Jeff McSwain, Does Jesus Appease God’s Anger?
Jeff McSwain is the founder of Reality Ministries of Durham, North
Carolina. Jeff earned his doctorate in 2015 at the University of St. Andrews.
Some people think that God the Father is angry, and Christ is appeasing his anger. But the truth is quite different.
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JMF: You have a long history of working with youth and you’ve named your ministry Reality Ministries. What’s behind that name?
JM: Reality Ministries is based on the concept from Scripture, that reality is not necessarily what we see around us or what we experience in our day-to-day life, but it’s rooted in the triune relationship of Father, Son, Spirit – of God as a relationship of holy love and all of us as God’s beloved – being included in that by the grace of Jesus Christ.
JMF: The way we usually look at things is that God is probably mad at us and if he isn’t, he should be. If he knew me like I know myself, then he’d certainly be mad, and I try not to think about that too long, because I tried to repent a lot and I beg for forgiveness a lot and hope maybe he’ll…
JM: Try to get back into the place that we’ve already been given.
JMF: And that’s not reality?
JM: No. It comes from reading the Bible in the wrong way. We have a tendency to fit Jesus Christ into our concept of God from the Old Testament. Instead of allowing God’s self-revelation, Jesus Christ – the key to everything in our interpretation of God and to refuse to do it in and around Jesus Christ to try to talk about God as if Jesus is not the revelation of God himself.
JMF: There’s a lot of kind of a separation, of God the Father is back here, a little ticked, and Jesus is kind of up front, trying to… you know, “don’t get too mad, don’t get too mad.”
JM: Yeah, Jesus maybe smiling on you, but God is kind of frowning back in the shadows, back there.
JMF: All of that is very bad theology, and very untrue and not reality, and kids need to know about it.
JM: That’s right.
JMF: You didn’t always have a clear picture of this. I was reading some of your material around the year 2000 – you were attending classes in Fuller Theological Seminary. Can you talk about that?
JM: I call it an epiphany, or my biggest conversion in life so far. We all have different moments where we feel God has moved in our lives over our journeys. I came to faith at a very young age and grew up in a wonderfully warm Christian home. I struggled with this idea of there being two aspects of God that didn’t seem congruent with one another, and that Jesus Christ seemed pretty different from the other side of God that I’ve come to know or learn about over the years.
I was taking a series of courses from Fuller Theological Seminary through distance, not distance learning, but through satellite sites, and I ran into a professor named Dr. Gary Deddo. Gary taught systematic theology in such a way that refused to take any look at God, or to talk about God, without talking through the revelation that he had given us in Jesus Christ. He was thoroughly Christo-centric, and I’ve begun to realize that a lot of our thinking about God wasn’t really Christ-centered.
JMF: Just to clarify that… What people usually think about God comes from a checklist. God is omni-present, God is… he knows everything and he’s real strong and powerful. A checklist of what God must be, like logically speaking. Then there’s that God, and that’s how we think of him – the old man in the sky, but then Jesus Christ we met him in Scripture, but we hold the other view and we don’t take what you’re just talking about – the biblical truth that this is what God is like.
JM: We don’t take the Incarnation seriously. We have the tendency to think that the Incarnation is just a way for Jesus to come to the earth and live for 33 years or whatever and then die on the cross for our sins. We forget that he became fully human – as fully human as he was fully God – and that he actually assumed our human nature and assumed our humanity in himself, that God actually came amongst us and that all of our lives are implicated and woven to his life, death and resurrection as a man. I had never thought of it that way before. I often thought that Jesus came into human history and he was the Son of God but he was externally related to me. Somehow he was “over there,” and somehow I could tie myself into the life of Jesus Christ by believing in him, I could get the benefits of his death and resurrection. But it was all external to me.
Then through the readings that Dr. Deddo gave us with T.F. Torrance and James Torrance, Karl Barth, but not just those guys from more recent times, but how they were rooted in the early church fathers – the Ante-Nicene Fathers, especially Athanasius and Irenaeus before him. I began to see that what I’ve done all along is I have been giving much more credit to the first Adam than to the second. I’ve been seeing myself as implicated in the fall of man, because when Adam sinned, we all went down, but I never really thought about the fact that Jesus Christ, the second Adam, was one in whom I was also implicated – and what happened to Christ is really the history – the His Story – of the human race. That is the reality of Jesus Christ loving us so much that he came to crucify our old selves in him – assuming all of our sinful natures in himself in order to redeem them and present them to the Father as holy and whole and pure and right.
