No Greater Love
At Metacrock's blog, I left a few comments responding to his post about the Atonement. He holds views about how Christ saved us that might be said to fall outside the mainstream, but they're similar to my own. Yet I've never given it any sustained thought, until now, so I've been unable to articulate it, at least to myself, the way I had hoped. I have found myself struggling with verses in Scripture that can be read -- especially at moments when you're not feeling God's love -- as if God's wrath was satiated by Christ's suffering and death on a cross.
But if you enter these sorts of struggles honestly, without asking easy questions or settling for easy answers, there is a payoff, and confusion tends to give way.
The central Christian claim is that Christ saved us. At least in my adult life, I have not held the view that Christ paid a ransom for our sin, and have held that it was an act of love -- but trying in that case to explain the salvation in mere words and logic is not easy to do. In what sense can I say that Christ died for our sake?
The basic meaning of dying for someone else is that you save them from physical death. Christ said in John's gospel that no greater love exists than to lay down your life for your friends.
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends (John 15:12-13).
That is pretty straightforward. It's the sort of statement that makes you think of people saving the lives of friends and strangers at the World Trade Center, for instance. And I have been thinking a lot about this, having just finished 102 Minutes. But I will say here that the problem of evil is the single greatest challenge to Christian faith -- and that Christ's death on a cross, as an instance of evil done upon an innocent human being, should be able to offer a direct answer.
Everyone knows, of course, that Christians see meaning in suffering, beginning at Christ's cross. But I am reminded that not all Christians see the same things in Christ's death. My own current struggle with Scripture begins with Christ's statement about laying down your life for a friend. Some Christians see him as laying down his own life so that we do not have to pay for our collective sins. If I hold anything like the same view, it is not by the same route. I begin with the straightforward sense that to lay down your life for someone means that you attempt to save their physical life. No Christian will hold that Christ was telling his apostles to pay the debt of sins in others; that role, if given, is left to Christ. He seems rather to be laying out a straightforward value: the value of life in this world; and the greatness inherent in valuing your friend's life more than your own. I want to begin with that straightforward sense.
Indeed, that physical sense of saving someone is something that I think can be appreciated by theists and atheists alike; and I have tried to isolate that sense in debates before. I have, at various times, asked both atheists and theists to start regarding Christ's death on the cross by thinking of instances like the example mentioned above (helping someone survive, in a common struggle for survival, on 9-11), or in fictional examples. One that always comes to mind, because I have an affection for the book and movie, is Gandalf's act of placing himself between his friends and the Balrog. As we go into this subject, we'll see how Christ was different; but for now let's stick to the basic sense of saving someone's physical life.
In The Rise of Christianity, agnostic sociologist Rodney Stark describes how Christians and pagans reacted differently to epidemics. Pagans reacted naturally, by simply fleeing those who had fallen sick, or by expelling the sick from their homes and leaving them to die without shelter or food. Christians took care of their sick, which was one reason that their numbers in the Empire went up; Stark goes into some detail about this. The command to love one another, and the hope of an afterlife, motivated Christians to save lives, and to do so with less fear of death; those who survived the illness then developed immunities; and those who cared for others had the favor returned when they fell sick. Pagans observed Christians surviving epidemics in higher numbers, and occasionally they, too, when sick, would be taken in by Christians; all this would lead regularly enough to conversion.
Did Christ risk or lay down his life in this sense? Well, he did approach those who were sick and outcast, without treating them as unclean. But he did not die that way, and what I'm after is the meaning behind his death.
Christ announced the coming of a kingdom. Like so many of the Israelite prophets, he denounced the authorities among his people for immoral stewardship of God's children, particularly the vulnerable. He ministered to and lived among the latter, and extended them an invitation into the kingdom that largely bypassed the ordinary authorities. He had in common with Gandalf the role of escort and steward, and he led his friends on a journey, but this was not a mission in which they were asked to destroy evil -- this was simply a call to trust in the Lord and to give your life to love. It was a call to take up your own cross, certainly; but in the context of the command to love, Christ's words seem to imply the need to take up suffering for the sake of others, rather than a clarion call for his followers to defeat evil in the world. The latter is something which he saw as God's role, with himself as the chief agent. The evil would come, and he would submit to it without raising an army. The powers that be had to be satisfied -- they had to have a scapegoat to fulfill their own laws of justice. The oppressed population at large would be left alone if the powers could have such a scapegoat. Christ was, in that sense, standing between the people and whatever danger would ensue from those who felt their power threatened by his announcements and his ministry to those whom the worldly authorities did not serve.
Someone, in short, was bound to pay the ultimate price in this journey. The price was going to be exacted by evil, but its manifestation was an evil that every time and place has known -- the evil maneuverings of selfish and oppressive rulers who prefer people to remain dead in spirit so that they cause no trouble and remain in thrall to the installed powers. The price in coming alive to God and throwing your devotion to him would normally be paid by those who were largely innocent, in God's eyes, of such punishment as this fallen world repeatedly metes out. So God stepped in as our human leader, and took the brunt of the struggle, paying the highest price, while he was here in body.
This would have been a mere temporary fix if not for a few things. First, he gave us an example by which to lead. He did not call for his followers to rise up in a futile physical struggle; nor did he call for them to save him from death. The whole point was that he, as their leader, was their servant; and no servant asks his master to step into danger and make irreversible sacrifices. Christ said that his disciples were to love one another as he had loved them; that no one could show greater love than to lay down their life for friends; he said in John 14-17 that they were his friends to the extent that they obeyed his commands, and that his command was to love one another (John's gospel contains no other commands or teachings). To a people living under the constant threat of death because they wished to worship God without the interference of emperor worship and the suppression of their political freedom, he said that the right way to face the cross was to take it up meekly. Do not endanger others, or lead them into danger. Pray not to be put to the test, but if it comes, stand between friends and the evil. Forgive those who torture or execute you, and do not call for your blood to be avenged. All this produced a community which the Romans saw as peaceful; it avoided the persecution that might have been, and it saved lives. It meant that Romans would see Christians potentially as friends who were willing to treat even their abusers with kindness and respect, which was one reason that the Empire became steadily more Christianized. It offered a demonstration of how to conquer the world effectively, not through power but with loving service.
