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Issue 06

Panentheism and Christ

David McIlroy

David McIlroy is Chair of Trustees at the KLC. He is a practising barrister and author of Ransomed, Redeemed, and Forgiven: Money and the Atonement.

The biblical claim that everything is in God is sometimes stretched to the panentheistic assertion that “all things are in God, and God is in all things.” The key verse relied on by those attracted to the panentheistic worldview is Acts 17:28: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Read in the context of Paul’s argument as a whole, this is not a warrant for the worship of God in creation: what Paul is saying is that “Christ plays in ten thousand places.”

The heart of Paul’s message in Athens was Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). He was speaking in a context in which, at the popular level, the gods were beings within the universe. Paul decisively asserted that the God he proclaimed was the creator of the world and all things in it (Acts 17:24). He went on to claim that this God was “Lord of heaven and earth,” in need of nothing (Acts 17:25). Paul understood God as not part of, dependent upon, or co-dependent with creation. Instead, life in all its manifold forms and humanity with all its glory and cultural richness were the manifestation of God’s superabundance (Acts 17:25–26).

Paul Klee, The Lamb
Robert Delaunay, The Rainbow

Having established God’s transcendence, Paul then turns in his argument to assert both God’s immanence and God’s desire to reveal his God-self to human beings. This is the context in which he states: “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But for Paul, God’s supreme act of self-revelation was not through the sublime aspects of creation but in the person of Jesus Christ. Paul presented the Athenians with a call to face up to a coming judgement, to be delivered by Jesus, whose credentials for this task had been established by his resurrection from the dead (Acts 17:30–31). There is no room for doubt about the direction of Paul’s argument: the signposts in creation pointing to God are a preparation for the fuller revelation of God in Jesus Christ. 

Another snippet of Scripture used to support panentheism is 1 Corinthians 15:28, which looks forward to a moment when “God will be all in all.” The focus of the chapter in which this phrase appears is the reality of resurrection. Paul stakes everything on the claims that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” (1 Cor 15:3–4). If these historical events, the truth of which Paul had verified for himself, including by talking to the other witnesses to them (1 Cor 15:4–8), had not happened, then Paul and the other witnesses were false witnesses (1 Cor 15:15), the message they were preaching was a lie, those who had believed their message were deceived, and death and sin remained the unconquered realities of human existence (1 Cor 15:15–18).

Having summarised the evidence which caused him to change his mind about Jesus, Paul reminds his readers that he has been prepared to risk death many times (1 Cor 15:30–32), in the hope of resurrection and for the truth which he has witnessed. It is between those passages, the first of which sets out the evidence for the resurrection of the Son of God and the second of which expresses the depth of Paul’s conviction that this decisive event had occurred, that Paul gives an account of how the Son of God will overcome all of humanity’s enemies, including death (1 Cor 15:26) before returning all things to God (1 Cor 15:28). Paul’s extraordinary claim is that the sublimation of evil and the resolution of all things is not some inscrutable mystery but takes a shape defined by events which took place around 30 AD, when one homeless Jewish rabbi was executed as a blasphemer and traitor, before being brought back to life by God in confirmation that he did, in fact, have authority over creation, evil, and death.

Matthias Grünewald, Christ in Majesty

A third passage in which some have detected panentheistic themes is Colossians chapters 1 and 2. Colossians 1:18 declares that “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The subject of this declaration is not an undifferentiated Godhead or God the Father: it is Jesus Christ. Colossians chapter 1 contains the strong affirmation that the creation of the universe was mediated by the Son of God (Col 1:15–16), but that this Son of God is none other than Jesus of Nazareth who died on the cross (Col 1:20) and rose again from the dead (Col 1:18).

The claim of the apostle Paul and of the early Church was not that Jesus of Nazareth was a messenger who opened people’s eyes to the God entwined with nature. On the contrary, the claim was that the true referent of the signposts to God in nature was Jesus Christ, who in his bodily death and resurrection decisively affirmed the goodness of matter and its connection to the heart of the maker of the universe. Jesus does not point to God in creation; creation points to God in Christ.