JMF: Now, that ties in so importantly with the Trinitarian understanding of who God is, but the whole point of us understanding that God is Father, Son and Spirit – the Father and Son are one God – is that, if Jesus likes us, well, that’s how the Father feels about us, too.
JM: Right. I thought for a while in my upbringing that God really loved me because I believed in Jesus and because I’ve given my life to Christ.
JMF: And he wouldn’t have loved you otherwise.
JM: I began to realize, I’m thinking about this in the wrong way. I love my kids more than I love other people’s kids, because they belong to me and that’s natural. But that’s a wrong way of thinking about God, as if somehow we belong to God by our decision and then he loves us more than he loves the other people. Instead, God has embraced all of us in a filial way and said, No, Jeff, I love every human being as much as you love your own children, and more – and that’s where your love for your own children comes from. Thinking about that circle of analogy and making sure and going in the right direction. Not that God loves that small sub-group of those who belong to him more than others – but that he loves all people in the same way, and even more than a loving father on earth loves his own children.
JMF: They all belong to him.
JM: I remember walking along the beach one day during that course and the epiphany that occurred to me at that moment, this touchstone into the truth and reality that I would give my life for now because I believe… it changed me so dramatically, was that they all belong to him, and as I walked along the beach that day, I began to look at them for the first time with the eyes of truth. I saw all of that flesh, and I thought Jesus Christ, the Word, became flesh, Jesus Christ embraced all of our sinful humanity, took it to his own in order to redeem it and to make it whole. I began to walk down that beach and for the first time I began to look at each person as … I didn’t know where they stood with God in terms of their own experience, but I did know something true about them regardless of whether they knew it was true or not. And that is that they were my brother or they were my sister – Jesus Chris had brothered us in that way.
JMF: Doesn’t that change the whole perspective on how to do evangelism?
JM: It’s made a dramatic difference in the way I do evangelism, because what I’m doing first and foremost now is giving young people or anyone who wants to listen the reality of their belonging to God first – not just by creation in some general… God created us all in his image. But Jesus Christ is the creator and he is also the Redeemer – the two are one and should not be pulled apart. Jesus Christ has belonged us to the Trinity – to the Father, Son, and Spirit relationship – and he’s done that by grace, and he’s done that in a way that’s so sure, that when you begin to speak that way – and make that kind of a robust claim upon a person’s life, the bell of truth often goes off in them and they begin to realize, I am created for something more, and not something that I have to create or make true by my own decision, but something that’s already true.
At that point, after establishing that sense of belonging by creation and redemption, we can talk to kids about sin. Because that’s what makes sin so bad. It’s that they belong to someone – it’s a relational problem, sin is. Once they know who they belong to, and they begin to know who they are because of whose they are, then all of a sudden, you can say, “and that’s why sin is so terrible.”
An analogy that I use sometimes is, if a boy ran away from this home – let’s say it was my home. My own son ran away from home and decided he didn’t want to live as my son, even though he was, and he ran away and rebelled against me and my authority. To a next-door neighbor, that wouldn’t necessarily matter to my next-door neighbor – because that boy doesn’t belong to him. It really matters to me because it’s my son. And that’s the way that God feels about us in relation to our sin. We belong to him by virtue of creation and redemption and therefore, to God sin is a very serious thing, because it crushes our relationship with him. But not only that, with one another. And we end up doing violence to ourselves – because the truth of who we are is being violated – and that’s been established by Jesus Christ and his creation and redemption of mankind.
JMF: The solution to sin, though, isn’t “try harder not to sin.”
JMF: How do you get that across to kids?
JM: The key to me is you keep speaking truth, you keep helping them to put on Christ in a way that defines their lives – where they can define their own lives, not by what they think about themselves, about what other people think about them or say about them, but by Christ. The way to do that is not to say, “You shouldn’t be doing this, you shouldn’t be doing this.” The way I like to say it is, “It’s not about the supposed to’s, but about the want to, because of the belong to.”
