The Suffering God and the Culture of Death
The “culture of death,” like the poor, has always been with us. It is not a recent phenomenon, despite what some may think. In fact, as long as death has existed, it has coexisted with the culture of death. Since death has always accompanied life, so the culture of life has forever correlated with the culture of death. The source of the culture of death is death itself.
Sin, in Christian terms, is the origin of death. Sin is the reason death came into the world. Hence, sin and death are linked. Death is not sin, but it is a symptom of sin—“the wages of sin is death.” The culture of death, being a reflection of man’s evil proclivities, is but an outgrowth of sin, which itself is the cause of death. Life, on the other hand, is a sign of divine providence; life, in Christian understanding, came into being due to the active work of God. Since God can only be understood as good, the culture of life can only be viewed as a by-product of God’s goodness. Thus, the culture of life is as old as life itself, and older still: it is as old as the Creator of life, which is to say, its principles are eternal; they are, one might say, “eternally begotten from the Father… Light from Light, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father, through whom all things were made.”
Today, the phrase “culture of death,” first coined by Pope John Paul II, is most often cited as the prevailing social condition behind the acceptance of practices like abortion and medical experimentation on human embryos. Sometimes the phrase is also applied to the state’s use of capital punishment, although prohibitions of the death penalty by the Church have only been invoked in recent years; through most of its history, the Church hasn’t disapproved of putting egregious criminals (including heretics) to death, nor has she always in practice lived up to the principles set down in her just war school of thought. In any case, the culture of death isn’t something that only recently sprang up; it has always existed as long as sin has existed; it will continue to exist as long as sin continues to exist.
Before the time of Christ, conceptions of the divine varied from culture to culture. All agreed, however, that God (however He was defined) was powerful. After all, they reasoned, he had the power to give us life, and—more vexingly—he has the power to kill us. The ancient Israelites saw their Yahweh as a God of justice, but also one of power. It was in his Name and through claims of his authority that the Israelites saw fit to attack the Caananites and other tribes who at the time lived in what the Israelites took to be their land, which they believed belonged to them by divine right, since God himself willed it to be so.
It is often remarked how God in the Old Testament presents himself as angry, wrathful, ready to “smite” at the merest provocation. Less often noticed is the extreme, warlike attitude of the Israelites under Yahweh’s command. While engaging in frequent wholesale slaughter—during which men, women, and children are wiped out—the army of Israel never seems to endure pangs of guilt. They are, after all, doing their God’s will. There are in fact times when refraining from massacre is seen as evidence of moral corruption, as when King Saul neglects to exterminate the entire population of Amalek, but spares children and livestock for his own personal enrichment. One also thinks of Moses scolding his men for sparing too many of the Midianites:
“Why have you let all of the women live?... These are the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused all of the people of Israel to rebel against the Lord… Now kill all the boys and all of the women who have slept with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.” (Numbers 31: 15-18)
Again, the assertion is that the generals of Israel failed grievously in declining to carry out wholesale slaughter; Moses was there to correct their error. He, being Yahweh’s main representative and mouthpiece, knew what God willed better than anyone else, and God commanded genocide. Nathan the prophet, advisor to King Saul, had a similar revelation from God; he knew that God wanted Saul to destroy all of the Amalekites, not just most of them.
From these examples, and numerous others like them, we are left with a clear impression that, however much “murder” was condemned in ancient Israel’s moral code, most famously in the Ten Commandments, the Israelites did not blanch at what we today would take to be murder on a vast scale. “Thou shalt do no murder,” in fact, meant, “thou shalt not murder your own kind.” Regarding outsiders, those not part of the chosen tribes, there were no such prohibitions; in fact, there was nothing inherently wrong about attacking such people, enslaving them, or exterminating them.
To be fair, of course, one might add that other tribes probably had much the same point of view towards outsiders; the Amalekites and Midianites would not have felt any compunction about laying waste to the nation of Israel, murdering its women and children, and destroying its livestock. In its fierce and ruthless militarism, Israel was typical for its time. It was a tribe fighting for survival in a hostile world, in which life was most often “nasty, brutish, and short.” All tribes of the period had their chosen deity or pantheon of deities, and they all sought a position of strength with relationship to those outside of their tribe.
The primary difference between Israel and other contemporary tribes lay in their attitude towards the divine. To Israelites, Yahweh wasn’t simply a local god, to be acknowledged and appeased along with many others; instead, he was the one and only God, a “jealous God,” one who would not tolerate the worship of any “false” gods, as evidenced in His first, and presumably most crucial, commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Most other nations were more adaptable, and less absolute on spiritual matters, but to Israel, the notion of “playing the harlot” with alien gods was abominable. Intermarriage between Israelites and others was not tolerated, because such a practice would inevitably lead to the introduction of idols. Worshippers of idols, naturally, were worthy to be put to death, since they brought spiritual impurity. The Israelites, it must be noted, were liberal in their use of the death penalty, feeling compelled to apply it not just to murderers and adulterers, but also in cases of people found to have performed unacceptable religious practices, such as divination or sorcery.
The question arises: can a nation that has very little compunction about killing people be considered exempt from the “culture of death”? Let us consider carefully.
That the Israelites were firm believers in capital punishment need not, in my view, detain us for too long. Of course, their reasons for putting people to death offend our contemporary sensibilities. The practice of killing palm readers and witch doctors strikes us as excessive, barbaric, and cruel. Still, these executions were performed on people who were, indeed, guilty of some “crime” or another, according to the law. We don’t have the same standards and criteria they used to determine just how serious a crime was; blasphemy or false religious practice may bother some of us today, but even those who are bothered don’t generally think of such acts as worthy of death, or even imprisonment.
This fact, however, just raises the question of exactly what constitutes a “serious” crime. The visceral horror that we feel today at someone who commits a brutal murder is identical to the way the Israelites felt when one of their own turned to idol-worship. Thus, while their standards may have been wrongheaded or out of proportion, the law of ancient Israel in this sense differs from our own law only in degree, not in kind.
Israel’s massacres of its enemies, however, are another matter entirely. The reader of the Old Testament gets a clear impression of how the Israelites waged war. There is a matter-of-fact quality to the accounts given of the numerous acts of genocidal violence engaged in by the nation of Israel. Again and again, the pattern repeats. An enemy tribe is defeated in battle, and then its people are put “to the edge of the sword.” Once this grisly business is finished, all trace of the enemy is gone: “not one of them is left alive.”
The Biblical account is clear but not detailed. It is left to our imagination to summon up what it must have looked like when an entire people was put “to the edge of the sword.” Most readers, no doubt, don’t stop to picture this to themselves. The story of the Old Testament, after all, is primarily about the Israelites, not their doomed adversaries, who are but extras in this tale, passing quickly from the scene into oblivion. If one gives them a fleeting thought, one mostly dwells on their wickedness, their pagan idolatry, and their surely unsavory customs. They were probably mean, ugly, and unappealing people, one might think, tribes of frightening savages clashing swords against the comparatively civilized and godly twelve tribes of Israel.
But cosmetic differences aside (if these pictures in the mind’s eye are indeed historically accurate), one comes up against the fact that these people were in fact persons. Much in their appearance and manner may seem alienating; we no doubt would rather not have such folk as neighbors, and we might even see them as a blight upon the earth. Thus, in the abstract, we may grasp the psychological rationale for their destruction, and we may come around to see the bloody actions by Israel as a necessary evil, if not a positive good.
But let us take a more than fleeting look at what it must have meant to put an entire race of people “to the edge of the sword.” Let us dwell, for a moment, on the details usually skipped over in these accounts. The warriors of Israel, with Yahweh on their side, defeat the ghastly, depraved, demonic tribe of Amalek, or Midian, or some other. Charged with a sense of divine mission to wipe out that which is displeasing to the one true Lord, the Israeli soldiers first get rid of the wounded enemy on the battlefield. Those with broken legs or other injuries, who now lie helplessly amidst the carnage, are ruthlessly stabbed through the heart or beheaded. Others who attempt to flee are pursued, captured, and executed. Those who try to surrender are given no quarter; they, like the others, are killed on the spot. Let us hear their screams and desperate pleas for mercy, to no avail, ended by the swift blade of Yahweh’s justice.
Having finished off the fighting men, the Israelites now turn their attention to the widows, elderly, and children left behind. Old men and women are slaughtered, babies are torn from their mothers’ breasts and brained against the rocky ground, terrified children are snatched up and their throats cut. Young women and girls probably aren’t raped before they too are put “to the edge of the sword,” since the Israelites are too godly to corrupt themselves in such a manner as to “lie with” a pagan woman (indications of the practice of sexual slavery in Numbers 31 notwithstanding). Still, these women end up as dead as their husbands, parents, and children.
