Monday, October 22, 2007

Why Christ Died for Us

Well, it’s Monday, so I guess that means it’s time to make some folks angry at me again. What I mean, is that I have to explain just why it was necessary for Jesus Christ to die on the cross.

A lot of people come up with arguments that they think are clever, somehow ‘proving’ that God does not exist, or cannot exist as the Bible says He does. It’s a lot like the excuses we see in court, some crook trying to sell the jury on how he is innocent because of some loophole or dinky detail, that the jury and judge should – indeed must – ignore the fact that he quite deliberately did wrong and deserves punishment for it.

Let me step back for that. You see, whatever else we want to argue about, we can agree that you and I exist, right? Now, whatever I am may be in some dispute, since you only know me from your perception, just as I only know you by what I perceive. Similarly, we may each of us be wrong to some degree about the reality of our own existence. But, we can at least start with the premise that we exist.

From that, we should be able to agree that we exist and “live” in a world of some sort. Again, we may debate specifics on its form and so on, but we operate in an environment which allows us choice of actions, but which also acts upon us. From this, we see actions which we perceive to be desirable, and others which we perceive to be undesirable. Most of these are obvious in their worth to us; we enjoy pleasure and satisfaction, and dislike pain and discomfort. But even so, we at some point also decide that we dislike certain actions we perceive to be done to others, because we see them as “wrong”. Again, for now I won’t go into specifics, but I want to set our stage, which is that we inhabit a world of multiple beings whose interaction is a mix of chosen actions and imposed conditions, some of which lead to conditions we consider to be unjust. Further, we observe that some beings commit actions so unjust that we would apply the label “evil” to them, particularly when those actions are deliberate and cruel. We also observe that for all the desire of Mankind to establish Justice, there are many who not only commit unjust acts, but who seem to be rewarded for doing evil. We also see a world which seems to ignore the rights and needs of innocents, from children to the poor and weak, throughout History in every place and time.

It seems to many reasonable people, therefore, illogical to try to defend the existence of God or assert His goodness, in the light of the existence of Evil. Enough so, that many folks decide that God is evil, does not exist, or that Reality must be very much different from the way it is described in the Bible. Accordingly, people who trust and believe the Bible as true and trustworthy are often considered simple-minded and foolish. What I want to do here, is not to “prove” the existence of God or His qualities – I happen to believe that belief in God and His Holiness must be born of faith, another quality I shall try to address in a bit. I freely admit that I shall fail to some degree, not only because all humans are fallible, but because I am putting this together in less than a perfect structure, and with less time and consideration than something of this sort deserves. But I do mean to present something of an explanation as to how Christians can be intelligent and aware of the world in all its imperfections, yet believe in a good God and a Savior sent on our behalf, suffering through our fault and victorious for our benefit and hope.

It is my firm conviction that God exists, that He is utterly Good, and that He is Holy. I begin therefore with those assumptions, and apply them to the conditions set out at the start; a world of prosperous evil, where goodness seems naïve at times, and punished without consequence to many. We live in a world, as I said, which is a mix of our choices and outward conditions. In a sense, that is my explanation of Original Sin; not an attempt to make everyone feel guilty for things done long before they were born, but to remind us that what we do carries on long after we die, that the poison of evil must be dealt with or it will continue to cause pain and sorrow to future generations, and that we inherit a world which results from all done to it before. There are those who would like to claim that on the whole, Mankind has done more good than bad, but I hold the opposite opinion.

So, what does this have to do with the Goodness and Holiness of God, that he would allow evil to exist, or – knowing that we would commit evil – create a race of beings who would be allowed to do evil and prosper for it? To understand this, we must step back and look at the beginning conditions, and contemplate what God wanted for us in the first place. What I mean is, every contemplation of Satan sees him as a rebel against God, and there is a certain attractiveness in that rebellion, the ultimate underdog striking back against an ultimate power, hopeless yet courageous beyond anything else ever even imagined. Morally, how does God compete with such a notion? Indeed, many people ask whether Humanity really has a choice at all, since in the end God will surely prevail, and to exist requires submission to His will. Goodness seems immaterial, where God’s absolute power decides whether we shall even exist, let alone in what state. The answer comes down to the fact that God knew Satan would rebel, and prepared His defense by allowing for Satan’s small, temporary victory. It is the reason why we humans live on Earth at all, instead of being born in Heaven, why we are allowed to sin yet hope for a Glorious eternity, why the Angels themselves envy us. It shows up in the teachings of Jesus, the secret to God’s Might and Righteousness and Holiness – a truth utterly impossible for any human to accept on any basis but faith.

