Christ was fully pleasing to His Father. This is an odd statement of Father and Son, and the Father and Son are one God within the Trinity. But it makes sense that God should find Himself pleasing. But out of context or without deep thought, these types of statements can be mind-numbing to a pure rationalist. But this Trinitarian terminology is critical to the Christian faith. It is important to understand its deeper meaning.
The dilemma is why would God sacrifice “his Son,” an innocent man, as a “sin-offering” for all? It’s barbaric, anachronistic, and a cultural practice of primitive tribes. Theologians contrive a way out of the dilemma: a formula. Modern pastors press it to be accepted uncritically by faith. The formula is Christ died for your sins, a gruesome, protracted painful death of a completely innocent man. It makes no sense. It’s formulaic rationality gone mad.
But what if the “formula” pointed to the truth? What if there is a deeper meaning to the death and resurrection? What if God wanted us to take the story seriously? What if we are challenged to understand something important about God by penetrating the meaning of the death and resurrection?
The fundamental justification for this sacrifice of God by God is to atone for original human sin. Until we get to the core meaning of sin, and why its part of the human experience, we can’t understand the death and resurrection of Christ.
Sin is a human term and measured by human suffering, including the human rebellion against death. Old age, infirmity, weakness, loss of enjoyment, and eventually the agony of the final days, are too much for the human mind to bear. What makes aging, loss, suffering and death all the more horrible is that we have no memory of what came before our existence, and no reliable picture of what will come after. It is terrifying to think this thing called “me” will end. To cope, we deny death, either pretending it does not apply to “me,” or we make up stories about an afterlife based on religious faith. Every religion is a coping mechanism to deal with suffering and death. To the extent religion is a palliative, and nothing more, it does a disservice to the search for truth.
One of the main reasons people are mediocre Christians, or not Christian at all, is the irrational and culturally irrelevant idea of a substitutional death by one innocent man for the whole human race, dead, alive and future. Thinking people have never found this story convincing. For most, it has just the opposite intended effect of drawing people to God through “His Son” Jesus Christ. And why wouldn’t it? It’s a lot to ask of a rational thinker.
The first step towards sanity is to accept not knowing. It’s okay to reject simplistic formulaic religious answers. It’s okay to say that the Bible doesn’t have all the answers, in the same way that an operations manual doesn’t clearly address every problem with a machine or application. The diagram is not the thing itself. I do not want to seem blasphemous. The bible is filled with divine truth and wisdom. It is a treasure trove for the sincere seeker. It should be read and studied. But it can’t tell us what we are too limited to understand. It doesn’t have those kinds of answers.
The second step is read the symbols and metaphors all around us. These include the natural world seen through our daily observation and scientific discovery. We can marvel at the variety, intricacy, and beauty of the physical world. We can see everywhere the clues of a Creator behind the creation.
The third step is to suspend our human judgments of holding the creator accountable for His mistakes. Is the avocado seed too big for our liking? Is the mango too difficult to peel? Is the spouse too unloving? Is the genocidal dictator too entrenched? What qualifies us to place God in the dock? Who can cross-examine God to get at the truth? Who has enough knowledge to hold God accountable to the inquisitor’s standards?
But we do, and it is understandable that we do, and it is apparent God allows us to do so. But what a useless dead end exercise to blame God for not meeting our expectations. Yet some feel a certain dignity in going to their graves defiant of their deficient maker. But this attitude, just like a feel-good religion, ends the inquiry.
The fourth step is to be open to mystery. Even science probes the unknown by entering into mystery. Mysteries are all around us. It is this “unknowing” and the open minded desire to know that should vivify both science and religion. It starts with an open inquisitive mind courageous enough to entertain multiple hypotheses, and to put them to the test. It means too cutting the same slack for religion we accord science. Science develops theories supported by evidence. Good religion like good science goes as far as it can with the evidence, to develop doctrines. Doctrines are plausible explanations for who God is and what God wants. But like science, religion too must allow its doctrine to develop as human experience reveals the need.
