How does one respond to complaints about orthodox Christian doctrine, those expressed by professing Christians and non-Christians alike? These include criticisms such as that the cross of Jesus represents “divine child abuse” on the part of the Father, that it is unjust to hold later generations guilty for the “original” sin of Adam and Eve, that the substitutionary theory of atonement for the sins of humanity is equally absurd, along with the objection that a virgin birth is simply unreasonable and therefore ridiculous to accept for any reason. These and other objections exist in plentiful supply.
In addition to the argument for revealed truth, in the face of such criticisms the case may be made that, when appropriately understood, orthodox Christian doctrine is vastly more user-friendly than anything more novel ever could be. This is one reason why, despite alternatives that present themselves time and time again, orthodox Christian doctrine is at the center of thriving, growing Christian communities throughout the world. It is also at the center of missions and ministries that have provided transformational hope and help to billions of people in need.
One need only to review the affirmations of the Nicene Creed to be reminded that the whole purpose of the incarnation was “for us and our salvation,” Jesus’s death on the cross was “for our sake,” and that judgment, resurrection, and “the life of the world to come” await us. The scenario depicted by this ancient creed is one of a benevolent God who intervenes in human history for the sake of a redeemed relationship with (us) humans. This is a God who cares enough not only to warn us away from evil and to hold us accountable in judgment, but also to provide a way for forgiveness of our failings as any wise and loving parent would and, to guide us toward a future bright with hope and promise. Summed up in two words, this God who is at the center of orthodox Christian doctrine is a God of pure love toward humanity.
What could be more user-friendly than Christian doctrine that offers permanent companionship with One characterized by pure love? What is better than tangible hope provided by faithful disciples on behalf of this God for the down-and-out? Where else in the universe might we find such meaning for sacrifice, comfort for suffering, joy in the midst of sadness? What other faith offers participation in a mighty mission that gives love, salvation, and new life to any who will claim these gifts?
A careful study of what critics call divine child abuse reveals not a malicious God, but One who would sacrifice self at the greatest possible cost for the sake of others. The blood of the cross may offend the sensibilities of gentle, kindly persons safely ensconced in a protected environment with loved ones. To a soldier dying from wounds on a battlefield, or a victim of human trafficking, gang violence or other horrific abuse, the spilling of God’s blood for our sake may serve to bring the greatest expression of God’s undying love and empathy to millions upon millions, if not billions, of people.
Though “representative” sin, obedience, and sacrifice are not common features of contemporary western culture, by studying their meaning in the cultures in which these concepts were developed, we may learn something useful and important about the impact of behaviors that bring shame or honor to entire communities and how, theologically, these doctrines are eminently plausible. We simply need to engage our capacity to learn from and respect cultures other than our own.
What about the elements of miracle and mystery in faith? Could it be that the main point of the virgin birth is not the biological question of “how could this be,” but the theological question of “how could this be?” Every generation since the birth of the baby Jesus has had the blessed opportunity to grapple with this question. Yet we have not given up on Christmas, have we? The bold question that must be asked out of the sheer outrageousness of the nativity story points like the star in the east directly to a God who appears not only in the ordinary, but also in the extraordinary and, to a God who does not shy away from the performance of miracles in order to demonstrate divine love and power. What a way to begin the telling of the gospel story!
Could it be that there are some things in the realm of mystery that are part of the story of our salvation that only God understands fully, such as how the death of Jesus atones for human sin? Isn’t the main point acceptance of the gift of atonement by faith?
I have encountered many intelligent persons who criticize orthodoxy Christian doctrine on the basis that it is inflexible, harsh, or unreasonable. Some of these have ventured to substitute heretical doctrines and others have adopted different religions or atheism. Some simply remain confused or drift quietly into a posture of apathy.
For each one that has chosen to step outside the orthodox fold, there is a multitude that has chosen to dig deeper into the history, experience, and amazing richness of orthodox Christian doctrine. Delving ever more deeply into the mysteries of God is a humbling, worshipful, and highly user-friendly experience – so much so that it has served only to strengthen and multiply countless disciples of Jesus Christ for the past two millennia.
Orthodox Christian doctrine is, after all, a no-nonsense outline of the story of God’s incredible love for us, expressed in Jesus Christ and vivified in our midst by the presence and help of the Holy Spirit.