To exist as a specific person requires an identity of self. And that self exists apart from the Creator. This further requires allowing for independent action, even if the Creator intends for the created being to be like Him. The potential for rejection is automatic in the premise of freedom. So, if you are God and know that the freedom you intend to allow will corrupt the perfection of your creation? You make a separate Reality, a “Genesis” if you will, while protecting the greater Reality for the reconciliation you have planned.

Here’s the bad news – we all sin, every one of us. If we get a chance, we sin, and what’s more, we mean to do it. We hate people and we act on that hate. We put ourselves ahead of others, usually just strangers, but in some cases we don’t even care for family and those whom we know love and care for us. I’m not talking here about the ones who die very young or those who are unable to tell right from wrong; they are special cases and do not represent the main, and in any case do not represent a life of choices, which is the true human condition. Those who dwell on these rare occurrences ignore the issue, which is not surprising given the significance of our condition, but which does not help understanding. The fact of the matter is that we love our selves, but everything else tends to tie into that self-love. We like other people who make us feel good, we tend to prefer those who look, talk, and act the same way we do, who share similar beliefs, and we tend to resent and hate those who are different, and the more different the greater the hate. It’s a hard class, this Earth, and the reality of it is we made it the way it is. We have the means to end every evil that is, but we do not do that. There is collective guilt, but also individual guilt. Enough of it for each of us, that pointing fingers and blaming others is just another dishonest response, a desperate attempt to deny the truth we cannot bear to face.

OK, so some of you are rolling your eyes at this point, and waiting for the big hypocrite (that would be me) to start in on his demand that you all believe what I believe. Well, I’m not going to do that. I said at the start that I am explaining how I understand the situation, and this was necessary to set the stage. We live in a world where evil exists, not because God wanted evil to exist but because Man wanted evil to exist, because Man chose evil. It doesn’t matter if you do your best on your own strength to do good, you will still have to live in a world full of evil, where evil always has the advantage.

Some folks will stop me at this point and demand to know, ‘what about the good people?’ Good question. I’m an odd duck, because in addition to believing that Man is inherently sinful (and men moreso than women, by the way), I also believe that people are basically good. How is that possible? Well, like the old saying goes, we are all children of God, and God does not make trash. In our heart of hearts, we know good from evil, and we do not want to be evil, even though we choose it over and over again. The beginning of good for many people, I think, comes from the surprise of family. We are all pretty selfish while growing up, and part of that is a strong desire to get away from Mom and Dad as soon as we can live on our own. Yet, along the way as we meet and get to know people, we discover that we come to like people, some enough to become close friends, and one enough to marry; we learn to love someone besides ourselves, although that someone is usually a lot like ourselves. And then comes family, and the world changes for many of us. To be a parent is like nothing else in the world. A good parent would do whatever is necessary to look after their child. And we learn to care for someone we did not choose to have in our life; at least, we did not know the child before the birth and bring it into the family as a choice of keeping or not keeping the baby. Rejecting an infant for not being what you want, is to my mind among the worst of evils, but I must leave it at that for this discussion. As the child grows, the parent will be struck by the combination of ways in which the child is both like his/her parents, and yet very different. And yet, a good parent comes to love that child more and more. Even during their teenager years. This sort of selflessness is intentional, I think; we learn to love despite ourselves, the true kind I mean where we love without thinking about what we are getting back for it. The kind of love that demands sacrifice and a whole lot of patience, and which trusts that the child will someday understand, so that they can bring their own kids up the right way. Kind of the way God raises us up, and this is why God is depicted as the Holy Family.

