Many cultural ideologies and human philosophies now attempt to capture the hearts and minds of human beings.
Relativism (all truth is subjective). Humanism (humans are good without God). Secularism (society is better off without religion). Atheism (God doesn’t exist). Nihilism (nothing can be known with certainty). Scientism (empirical science is the standard for absolute truth). Consumerism (meaning in life is derived from consuming). The list could go on.
Regardless of where you stand, you can’t ignore that you believe in something. You desire something too. Even nihilism, the belief that there is nothing, is still a belief in something. Something has captured you. Like philosopher James K.A. Smith writes, human beings are “embodied agents of desire”— it’s just a matter of what will capture our heart’s desire (Smith 2009, 47). Everyone has a version of the “good life” they believe in and follow—a version of the good life that speaks to them and fuels their life. It’s unescapable.
Every cultural ideology offers its own version of freedom, hope, truth, progress, meaning and fulfillment—even salvation. This is what makes every version of the “good life” attractive to the human palate.
Just think. What ideology doesn’t offer us salvation in some way, shape or form?
Relativism promises to save us from the confines of rigid moral authority. It promises that we can be our own moral god.
Humanism and secularism tell us that we are good people and can save the world on our own. It saves us from being a “slave” to traditional religious authority. It promises that people can be their own saviors, or that we don’t need a savior at all.
Atheism of course saves us from the “delusion” of God and promises the freedom to think for ourselves.
Nihilism offers to save us from…well, it offers nothing (hope you got that joke!).
Scientism promises to save us from the “baseless nonsense” of faith and supernatural speculation. It puts our ability to understand the universe (and thus truth) in the hands of scientific progress (something we can control). Nothing can be trusted but what we can observe. This brings us comfort and also saves us from the fear of unknowing.
Finally, consumerism promises to save us from poverty, social-economic irrelevance and boredom (I often subscribe to that last one).
By now you get the point. No one can escape salvation, because the world is flooded with salvific messages. Not even the person who rejects the need to be saved can escape salvation. Implicit in that belief itself is the desire to be saved (or delivered) from needing help (or admitting that we need help) from someone or something outside of ourselves. We all have been, or will be (if you live long enough) captured by some form of ideology or philosophy that offers to save and allow us to live the “good life” we desire.
A Fierce Competitor in the Marketplace of Salvation
But there’s another option—a fierce competitor in the market for human salvation. I’m talking about the biblical God of passionate love.
It’s true, in the past, Christianity (God, Jesus, the Church, etc.) held a monopoly over culture. But now, in an age of skepticism, relativism and secularism (essentially in a more open cultural market), I don’t think God has a problem being seen as an “option among options” in this competitive marketplace of human salvation. Afterall, our current secular landscape considers all “religions” to be equal before the law and so we are tasked with presenting the sovereign God of love and His message of eternal salvation using similar vocabulary. Neither does this trivialize the sovereignty of God nor does it reduce Him to a lesser force. We are just accommodating culture, tweaking our vocabulary, being relevant as they say. I don’t think relevance of this kind comes at the expense of reverence.
You see, I think God wants to and does (even though He doesn’t have to) meet culture on its own terms during certain periods of history. Now, in this age, perhaps God is less interested in asserting Himself on people through the moral absolutism of old, but still very interested in making Himself and His message of salvation clearly known to human beings. And this doesn’t mean that He is not the standard for absolute moral truth or that He is not “head over every power and authority” (Col 2: 10). He just recognizes (and so should the Church) that moral absolutism and cultural monopoly no longer capture the hearts of human beings in this secular-relativistic age. Something else must capture the hearts of humanity if the Christian message of salvation will be competitive among the rest in this day in age.
That something, I argue here, is God’s passionate love.
This of course, is God’s strongest and most defining attribute. And the world is starving for love. An endless supply of love in a world of desperate need. Wow.
The Biblical God of Passionate Love
The Bible proclaims that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And Christianity asserts that central to God’s love is Jesus. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “where Jesus is, there is God’s love” (Bonhoeffer 1991, 319). Not only is Jesus “the concrete executor of God’s love” (Bonhoeffer 2005, 232), but He is God incarnate—“in Christ the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form” (Col 2:9).
In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God voluntarily collides with the broken reality of our world. In this Christ event, God absorbs humanity’s sin and triumphs over the forces of death and evil. The God of the Bible is not the unmoved-mover of Greek philosophy. Rather, He voluntarily suffers for human beings because He is moved with compassion for our pain and loss.
Moltmann writes, “The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about ‘God’ is to be found in this Christ event…Here he himself is love with all his being” (Moltmann 1974, 211).
If the Bible states that God is love, that is, that love is the absolute definition of God’s nature, than God must be open to suffering. Moltmann adds,
…a God who cannot suffer is poorer than any man. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is also a loveless being” (Moltmann 1974, 222).
If God is not open to suffering, than He cannot love. If God is love, than He must be open to suffering–He must be moved by human pain and our cries for help. Passionate love defines the God of the Bible. This love, found in the Person and work of His Son Jesus, is what moves God to offer concrete salvation to a world collapsing under the realities of sin, evil and death.
Bonhoeffer proclaims: “Only the consummate love of God is capable of encountering reality and overcoming it” (Bonhoeffer 2005, 69).
The salvation that the Biblical God of passionate love offers is all-encompassing and all-embracing. The salvation that God offers us in Christ tells us that God suffers in solidarity with us and can relate with our pain and sorrows.
In Christ, “God goes incognito, as a beggar among beggars, as an outcast among outcasts, as despairing among the despairing, as dying among the dying” (Bonhoeffer 1978, 107).
God absorbs sin, destroys death, heals our pain and triumphs over evil so that those who place their trust in Jesus the Son can experience abundant life and new creation now and forevermore.
God’s love is a “love to the non-existent, love to the unlike, the unworthy, the worthless, to the lost, the transient and the dead” (Moltmann 1993, 32).
Yes—“The God of the Bible is a personal, passionate, jealous, concerned and suffering God” (Goetz 1986, 389).
Have you been captured by the biblical God of passionate love?
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 10: Barcelona, Berlin, Amerika 1928-1931. Edited by Hans Christoph von Hasse et al. 1991.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Christ the Center. Translated by Edwin H. Robertson. New York: HaprerOne, 1978.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6: Ethics. Edited by Clifford J. Green. Translated by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West and Douglas W. Scott. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
Goetz, Ronald. “The Suffering of God: The Rise of New Orthodoxy,” Christian Century 103, no. 13 (April 6, 1986): 389.
Moltmann, Jurgen. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. Trans: R.A. Wilson and John Bowden. SCM Press Ltd. London: 1974.
Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology of Hope: On the ground and the implications of a Christian eschatology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993.
Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.