The Death of God & Transcendence

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

“The true God is the hidden God”

-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1, 193

In reflecting about the death of God we want to read a certain kind of atheism back into the haunting words of Nietzsche. We want to view him the same way we view guys like Dawkins and Hitchens, but this is ultimately a mistake. If we put him in the same category we do to the New Atheists, we would miss the weight of his words. The death of God for Nietzsche is a cultural event. This poses an opportunity and a catastrophe, wherein the belief in transcendence has come to an end and when the culture wakes up to this reality, nihilism (infinite meaninglessness) will come creeping in. Nihilism, for Nietzsche, must be overcome. This is where his Übermench rises and overcomes.

Tomáš Halík, in his wonderful book ‘I Want You to Be’, argues that Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead” can be seen maybe “not as only a sentence about God and against God but also one containing something of God’s message to us.” (p. 20) In this chapter Halík is writing about God speaking to us, and how often we only stop at God’s first word to us. Halík says this is a mistake. Like Abraham, who ‘at the moment God was hidden from him in incomprehensibility’ waited to hear God speak to him for a second time. Hope, no matter how small or incomprehensible, says Halík, is the chink in the armor through which the “still small voice” of God’s message can reach us. (p. 21)

We live in the shadow of Nietzsche’s Madman’s proclamation to the death of transcendence, Halík argues that this should be viewed as only the first sentence to us, which like Good Friday (the death of Christ), must be followed by a second sentence. Good Friday is an important message to us from God, but it certainly was not the final one. Here Halík offers his most lucid analysis:

“‘God is dead!’ That sentence uttered at the end of the nineteenth century continued to fascinate for the next hundred years. Maybe it was not only a sentence about God and against God but also one containing something of God’s message to us. A God who has not endured death is not truly Living. A faith that does not undergo Good Friday cannot attain the fullness of Easter. Crises of faith –– both personal and in histories of culture –– are an important part of the history of faith, of our communication with God, who is concealed and returns again to those who do not stop waiting for the unique and eternal Word to speak to them once more.” (p. 20)

The author of the book of Hebrews tells us much the same:

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:15)

David Bentley Hart thinks the time we live in the death of God, which is the death of a god that did not exist in the first place, is an opportunity to reclaim the true transcendence of God. For Hart the death of God was the death of the God of modernity and nihilism. In his essay “Impassibility as Transcendence”, Hart takes on both Thomists and modern fundamentalists alike. For him the language within the Thomist scheme of transcendence does not actually speak to God’s utter difference and transcendence, but falls short and looks as modern as any theology does today. The statement Hart seeks to give an answer to comes from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange:

“God determining or determined: there is no other alternative.”

God, under both the Thomist  and the modern fundamentalists scheme, cannot avoid the problem that Lagrange puts forth, because He is simply another being among beings and is thus caught in the scheme of finite existence and causes. This is a grave mistake because God properly defined within the classical theistic metaphysical tradition is that God is the ground and source of all being. Hart expounds (at length) on the definition of God’s transcendence:

“God’s being is necessary, that is, not simply because it is inextinguishable  or eternally immune to nothingness, but because it transcends the dialectic of existence and nonexistence altogether; it is simple and infinite actuality, utterly pure of ontic determination, the “is” both of “it is” and of the “it is not”. It transcends, that is to say, even the distinction between finite act and finite potency, since both exist by virtue of their participation in God’s infinite actuality, in which might be always supereminently is. God is absolute, that is to say, in the most proper sense: he is eternally “absolved” of finite causality, so much so that he need not––in any simple univocal sense––determine in order to avoid being determined. His transcendence is not something achieved by the negation of its “opposite””.

He ends his scathing essay calling for Christians to see to it that this god remains dead:

“It is principally the god of modernity––the god of pure sovereignty––who has died for modern humanity, and perhaps theology has no nobler calling for now than to see that he remains dead, and that every attempt to revive him is thwarted: in the hope that, in becoming willing accomplices in his death, Christians may help to prepare their world for the return of the true God revealed in Christ, in all the mystery of his transcendent and impassible love.”

