Saturday, January 11, 2003

Dying for sins: collected works

I've got a lot of interesting responses, both by blog and email, to my question about dying for sins. Because of their number, I'm going to try to address them thematically rather than individually, though I will refer to some individual people. So, here goes:


Several writers have pointed out that Jesus' sacrifice is essentially a mystery, and we cannot comprehend all the details. Disputations alluded to this, leading me to a wail of despair: what's the point of talking about it then? I think I overreacted, and fortunately some Christians, including Peter Nixon and Eve Tushnet in emails, assured me that just because something's a mystery doesn't mean it isn't worth looking at. Eve wrote:
For my own part, I tentatively advance the theory that a mystery (in the Christian sense) is something where you can know _why_ it happens, but not _how_: the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Church as Body of Christ all come to mind. I think some of your questions are how-questions, which you're unlikely to get answered, but some are why-questions, which I'll try to address next week, and which, like I said, I think Anselm handles really well.

Minute Particulars expressed a similar idea: "And, as others have warned, slapping the 'mystery' label on doesn't mean 'give up!, we'll never know!' Rather it means quite the opposite: 'stay and stare, look again, contemplate over and over.'"

So I will stop asking everyone to "know the mind of God." But there are still some points to what I asked that I don't think require that.

In loco parentis

In response to my post questioning subtitutional atonement, Josiah Neeley sent an interesting email:
Here's an example told to me when I was a kid: suppose that a rebeleous kid is pulled over for speeding. When the cop gives him a ticket he laughs, saying that his father is a judge and loves him so much that he would never see him come to any harm. The kid goes to court where, as expected, the case comes before his father. His father, however, finds the son guilty and imposes the maximum fine. The kid is stunned. He has no money, and if he can't pay must spend the next 90 days in jail. The father, having passed sentence, steps down from his bench, takes off his judge's robe, gets out his checkbook, and pays the fine.

Good things about this analogy: It shows, first off, that it is possible to (quite literally) pay for another person's crimes. It also highlights a way in which taking on another person's punishments is different from not punishing them. We might reasonably suppose that the father's gesture of self-sacrifice would cause the son to mend his ways and go and sin no more. This would be particularly plausible to suppose if the judge was not rich and paying the fine required him to take on extra work, to do without, etc. in order to pay off the debt.

By contrast, if the father had just let the kid off, it's unlikely he would have mended his ways. If anything, he would be more likely to commit crimes, since he would conclude that he wouldn't be punished for them. The situation would also be lawless.

I think I see what he means here. This is not just about forgiveness, but imparting a moral lesson for the future. It makes forgiveness an exception to the rule.

The trouble I see, though, is that it only works for one act of forgiveness for one specific sin. If I understand it right, Jesus theoretically died for all our sins, down to the present day. After all, I am told that Jesus died for my sins, and I was born an awfully long time after the Crucifixion. But I think this is getting ahead to the last part of the post, so more anon.

Love hurts

Although Josiah was defending substitutional atonement, Peter Nixon, who originally described the theory, seem to be backing off it. He reprinted a reader's letter objecting to the idea that "God accepts as legitimate the death of an innocent," which was one objection I raised myself. The reader went on:
You are right in saying that it is difficult to explain. I like to think of it as follows: God is so merciful, that he himself became a mortal, and was put to death on account of our sins. What greater indication of the sinfulness of humanity than the brutal judicial murder of an innocent man? But through his resurrection, Jesus conquered sin and death and pointed out the way for us to follow. By accepting his infinite mercy and following him, by uniting ourselves with Christ, we are "saved". In the great words of St. Peter, God became man so that man could share in the divine nature. This is the wonderful truth of our faith, and it is so much richer and more beautiful than the vengeful deity theory of vicarious atonement, which is accepted by protestant fundamentalists today.

I'm kind of unclear on how the Incarnation and Crucifixion demonstrated God's mercy. Did he want to show he was capable of forgiving people for trying to kill him? This also raises again something I asked earlier: how Jesus' death, as opposed to his life, "pointed out the way for us to follow."

Later Peter quoted the Pope saying something similar:
God is always on the side of the suffering. His omnipotence is manifested precisely in the fact that He freely accepted suffering. He could have chosen not to do so. He could have chosen to demonstrate His omnipotence even at the moment of the Crucifixion. In fact, it was proposed to Him: "Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross so that we might see and believe." (Mk 15:32) But He did not accept that challenge. The fact that he stayed on the Cross until the end, the fact that on the Cross He could say, as do all who suffer: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15:34), has remained the strongest argument. If the agony on the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is Love would have been unfounded.

I must admit, probably one reason I am not presently a Christian is that the whole idea of a suffering God doesn't really impress me. The general subtext I get from a lot of Christians talking about the Crucifixion is that love = pain; the way you really prove your love for someone is to suffer horribly. I don't like that as a conception of love. Certainly love sometimes calls upon you to suffer for another person, but unless that suffering is unavoidable, it's just gratuitous. I don't think you love someone less if you aren't called upon to suffer for them. That's why I asked the question that Disputations so disliked, whether the grisly business was necessary.

