You [God] asked, “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?”
It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about,
things far too wonderful for me. …
I take back everything I said,
and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.
(Job 42:3, 6)
Yesterday Christianity Today published a preview excerpt from the forthcoming book by it senior editor, Mark Galli, written in response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins to be published in July under the title God Wins: Heaven, Hell and Why The Good News is Better Than Love Wins. Having only this small section to work with, I couldn’t help but read it with my brain echoing the cadence of Bell himself. If you read it that way, you’ll see the similarity. What follows is an excerpt of an excerpt, so you may wish to click the link now; otherwise when you arrive, what follows actually takes you into the second page…
There are questions, and then there are questions.
In Love Wins, there are lots of questions—eighty-six in the first chapter alone. The book you are currently reading will address a number of them, because they are good questions. But before that, the first thing we need to do is think about the very nature of questions. Because there are questions, and then there are questions.
There are questions like the one Mary, the mother of Jesus, asked the angel when he told her some astounding news. Mary was a young woman engaged to marry Joseph when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. “Greetings, favored woman!” he bursts out. “The Lord is with you!”
Suddenly finding herself in the presence of a messenger of God, Mary is naturally “confused and disturbed.”
“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” Gabriel reassures her, “for you have found favor with God!”
And then he drops the bombshell: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” This Jesus, he says, will be very great, will be called the Son of the Most High, will be given the throne of his ancestor David, and will reign over Israel forever in a Kingdom that will never end.
That’s a lot to take in. Most mothers just want to know they’ll have a baby with all ten fingers and ten toes. But what exactly all this means—Son of the Most High? ruler like King David? reign forever?—seems not as perplexing to Mary as one other detail. “But how can this happen?” she asks. “I am a virgin.”
That’s her question, and it’s a good one. A virgin getting pregnant without the help of a man—well, this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. It’s an honest question, prompted by natural curiosity and driven, not by fear and doubt, but by wonder: how is God going to pull this off?
Mary asks one type of question; the other type was posed by Zechariah a few months earlier. He was a priest married to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, an old man at the other end of life and the reproduction cycle, when the angel Gabriel appeared to him.
It happened in the Temple, as Zechariah burned incense in the sanctuary. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared before him. “Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear,” Luke’s Gospel says.
“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah!” Gabriel reassures. “God has heard your prayer.”
What prayer? For a son? For Elijah to come to herald the Messiah? For the Messiah to come? We’re not told what Zechariah’s prayer had been, only that it has been heard. This is what Gabriel told him: Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a son whom they were to name John, and this John would be an extraordinary man.
Again, Gabriel piles on the attributes. John will be great in the eyes of the Lord, will be filled with the Holy Spirit—even before his birth—will turn many Israelites to the Lord, will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah, will prepare people for the coming of the Lord, will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and will cause the rebellious to accept godly wisdom.
Again, that’s a lot to take in. And the thing that bothers Zechariah is the thing that bothers Mary: biology. “How can I be sure this will happen?” he asks the angel. “I am an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”
His question seems like a logical one. But it is not a good question. Gabriel chastises Zechariah, telling him in no uncertain terms that he, Gabriel, stands in the very presence of God. Of course he can deliver on this promise of good news!
“Since you didn’t believe what I said,” Gabriel continues, “you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born.” The consequence for asking a bad question: Zechariah is made mute. No more questions. Only silence.
So what’s the difference here? The questions are so similar. Why is Mary’s treated with respect while Zechariah’s is an occasion for spiritual discipline? Why does the angel seem indifferent to Mary’s natural curiosity and angry about Zechariah’s?
The difference appears in one little additional clause Zechariah adds to his question. Mary simply asks, “How can this happen?” Zechariah asks, “How can I be sure this will happen?”
Mary’s question is about God. Zechariah’s question is about himself.
Mary’s question assumes God will do something good and great, and seeks to know how it will unfold. Zechariah is not at all sure that God is good and great, and seeks proof.
Mary wants to learn more about the goodness of God. Zechariah mostly wants to be self-assured.
As I said, there are questions, and then there are questions…