This excerpt was taken from pages 29-35 of God for Us: Discovering the Heart of the Father through the Life of the Son by Abby Ross Hutto.
A God for the Skeptics
J O H N 3 : 1 – 2 1
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish but
have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into
the world to condemn the world, but in order that the
world might be saved through him. (John 3:16–17)
Skeptic’s Ordered World
Skeptic was the youngest child in a large family. With so many “parents” telling him what to do, he survived by becoming an expert at reading people and learning their rules—not necessarily to obey them but in order to gain some sense of control over his world. All this rule navigation made relationships feel like a lot of work, so he kept most people, including his few friends, at arm’s length.
Skeptic flew under the radar during his adolescence, going through life without being bothered (or truly known) by anyone else. He figured out what he could get away with and stayed out of major trouble. His carefully ordered world afforded him the predictable life that he wanted. But something happened to turn all that on its head—during his freshman year of college, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Skeptic’s sense of security fell apart as he faced his inability to assess, forecast, and control every situation. He felt exposed in his weakness.
The day his mother died, as the rest of his family gathered together, Skeptic slipped out the back door to seek refuge where he was most comfortable: in nature. As he stood in his place of solace, he wept. His ordered, predictable life had left him completely and utterly alone. He had no one to turn to as he tried to make sense of this unforeseen pain. He spent most of the summer withdrawn and isolated in his loss.
Skeptic had gone to church some as a child, so he had grown up with a vague sense of God’s benign existence. But something shifted inside him that summer. Tragedy showed him that, unlike everyone else, God didn’t have a rule book to help Skeptic to anticipate what he would do next, and Skeptic realized that he couldn’t control what God took away from him. By the time he returned to college, Skeptic’s heart had hardened toward God. He had the proof he needed to believe that God was not good.
How could Skeptic maintain an ordered life in a world that was ruled by an unpredictable, powerful Being? He had always tried to manipulate the rules to keep trouble at bay. But what had his careful planning gained him in the end? Grief and pain had still found him. In his anger, Skeptic decided that God did not get to control his choices. In fact, he would stop being controlled by anyone else’s rules; his appetites and desires would take control instead. He would live however he chose, no matter who he used or hurt in the process.
Like Skeptic, we all learn by making observations and then interpreting the world based on what we have seen. Do you ever judge God’s character based on his “behavior”? Knowing the intention of God’s heart is so important! If, like Skeptic, you don’t have a good understanding of his character and nature, you may begin to build a case against him. You may make decisions about who God is based on what you have experienced or seen in life. When pain enters your story, you may be tempted to become wary and suspicious of God. Sometimes life makes so little sense that it’s easier to live as if God didn’t exist at all.
Our hearts naturally distrust God. We humans tend to be suspicious of anything that tries to control us, and we prefer to rely only on ourselves. But when we come face-to-face with our inability to manage every aspect of our lives, we are left with questions. When we suffer loss, when doubt creeps in, or when we feel lonely, where do we turn? Who can we trust?
We need a God for the skeptics.
Darkened, Skeptical Hearts
John wrote his gospel to challenge the assumptions his readers had made about God’s character and nature. Even in the way he introduced his readers to Jesus, he was calling them (and us) to question our thoughts and beliefs about this Son of God. The other gospels begin in ways that feel expected. Matthew starts with a genealogy that outlines Jesus’s family tree. Mark starts with a prophecy, then launches into the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. Luke tells of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the birth of the Christ child. But John opens his book with a poetic preface rich with symbolism and meaning. He describes Jesus’s coming almost like a comet of light that streams out of heaven to land on a darkened planet.
Whenever darkness appears in John’s gospel, it is linked to spiritual darkness.*1 The darkness does not respond well to the light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). John uses an intentionally ambiguous word for overcome.*2 It means “to seize.” So we can understand this verse to mean that the darkness did not “seize with the mind,” or comprehend, the intention of the light. But the word also has a sports connotation: as one wrestler seizes another to bring him down, so the darkness tries to wrestle the light.*3 But the light will not be brought down and snuffed out.
In using this word, John describes the natural tendencies of our skeptical hearts. When God shines the light of who he is, it becomes immediately clear who we are not. When his mother died, Skeptic saw that God alone was the giver of life—Skeptic could not control who lived or died. The illumination of God, and our self-realization that follows, causes us to squirm. Our natural inclination is to try to wrestle down the light. Some of us, like Skeptic, do this by trying to assert our control. Others try to extinguish the light by ignoring it altogether. When we cannot “seize” God with our minds, our darkened hearts turn toward skepticism.
