the human problem and some kind of understanding of how you address the human problem. What Christians claim is that the Bible’s analysis of the problem is accurate and it is met only by the kind of solution that God himself gives. In Buddhism, for example, the crucial problem is ignorance – ignorance of what we really are. Whereas in the Bible – although there is culpable ignorance – the crucial problem is rebellion. It is defying God. It is not doing what God prescribes, but rather doing what God forbids until we are so alienated because we want to be number one. The tragedy as well as the ugliness of it is that we end up hurt ourselves. We harm and destroy one another, break our relationships, and steal from each other. It just goes on and on into war and more.
Yet the Bible story is that although God stands over against us in judgment, nevertheless, he stands over against us in love. There is a huge tension there. He stands over against us in judgment because he is God; and he is holy; and he is not going to pretend none of this does not matter. But he also stands over against us in love because he is that kind of God. Although we are often so very, very unlovely, he goes after us. So across the storyline of the Bible he comes after us by creating a whole new humanity, a new tribal group – the ancient Israelites – the forbearers of modern Jews to receive and pass on his laws and his ways and instruction about sacrifice and the like. He gives us prophets who teach us a great deal about himself and about who we are. And ultimately, in the fullness of time, he sends his own son.
These two streams of thought, that God stands over against us in genuinely righteous wrath, and he stands over against us in love because he is that kind of God, run through the first two-thirds of the Bible – what we call the Old Testament – with huge degrees of tension, not resolved until they finally come together in a resolution in Christ himself. God displays his love for us finally in the gift of his son. And his son – by his death – bears our sin, our guilt, and our shame, so that God’s righteousness is satisfied. But this is also a spectacular display of God’s love. God could have written us all off with perfect justice. Instead, the fact of the matter is that this God who stands over against us is also the crucified God. He is the one who comes after his own image bearers, even when we do not deserve it.
The scriptures insist that one day – as he is calling out a people now, transforming them already, and making them a little more like his own son – there will be a final resolution, the end of history, a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. Suffering, evil, decay and our distorted universe all fit into our current broken time. This time of disarray affects not only human beings and the guilty things we do – victimization, abuse, tyranny, etc. – but it affects the entire created order, so there is death and distress and destruction. In fact, the apostle Paul, one of the earliest Christian leaders, insisted that this whole created order is under a kind of sentence of disaffection and doom until the very end when Christ makes all things new once again.
So Christians look back to the cross with huge thanksgiving as the greatest demonstration that God loves us, despite everything that has gone wrong. They look forward as well to a final resolution at the end. Christian sorrow in the light of death is the same as everybody else. And yet Paul says, “We sorrow, but not as those who have no hope.” We look for an end, for a final resolution, when not only will justice be done, but it will be seen to be done by the one who loved us so much he gave his son.