After witnessing such events in all their horrifying detail, we are left with a different impression than we had from the tersely-worded accounts—often no more than a single verse in length—in the Old Testament. The devil, as always, is in the details. But of course, the same can be said for more contemporary events. One thinks of the massive carpet-bombing campaigns unleashed by the nations on each side of several major wars, but especially World War II. On paper, it might sound worthwhile to reduce cities like Dresden and Hiroshima to rubble, particularly when taking such action means ridding the world of Nazism and bellicose, murderous Japanese imperialism. Yet if one saw the results of such attacks: namely, dead and mangled men, women, and children, one would surely be given pause. And while legalized abortion may sound good in theory, since seen in one way it means freeing oneself of a terrible and crushing burden, one is still caught up short by the image of a bloodied baby corpse, the result of such a procedure. The actual sight of one’s perceived adversary put “to the edge of the sword” is far more unsettling than the mere idea of taking such action.
Our willingness to dispense with “inconvenient” lives is at the heart of what Pope John Paul II first called our “culture of death.” The Holy Father found this culture expressed in the modern, secular world’s embrace of such practices as abortion and euthanasia. The same pope, as well as his successor, Benedict XVI, extended this critique to the horrors of war, and reminded the world of the just war notion of “proportionality,” in particular with regard to America’s invasion of Iraq. Yet when we look back on the practices of ancient Israel, can theirs really be called a “culture of life”? Can the God who supervised these practices, in many cases directly commanding them, be viewed as one who is concerned with the sanctity of human life?
At this point, it may be objected that God, being the creator of life, has legitimate discretion to decide when and how life should be destroyed. We will take up this issue in greater detail momentarily. For now, let us deal with the assertion as it pertains to the specific situation of ancient Israel.
The matter is analogous, in some ways, to another Biblical account: namely, the famous story of Abraham and Isaac in the book of Genesis. Abraham is told by an angel of God to sacrifice his son Isaac; the patriarch of the tribes of Israel is faithful to this hard command. He takes his beloved son to Mt. Horeb, and is just about to cut Isaac’s throat before God intervenes, telling Abraham that he passed a test of loyalty and fidelity; as a result, he is spared from having to murder his son.
The lesson of this tale, harrowing as it is for any parent to hear, is that the true follower of God must put God’s commands first, before anything or anyone else. A subtext, amply discussed by Kierkegaard in his theological treatise Fear and Trembling, is that fidelity to God is more important than any moral law. The same God who condemns the killing of innocents (“Thou shalt not murder”) can ask that you commit murder; he can, in other words, abrogate his own rules if he sees fit to do so. If it was in God’s legitimate discretion to ask that Abraham murder his son Isaac, then he certainly is within his authority to command the Israelites to wipe out the Amalekites, the Midianites, the Canaanites, and others.
However, I believe that we are misreading this passage if we push this analogy too far. In fact, the ancient Israelites themselves would scarcely have seen these two events as analogous. These other tribes, after all, weren’t family members; they were filthy heathens who engaged in obscene rituals and worshipped false gods. One gets the impression that engaging in mass murder against such people wasn’t terribly hard to do; the Israelite warriors’ hearts were righteously hardened against such swine.
Abraham, however, was asked to take the life of his own son—one born to him late in his and his wife Sarah’s lives, one promised by God to be next in the line of the “chosen race,” to carry on his bloodline for generations to come. To now tell Abraham to kill this very son must have seemed like a heartbreaking betrayal. For Abraham to obey God’s command, especially under such circumstances, must have been unfathomably hard. By contrast, the mass slaughters recorded in later Israelite history almost seemed to come as second nature to their undertakers; it was simply a matter of course to put enemy populations “to the edge of the sword.” God always seems at least tacitly to approve of these campaigns, and often he openly mandates them. Any perceived moral problem with such actions derives from the qualms of the modern reader, rather than from the ancient writers reporting these atrocities.
Yes, we say today, but what about “thou shalt not murder”? Crystal clear as this prohibition appears to us, it is not at all clear, in the context of the time period, that it meant the same thing to the Israelites. From numerous passages in the Old Testament, we can see that Israel often saw fit to engage in, not mere murder, but mass murder.—what we today would call genocide. Again, I think it can be reasonably surmised that “murder” to ancient Israel meant something a bit narrower than it does to us today; rather than being a universal prohibition which applies to every single person in existence, “murder” to them appears to mean “taking the life of a fellow Israelite without proper cause.”
