The Redemption Series, Part I: Finding Our Way Out

August 10, 2015 by  
Filed under Catholic Apologetics

crucifixion giotto

In “The Theodicy of Divine Chastity, Part I,” we explored some aspects of the problem of evil in light of God’s perfect opposition to evil. Because of our experience of injustice, it can seem that God is either complicit in evil (i.e. “the end justifies the means”), or powerless, or nonexistent. Our first article in that series explained how it is possible for us to coherently conceive that God, while being all-powerful and all-knowing, gives no approval whatsoever to the many horrors that afflict us. Terrible things continue to happen even though they are infinitely opposed by God.

We saw that God, while omnipotent, has truly and irrevocably bestowed all finite power upon created persons; he has voluntarily limited the direct use of his power in order to make each of us as important as he possibly can in the lives of every other person. We examined how this perfect act of divine self-offering makes possible our glorious participation in the work of God and establishes our inclusion in perfect community where the actions of each are necessary for the happiness of all. We also saw that this divine gift of the immense power and causal significance of the individual person is, when abused, the reason why evil has any power to do harm at all. When the gift of God is abused, the objective disorder from our actions afflicts others in the human community unfairly.

God cannot do evil in order to prevent evil, and therefore will not reduce the magnitude of his self-donative love for us in anticipation of our abuse of his gift. Therefore, even though he knows what will happen if he loves us perfectly, God (in perfect chastity) gives the same absolute gift as if he did not know that it would be abused.

Ironically, evil has power precisely because God perfectly opposes evil and refuses to compromise with it in the slightest degree. God, being unconditional love, acts always and only in terms of absolute and unconditional self-gift without any consideration of unchaste self-withholding. Because God’s love has been abused, real power and causal significance are in the hands of those who have chosen to turn from love and from community. We now all live in a world where evil appears to have the upper hand despite the infinite love and infinite power of God.

Thus far we have considered what God, though omnipotent, cannot do because of love. In this series on the redemption, we begin to look at the question of what God has done to conquer all evil overwhelmingly. In this series, we will explore how the intervention of God to deliver us from every evil is such that (despite appearances to the contrary) no greater or more efficacious act of divine intervention could possibly be conceived.

Though it may seem that evil has the upper hand and that God is not able to protect us, with Saint Paul we proclaim:

“No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)

Over this series of articles, we will investigate how God’s victory over every evil is accomplished by the same perfectly chaste act of self-donative love which (when abused by created persons) gave rise to the power of evil in the first place. It is because of God’s fidelity to unconditional and absolute goodness that evil has any power at all, and it is because of that same faithfulness that the power of evil is utterly abolished.

 

A PROMISE FROM GOD

Jesus, in the Gospel of John, promises:

“And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)

We are a suffering and dying people under the reign of an omnipotent God who promises to give us whatever we ask. We ask God for help, but we suffer, die, and many of us die in abject horror and alienation. Situations abound where the intervention of a first-year medical student can save lives, but the desperate prayers of the multitudes who will die in agony seem to go unanswered. God is supposedly there for us with infinite power and promises, but we experience our fervent prayers to be less effective than a vial of penicillin. The Church recognizes this experience:

“The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experience of evil and suffering, injustice, and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 164)

If Jesus promised, “whatever you ask in my name, I will do,” then why are we still in a world that can shake our faith and become a temptation against it?  Have we not prayed, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”?

 

WHAT CHANGED?

Concerning God’s fidelity to fulfill his promise to answer our prayers, Pope Benedict XVI proclaims:

“The infinite and amazing divine love will be fully manifested when the Son of God becomes man, the definitive Righteous One, the perfect Innocent One, who will bring salvation to the whole world by dying on the cross…Then the prayer of every man will find its answer, then every intercession of ours will be fully heard.” [emphasis added] (Pope Benedict XVI, VATICAN CITY, MAY 18, 2011, Zenit.org

What is this intervention of God to liberate us from the evil which oppresses humanity, thereby answering the prayer of every person?

The question brings to mind a story of a rabbi who, in response to the query of why he did not believe Jesus Christ to be the messiah, abruptly stormed over to the nearest window, and violently opening the blinds to reveal the skyline of a crime-filled metropolis in the distance, responded with the question: “What changed?

A very good question…

Further compounding the problem is the fact that this purported divine intervention is inextricably linked to the death of a perfectly innocent person by brutal torture. How can we speak of every prayer (or any prayer) being answered because of an innocent person dying on a cross? Does such a scandalous proposal not seem almost engineered to be an insult to every thinking person of goodwill?