Though I may well be misreading, the implication I get from the above passages is that God descended and suffered so he could feel what we feel, which shows his great love. But I do not see a great point in simply suffering because someone else is suffering. If I cut my finger, I don't expect my mother to cut her finger to show that she loves me. I expect her to get me a bandage.

What really happened

But of course, most Christians would say God wasn't simply suffering along. Jesus' death achieved some sort of atonement, a reconciliation between God and humans. This brings me back to a question I raised in this post, which no one seems to have addressed yet: what did the atonement actually change? I think this seems so obvious to most Christians that it hardly bears explaining, but I don't understand it. In this post from Kairos, he describes "a moment ... when some other will bear our sins away from us, and free us from their terrible burden." This is supposedly what the Crucifixion was, and yet I have yet to meet a Christian who actually seems freed from his sins. For instance, in a more recent post, Kairos says: "I find that almost every urge and impulse to do or not do something is wrong... If I find myself really wanting to do something, wanting in a state of near lust or gluttony, it usually turns out to have been the very worst thing I could have done at that moment."

Not to pick on the KairosGuy: every Christian I know freely admits to sinning. They are, after all, still born into the fallen world. Many of them also fear ending up in hell, at least sometimes. So what exactly are they free from? How are they different from anyone in the Old Testament, those who likewise struggled to be good and often screwed up? How are they treated differently by God, who seems to sometimes punish and sometimes forgive, just like he did in the OT?

I apologize again if these questions seem boneheaded, but as I've read the responses I've been feeling more strongly we need to establish what The Great Atonement actually was before we can talk about how or why it happened. But thanks to all who responded, for being so thoughtful and courteous with this annoying heathen.

Friday, January 10, 2003

Dying for sins: necessary roughness

Sorry my posting has been so spotty lately. It's been a hectic week: my mother is staying with me, and I have work issues and car issues and a lot of little fires to put out. I got another interesting email from Josiah Neeley that I'm still pondering, and hope to respond to tomorrow. But in the meantime, I noticed John da Fiesole at Disputations also responded to my question about the meaning of Jesus' death. He says my confusion is understandable because the question is "the central mystery of our faith." However, he doesn't like another part of the question:
My first thought is to recommend against asking questions about necessity, mostly because that confuses me. Was Jesus’ death “necessary” in the sense that a square necessarily has four corners? That I had eggs for breakfast yesterday? That I must eat to live?

Instead of getting bogged down right away, I think we should grant that Jesus did sacrifice Himself on the Cross, and try to understand what it means, rather than why God ordained this means of salvation rather than another.

I suppose that such starting assumptions are really the crux of the matter. Christians take as a given that God is both good and omnipotent, and I assume neither. In fact, my doubts about both are partly underlying this line of questioning. When I have wondered about the goodness of God to Telford Work, his usual response is that God demonstrated his goodness through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But I can't help but wonder why an infinitely good being would choose to counteract needless suffering and death with more needless suffering and death, and why an infinitely powerful being would choose a means of salvation that was so oddly small and limited and so painful to himself.

I must say, answers like John's make me wonder if this type of inquiry even has a point. If faith is a gift, maybe this is a gift people like him have and I do not have, and there is no way around it. That in itself makes me wonder even more if God can be good, if salvation is so arbitrary. In fact, John pondered this question a post earlier and answered, well, it's a mystery. This may be a satisfactory answer for him, but I hope he understands why, for some of us, this question is more personal than esoteric.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

Get thee to a nunnery

So in my tracking software today one of the hits showed the referring URL -- i.e. the site where somebody clicked through to my site -- as I was completely baffled as to what a link to my site would be doing on a Tennessee convent's website, and indeed, briefly poking around I didn't see myself there. Anybody know what's going on?

Wednesday, January 08, 2003


I wrote the last post in something of a rush, since I was at work, and on reflection I want to clarify part of it. Looking back at Peter's post I realized I was not making the proper distinction between punishment and consequences for sin. It's the latter that Peter was emphasizing; if our sins do not have consequences, it says we humans are not important.

But what bothers me about this is that even without Jesus, our sins do have consequences. The suffering we inflict on each other and ourselves, the distress that we cause God (if the Bible is anything to go by) certainly seem like consequences. They are not fair consequences, but then, neither was Jesus dying on the cross. So why does Jesus' death count as a "consequence" while the millions of other people who've been tortured and killed because of human sin don't? Contrary to what Neuhaus says, this seems far more trivializing of humanity than if God simply forgave us and left it at that.
Dying for sins: the book of Peter

Peter Nixon took a stab at answering my question about why Jesus had to die. Essentially, Peter seems to be making the classic substitutional-atonement case. Somebody had to pay for the sins of humanity, so Jesus nobly covered our debts for us. Thus, our sins are forgiven.

I've heard this basic argument before, and I have a couple issues with it. First, the "somebody had to pay" concept. Peter quotes Richard John Neuhaus to bolster the idea: "We could not bear to live in a world where wrong is taken lightly, where right and wrong finally make no difference. In such a world, we—what we do and what we are—would make no difference." So if the guilty don't pay, an innocent pays instead.