As for non-Israelites, one looks in vain for an indication that there are any events or circumstances where killing a heathen is out of bounds. Recall that the nation of Israel saw fit to engage in an aggressive and extremely bloody war of conquest. The Canaanites, who occupied the promised land before Israel swept in, weren’t harming the Israelites at all; there was no question of “legitimate self-defense,” the staple of what qualifies as what we call a just war today. The Canaanites, filthy, uncouth, and unpleasant as they might have been, were the real victims in this war. The Israelites were their conquerors and ultimately their killers. And Yahweh is supportive of Israel’s efforts this whole time; it was he who told them to take this land, “flowing with milk and honey.”
Today, if people from one country invaded another country, wiped out its inhabitants, and then proceeded to build their own cities on the ash, rubble, and bones of those they slaughtered, the rest of the world would be unable to sit idly by; at the very least, there would be outrage. But Israel’s behavior in this circumstance is viewed quite differently; it is seen as a glorious victory for God’s people, not a vicious and evil atrocity.
God’s approval of these acts raises some very discomfiting questions. If the ancient Jews perpetrated such murderous campaigns under the direct command of Yahweh, then what does this tell us about Yahweh? Can he in any sense be a deity who implores the sanctity of life? Indeed, how can we reconcile a “culture of life” with God, if God frequently asks his people to destroy innocent human life—men, women, children, babies (born and unborn), on a mass scale?
I don’t pretend to be the first person ever to wrestle with these questions. Many thinkers, much brighter and more capable than I, have tried to address the seeming incompatibility of the Old and New Testaments. How can the God who instructed the Israelites to engage in mass murder in the Old Testament be reconciled with Christ, who forbade violence and told his followers “not to resist evil,” in fact to “turn the other cheek,” and who moreover led by example, not fighting back when even he, a part of the Eternal Godhead, the Holy Trinity, was unjustly imprisoned, tortured, and crucified?
The argument most commonly advanced by Christian theologians to address this difficulty, to erase the cognitive dissonance one feels when contemplating this issue, can be summarized as follows:
In behaving in the violent, warlike fashion on display in the early books of the Hebrew scriptures, (the argument goes) the Lord isn’t actually condoning the acts of the Israelites. Instead, one might say that he is consciously lowering himself to their primitive, benighted perspective. He lets them get away with mass murder, and in many cases actively encourages it, in order eventually to bring them to a higher state, a state of grace. He wants to establish himself as a god of one particular people (the Jews), before he can, through the universal message of Christ, become God to the whole of humanity. In the last days, when God brings his plan to fruition, there will be no more war or slaughter, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb.’Until that time, however, God has chosen to reveal himself to us gradually. The Old Testament was the initial dispensation; in it, God formed a covenant with a people he adopted as his own, in spite of their flaws; he even consented to take on their warlike ways, even though such ways weren’t truly his own. Though at essence he is a God of love and unity, he became one of hatred and division, in order to establish his initial colony on earth. Through the fullness of time, he revealed his true self in the humble form of a servant who preached not violence but turning the other cheek, and who did not lift a hand to protect himself against those who slandered, abused, and crucified him.
Well and good. But not all well nor all good. Meant to dissolve cognitive dissonance, this explanation in fact does much to increase it. Indeed, if God so hated violence against the innocent, why did he not forbid it from the start? Why didn’t he show the same intolerance for the natural proclivity of man’s primitive state that he showed for the other wicked and perverse tendencies, such as their preference for worshipping false gods? There were certainly many ways in which God challenged his chosen people to become better than they were, yet when it came to their blood thirst and their distrust of and hatred for those outside of their own tribe, Yahweh seems content to leave them as they are, or even to worsen their overall moral state.
Also, if God is eternal and his laws are never-changing, then why did he change his laws between the time of the establishment of the old covenant and the time of Christ? A human being might be expected to reverse himself on such a crucial matter, due to a sincere changing or maturing of perspective, but God knows all; it makes no sense to say he changed his mind, since his mind by definition cannot have been different.
It can only be that God opted to teach two different laws at two different times, in order to help his creation—those made in his image and likeness—to progress in a God-ward direction. Yet why condone and often encourage mass murder in ancient times before reversing course at the time of Christ, if what he always wanted was for us to become Christ-like? If the laws set by God aren’t eternal, but are merely provisional, then how do we know that the laws established by Christ (turning the other cheek and so forth) are meant to be eternal? How can we be sure that the “culture of life” encouraged by the Church, in contradistinction from the “culture of death” that has taken root in modern society (evidenced in such practices as abortion, euthanasia, and embryo tissue harvesting), is eternal and not simply provisional? How can we be sure that a new revelation won’t soon unfold, one that overrules the dispensation of Christ just as the birth of Christ signaled the end of the first dispensation?
