“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”
This academic year has undoubtedly felt like it has been the worst of my life. That has been for many different reasons (the radical change from Sixth Form, the lack of contact hours, the workload, the pressure and stress, the completely different environment, the independence, my difficulty making friends, my wrestling with personal faith and modern, academic, critical Biblical study and my own health). There were many occasions when I thought I would never continue and keep going. However, throughout this time, this one same verse has constantly come back to me: “And I, if I be lifted up from the Earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32).
“And I, if I be lifted up from the Earth, will draw all men unto me”
This verse obviously features pre-eminently in the Calvinism-Arminianism debate and it was via my interest in that debate that I came across it. Calvinists use it to show that God does indeed draw people to Himself and that we do not freely choose to believe in God but that God has to draw the predestined Elect, who were chosen before the universe began to Himself, whether they like it or not. However, one of the five points of Calvinism is limited atonement – the idea that God only Elects and thus draws a select few to be saved but this verse states that Jesus “draw all men unto” himself, not just a select few. Arminians conversely use the verse to show universal atonement (the idea that Jesus died for all and that all who choose to believe shall be saved) and the idea that God wants and wills all people to be saved. They often consequently argue that God only draws those who first freely choose to believe in Him. There is thus a condition to being drawn as Dr Michael Brown has argued. I think that both of these approaches are far too simplistic and neglect the complexity of Christian belief, Biblical theology and doctrine. While I am a strong believer in free will which I believe both our own empirical experience and the Bible demonstrate (Proverbs 16:1,9; Joshua 24:15; Jeremiah 7:3; Galatians 5:13; Revelation 3:20; John 7:17; Romans 13:2; Genesis 2:16-17; Isaiah 55:6-7; Deuteronomy 30:19 and Ezekiel 18:30-32), during my process of returning to Christianity, I have felt a sense of being drawn. I have felt that God has been drawing me and urging me to return to Him; to come home (like St Augustine’s story of homecoming in his Confessions). It reminds me of John 15:16: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (KJV).
“Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you”
(John 15:16 (KJV))
I think John 15:16 really helps us to understand that without God’s prior choice to save us through choosing to send his one and only son to the cross, we would not now have any choice or freedom. Without the crucifixion, salvation would not be available and so we would not even be able to choose to believe and be saved. God’s prior choice is the root of our current freedom and our salvation (for those of us who believe).
I still believe that I have freely chosen to return to Christianity but I have felt God constantly giving me a niggling feeling at the back of my mind, saying, don’t reject me, don’t attack me, you’ll regret it. This has bizarrely caused me to defend Christianity when asked about it by non-believers, even when I didn’t really believe in it myself due to my suffering and academic tensions. To go through the motions, so to speak, without actually holding the beliefs.
It should be no surprise to us that a paradox lies at the heart of John 12:32, a verse which is clearly referring back to Numbers 21:9 where ‘Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live’.
It has often been pointed out that it seems very odd for God to essentially create an idol which would heal the Israelites when they looked at it when God so strongly condemns the worship of idols in the Old Testament and as God Himself could have easily healed the Israelites without the assistance of a serpent. I think that nothing in Numbers 21 suggests that those who looked at the bronze serpent were always predestined to look at it and be healed and that those who didn’t look and weren’t healed were always predestined not to look. In fact, quite the opposite. Numbers 21:9 seems to me to clearly imply that God is saying, “the ball is in your court”: if you want to be healed, freely choose to look at the bronze serpent. Now if John 12:32 is drawing on Numbers 21:9 as is almost universally accepted, then I think this understanding of freedom in Numbers 21 must be taken into account when interpreting John 12:32.
After discussing hermeneutics with many different people and thinking it through myself, I have finally found an approach to and view of the Bible which neither hinders personal faith nor limits modern, academic, critical Biblical study.
After reading extensively and widely on the problem of evil (Kenneth Surin, Marilyn McCord Adams, Brian Davies, Kathryn McCreight-Greene, Eleonore Stump and Herbert McCabe), I have realised that this difficulty with Christian belief need not be completely overwhelming. Yes it is a mystery and we will never be able to provide a rational or logical answer which allows us to fully understand it. However, it is a tension which can be borne and is ultimately and finally worth bearing.
By Ben Somervell