by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 11, 1992, pp. 274-277. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at http://www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. Adams.
Goetz addresses an obvious question: If Jesus loves everybody, why is there so much sin and suffering in the world? And why did Jesus need to suffer and die to reveal God’s love? Goetz insists that sentimental notions of divine love will not suffice as substitutes for careful explorations of the Biblical, theological and historical sources of our faith in God’s love.
More human beings live in abject poverty now than at any moment in the history of the planet. The wars of our century have set records for destructiveness. We have seen genocide practiced with a technical efficiency, that might have caused Genghis Khan to blanch. To the long list of ancient pestilences has been added the scourge of AIDS. Famine is commonplace. The United States, the richest and most powerful nation on earth, is beset with racial, class and gender conflicts. Many of our schools are in brutal disarray. Homelessness, addiction and crime are epidemic.
In the face of all this one might expect a revival of interest, at least among Christians, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, which holds that the meaning of life, if meaning there be, is abysmally hidden in an ultimacy which keeps its own council. In fact, however, mainline Christians, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, far from despairing are nearly unanimous in their buoyant conviction that Jesus loves them personally and unconditionally and that Jesus loves people of other faiths and even unbelievers as much as he loves Christians. Or so the recent Interchurch Features Survey would indicate.
The survey, sponsored jointly by a Roman Catholic journal and seven mainline Protestant denominational journals, reflects an ecumenical leveling. As several recent studies have shown, denominationalism is declining, and greater theological diversity exists within denominations than between them. This makes the cross-denominational belief in the limitless love of Jesus all the more striking. America’s characteristically optimistic piety seems to have grown even more optimistic.
Christianity has not always understood itself as a religion of the universal and unconditional love of Jesus. In the pre-Vatican II Catholicism in which I was raised, for example, the love of Jesus was effectively limited to those who earned it. Protestant readers need hardly be reminded that while both Luther and Calvin rejected such Pelagianism, they did not do so on the grounds that Jesus loved everyone equally. The Reformers agreed with Catholics that many people would suffer eternal torment. They disagreed over the basis of damnation. Was it the result of human failure to do good works or the sign of God’s secret predestination decree?
Christians seem unruffled not only by the terrors of our time but by the darker implications of their own Scriptures. An earlier generation’s focus on judgment, sin and death has dissolved in the love of Jesus. Hearing so much love talk in the face of world suffering might even evoke a certain cynicism concerning the cash value of Jesus’ unconditional love. How has that love helped a Third World animist who has been culturally dispossessed, suffered a life of poverty, seen none of his children survive to their teens and will die next week after a wasting illness at age 35? It is somewhat understandable that American Christians should confess to the personal, unconditional love of Jesus in their lives. After all, most American Christians are prosperous. Whether Jesus can be credited for the worldly success of American Christians or whether that very worldliness might constitute a betrayal of Jesus, the fact remains that most American Christians, be they Republicans or Marxists in their politics, have no intention of obeying Jesus’ command to sell all and give to the poor. The love of Jesus does not require what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “discipleship.” Take no heed for the morrow, resist not the evil person, never divorce, give to anyone who asks, don’t defend oneself in court–such an ethic strikes moderns as so other-worldly as to be absurd. Yet the fact that Christians don’t intend to obey Jesus does not seem to alter the love of Jesus that they feel in their hearts. One could not hope for a love more unconditional.
The way that Christians, with seeming generosity of spirit, extend the love of Jesus to atheists or believers in different gods raises some other questions. Since most people in the world are neither prosperous nor Christian, is belief in the universal love of Jesus but a cheap nostrum for the troubled consciences of prosperous Christians? How reassuring to believe that the wretched of the earth, even in their poverty and unbelief, are loved by Jesus–though it’s hard to say how that love benefits those who have never experienced it.
The problem of the cash value of Jesus’ love becomes all the more acute when we note that for over half the Protestants surveyed, “People who do not believe in Jesus will not get to heaven.” This particularism about heaven is a striking contrast to a general belief in the universal love of Jesus. It would appear that, in the view of many Protestants, if one has never heard of Jesus, or if in the tragic order of things one finds no reason to believe in him, Jesus’ universal love offers little real benefit, either in this world or the next.
