God and the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ
My wife, Mary, and I are estranged Episcopalians. We both, however, have an interest in understanding whether the story of Christianity is true. If it isn’t, humanity is in trouble at least in the very long run. According to the current scientific understanding of how the material world works, our Sun will eventually become a Red Giant, and the Earth will be a cinder (5.4 billion years from now). Well before that, the increasing luminosity of the Sun will make the Earth as hot as Venus is now (1.1 billion years from now). In 3.5 billion years the oceans will boil off. We are literally cooked. https://phys.org/news/2016-05-earth-survive-sun-red-giant.htmlI .If that weren’t bad enough, over the ultra-long run, the combination of an ever expanding universe and the inexorable working of the second law of thermodynamics apparently results in the universe becoming nothing more than a thin gruel of free protons. There is nothing else.
Christianity offers an outrageous, implausible message of hope. It tells us that the Creator of everything – spacetime, us, an expanding universe that sprang from “nothing” to something with an observable radius of 46.5 billion light years — also is a personal God who knows and cares for each of us. Even more astonishing is the Christian assertion that the Creator sent his only son to save us from ourselves and offer us the prospect of eternal life in harmony with and for God. If true, the birth, preaching, crucifixion, and the redemption of humanity through the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the second most important event in the history of the universe after its creation. If the Christian gospel is not true, not only is there no basis for morality – everything is permissible – there is no hope either. It behooves us, therefore, to study very, very carefully whether the Christian gospel could be true. That, however, is way too big a subject for this post. For anyone who wants to get a fabulous overview and evaluation of the truth claims of Christianity, I unreservedly recommend John Lennox’s book, Gunning for God, Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target https://www.amazon.com/dp/B005YZX2IS/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1.
What I want to focus on here is what many who would like to be Christians see as an insuperable obstacle to belief, trust, and faith. Mary and I are in this group. We have been taught that God sacrificed his only begotten son for our sake. What kind of God is it that requires such a sacrifice? Isn’t that barbaric? No loving parent would do such a thing.
After studying what Christians have said about the issue, I realized that I may have grotesquely misread the Christian message. I have always interpreted the term “sacrifice” to mean propitiation; God sacrificed his only Son to appease himself, to slake his anger over humankind’s disobedience. My reaction to this has been that I do not want anything to do with a God that demands a blood sacrifice as recognition and payment for bad behavior. I still feel this way. But what if Christ’s crucifixion and death was a necessary rescue operation? We humans after all have shown no ability to rid ourselves of the darker side of our nature on our own. Not only that, but the entirety of creation is a depressing mess. Theologian David B. Hart put it as well as anyone:
“Within the bounds of our normal human experience of nature and history, no claim seems more evidently absurd than that creation is … something good; and no piety seems more emptily saccharine than the one that exhorts us to regard our own existence as a blessing … or as anything more than a sheer brute event (and a preponderantly horrid one at that)…. But all the things about the world that enchant us … are at best tiny flickers of light amid a limitless darkness…. Children die of monstrous diseases…; nature is steeped in the blood of the weak, but then also of the strong; the logic of history is a gay romp through an endless abattoir, a succession of meaningless epochs, delineated only by wars, conquests, enslavements, spoliations, mass murders, and all the empires of the merciless.” https://www.amazon.com/Theological-Territories-David-Bentley-Digest/dp/0268107173
We all know good people and have seen acts of kindness and self-sacrifice for the well-being of others. Nonetheless, it is beyond debate that we humans on the whole have an inborn tendency to serve our own wills above all else, regardless of the consequences for other people and the natural world, and – most importantly for Christians – regardless of what God’s will might be.
What if it is the case that we humans are unable to save ourselves from ourselves through our own efforts? A core message of Christianity, I think, is that we can be redeemed – we are able to become our true selves – only as the result of God having emptied himself of his power, becoming a man, suffering horribly, and then rising in triumph. Our ultimate fate can’t be up to us and isn’t.
I now have a glimmer of why the story of the gospel overcomes Christians with gratitude and hope. They see the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as a voluntary renunciation of ultimate power and acceptance of utter agony for the love of us human beings despite our indifference, hostility, and rejection.
I don’t pretend to understand how a single act in history starts the rescue of all of creation from death and decay, but the possibility that Christ’s suffering and resurrection (if true) was an act of love by the Almighty no longer strikes me as an affront to elementary reason. The awful, hellish suffering of Christ is not necessarily incompatible with the hope that there is a loving God.
Mary, independent soul that she is, will make up her own mind.