God on trial

courtroom-898931_640-1Who would be so presumptuous as to put God on trial?

We would, apparently. Or so C. S. Lewis suggested in a 1948 essay which his friend and editor Walter Hooper retitled, “God in the Dock” (or to put it in American terms, “God as the Defendant on the Witness Stand.” Lewis argued that a reversal in our attitude toward God has occurred from ancient times to the present:

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles have reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God is in the dock.

It’s a useful metaphor (and I suspect the judge has become a bit less kindly than was the case in 1948). But I don’t think it’s quite right to characterize this as a strictly modern problem. In some ways, God is on trial even in the pages of the Bible.

As we come to the increasingly heated dialogue between Jesus and his opponents in John 8, I think of the charged atmosphere of the courtroom. I’ve served as a juror three times, including once as the foreman on a lurid criminal case. The experience each time was both fascinating and disturbing, throwing the necessary limitations of our justice system into sharp relief. So much depended on the theatrical competence of the attorneys and the credibility of the witnesses. And this was all we had to work with in trying to determining the “facts” of the case.

That’s a good background image, I think, for the argument between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus is “in the dock” giving testimony, and the Pharisees want his testimony disqualified on a technicality.

But John has already set up the story in such a way that we know who Jesus is (the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, the Life and the Light of humanity) and where he comes from (heaven, the Father). The Pharisees are blind to this truth. Thus, they are also blind to the bigger picture that we have as John’s readers. They believe themselves to be putting Jesus on trial, finding his testimony inadmissible. But we see them as being the ones on trial themselves for their unbelief.

We’ll cross-examine the conversation beginning with Sunday’s post.