Fifth, we can accept that entropy is part of God’s creative process. Things come into being that are wondrous in design and operation, and then decay, and are replaced. There is a cycle in creation that is part of the creative process. Somehow, Christians must stop placing death and decay in the closed category of “evil.” What is evil potentially is how we respond to this evidence of God’s purpose for suffering and death. Here, I use the term “evil” in its first semantic origin as “missing the mark.” Our antagonistic defining of suffering and death as evil may very well be missing the mark. Something is not evil simply because it does not please us.
Sixth, suffering and death obviously have something to teach us. We must be open to that. We are wrong to sanitize death, avoid it as a topic, or make up stories to ease our anxieties. The one who suffers and dies may have nothing to offer others except the memory of how he or she bore with the suffering and calmly embraced the death. But that too is a life well lived. Suffering too teaches endurance and compassion. Suffering brings us closer to the person of Christ as the compassionate presence of God among us. God, Evil, and Suffering
What we often do not see is that the avoidance of suffering through an accelerated death, or the killing of a deformed or mentally handicapped child, or the use of abortion to make our lives easier, deprives us what we are to learn. This is one of those mysteries. There is something in suffering that yields wisdom in this life, but also prepares us for whatever life we may experience after physical death. Of course, I am not arguing that we should not sometimes in some circumstances end our suffering by quick and humane means. Rather, I argue against the easy way out in all circumstances.
I have a hypothesis. I can only offer it as that. I cannot know. I can only develop a religious theory that accounts for the evidence as I have experienced it, and processed its implications. I hypothesize that God’s purpose in sending Christ into the world to teach, suffer, die, and to rise again is a profound clue to His creative process. It is not a zero sum process. That is, the idea of “beginnings” and “endings” is illusionary. The materials of creation change form but do not cease to exist, though they may disperse into separate molecules and atoms. “I” do not cease to exist in this sense, though this memory I have of my life may well disappear because the molecules of my brain neurons will no longer function as memory receptors and storage devices. Yet, I do not know. It is possible all the data of my brain, all my thoughts, emotions and memories will reside in some divine data base for later retrieval. I cannot know. I am Okay with that. Do I have a rational alternative?
This then is the significance of Christ for me: the cycle of life and death repeats. From death emerges life. From life, emerges death. But the underlying basic elements of existence continue within the mind of God outside a time-space continuum. The forms evolve and perish but Existence itself is unending. The teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Christ inform us that the process has purpose, and we are within that purpose, and we are to live according to that purpose as the light of Christ reveals to our limited capacity.
The closest analogy I have to explain God’s incorporation of human suffering and death into his creation is a symphonic symphony. Music succeeds by the spaces between the notes. The lighter themes are made interesting and meaningful by the counterpoint of the darker themes. The fiery energy of one movement is followed by the languor of another movement. But the movements have thematic unity as well. No coda exists for itself, nor is it a sufficient expression by itself. The symphony is “symphonic” because taken as a whole the parts are harmonious and balanced. Until we hear the entire symphony we cannot appreciate the ultimate effect that the opposing elements produce when played against one another. We are notes in that symphony. We have a time and space to be heard, then disappear within the larger creative design. It would be wrong for a single note, or even a group of notes, to insist on taking on the role of the composer.
Summarizing my metaphor, it is that God is in control of his symphony, and I am but a note, or perhaps only a space between notes. My entering into the symphony is all God’s doing. But I am to be the best note I can be, showing up as I am to intended, and to fulfill my space-time purpose. My time may pass, but the symphony will continue.
There is no sin in my time/space ending. The sin would be in my denying that I am created to a purpose. I think this is the meaning of the Christ. He is God’s message to us as composer of the Universe. His message is that I am to discover the music, and live according to the Composer’s purpose, and when that purpose ends with the playing of my single note, it is not the end of the symphony. It may be that one day I will understand the eternal symphony. For now, my purpose is to listen for the music, to accept my limited part, and to fulfill it as best I can.
Be still. Listen. Do your hear the music?