The more you understand how much God loves you and how much you belong to him because of the claim that Christ has made on your life – the more you are able then to let go of those things that pull you down and cause you to operate in the sinful nature that’s been crucified with Christ.
Supposedly monkeys in Australia, the way that they catch them is they put a nut that they’re very fond of in a jar, the monkeys will go and they will put their hand down into the jar and grab the nut, widening their hand and not allowing them to get out of the jar. Now they are caught there. All you need to do is put a large size nut in that jar, them to grab on to it, and then they’re caught, they can’t get their hand out because the jar is anchored to the ground. And you just go up and put a net around them.
In the same way, instead of concentrating on, “you’ve got to loosen your grip on that object, you’ve got to loosen your grip on that thing that seems to have a grasp on you,” and really concentrating on getting them to stop sinning as much, instead of that, introduce to them something that actually is more attuned with who they really are deep down anyway, and is more (I guess you could say) something that’s not just attractive to them in the sense that it’s going to make their life better, but something that collates to the reality of the real core of who they really are.
So by focusing on telling them who Jesus Christ is and who they’ve been made to be in him, they then will let go of those other things and begin to follow and walk in the light and walk in the truth. So instead of really focusing on the sin and on the nut and on the supposed to’s of quit this, quit that, give them the indicative truth of who they are in Christ and how much he loves them to the point where, by the Holy Spirit, they could believe that and begin to let go of that nut – whatever it is in their lives that they’re holding on to and can’t seem to be free from.
JMF: So the gospel is not about a better way of living, per se. It’s not about here’s a list of righteous behaviors, commands of Jesus, or whatever, sermon on the mount, that you need to embrace and start living by or God is going to be mad. But it’s relational. The gospel is about relationship that we already have in God through Christ, in Christ with God – and that affects relationships with each other. Our relationships with each other are all about that.
JM: Right. It’s like Christ has taken our life and he crucified it and given us a new life in himself. He’s given us his life, he’s taken our life – “the wonderful exchange” spoken of about by the early church fathers – where the Son of God becomes the son of men to make the sons of men sons of God. This exchange has taken place in Christ, and he has taken our life and given us his life for the Father. So now, I don’t talk about, do you want to have a relationship with God? But more, “I can’t wait to tell you something that’s going on in your life. There’s a dynamic that you’re caught up in, you have no idea about – but Jesus Christ has given you his life. He is living your life for you in a way that is not impersonal – as if you get lost in a shuffle and become just a drop of rain in a cosmic sea, but in a way that really personalizes you into the person you are created to be.”
How to do that? You don’t create the truth by your belief, but I’ll say to a young person, “Come along with me and let’s do this thing together.” Begin to pray together, read the Bible together and to worship together, because our growth in Christ has often been made in the Western World so individualistic. It’s like, “Give your life to Christ and then go start having your quiet times by yourself.” But it’s never meant to be that way. It comes from that Enlightenment idea that – everything starts with me. And Descartes’ notion of “I think, therefore I am.”
Then it goes from the “I” to the “we” – but in Christ it actually goes the other way around. It’s because Christ is, “we are,” and because “we are,” “I am.” So I should never think of myself as walking with Christ alone. I’m always there as part of that Trinitarian life going on around me and with me and in me. But more importantly, corporately in the church we’ve got to continue to do this together. Then it’s validating, and instead of putting all the emphasis on our agency to try to crawl into a truth that we’re not in already, say, “Come along, catch what’s going on, by the Holy Spirit.” If you do that, you begin to try this on, you’ll begin to see that it’s deep and true and real, and we can really live in union with Christ in a way that makes our lives authentic and makes us people of integrity and we can begin to see change on this side of heaven in our own lives as we transform by that grace. But it has to be done together.