These are all spiritual lessons, but there is still more to add to the core act of temporarily saving your immediate friends' physical lives. That is the atonement.
God showed us how far his love for us extended. We would not have believed that divinity would deign to suffer as a mortal genuinely and altruistically, unless we had experienced altruistic love from a human being who had seemed genuinely to come from God, or to be God. We saw in Jesus that God wished to live as we do, and that he was willing, perhaps even that he wished, to suffer and die as we do. This was not something masochistic, but an identification with those whom he loved. Love is just a desire to be with someone, at all times -- perhaps especially, the more genuine the love is, to be with the person when times are bad and the person is alone, sick, hungry, unclothed, persecuted, or in trouble.
And a lover, besides wanting to express his love, wishes his expression to be understood -- to register. Know that I love you, Jesus says constantly in John's gospel. The Atonement is a reconciliation of two lovers -- parent and child, master and servant, or friends, or spouses -- who have been estranged because one has rejected the other. The Atonement works on many levels. It is a reunion of lovers, certainly. It is also a service done by a leader who is calling his followers to a place that they have desired but dared not reach for without help.
It is, too, an act of identification -- in more than one sense of the word. Someone can identify themselves by revealing their name, as so many lovers have in world literature. Think of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, Viola revealing herself to her twin brother, or Odysseus revealing himself to Penelope. Think, too, of God revealing his identity and name to Moses in the burning bush; and Jesus revealing his name, "I am", in John's gospel. Someone can also reveal their true nature by word and action: and here we have countless examples from Christ's life and ministry. But above all we have the manner of his leaving life.
The Atonement works because it convinced a lover, who had often despaired of receiving favor again, that favor was being freely given; and the proof was given through sacrificial work instead of with mere promises as a false or superficial lover might give. The Atonement works to the extent that it reconciled God and humanity in love. It did save us from God's wrath, as Paul says, not because God was full of wrath when he regarded us, but because his love for us, even as sinners, was invincible (see Romans 5:8-9).
But it was not a love that was neutral. Love can't be neutral. It was a love that necessarily infused the spirit of the lover into the beloved. Paul says that we have been infused with the spirit of God -- meaning that God's love, which we studied in its example and accepted gladly in its gifting, has changed us. We have become more worthy of the love, in a sense, not through our own efforts, but simply because apart from our perfect lover, we love less perfectly.
... we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not dissappoint, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Romans 5:3-5).
Christ gave us an example of a life lived in love -- and he showed us a new way to suffer or die, in love. This way we endure more than we had ever thought possible, and consequently become better people in ways we had not thought possible. Something similar in a very basic sense goes on every time that a great scholar, scientist, artist, or athlete shows that things we had thought impossible, or failed to think of at all, are actually possible through a combination of ingenuity, courage, faith, toil and endurance -- except that this went beyond example, instruction, or inspiration. Christ really made it possible by infusing us with the necessary spirit, in the way that love (not the mere feeling but its manifestation) can infuse and strengthen us. It liberated us, as love can, from self-hate, and self-struggle, and pointed us to the better struggle of serving others through ordinary sacrifice and, at times, extraordinary danger, if such is the need.
In late research for this post, I have come upon an interesting essay at the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia online, originally published in 1911. I usually link to new scholarship, but the Encyclopedia's entry for the Atonement is well worth reading for several reasons. First, it tells us that the term originally meant "at one".
The word atonement, which is almost the only theological term of English origin, has a curious history. The verb "atone", from the adverbial phrase "at one" (M.E. at oon), at first meant to reconcile, or make "at one"...
Second, it covers the centuries of debate about the Atonement. It identifies Peter Abelard (d. 1142) as the chief proponent of the idea that the Atonement was to be understood as love.
Finally, it emphasizes that the various interpretations of the Atonement have common ground and should not be pressed apart from one another, and that if Abelard's view is not the favored one of the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Atonement was of course an act of love among other things. I am thankful for this sort of perspective -- as I also am thankful for reading that the view in which Satan holds rights over human beings was long ago broken by the arguments, not only of Abelard, but of saints who disagreed with his overarching emphasis on an incarnation of love.
Yet I cannot help but feel that we run into similar problems with the mainstream view that, before Christ came, we had incurred a huge and unpayable debt which could only be paid in the blood of God, through his pain and suffering, added upon the pain already inflicted in our sins against one another. It is the idea of God, or divine justice, being satisfied by pain and suffering that I find problematic. God is owed love and obedience; and these things satisfy him. That we owe him our lives is unquestioned; that God can punish sins or evil is likewise assumed. But so much evil falls unjustly upon human beings -- there are unjust wars, for one -- that I shrink from the view that God is satisfied in any way by pain and suffering. It makes far more sense to me that disobedience to God produces evil, which results in suffering that God helps us to overcome -- as in the coming of Christ and the Holy Spirit. He gives us strength to endure the pain in a basic sense, no doubt, but God's gift is not mere comfort. It is also a challenge to us, with his grace, to overcome evil in another sense. Acting in love destroys evil at its root, in the human heart, and replaces it in the external world with loving actions. Looking after the welfare of others thwarts evil before it can fall; and standing between them and evil when it must come robs evil of its power.
I had not meant these reflections on the Atonement to slip into a discussion of such a large problem as evil. But for me, as I'm discovering by writing it out, the two are intertwined.