by Neil G. Richardson
1 Introduction: Where Now?
2 What Do We Mean by God? God is More Than a Presence
3 Creation, the Heart of God’s Purpose
4 God’s Purpose, Power and Providence in the Light of Christ
5 God’s Future and Ours
6 Conclusion: Towards a God-Centred, World-Centred Church
We can’t predict or foresee a post-pandemic Church. The President of Conference has urged us to learn from these testing months, not just going back to where we were before.
We cannot expect normality to be what it was ... We must not rush back into things and exhaust people even more ... 
We Methodists tend to be a busy people. We easily become more church-centred than God-centred, more steeped in Methodism than immersed in Christ. But as well as reorganizing boundaries and the like, we need depth—and breadth. (‘God-centred’ can sound misleadingly pious.) Some words of Kierkgaard should haunt us: ‘There is no lack of information in a Christian land. Something else is missing.’ 
How deeply do we think about our faith? ‘The Methodist Way of Life’ (as printed in the Methodist Recorder of January 15th) reads well. But it also begs questions. How will we learn more about the faith, how create opportunities to talk about our faith, how listen for God ‘in the world’? In this reflection I want to focus on that last question. The time for thinking about God and the future is long overdue. We’ve thought endlessly about the Church and its future, less so about God and God’s future. But, first, we need to acknowledge that, in speaking of God, we don’t really know what we’re talking about. So first questions first.
Many years ago I rather unwisely invited a group of Methodists to discuss the question of what we mean by God. Two worried people responded: ‘We came here expecting you to tell us!’ I now incline to think there may be no better place to begin than Exodus 3.13-4:
Moses said to God, 'If I come to the Israelites and tell them that the God of their forefathers has sent me to them, and they ask me his name, what am I to say to them?’ God answered, ‘I am that I am. Tell them that I AM has sent you to them.’
The Hebrew phrase translated ‘I AM’ is ambiguous: it could also be translated ‘I will be ’. The ambiguity is significant, like other ambiguous expressions in Scripture. St Paul, for example, uses a Greek phrase which can mean either ‘through the faith of Christ’ or through (our) faith in Christ’ (e.g. Galatians 2.16). Paul probably intended both meanings. This ambiguity helps us to understand how Christ saves us. We don’t have to ‘believe’ in the way we may have been taught. It’s more like ‘accept that you have been accepted ‘ – i.e. by God through Christ. It’s as if we ‘piggyback’ on Jesus’ own faith. All this is expounded, I believe, in John 14-17: there is room in God’s heart for us all (John 14.1-2), so ‘abide’ in the Son as he abides in the Father: trust and love are the way.
Similarly, God’s ‘name’ in Exodus has a present and a future meaning. Theologians point out that the word ‘God’ isn’t a name at all; ‘God’ is more a verb than a noun. It might be better to say that what God is and what God does go together. Far more important is the adjective, frequent in the Bible, ‘living’ (e.g. Psalm 84.4): the ‘living God’ is the One who gives life. By contrast, idols and false gods diminish and deaden their worshippers, (see especially Psalm 115).
The word ‘Jesus’ was a name, of course. ‘Jesus’ in the Greek of Hebrews 4.8 turns out to be ‘Joshua’ – its Hebrew equivalent. This simple fact is worth emphasizing, since the full humanity of Jesus is utterly central to our faith. And so, therefore, is the question of the humanity of all of us as well.
The ‘living God’ in the Old Testament, one scholar suggested, is almost synonymous with life itself. That may sound pantheistic, but it need not be. When Tolstoy suggested that to love life is to love God, and Van Gogh that the best way to love God is to love many things, both were pointing in the right direction. The Bible is more worldly than we have often thought, inviting us to think of God as the meaning and purpose of life, and creation as God’s grand project, in which God is still engaged: ‘My Father continues to work, and I must work too’ (John 5.17b).
But Exodus 3.13 is still foundational: ‘I am/will be what I am/will be’. So God and God’s future and the future of creation are amongst Scripture’s major themes. God is far more than a shadowing presence.
The theme ‘God and the future’ invites serious reflection about the divine purpose, including divine power and providence. What is God’s purpose for the world, including this planet? And what is God’s plan for us? The only prayer that Jesus gave his disciples included the petition ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. What does that mean for the future? The earth and its future figure more prominently in both the Old and New Testaments than we have recognized. Contemporary crises only sharpen such questions.
