I woke up paralysed. More precisely, I woke up partially paralysed, with total acute paralysis of some of my vital organs. After somewhat confusing and ultimately questionable medical advice, I ended up in the Emergency Department of a major public hospital.1
It took a week in hospital and a barrage of medical tests to determine that I had transverse myelitis—a serious neurological disorder. The cause is still unknown, but my specialist believes it was most likely some form of stroke.
At the same time as I was struck down, another young man was admitted to the same hospital with an equally sudden and rare condition—meningococcal disease. While I lived, he died. I remained a nobody, but his death became a major news headline in my home state of Western Australia.2 The reason I mention this other young man is because he was no random stranger but, by an odd coincidence, a university classmate.3 Days before, we had sat metres from each other in a lecture theatre.
Having a stroke is no easy thing, but I don’t wish to overstate my experience as many have gone through far worse. However, one thing that really got to me was the confronting reality that while I, a 37-year old man with a wife and nine-month old baby, was ultimately able to walk out of that hospital, my 24-year-old classmate, about to graduate with his whole life ahead of him, left in a coffin.
Why did I live, but my classmate die? Is God really both omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-loving)? Why then doesn’t God use His power?
Hume’s challenge and the impotent God
The 18th century philosopher David Hume, reflecting on this problem, suggested that if God was truly all-powerful and all-loving, He wouldn’t allow evil to exist; if He allowed evil to exist, then God couldn’t truly be all-powerful and all-loving.4 The more I thought about this, while lying in that hospital bed, the more I began to think Hume could be right—in a manner of speaking.
Christians believe the best exemplar of who or what God is can be found in the life of Jesus Christ, God incarnate (John 1:1,2,14). And when you think about Jesus and the two seminal events of His life, events Christians throughout the ages have celebrated as Christmas and Easter,5 they are not exactly depictions of God’s power. In fact, they are the complete opposite of “power” as human beings ordinarily understand it.
In the first event, God incarnate became a baby, given into the care of mere human beings, immobile and completely helpless, lying in a manger.
In the second event, God incarnate was made immobile by being nailed to a cross. It was God incarnate who Himself felt helpless and abandoned by God, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Thus, God incarnate was as paralysed as I was in that hospital bed. But why? You may like to contemplate this question for yourself, but speaking personally, I put forward three possible reasons for this divine impotence.
Reason #1: God won’t buy our love
First, maybe love and power cannot easily co-exist. Maybe true love demands power be surrendered, because true love demands a risk that is antithetical to power’s surety of control.
A God who performed miracles every time we asked wouldn’t be God but Santa Claus. He would not be respecting our right to free choice—including past bad choices that have made this a cruel, horrible world.
Reason #2: What seems to be impotence is actually courageous inaction
Second, in my own medical case, the specialist explained the best thing he could do was actually nothing. His intervention might make the situation worse. By analogy, we should consider that what seems to be Jesus’ impotence was actually God’s means of disarming the power of sin and death, as well as shaming Satan.
A vaccine works precisely by taking in a part of the disease. Likewise, God humbled Himself incarnate as a man, embracing the worst of sin and death in order to disarm their power (Philippians 2:6-8). Now we too can share in this celestial immunity in faith through a spiritual blood transfusion, epitomised in the symbols of the Lord’s Supper—consuming Christ’s blood and flesh (John 6:53).
" . . . by going quietly as a lamb to the slaughter, Jesus’ death actually shamed Lucifer by exposing him as the arch-terrorist he truly is."
In the case of the cause of sin and death, originating in infected Patient Zero—Lucifer—it too meant a degree of courageous inaction. Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, like many non-violent resisters before him, understood the true power of courageous inaction. In explaining his strategy behind the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, he said: “The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent.”6
On a cosmic level, by going quietly as a lamb to the slaughter, Jesus’ death actually shamed Lucifer by exposing him as the arch-terrorist he truly is (Colossians 2:15). “Not until the death of Christ was the character of Satan clearly revealed to the angels or to the unfallen worlds. The archapostate had so clothed himself with deception that even holy beings had not understood his principles.”7
Reason #3: We should recalibrate our understanding of omnipotence
Third, and finally, German theologian Jürgen Moltmann explains that God perhaps only seems impotent because we misunderstand the nature of omnipotence.8 For God to be truly all-powerful, He must be able to experience everything, including sin and death, states of being that should be beyond God’s reach (Job 7:21). A paradox to be sure: God who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21); God, who is the source of life (John 1:4), became a man and died a criminal’s death (Luke 22:37). Ellen White said: “Men need to understand that Deity suffered and sank under the agonies of Calvary.”9
A god who cannot share in our suffering is not the God of the Bible, who, incarnate as a Man, is able to sympathise with our weaknesses, being tested in every respect as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). The distant view of God is instead the impassable deity of pagan Greek philosophy, which would later influence Western thought through medieval Catholic theologians.10 And as this distant pagan-Greek view of God came to dominate Western Christianity, is it any wonder so many today, especially in the West, no longer believe in Him?
Conclusion: Is God there?
Everyday experience might suggest God is mostly invisible to our everyday senses. Nonetheless, be careful of assuming God isn’t there, doesn’t care and isn’t doing anything.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, and member of Livingston church.
- Special honourable mention to Sonya Goltz, wife of Pastor Paul Goltz, who wasn’t happy with the medical advice I was receiving and advised I immediately attend ED.
- See http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/western-australia/perth-mans-meningococcal-death-raises-calls-for-greater-vaccine-coverage/news-story/a6652db3cb09575ab1910c1d6ffcbfaa and http://www.watoday.com.au/wa-news/fit-young-healthy-perth-man-dies-from-meningococcal-disease-20161024-gs91mz.html
- While I am a lawyer, I met this fellow student in a post-graduate course in town planning I recently undertook.
- My paraphrase of Hume’s statement from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).
- Despite the festivals of Christmas and Easter admittedly having pagan origins, the events themselves are of course biblical, as described in the Gospels.
- Martin Luther King, Justice Without Violence (April 3, 1957).
- Ellen White, Desire of Ages, 758.
- See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QvwxOqOk98
- Ellen White, Manuscript 44 (1898), and the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 907.
- The idea of a distant first cause dreamt up by ancient Greek philosophers Plato (427-423 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC), who would in turn greatly influence medieval Catholic theologians Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). For example, Henry Chadwick in The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993: 218) explains about Augustine: “His conversion to Neoplatonism and to Christianity were nearly so simultaneous . . . The strong Platonic element in his conversion was also an influence in making it a decision for a celibate life.”