Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Hey, God, why do you think we need a Messiah? In the Christian tradition, the Messiah, Jesus, is supposed to have been sent to die for the sins of mankind. But wait! You're God! You're the alpha, the omega. You are omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. You created everything. If you did such a lousy job with humans that they turned out to be filled with sin, why create a Messiah to save them? Just roll them in a ball and make the next batch of humans perfect! You could do it. You are, after all, God. Just askin' . . .
-- N., via email
I feel a little awkward answering for The Boss, but I guess that is what I do, so let me begin by reminding you that God already tried your solution. It is the Flood story, recounted in Genesis 6-9, and it didn't work out too well.
In the 10 generations from Adam to Noah, things got bad, but even after the Flood, in the 10 generations from Noah to Abraham, things didn't get much better. The problem was how God made us. God made us partly like animals, with animal urges without any moral constraints, and partly like angels, with a kind, loving, gentle and morally refined love of God.
God also created us with free will to enable us to choose whether we'd follow our animal or divine instincts. What this belief means is that God cannot know what we will do next. It's the one important limitation on God's omnipotence and omniscience.
God sadly admits in the covenant with Noah after the Flood that the inclinations of our hearts are sometimes evil and wayward (Genesis 8:21), but, even so, God is going to stick by this grand human experiment. The rainbow in the sky was the sign to Noah, and to all of us, that God would never destroy the world again.
It's true that God could have removed all this uncertainty by just removing our free will, and with it all the untamed urges and instincts that lead us to sin. However, that choice would have deprived us of our essential humanity and would have forced us to love God rather than allowing us to freely find God.
Some readers write to me with the fervent wish that God had done just that and made us God-loving automatons. My students might help those people who hate our free will understand its true blessing. I asked my class of 13-year-olds recently: "If you had a love potion (No. 9) that would instantly make a person love you who does not love you now, would you give that person the potion?" Almost all the kids in my class said they wouldn't give the potion to anyone, even a person they desperately wanted to love them.
"It would not be real love," was their most common explanation. I must say that there was one boy who stubbornly insisted he would give one particular girl the potion right away. I couldn't convince him and asked him to stay after class, where I pressed him further. He finally explained in utter frustration: "Rabbi, do you remember at all what it's like to be 13?" I was defeated.
So, what does all this have to do with God sending (or returning) a Messiah to help us out? The belief in a Messiah is really a belief in a messenger of God (Judaism and Islam) or a being who is actually a manifestation of God (Christianity) to help us use our free will properly and thus find what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." In all versions of this belief, the Messiah helps us by leading a great struggle to cleanse the earth of evil and oppression, after which the details get a little fuzzy, but the whole of nature is transformed (lions lying down with lambs, no waiting at checkout lines, etc.).
The belief in a Messiah is the belief that God will eventually help us in our struggle to mend our broken souls and our broken world. Under some theories regarding the Messiah, he will come (or return) when things here on earth look most bleak and desperate. In other theories, the Messiah will come when we're doing great and just need a little help getting into the end-of-time end zone. Still other theories postulate that the Messiah will come/come back at some preordained, appointed time, over which we have no control.
It's above my pay grade to know which theory is true, but I'm comforted by my belief that it's not just God way out there and us way over here, but that there's someone in between . . . waiting for us.