To modern people who have had enough of religiously motivated bloodshed, a worldview that is based upon the necessity of the violent death of an innocent man seems to have very little to offer. The ranks of those who are taking a stand against (what they believe to be) Christianity are increasing, and their way of seeing things is poised to become the default mentality of our time. In many cases, we Christians dare not ask too many questions of ourselves lest we, too, succumb to the elegant logic of both the atheists and the innocent children. When someone asks the dangerous questions for us in a way that trumps our capacity to answer, a familiar scene tends to repeat itself, even if only in our hearts:

“But they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.” (Acts 7:57-58)

But what if the “Christianity” in the minds of most Christians and those who oppose those Christians is a caricature and a fraud? What if a marauding ideology has seized the name of Christianity, and the atheists are not rejecting Christ, but an impostor who ought to be rejected? What if devout, well-meaning Christians (and Catholics) have accepted a vision of the “good news” that is the opposite of the Gospel, and by “evangelizing” are not preaching the good news, but are unwittingly perpetrating an ideological disaster?

If that were so, then the symptoms of anxiety, incoherence and vertigo afflicting the Christian “culture” may have a different diagnosis than the much-feared atheist uprising. Perhaps our familiar (and therefore unnoticed) carbon monoxide is being replaced by fresh air. Could it be that God himself has providentially led the atheists to ask these challenging questions in order to reorient us to the love of real Truth?

 

GOD SAVES US FROM GOD?

Distortion of the Gospel is nothing new; It’s been with us since the beginning of the Church and many are easily deceived:

“For if someone comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it well enough.” (2 Corinthians 11:3-4)

We put up with it well enough: Consider the preachments asserting that all of humanity is under God’s condemnation to eternal torture because of the sin of one person ages ago. This summary judgment applies also to innocent children who have not yet sinned or even become conscious of who or where they are. Such proclivity to condemn both infinitely and gratuitously is considered by many to be God’s “justice.” But, the “good news” (many are told) is that God is also merciful; God saves us from his justice (i.e. God saves us from God) by the deliberate crucifixion of himself in human nature. In order to mollify his own wrath against mankind for its sin, God demands an infinite penalty; a penalty which can only be paid by God himself. But he saw it fitting that the sin committed in human nature be expiated by horrendous suffering in human nature. He is paid by suffering somehow. He likes it. The bottom line is that we are faced with an all-important choice: we must “accept” (give mental assent to?) the blood sacrifice of an innocent man to appease the wrath (or whatever attribute) of God the Father, or we are forced to be tortured forever by an infinitely “just” God (who also loves us?) – even if it is for a sin we did not commit or know about.

Many go so far as to say that those who die without having accepted this message because they simply haven’t had the opportunity to hear it are necessarily and automatically damned to eternal hell. Even more dire variants arise in which God has deliberately predestined the larger part of humanity to damnation (for his own “glory”) and there is nothing anyone can do to change their lot or that of their loved ones.

This is, in the minds and hearts of many Christians (and to the deep perplexity of good-willed non-Christians), the substance of the “good news” of the Gospel. By our own report, God is both the problem and the solution: Condemned for a sin we didn’t commit, and created by God with a sick human nature impelling us to commit sins of our own, God has allowed some to be protected from his infinite assault and (because of a human sacrifice) to transition from the ranks of the damned to the “saved.” Those who are saved get to be on God’s good side forever and have peace and joy while other people (real people), each of whom is someone’s parent or child, are eternally tortured by their God of perfect love.

 

A GIFT SUCH THAT NONE GREATER CAN BE CONCEIVED?

According to Saint Anselm, God is that being “than which no greater can be conceived.” God is whatever it is better (i.e. more desirable) to be than not to be. Consequently, if the “good news” of the Gospel is true, then as the work of God to conquer evil and (as Pope Benedict XVI says) to answer every prayer, the Gospel must be good news such that no greater news can be conceived. If God has done anything for us, then what he has accomplished is so immense that it cannot be excelled by any possible contemplation of limitless beauty, rationality, or authentic justice. No matter how fanciful, exaggerated, or extreme, our imaginings and prayers cannot compare with what God has actually done, and Saint Paul says so:

“Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Eph 3: 20-21)

But who among us can honestly say, with Saint Paul, that the Gospel they receive for themselves and preach to others is far more than anyone can ask for or imagine? Has the desire of the human heart changed such that God can no longer fulfill it? Has God changed? Or has our message changed?

Concerning the degree to which we have departed from the authentic “good news,” Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict the XVI writes:

“To many Christians, and especially to those who only know the faith from a fair distance, it looks as if the cross is to be understood as part of a mechanism of injured and restored right. It is the form, so it seems, in which the infinitely offended righteousness of God was propitiated again by means of an infinite expiation. It thus appears to people as the expression of an attitude which insists on a precise balance between debit and credit; at the same time one gets the feeling that this balance is based nevertheless on a fiction. One gives first secretly with the left hand what one takes back again ceremonially with the right. The ‘infinite expiation’ on which God seems to insist thus moves into a doubly sinister light. Many devotional texts actually force one to think that Christian faith in the cross visualizes a God whose unrelenting righteousness demanded a human sacrifice, the sacrifice of his own Son, and one turns away in horror from a righteousness whose sinister wrath makes the message of love incredible.” (Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity)

Most thinking people are, in fact, turning away in horror. And they are right to do so because (courageously refusing to accept evil as a good, and heroically ignoring the oft-repeated threat of hell) they are turning from something sinister and false in hope of finding a higher truth and a higher good. Directly denouncing the false view of our redemption described above, Cardinal Ratzinger goes on to say:

“This picture is as false as it is widespread. In the Bible the cross does not appear as part of a mechanism of injured and restored right; on the contrary, in the Bible the cross is quite the reverse: it is the expression of the radical nature of the love which gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does, and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others.” (Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity)

The error of asserting that Christianity is about how God has to satisfy his punishment quota so as to thereby permit himself to relent in punishing us is both widespread and false. It is so widespread that it is even accepted uncritically among Catholic apologists who are famous enough to be household names.