So, all this talk and we finally get around to the Crucifixion. You see, Man has a great love of self-importance, and so he sets up laws as he sees the universe should be. Never mind that the lesson of Nature is imperfection. Everything dies, after all, and every perfect day still ends. We might hope, therefore, to maintain a level of perfection for a time, if we limit the definition to a few carefully chosen rules we can pay attention to for a time, but even then, we invariably fall from perfection after a time. The whole history of Mankind is a series of stumbles, and we rightly pay attention to the fact that we get back up again, yet we can not often admit that we fall again and again, and this is inevitably our way. We lie to ourselves, that this time we will be perfect. The problem is that we depend on our own strength. Man dreamed of flying, but as long as he believed that he could do so under his own power, he was doomed to failure. It was only in harnessing the powers of aviation and building a tool to reach the sky, that the dream came true. So much more, we cannot hope to be morally perfect in our own bodies and with our old selves. God makes the impossible available to us, however, and the whole of Man’s rise from its crude beginnings owes itself to God’s inspiration of Man. This is what the Bible teaches; not so much the specific laws in one place and time, but the constant availability of God to those who seek Him. You see, even though this world is evil and flawed and Man its regent has failed his charge, God watches and has made provision for our help. He has spoken throughout History to anyone and everyone who asks and listens. It requires that a man go outside his own interest, to do what is right rather than what is easy, that a man live by faith rather than the arrogance of human standards, and that a man stands for something greater than himself. Every great work has these characteristics. But it is also wrong to imagine that God takes no part in our course. There are certain times where He chooses to act, though these are necessarily rare, since we have this place to show the fruits of our own work and will. Even so, God came down to Earth as one of us, because of His love for us.

The paradox of Jesus Christ is the essential focus on the world’s religious identity. At some point, everyone is compelled to respond or react to him, who he was and is, and what he said, taught, and did. For here I simply claim that he is hat he said he is – the only-begotten Son of God, yet a brother to any of us who will accept him as our brother. By right King of all the world and everyone in it, he chose to live in poverty and claim no dominion of us. And this, in sum, is the command of Christ for all who would be like him – Serve, help, and above all, love everyone. It is a hard task, one we all fail at constantly, yet a worthy mission I would not trade for any other. This does not mean that only Christians are able to love, or that Christians somehow do it better than other people. We have been warned in Scripture that many who can say the words will not follow through in deeds, and those people shall have to answer for that.

But as for the debt of blood. We all must die, as I said. It is the curse of this world, and yet also the blessing, for when we die, we are brought out of this fallen world and into the greater Realm, where we become what we have chosen to be. It is where Justice comes into play, remorseless and yet compassionate, like a hot iron which cauterizes our wounds so we may heal, yet it is unbearable even in thought. And because it is unbearable, God Himself acted to save us from it. You see, it is Man’s sin which demands punishment, a wickedness based on a desire for destruction, the heart of Satan and the core of his nature, to seek human pain and the destruction of Humanity. He cannot touch God, so his fondest hope is the devastation of humans. Knowing this, God set a series of defenses for people, and His centerpiece was his Son, Jesus Christ.

The ultimate penalty in human justice is death. And in an unjust decision, a dead innocent man cannot be brought back, representing the ultimate injustice. So it is that God brought Himself through Christ to show His compassion for us by his Son’s bearing of the shame and punishment we ourselves demanded for our own sins. That is, the death of Jesus Christ on the cross was demanded by men and by Man, and the Lord Himself bore it for our behalf. Now, there can be no demand that anyone be destroyed to serve human Justice, for God Himself has rendered that a moot point by paying all. Further, the perfect life lived by Christ and his obedient death on the cross have completely derailed Satan’s plans to destroy Man; Jesus’ sacrifice was demanded by Man, but because of God’s love that death redeemed Man, if Man will take it. The difference is this – before, we feared the end of this life because it brought us to a terrible judgment on a standard we could not meet. Now, that requirement has been waived and we may choose, if we wish, to simply pursue good and do good. To do good, that is, not in hopes of scoring points to be used in our defense when we must face the consequences of the wrong we did, nor in some mercenary hop of sucking up to the ultimate Boss, but out of love itself, the desire to help others and to do good for its own sake. What’s more, because God is eternal, Jesus’ sacrifice not only reaches the people of his own time and afterwards, it also reaches back to all before him, so that the option of choosing love over evil is possible for anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Not everyone believes what I do, of course. In fact, I am doubtless wrong on a number of points, and theologically my presentation is shakier than a big Jello mold at a family dinner, but on the main points I think I am secure. The point is not to sway anyone, not that I could do so, but to explain my understanding and try to show how the key elements of the faith fit together, and to explain just why it was that Man demanded Jesus did, and why Jesus agreed to do that for us all.

No comments: