“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone." (Mark 10:18/Luke 18:19)
This past Easter, I realized that it never says in the scriptures that Jesus was flogged 39 times. He may have been, but it doesn’t say it. The scriptures point out that Paul was flogged 39 times – more than once. But not Jesus. Historical inference lead many to believe it was 39 times - but it’s not actually said in the scriptures. Look it up. And here I thought this was a given fact of the crucifixion. I was completely led to believe this “fact” (most recently by a popular movie), and it’s not even confirmable. It might not even be true. (The number of times being significant because 40 lashes was death) How often do I swallow what people say about the gospel without really testing it? I wonder…
Sometimes I hear something that someone says and immediately believe it’s true without ever testing it. I remember someone telling me that Jesus was in the direct line of David - as far as lineage goes. And this was the fulfillment of prophesy. But when I really looked at the scriptures (one in Matthew, one in Luke) - they actually say this:
Mat 1:1 “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham...”
Mat 1:16 “...and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is the Messiah”
Luke is similar - but starts with Jesus:
Luke 3:23 “Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli,...”
So, what’s the big deal? Well, both scriptures point out that Joseph’s lineage went through David. But, there’s a problem with that - the scriptures make it very clear that Joseph was not Jesus’ actual dad. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit - through Mary. This would “break” any real claim to the lineage that Jesus had through David. If Joseph was the actual father, then it would break the claim that Jesus was begotten of the Father - the whole virgin birth prophesy. A definite conundrum.
I’ve brought this up to many people of faith (of whom I am one) as well as quite a few Pastors, and I’ve gotten some of the most ridiculous answers to these questions. Most often, they insist that the lineage goes through Mary, and not Joseph - even when it’s pointed out. The scriptures clearly say otherwise. Then, they change the subject. Or - they might say something like, “Well, that’s just how God works - you can’t really know everything,” or “God can do whatever He wants.” While there’s some truth to those statements - these are really pathetic attempts to answer legitimate questions about Jesus.
For years, this problem really bugged me, until I realized that Jesus was adopted into the line of David - with full privilege of a first born son. That actually seemed more like His character, because later on we would be adopted as God’s kids as well - through what Jesus accomplished on the cross. It totally made sense to me. However, it really bugged me that people would avoid some “difficult” questions and come up with some really lame answers to genuine inquiry.
We often take what we hear, and don’t question it. Or, we have really difficult questions about what we’re told, but don’t investigate the answers because we think it might threaten our faith. There’s always this cloud of worry that we might ask the wrong questions - and end up going to hell. So many of us don’t ask and we don’t investigate - even when the questions are deep down inside. But what if, in some instances - we’re just dead wrong? What if our fear of being “wrong” gives us a really awful picture of God?
This will definitely get me in trouble with some - but oh well...
I’ve heard many preachers say, “Sin is separation from God, and Hell is eternal separation from God.” This is a very popular theology in today’s church. And these statements are not just made by Pastors, they’re found in many Church creeds (statements of faith). Early on in my walk in faith, I took these statements and ran with them. I believed them because someone told me to believe them. But there was a problem - I never truly investigated whether those statements were actually true! I just heard someone say those statements, and believed you could support them in scripture. And I defended them strongly whenever they were questioned. But, deep down, something seemed a little out of whack.
I’ve come to find that my initial uneasiness with this theology may have had some merit. The “sin is separation from God” statements have serious logical flaws and don’t hold up very well with the scriptures. So - let’s investigate.
Nearly everyone who is a person of faith believes really amazing things about the characteristics of God. Theologians use big words like omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, meaning: all powerful, all knowing, and always present.
There’s a definite problem with one of these characteristics when matched up with the separation statements: always present means always present. This contradicts the claim the God could be separated from anything - especially eternally. God’s characteristic of omnipresence - the very nature of who He is - makes it impossible for Him to be separated from anything or anyone in all creation because He's always present. So - it’s one or the other. Either there’s separation when we sin and God is NOT omnipresent - or - there is no separation and He is omnipresent.
Let’s take a peak at the scriptures. It says in Colossians that God holds all things together (Col. 1:17). So that begs the question: Does all mean all? Or does all mean: everything, except when a person is “sinning”. If God holds all things together - including atoms - then He’s connected to all things - literally touching everything at all times - even in the process of a person “sinning.” Where’s the separation in that?