It is a tragedy that belief in creation has been both marginalized and misunderstood. Belief in creation is central to our faith, not a preliminary to it, as it often has been. The doctrine of creation has also been misunderstood as an explanation of how the universe began. It cannot be that, except in the ultimate sense of how there is anything at all. Rather, the doctrine points to a creation out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo, and both the Bible and our own experience point to creation as a continuing processs—an as yet unfinished project . ‘Creation’ therefore, can be neither explained nor proved. Like the resurrection of Jesus it is a mystery, and the validity of belief in both creation and resurrection is ‘proved’ only by the way we live.
What has often been missing has been our failure to ‘join up’ Old and New Testaments. In particular, for Christians the full meaning of humans ‘made in God’s image’ becomes clear only in the light of the New Testament’s teaching about Jesus as the ultimate human being, ‘the last Adam’. That may be implied in Paul’s reference to Christ as ‘the image of God’ (2 Corinthians 4.4). (The cryptic phrase ‘son of man’ points in the same direction).
This suggests that the full beauty and glory of creation will be fulfilled only when it is redeemed in Christ. John 1.1-5 and Colossians 1.15-20 are Christian commentaries on Genesis 1. Both point to Christ at the heart of creation, and to the cross and resurrection as the heart and the inauguration of God’s new creation. As for what the effect of human redemption will be on the world of nature, including all other living creatures, that becomes an increasingly important and intriguing question.
Creation, therefore, is not a theme marginal to the New Testament, but central to it. Admittedly, the phrase ‘new creation’ occurs only twice in Paul’s writings (2 Corinthians 5.17, Galatians 6.16), but it is implied in the Adam/Christ contrasts in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, as well as in the references to Jesus as the image of God.  Not least, the biblical canon ends with the vision of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21.1). This, too, is a mystery, like the beginning of creation and the resurrection:
The One who sat on the throne said 'See, I am making all things new!’ (v.5a). 
A modern worship song both spiritualizes and individualizes the theme of God’s new creation: ‘I am a new creation’. It is a serious diminution of the Bible’s teaching. Of course, the transformation of the human being in and through Christ is central to the gospel, but not the whole of it, as Paul’s teaching on creation in Romans 8 shows. The Letter to the Hebrews points the same way. Jesus, son of man, is profiled in Psalm 8, and the writer emphasizes both his and our humanity, together with not only our divine destiny (Hebrews 2.5-18), but also our responsibility, implied in the Psalm, for God’s creation. Yet the central figure is Jesus, inaugurator of God’s new creation.
I return to what is missing in so much of our theology and our preaching. At the risk of over-simplifying, it is the theme of the living God. God not only is, but energizes, gives life. His energy pulsates through everything. His purpose continues. According to the Psalms, especially, God does things. Psalm 46. 8-11 portrays God as the ultimate peace-maker. In the light of Exodus 3.13, that presumably means both now and in the future. In Psalm 146.7-9, God ‘deals out justice to the oppressed… feeds the hungry… sets the prisoner free. …’ and much more—again, presumably, in the present and the future.
There are crucial questions here about what God is doing and intends to do in the world. Grammatically speaking, we’ve homed in on the nouns and adjectives which apply to God, and neglected the verbs. Central to our understanding of God is not just God’s status and titles (King, Saviour etc), not just what God is like (compassionate, loving etc), but what God is doing. That brings us to the biblical theme of the Creator’s ‘covenant’ with humankind.
]There are two fundamentals. First, our Creator is revealed as a relational, even social God, both in the Old and New Testaments. Such a God longs for humankind to respond to their Creator and to the world both in love for him and responsibility for the world. But crucial to the nature of love is the freedom to respond or not to respond. Remarkably, God bestowed on us the freedom not to believe in him.
Through Jesus, therefore—and this is the second fundamental—a redeemed humankind may become God’s partner. This is why it is appropriate to call the covenant, in the light of Jesus, the atonement, where ‘atonement’ is understood as reconciliation and partnership.  The emerging perspective is that of the opening verses of Hebrews, (1.1-3):
When in times past God spoke to our forefathers, he spoke in many and varied ways through the prophets But in this the final age he has spoken to us in his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, and through him he created the universe. He is the radiance of God’s glory, the stamp of God’s very being, and he sustains the universe by his word of power. When he had brought about purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of God’s Majesty on high, raised as far above the angels as the title he has inherited is superior to theirs.
