When you go to a movie you play a little trick on yourself. It is called “suspension of disbelief.” For about an hour and a half you watch in terror as asteroids smash the earth, or dolls transform themselves into monsters. You cheer for the hero — even when that hero is striving to do things you find completely unacceptable in real life.
Basically you accept a temporary “reality” that has different rules.
- You do it for entertainment.
- You do it without thinking about it.
- You probably don’t have any qualms about it.
When it comes to Christian faith we usually talk about taking on particular “beliefs.”
We ought to spend some time considering how much it helps to “suspend disbelief.”
Question 16 of the Heidelberg Catechism is a case in point. (I started blogging on this widely used summary of the biblical Christianity last year in honor of its 450th anniversary. Now I just can’t stop.) It comes in the middle of a discussion of how Jesus serves as the mediator between God and humanity. Here’s the Q & A in full:
16 Q. Why must the mediator be a true and righteous human?
A. God’s justice demands that human nature, which has sinned, must pay for sin; but a sinful human could never pay for others.
If you are thoroughly steeped in the Christian faith — years of Sunday school, Bible study, a solid pastor’s teaching — that may seem perfectly obvious.
But what about if you aren’t steeped in the Christian faith? How do we make sense of this part of “substitutionary atonement”? Jesus, the one innocent human being is going to step in and take the punishment we deserve. Hmm…
Try to picture someone guilty of a crime — robbery, murder, whatever — standing before a real human judge. If you or I ran in and said “Hey, I don’t want him to suffer! Send me to jail instead.” In our “real world” of human justice that kind of substitution is just not going to work. The judge can’t turn a dangerous criminal out on the street.
But look at the story of humanity and God as a great unfolding drama, with Jesus as hero and the cross as the climax. Think five acts, like in Shakespeare:
Act 1: God creates us and loves us.
Act 2: We human beings make a total mess of things. Tension builds as the consequence looms: human beings are going to pay. God’s justice demands it.
Act 3: In steps Jesus: he’s truly God, so he is the only absolutely innocent person. But in an amazing gesture of love he becomes truly human.
Act 4: He rushes into God’s courtroom and says “I don’t want them to suffer. Punish me instead!”
Act 5: The story ends well: God’s love is satisfied by saving us, and God’s justice is satisfied because a human being took the fall.
To make the story work you have to do the same thing you do at the movies: in faith you suspend disbelief so you can participate in the greatest drama ever.
The good news is it’s all true.
Suspend disbelief to watch the drama. Then faith begins.
How have you seen yourself “suspending disbelief” to grow in faith?
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