And Psalm 119:7-12
“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.”
The scriptures make it pretty clear that God is everywhere - even when we’re “hiding” in our darkness. Where’s the separation in that?
In one of Jesus’ stories - He touches a leper. In those days - no “clean” person could touch one that was deemed “unclean,” or they themselves would become unclean. Yet - Jesus reached out his hand and touched him. And Jesus is the exact representation of God. It was God Himself touching the leper. Where is God’s separation in that? In fact, where is God’s separation with anyone He interacts with when He walked on the world? He touches sinners, He hangs out with sinners, He chooses sinners to be His disciples, He eats with sinners, and becomes known as a friend of sinners. Where’s the separation in that? The very act of God coming to Earth - and became one of us - where’s the separation there? God is not afraid of our wretchedness - thank the Lord!
One of my favorite scriptures:
“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)
Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God? Hmmmm... And God is love - as it says in 1 John. Where is the separation there? Does all mean all? Does “all creation” mean - ALL creation? Or, does the scripture mean: all creation, except where there’s sin and hell?
I really believe that what is meant by “separation from God” is really - separation from the fellowship of God. There is a HUGE distinction between these two statements. When someone talks about “separation from God”, what they imply is that God turns His back on us when we sin. He turns His back on Humanity. He becomes the Abandoning Father. This is as bad of a picture of God as you can get! God NEVER abandons us! “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
What some might be intending to say is that our sin separates any fellowship - or friendship - with God. Sin - in it’s base form - is rebellion towards God. But that action of abandoning is NOT from God - it’s from us. God doesn’t abandon us - ever. We spend our whole life abandoning God. Just look at your own life. And look at how the scriptures put it:
““There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;” (Romans 3:10b-12)
All have turned away - humanity turning its back on God. Not God turning His back on us.
Much of this “separation” theology stems from Old Testament thinking - having to do with the Holy of Holies - within the temple - where God’s presence was said to reside. The argument goes that God can’t be in the presence of sin because sin would taint His perfection. So - He was in a place that only He resided - the Holy of Holies - that was only entered into one time a year by a priest who had performed all the correct rituals so he could perform the atonement sacrifice for the people of Israel. It was a big deal. It also led to the roots of the thinking “God is separate” from us. That’s one reason that Jesus was so scandalous when He showed up (especially when announcing His arrival to lowly shepherds). From some people’s perspective - God becoming a man defamed God. Jesus broke the wrong perception that “God is separate” by becoming one of us.
But let’s go back to the Holy of Holies. Can a Holy God be tainted by sin? Is God separate because He could be infected with our disease? If God could be tainted by sin - then that elevates the power of sin. Sin is not strong enough to taint God’s perfection. Look at it from a light perspective. Light can’t be tainted by darkness. Light makes darkness flee. From another angle - it’s like the leper story. God can’t be tainted by disease - He’s way too powerful. Disease flees from God. The unclean is made clean. And, in that story - it’s from a touch. (opposite of separation). Another angle - every time Jesus encounters demons in the scriptures, they freak out and think they’re going to be destroyed. Darkness shudders at the light - and ultimately will be destroyed by it. But God is never close to being tainted by darkness. It’s just not possible.
When Jesus walked the earth, He became the clearest picture of God to humanity than anything prior in history. When Jesus died, the temple curtain was torn, signifying that Jesus had fulfilled the law and God was no longer “contained” in a physical place. Do a study on the Holy of Holies and the temple curtain - and then you’ll really see the significance of the temple curtain being torn after Jesus’ death. It’s actually pretty interesting. God was no longer “separate” - but was now “free” from our prior perceptions of Him.
Actually, just the term “Holy” makes our understanding of God a little muddy. Holy means - set apart. But, set apart does NOT mean separate. These fine lines make it really tricky when talking about God. A person can have the best intentions in sharing their view of God, but end up giving a less than good picture of who God really is - without even realizing it.