Of course, the Church teaches that Christ’s revelation is final, and can’t be overruled by any subsequent claimed “dispensation.” Yet it could surely be said that the priests of ancient Israel spoke the same way about the dispensation of their own time. Such claims are based on inherently circular premises; they are in no sense demonstrably true. The doctrine of gradual revelation—as a means of reconciling the divinely sanctioned acts of mass murder in the Old Testament with “culture of life” advocated by the Church today—is far from satisfying. This doesn’t make the doctrine untrue, of course. Like most doctrines, it can’t be proven true or false; it is built on faith, not certainty. Within the context of Catholic belief, there can be no doubt that Christ’s law is the essence of God’s true teachings; in becoming Christ-like, we are doing God’s will.
Outside the domain of the Church, however, this is by no means a self-evident proposition. So how do we know, given the puzzling and disturbing facts of the Old Testament, which are the origins of our understanding of the divine will, that God truly stands for a “culture of life” and against a “culture of death”?
Some of us, no doubt, might feel tempted to take a shortcut approach here, one favored by some of the more liberal thinkers of the contemporary world. Instead of trying to reconcile the frequently violent behavior of the Israelites in the Old Testament—endorsed, as we have seen, by their deity Yahweh, the Lord of all creation—with the meek, mild, pacific teachings of Christ in the New Testament, one feels free to reject whichever passages conflict with one’s sensibilities.
I remember watching a progressive-minded priest hold forth on a television talk show several years ago. (I think he was Episcopal, though I might just be typecasting.) This man of the collar expressed his horror at the section in Genesis where Lot’s depraved neighbors in Sodom ask him to allow his two angelic visitors to come out of his house, “that we may know (have sex with) them.” Lot’s reply, that it would be wrong to expose his guests to this violation, but that the men of Sodom were free to have at his two daughters, is strange indeed. For this liberal priest, it was standing proof that the Bible is not a reliable compass for spiritual life. “If that’s salvation, then I don’t want it!” he indignantly declared.
Of course, this passage involving Lot’s weirdly indulgent attitude towards his daughters’ potential violation by the roving rape gangs of Sodom, need not detain us long. There is, after all, no record of God stamping Lot’s words to the Sodomites with divine approval. Nor do we hear of Him assenting to the even more perverse goings-on between Lot and his daughters in the cave at a later point recorded in Genesis. These accounts may be stomach-churning, but they aren’t theologically problematic.
The mass slaughters of rival tribes by the Israelites are, on the other hand, commonly countenanced by God in the Hebrew Scriptures, in seemingly direct violation of what we usually take to be the divine will with regard to humans perpetrating mass murder. Since the historicist attempt to explain this conundrum away as Yahweh graciously condescending to the mores of a primitive people has serious difficulties, as we have seen, we may begin to wonder if we shouldn’t simply dismiss these indications of divine favor for genocide as false. Ought we, perhaps, be so bold as to decree that the Bible simply must be wrong here?
Then again, challenging Biblical inerrancy is the slipperiest of slopes, if one wishes to maintain one’s adherence to Christian orthodoxy. If one is free to pick and choose what one likes, and discard what one dislikes, then what’s to stop us from crafting a sham religion based entirely on personal inclination? Indeed, by what, or whose, standards are we deciding which of the Bible to keep and which to omit, and what gives us the authority to make such changes? Naturally, the Catholic-minded defer to the Church, and to her traditional interpretations of difficult or troubling passages of Scripture, while Protestants insist upon the principle of sola Scriptura, which invariably leads to different denominations and individuals holding at times diametrically opposed interpretations.
Still and all, serious Christians of either the Catholic or Protestant persuasion don’t view it as feasible to reject or deny parts of the Bible that offend them. The problems inherent in this stance in fact far exceed those of the deeply flawed historicist approach—they are so great as to undermine any effort at maintaining an intellectually coherent faith. This in itself probably didn’t faze the liberal priest I saw on TV many years ago; for him, as for many theologians of a modernist bent, there can scarcely be a worthwhile difference between their enlightened perspectives and those of God. But if we are determined to retain a right relationship with the divine, to regard our faith as revealed by one greater than us, handed down to us from on high, true in itself regardless of whether we assent to its truth or not, regardless of whether we always understand it, then we really must reject the urge to arrogate to ourselves the task of Scripture-editor or Holy Canon-reconfigurer. If we believe in the Christian faith, then we must also accept the divine inspiration of the Bible in its entirety, including that of passages we find shocking, offensive, and disquieting.
