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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Richard Griffin says
A thought-provoking post. My immediate reaction is, “Yes, I do suspend disbelief. Eventually, the supsension turns into experience.” For example, when I was 18 I said, “Yes, I believe Jesus was raised from the dead,” but it’s taken 40 years for that to turn into a solid and constant lived experience. My initial faith was not quite the willing suspension of disbelief – yet it was a choice to act as if the resurrection were true, even though it did not entirely fit in with my understanding of reality at the time.
You prompt me to speculate that the willing suspension of disbelief is on one point of the spectrum of a skill we must develop to grow in Jesus – perhaps to be called “the skill of as-if.” When we’re in the movies, we live as-if we were participating in the events. When we’re shaping our lives we start living as-if a particular doctrine is true, and over time it becomes true in our experience.
I’ll have to ponder on this. Thanks for a stimulating post!
Gary Neal Hansen says
Richard, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, and I apologize that it has take me so long to respond.
I do think there is a skill here, an exercise that one must do: whether it is “suspending disbelief”, living “as if”, or “putting on Christ” one sort of has to try on the clothes, walk in the shoes, see how it all comes to fit.
It is the habit of mind of our era and culture to say “I don’t believe because you can’t prove it; you can’t help me in my disbelief.” But when the Spirit is at work within, some hidden part is drawn and convinced despite all the objections that add up to disbelief; so we pray “I do believe; help me in my disbelief.”
joe pruett says
Dr. Hansen, I truly enjoyed this analogy. “substitutionary atonement”, thanks be to God for this in our lives. Your story reminded me of a sermon I wrote called “the Trashman”, it was after a short story by Max Lucado. In this story we have Jesus as a human among us, taking upon us the sin and guilt we feel each day and then at the end bowing before God and pouring out our trash upon himself. It is a story of the price he paid for us and well, is one that makes us realize that we cannot carry this burden or solve this matter ourselves.