There are a few New Testament backings for this “separation” theology, but they’re pretty weak in their arguments. Two are parables - the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16), and the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mat 25) are often pointed out. But both parables really talk about the separation of people groups - not separation from God. Lazarus and the rich man are separated from each other - but there’s really no mention of God, from a separation standpoint. We do see torment that the rich man is suffering - but we don’t see God turning His back on him. In fact, it was the rich man who turned his back on God. Same story in the Sheep and Goats parable. Separation of people groups - but not of God. The goats were the ones that didn’t give a rip about God.
There are one or two more arguments for separation theology within the letters that Paul writes - but, again - Paul is talking about separating people groups, not God separating Himself from us.
The biggest defense for this theology gets really screwy when taking a look at the Trinity. On the cross, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The argument goes that Jesus felt the full brunt of humanity’s sin at that moment, and God the Father turned His back on His Son.
There’s a few problems that can be pointed out with this line of thinking. First - is Jesus God or not? God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirt - three in one. Trinity thinking. If Jesus IS God, then simple logic concludes that God couldn’t ever separate Himself from Himself. It was God Himself that died on the cross. Is Jesus God? Take it a step farther - it says in Galatians that Jesus became the curse:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Gal 3:13)
Is Jesus God? Or does He take a break on the cross - when He died? Was God our atonement - or was it some random dude that God used, and then God walked away from at his very moment of need? That doesn’t sound like the God that I know.
So, then - why would "God" say, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus was a Rabbi and He was quoting the first line of a Psalm. When a Rabbi quoted a Psalm’s first line, that included the entire Psalm. Jesus was quoting Psalm 22. Read it - it’s amazing! It describes the crucifixion - but it was written long before it ever happened. Look at the end of the Psalm - it’s not a Psalm of desperation or separation, it’s a Psalm of triumph. It ends with “He has done it!” Very close to another phrase that Jesus utters on the cross: “It is finished.” And look at these verses from that same Psalm:
For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help. (Psalm 22:24)
That doesn't sound like God turning His back on Jesus. To me - at least - that looks like the opposite...
People fight for separation theology like they’re fighting for life over death. It’s really interesting. The scriptures never really clearly define sin as separation from God - especially in the New Testament. It's even harder to back the "hell is separation from God" definition within scriptures. Seriously - go and try - don't take my word for it.
So - what’s the big deal? Why does this point matter?
This theology gives a very hurtful description of God. It’s not a very loving picture of our Savior. And it’s just not that accurate. I want to make it clear though - I’m not saying sin does not exist or that it’s not bad. Or that hell doesn’t exist - or is not awful. That’s not what I’m saying at all. Sin is destructive and leads to death.
What I am saying is that “sin is separation from God” and “Hell is eternal separation from God” is a VERY bad definition of sin and hell. Use something different when describing sin - like - rebellion, esteeming not, ignoring, missing the mark - etc. All these definitions point to our depravity - our movement away from God. Separation implies that God moves away from us - when that’s just not the case.
The other danger is that we begin to live our theology. If we believe that God turns His back on people when they sin - how long before we might start turning their back on sinners? To be honest - I see churches that do that all the time. Just a thought to keep in mind...
This is already pretty exhaustive, and I could go on - but I won’t. If you’ve got this far - I’m amazed - and thanks for your time. I do want to explain one reason why I wrote it.
I went to a camp and this theology was preached. In my cabin of guys, there were at least four young men that had been abandoned by their real dads. Some others had suffered abuse - some physical, and some sexual - from their fathers. The night that sin was preached, the speaker gave a clear picture of God the Father turned His back on our “badness.” He said, “sin is separation with God, and Hell is eternal separation with God.” The picture he gave of God (who is supposed to be good) was almost identical to some of these kid’s experiences with their own fathers. God was an Abandoning God - and couldn’t be near to our sin. Ugh.
Yes - the cross was coming, but his description just really gave “the Father” a bad name. Last I heard - Jesus and the Father were one. When talking about sin - can't we just stick to "rebellion" or "ignoring God" or not putting God in His rightful place? Sin is awful - destructive - not good. But God - especially when looking at Jesus - doesn't separate Himself from us because of it. In fact, He's really the only one that can touch our sin and heal us - we can't do it on our own.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24)
When I look at Jesus - He just blows the Abandoning Father perception to smithereens. We need to be very careful on how we share the “good” news. And we need to not be scared to ask hard questions of the faith - whether they seem threatening or not.
May God guide you as you seek Him!