Sentimentalizing Jesus’ love is not a characteristic of bourgeois Christianity alone. Christians on the ideological left, despite a seemingly hardheaded resort to various “hermeneutics of suspicion” (laying bare the underlying economic, racial and gender power struggles), imply that the goal of Christianity entails some earthly triumph of the love of Jesus. To be sure, that love is often reinterpreted in terms of one or another ideological utopia. But tough-mindedness melts away as the social dream world comes into view. Despite my own left-of-center tendencies, I often wonder which is more irrelevant to the poor, the mainline piety of conservative Christians who are perfectly willing in the name of Jesus’ love to let the wealth trickle down, or the self-styled realism of the theological liberationist establishment, which despite its telling assault on the illusions and self-serving hypocrisy of the powerful have little more to offer politically than socialist wool-gathering. Less divides the theological right and left than we pretend. Could it be that the battle between a Pat Robertson and the avant garde theological left is primarily a battle between bourgeois sentimentality and Marxist sentimentality?
Contemporary Christians have great difficulty reconciling their understanding of the love of Jesus with the terrible holiness of God witnessed to in the Old Testament. Much in the New Testament stirs similar incredulousness. The claim in Hebrews. for example, that there can be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood seems to most people a historical relic. Yet that claim is not just some curious idea floated by the sacrifice-obsessed author of Hebrews. Foundational to the whole New Testament is the claim that it is in the slaughter of Jesus that the love of God is made most manifest. Paul is typical: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). God’s love is soaked in Jesus’ blood.
We might consider too how Christian “love talk” looks in the light of the nature of the world as portrayed by modern science. If the Jesus with whom Americans are in love is the same Jesus spoken of in the New Testament, then he is the incarnation of the eternal word of God through whom all things were created (John 1). What a creation it is. The entire universe, matter, time and space, apparently came into existence out of an explosion from an object of inconceivable density–perhaps from something smaller than an atom. Insofar as Christian theologians have given much attention to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, they have tried to plug into it the doctrine of creation. Even the pope likes the theory.
Quite overlooked in this theological celebration of the finitude of creation are the moral implications of the Big Bang. The whole universe is still in explosion, moving at dazzling speeds out into a greater and greater magnitude, creating and destroying whole galaxies as it expands. The universe will finally reverse its long outward movement and rush back into itself, eventually ending in the violent implosion that cosmologists have named the Big Crunch. If there is not enough mass, there will be no implosion: all will end in the triumph of entropy. The violence of the universe will at last be pacified, but the universe will dangle eternally–frozen, dark, inert.
Western Christianity has tried to get God off the hook for creating so brutal a world by contending that the introduction of suffering and death into the world was a historical event, not the ontological precondition of existence. Adam and Eve’s sin brought death and even a certain corruption of nature. Modern science would seem to preclude this way of exonerating God. There never was a historical Adam and Eve. For all of mainstream theology’s vaunted concern for contemporary relevance, when it speaks of sin and reflects on God’s responsibility for sin it refuses to face the implications of the collapse of the historicity of the fall.
The church’s prayers of confession remain fundamentally premodern. We confess our sins in terms that ignore the dreadful fact that sin is both the inevitable and necessary condition of the created order and that we are not alone to blame. Further, our lover, Jesus Christ, the incarnate word of God, is implicated in the creation of a world in which, eons before the first man and woman could think to sin, the destruction of all things, animate and inanimate, was inevitable.
Reinhold Niebuhr is out of fashion these days. American Christians are not in a mood to heed the Niebuhrian insistence on the universality of sin. Actually, even Niebuhr sought to protect God from the full implications of the old doctrine of original sin. Rather than face God’s primal responsibility for sin, Niebuhr manufactured the paradox that though sin was inevitable it was not necessary. Yet we would do well to listen to Niebuhr insofar as he was at least willing to face up to the fact that human beings cannot survive, to say nothing of prosper, unless they dip their hands in innocent blood.
One contemporary example ought to suffice: It is a given that Christianity ought to seek liberation, justice and eco-responsibility. Yet insofar as such ideals are ever to be achieved, they will be built upon the bodies of millions whose lives were and are being crushed in creating Western economic, scientific and technological power. For without tapping into that power there can be no way out of the world economic and ecological crisis. The Jesus Christ who loves us has created and reigns in a world in which such seeming pacts with the devil are the price of existence.
Not surprisingly, most mainline Christians believe that had Jesus chosen differently he could have avoided the cross. But the Apostle Peter believed that Jesus died “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). What if Peter was right? What if Jesus was indeed eternally anointed by God to die? And what if the prologue to John’s Gospel is also right in identifying this Jesus, whom God condemned, as the incarnation of God’s most intimate word, God’s innermost thought?
