God is Near and Distant

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May 21 2016
Author: Pastor Bill Henderson

Supplemental teaching for session Four of Wayne Grudem’s 20 Life Transforming Truths

What do you make of the cosmos, the complex and orderly system we call the universe? At the most general level, how do you think about the nature of this universe in which we live? As Christians, we may take our theory of the universe for granted but like Rodin’s famous bronze sculpture of “The Thinker,” we might do well to deeply ponder how the biblical understanding remains distinct from other explanations.

One explanation, fashionable among Westerners today, is called philosophical materialism. In this view, simply put, the material universe is literally all there is. So because “matter is all that matters” the universe is void of God. Little wonder that so many of us Canadians have a love affair with our material stuff, our money, and the good life it can buy.

A second understanding of the universe is deism, which is on the rise in Canada today. For example, while an increasing 25% of Canadians are classified as “nones,” professing no religious affiliation, most of them are surprisingly religious and believe in a “God” akin to the deists from the Age of the Enlightenment. Deism accepts God as the Creator and Supreme Being but rejects authoritative revelation and divine intervention. Therefore, in this world of ours, God is like an absentee landlord. Wayne Grudem’s words are worth pondering: “Many ‘lukewarm’ or nominal Christians today are, in effect, practical deists, since they live their lives almost totally devoid of genuine prayer, worship, fear of God, or moment-by-moment trust in God to care for needs that arise."

A third explanation imported from the East is called philosophical dualism. George Lucas, the clever creator of the Star Wars franchise eventually went on record to admit what everyone knew. He had borrowed from Eastern mysticism to concoct “the Force,” a form of pure energy woven into the fabric of the universe with light and dark dimensions diametrically opposed and irreconcilable. This kind of dualism is similar to ancient Iranian Zoroastrianism in which two ultimate and impersonal realities of good and evil, evidently with no beginning or end, are engaged in eternal conflict. Perhaps it is fair to say that when Christians slip into the despair of utter cynicism and defeatism because the world is so bad, an underlying dualism is at work. But such a dualism only steals the certainty that God alone is omnipotence and all-wise with holy purposes (many of them inscrutable) that will ultimately lead to a new universe where sin and its chaos are no more.

A fourth view of the universe, also Eastern in origin, is pantheism. You’ll find it in the “Religion and Inspiration” section in any Chapters bookstore by well-known authors like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. Pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now. Think of the Native-American worldview in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, or Disney’s Pocahontas. Think of the “circle of life” in The Lion King, or Pandora, the sci-fi universe, in James Cameron’s amazing film, Avatar. In basic pantheism, God is equated with Nature, and humanity is called into communion with the natural world. All is God, and God is the whole universe.

In contrast to these all-explaining views of the universe and variations on their themes is Christian theism. Unlike materialism, this biblical view affirms that the physical universe is created and sustained by an immaterial and personal God. Unlike deism, the Bible teaches that God the Creator is by no means a “hands under the armpits” God of indifference but the ever-present Lord who is actively involved in His universe. Unlike dualism, the Bible teaches that the material universe had a starting point, that only God is eternal and ultimate (not matter), and that God will finally triumph over evil and forever. And unlike pantheism biblical theism affirms that God is a personal identity separate from creation (which is not divine) and He willed it into existence out of nothing.

Often theologians have usefully distinguished and clarified Christian theism by appealing to two of God’s essential attributes: immanence and transcendence. Roughly speaking, immanence means God is “down here,” and transcendence means that God is “up there.” God is both near and distant. He is both present in space and time and transcends space and time. And sometimes both truths are taught side by side in the same breath of Scripture: “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other” (Deuteronomy 4:39); “There is…one God and father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Therefore, creation is dependent upon God for its ongoing existence and functioning; and God is near in the sense that His presence is universal and especially with and for His people. On the other hand, God is distant from creation, not in any disinterested sense and not even primarily in a spatial sense but insofar as He is described as “high and lifted up,” or the “Most High.” So God is approachable yet majestic, near like a shepherd tending to his flock yet distant like an enthroned King decked in royal robes ruling over all.

I find it amazing to consider the immensity of the distance between God and us. He creates, we are creatures; He is original, we are derivative; He is everlasting, we are temporal; He is self-existent, we are dependent. He is maximally perfect in his attributes, we are sinners through and through. But I’m equally amazed at the intimacy of God’s nearness to us. Our very existence, each second of every moment, is supplied by Him. Wherever we turn, God is there. Whatever we do, God’s hand is upon us. And from cradle to cross God came near in our humanity in our world for our salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. In fact, how can it be that the King is the Shepherd who saves us from sin and graciously adopts us into His family indwelling us with His Spirit to assure our spirits that we are the children of God (Romans 8:15-17)? No creature can experience that kind of intimacy with any other created thing. As C.S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain, “God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than any other being.”

HT: Grudem’s Systematic Theology, (1994) 267-271; Millard Erickson’s God the Father Almighty; Joseph Brean, National Post (May 26, 2014) ; Ross Douthat, The New York Times (Dec. 20, 2009).

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