An Expert in Darkness
As we see in the gospel of John, skeptical hearts don’t intimidate God. Jesus interacted with people who were full of doubt, despair, and even defiance. He didn’t avoid conversations with these people or try to bully them into agreeing with his point of view. Nor did he approach everyone the same way. He tailored his conversations to get to the heart of each person’s need, because he was interested in knowing each one and being known by them. One person he engaged with in this way was a man named Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was a man of prominence: a member of the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee,*4 and a leading scholar and teacher of the Old Testament.*5 He spent his days instructing others in the law of God and his evenings debating its interpretation. He was an expert—an educated man who knew his subject well and was dedicated to keeping Israel’s religion pure. I’m sure that, like most experts, Nicodemus was confident in his understanding of his area of expertise. He was more familiar than most people were with the ancient writings of the Old Testament. He was the authority.
As a respected scholar, Nicodemus would not have been impressed by every new would-be Messiah. He would have analyzed their claims against Scripture. That’s most likely what brought him to Jesus’s door that night. Jesus spoke with authority, and he did incredible signs and wonders that had not been seen in Nicodemus’s time—signs and wonders that lined up with the prophecies of the Old Testament. Jesus also challenged the status quo, pushing his hearers to rethink their view of God. He used disruption to give people an opportunity to see things differently. Jesus was unsettling.
God often disrupts and unsettles us. When God allowed Skeptic’s world to turn upside down, he gave Skeptic a chance to rethink the assumptions he had made about God’s character and nature. God gave Nicodemus that same opportunity. This prophet from Nazareth could not be easily explained. His teachings had made Nicodemus uncomfortable enough to seek an audience with him. Nicodemus had questions, but unlike Skeptic, he leaned in to the disruption in order to seek understanding. The man to whom everyone else went for answers sought out the young prophet.
Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night, and John emphasizes this in order to tell us something about the state of Nicodemus’s understanding. As Jesus later says, “If anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him” ( John 11:10). Even with his expansive knowledge, Nicodemus was stumbling in the dark. He had mastered the Scriptures but missed the message. He was a teacher with more to learn.
Not More Information, but a New Birth
Though one was a lawbreaker and the other a lawkeeper, Skeptic’s and Nicodemus’s hearts were the same. Both men lived in spiritual darkness, one clinging to his passions and the other to his religious activity—neither grasping for God himself. They analyzed the rule books that governed their lives; they wanted control and a guarantee for the future. Neither wanted to be caught off guard, but God blindsided them anyway. Not content to leave them stumbling alone in the dark, God allowed disruption into their lives.
Nicodemus came to Jesus certain of where he stood. Jews of that time believed that you had to be exceptionally bad (an apostate Jew or a terribly wicked one) to be kept out of the kingdom of God,*6 so Nicodemus assumed that God would accept him because of his race and religious heritage. It never occurred to Nicodemus that he might not enter heaven after making a reasonable attempt to keep the rules. In his mind, salvation was a guarantee.
Nicodemus’s main problem was not a lack of information. He was an expert! He needed to understand that he was not in control. So Jesus unsettled him by revealing that simply being born into the nation of Israel was not enough. Being a Jew who tried to live according to God’s law was not enough. In fact, being a leading theologian and teacher of the law was not enough! A moral, well-ordered life does not gain a person entry into God’s kingdom. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit,” Jesus told Nicodemus, “he cannot enter the kingdom of God” ( John 3:5).
Neither Nicodemus, who kept religious rules, nor Skeptic, who carefully navigated the rules of others, could control their lives or their standing before God. That requires a new birth—something that no human controls.
- See D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 186.
- Carson, 138.
- See James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John, vol. 1, The Coming of the Light (John 1–4) (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 47–48.
- The Sanhedrin was the ruling body of Israel. It was made up of seventy men who functioned as the “supreme court” and made judgments and rulings for the Jews. Pharisees were a highly influential sect within Judaism known for their lawkeeping (which included over six hundred laws based on the Old Testament), strict adherence to the Jewish calendar, and obsession with piety. Jesus addresses their pious lawkeeping by saying that even though their lives looked good on the outside, they had missed the heart of God by neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness (see Matt. 23:23).
- See Bruce Milne, The Message of John, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 74, 76.
- See Carson, The Gospel According to John, 189.