How God communicates with us / Christ as the image of God
In another of these essays I used the metaphor of a computer game to illustrate the point that, if God exists, we cannot infer, with certainty, anything about either the beginning of the universe or its end by observing current conditions. Just as the actual origins of a computer game cannot be inferred by a character within the game merely by observing the state of his environment, we cannot know how our universe began by extrapolating the laws of physics backward in time.
The problem with scientists – even Christian scientists – is that they treat the universe as if it were a closed system. I don’t suppose there are many scientists who would deny that the physical laws indicate that our universe came into being through some sort of ‘Big Bang’. But if a Creator exists all bets are off as to whether the Big Bang actually occurred. The act of creation itself is a disruptive event which physics can’t look behind. If Someone is out there with the capability to create a universe like ours, then He is capable of creating it in any particular state – just as the computer programmer determines the state of the game at the start of play.
A while after developing the metaphor of a computer game to illustrate my understanding of the origin question, it occurred to me that the metaphor can be extended to illustrate how God communicates with us. Think for a moment about the constraints under which God has to operate in order to communicate. Assuming that God wishes us to believe in Him of our own free will, how can He disclose Himself to us without destroying our freedom of choice to believe? How can God receive our love, freely given, if He takes away the choice to reject Him? He must provide us enough information about Himself, and His love for us, that a reasonable person can believe, yet He cannot force Himself upon us without taking away choice.
A programmer faces the same dilemma as God. Suppose there’s a character in your game called Gus. Suppose you want Gus to know you and give you his love. How can you communicate with Gus so that he can? First of all you, as the programmer, live in an environment that is so removed from the game that Gus cannot even imagine it. There are dimensions to your environment that Gus has no inkling of. How can he possibly relate to you?
Secondly, how can Gus learn anything about who you are and your characteristics unless you tell him? And how can you even communicate with Gus unless you do it using his language? How can you tell him enough about yourself that he can know you, yet still leave enough room for doubt so that he has a genuine choice about whether to believe in your existence? How can you disclose enough about yourself so that Gus can love you, but not force belief?
Like any thinking person, Gus, no doubt wonders about his environment. Where did it come from? What is the purpose of it? Why am I here? By observing his environment Gus can deduce that it was created and since created, made by someone who is greater than him. Since the environment was created, Gus can also deduce that he, himself, owes his life to the creator of the environment.
In the same way, because the creation is an expression of God we can learn something about God just from observing what He has made. In Romans 1:20 the Apostle Paul writes, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made...” (NIV) We are awed by the power of the ocean waves, by the destructive energy of hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes. Even though we observe and experience them, the power that drives them is beyond our ability to grasp and comprehend. We thrill to the beauty of the sunset, the majesty of a snow-capped peak, the taste of a delicious fruit or a melodious sound. How much more awesome, majestic and beautiful must be the One who spoke the universe into existence!
We call this type of revelation, ‘Natural Revelation’ because through nature we can catch a small glimpse of God. But, though we can catch a glimpse of Him the Creator appears remote, impersonal and unknowable. As the prophet Job exclaimed, “...these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him! Who then can understand the thunder of his power?” (Job 26:16 NIV) Before we can understand the Creator as a person, rather than an impersonal force, another form of revelation is needed. A higher revelation.
We call that higher form of revelation, ‘Verbal Revelation.’ Through verbal revelation God speaks to us in human language. We call the people through whom God revealed His message, ‘Prophets.’ The Apostle Peter writes, “...you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21 NIV)
It is through the words the Prophets recorded in the Bible that we learn about God: Who He is, what He is like and what His will is. Getting back to the game illustration, if you wanted the character in your game to know more about you than to just infer your existence, you would need to send him a message.
“Dear Gus, I made you. I love you. I want you to learn to love me too. Stay on the path and I will protect you from the viruses of the anti-programmer. Faithfully yours, The Programmer.”
It would be extremely difficult to learn about God without the words of the Prophets. But even that is not enough. Knowing about someone is a very different thing than knowing him. In order for us to know Him, God had to use an even greater revelation.
Think of it this way. If the game programmer wanted Gus to really know him, instead of just knowing about him, what could he do? Gus cannot leave his environment. He cannot even comprehend the dimensions in which the programmer lives. So, since Gus cannot ascend, in order to make it possible for him to know the programmer, the programmer has to descend to the Gus’s level. The programmer has to make an image of himself and inject it into the game. The image thinks and acts exactly as the programmer would if he could descend into the environment of the game. It is only by interacting with the image that Gus can comprehend and understand the nature and character of the programmer.
And this, essentially, is what God did. John writes, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, [or the Only Begotten] who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 NIV)
Hebrews 1:3 tells us, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being...” (NIV) It is only through Jesus, the exact representation or image of God, that we can comprehend, understand and have a relationship with God.
This is the message of the Bible: We are incapable of approaching God or comprehending Him. So, He descended to our level so that we might know Him, be reconciled to Him and, one day, be raised to His level. In other religions God sends down. In Christianity, God comes down.
An exact image
This raises one of the fundamental paradoxes of the human experience. How can the Creator subject Himself to the constraints of His own creation? How can the divine become fully human? It is a misunderstanding of this paradox which, I believe, leads so many religions to deny that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. They are quite willing to accept Jesus as a great teacher or even a prophet, but deny His divine nature.
On the surface their denial sounds plausible. God cannot be tempted by evil (James 1:13), yet Jesus was tempted. God is omnipotent, yet Jesus became tired. God is omnipresent, yet Jesus was subject to time and distance. God is all-knowing, yet Jesus professed ignorance of certain things. God is eternal, yet Jesus died.
What those who deny Jesus’ divinity fail to recognize is the limitations of the medium or form into which God injected Himself. This is the key to understanding the paradox. While it is true that, objectively, Jesus is less than a perfect representation of God, this is not so within the limitations of “bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Within the limitations of the “bodily form” Jesus is a perfect or exact representation of God. It is impossible for it to be any more exact or perfect. This is why Jesus could say, “...Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father...” (John 14:9 NIV)
Stated the other way round, if you want a more perfect representation of God than that provided by the earthly Jesus, you have to go beyond the medium of “bodily form.” Even if God did so, we would be unable to appreciate or comprehend it. Since we are locked into bodily form, we would be destroyed if we ever saw God in another form. “...no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20 NIV) To see or experience God as He really is will require putting aside this nature and acquiring a different one. This is the significance of the ‘spiritual body’ Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15. John flatly states that the day we see God, we will be like Him – that is, we will share and participate fully in His nature instead of this one (1 John 3:2).
Let me try to illustrate the difference between God’s true nature and His image in Christ by referring back to the computer game. The image of himself which the programmer injects into the game might be an excellent likeness. Though the image is perfect and is obviously derived from the programmer, it is just as obvious that there are huge differences between them. It is a likeness, not a clone of the programmer. There are differences in the number of dimensions between the two. There are differences of scale. Most importantly, the programmer and his likeness have different natures. The programmer is flesh and blood. His image has no material existence. It is composed of 1’s and 0’s which are themselves merely the expression of an idea.
The image may be a perfect and exact image, but it will never be the same as the person it represents. It is as human as the nature and form of the game environment will allow, yet it has, of necessity, had to give up much of human nature in order to fit into the game.
In just this way, Jesus is as perfect an image of God as this universe can contain. Yet He had to give up much to fit into human form. He “...made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:7 NIV) How could there be any greater proof of God’s desire to communicate with us than this?