I’m not a chemist by trade. It just happened that nearly all of the available chemists had tried and failed. By “failed,” I mean that they inspected the ocean by the direct method of leaning over the railing of the boat and examining it assiduously, as opposed to the intended laboratory method. While it is true that I was able to perform the task of quantitative chemical analysis while getting banged about the insides of a lurching craft without getting seasick, I must admit that the experience was not exactly a pleasure cruise. They told me that I would be on the boat for the first day only, and then I was to be on standby, on terra firma, while Carlos, the real chemist, carried the analysis through the rest of the study period. As soon as he yawned, I knew he was a goner. By the end of the second analysis, he turned to Felix, our trainer, with a pained look on his face and said, “Felix, I’m not going to be able to do this.” At that, I was officially the new chemist.
With Carlos lying on a bench in the kitchen, dangerously close to our entire display of food, moaning and rubbing his face, I continued the work with Felix. In his heavily Spanish-accented way, Felix tells me, “I don’t know why everybody get sick. I do this many time and feel fine.” Felix, I conclude, has a botched-up vestibular system, and I tell him as much. His canals have got to be about one degree short of a full semicircle, or something. As I’m gripping the counter, waiting for the meter to stabilize, he’s running back and forth across the room, quite literally, unable to find his balance, except on occasion when he crashes into me and grabs my arm for support. The boss tells me that they’re trying to replace this venerable old man before he gets himself injured…again…, and I quite believe it.
Like the drug dealer I’ve become, I offered Carlos a dose of my chemical secret, but I don’t think it had enough of an effect. He provided Felix with a moment of delight when he made his inevitable run for the railing. Much to the old man’s disappointment, there was no feeding of the fish forthcoming. Carlos managed, just barely, to contain himself.
So I continued the remainder of the study with Felix looking over my shoulder. We managed to get through the whole thing with only two mistakes. The first was the mistake made by poor Carlos, who was barely functioning, and the second was made by Felix, which I caught in time to avert any effect on our results. Consequently, the supervisor in charge of the study approached me afterward to congratulate me and to say that I was officially the main analyst for that study once per year, every year, for the rest of my career. I’m wondering if it’s too late to switch my line of work.
Michelle, however her name is spelled, rode with us on our last day out. Not wanting to see her go through torment any more than the last two ill individuals who came before her, I offered her Dramamine before she even got on the boat. I noticed that giving it to the last two seasick individuals I rode with after they got sick was not entirely effective, so I gave her a half dose, preventatively. I wondered if she could really handle that much, wispy little Asian that she was. She did alright, inasmuch as she succeeded in not getting seasick. However, she’ll need to master the art of chemical analysis while sleeping, which is almost the only thing she did that trip. She poked her head through the interior window dividing us from the kitchen, where she was, and she asked, “So, you used to talk about theology a lot with Peter?” Peter is the fellow who performed this task, before wisely taking a severe pay cut and a pastorate in Georgia, getting me stuck as his replacement in the process.
Michelle, however her name is spelled, tells me she is a Calvinist and a member of a Reformed denomination, though, as she puts it, she does not consider herself a “five-point, T.U.L.I.P. Calvinist.” That’s fine, I say. I’m a monergist, and so was Peter. I explain that a monergist is a Calvinist who gets his doctrine from the Bible, not necessarily knowing or caring what Calvin thought about the matter. “Oh,” she says, in that intoxicated stupor, “I see.” I begin to resume my work, when she drops a little bombshell on me. “I’m not so sure about the penal substitution thing,” she tells me, ever so casually.
Penal substitution is this little matter of belief that some Christians have that Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins. Oh, seriously, it’s the crux of Christianity. Without it, there is no Christianity. Michelle had always considered herself a Christian, and everyone knew her as one, so I paused in my work, feeling a little stunned, and I replied, “Uh, Michelle, that’s no small doctrine.”
“I know,” she tells me. “We can talk about it later. I don’t mean to get into it now,” and then she promptly went back to sleep.
There’s an inherent problem with absolutes. The conflict arises whenever there is more than one of them. We say that an absolute is something that can never, NEVER, be untrue. It is unchanging across all times and places, and it yields to nothing, which is why it becomes such a paradox whenever one absolute runs afoul of another. We generally avoid this conflict by saying that God is the only absolute, and there is only one of him. In fact, it is this absoluteness that gives rise to the very idea of the Trinity. If we say that there are three of God, then it is the same as saying that there is one of him, because all three are necessarily absolute and agree at every point. Multiplicity and singularity mean the same thing with an absolute, such as God. Problems only arise when we have more than one absolute and they are not the same absolute. Even if we only have one God, we still have a God with multiple attributes, and therein lies the potential for conflict. Normally, as humans, we frequently endure such internal conflicts. Sometimes it’s choosing between two favorite restaurants, or choosing between writing a weblog post or spending time with with one’s wife (speaking of which…), or some other difficult choice, but it always results in one option falling in defeat to the other. Ultimately, for us, it is never a choice between absolutes, but it is a weighing of degrees between each of two or more options. If God, being absolute, gets stuck in choosing between two options that are both absolutely important to him, then we have a serious problem. He cannot reject either one, even if they are mutually exclusive.
It’s the case of the irresistible force that meets the immovable object. One cannot be stopped, and the other cannot be moved. If God loves absolutely, then he will do everything he can to save us from our demise, but if God has absolute justice and an absolute demand for sinlessness, then he cannot reward us with Heaven nor deny us the punishment of Hell if we are sinners. On the one hand, he must absolutely save us, if he can, and I might add that it would seem foolish to suggest that he can’t, and on the other hand, he absolutely must judge us as we deserve. We put him in an impossible spot. What happens next is the collision of absolutes. God, the absolute judge, collided with God, the absolute savior, and he self-destructed, right there on the cross. It was a cosmic traffic accident, the collision of the irresistible force with the immovable object, the deliberate self-destruction of God. That is the essence of penal substitution, and it’s the reason we can have hope in salvation through Christ’s work on the cross. Infinity was divided by infinity, giving one-hundred percent for anyone added to that expression.
Michelle looks up at me in awe, nearly cross-eyed with sleepiness, and replies with an almost drunken slur, “That is so beautiful. I’ve never heard that before,” and then she falls back to sleep.