JMF: Isn’t it a coming in to line with the reality that is already true, in other words, we already exist in Christ, who has already redeemed us and made us right with God. The issue is, as Paul keeps saying, because you are children of God, because of what God has already done for you in Christ, therefore, make these kinds of changes. In a paper that you wrote, I was struck by this concept of separation, that this idea that we usually approach evangelism with – of where you’re separate from God and you take these steps and you do these things, then God changes his mind toward you – you wrote,
“In Christ God proves that in his holiness he does not desire to be aloof from the fallen creature he loves. God’s holiness is so intolerant of sin that it will not allow him to stay separate from sinners. His hatred for sin demands that he do something to address man’s alienation from God. His holy love is so fierce that he will not be satisfied until he has a consuming fire against sin that purifies and heals the sinner. God’s holiness and his compassion have never been at odds – the good news of the gospel is that we are loved, accepted and cleansed not in spite of God’s holiness but because of it.”
JM: I see that most prominently in the Gospels, where Jesus interacts with sinners, especially in Mark chapter 1 with the leper. In that chapter, Jesus is recognized as the Holy One by the demons. They see the transcendent picture of who this Jesus Christ who has been made flesh – they see that picture in a more accurate way than the human beings that are around Jesus at that time – there’s an irony in that. But here’s Jesus, this is where we find what the holiness of God is like, this story where Jesus Christ reaches out and he touches and embraces this leper at his worst. He doesn’t cleanse him from afar and say, “Zap, I healed you. Now, come here, brother, give me a hug.” He goes up and touches this man wracked with leprosy. I can imagine him putting his hand right around his neck, right there looking into his eyes, right in the sores of his skin and saying, “Of course, I want to. Be clean.” And he was cleansed at that very instant.
St. Irenaeus gives a beautiful picture of that being the redemptive work of Jesus Christ for all of us – that he has embraced us as leprous and in our sinful condition in order to cleanse us and make us whole and presentable to the Father. He has done all of that in Jesus Christ. It’s not just an offer – that’s the thing that’s important for kids. Because if they have a hold of that nut in the jar, so to speak, something hypothetical is not going to do it for them. They don’t want just an offer of this kind of life that we’re talking to them about.
JMF: Because there are if’s attached to offers.
JM: There are if’s. They need somebody to save them from themselves to be able to say, I’m going to come in and embrace you, and I’m going to rescue you before you even ask me to, because you’re too sinful to actually ask.
JMF: And in fact I’ve already.
JM: Exactly. Because you have this in this hand, I’m not just going to hold something up from this hand that I’m trying to reach out to and get… I’m actually going to put it in that hand. You can see that this is so much better than this counterfeit over here, and begin to really relish that, and begin to have an awareness of what God has done for you in Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ is your life. In a way, that makes you the person you were created to be, not less.
All we can do is preach the truth and hope that by the Holy Spirit people will have ears to hear. When they hear that, when they hear that good news, they begin to see the “NO” that God has against sin – inside of the larger “Yes” that he is saying to us. He never says “No” to us and then “Yes” to us later when we get cleansed. It’s always “Yes” to us, but he’s saying “No” to that sin and he does something about it. He doesn’t just give you an offer of some pills to take to make it better maybe. But “NO” – I’m so thoroughly against sin that I’m going to eradicate it. I’m going to destroy it. Because you are so insinuated by it, I needed to crucify you in me as the Holy One, I needed to take you in myself and crucify you in order to make you new, and give you new life, and for you to share my righteousness.
JMF: This redemption and this inclusion applies absolutely to everybody. There isn’t any human being that doesn’t live and move and has his being in Jesus Christ.
JM: That’s right. He’s the head of the human race, as Ephesians tells us.
JMF: And yet, we’re not talking about universalism here, because God doesn’t force anyone to accept his love.
JM: No. That would be an automatic type of… everybody is going to heaven. Some theologies fall prey to that in relation to the idea that God is sovereign, that he has elected these folks to be died for and they go to heaven and they are automatically going to go there. And there’s nothing they can do about it, it’s just a matter of time before that irresistible grace catches up to them and they capitulate and move ahead on their life on into heaven.
JMF: So universalism is just an extension of that to everybody.
JM: Universalism is exactly that. It is taking that logico-causal kind of linear way of talking about salvation and saying it’s inevitable that “the elect over here and the other” theology – the elect are all going go to heaven; it’s inevitable. So if you say that Christ died for everyone and that he loves everyone, then that means it’s inevitable that everybody is going to go to heaven.
