This post is partially a reply to Gil Milbauer’s comments on Christianity. He is an atheist who has some serious questions and misinformed opinions of Christianity. I am not a very good apologist, but here is my attempt to explain some of Christianity.
Christianity is not a philosophy; it is a way of living.
First and foremost, it is not fair to pronounce judgments on the morality of Christianity based on Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. The movie presumes that you know the whole story of Jesus before you even sit down to watch it. We also need to keep in mind that this movie is one man’s interpretation of the events of the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus. Parts of the movie probably tell us more about Gibson’s view of Jesus than it does the whole of Christianity. (A side note: You are correct to say that the movie is all about suffering, that is why it is called “The Passion”. The English word passion comes from the Greek work for suffering, pathos. BUT, Christianity is not all about suffering. Suffering is an accepted part of life.)
Before I get too far, I need to clarify a common, misguided notion on the relationship between God and humanity. God is love. God loves His creation the Universe. He loves everything in His Universe. Humanity is not excrement in God’s eyes. God knows and loves each and every person. He loves you exactly the way you are. And this is what gets me, there is nothing you can do that will make Him love you any more, or any less. He simply loves you just because you are you. If you do not understand this paragraph, then the rest of this essay will probably be meaningless.
Because God loves us first, some of us have chosen to love Him in return. It is your choice. He will not force or coerce you to love Him back. He will still love you regardless of your choice. He has given you free will in order to make this choice. It is up to you to choose. He will not give you that sign of definite (or scientific) proof of His existence that many people think they need in order to believe. If He did, then that would nullify your free will.
For a lack of a better word, there is one caveat to God’s love. It is true that He loves you exactly the way you are right now regardless of whether you love Him back or not. But, God wants to transform you. He wants to perfect you. He wants to transform you into an adopted son or daughter of God, just as Jesus is the Son of God. This is not to say that you will become the Christ, rather you will become Christ like. You will become holy. You will become sanctified. This is a process that will not be wholely completed in this worldly life. The caveat is that you must believe before this transformation can begin.
The English word love has too many layers of meaning to it. To say that “I love my spouse” does not carry the same meaning as “I love ice cream.” We must differentiate the meanings of love:
Affectionate love is fondness or preference for certain things or people. (C.S. Lewis describes this type of love in his book The Four Loves.)
Eros love or erotic love is sexual love. This is the form of love described in countless songs and poems.
Philia love is friendship love, or brotherly love. It is seen in the name Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.
Agape love is unconditional love. It is perfect and selfless. This form of love is sometimes called charity.
The first three forms of love listed above usually involve emotions, something usually associated with “warm fuzzies.” Agape love is not an emotion. As William Barclay wrote, “Agape has to do with the mind: it is not simply an emotion which rises unbidden in our hearts; it is a principle by which we deliberately live.”
Jesus gave us two commandments (from which all of the Bible is based): love God and love your neighbor. Jesus emphasized the first commandment “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Jesus emphasized the second commandment with “love each other as I have loved you.” Jesus had agape love for us. We are called to agape love. (Although we often miss and end up with, at best, philia love, we none the less strive for agape love.) This is the basis of all Christian morality. (Note: Agape love includes loving your enemies.) Paul gives an excellent and famous description of agape love in 1 Corinthians 13. (See also “The Challenge of ‘Agape’ Love” for a little more depth.) These two commandments set up a hierarchy of focus: God first, others second, and myself third.
Thomas Merton described the Bible as a story of redemption, reconciliation, and liberation. The Bible, especially in the Old Testament, is filled with stories that illustrate these themes. Many times the people of Israel broke away from the will of God, found themselves lost or captive, redeemed themselves, reconciled with God, and became a free nation again. These themes of redemption, reconciliation, and liberation are best exemplified by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
To understand redemption, we need to go a little deeper in the relationship between God and humanity. Keep in mind that God loves us; but basically, God and man are separated. There is a gap between us. Some people call the source of this gap “original sin;” that is, man chose with his free will to go his own way, to go it alone without the need of God. Some people describe man as being lost. Regardless, man has basically chosen to reverse the order of focus to himself first, others second, and if he gets around to it, God third. (Note: A simple definition of sin is to go against God’s will. There is much debate on how to know God’s will, but I believe most of it goes back to the two commandments, to love God and to love others.) This gap between God and man, this condition of being lost, our sin, leads to death. And by death, I mean not only the death of the organism, but also death of the soul or spirit, the death of the essence of you.