For Halík and Hart alike, the death of God is something to be seen as a hopeful event, because the death of this particular god is not the transcendent Triune God revealed in Christ, but a god who has never existed in the first place. Let us see it as an opportunity, not a catastrophe, that the true God revealed in Christ will once again speak His eternal Word to those of us who wait patiently in the midst of His seeming hiddenness and silence.

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Beauty

“Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

-Hans Urs von Balthasar, THE GLORY OF THE LORD: A THEOLOGICAL AESTHETICS, VOL. 1 -SEEING THE FORM

Sacrifice & Obedience

And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

-Hebrews 10:10, NRSV

“And take up their cross.” That cross is already there, ready, from the very beginning; we need only take it up. But to keep us from believing that we must simply choose any arbitrary cross, or simply pick out our suffering as we will, Jesus emphasizes that each of us has his or her own cross, ready, appointed, and appropriately measured by God.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

This year as part of my Lenten reading schedule, one of the books I am going through is Rowan William’s “The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection”. William’s has some wonderful reflections on the Cross and what it means for us today. In the second chapter “The Sacrifice” Williams seeks to reflect on the Cross as a “sacrifice”. He explores first what sacrifice means in the Old Testament, which for many may come as a surprise that sacrifice was a pretty diverse in its meaning. It wasn’t just sacrificing animals to keep God happy, it was much more nuanced and context specific than that. At length Williams writes about what is the common thread between the different meanings and purposes for sacrifices:

“But in the middle of it all is one great governing idea: a sacrifice is something given over into the hands of God, most dramatically when it is a life given over with the shedding of blood. That gift of life or blood somehow casts a veil over the sin or sickness or disorder of an individual or of a whole people. It removes the consequences of sin; it offers the possibility of a relationship unclouded by guilt with God; it is a gift that stands between God and the failures or disorders of the world. The gift is given – and it’s a costly gift because it’s about life and blood – so that peace and communication may be re-established between heaven and earth. And this was always symbolized by the fact that a sacrificed animal would be cooked and cut up and shared in the meal, which expressed not only fellowship with one another, but restored fellowship with God.” (Kindle Locations 290-296)

It is something given to God to restore fellowship. Sacrifice is done out of obedience, and Williams links Christ’s obedience at every moment of his life as a sacrifice to God for us. “Obedience”, Williams writes, “is not springing to attention and hastily doing what you’re ordered. Obedience is a harmony of response to God so that God sees in the world a reflection of his own life. Our actions in obedience reflect his.” (Kindle Locations 375-376) This a helpful frame for what it means to be obedient to God. He is not just an arbitrary rule giver shouting at us to stand at attention like mindless drones. No, obedience to God is us participating in the work of God. In our action we reflect God’s action towards us back to Him. This is what Christ did. The obedience of Christ “is a loving gift which directly and uninterruptedly and perfectly reflects God’s own loving gift. It’s the Son watching what the Father does and ‘playing it back’ to him. (John 5.19)”(Kindle Locations 382-383)

In Jesus, Williams continues, “we see all of that vast infinite eternal reality happening in a human life, happening in a weary, dusty-footed unkempt man completing a long journey, sitting down with his friends at the end of the day, breaking bread and pouring wine.”(Kindle Locations 391-393)

For He is the Word of God (John 1) and “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1.3) When we think of sacrifice let us reflect on the obedience of Christ that His whole life, at every moment, was a sacrifice to His Father. When we think of the cross “as sacrifice, however complex the ideas around it, what the language is trying to get us to see is that this new possibility is something objectively done for us, done on our behalf for us.”(Kindle Locations 410-412) Moreover, because of Christ it is possible for us to be human again, “to grow as we move along that living pathway to reconciliation with God and each other.” (Kindle Locations 421-422)

I have quoted Williams at quite some length, but let me cite him once more to drive home the fundamental truth which we should daily meditate on:

“Priests make atonement by performing sacrifices. But in the New Testament the subject is God. God makes peace with us, working through us, acting for us. It is God’s act, outside us, not up to us; something that God has accomplished.” (Kindle Locations 434-435)

God in Christ has done what we never could have. He reconciled us to Himself, not because of any foreseen faith or obedience on our part, but on the faith and obedience of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lenten Reflections on Restlessness and the Gospel

“Properly speaking it is Gospel when it preaches Christ; but when it rebukes and reproves and gives commands, it does nothing else than destroy those who are presumptuous concerning their own righteousness to make room for grace, that they may know the Law is fulfilled not by their own powers but only through Christ, who pours out the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

They who interpret the term ‘Gospel’ as something else than ‘the good news’ do not understand the Gospel, as those people do who have turned the Gospel into a law rather than grace and have made Christ a Moses for us.”

-Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans

An Anthropology of Restlessness

The Lenten season calls us to reflection in our hearts and bodies about what we cling to and rely on for our day to day existence. These things often look different than we otherwise would like to believe. It is not so much “you are what you believe” rather it is you are what you love. The rhythm of our days seek to shape us into certain kinds of people for specific kingdoms. This is based in the fundamental truth as human beings, we are first and foremost desiring beings. As James K.A. Smith observes:

“We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 40)

Liturgical practices, for Smith, is the various habits embedded in our daily existence. “Habits (precognitive dispositions) are formed by practices: routines and rituals that inscribe particular ongoing habits into our character, such that they become second nature to us.” (Ibid, p. 80) Moreover “the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it.” (Ibid, p. 47) If we understand ourselves first as primarily “lovers” before we are “thinkers” we will have to re-evaluate what it means for us to be influenced since we often believe that ideas are the way in which we are most heavily influenced. Take an example from Perelandra, the second novel in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy:

“As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle to the good and find that it also is dreadful? …Here at last was a bit of that world from beyond the world, which I always supposed that I loved and desired, breaking through and appearing to my sense: and I didn’t like it, I wanted it to go away.” (Perelandra, p. 19)

We suppose we love God and ultimately claim to desire Him, but what if a small amount of God and His holiness appears before us (whatever that looks like I’m not sure) and we shrink in horror that it is not at all what we had supposed? I will contend that the Lenten season gives us the space to reflect on the habits and rhythms that shape our days, and ultimately our hearts. If we continually participate in the consumerist narrative of work, consume, sleep and repeat we will be in a continual state of restlessness. The Gospel is good news for us, the Gospel is the good news of rest in a restless age.

Rest for the Restless

For Martin Luther, everything depends on a merciful God and not on someone’s will. The debates about freedom of the will are endless, and at times verge on out living their usefulness as it pertains to reflections on faith, but we must be cautious when we speak about the conversion of someone from a non-Christian to a Christian. Much of the language used, especially when we talk about the nature of free will, often becomes contentious because we tend to give into the modern notion of certainty about the things we believe. We over conceptualize, place the emphasis on one thing (human choice) or the other (God’s choice) and when we reduce the issue to either tends to distract us from the truth of God’s unconditional action towards the human race.

Karl Barth, in his second volume of his Church Dogmatics, writes about God’s love as love that is ‘concerned with seeking and creating fellowship for its own sake.’ (II.2, p. 276) This love is an outpouring of God’s abundant goodness He is in Himself. Perfect Triune loving fellowship and in ‘loving us, God does not give us something, but Himself; and giving us Himself, giving us His only Son, He gives everything. The love of God has only to be His love to be everything for us.’ (Ibid) Barth further elaborates that ‘God’s love is not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or fellowship on his side…the object of the love of God as such is another which in itself is not, or is not yet, worthy of this His pleasure.’ (Ibid, p. 278) Here Barth is getting at the point I want to make: God’s love is unmerited and unconditional towards us, and we find it fully realized in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is the action of God that saves us, not anything we have done on our own part. Our salvation is truly secure not in our cognitive recognition of it, nor is our belief in our belief what secures us, but the objective work of Christ fulfilling the promises of God secure our salvation and reconciliation.