It seems, then, that it is really incumbent on us to acknowledge the reality of the phenomenon that Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling called “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” In the Old Testament era, apparently, people were at times divinely commanded to do things which violate God’s own moral precepts for human behavior. Kierkegaard describes Abraham’s faith as being so rooted in this principle that he unhesitatingly agrees to sacrifice his own son, having been commanded to do so by God; he sets forth to put Isaac to death, in spite of the prohibition against murder in Hebrew law, not to mention his natural inclinations to protect his son rather than do him harm. That God instructed him not to do it at the last moment in no way takes away from the fact that Abraham, a true “knight of faith,” was ready to cut his own boy’s throat out of obedience to his Maker.
We can likewise apply the notion of the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” I think, to the genocides undertaken by Israel during its wars with rival tribes. I don’t think we can escape the notion that God on occasion mandated the commission of atrocities which go against his will: that is to say, he asked that the Israelites act contrary to His true, absolute prohibitions against the spilling of innocent blood.
Of course, the mischief that can follow in the wake of such an admission cannot be underestimated. Indeed, it would be quite easy for a psychopathic and manipulative cult leader, or any unscrupulous rabble-rouser, to call for all-out slaughter and mayhem, claiming these Biblical passages as precedent. And if mass murder is sometimes “okay,” this may give certain slippery contemporary sophistic pseudo-Christians a wedge to justify the commission of their atrocity of choice, whether it be abortion, the mass murder of civilians during wartime, or something equally as grievous.
These arguments can easily be refuted, of course, by pointing out that the allowance of these atrocities is severely circumscribed, applying only to these Old Testament circumstances, and nowhere else. This is far from a satisfying answer, but unfortunately, it’s the best we’ve got. Thankfully, however, if one subscribes to Christianity, one has access to a better final resolution to this mess: a resolution found in the wonderful mystery of the Incarnation.
How to begin to describe the ramifications of this strange and moving idea, which is the essence of the Christian faith? One is at a loss, because the profundity of the concept is beyond all words, and this is ironic, since it is all about a “Word” (in Greek, “Logos”) allegedly “made flesh.”
What does it say about the human race that God would consent to take human form? What does it say about human suffering that God became man in order to suffer the humiliation and grief, the mental and physical pain, the ignoble punishment of a common criminal, being flogged, stripped, and nailed to a cross to die?
Let us consider the full implications of the Incarnation in Christian theology.
Yes, it is striking that God would become man, that he would moreover take the form of a lowly Galilean carpenter, that he would not be born to a life of earthly glory but instead one of poverty and hardship—from his difficult birth, exiled to a stable because there was “no room at the inn,” to his horrifying and ignominious death. That God would take such form and choose to endure such things is a wonder. But it goes deeper than that. The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation does not merely insist that Christ is God in human “garb,” as it were. He isn’t pure, transcendent spirit in the mere guise of a man. In fact, Christ is a man. He isn’t just fully divine; he is completely human as well.
What does it mean to “become” human? To become totally human? To be sure, this question must be qualified; Jesus wasn’t fully human in the sense we humans, in our current fallen state, commonly understand ourselves, because he was without sin. Yet even without sin, a man cannot be fully happy in this life. As God, Christ must have known much more than the average person, he must have had those moments of unspeakable sadness and dread familiar to every human being. He must have feared pain and death, as we all do. What is more, he must have known, first-hand, the human propensity to doubt. Just as even the most devout of believers occasionally wonders if he truly believes, so God himself in the flesh—even he—must have doubted himself at times. He must have felt abandoned by his Father in Heaven, as we all feel, in our lower moments, that God has forgotten us.
To be fully human is to know these things, to suffer in this manner. To be human is not merely to suffer, but to wonder if one’s suffering has any point or purpose; to be human is to be tortured by the suspicion that even in the midst of one’s suffering, one suffers for nothing, and one’s suffering signifies nothing. And to suspect that one’s suffering is ultimately meaningless is to suffer in the very worst way. No ordeal, however arduous, is unmanageable if one knows that things will be better once it is over, i.e., that the suffering serves a redemptive purpose. But to suspect that nothing will be gained from one’s pain, that in fact all will be lost, is to know the worst possible pain.