JMF: All that reasoning misses the whole point of relationship.
JM: It misses the point of love, and here’s the thing, can God’s love be spurned, or is it a robotic kind of deterministic type of love? I believe in God’s sovereignty every bit as much as the other guy, I really believe … but I also believe that his sovereignty and his love should not be pulled apart. He loves us all, but will not force us to live in the reality and truth of who he’s made us to be. We could not undo what Christ has done for us, ever – any of us. But we could deny the reality of it to our demise, and we could deny the reality of it all the way to hell. That’s hard to understand. Because God is holy love in his inmost being, I know that he will not force us – that is just so contrary to love.
JMF: It doesn’t even make sense, because love, if forced, is not love. Love by definition is giving.
JM: In Ephesians 1 it talks about election, it talks about that predestined election that we have in the eternal decision of God as being couched in love. First and foremost the Father’s love for the One with a capital “O” – Jesus Christ the elected One. And then all those who are headed up in Jesus Christ, and he is the one in whom all things are summed up – held together, as it says in verse 10. Election and love go together beautifully, and sometimes we pull those apart, and sometimes we say, “If God is sovereign, there’s no way that he is going to allow a person to deny him all the way to hell.” I can’t understand how that could happen, but I do know that Scripture says in 2 Peter 2:1, “these false teachers who are not Christians were denying the sovereign Lord who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.”
JMF: It’s so telling there that we’ve read right over it, that he bought them too, even everybody are his, and “for God so loved the world.” God in Christ was redeeming everyone in heaven and on earth to himself.
JM: Right, so we have to decide where we are going to leave our questions as theologians.
JMF: God always says, “yes” even when we say “no.”
JM: He has said, “Yes,” but not “Yes” to our “No” – he has crucified the “No” and said “Yes” for us in Christ so that God’s grace is a “Yes” to a “Yes.” For us to buck against that would be to go against the grain of his economy, and to go against the grain can only bring splinters.
JMF: The only thing he says “No” to us … or “No” to, is our “No.”
JM: He says “No” to our “No.” His wrath and his justice serve his love in that way. A lot of times people want to say, how do you explain hell? First and foremost, let’s make sure that in everything we do we are Christo-centric. Let’s talk about who God is and who Jesus Christ is, and let’s just talk about the fact that he is the one in whom all things live and move and have their being – he is the one in whom all things exist and hold together. He is the Lord of all. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the Savior of the world. Timothy says he is the Savior of all men – especially those who believe, and that God wants everyone to come to the knowledge of the truth. That there is one mediator between God and man – the man Jesus Christ, who gave his life as a ransom for all men.
Those are very comprehensive statements. Does that make us universalists? No. By no means does it, because we don’t believe in that inevitable deterministic kind of robotic love – it’s not really love at all. So I’m going to base my theology on what I know about Jesus Christ as he is portrayed in the Scriptures that I just mentioned and others. There are question marks about hell. Do I know anyone is in hell? I don’t, I don’t have the vision beyond the curtain to know that there are. I can hope that… I think it’s okay for us as Christians based on scriptures to hope that no one is in hell. Because Peter says, God is patient, does not want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
The verse I just mentioned from Timothy is, God wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. That’s his heart – that’s his heart of love. It’s okay for us to have that heart of love and hope the best. Even Calvin said, we can hope the best for all men. So I’m going to start with that. It’s tough because you have to be able to allow for the possibility that anyone who is in hell is a forgiven child of God. I can’t understand that, but I’m ok with leaving my question here, as opposed to leaving my question on the other end. That would mean that Jesus Christ himself created, in his sovereign will, some that he would not die for, and some that would go to hell without a chance.
JMF: And that’s completely unscriptural.
JM: It comes down to defining God in a way that’s less than Christo-centric. A lot of my friends struggle with that or believe that, and we have some vigorous discussions about it. We just have to keep going back to: who is Jesus Christ? And how does Jesus Christ inform our theology? And not talk too much about anything written in Scripture that could tempt us to go around the revelation of God that we have in Jesus Christ – to talk about God otherwise.