Peter Leithart in his book ‘Delivered from the Elements of the World’ has a chapter titled “Justified by the Faith of Jesus”. In it he explores Paul’s use of the term justification. He writes ‘in contrast to some standard Protestant soteriologies, though, Paul treats this judgement not as a mere verdict of “righteous” that is the basis for liberation, but as itself an act of deliverance… sinners have the righteous status of Jesus himself by faith, by trusting in Christ and entrusting themselves to the Father, by self-abandonment and loyalty to their Savior.’ (Delivered, p. 181) Leithart here wants us to grasp that justification is not merely a legal status change, it is not ‘merely a matter of ordo salutis or application of redemption; it is also, and most fundamentally, an event in the historia salutis. “Justification” occurred two thousand years ago.’ (Ibid, p. 183)

In this season of Lent as we seek to abandon the habits and rhythms that are forming us for another kingdom, and abstaining from eating or drinking certain kinds of meat or alcohol, let us reflect on the goodness of God coming in Christ out of the abundance of the Triune communion seeking us out to give us Himself, which is to give us everything.

Reflecting & Rejoicing

“It was not worthy of the goodness of God that those created by Him should be corrupted through the deceit wrought by the devil upon human beings. And it was supremely improper that the workmanship of God in human beings should disappear either through their own negligence or through the deceit of the demons… But now He comes, condescending towards us in His love for human beings and His manifestation.”

-Athanasius, On The Incarnation, pp. 55-57

“The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the refection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.”

-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2, p. 94

This Advent season has been one on reflecting on my utter brokenness before God. I love and adore theological dialogue, doing theology and pressing into the ocean of mystery that is the depths of God and the Christian faith; but there are times when reading theology can itself become a distraction. Many times I’m quicker to pick up some work by Barth or Bonhoeffer than I am to dive into the Scriptures. Partly this is because I am afraid of the ways in which I am confronted with the reality of my sinfulness, and my complete unworthiness of approaching the throne of the infinite God. But then when I do engage Scripture, I am confronted with an unrelenting, loving God who is always moving towards not only Israel, but all human beings. This pure, holy love is not something I can bear at all. In being confronted by it, I am totally aware of my utter depravity and dread overwhelms the very core of my being. Like John says in his Revelation: “I fell at his feet, as though dead.” (Rev 1:17) Barth puts to words what I’m feeling better than I ever could:

“It is not the case that we ourselves can put ourselves in the position in which all that we can do is to seek what is above. We do, of course, put ourselves in many awkward positions. We can even plunge ourselves into despair. But we cannot put ourselves in the position, that saving and blessed despair, in which we can only seek refuge in God. But God plunges us into this despair when He reveals Himself to us, when His Word made flesh and the judgment of our flesh by the Holy Spirit, who opens our eyes and ears and therefore kindles our faith.” [1]

Even in this dread, God is tender and gentle in His approach. Paul in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians speaks about the richness of God’s grace towards us:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:1-10, ESV)

God desires to show us the richness of His mercy. God is a God who is seeking us out. Barth speaks about the love of God and the language used in Scripture to convey it:

“In Holy Scripture the love of God to us speaks the language of this fact-the fact of His election, guidance, help and salvation-and it is in this language that it has to be heard and understood. But all the expressions of this factual language meet in the name of Jesus Christ. In this name the approach of God to man consists in one fact alone. This is, of course, the even of revelation and reconciliation in the one Word, which is the Son of God. It is the fact that God intercedes for man, that He takes upon Himself the sin and guilt and death of man, that laden with it all He stands surety for him.” [2]

The language we must use when speaking of the love of God is bound up in the name of Jesus Christ. To proclaim the love of God is to proclaim Jesus Christ. In the Christmas season we must be confronted by the profound mystery of God becoming man. We must be confronted by a God who is not far off; who is not indifferent to the plight of human beings. The Incarnation is a saving act. This saving act is also not one of conditionality. God moves towards us unconditionally. He is not moved out of necessity, but out of His free love for us. We see the goodness of God fully on display in the person of Christ, from His incarnation, life, death and resurrection. In this move we catch a glimpse of the eternal choice of God, to pledge His very being for us. To quote Barth some more:

“…God has no need to love us, and we have no claim upon His love. God is love, before He loves us and apart from it. Like everything else that He is, He is love as the triune God in Himself. Even without us and without the world and without the reconciliation of the world, He would not experience and lack of love in Himself. How then can we for our part declare it to be necessary that we should be loved by Him? It is, in fact, the free mercy and kindness of God which meets us in His love.” [3]

This Advent season, it is my desire to live in light of this work that God has done and is doing. God has moved towards us, and is still ever moving towards us moment by moment.

“Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.

-1 John 4:15-19 ESV


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2, p. 372

[2] ibid, p. 378

[3] ibid, p. 379

Redemption & Freedom in “Stranger Things” (SPOILERS)

“Thus into our house of bondage, Jesus brought the freedom of God’s sons and daughters through living a life that broke through the bondage and slavery of our sin into the liberty of a sinless humanity rejoicing in the love and faithfulness of God the Father” 

-T.F. Torrance, Incarnation, p. 121,122

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”

-1 John 4:18,19 ESV

If you have not watched the Netflix Original ‘Stranger Things’, I highly recommend doing so. It is a wonderful story about a small town in Indiana in 1983 that is plunged into mystery surrounding a young boy named Will Byers who vanishes and is no where to be found. This event brings people together in a way that they never could have anticipated. Spoilers from here on out!

Chief Hopper (Redemption)

We meet the Chief (played by David Harbour) waking in the morning. He had been passed out on his couch with the television on, disheveled and his house is a mess. From the moment you fall upon the scene, there is immediately a sense of brokenness within Hopper. As the story moves forward, we discover that he has suffered a devastating loss in his life, and has haunted him ever since. Throughout the episodes we discover a little more of what happened to him, and towards the end of the season we discover he had a daughter who fell ill with cancer. In the finale, as Hopper and Joyce Beyers discover Will in the upside down, and a gripping moment ensues. We witness the death of Hoppers daughter as he stands by unable to do anything for her. Will has been held captive by the Demogorgon, and as they free him they discover Will is not breathing. Chief tells Joyce to breathe in Will’s mouth for three seconds in between Chief pumping into Will’s chest. This scene is playing out as the death of Hoppers daughter is coming in and out, and you hear the sound of the beeping as Will begins to breathe again.

Truly a gripping and emotional scene, we discover that Hopper is so invested in finding Will that he is willing to give his life to save him. He is unwilling to allow Joyce Beyers to go through the pain and suffering of losing a child as he did. In the end we discover that Hopper offers himself as a deal in some way with the company that essentially released the Demogorgon, which we will learn more in the second season of the show.

The story for Hopper is one of redemption. He is stuck in his own despair, and the case of Will Beyers brings him into a greater narrative that shows him a way out of his own suffering in the means of giving himself for someone else. Giving up his own life for the life of another. He participates in a greater event than what he is fully aware of. In the gospel of John, the Lord Jesus speaks to his disciples on the greatest love of all; “…that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) In the narrative Chief finds himself called into a greater story than his own, and in this he finds the freedom and power to move forward in action. Karl Barth reflects in CD VI.1 on what it means when we say “God with Us”, and he talks about what ‘God with Us’ describes;

“It means Jesus Christ again when it describes the event of ‘God with Us’ as a redemptive event; as the fulfillment of man’s being by participation of the divine being which comes to him by the grace of God”. (CD VI.1, p. 18)

It is in the person of Christ that we find ourselves reconciled to God, and thus thrusted into a greater narrative of God’ action in the world as one of reconciliation. Our neighbor, as John Webster puts it;

“…my neighbor is no longer a threat or an obstacle, nor a function of my self-interest. My neighbor is the presence to me of a truth which obliges me to act in his or her regard… Love is a counter-movement to our runious pride.” (Holiness, p. 96)

Eleven “El” (Freedom)

The story of Eleven is a heart breaking one. We discover that her mother had been tested on for months, and was told that she had miscarried the baby. Eleven is then held captive by Dr. Martin Brenner because of her abilities. She only knows existence as a prisoner with a number. Dr. Brenner puts on the act of caring for her, but as we come to discover he only cares about her powers for his own gain and prestige. Eleven  is the one who opens up the gate to the upside down and releases the Demogorgon that captures Will. We see various testing that is done on her, and she refuses to comply at certain times, and is thrown into a dark and confined room for punishment for not listening.