In the light of these biblical fundamentals, we are bound to ask whether God wills to deliver us from ecological disaster. The answer, surely, is ‘yes’. The Bible portrays a God passionately committed to making a success of his creation. God’s covenant partner, humankind, is the problem.
The pandemic on top of the deepening climate crisis underlines the urgent relevance of our questions not only about God’s purpose, but also God’s providence. In particular, are there things which God simply cannot do – such as ‘intervene’ to avert disaster? We tend to assume that ‘almighty’ means God can, indeed, do anything. But one of the later epistles says this:
If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown (literally, deny) himself. (2 Timothy 2.13)
This seems to mean: God cannot revoke the ‘let there be’ of Genesis 1, simply because God is love, and can do no other.
So the deepest questions about God’s ‘almighty’ power and providence have to be answered in the light of Christ. In the Book of Revelation, God is pantocrator—the Almighty (NIV), the ‘Sovereign Lord of all’(REB).  But now, because a Lamb shares the divine throne, God’s sovereignty, purpose and kingdom are seen in the light of the cross. The doxology, ‘Yours is the kingdom ...’, added by the Church to the Lord’s Prayer, reflects this cruciform faith. Central to that faith is the conviction that God’s ‘speciality’ in history is overcoming evil with good. 
Unfortunately, God’s providence—like the doctrine of creation—is an article of faith frequently misunderstood. A friend who has long suffered from a degenerative spinal condition once suggested to me that God provides, but doesn’t necessarily protect. Many Christians think otherwise. During the pandemic the favourite psalms of many, apparently, have been Psalms 23 and 91, the latter with its promise (v.6) of protection from ' the plague’. Is this why many Christians in the Bible Belt of the USA have been so relaxed about Covid?
The language of our prayers often implies that, contrary to Scripture, we believe God has favourites—i.e. Christians—and God can be persuaded, we like to think, to ‘intervene’ (a problematic word) on behalf of his favourites. But God extends his compassion much more widely (Matthew 5.45 and 48; compare Luke 6.35). It needs to be added that ‘saints’—those who love God?— may more readily speak of God’s care because they have opened their lives more fully to it. But even ‘saints’ must heed the cautionary note of Scripture: God’s providence is not easily recognized or identified: his footsteps, his ways are ‘untraceable’ (Psalm 78.19, Romans 11.33). Yet the providence is real, and pervades everything—the world and human history.
The New Testament’s fundamental statement about divine providence is also, like its understanding of divine power, cruciform. Providence is now seen to be, not special protection, or supernatural intervention, but an ultimate, indestructible, invincible, holding and caring Love:
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’ (Romans 8.37, AV translation).
St Paul continues:
For I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life ... in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths—nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.38-9)
A supernatural intervention, whether to deliver us from pandemics or self-destruction would be a denial of God’s very being. But God as Creator is invincible; God will fulfil God’s purpose; the Bible is unequivocal about that. How long, humanly speaking, it will take is not something we can presume to forecast or predict. The Old Testament bears witness to a very tortuous path to the fulfilment of the Promise. ‘Long-suffering’ is one of the Old Testament’s stock epithets for the God who, it seems, takes time. (Psalm 90.4 etc)
Until the 20th century, most Christians have envisaged the second coming  of Christ in supernatural terms. Jesus would, as Scripture seemed to predict, come on the clouds of heaven (e.g. Mark 14.62). Many Christians, especially in America, still believe this, regarding Jerusalem as the destination of the returning Jesus. Hence the special importance of the nation of Israel. But such a literalist view of key biblical texts verges on heresy now. Not only does it conflict with modern science and cosmology, it privileges Israel in a way contrary to Paul’s careful argument in Romans 9 - 11. God’s calling of Israel still stands (11.28-9). But in his earlier enunciation of Israel’s privileges (Romans 9.4-5), Paul either takes ‘the land’ for granted, or, more probably, deliberately misses it out.  Anti-Semitism is not the only alternative to Zionism.
The ‘second coming’, nevertheless, is an important New Testament theme, as integral to Christian faith as it has always been. Attested in the creeds and in liturgies, it is the focus of Christian hope, the heart and fulfilment of the purpose of God in history. The ancient prayer maranatha ‘Come Lord, come’ (1 Corinthians 16.23) still stands. But the cryptic ‘He will come again’, though faithful to some verses in the New Testament, may not be the most helpful way today to express this article of faith.