To suffer as man suffers, Christ (who was human in every way, except sin) had to take on every conceivable sort of human pain. This must have included the suffering one endures when one wonders if his suffering is truly in vain. Yet how could Christ have suffered in this way if, being God, he knew that that his own suffering was for the good, in fact the highest good: the redemption of mankind? Christ—as God—must have known this fact, and at the same time—as man—must have suspected that it was all a lie. Thus his cry on the cross, echoing the words of the despairing psalmist: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ, being God and being without sin, was not like any of us, yet he was exactly like us in that he suffered, and in that his suffering must have hurt him to an unbearable extent, to the point where he may have wondered if he really were the Son of God after all, whose death brought the gift of eternal life to mankind, or just a wretched man forced to endure torture and execution by the powers-that-be at the behest of his own people, one whose short life would be forgotten and whose bloody death would be meaningless.
At this point, the almost incomprehensible notion of God taking human form, becoming flesh and blood, turning into a true “Emmanuel” (“God with us”) in every sense of the term, takes yet another strange twist. The idea of God being willing to suffer in such a way that he even feels doubt about his own providence poses a baffling theological conundrum. It’s hard enough to understand how this is possible; to us it seems “schizophrenic” that one could have a divine and a human identity simultaneously, let alone be possessed of divine certainty and human near-despair all at once. Yet we can suspend our logic-bound objections, to a degree, when we recognize that God is able to do many things that we presume to be impossible. But when we think that God would abase himself, to such an extent that he would even know how it feels to doubt his own providence—to doubt, as it were, himself, not just as a matter of “low self-esteem,” but in a much more total and profound sense, to doubt himself as God, to be tempted to despair in the truth of his own divine identity—this cannot easily be fathomed. Yet if it were not so, how could his choice of words—“My God, why have you forsaken me?”—be explained? And how could his choice of words be seen as extraordinary unless the utterer of these words were not simply a man, but God himself in the flesh?
When the passion of Christ is seen in this light, and Christ is held to be divine as well as human, then we begin to see those troubling Old Testament passages in a different respect. If God can be, and in some manner always has been this suffering man (since God is eternal and his essence doesn’t change over time), then God doesn’t only have sympathy for us, but empathy as well. He knows, from experience, what it is to be the least among us. Thus, we can presume that he is truly “God with us,” the “us’ being humanity, and most present in the most suffering, most rejected, reviled, marginalized, ostracized, and oppressed of people. We can presume this includes the men, women, and children so callously wiped out by God’s own people in those numerous Old Testament passages. God willed the deaths of these people; yet (through Christ) we become aware that God also stood “with” them; he knew what it was to suffer as they suffered—not just in an abstract sense, but by experience, because he had suffered in just such a manner himself.
Similarly, we can be sure that God today stands “with” those most vulnerable in our culture of death. Even as he allows the strong to murder the weak, most egregiously through the plague of legalized abortion, God nevertheless stands in a profound solidarity with these suffering souls, because he suffered, and in some way eternally suffers, just as they have.
It is due to this understanding of Christ, the suffering God, that we obtain perspective on the divine sanction of the culture of life. Empathy requires understanding, and understanding requires experience. Through the pain of Christ, God understands, and has always understood, our pain. Thus, in the midst of a raging culture of death, he is able to redeem humanity and bring new life, to resurrect our fallen spirits and restore us to our intended design as living images of our divine Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
It is already hard enough to reconcile the notion of God’s goodness and the existence of a created world in which terrible evils frequently assail the innocent. If there is anything we don’t need, it’s greater cognitive dissonance, yet that is exactly what we encounter in the very notion of the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Yet God, by virtue of his divine nature, is by definition impossible to grasp or comprehend. If we can accept that he wipes out thousands of innocent people each year through floods, tsunamis, and other natural disasters (aptly named “acts of God”)—and we must accept that these things happen, if we accept reality—then it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to think that he could also, on rare occasions, for reasons both unknown and unknowable, ask people to do things that directly contravene his moral law. An absolute being, after all, is, is hardly bound by the limitations he sets for his creation, even those he supposedly made in his own image. Only an absolute and incomprehensible, supremely sovereign Creator could give Abraham a miraculous child, born from his wife Sarah in the midst of her old age, then command that Abraham put this same child to death as a sacrifice to Himself. Only such a God could at once be the author of death and also “the Resurrection and the Life.”