Eleven escapes from her prison, and is on the run as she runs into our main heroes of the story (Mike, Lucas and Dustin). Mike takes her into his home, and hides her from the rest of his family. Their relationship begins to grow, and she slowly starts to learn what it means to be in a mutual loving relationship with another human being for the first time. Mike earns her trust by showing her unconditional love and gentleness. He even lovingly gives her the nick name “El”, by that giving her a name that is in effect far more humanizing than just a number.

As the season continues, we begin to see El begin to trust Mike and in the series finale use her powers out of love for her friends rather than fear of punishment. In here lies a wonderful and beautiful truth that echoes the apostle John; “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) In loving El with gentleness and trust, El learns how to love them in return, and out of that love moves in action to rescue them from the Demogorgon who she had such an overwhelming and paralyzing fear. Even more we can hear the apostle John; “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) El had her fears cast out by the love of Mike, and in this we see her set free from the slavery which had gripped her the whole story up until that point.

Stranger Things is a story of redemption. It is a story of being set free from fear through the love of others. It is a story we all know far to well, it is our story.

The Endurance of the Electing God

“A man who is asleep…hears the voice of someone who loves him trying to rouse him gently from his sleep, because it is time for him to awake…”

-David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (pp. 11-12)

“The smile of the cherishing mother that evokes the smile of the infant is a microcosm of a cosmic truth: that God’s gracious initiative in the incarnation—“ he first loved us”— is the provoking smile of a Creator who meets us in the flesh, granting even the grace that allows us to love him in return.”

-James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love

worldengine

In the movie ‘Man of Steel’, General Zod and his crew have found their way to earth because of a signal Kal-El (Superman) had sent out while turning on an ancient Kryptonian ship that had crashed on earth some thousands of years ago. They begin to “terraform” the earth, which means they are modifying the earth’s atmosphere to resemble Krypton’s atmosphere. They use what is called a “world engine” that works in tandem with Zod’s ship bouncing gravitational waves through the earth back and forth. Superman has to go to the Indian ocean to destroy the machine or the human race will cease to exist. Since this machine is turning the earth into Krypton, Superman will be seriously weakened, and could possibly be killed by it.

In what I would argue is the most beautiful and emotional sequence in any comic book movie, we find some members of the Daily Planet in the city as it is continuing to be destroyed by the terraforming of the ship. Jenny, a reporter for the Daily Planet, fleeing the destruction becomes trapped in a prison of cement. She realizes her predicament and becomes terrified of the circumstances. The crushing weight of the gravity machine is going to bring her and the two others to their end, and there is nothing that they can do about it. We cut to the indian ocean, where Superman has been thrown by the defense mechanism on the machine underneath the crushing gravity pulsating into the earth. As the music begins to swell upward, we see his hand come into frame in a fist, he begins to press back against the pulse. Back to the city, the men are trying their hardest to get Jenny out of her cement prison, the crushing weight of death approaches them without any hesitancy. The music continues to permeate the scene with hope, as Superman with all his determination presses upward into the ray and destroys the machine. You can watch the final two minutes of that sequence here.