Scholars continue to differ over whether the first Christians expected the end of the world in their lifetime. Recorded sayings of Jesus such as Mark 9.1 suggest they may well have done so. Other texts about God’s judgement of Israel may have been linked or confused with the coming of the Son of Man (10). So the Jewish-Roman war of CE 66-70, culminating in the fall of Jerusalem, may have been a turning-point. The world clearly did not end, and Jesus did not return. So from then onwards, some Christian writers, notably Luke and John, may have begun to envisage the future differently. 
Yet even in the 50s and early 60s the letters written by or attributed to Paul may indicate how one apostle’s thinking developed. In his earliest letter Paul envisages Jesus returning with ‘the saints’ (1 Thessalonians 3.13). In Romans, considered by some scholars to be his latest letter, he writes of how ‘the created universe is waiting for God’s sons to be revealed.’ (8.19)
What is important is to recognize the hope, central and ultimate to Christian faith, that God will fulfil God’s purpose of redeeming the world through Christ, and bring creation to its intended glory. Wolfhart Pannenberg is one leading 20th century theologian who has tried to do justice to this biblical theme. In the final section of his three-volume Systematic Theology on ‘the revelation of the love of God in the consummation of creation’ Pannenberg describes the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus as ‘the incursion of the future of God into our world’. He goes on to envisage a continuation of our independent, temporal life in God’s eternity. Then, and only then, will it be possible for human beings to affirm with unreserved joy what God foresaw at the world’s beginning: ‘God saw that it was very good.’ (Genesis 1.31) 
There are difficult scientific questions here for Christians about the future of the universe. (That requires another paper and another writer). I can only allude to distinguished Christians scientists and theologians such as John Polkinghorne and Thomas Torrance who have addressed them. 
St Paul imagines at the end a Christ-centred world in which God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15.28). In the meantime, God works already to fulfil that goal, ‘working everything in everyone’, (my literal rendering of a phrase in 1 Corinthians 12.6). Paul’s language suggests, like that of the Psalms and the prophets, that God’s sphere of operations is the whole universe.
A conclusion crucial to the Church’s self understanding today follows: a God-centred Church will be a Church oriented to the world. Like the incarnate and risen Christ, it will seek to be at the world’s heart. So I return to the questions which underlie this reflection: how do we listen for God in a post-pandemic world, and respond, as Christ’s Church, accordingly?
Many have compared the pandemic crisis with Israel’s exile in Babylon in the sixth century BCE. After the destruction of both Jerusalem and its temple, many asked where now was their God. What of his past promises to Israel? They asked, as we do now, what they should hope for. Israel’s exile was her ‘dark night of the soul’. Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55, came out of those dark years. They include the promise of Isaiah 43. 19: ‘ I am doing a new thing’.
A book widely read years ago was Wheeler Robinson’s The Cross in the Old Testament. If we want fully to understand the mission of both Jesus and his Church, it is to these chapters in Isaiah we should look – and especially the four Servant Songs.  Not surprisingly, God’s servants are often tempted to give up:
Once I said, “I have toiled in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.’ (Isaiah 49.4; compare 40.27)
But the divine answer comes back:
It is too slight a task for you, as my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob … (‘too slight a task to restore the Church ….’.? ) ... I shall appoint you a light to the nations…’(v.6)
In these chapters, the sheer range of God is breath-taking. God’s purpose and providence reach from the beginning to the end of everything. Bringing good out of evil is God’s trademark, but not all that God does. Both the cross and Israel’s exile prompt the question: with whom is God today? I suggest: with far more people than we might think.
A retired surgeon, of Asian origin and so perhaps a Muslim, responded last year to desperate appeals from the NHS, but, in so doing, caught Covid and died. As did another doctor, probably also a Muslim, who had continued to practise through much personal suffering during the Syrian civil war. His widow, with two children to support, also a doctor, continues to practise.
With whom is God? We might paraphrase Paul’s rhetorical question in Romans 3.29: ‘Is God God of the Christians only?’ Isaiah 48.14 has God speaking of ‘the one I love’. That person, as the context shows, was King Cyrus of Persia, who neither knew nor believed in God (Isaiah 45.4). Through Cyrus, God was doing a ‘new thing’: the return of the exiles from Babylon.
