Growing up fundagelical I saw the picture of a cross bridging a chasm many times. Often it was given to me in Evangelical tracts. The idea was that since I had sinned, listening to ABBA or sleeping in on a Sunday, I was now stuck on the side of death, and a giant chasm separated me from life and God. My only hope to avoid Death and Hell was to confess-repent-repeat ad infinitum. Then the cross of Jesus became the bridge to life. After all, God killed Jesus in my place so I could have a life. God’s bloodlust having been satiated with Jesus’ death allowed me to avoid hell.
One of my High School chapel speakers explained it this way. Imagine you are the world’s greatest jumper. You stand on the beach here in Newport Beach, and you must jump to Catalina Island. That’s a twenty-six-mile jump. It doesn’t matter how good of a jumper you are, you will fall short. You need some way to get over to the island. Your life is like that. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you have sinned and have fallen short. You are separated from God like Catalina Island is separated from the mainland. Only Jesus can carry you across to where you need to go. If you don’t ask for forgiveness and accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, you will find yourself forever separated from God. For you see, God is so Holy; He can’t stand sin. So, you can’t have fellowship with Him. You will experience the death of hell where there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for all eternity.
That is some damn scary stuff to tell a bunch of teenagers.
Let’s look at the bad theology behind this. First, we can’t ever be physically separated from God. In Psalms 139, the Psalmist makes that point.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
(Psalm 139:7-12 NIV)
One of the characteristics of God is that he is Omnipresent. It means He is everywhere. If we were separated from God, existing in a place where He is not present, then God would cease to be omnipresent.
Oh but wait a minute, scripture says our sins separate us from God. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear.” (Isaiah 59:2) This one verse seems to be the proof text for sin separating us from God. However, let’s try putting it into context. It’s a metaphor. In the previous verse, God is described as having arms and ears. In this verse, he is described as having a face. Obviously, God doesn’t possess a physical body. Chapters fifty-eight and fifty-nine of Isaiah are a pronouncement against Israel for their lack of true worship. They fast and pray as a ritual, but they also oppress and practice injustice. Isaiah tells the people that as long as they oppress and practice injustice, that God will not answer their prayers. Sin doesn’t separate us from God physically, or even relationally, it separates us from metaphorically from His blessings. This fits in line with James’ teaching.
“You crave what you do not have. You kill and covet, but are unable to obtain it. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask. And when you do ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may squander it on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3 NIV)
When we are living selfish, self-centered, sinful lives, God doesn’t answer our prayers for blessings. Not receiving God’s blessing is a far cry from death and hell.
Here’s an important second point, the reason given for why sin separates us from God is that God is so Holy He can’t stand sin and can’t fellowship with it. If we have any sin, then we are doomed, and even though he doesn’t want to, he has to throw us into the lake of fire because of the yucky sin in us. The problem with that is it makes sin more powerful than God. God can’t stand it; He can’t fellowship with it, He must cast it away. Poor God, sin is so icky He must run away and hide. Apparently sin to God is like garlic to a vampire or kryptonite to Superman. Jesus, of course, proved this wrong. Jesus as God incarnate dwelt with sinful us, fellowshipped with sinful us, touched sinful us, embraced sinful us, healed sinful us and loved sinful us. He also got rid of our sins. God is more powerful than sin. When God encounters sin, He doesn’t run away and separate Himself, He forgives us and cleanses us so we can be with Him.
Bad theology tells us that God abandons us like an unwanted child. Good theology tells us that God is always close. Humans neglect the relationship because of shame or guilt. God doesn’t answer our childish request for more goodies when we are off on one of our self-centered tantrums, but He never separates Himself from us. Perhaps a better picture would be a very patient parent refusing to give candy to a child throwing a tantrum. The parent is present and ready to re-engage as soon as the child is ready.
Paul said it best when he said, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 NIV) Even in our sin, God is with us.
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