In the first two parts of this series I argued that a person’s identity is determined by whatever founds their existence, what they do and say, what is done to them and the relationships they have. We’ve seen that Christianity points to the story of ancient Israel, Jesus Christ and the apostolic church to answer the question “Who is God?” The story is the answer. But this story is much too long and complicated to rehearse or even summarize in this essay. And some of it overlaps with Judaism and to a lesser extend Islam. Hence I want to focus on the heart of the distinctively Christian part of the story: Jesus Christ. Jesus taught that we can relate to God as our “Father in heaven”(Matt 6:9) and that we ought to love not only our friends but also our enemies (Matt 5:44). I think that Jesus’ teaching about God, religion and ethics, taken as a whole, is quite unprecedented in the history of religion. Nevertheless, it is not in Jesus’ teaching but in his “fate” that we find the most revolutionary reorientation in divine identity.
For most of the New Testament, but especially for Paul, the cross and resurrection of Christ is the heart of the Christian gospel. The claim that God raises the dead did not surprise or offend Paul’s Jewish audience, though his Greek hearers found it strange and even repugnant. But Paul’s contemporaries found the timing of Jesus’ resurrection very surprising. The resurrection was not supposed to happen until the end. But what they found most surprising and troubling about the resurrection of Jesus was the claim that God raised a man who had been crucified for blasphemy and rebellion. For Paul’s contemporaries the cross was an offense completely opposed to God’s dignity and power. But for him the cross embodied the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor 1:24). How could Paul have come to such a conclusion? Apparently Paul and the original disciples of Jesus were forced to look for divine wisdom in the cross because the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances convinced them that God had raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection, God vindicated Jesus and overturned the verdict that led to his execution. The bold things Jesus said about God and his intimate relationship to God were declared true and reverent. Since God raised Jesus from the dead, the cross could not have been an accident but makes sense only a divinely intended act. If in the resurrection of Jesus God overcame death’s power over humanity, it stands to reason that in the cross God overcame the power of sin; for sin was the “sting” that brought death into the world (Genesis 3; 1 Cor 15:56).
The New Testament does not explain the cross as something God did to Jesus or merely allowed to happen to Jesus but something God did in and through Jesus (2 Cor 5:18-19). Jesus’ acts were also God’s acts, his words God’s words, and his love God’s love (2 Cor 5:14). Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). We come to know the glory of God in Jesus’ face (2 Cor 4:6). We know that God is love because God in Christ gave himself for us sinners (1 John 4:9-10). Hence, according to the New Testament, the gracious, self-giving act of Christ on behalf of those who did not deserve it, reveals the heart of God’s character; it defines God’s identity. God is not world-dominating power or arbitrary willfulness or blind justice or indulgent neglect. God is self-giving, unselfish, gracious and redeeming Love. How, then, does Christianity answer the question, “Who is God?” It says, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And God’s life is God’s eternal act of giving, receiving, returning and sharing among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This divine identity was first made known to human beings in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and everyone is invited through the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s eternal love story.
Why, then, is it important to get the right answer about God’s identity? What difference does it make? As I said in part 1 of this series, unless we know who God is we won’t know how to relate to God or what to expect from God. Most people living in the western world do not have a clear idea of how many conceptions of divine identity there are, how much they differ or what different visions of human life and behavior they generate. People seem to think that everyone who acknowledges the existence of a divine reality holds the same nebulous view of God’s nature and identity: God is benevolent toward all and wants us to be happy in this world. But it is not as simple and self-evident as this. As Paul said in the text quoted in part 2, there are many so-called gods and lords (1 Cor 8:5), and the character of some of those gods looks more like character of demons than that of Jesus (1 Cor 10:20-21). Some gods are identified with fertility, some with wine, some with war, some with nations and some with death. Their powers are revealed by the activities of these natural forces. The gods’ identities are constructed by the stories told about their deeds and sufferings, by the heroes they inspire and commands they give. And worshipers naturally live as much as possible like their gods. Devotees aspire to their gods’ power and wealth and find excuses for their sins in the moral defects of their gods.
Suppose someone thinks of the divine nature as exalted high above human nature, as possessing supernatural powers and immortality and even as being one (monotheism). No doubt believing in the existence of a God with these qualities would affect a person’s behavior in certain general ways. But this description does not tell us who God is and what we are permitted to do and ought to do in relation to God. It is our understanding of the identity of God that determines decisively our behavior in relation to God. If you identify the divine nature as an omnipotent, world dominating force who works by coercion, if the stories of your God’s acts are all tales of conquest, if the heroes of your religion are blood-soaked warriors and politicians, and if you think your enemies are fit only to be destroyed, it is to be expected that you will aspire to be like your God and his heroes. But one who identifies the divine nature with the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will seek God only in the face of Jesus and will aspire to live as Jesus lived; and this dramatic difference is an important reason to get the identity of God right.