For centuries orthodox faith attempted to deny God’s complicity in the execution of the word, God’s own innocent son, by claiming that human sin was the sole reason for Jesus’ death. With this avenue of retreat cut off, are we not required to ask afresh about the pathetic plea of Jesus at Gethsemane, “Father, let this cup pass from me” and Jesus’ even more terrible cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” To be sure, Jesus Christ, the incarnate word of God in perfect solidarity with us sinners, bore the burden of our sin by his cross. But since God through Jesus Christ has created a world in which sin is inevitable, is humanity alone culpable? The God of Israel to whom Isaiah bears witness does not need or desire our ultimately prideful attempts to shoulder the full blame for evil and sin. “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe” (45:6b-7a).
If God created “woe” then perhaps there is far more at issue in the death of Jesus than our sin. Could the estrangement from the Father, which Jesus Christ in the Spirit experienced on the cross, reflect a tension within the very being of the triune God? Is there a wrenching within the very Godhead over the ruthlessness of the divine means–inevitable violence, sin, suffering and death–and the love, self-sacrifice and mercy of God’s redemptive ends?
It is a virtual cliche of modem theology that God’s will and nature are revealed to us through God’s acts. Pointing to the divine act of deliverance in the Exodus, we claim that God is a liberating God who has a preferential bias toward the poor and oppressed. Likewise, we hold that God loves sinners because in that supreme act of God that was Jesus’ life we see God’s compassion for sinners. Does not the same logic demand that we ask, “What is revealed about the Father’s nature and love in his resolute determination to slay the son?”
From a human point of view the ruthlessness of God toward Jesus is appalling. Consider Jesus’ own teaching:
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! [Matt. 7:9-11].
Jesus assumes that ordinary human parents are innately compassionate. Yet such an assumption seems brutally mocked by Jesus’ own fate at the hands of his father. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death . . .” (Heb. 5:7a). Jesus pled passionately, but the God whom the New Testament defines as “love” refused. It is true that the writer of Hebrews goes on to speak of Jesus’ reverent submission. “Although he was a son he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Nevertheless, what would we say of a human parent who taught a son obedience through the mangling torture of a cross?
How can we continue claiming that the love of God is revealed in the cross of Jesus and yet ignore the unbearable anomalies that exist between the demands that love makes upon human parents and the terrible way the Father, in order to make peace with his enemies, presides over the death of his very son? If a human parent loved as God loved Jesus, he or she would end up in jail. In American piety God is too loving to be feared. But in nature, history and Scripture the “love” of God is expressed in terrifying terms–a universe born in explosion, evolution
lubricated by the blood of every creature, a history that is inevitably conflictual and tragic, and a love for sinners that requires the death of God’s innocent son.
Scripture enjoins us to “be imitators of God” (Eph. 5: 1), but we dare not try to imitate too closely what we perceive to be the doings of God. We must very cautiously translate God’s terrible love into acts of human charity that have short-term benefits. We do not have eternal life to bestow. We cannot make up for the evils that result when our loving gestures backfire. The recklessness of God’s love is too appalling not to be a source of fear trembling. It would be dreadful to have such a lover draw near. Thus we flee from the love of God to the love of Jesus, imagining the two loves can be divorced.
I must conclude that Jesus Christ’s death entails not just God’s atonement for our sins but God’s own atonement for being the ultimate agent of evil as well as good. “I make weal and create woe.” I believe by faith that the unambiguousness of God’s love will finally, eschatologically, be made manifest. But in this world much of life tempts one to conclude that God is less “love” and more “indifference.” Christians must confront the question: On what basis can we affirm the ultimate trustworthiness of God in the face of the “woe” that God has created? For me, it is only by God suffering with us, suffering at our hands as we suffer at God’s own hands, that God can establish the credentials of a lover. What is required is not the bloodless suffering of an abstract metaphysical deity (as in Whitehead) but the suffering of a God who has experienced firsthand the weight of the sin that creation makes inevitable.
The very suggestion that the primordial burden of responsibility for our sin lies with God in creation would of course require rethinking all previous understandings of the atoning love of Jesus Christ. It would cast a new light on what it is to say that the crucified Christ is the ransom of our salvation, the victor over the power of sin and death, the substitutionary sacrifice for sin, the perfect earthly example of God’s love. Christ is indeed all these things–but in ways that are probably too disquieting to be considered, especially in a church determined to bask in a sentimental idyll.