The death of Jesus on The Cross and His Resurrection was His act of redemption for humanity. He is the Way to bridge the gap between God and man, to rescue us from being lost, to set things right, to lead us to life. All of this fits within the definition of redemption. Jesus paid our ransom to get us back from death.
As for reconciliation, it is all about forgiveness, to make things right between two people. Maybe the best way to understand Christian reconciliation is in the story of the Lost Son (as known as the Prodigal Son). In this story, the younger son wants his inheritance. He basically goes to his father and says that you are dead to me, give me what is mine. The son takes off and spends his inheritance. After all is gone, in his moment of deepest despair, in his brokenness, he realizes that he could go back to his father and apologize for his mistake. He knows that he forfeited his right to be his father’s son, but at least he could be a servant and live better than he currently was. As he heads back to his father’s house, the father spots his lost son in the distance. This is a key point in the story because it means the father was watching for him. The father had already forgiven his son and was waiting for him to return. The father runs to his lost son. And as the son tries to apologize and ask for forgiveness, the father says “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” In other words, my son who took his inheritance is dead, but I accept this son back as my adopted son, to enjoy the benefits of being his father’s son again. I hope that you can see the symbolism in this story, that is, the father as God and the lost son as humanity. We are called to forgive others as God as forgiven us.
Liberation in the Christian sense is not about political freedom. Jesus came to show that there is a freedom above and beyond political freedom. Seeking political freedom is important, but there is so much more. Political freedom comes and goes as the winds of government change. Political freedom never lasts in the long run, like anything that is external to people and part of this world. The mistake the Jews of two thousand years ago made was that they were expecting a messiah like King David, to deliver them political freedom from the Romans, to change the conditions of the world around them. Jesus did not come to change the external world; He came to change our internal world, to change what is on the inside of people.
Many people see all the rules that a religion like Christianity imposes on its followers as the exact opposite of liberation. Many people also think that a person who is a devout Christian has given up his or her ability to think, to become a mindless pawn to doctrine. I admit this is true for some Christians who see it just as a system of correct doctrine and correct behaviors. But for many Christians, the struggle is more inward. It is an attempt to live authentically. As Søren Kierkegaard says, genuine Christianity is anything but doctrine; it is about the how of doctrine. It is a way of being in the truth before God by following Jesus.†
C.S. Lewis probably describes it best what happens when a Christian makes a moral choice:
The Christ Himself, the Son of God who is a man (just like you) and God (just like His Father), is actually at your side and is already at that moment beginning to turn your pretense into a reality. This is not merely a fancy way of saying that your conscience is telling you what to do. If you simply ask your conscience, you may get one result; if you remember that you are dressing up as Christ, you get a different one. There are lots of things which your conscience might not call definitely wrong (specially things in your mind) but which you will see at once you cannot go on doing if you are seriously trying to be like Christ. For you are no longer thinking simply about right or wrong; you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person. It is more like painting a portrait than like obeying a set of rules. And the odd thing is that while in one way it is much harder than keeping rules, in another way it is far easier.
In other words, it is not all about the rules. It is about who you are, who or what you are trying to become. “Painting a portrait” is about freedom, not blindly following a bunch of rules.
There is a deeper level to Christian liberation. It touches on trying to live an authentic, integrated life, not one dictated or tied to the current fashions of culture. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The…Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” Søren Kierkegaard goes further:
Although pleasure, honor, riches, and power and all that this world has to offer appear to be one thing, they are not. These can never in all circumstances remain the same. They are always subject to constant change. Each in its own way consists of a multitude of things, a dispersion, the sport of changeableness, and the prey of corruption! For example, in the pursuit of pleasure, look at how so many seek for one pleasure after another. In such a pursuit, variety is the watchword. But this is utterly futile. How can one will one thing that can never in itself remain the same thing? When a person wills in such a fashion he not only becomes double-minded, but self-divided; at complete odds with himself. He wills first one thing and then immediately another, and sometimes the opposite, and so and so on. What does such a person really will? New pleasures; something new! change! change! Ask him now if he really wills one thing. Ask him if he wills at all!