The Beauty of the Incarnation

This scene strikes me in various ways. When we see Jenny trapped, I cannot think of anything other than our natural condition as human beings. We are trapped in our sinfulness, we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves. Even when we are aware of our sin and our despair, it does nothing to free us from our condition. It is solely rooted in the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit are we freed from this state of being. It is the unconditional love of the triune God which comes to set us free. It is not anything we have done or ever could do to earn or deserve it. He endures the violence of the cross to free us from our bondage. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)

The aesthetic beauty of this scene is unrivaled for me. The lights of the pulse that washes over Superman, his hand clenching into a fist in his will to fight back, and Hans Zimmer’s score which penetrates the most hardened of hearts. What is more beautiful is how God actually became man. Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man, the hypostatic union. This mystery is of the most terrifying and wonderful depth. Athanasius speaks of the Word and the filling of all dimensions;

“The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension – above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.” (On the Incarnation)

T.F. Torrance speaks of the incarnation in this way;

“…the incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator…what God has not taken up in Christ is not saved.” (The Mediation of Christ, p. 48-49)

The Electing God Who Endures

In this action towards us God reveals His love for us in no uncertain terms. The story witnessed in the Scriptures is one of humanity abandoning God and God coming down into the wilderness seeking and saving us. First Israel then the world. God is the electing God. Karl Barth speaks of election as the “sum of the Gospel”. (CD II.2.1) To quote Barth at some length;

“In the midst of time it happened that God became man for our good. While underlining the uniqueness of this event, we have to reflect that this was not an accident, not one historical event among others. But it is the event which God willed from eternity.” (Dogmatics in Outline)

John Webster makes this point clear;

“God elects to be this God, God in this man, God known in and as Jesus Christ.” (Webster, p. 91)

Jesus Christ is both the electing God and the elected man. Election ‘is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and elected man in One.’ (CD II.2.3) He fleshes this out even further in talking about the person of Christ:

“Thus in this oneness Jesus Christ is the Mediator, the Reconciler, between God and man. Thus He comes forward to MAN on behalf of GOD calling for and awakening faith, love and hope, and to GOD on behalf of MAN, representing man, making satisfaction and interceding. Thus He attests and guarantees to God’s free GRACE and at the same time attests and guarantees to God man’s free GRATITUDE.” (The Humanity of God)

In Jesus Christ God has said Yes to all of His promises, no matter how many. (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)

“In His free grace, God is for man in every respect; He surrounds man from all sides. He is man’s Lord who is before him, above him, after him, and thence also with him in history, the locus of man’s existence. Despite man’s insignificance, God is with him as his Creator who intended and made mankind to be very good. Despite man’s sin, God is with him, the One who was in Jesus Christ reconciling the world, drawing man unto Himself in merciful judgment. Man’s evil past is not merely crossed out because of its irrelevancy. Rather, it is in the good care of God. Despite man’s life in the flesh, corrupt and ephemeral, God is with him. The victor in Christ is here and now present through His Spirit, man’s strength, companion, and comfort. Despite man’s death God is with him, meeting him as redeemer and perfecter at the threshold of the future to show him the totality of existence in the true light in which the eyes of God beheld it from the beginning and will behold it evermore. In what He is for man and does for man, God ushers in the history leading to the ultimate salvation of man.” (Barth, The Humanity of God)

All of this we see God’s endurance for us. The history of salvation bears this out.

Conclusion

When we go back to view that scene in which Superman endures and overcomes the horrific weight of the world engine, let us view it as a pointer. Superman is not God, nor does he actually represent Christ no matter how much the movie attempted to portray him as such. But what we can look to is how much this reflects and points us towards God’s endurance for us. He took on our sin and our flesh to heal it. He unconditionally binds Himself to us at the incarnation, suffers on the cross and puts an end to death in His resurrection. He is with us in our most difficult times, and is healing and transforming the world that was headed for certain eternal death. He speaks ‘Yes’ to His creation through the Word, who is Jesus Christ. From eternity God has elected us in Christ to share and participate in His triune being and work. When we encounter such beauty as the incarnation, or even a scene in a comic book movie, God is gently waking us from our despairing slumber. He has been gracious towards us from eternity. It is in Jesus Christ we have assurance of His promises towards us.

“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 1:19-22, ESV)

References:

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2 & Dogmatics in Outline

T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ

John Webster, Karl Barth, Outstanding Christian Thinkers

Man of Steel