If this all seems contradictory and absurd, perhaps we can comfort ourselves with the thought that God is truly just (even if his justice at times escapes our comprehension) and that everything evens out in eternity, that “God will wipe every tear from our eyes” when he brings us into the New Jerusalem of his Heavenly kingdom, a land truly flowing with a never-ending stream of milk and honey. Yet even this consideration brings little comfort at times, as no less a literary luminary than Fyodor Dostoyevsky has noted. For even if the innocent children of Midian, Amalek, and Caanan, are now united with the true Lord forever in eternal bliss, how can this justify what they were forced to endure in their last moments on this earth, at the behest of their loving Creator?
To this question, unfortunately, we have no satisfactory answer. It is, and must remain, a mystery. Yet if we can’t reconcile this mystery to ourselves and at some point take the Kierkegaardian “leap of faith,” trusting in our Maker even when his actions make no sense to us, we risk slipping into the pit of nihilistic despair, which can only result in the ruination of our souls.
Indeed, one thinks of Flannery O’Connor’s famous character, a psychotic, black-hearted mass murderer who calls himself “the Misfit.” This moniker has, in effect, become his actual name (we never hear him called anything else in the story; even the newspaper only refers to him as “the Misfit.”), which in itself symbolizes the extent to which he is truly lost; his God-made identity has been eaten away by the depraved and vicious nature of his sin-stained spirit. Yet even the Misfit, under the right circumstances, is able to diagnose his spiritual condition with a good deal of insight and eloquence.
The story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” flashes from wicked satirical comedy to sudden, shocking tragedy and mayhem, leaving the reading chuckling one moment and gasping in horror the next, before ending on a mordant and darkly amusing note, which could be described as pre-Tarantino-esque in its grim resonance. But before the story is over, we find the Misfit—this horrific demon of a man—in a peculiarly reflective mode. As he holds his pistol and stands, shirtless, over a helpless old woman, while his cohorts are busy murdering her whole family in the woods nearby, the Misfit opens up about what he feels to be the tragic trajectory of his life. He blames his current condition, in fact, on a crisis of faith. If he only could have been present during the events recorded in the Bible, the Misfit muses to his terrified captive, then he could have known for sure that Jesus was the Savior of mankind. A sort of grotesque, uneducated intellectual, a Southern-Gothic Kierkegaard with a murder rap, the Misfit understands the stark choice between assent to faith and rejection thereof; he even piteously mourns his wretched spiritual condition on his lack of certainty regarding the Resurrection of Christ.
The Misfit’s dilemma is in a sense everyone’s. None of us can know, with certainty, the truth of the Gospel. The only thing which prevents us from sliding into the Misfit’s pit of cruel depravity is the bulwark of faith, the belief in things unseen. Absent a belief in a transcendental law, one can easily transform into the sort of person who lives by the nihilistic credo of the Misfit, a man who sees “no pleasure but meanness,” who delights only in sadistic activities like “killing somebody or burning his house down or doing some other meanness to him.”
The Misfit craves certainty, as do we all. But his real problem isn’t his lack of certainty—for none of us can be certain in this lifetime—but his willful lack of faith. He lives his life as if there were no God, and no reckoning for sins; he indulges in what he calls “meanness” utterly without abandon, because in his faithlessness, he feels no compelling need to restrain himself.
Faith brings assurance and peace of mind; it enables one to suspend one’s baser appetites in the interest of a greater good, a higher law. To be properly humble one must be faithful; just as pride is the handmaiden of despair, so humility, a by-product of faith, is a necessary prerequisite for human happiness. Since we can only control so much in our lives, we need to believe that we’re in the hands of someone who won’t let us down. This conviction can only be mustered through faith, which in turn only settles into one’s soul through the grace of God.
A culture without faith is a place of brazen pride unrelenting hubris, one in which, as Miss O’Connor observed, attempted compassion can easily lead to genocide. It is a world full of well-meaning people who end up as mass-murdering Misfits, be they the architects and executors of total war and remorseless decimation of civilian populations, or the advocates and administrators of abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide. Pride goes before a fall, and the trajectory of that fall leads, quite ineluctably, to a culture of death. But there is a healing, soul-resurrecting power in the uniquely Christian notion of a God who suffers on our behalf, who was wounded for our transgressions, who took our willful sin upon himself and died on a cross in order to expiate it.