But what's the moral logic behind the idea that making an innocent pay for the guilty is better than making nobody pay at all? I do not think most of us would apply this rule in most of our lives. Indeed, since making others suffer needlessly is one of humanity's most common sins, it's hard to see how inducing yet another instance of it is going to help anything. It's as if God hung on to the mechanics of punishment while stripping it of its meaning.

This concept gets even weirder if you consider that the punisher and the punishee are theoretically the same being. I don't completely understand how the Trinity works, but Christianity is ultimately monotheistic, so I am considering them the same. This makes it a bit like a loan shark saying, "OK, the rule if you don't pay your debts is I break your kneecaps. But I'm going to forgive you, so I'll break my own kneecaps and we'll call it even. Because, you know, somebody's kneecaps have to get broken." I think most of us would be glad not to get our knees broken, but we'd think this was one demented loan shark.

Another problem is that God showed himself capable of forgiveness before Jesus ever came along. I haven't read the whole Old Testament, but just off the top of my head, there's the example of God sparing Ninevah in the Book of Jonah (much to Jonah's irritation) which Telford a while ago cited as an example of grace (don't have a link -- his archives have evaporated). This was before Jesus, and I don't think God demanded anybody get killed in the Ninevites' places.

In fact, it's hard for me to see exactly what changed from the OT situation. Two thousand years after Jesus, we are all still born into the fallen world, still marked with original sin, still in danger of hell (well, depending on what faction you adhere to). We are still expected to avoid sinning and to repent when we do sin, much as seemed to be true of the OT characters. I don't know what effect this had on the afterlife, since the afterlife is rather lacking in the OT, but it's hard to see why God would show mercy toward anybody, or even be very interested, if they were all eternally damned anyway.

I imagine some Christians must be thinking I'm titanically thick-headed, but honestly, I still don't get it. I appreciate the efforts people have made to explain this to me, but I still feel rather in the dark.

Monday, January 06, 2003

Dying for sins: the sci-fi version

Thanks to Eve Tushnet, a lot more people than usual have come around to ponder my question, "What does it mean that Jesus died for our sins?". One reader, Josiah Neeley, suggested an answer to one part of my question: why was the whole world responsible for Jesus' death?
Suppose that one night you are captured by space
aliens and taken up to their ship. It seems that they
have been monitoring events on earth and have decided
that, because of all the war, lies, cruelty, etc.
which human beings commit, they aren't worthy to live.
And so, for the good of the universe, they have
decided to destroy the planet. But, to make sure they
aren't being too hasty, they have devised a test. They
will randomly select one human being (you) and give
them the following choice. If you agree to let them
kill you, selflessly sacrafising your own life, then
they will conclude that the human race isn't beyond
all hope, and they will leave the planet, otherwise
they will destroy it. Suppose you agree to be killed.

Now, more 99.9% of the people on the planet don't even
know that you're alive. And yet, in a sense, they
would be responsible for your death, since it was
their bad behavior that made your sacrafice necessary
in the first place. So, in a sense, you can be said to
have died for their sins.

This anaology is far from perfect. For one thing, it
leaves human beings much as they were before, while
the real attonement (somehow) aids people in living a
holy life. And, of course, the real attonement didn't
involve space aliens. But hopefully it makes things a
little clearer.

It's an interesting idea, and in fact I seem to remember that plot has been used in a few sci-fi/fantasy stories (though for the life of me I can't name one.) But I have the following objections:

1) My question started with Telford Work's line, "We made Jesus walk our plank." That sounded a bit more like direct action than Josiah's description. But of course, Telford's pirate tale is another imperfect analogy, so he'll have to speak for himself.

2) I would only consider the whole world responsible for my death in that scenario if I felt the aliens were acting reasonably. Even if you accept that the world is so evil they'd be justified in blowing it up (a big if), the whole randomly-selected-human technique is just bizarre. Surely such an exercise is not necessary to prove humans are capable of self-sacrifice, if the aliens have been observing humans at all closely. And one human can hardly represent the whole race. I mean, I would accept death to save the world, of course, but I'd think those aliens were off their freaking rockers.

3) Aside from the problems with the analogy that Josiah mentioned, there's the fact that Jesus was no randomly selected human. Supposedly, he was an alien himself -- one who decided that incarnating himself as a human and getting himself killed was the way to save humanity. I realize Josiah was not trying to answer the whole question, but that is one of the main sources of my bewilderment. Given that he's an omnipotent being, why would God choose that way?

Meanwhile, other Christians have responded by recommending reading: Telford suggested Isaiah and Mysterium Paschale, while Eve Tushnet plumped for Cur Deus Homo by St. Anselm. I will see what I can fit in (not to mention what I can find), but I asked the question less to get a scholarly disquisition than to learn what this means to individual Christians. I mean, if I were asking about some obscure branch of theology like monophysitism I could understand being referred to books, but I assume every Christian must have a conception of dying for sins, since it's such a central idea in Christian theology. So I appreciate the feedback -- keep the emails coming, folks!