God’s range has always reached beyond the visible Church. In the gospels, Simeon, Anna, Joseph of Arimathaea, and perhaps a Roman centurion too, were all looking for the kingdom of God. The Beatitudes envisage a wider circle than the disciples: those who mourn, the gentle of spirit, peacemakers… (Matthew 5.1-11). ‘Peter’ in Acts (as John Wesley noticed) acknowledged as much:
… God has no favourites. (Acts 10.34-5).
God’s principal sphere of activity seems to be all human minds and hearts which are at least partially open to truth and love. There, above all, without subverting or over-riding our human freedom and responsibility, a gracious God nudges us towards the glory which is our intended destiny.
In the meantime—until the End—a God-centred and world-centred Church, through obedience and prayer, is called to discern the way of God in the world, and to ‘position’ itself accordingly. Questions of Church unity, of the deployment of human resources, particularly ordained ministry, and of the number of buildings needed— all these will loom large in the immediate future. But we shall need to engage above all, with the One to whom the Bible bears witness: a life-giving, boundary-crossing God who goes before us into the future.
A world-centred Church, however, can easily be misunderstood to be a triumphalist, crusading Church. But that is not the meaning of the cross. Rather, it means being in the world as he was in the world (John 17 etc). Paul’s self-portraits in e.g. 1 Corinthians 4.9-13 and 2 Corinthians 4.7-12 and 6.3-10 show the way. So a world centred Church means living in the 21st century as Jesus lived and ministered in 1st century Galilee, and as Paul listened and discussed as well as spoke in 1st century Athens.
For us this has to mean ever greater engagement and dialogue with people of other faiths or no faith. It is a way of evangelism more costly, and certainly longer, than the often superficial propaganda and proselytizing often mistaken for evangelism today. It also requires us to acknowledge, wherever it is found, genuine faith and devotion to God, especially when their hallmark is self-evidently compassion and love. We may think of such people as ‘Christian’, but we would be quite wrong to label them as such.
This is not the time to get back to normal. Can we, instead re-think God in prayerful engagement with the Bible and resume the universal mission of our Creator to his crisis-ridden world? A Guardian article (Dec. 30th) by Jonathan Watts about the climate crisis was entitled ‘The virus gave us a chance to change. Are we taking it?’ Watts ended the article with this challenge:
…it remains to be seen whether this crisis will lead to transformation (my italics) – or more tinkering round the edges.
1 Methodist Recorder , January 8th 2021
2 Quoted by F. Craddock in Overhearing the Gospel, (Cliff College Publishing, 1995), p.9.
3 In addition to 2 Corinthians 4.4, see also Romans 8.28.
4 ‘See’, there in the original Greek, but strangely omitted in the REB, denotes the eschatological significance of the words which follow (as elsewhere in the New Testament).
5 ‘Atonement’ is central, of course. On this see my forthcoming Conference lecture, ‘Minding Our Language: the Atonement in Preaching and Worship’.
6 Pantocrator in the New Testament occurs outside Revelation only in 2 Corinthians 6.16, where Paul seems to have added the word to reinforce the preceding OT quotations.
7 Thus W. Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Vol. 3, (Wm.B. Eerdmans/T & T Clark 1998), pp.525ff.
8 Hebrews 9.28 seems to be the only occurrence of the word ‘second’ with reference to Christ’s coming in glory and in judgement.
9 On this see my Paul’s Language About God, (Sheffield Academic Press 1994), pp.159-171 and 318-9.
10 It may be that the first Greek-speaking Christians recognized the ambiguity of a key eschatological word. Do texts such as Mark 14.62 refer to the Son of Man coming from or going to God? The Greek word erchomai can mean either. Mark 14.62 recalls the vision of Daniel (7.13), in which one ‘like a son of man’ ‘approached the Ancient in Years and was presented to him’. Was this Jesus’ original understanding? We can’t be sure, of course.
11 W. Pannenberg, op.cit., pp.642ff. But see also Rowan Williams on ‘Paul’s Christian Universe’ in his Meeting God in Paul (SPCK 2015), pp.57-82.
12 Isaiah 42.1-4, 49.1-6, 50.4-11a, 52.13-53.12. Although the evidence that Jesus thought of himself as the Isaianic servant is surprisingly sparse in the New Testament, there need be no doubt the Church found in those passages the genesis of the mission of Jesus and his Church.
13See, for example, John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence. God’s Interaction with the World, (SPCK 1983) and Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order, (T. & T. Clark 1981).
Copyright © Neil G. Richardson, 2021. All rights reserved.