The “Jesus gets the justice and we get the mercy” model of the redemption is not the only kind of distortion; it is only the most lurid. Subtler versions have been birthed, but they all have one essential common feature, regardless of how the “pointed tail” is concealed: They all say (at some level, in some polished way) that God is doing this for himself. It is for his glory, his majesty, his prerogative. Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household writes:

“The essential point, therefore, of the problem facing us is this: in becoming flesh God was acting for himself or for us; was he acting out of interest or for love? The clear answer that emerges from the Word of God is that the Incarnation was for God’s glory, but this glory consists in nothing other than in loving man.” (Father Raniero Cantalamessa, The Mystery of Christmas)

Though the foregoing quotes from Cardinal Ratzinger and Father Cantalamessa were written decades ago, the error of describing God’s motive for the incarnation as a mixture of self-giving love plus something else (regardless of how close to love it is) has not budged. Why not?

 

AN ENEMY HAS DONE THIS

Could it be that the error is not only a false idea, but a diabolically engineered attack on God and humanity? Father Cantalamessa ascribes the deep confusion about the nature of our redemption to the power of Satan in the world to distort the truth about God. He writes:

“The accuser, he who continuously accuses man before God and God before man, also finds a motive in theological disputes to sew together accusations against God in the heart of man. The characteristic of satanic thought, which insinuates itself ever more openly into the heart of man today, is to play on the very fine thread which separates the slope of divine truths from the opposing ones of supreme falsehood, to sew together a system taking a thread from one side and one from the other side so as to confuse divine intuition and subtle blasphemy. Satan therefore throws ‘suspicion’ even on the Incarnation, saying that, all told, God did everything for himself and that he was the one to gain from the coming of his Son on earth.” (Father Raniero Cantalamessa, The Mystery of Christmas)

There is a fine line between satanic blasphemy and what God asks us Christians to preach. In order to avoid becoming mouthpieces for the devil, we must get it straight. God assumed human nature, and died on a cross to save us, but this death was not to appease the Father’s need to inflict punishment by punishing his Son. Even if we have no grasp of the “why?” we must (in humility and basic respect for God and others) hold firm to the elementary truth that the redemption has nothing to do with God meeting his own need for retributive justice or glory received, and everything to do with him finally being able to meet our need for justice and glory – by giving a gift than which none greater can be conceived.

But of what relevance, then, is the suffering and death of Christ? Was the cross a mere demonstration of God’s unconditional love for us and not the real means by which we are saved? And what exactly are we saved from, if not God’s wrath? If it is not God himself who threatens us, why can we not be saved from whatever does threaten us without God requiring the suffering and death of an innocent person? After all, he’s the one holding everything in being. Why keep the threat alive?

A sobering question must be urgently faced: Do we Christians even know him? Who would tell us if we didn’t?  If we missed the clear words of Pope Benedict XVI and the Papal Preacher, the communication gap is being filled admirably by the atheists and the little children.

 

HOW TO CONQUER THE WORLD

Let us resolve to turn our attention to the Lord, and take the words of Jesus seriously when he tells us, “If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.” If we are to believe him without deceiving ourselves, then in simple honesty we must reply, “But, Lord, our joy is always taken away from us.”

Is this honesty a lack of faith? Of course not. The Gospel of John recounts Jesus‘ reply:

“So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. On that day you will not question me about anything. Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. Until now you have not asked anything in my name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” (John, 16: 22-24)

Our Lord is under no illusion about the unjust horror of our present situation. As the first step in leading us out of it, he tells us that he wants us to have peace in knowing him. He wants us to know that he is not the one orchestrating the injustice of the world, but is the conquerer of injustice: 

“I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16: 33)

He wants us to trust him and have peace. But the possibility of trusting God is in knowing that his only desire is to give us whatever we truly desire, and he promises to do it. But there is something interposing between God’s love for us and our ability to receive and return his love. And this something is why he must go to the cross.

In the next installment in this series, we will begin to directly confront the hard questions surrounding the “why?” of the redemption. The teaching of the Church is sure: The suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, though its meaning has been diabolically distorted and misconstrued to the human race, is not an absurdity, but is the gift of God to suffering and dying humanity, and it is a gift such that no greater counterstrike against evil can possibly be conceived.

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