In Part 1 of the Perfection Paradox, I described how, during my freshman year at Rice University, I was exposed to a Christian story that, up until that point in my life, I had never heard before. The story went something like this:
God is perfect. Humans are not. A perfect God can have nothing to do with a sinful humanity. This is why God sent Jesus Christ. Jesus is able to live the perfect life that we are unable to live. Jesus is the human that God always intended for us to be. When Jesus dies on the cross, he becomes the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Due to Jesus cleansing us, we are now able to be in relationship with God once again.
I would hear some variation of this story every time I went to the student Christian groups on Rice’s campus. At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what didn’t sit right with me, but I eventually came to realize there were several assumptions being applied to this line of thinking that were at the heart of my discomfort:
God is perfect.
God expects humans to be perfect.
God needed Jesus to be perfect because we could not meet God’s expectations.
We are going to examine the first two of these assumptions in this post. The third assumption is so complex that it will require a post unto itself. Therefore, let us begin by unspooling the first assumption.
Assumption 1: God is Perfect
This might seem like an odd thing to call an assumption. Don’t all Christians believe that God is perfect? Yes, it is certainly true that Christians throughout the centuries have viewed God as a perfect being. However, this perception is not necessarily backed up by the Bible. The notion that God is perfect comes from “the omni’s”—omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipresent. These translate into all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good and all-present.
Interestingly, these terms are why we have come to believe that God is perfect. The only problem is they are not original to the Bible. They are derived primarily from Greek philosophy. People like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were the ones who used these descriptions when talking about God. Just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They were brilliant philosophers who have impacted the Western world in enormous ways, not the least of which is the way we employ their terminology when talking about God.
The problem is that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle didn’t write the Bible. The authors of the Bible were predominately Hebrew and had a completely different way of thinking about God. Because of this, “the omni’s” should not be applied to the Bible because the authors were not writing about God with those assumptions in mind. This is why, when a person applies these concepts to the Bible, they don’t make sense.
You might be able to find certain instances where God exhibits qualities of being all-powerful or all-knowing, but those qualities are not consistent throughout the entire Bible. For example, you would be hard pressed to describe the God of the Bible as omnibenevolent or all-good. For instance, there is a verse from the book of Isaiah:
I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god….I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things. - Isaiah 45:5, 7 (NRSV)
In these verses, God is taking responsibility for the good and evil that happens in the world. This contrasts greatly with the God Christians promote today that is so pure and good that God can have nothing to do with humans because we are sinful. Based on this scripture from Isaiah, not only can God interact with evil, but God is claiming to be the source of the evil we experience in our lives.
In this way, the God of the Bible is not perfect. The God of the Bible contains both good and evil and is the cause of that good and evil. This is consistent with the way Jesus and other Jewish people spoke about God in the language of Aramaic. As I spoke about in my last post on the Virgin Birth, the word God in Aramaic is Alaha. The best translation of Alaha is “Sacred Unity” or “the All” or “oneness.” In our modern English, we would say God is everything. You, me, all existence is God because God is what makes existence possible. Clearly since God is part of us and we are highly flawed, then perfection is out of the question.
Assumption 2: God Expects Humans to be Perfect
The Christian assertion that God expects humans to be perfect is often derived from the opening chapters of Genesis where we find the story of Adam and Eve. Christians often become mired in debate over whether this story is history or myth. I'm firmly in the camp of reading this story as mythology. That said, this is arguably one of the most important stories in the Bible for ascertaining how the ancient Hebrews understood the relationship between God and humans. Unfortunately, this story is often misread and misunderstood by Christians leading to erroneous conclusions about the authors' intent.
Let’s recap the story: God forms Man, or in Hebrew, Adam, from the dust of the earth. (Gn. 2:7) From there, God creates the first woman, Eve, by taking one of Adam’s ribs. (Gn. 2:21-22) Adam and Eve reside in a garden called Eden. Christians often assume that Adam and Eve were created in a state of perfection because they have a direct relationship with God. Indeed, the story portrays Adam and Eve engaging in a verbal dialogue with God.
In order to maintain that state of perfection, Adam and Eve have to follow one rule—they can eat of the fruit of any of the trees in the garden with one exception: they are not allowed to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It’s at this point that the serpent enters the story.
In the story, the serpent can speak and tells Eve that God was not being truthful about the consequences for eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The serpent says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gn. 3:5) This statement indicates something interesting to us—Eve doesn’t know the difference between good and evil unless she eats from the tree.
In my mind, this begs an interesting question: how is Eve supposed make an informed decision about whether it is good or bad to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, if she doesn’t know the difference between good and evil? Kind of a paradox, don’t you think? She has to eat from the tree to figure out that she shouldn’t have eaten from the tree. This paradox tells us a lot about how the authors understood Adam and Eve’s relationship with God.
As I stated earlier, the commonly held Christian interpretation of this story is that God had an expectation that Adam and Eve were going to remain perfect forever. But in order to remain perfect, you have to know the difference between right and wrong, and, as we just discovered, Adam and Eve don’t know the difference between right and wrong because they haven’t eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the one thing they are not allowed to do.
Does it make any sense that God had no expectation that Adam and Eve would eat the fruit? As far as I’m concerned, God never had an expectation that Adam and Eve would be perfect forever and God never had an expectation that you would be perfect forever. Why? Because life is a matter of contrast. You cannot know what is truly good unless you have experienced evil. I’m not trying to say that God wants us to sin. Rather, I’m saying that God expects that we are going to make mistakes.
Therefore, the purpose of the Adam and Eve story is not to convey how God expects us to live a perfect life. Rather, the story of the first humans in the Bible is trying to convey how God created us knowing that we would make mistakes. Even Jesus seems to affirm this understanding that God created humans to be flawed. Jesus says that “occasions for stumbling are bound to come.” (Mt. 18:7) In other words, it’s inevitable that you will make mistakes.
So many Christians live under the false assumption that they can never live up to God’s expectations for them. Thankfully, the beauty of the Adam and Eve story is how it relays the message that God never expected you to be perfect. God loves you for who you are and that includes all of your imperfections.
Therefore, if God is not perfect and does not expect us to be perfect, then what does that do to third assumption about Jesus needing to be perfect to meet God's expectations? We will explore the outcome of these conclusions in the third post on the Perfection Paradox.