The fact is that the worldly ideal is not one thing at all. In essence it is unreal. Its so-called unity is actually nothing but emptiness concealed by a multiplicity. In the short-lived moment of experience the worldly goal is nothing but a vacuous diversion. For what else is desire in its boundless extreme but nausea? What else is earthly honor at its dizzy pinnacle but contempt for existence? What else is the overabundance of wealth but poverty? No matter how much all the earth’s gold hidden in covetousness may amount to, it is infinitely less than the tiniest bit hidden in the contentment of the poor! What else is worldly power other than dependence? What slave in chains is as unfree as a tyrant!
In other words, if you put yourself first, you become absorbed within your own ego. You become a slave to your wants, desires, and imagined needs. This does not mean that the world is bad and material things are evil. Things of this world are just temporary, and we must keep in mind not to let “things” rule our lives. Further more, if you place a radical trust in God (through the virtues of faith, hope, and love), you will become free of trying to satisfy your ego. God will take care of you according to His plan. (Which goes without saying, it will most likely be different than your fantasy plan for your own life.) This is a partial explanation behind the paradox: you must loose your life in order to live.
There is still another level to Christian liberation, that is, the concept of humility. Humility is the exact opposite of pride. (Some say it was pride that lead man to commit the original sin. It was pride that separated Satan from God.) Humility is not something that is prized in our culture. It is through humility that we can put God first, others second, and ourselves third. It is through humility that we can love (remember agape) and serve our neighbor and enemy. It is with a humble heart that we come before an all powerful God who chose to love us first and ask for forgiveness. It is through humility that the last will be first, the lowly will be exalted, the powerless will be glorified. It is humility that conquers pride. It is through humility that God brought the choice to believe in Him to the level of worldly things. And it was through ultimate humility that Jesus chose to die on The Cross.
All of this leads back to Jesus Christ. Everything I have discussed so far is done through Him, with Him, and in Him. How? Remember the gap between God and man? God had to bridge this gap in a way for us to understand. The only way to reach man is through his humanity. So God became man in Jesus. Jesus was one man with two natures, a human nature and a divine nature. How did both natures exist within one being, I do not know. It is a mystery. But it is incorrect to think of Jesus as just a great teacher. It is also incorrect to think of Him as some kind of super human with special abilities, as if he was a creature somewhere between God and man. It is also incorrect to think of Him as just a God who limited his powers. He was both, human and divine, in one man. It is Jesus that bridges the gap between God and man. It is through the humanity of Jesus that we are saved. Through Jesus Christ, we are redeemed, reconciled, and liberated.
There is much more to discuss about Christianity, like the Holy Spirit and the Trinity, the Resurrection, heaven and hell, life and death, judgment, mercy, miracles, the Bible, etc. There are volumes written about all of these things, plus so much more. If you are serious about learning more about Christianity, I highly recommend the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. (It is well written and very thorough, using layman language and not much scripture. It gets much better after the first section.)
In closing, I want to leave the skeptic in all of us something to ponder. The Apostles were a group of uneducated men that followed Jesus for the last two or three years of His life. They lived and traveled closely with Him. They witnessed their friend tortured and killed. They themselves went into hiding for nearly two months after His crucifixion. They could have easily gone back to their former lives, but instead, they began spreading the Good News about Jesus. They faced hardships and risked their own lives to do it, at no personal gain for themselves. In fact, tradition says that all but one of them eventually met horrible and painful deaths. And the Message continued to spread. Something had to have happened immediately after the death of Jesus. Something very special had to have happened to motivate those men to do what they did. I do not think they risked their lives for just an idea or a philosophy. There had to be more, much more to it. How do you, the skeptic, explain that?
† from Charles E. Moore’s introduction to a collection of Kierkegaard’s spiritual writings called Provocations.